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Standoff over Impeachment deepens. TRANSCRIPT: 1/8/20, The 11th Hour w/ Brian Williams.

Guests: Elisabeth Bumiller, James Stavridis, Berit Berger, AndrewDesiderio

LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC HOST:  And Schumer may bring out a vote for five -- for four witnesses.  And it might be that a senator decides am I going to vote for one?

REID:  That`s right.

O`DONNELL:  But if that one is Bolton, that might be enough.

REID:  And remember Jonathan Turley said to do it.

O`DONNELL:  It`s 11:00.  Sorry.  It`s Brian`s turn.  It`s Brian`s turn to work.  Joy Reid and Jonathan Alter, thank you.  Joy Reid sort of gets the last word.

That is tonight`s LAST WORD.  "THE 11TH HOUR" with Brian Williams starts now.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST:  Tonight, even Republicans are slamming what they heard today from Trump`s military team, back filling the reasoning behind why the U.S. chose to kill a bad guy out of the blue a decision by Trump that will have ramifications for years.  Suddenly Congress has a new problem with Trump and that`s reining in his war powers.

Plus, now that the U.S. and Iran have fired off their volleys, the American President appears to step back from the edge.  We know that because he suddenly talking up NATO.

And speaking of the impeachment of this President, it`s still Pelosi versus McConnell on what happens next.  But now some big names are piping up about getting on with it.  All of it as we get on with "THE 11TH HOUR on a Wednesday night.

Well, good evening once again from our NBC News headquarters here in New York.  Day 1,084 of the Trump administration.  And notably, 300 days now until the 2020 Presidential election.  Today we saw Trump take a step back from the brink of a wider and quickly escalating conflict with Iran.  Hours after the Iranian ballistic missile volley aimed at American forces at bases in Iraq.


DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  No Americans were harmed in last night`s attack by the Iranian regime.  We suffered no casualties.  All of our soldiers are safe.  And only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases.

Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world.

The civilized world must send a clear and unified message to the Iranian regime.  Your campaign of terror, murder, mayhem, will not be tolerated any longer.


WILLIAMS:  He said he will increase economic sanctions on Iran, said he`s asked NATO for its help in the Middle East.  More on that in a bit.

It`s been six days now since he unilaterally ordered the killing of a powerful military commander widely revered within Iran.  NBC News has confirmed to report from "The Washington Post" that give some clues as to the President`s decision to de-escalate last night and today.  "Trump had told senior military officials on Tuesday evening that he did not want to start a war with Iran and wanted a path to ease tensions.  When Trump`s military advisers told him there was reason to believe the missile strikes were not designed to kill Americans, a way out appeared."

Today the President`s top national security officials went to the Capitol to brief Congress and show the evidence that this Iraqi general was planning an imminent attack on Americans.  That`s what we were told.  It did not go well.

Democrats were critical, and let`s be honest, that was expected.  But this was not expected.  Here now, Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah.


SEN. MIKE LEE, (R) UTAH:  Probably the worst briefing I`ve seen at least on a military issue in the nine years I`ve served in the United States Senate.  One of the messages we received from the briefers was do not debate, do not discuss the issue of the appropriateness of further military intervention against Iran.  And if you do, you will emboldening Iran.

For them to tell us that either trough a War Powers Act Resolution or otherwise for us to debate and discuss these things on the Senate floor would somehow weaken the American cause and embolden Iran in any other actions.  I find it very insulting.

I`m willing to consider and introduce any and every War Powers Act Resolution.


WILLIAMS:  Keep this in mind, Senator Lee did vote last year to rein in Trump`s war powers when it comes specifically to Iran.  But after hearing that little bit from Senator Lee, Senator Graham saw the need to speak on this as well.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA:  They thought that a war powers debate might send the wrong signal to the Iranians.  I think they`re right. They didn`t say you can`t debate.  I think they`re overreacting quite frankly.  Go debate all you want to.  I`m going to debate you.


WILLIAMS:  Now, the briefing seems to have failed to answer the questions about the quality of our intelligence that led to the air strike that killed the Iranian general.


SEN. RAND PAUL, (R) UTAH:  There was no specific information given to us on the specific attack, generalities, stuff you read in the newspaper was given to us.  I didn`t learn anything in the hearing that I hadn`t seen in the newspaper already, and none of it was overwhelming that x was going to happen.

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ, (D) NEW JERSEY:  I think they characterized the intelligence in a way that was conducive to what they ultimately decided to do or did.

REP. GERRY CONNOLLY, (D) VIRGINIA:  Without counting on content, my reaction to this briefing was it was sophomoric and utterly unconvincing.  I was -- well, utterly unpersuaded about any evidence about the evidence that was new or compelling.


WILLIAMS:  This afternoon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the House will vote tomorrow on a resolution to limit Trump`s power to take military action against Iran where all these concerns will likely come up for debate.

And on that other important front that the Speaker is involved in, impeachment, Pelosi is still holding back those articles of impeachment from the Senate where today her adversity over there, Mitch McConnell, said he doesn`t need to wait for Pelosi any longer.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, (R) KENTUCKY MAJORITY LEADER:  There will be no haggling in the House over Senate procedure.  We will not cede our authority to try this impeachment.  The House Democrats` turn is over.


WILLIAMS:  And indeed, some Senate Democrats appeared resigned today that the reality that it was time to see the charges against the President.


SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL, (D) CONNECTICUT:  We are reaching a point where the articles of impeachment should be sent.

SEN. ANGUS KING, (D) MAINE:  I think it is time for the Speaker to send the articles over.

SEN. JOE MANCHIN, (D) WEST VIRGINIA:  The sooner we receive this, the sooner we can find out if we`re going to have a real trial or not.


WILLIAMS:  But tonight Speaker gave no indication that she was ready to fold on this.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Are the articles going to be transmitted tonight?



PELOSI:  Do you listen when I speak?  I said when we saw what the arena is that we would be sending them was in, then we would send over the articles.  We haven`t seen that.


WILLIAMS:  Here with us for our lead-off discussion on a Wednesday evening, Elisabeth Bumiller, Assistant Managing Editor for "The New York Times," Ashley Parker, Pulitzer Prize-winning White House Reporter for "The Washington Post," and our ever-present man on Capitol Hill, Correspondent Garrett Haake.  Good evening and welcome to you all.

Elisabeth, I`d like to begin with you more, specifically the front page of "The New York Times" for tomorrow morning`s print edition.  And the question to you after seeing this headline, U.S. and Iranians lower tensions at least for now, has the administration do you think found the handle on this?

ELISABETH BUMILLER, THE NEW YORK TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF:  For now.  I think that`s the important question. The President, you know, was de- escalated this morning, although you have to be aware that, yes, he said we were seeking peace for all who want it, but he also threatened Iran again and said you will never get a nuclear weapon.  So it was a pretty mixed message.

Again, he`s toned things down for now, but there`s always the chance that Iran and what is expected through its proxy forces will continue to attack.  There is the fear of some kind of cyber war.  So we don`t expect this to be over.  It`s over for now.

And again, he was a little less bombastic than he normally is this morning.  But, again, this was not a message of peace and let`s suspend sanctions for six months on Iran and begin to work it out.

WILLIAMS:  Ashley, you very forthrightly said today this was a crisis of his own making.  As he sees it, off his own solving.  You had terrific behind-the-scenes reporting just how confusing was it backstage?

ASHLEY PARKER, THE WASHINGTON POST WHITE HOUSE REPORTER:  The past 24 hours have been incredibly confusing for the reporters trying to get information.  And, frankly, for people in the White House.  So I`ll start with last night when I was over there with a small group of reporters.  You had the press secretary sort of hidden away in her office.  Ultimately the President decided not to address the nation last night, but people in the administration were saying that he might have, so there were confusing messages emanating out from different people in the same department of whether the President would or would not speak ultimately.

There was a sense that it was worth sleeping on in part because as we also and others have reported, the President was looking for an off-ramp and once he could be assured that there were no, and this was the key thing, American casualties, he felt more comfortable taking that tone we saw today.

And even with that tone we saw today, which for him was far less pugnacious than we`re used to, as Elisabeth said, it was sort of a verbal choose your own adventure.  You could hear whatever you wanted.  He strode out and the first thing he said was as long as I am President, Iran will never get a nuclear weapon.  That was something he wanted to get off his chest.  Then he said good morning and began sort of this second segment of his speech.  So different people watching could come away with very different messages of what the President was trying to communicate and what the next step is.

WILLIAMS:  Garrett Haake, two words, Mike Lee.  More specifically, we knew his words had left a mark tonight when Lou Dobbs compared him to Benedict Arnold.  Did he just give air cover to other Republicans who would like very much to talk about this thing?

GARRETT HAAKE, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, it`s possible. But Mike Lee is going to be in a fairly lonely position here.  He and Rand Paul tend to sit at a different metaphorical lunch table than most of the other senators in their party when it comes to issues of war powers.  Mike Lee has been very consistent.  He teamed up with Bernie Sanders last year to try to get the United States out of Yemen.  So this is an issue that matters a great deal to him.

And I`m told by one source, my colleague Josh Lederman, had a different source that in that room today the thing that set Mike Lee and some of these other senators off was a theoretical question about, if you don`t think you have to come to Congress for authorization to do this, what do you have to come to Congress for?  And the briefers, including Secretary Pompeo, did not have a good answer to that.  That`s just not going to sit well with senators in particular, much more independent-minded bunch.

The question is can they rustle up enough other Republican votes to get to that 60 vote threshold?  This war powers resolution that`s going to come to the floor in the House tomorrow will pass.  The Senate is going to need some more angry Mike Lee types.  It`s not clear that they have enough Republicans who feel the same way to get there.

WILLIAMS:  Ashley back over to you, as it occurs to me, the President has mentioned Obama every day this week, which puts him at about average for the past year we just witnessed.  Is there any parallel for this in your mind for the American presidency in all of recorded American history?

PARKER:  The President from -- you know, actually if you go back to his campaign -- so to answer your first question, no, I don`t think so.  But this President starting with his campaign has been obsessed with President Obama.  And we often talk about Trump as not having a very solid or fixed ideology.

But one ideology you could say for him is I`m trying to undo and undermine just about everything that his predecessor has done.  And you even saw that today, not just in sort of the more macro way, which is that Trump withdrew from the Iranian deal that President Obama helped negotiate previously.

But although he didn`t mention the Obama administration by name, in this speech it was fairly striking that he did blame Obama for basically funding the missiles that Iran fired in their attack on Tuesday.  And it`s worth noting that "The Washington Post" has fact checked that and found that to be farfetched and misleading at best.

WILLIAMS:  Yes, John Kerry interviewed tonight by Lawrence O`Donnell called that an outlandish lie.

Hey, Elisabeth, a combination question for you and it shifts our focus over to impeachment.  What`s Schumer been up to this whole time?  Is there a weapon the Speaker has that we may not know about it?  And when do you expect this standoff Pelosi versus McConnell to come to an end?

BUMILLER:  Well, I thought -- we thought that the Speaker was going to send over the articles of impeachment this week.  Still we have a few days left.  She`s under increasing pressure.  Her strategy was always to try to extract the best rules possible for the trial.

It looks like right now what we`re going -- it looks like the trial will start without witnesses.  And it looks like there might -- we expect -- well, I don`t want to predict.  But there could very well be votes sometime in the middle of the trial to call witnesses and that would be, of course, John Bolton.

The republicans are extremely nervous about John Bolton.  He knows a great deal.  He was there at key moments at the white house when Ukraine was being discussed.  And so there`s a lot of nervousness about John Bolton.

That said, if they don`t call John Bolton, I would expect him to do an interview on Fox News and to tell the world what he knows.

WILLIAMS:  That is true.  Garrett, Senator Roberts said this week, you know, John Bolton can speak anytime.  He is a citizen, so he could do this in any forum, any venue he wishes.

Garrett, I also have a combination question for you.  What -- as minority leader in the Senate, what kind of power does Schumer really have to interrupt things once a trial is under way and say point of order, I think we should take a vote on all these individual witnesses, up or down?  And why do you think so many Democrats have come out publicly in the Senate to say, yes, send them over, it`s time.

HAAKE:  Schumer got dealt a pretty weak hand here and he`s playing it as well as he can.  He`s managed to keep his conference together for quite a long time on this.  But Senate Democrats are frustrated.  They want to be able to get a move on on this.  There are some of them who are running for president.  They want to have some clarity in their lives about when they`re going to have to be in Washington and when they`re not.

As to Schumer`s powers as minority leader, they`re pretty much limited in a trial, but any senator gets a little bit more power as we get going here.  He has pledged up and down that there will be multiple calls for votes on witnesses and on subpoenaing documents when we get into the trial.

If McConnell keeps to his word and follows closely the Clinton model in this impeachment as was followed in the impeachment in the late `90s, that`s true.  And that could be a bit of a Pandora`s box, because it wouldn`t just be Schumer putting motions out there for witnesses.  You could have motions for witnesses called by some of the President`s more vocal defenders who might call witnesses the Democrats are not particularly interested in.

And 51 votes will rule.  Remember, the Vice President doesn`t get to participate in this process.  So you`re looking at essentially Democrats need four Republican votes on anything.  I can count to three Republican votes who might want witnesses or have said they would want some of these witnesses so far, Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski.

I have a much harder time counting to four.  I have a hard time finding that fourth, but Chuck Schumer will be looking for that person.

WILLIAMS:  As we like to say, what could go wrong?  Can`t imagine three better guests to start us off on a Wednesday night like this one.  Elisabeth Bumiller, Ashley Parker, Garrett Haake, our thanks to all three of you.

Coming up for us, a retired four-star U.S. admiral says he saw something interesting in last night`s missile volley from Iran.

And later, why at least one Democratic senator predicts we are just days away from the start of that impeachment trial when we continue on this Wednesday night.



TRUMP:  -- to become much more involved in the Middle East process.


WILLIAMS:  So in that moment the President said he`s asking NATO to become much more involved in the Middle East process, and with that, whoa, said people today from the U.S. to Europe.  The President just mentioned NATO as in a useful role for NATO.  The White House even told reporters today the President stressed NATO`s value during a phone call with NATO.

In normal times, saying nice things about the post-war Atlantic alliance would be normal presidential everyday stuff.  But not this guy who has never missed an opportunity to attack NATO, which it is perfectly fair to point out, is a huge goal of Putin and Russia.


TRUMP:  NATO is obsolete.  It`s old, it`s fat, it`s sloppy.

I said it`s obsolete.  And it is.  It`s obsolete.

You have countries that benefit from NATO much more than we do.  We don`t benefit that much from NATO.

I don`t say get rid of NATO.  But we`re going to readjust it.  And you know what, if they won`t do it, bye-bye.  That`s it.


WILLIAMS:  Let`s talk about all of it because back with us tonight is Admiral James Stavridis, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Navy who retired with four stars on his shoulders.  He is the former head of the U.S. Southern Command, former Supreme Allied Commander of, wait for it, NATO.  His recent book is "Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character."

So, Admiral Stavridis, what are the chances NATO is going to cancel whatever weekend plans they had and drop everything to respond to this assignment from their friend, the President of the United States.

ADM, JAMES STAVRIDIS, FMR. SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER OF NATO:  You know, in life, Brian, you reap what you sow.  And President Trump has been so denigrating of NATO throughout his campaign as well as his first three years as president.  People are not going to be leaping to attention to generate the operational plans to for (ph) and deploy.

But the folks at NATO, both the U.S. folks there, and we have a terrific U.S. ambassador to NATO.  You know her, former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson.  We have a terrific four-star Air Force general who`s in my old job is supreme allied commander, General Tod Wolters.  Folks are smart and they are going to take this opportunity to start creating some ideas for deployments to the Middle East.

So there`s not a lot of enthusiasm in NATO for the President`s attitude toward the alliance, but the alliance is bigger than any one presidency, believe me.  It`s been around for 70-plus years.  And I think NATO will step up and provide more assets to the Middle East.  That will be good for the United States.

WILLIAMS:  Admiral, I was fascinated to hear you out on the subject of last night`s ballistic missile strike by Iran.  And share with our viewers what you said earlier today.  Again, looking at the targeting and the selection of ordinance, what they chose to send airborne last night, also the battle damage assessment, the results or lack of it, the happy fact that there were no killed or injured American servicemen and women.  What does that tell you about the intent of the attack?

STAVRIDIS:  Yes.  Let`s go back to options Iran had and still has, frankly, Brian.  They can launch massive numbers of ballistic missiles.  They can use proxies to attack our forces all over the region.  They could attack any of our embassies.  They could launch a huge cyberattack.

Some of those things may still happen, but last night they chose to do, frankly, a de minimis attack.  And in fact, this supreme leader, it was a slap in the face to America.  Brian, I think it was more like a slap on the wrist.  It was, in my, deliberately calibrated, and this is a good thing to avoid significant U.S. casualties.

I think it`s becoming clear there was warnings given both to the Iraqis and via the Iraqis to the U.S. this was not an overwhelming number of missiles.  I think that we were very fortune not to have any Americans killed.  That gives us an opportunity to exercise some diplomacy here.  Let`s hope both sides take advantage of it.

WILLIAMS:  Well, now to the part that may be scary for those Americans who are trying to get to bed.  What about the proxies and surrogates, the groups who act in Iran`s name but allow Iran to stand back and say, hey, that wasn`t us?  What do you fear we are in for and for how long?

STAVRIDIS:  Yes, I`ll give you three scenarios that worried me quite a bit, two of which are potentially proxy oriented.  One is one of these militias, potentially in Iraq, which would give the Iranians some deniability.  They take another bite at the apple, maybe not at the embassy in Baghdad, which is highly defended, but at American assets around the region.

Secondly, in Afghanistan, Brian, where we still have 13,000 U.S. troops.  Iran has a great deal of Quds Force, which is what General Soleimani headed up, as well as proxy forces on the ground in Afghanistan who could be extremely dangerous for us.

And as I mentioned earlier, watch for a potential cyberattack.  That will come not directly from Iranian cyber forces, but it will be fed through a number of third-party actors.  That could be very damaging for us.

WILLIAMS:  Admiral James Stavridis, it`s always a pleasure having you on.  Thank you very much for your time tonight.

STAVRIDIS:  Thanks, Brian.

WILLIAMS:  Coming up for us, is our gentle reminder that impeachment is still there, still around, a trial is still pending?  We`ll look at the state of play and timing after this.



SEN. TIM KANE, (D) VIRGINIA:  I don`t give the house advice, but I`ll tell you what I think.  I fully expect that we`re going to be in an impeachment trial very soon.


KANE:  I think it`s going to be days.  That`s what my gut is it telling me.


WILLIAMS:  So that was interesting coming from Tim Kaine.  The Senate trial can`t begin remember until Speaker Pelosi hands over the articles of impeachment.  She`s still refusing to do that, saying she needs to see what the arena in the Senate is going to be first.  But a growing number of Democrats are saying enough is enough.  There they are all are, including one independent.  Time to move forward.

Politico reporting today that they are worried about the political ramifications of dragging it out into the Democratic presidential primaries, which makes sense.

Here tonight for more, Andrew Desiderio, congressional reporter for Politico, and Berit Berger, former U.S. assistant attorney with both the eastern district of New York and the southern district of New York.

Good evening, and welcome to you both.

Counselor, I`d like to start with you here in the studio.  How do you view as a former fed, the introduction of new evidence at trial?  How should we view it, especially if that trial venue happens to be the well of the U.S. Senate on live television?

BERIT BERGER, FMR ASSISTANT ATTORNEY, SOUTHERN DISTRICT NEW YORK:  Right.  So it`s an imperfect analog, as we keep saying, you know.


BERGER:  The federal criminal trials versus an impeachment trial.  But I will say in the context of criminal trials, it is routine that you will find new evidence after the indictment before the trial.  In fact, I would say in many of the cases that I took to trial, we were still finding new evidence in the middle of trial.  Sometimes some of your most significant evidence comes in well past the time of indictment.  So that`s just a normal occurrence in a regular trial here.  That doesn`t mean that that evidence is not usable.  It just means that it is further support for your allegations.

Now, what prosecutors are not allowed to do is to sort of amend their indictment by introducing new criminal theories or alleging new crimes, you have to go back to the grand jury.  But that`s not with this, this is finding evidence that is really right at the heart of the allegations and introducing that at a trial.

WILLIAMS:  Andrew, keep us -- bring us up to date especially for people who`ve not followed this as closely as you have during the holiday period.  How much more evidence has come in either over or under the transsom since this was done in the House, since the articles were voted on?

ANDREW DESIDERIO, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, POLITICO:  Yes, just last week Brian, new e-mails were released showing that senior administration officials were worried that the hold on military aid to Ukraine was actually illegal that.  That adds another layer to this -- this saga obviously.  John Bolton`s bombshell this week about the fact that -- him saying that he would be willing to testify if he is subpoenaed.  That threw another wrench into it and he put tremendous pressure on senators who might have to vote eventually on a potential subpoena for John Bolton.

The House Intelligence Committee is still investigating the Ukraine matter.  They`re about to get information, we`re told, from Lev Parnas, the indicted associate, former associate that is of Rudy Giuliani.  The contents of an iPhone that he had when he was arrested last year.  And then beyond that, Jennifer Williams, an aid to vice President Mike Pence, submitted a classified supplemental testimony.  Which the House Intelligence Committee still -- still has in its possession, but they can`t release it publicly because it is classified.

They asked the administration to declassify it, but Chairman Adam Schiff has told me that he believes this would add another layer to this entire investigation if it were to be released publicly.  So those are just a lot of things we already know and the trial hasn`t even begun in terms of what new evidence could potentially come out.

WILLIAMS:  And Andrew, what is the chance that Pelosi can still win a concession from McConnell?  Is there a weapon that she has or an angle on this that we`re missing?

DESIDERIO:  Strategically she doesn`t really have anything else at her disposal at this point.  She had said, she wants to see the, quote, unquote, "arena" in which the Senate would be conducting its trial before she names the managers.  For example, she wants to know how long it`s going to take each day, how many hours, how many days, you know, how long are the opening arguments going to be, things like that.  So that she knows, for example, how many managers to appoint.

So it`s more logistical at this point.  Most Democrats feel that Pelosi has exhausted all of the -- the strategic leverage that she had at the beginning of this process, especially because earlier this week Senator McConnell announced that he already has the votes he needs to go forward with a Republican-only set of trial procedures.

Speaker Pelosi by holding the articles back in the first place wanted to extract some sort of concessions from the Republicans.  The first being having at least four Republicans join Democrats in trying to get witnesses and documents on the front end of the trial.  That, obviously, failed even after John Bolton came out earlier this week, said he would be willing to testify.  Folks like Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski in the Senate were not persuaded enough to go with Democrats.

WILLIAMS:  Berit Berger, how else -- what other avenues do the Democrats have of hearing from Bolton if he doesn`t -- as someone mentioned just aside to give interview to Fox News on his own or compelling his testimony if there`s reason to believe that McConnell is going to block it on arrival?

BERGER:  So the Democrats do have some options.  So the first is because they still have the articles themselves as we --


BERGER:  -- just Pelosi hasn`t given them over, they could subpoena Bolton to testify in front of the House if he agrees.  I mean they can continue to hold back these articles and then possibly amendment the articles before they`re sent to the Senate.  This seems like sort of an unlikely angle given especially how much Democratic support you now have for sending them to the Senate.

But, again, if the Republicans refuse to hear from new witnesses, there`s nothing that says the House can`t also through simultaneously subpoena Bolton and have him testify theoretically opening up even additional articles.  So my guess is there will be some way the Bolton`s statements will come out either because he gives an interview or writes a book, or just decides to say his mind, or because he will be forced to testify in some form, either the Senate or the House.  But this information is going to get out.

WILLIAMS:  And do surprise witnesses only happen on legal shows on TV?

BERGER:  Absolutely not, but it`s never a good feeling to have a surprise witness.  No lawyer enjoys throwing a witness up on the stand without knowing what they`re going to say.

WILLIAMS:  Good point.

BERGER:  So I think that would measure for either the Democrats or the Republicans here.

WILLIAMS:  That`s why you`re a lawyer and I`m not.  Our thanks to Andrew Desiderio and Berit Berger.  Two of our returning favorites.  Greatly appreciate it.

Coming up for us, today the President had his say about Iran.  The problem is now Congress looks like they`re about to have theirs.  More on that, when we come back.



SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA:  I`m going to let people know that at this moment in time to play this game with the War Powers Act, which I think is unconstitutional, is that what do you mean to or not, you`re empowering the enemy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  He said you`re empowering the enemy?

SEN. MIKE LEE, (R) UTAH:  Right, if that is fundamentally antithetical to the constitution.  He`s dead wrong and so far his suggesting that this is playing a game.  Mr. Graham the constitution of the United States is not a game.


WILLIAMS:  Nice to see we`re all getting along.  The air strike the President ordered apparently on his own did more than kill some bad guys.  It did the seemingly impossible.  It caused Republicans in the Senate to criticize Donald Trump.

Here tonight, two of our returning veterans to talk about just where we are.  Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the "Washington Post" and Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, former lieutenant governor of the great state of Maryland and host of what we`ve always found to be the appropriately titled "Michael Steele Podcast".  Gentlemen, welcome to you both.

Michael, let`s talk about Mike Lee.  As I said earlier --

MICHAEL STEELE, FMR RNC CHAIRMAN:  I know, I`m loving some Mike Lee.

WILLIAMS:  When I heard tonight that Lou Dobbs made a Benedict Arnold comparison, that was all they proof you needed that --

STEELE:  That`s right.

WILLIAMS:  -- Michael Lee`s words had been were overheard.  What do you make of it and will it give honest to goodness air cover to other Republicans, national security-minded Republicans who want to have a debate on this?

STEELE:  Well, it`s not going to be so much air cover.  This has been an ongoing challenge, if you will, inside the party for a while between the neocon hawks who really kind of live by the creed of, you know, we plant a flag, we claim it, or we blow it up.  And, you know, Republicans are, like, not every engagement has to be a military one.  And we should be smart on two fronts.  One, a ,have a plan, and two, make sure you can pay for it.  And so that`s kind of the Rand Paul/Mike Lee wing of this.

We`ve been at war now for 17 years.  A lot of Republicans like a lot of Americans are very tired of this battle.  So what you`re seeing now is the President sort of splitting the war baby, if you will.  On the one hand, feeding the Lindsey Grahams of the world a little bit of what they want, but instinctively at the same time, as we saw a little bit today, finding the space where we sort of de-escalate, bring down the noise, not going to get into regime change and all of that.  So this has been going on for a while and the battle will ensue for a little while longer.

WILLIAMS:  Eugene, let`s talk about impeachment, because when everybody scattered, those lucky enough to scatter for the holidays, it looked to everybody like advantage, Pelosi, like she had played the KG Kentucky senator.  Today, not so much.  Did she expect another outcome?  As I keep asking our guests, is there a weapon at her disposal that we`re not thinking of?

EUGENE ROBINSON, PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING COLUMNIST, WASHINGTON POST:  No, I`m not sure if there`s a weapon at her disposal that we don`t know of, but I`m also not sure she`s entirely displeased with where --

WILLIAMS:  Why is that?

ROBINSON:  Because stuff happens and stuff has happened in the interim.  One of the things that happened is that John Bolton expressed a willingness to testify.  Another thing that happened is that more information came out about what seems to be an attempt to cover up the President`s decision to withhold the aid.

Again, most of us have not been able to see those documents, but they`ve been reported and they`re available and they could be obtained.  And so to the extent that that has made senators like Mitt Romney say, well, you know, at some point in this trial we need to hear from witnesses.  I think Pelosi would be pleased with that.

Now, are there three votes in addition to Mitt Romney`s.


ROBINSON:  Who would ask for John Bolton to testify?  And I`m not sure.  I heard Garrett Haake say that he has a hard time counting that fourth vote.  But, you know, I think there`s a better chance of that fourth vote now than there was three or four weeks ago.

WILLIAMS:  Michael, there were various reviews of the President`s remarks on Iran from the center hallway there at the White House this morning.  We never miss an opportunity to hear from Lindsey Graham.  Here is Lindsey`s review of the President`s speech this morning.


GRAHAM:  This speech will be thought about long after his second term.  The President said, there`s an evil empire in Iran that`s been on destroying the world, killing the people in Israel and coming after us.  And I will no longer tolerate it.  So this is on par with Reagan`s tear down this wall speech.


WILLIAMS:  So Michael, on the Reagan comparison there, has Senator Graham slipped the surly bonds of the --

STEELE:  He did not.  He did not.  He`s smoking stuff none of us should get our hands on, because it clearly does something to the brain.

No.  This speech will not be remembered much beyond this weekend, let alone beyond a second term.  This speech was stilted.  It was not, in my estimation, delivered with the kind of conviction that`s backed up by a plan.

Lindsey, what is, you know, the President`s plan here?  Since this -- since this is degraded, we knew where Reagan was going.  Reagan told you before he got there, he told you when he got there, and he told you after he left what he was going to do.

Lindsey, what`s the President`s plan, because that speech didn`t tell us anything.  Senators, your colleagues in the Republican Caucus came out of that briefing with the White House as Mike Lee and others indicated, very clearly upset by the lack of seriousness.  And, oh by the way, a lack of planning for what comes next.


STEELE:  So this speech, words on paper, you know, a little light behind the President`s so to give the halo effect or whatever they were trying to do with the door opening, but that`s just about it.

WILLIAMS:  Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.  Our guests have both agreed to stay with us, our conversation continues right after this.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES:  Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act.  The world is a safer place without these monsters.

He`s been called a monster and he was a monster.  And he is no longer a monster, he is dead.


WILLIAMS:  We`re likely to hear more of that language.  The President heads to Toledo, Ohio tomorrow for a campaign rally, his campaign already taking up the military angle.  The Washington Post reports that days after the air strike that killed Soleimani, the campaign purchased roughly 1,000 ads on Facebook that touted Donald Trump`s military credentials.

Still with us tonight, Eugene Robinson and Michael Steele.

Eugene, you`re among the more thoughtful people I know and I am guessing you harbored this thought today.  How different a day this would have been in the United States?  If God`s forbid a thousand times, last night, one of those missiles had barreled its way into a dormitory where American men and women in uniform were sleeping, and we would be looking at a retaliatory valley and then, what?

ROBINSON:  Well -- and then, we`d be in a shooting war with Iran, until someone found a way to deescalate it.  And that, you know, give them tenure of governments on both sides, that could have been a while, it could have been an awful, awful scenario.

But that didn`t happen.  Whether it didn`t happen on purpose or didn`t happen by accident, it didn`t happen.  Washington Post reporter, we knew the -- where the bombs were coming or the missile are likely to come hours in advance and had time to get people into bunkers, and where they were safe.

And so, we can all, I`d say, pretend to turn the page.  Because I doubt that the government in Tehran has turned the page.

WILLIAMS:  Michael Steele, what president is this, in your mind?  The president who is a critic of forever wars or a president who might be jonzing (ph) for the right war, you`ll forgive the cavalier phrase, especially as some have pointed out if it extracts from domestic troubles politically.

STEELE:  I think both.  I think there`s a bifurcation effort that encapsulates both of those concepts.  You know, that the idea that he does have some views about, you know, some of these actors out there.  We know he likes the bad guys, at least some of them.  And we know that he also will turn on a dime to make sure that however this is aggrandized, that he`s in the center of that particular universe, the campaign has already began to do that.

They are going to roll -- they`ve been rolling out these commercials on Facebook.  And tomorrow night, you will see it in all of its glory, personified as, you know, Cesar come back from the fields of battle to tell the tale of how victory was won.

And that`s -- that plays out well for Trump and it`s unfortunate for the country because we still don`t know what the plan is.

WILLIAMS:  Two friends of this broadcast, Eugene Robinson, Michael Steele, gentlemen, it`s always a pleasure.  Thank you both for coming on.

Coming up for us, we might soon be seeing more of a very famous American around these parts, when we come back.


WILLIAMS:  Last thing before we go tonight, because, frankly, we need the distraction.  The Chicago Tribune put it this way.  Northwestern graduate moving closer to home after spending time abroad.  Others speculated that Meghan Markle might play herself on season 6 of "The Crown."

The "New York Post" took a whack at the couple and domestic life, branding the move "Megxit."  All of it part of the reaction today that Ms. Markle, her husband Harry, their baby, Archie, plan to step down as senior members of the royal family and spend more time in North America.  And we have a report on this tonight from NBC`s Kate Snow.


KATE SNOW, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Tonight, the surprise announcement from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle reportedly blindsiding the queen.  After returning from a long trip to Canada, they say they intend to step back as senior members of the royal family and will split their time between the UK and North America.

The couple says, "We`ve chosen to make a transition this year in starting to carve out a progressive new role within this institution."

CAMILLA TOMINEY, NBC NEWS ROYAL CONTRIBUTOR:  What we know is that, the queen wasn`t informed that this statement was being released.  And I understand that if being told by insiders that there`s a lot of deep hurt and disappointment at what has happened today.

SNOW:  The palace put out a terse statement.  We understand their desire to take a different approach, but these are complicated issues that will take time to work through.

There have been plenty of hints Harry and Meghan might choose a different path.  Prince Harry had said his deepest fear is seeing his wife treated the way his mother was, and they want to protect eight-month-old Archie.

On ITV, Harry acknowledged tensions with his brother William.

PRINCE HARRY, DUKE OF SUSSEX:  We`ll always be brothers and we`re setting on different paths at the moment.

SNOW:  And Meghan said joining the royal family has been a struggle.

MEGHAN MARKLE, DUCHESS OF SUSSEX:  You add this on top of just trying to be a new mom or trying to be a newlywed, it`s -- yes.  And, well, I guess, and also thank you for asking because not many people have asked if I`m OK.  But it`s a very real thing to be going through behind the scenes.

SNOW:  The couple says they`ll work to become financially independent while continuing to fully support her majesty, the queen, which won`t sit well with some in the UK.

TOMINEY:  The cynics will look at this and say, is this decision down to a couple who basically want their royal cake and eat it?  They want all of the trappings of royal life, but less of the responsibilities.

SNOW:  But the couple says the new geographic balance will enable to us raise our son with an appreciation for the royal tradition while also providing our family with the space to focus on the next chapter.


WILLIAMS:  Kate Snow with the report tonight to take us off the air.  And that is our broadcast for this Wednesday evening, thank you so much for being here with us as always.  And goodnight 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