CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: -- step toward regime change on what`s the neocons like John Bolton has set their hearts. For them, the lesson of Vietnam is how to do it all over again. That`s what they`re in Iran. And that`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us. "ALL IN" with Chris Hayes starts right now.
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CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST: Tonight on ALL IN.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: John is a tough guy. He`s so tough, he got us into Iraq.
HAYES: A key impeachment witness now says he`s willing to testify.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Would you vote to subpoena John Bolton?
HAYES: Tonight, why John Bolton says he`s now willing to talk, new pressure on Republicans in the Senate to act, and will House Democrats subpoena Bolton if Mitch McConnell won`t. Then, the Pentagon scrambles to clarify a mistake letter announcing withdrawal from Iraq, new alarms over the President threat of war crimes.
MICHAEL STEELE, FORMER CHAIRMAN, RNC: The tail is wagging the hell out of the dog right now.
HAYES: The new push from Democrats to check the president and how the mistakes that led to the war in Iraq may be repeating themselves all over again.
MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT, UNITED STATES: Weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq.
HAYES: When ALL IN starts right now.
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HAYES: Good evening from New York, I`m Chris Hayes. If you are feeling dread and anxiety in this New Year, you are not crazy. We`re on the precipice of what many imagined as a worst-case scenario of Donald Trump as president of the United States. The moment that he came down the escalator to announced his candidacy, people across the political and ideological spectrum from Marco Rubio, to Lindsey Graham, to Hillary Clinton, to Bernie Sanders, Rick Perry, to Ted -- vote your conscience -- Cruz, they all have assess Trump`s character as completely unfit to wield the power that he wields as president of United States.
For all of Trump`s narcissism, and pettiness, and braggadocio, and ignorance, thus far, through sheer luck, we have avoided that absolute worst-case scenario for the president essentially plunging the country into a new military conflagration splash, geopolitical quagmire.
A lot of truly horrible things have happened under Donald Trump as president. Nearly 3,000 Americans died in Puerto Rico after the administration`s week hurricane response. Thousands of immigrant children separated from their parents kept in cages, dozens of immigrants, including children, have died in ICE custody. But a brand new war run by this corrupt and curious president, that is the ultimate fear, a fear that looks very close right now to being a reality.
In the wake of is ordering the airstrike of the number two figure in Iran, and millions of people marching the streets in Iran, Trump is now tweeting the way that he always tweets making outrageous declarations and threats. But now the difference is this. The stakes are as high as they can possibly be.
On top of that, the man is facing an impeachment trial that he is obviously unnerved and obsessed by. There`s every reason to believe that any further evidence in documents or witness testimony would show Trump to be even more guilty than he already looks. And so amidst this, Donald Trump has launched an unbelievably provocative escalation of active war by any sensible determination in the midst of his own impeachment for motives that cannot be taken at face value.
And now in the wake of that reckless decision, the man who may be knows more about Trump`s Iran policy than anyone who`s been pushing for this kind of military confrontation with Iran for his entire adult life, former National Security Advisor John Bolton says he wants to talk.
See, Bolton is also, of course, a key figure in the impeachment of Donald Trump. And he just announced that after turning down a request to speak to the House, he is prepared to talk to the Senate. He released a statement explaining his rationale, saying, "I have concluded that if the Senate issues a subpoena for my testimony, I am prepared to testify.
It`s important to remember that Bolton left his position abruptly the day before Donald Trump released that Ukraine aid. Immediately after leaving, he told the Washington Post, "I will have my say in due course." For months now, Bolton has been letting it drip out, that he has more to say.
Back in November, his lawyer said that Bolton had many relevant meetings and conversations about Ukraine that the House impeachment investigators have not heard. We found out just a few weeks ago, that he was involved in an August meeting to try to get Trump to release military aid to Ukraine.
Now today, Republican Senator Marco Rubio responded to Bolton`s offer to testify, saying he would vote against a subpoena of Bolton. His Republican colleagues, Senator John Cornyn suggested Bolton`s testimony could be, "helpful to the President." And maybe it could be. Who knows?
Throughout this entire affair, Bolton has been very coy in playing out some kind of unknown strategy of encouraging subordinates to testify, distancing himself from the corrupt obstruction at the heart of the President`s impeachment, but not testifying himself, hinting always that he knows more than he says.
Now, if the House is done, he says he will talk to the Senate. Now, maybe because he doesn`t think they will subpoena him. And now the possibility of his testimony is once again front and center, the obvious case to hear what he and others have to say has only gotten stronger.
Joining me now for more on what Bolton`s announcement are Nancy Gertner, former United States District Judge, now a senior lecturer at Harvard Law School and Joyce Vance, former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, now an MSNBC Legal Analyst.
Nancy, let me start with you about what you think the relevance, significance of Bolton making this announcement today is?
NANCY GERTNER, FORMER DISTRICT JUDGE, UNITED STATES: Well, I`d be concerned about the timing, right? I mean, he is someone -- when he was saying that he had relevant testimony that -- on the -- on the impeachment inquiry he`s mentioned multiple times in the House report. But he said he needed to be subpoenaed, and he would go to -- he suggested he would go to court as others have done in order to testify.
Now, he`s expressing his willingness just after he tweeted support for the President`s strike in Iraq. So I`m not sure what his particular endgame is. In addition, it`s a very odd position. It`s like saying I`m going to testify in your courtroom, but I`m not going to testify in the one next door. I`ll testified before the Senate, but I`m not going to testify before the House. I think that`s an untenable position.
HAYES: That is a great point. It queues up what the House now does. Let me go to that, Joyce. Pelosi said the president and Senator McConnell have run out of excuses. They must allow key witnesses to testify, produce the documents Trump has blocked so Americans can see the facts for themselves.
And then Adam Schiff says that Bolton is important witness to misconduct involving Ukraine, he called the drug deal. He refused to testify in the House following Trump`s orders. Now, he`s willing to come forward. The cover-up must end, meaning he should testify in the setup. But there`s a question of whether the House could subpoena him now.
VANCE: It`s a really interesting question, Chris. And I think an important one because there`s nothing that I`m aware of that would prohibit the House from continuing to investigate when a witness who`s been previously unavailable suddenly becomes available. It seems like it would make sense to issue a subpoena and to try hear what that witness has to say.
And of course, there`s the backdrop here, that second article of impeachment about obstruction of Congress, the notion that none of the documents are available, which makes it all the more important to hear what Bolton has to say firsthand.
You know, if this was a jury in a criminal case, say a drug case, where the defendant had taken a match to his drug lectures and burn those records so that they weren`t available at trial for the jury to see, I think the jury would draw inferences against that defendant. And that`s essentially what the President has done here, making witness testimony more important.
HAYES: And part of what makes it strange, Nancy, is that what the kind of legal precedent is for all of this is somewhat unclear. There`s this sort of Nixon precedent, but you know, there was this litigation that was sort of set in motion and then mooted, in which you know, there was this lawsuit brought by one of Bolton`s subordinates to see like, well, who should I listen to? The President says, I shouldn`t testify, the House says I should. What should I do? The House then sort of retract that subpoena, I think, because they don`t want an unfavorable ruling. But what the actual law says here is not clear.
GERTNER: Well, the law doesn`t -- there isn`t -- there isn`t clarity. You know, it`s not in the Constitution. There had been other opinions by other judges, notably of the general counsel McGahn that he had to testify, that he had to appear. Let me put it -- put it. This testimony is a different issue. He had to appear. He had to answer their questions.
It may be that he would exercise the privilege, executive privilege, or some other privilege with respect to particular questions, but he had to appear. So it`s not true that there isn`t precedent. I think that to some degree, the House was withdrawing the subpoena because they ran out of time.
GERTNER: And because they had gotten the testimony from other people. But there really is no precedent for someone simply saying, I don`t think that you`re proceeding is legitimate, I`m not going to -- I`m not going to participate. Going and saying yes to this, no to this, that`s a different issue. But I`ve never heard of this, and I don`t believe the Constitution supports it.
HAYES: It`s a great -- a great point. There`s been this weird tease going on from people around Bolton, Joyce. Today, again, in the New York Times, former the White House officials and people close to Mr. Bolton, that`s the sourcing, have indicated his testimony would likely be damning to Mr. Trump and put additional pressure on moderate Republicans to consider convicting him, which, again, would seem to give incentive for Republicans in the Senate not to hear from him which appeared to be largely the line today.
JOYCE VANCE, MSNBC LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, that`s right. And it`s an awkward position for Bolton to be in because of course, he`s a career Republican. There`s some sense here that maybe he`s looking for a little bit of covered before he testifies. He doesn`t want to go in as a hero for the Democrats. And if this speculation about the dramatic impact of his testimony is true, he could well end up as an unlikely hero for Democrats. So I suspect he wants a little bit of cover in this scenario.
HAYES: There`s now sort of question about timing more broadly, Nancy, and this impasse between the two branches where again, there is no clear guide here.
GERTNER: Well, there is no clear guide. But you know something, the Constitution doesn`t say many things specifically. But when it talks about the Senate, it says the case shall be tried in the Senate, and the senators have to take an oath that independent of their oath as senators.
Trial had a specific meaning in the 18th century. It meant witnesses, it meant an impartial jury. These were not sort of things that they were, you know, set aside kind of comments. If you are a strict constructionist, as many of the Republicans purport to be, you would understand the trial meant witnesses, cross-examination, and oath meant an oath of impartiality as a juror would take.
Bolton`s coming forward makes it clear, that you know that maybe opens -- at least raises the possibility that there will be other witnesses who will come forward. I don`t think there really is justification here for not holding witnesses, not having witnesses.
HAYES: Yes. I think that`s 100 percent correct. We will see whether that prevails as this goes forward. N Nancy Gertner and Joyce Vance, thank you both. Joining me now, Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. Last week, he introduced a resolution to prevent President Trump from going to war with Iran. I`m going to talk about that, but first, I want to talk about the news from Bolton today. You would be a jury if and when an impeachment trial happens in the Senate. Your reaction to his statement today.
SEN. TIM KAINE (D-VA): Well, Chris, I tried a lot of cases to juries back in the day before I was in state politics, and you don`t have a trial without witnesses and documents. So as soon as John Bolton says, I want to come if you subpoena me, then the Republicans really cannot say we don`t want to hear from you and square that with the oath that we`re all going to have to take at the beginning of this trial. The oath says that we will do impartial justice in all matters pertaining to the trial of Donald J. Trump according to the constitution and laws, so help me God.
There is no way to live up to that oath and refuse to hear from a witness who has said I have new information bearing directly on the questions of this trial. And so, it`s going to be a very difficult thing for Republicans now to block John Bolton or other witnesses or key documents.
HAYES: Well, difficult maybe in a -- in a sort of principle sense, but we already have Marco Rubio today saying, I don`t want to hear it. John Cornyn said maybe we`ll hear from him, and Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins saying, well, let`s figure out the rules first, and then we`ll get that. The only colleague of yours, I think, who expressed some desire to hear from John Bolton is Mitt Romney. How confident are you that there are any votes to have a kind of procedural uprising among Republicans?
KAINE: Well, and you put it the right way, Chris. How confident am I that there will be votes? We get to make the motion that Bolton should testify and be subpoenaed. And then every Republican will have to vote, not a voice vote, not a secret vote, vote on the record.
I think that is a very hard thing to three categories of Republicans to vote against. There are the Republicans who are running in really battleground states for reelection this year. How do you explain, I took an oath do impartial justice, but I didn`t want to hear from John Bolton? There are senators, Republicans who are institutionalists, who care about the institution. How do you explain voting against relevant witnesses?
And then finally, there are senators who are retiring, who don`t have anything to fear from Donald Trump. And this is going to be one of the elements, last elements of their legacy as a senator. How do you explain a no vote when you`ve taken an oath to do impartial justice?
So, I do think the pressure once we get to this point, and the motions are made and people are on the record, there`s going to be pressure for them to vote yes, at least a number of them.
HAYES: Obviously, amidst this, in this sort of interregnum period as we await a trial, the President ordering the killing of Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, a massive escalation of military confrontation with Iran. Are you confident that those are independent and unrelated truths the President and impeachment, wanting to perhaps distract the American public and making some determination purely in terms of national interest on the -- on the Soleimani strike?
KAINE: I`m not confident, Chris. I don`t know the President`s motivations, and so it`s hard to comment on them. But what I will say, you point out that in the midst of this, the president launches this escalatory attack against General Soleimani and Iraqi leaders as well, add to it, that he did it over the objections of the Iraqi government, our ally, asked for permission. They objected to this strike and another strike and he did it without -- not only without seeking congressional approval, but without informing Congress.
And still, to this day, many days later, he has not provided information about this claim that there was imminent threat. The President is going rogue. He is waging a war when it`s Congress` job to declare war without even informing Congress of what he`s doing. And it`s time for Congress to reel that back in.
HAYES: What would your War Powers Resolution do?
KAINE: Under the War Powers Act of the 1970s, there is this very narrow procedure, Chris. And it basically says this. If the president goes rogue, and goes to war, engages in hostilities that are not covered by a congressional authorization or declaration, any senator or House member can file a resolution that`s privileged, which means we have to take it up within a set period of time.
My resolution was Senator Durbin says, all U.S. forces that are engaged in hostilities against Iran need to be withdrawn from those hostilities, unless Congress decides to pass an independent authorization for war against Iran. I think I have some colleagues who think a war with Iran is a good idea. I think it`s a horrible idea. But whatever you think about it, it shouldn`t be done on the whim of this President or any president.
And so what I`m going to do is I`m going to force every member of the Senate and the House is doing the same thing to have a vote where we all have to declare whether we think a war with Iran is a good idea or a bad idea.
HAYES: Right. Senator Kim Kaine, thank you so much.
KAINE: Absolutely. Up next, a stunning announcement from the U.S. military today suggesting in the letter they will withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and then in an even more stunning announcement, they said, oops, didn`t mean it, disregard. We`ll talk about it all in two minutes.
HAYES: Things are now moving very quickly in the wake of the President`s decision to assassinate Iranian Commander Qassem Soleimani. In Tehran today, a massive crowd gathered to mourn the general as Iran Supreme Leader wept over his casket and Soleimani`s successor promised revenge against the U.S.
While the Iranian government has been known to orchestrate state-sponsored protests, it`s something of a tradition there, NBC News Tehran Bureau Chief Ali Arouzi. Who`s on the ground described an unprecedented scene, with the streets packed with the largest crowds he says he has ever seen in that country. The A.P. estimated that at least a million people turned out to mourn and protest and state media said there were millions, the crowd visible on satellite images.
Meanwhile, both Israel and Saudi Arabia who are us allies and staunch enemies of Iran have been distancing themselves from Trump`s decision to kill Soleimani. Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telling his cabinet where Israel was not involved in the killing of the Iranian general and that Israel should stay out of it. And a Saudi envoy arrived in Washington today to meet with Secretary Pompeo in an attempt to push for restraint.
All the while Donald Trump, the American President, continues to ratchet up the rhetoric, stating for the second time last night that any Iranian response would lead to American attacks on running cultural sites which would be a war crime. We`re going to more on that in a bit. Trump`s foreign policy also continues to be an apparent boon for ISIS.
Back in October, you will recall Trump abruptly abandoned military support for the Kurds in Syria. Kurds who have been integral in the fight against the terrorist group. That resulted in hundreds of ISIS fighters fleeing Kurdish guarded prison camps. Now, this new decision to kill Soleimani has directly prompted the American led coalition in Iraq and Syria to halt its years-long campaign against ISIS as U.S. forces braced for retaliation from Iran.
That`s not all. Iran is taking new steps towards nuclear weapons announcing Sunday it`s ending its commitment to limit enrichment of uranium which had been part of the 2015 nuclear deal that Trump pulled out of unilaterally. Over the weekend, as thousands of new U.S. troops are being deployed to the Middle East, the Iraqi parliament approved a non-binding resolution expelling U.S. troops in the country.
And while there is no immediate impact, the 170 to zero votes certainly sent the message. And then on top of that, something really, truly wild almost unbelievable happened today. The U.S. military sent the Iraqi Government a letter announcing what appeared to be a troop withdrawal from Iraq. That is a real letter. It was making the rounds on social media. But late this afternoon, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper came out with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to say to reporters, never mind, U.S. troops are not leaving Iraq.
The Chairman of Joint Chiefs Mark Milley telling reporters that "the letter is a draft, it was a mistake, it was unsigned, it should not have been released. I`m joined now by the top Democrat in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
Senator, let`s start with that letter in the back and forth and confusion over that. What is your reaction to that? Do you understand what`s going on?
SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D-NJ): Chaos, contradiction, confusion, the men and women who serve in the uniform and who have been sent in harm`s way deserve much better than that. And this is emblematic of a foreign policy, national security infrastructure that has no strategic plan.
And so, you know, it`s pretty amazing to see the Department of Defense put out a statement that is consequential as it is and then say it should have never been released.
HAYES: Given the images we saw from Iran, obviously, Iranian society is 80 million people. And like any society, there are deep internal conflicts, there are people that support the regime there, there are people who`ve taken their lives in their hands to protest against it. Do you think, however, the President`s actions and its subsequent rhetoric has essentially unified some big section of Iranian society, in opposition of the U.S. and in support of the regime?
MENENDEZ: I do fear that one of the consequences of the President`s actions and targeting Soleimani is ultimately taking significant elements of Iranian society that had begun to show their displeasure with the regime for a variety of reasons, including economic ones, and now created a solidarity that ultimately a newish to the regimes benefit. And in calling for the regime to retaliate only strengthens the regime as a result of it, instead of exploiting the divisions that were developing inside of Iran.
HAYES: Was the President`s order to strike Soleimani lawful in your view?
MENENDEZ: Well, that`s the key question that I want to ask at the briefing that we`re supposed to get on Wednesday. Because from everything that I can tell today, you know, the question of whether there was an imminent threat, and that Soleimani was at the center of that imminent threat to American citizens, American troops, and American Security is the critical question.
I want to see what the intelligence is and the analysis of that intelligence, and what degree of confidence that they have in that intelligence to ultimately make the case for that. Because if that doesn`t add up, then the President did not have the authority to do what he did.
HAYES: Do you consider the strike against Soleimani who was widely viewed as essentially the second most powerful political and military figure in Iran as an act of war?
MENENDEZ: Well, if all the previous statement I just made, if there is no evidence -- you know, we don`t need is another weapons of mass destruction moment that could lead us into an unauthorized war. If there is not the evidence and the intelligence to point to that evidence that there was an immediate threat to American Security, and that Soleimani a critical element of that threat, then I do think that we have the beginnings of an illegal conflict here.
And at the end of the day, what we have it when you see this ratcheting up of where the President has been, from the strikes that he ordered to then the consequences of killing Soleimani, the number of troops that have been sent, all of this is without the authorization of Congress, which is why I`ll be sitting down with Senator Kaine tomorrow, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to talk about his War Powers Resolution.
HAYES: What was the most important thing for members of the United States Congress and Senate to do to avoid the worst possible outcomes of what comes next?
MENENDEZ: Well, two things. Number one, to demand clear intelligence and that will happen Wednesday and to put their feet to the fire. Because historical context is not the basis for targeting Soleimani and creating such an assassination. You know, you have to show imminent threat.
And secondly, to probably pass a War Powers Resolution that still protects our people in theater. They didn`t ask to go there. They`re responding to their governments sending. And we have to protect them, but at the same time to limit dramatically the scope of what the President can do without an authorization of Congress.
HAYES: All right, senator --
MENENDEZ: Those two are the most significant things.
HAYES: Senator Robert Menendez, thank you for being with me tonight.
MENENDEZ: Thank you,
HAYES: Next, the Trump administration claimed Qassem Soleimani pose an imminent threat to U.S. interest but new reporting says that intelligence was razor-thin. New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi has our reporting next.
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MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE, UNITED STATES: President Trump made the decision, a serious decision, which was necessary. There was an imminent attack. The orchestrator, the primary motivator for the attack was Qassem Soleimani.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HAYES: The Trump administration`s rationale for the strike killing Iranian general Qassem Soleimani has been all over the place, frankly. The core of it, though, as articulated there by Pompeo was claiming intelligent showed an imminent threat, and that is why the Trump administration had to do it.
Now, that rationale has subsequently fallen apart. Over the weekend, "New York Times" reporter Rukmini Callimachi reported on what the actual intelligence ahead of the strike was. Her sources describing the evidence as, quote, "razor thin." And joining me now from Romania is that reporter, Rukmini Callimachi.
What did you learn from your sources?
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI, NEW YORK TIMES FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: Hi. The call dropped. I was just about to go on Chris Hayes` show.
HAYES: All right. That did not appear to work. Rukmini Callimachi reporting on the source of the intelligence that happened this week. We will try to get her back on the line, although there is an incredible delay. So I think what we will do is take a break and we will be right back.
HAYES: All right. We`re back. Apologies to Rukmini Callimachi who is in Bucharest, Romania. We wanted so much to talk to her about her incredible reporting over the weekend in "The New York Times" about the intelligence that actually was behind that strike on Soleimani, that we made arrangements to get a studio in Bucharest but obviously that live shot dropped. Apologies for that.
Now for those who lived through, wrote about and protested the march toward the war in Iraq in 2003, there is the last few days a horrifying sensation of deja vu. Images of Iraqi celebrating after General Soleimani`s death being used as right-wing propaganda. The vice president attempting to pin some part of the 9/11 plot on Qasem Soleimani despite the fact that it is just false. That tweet, by the way, has still not been taken down despite widespread coverage of its inaccuracies.
There`s been all kinds of explanations about that intelligence that apparently led to the killing of Soleimani, but no formal presentation of any evidence to the public. The Trump administration has actually been doing this kind of thing on Iran for a long time. Back in 2018, Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who was famously chief of staff to Colin Powell in the run up to the Iraq war, saw what the Trump administration was doing to Iran and wrote this "New York Times" op-ed. "I helped sell the false choice of war once. It`s happening again."
He wrote that two years ago. And here we are today. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson joins me now.
What is your reaction, Colonel, to the pronouncement, some of them kind of internally contradictory, frankly, about the intelligence that led to this strike?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF TO SECRETARY OF STATE COLIN POWELL: I think it`s a bunch of bull, frankly. And I think we`re going to find out it`s a bunch of bull. They`ll try to craft it, as George Tenet and John McLaughlin to make it look as if it were imminent and so forth. But it`s a bunch of bull.
This morning at 2:00 a.m., I was on the line with London and I was fortunate to have their MOD spokesperson, their minister of Defense spokesperson, go on before me. And he made a very elegant, much more elegant than Trump, Esper, or Pompeo, appeal to this being simply a tactical strike, and there would be no escalatory dimension to it.
I then went on and said, wrong, Mr. Spokesperson. This was a strategic move of the first order, and it was a strategic move that could lead to war. And even worse, it was a strategic move that has given the initiative for whether that war starts or not to our enemy. That is to say, it is up to Iran now as to how proportional or not proportional it is in its response, inevitable response, to what we`ve done. So we surrendered the strategic initiative to Iran.
HAYES: It`s a really important point there because all of us -- you know, this happened, it sounds from the reporting that the president had been lobbied by Pompeo behind the scenes for it to happen. The degree of the intelligence behind it is very unclear. And again, like I said, justifications internally inconsistent and contradictory.
But ultimately, with all the coverage now focuses on what does the Iranian government do? What calculations do they make and this sort of collective hope that it`s limited, which is just a bizarre situation to find ourselves in?
WILKERSON: It is. And that`s where we`ve put ourselves with the secretary of State principally, but others like Lindsey Graham and Esper and so forth leading the president to this trough so he could drink out of it. That`s where we are right now.
Now what I`m hearing from Tehran gives me a little bit of hope because what I`m hearing is we`re not going to withdraw from the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement. We want to keep China and Russia and we`re willing to keep the Europeans, so we`re not going to withdraw. We`re not going to kick out the inspectors and we`re not going to leave the nonproliferation treaty as Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un did.
We are going to do what we have to do to keep that almost more of an agreement alive. And we`re going to be very proportional and take our time as to the response. Now the problem with that, of course, is proportionality is in the eye of the beholder.
HAYES: Of course.
WILKERSON: And if Trump is even more in peril politically, then he may do something even if it`s a proportional response. So I`m really worried that we are on a path to war.
HAYES: I wonder what you make of watching people that famously argued for the Iraq war, famously talked about the intelligence in the Iraq war, now make the case once again. And I thought of this clip of Mike Pence when he was then a member of Congress back in 2004. This is him announcing that the weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. MIKE PENCE (R-PA): I am here to report as the United States Military confirmed in Iraq on Monday, weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq in the form of two separate artillery shells containing sarin and mustard gas. Where are the WMDs? We`ve been asked again and again.
Well, Mr. Speaker, they`re where they`ve always been, hidden in Iraq, within the reach of terrorists, a threat to the Iraqi people, U.S. soldiers and the world.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HAYES: You would think that that would have ended his career and the careers of other people, and yet he`s the vice president of the United States and the cautery of people that supported him, supported the unimaginable devastation of Iraq, are all still plying their trade.
WILKERSON: You`re absolutely right. And you could have played a tape similar to that, maybe not quite as asinine, but similar to that, for almost all of these people. All of them were there pushing and pushing for a war with Iraq in 2002 and 2003. This is the same crowd.
President Obama told me in the Roosevelt Room just outside the Oval Office in a moment of rare candor. He looked at me and General Paul Eaton across the table, John Kerry sitting right beside him. He said there is a bias in this town towards war. You think, Mr. President? There is a bias in this town towards war and Mr. Trump has just been ensnared in that bias.
HAYES: What do you think, though, the difference is in this time around? And I`m struck by the fact that there is I think very little public appetite for war right now. The polling that has come out has been largely split along party lines. But subsequent to the airstrike, you had overwhelming majorities that do not want a war with Iran, and that includes a huge number of I think servicemembers and their families and veterans.
HAYES: Do you think things are different now in terms of the role public opinion or even the politicians play in what they say?
WILKERSON: If that public opinion is wielded as it was, for example, with regard to President Obama in putting ground forces in Syria, he admitted that that public opinion --
WILKERSON: -- made him think twice about that. And if the Congress gets its act together as Senator Kaine was saying earlier and uses the war power resolution to constrain the president. And if the people who voted for Trump -- many of them voted for him because he simply said he was going to end these stupid wars. If you look at those soldiers getting on those planes the other day and looked at their families on the side lines, the looks in their faces were, I ain`t voting for President Trump again. So if he wants to keep that base even reasonably intact, he needs to stop this march to war.
HAYES: All right. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, always great to have you, sir. Thank you.
WILKERSON: Thank you for having me.
HAYES: Just ahead, what happens when the president who endorses war crimes starts threatening some of his own. We`ll talk about it coming up.
HAYES: The blunt truth about our current American president is that he is pro-war crimes. And he has been consistent on this point. He ran for office on a pro-war crimes platform. He called to reinstate torture.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Would I approve water boarding? You bet your ass I`d approve it. You bet your ass. In a heartbeat. In a heartbeat. And I would approve more than that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HAYES: As a candidate, he called for the murder of terrorist families.
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TRUMP: With the terrorists, you have to take out their families. When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don`t kid yourself. But they say they don`t care about their lives. You have to take out their families.
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HAYES: On the campaign trail, and later even as president he relayed a false by wildly inflammatory story of an American general dripping bullets in pigs blood and then murdering 49 captured Muslim fighters.
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TRUMP: He took 50 bullets and he dipped them in pigs blood. And he had his men load his rifles and he lined up the 50 people and they shot 49 of those people. And the 50th person he said, you go back to your people and you tell them what happened.
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HAYES: That`s not true, by the way. That is a myth. But he liked the story so much he kept telling it. He`s repeatedly said that we should, quote, "take the oil in Iraq and other places," which would also be a war crime.
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TRUMP: Now I`ve said this for years. I might have said this the last time I was here years ago. Take the oil. Take the oil. Keep the oil. You know, in the old days to the victor belonged the spoils.
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HAYES: OK. So that`s him as a candidate. But here`s the thing. Since becoming president, Donald Trump has continued to push a pro-war crimes agenda. He`s issued pardons in war crime cases. Former Army 1st Lieutenant Michael Behenna convicted by military court in 2009 for killing an Iraqi man in U.S. custody. Green Beret Major Matthew Goldstein charged with murdering a suspected Afghan bomb-maker. Former Army 1st Lieutenant Clint Lawrence who had been serving a 19-year sentence for ordering the murder of two unarmed civilians.
Donald Trump also against the wishes of top military leaders intervened and restored the rank of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher who was acquitted of murder charges but convicted of a lesser charge of posing for a picture with a corpse. And that intervention by the president resulted in the very public resignation of the secretary of the Navy.
The president is now reportedly considering pardoning a contractor convicted of murder during the Iraq war. A Blackwater security guard named Nicolas Slatten, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for his role in the 2007 massacre in Baghdad.
And then this weekend, President Trump openly threatened more war crimes. Tweeting about possibly striking Iranian cultural sites, which is against international law under the 1954 Hague Convention and several other international treaties. In his own defense, Secretary Mark Esper indicated he would not -- that that would not be allowed under the laws of armed conflict. That was today, although it was begrudging.
In classic fashion Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to gaslight the nation into not believing the plain meaning of what the president tweeted only for Trump to then classically reiterate his same threats. In a Sunday afternoon tweet suggesting the U.S. might strike back in a, quote, "disproportionate manner."
This is all an absolute moral abomination. For the president to carry it out, it would constitute a high crime under the Constitution. Without question he should be impeached for it. And it`s also the image that is being projected around the world. This barbaric vileness from the president has real tangible effects on what happens next to us and to others. We`ll discuss after this.
HAYES: The Trump administration has argued that deterrents is the reason they killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. The administration and its allies have hammered on the simple minded and frankly ridiculous reasoning that killing a, quote-unquote, "bad guy" by definition that makes Americans safer.
But no one who is paying any attention thinks that this has de-escalated the situation or reduced the threat against American forces or American civilians. Seriously no one.
Here to talk about how the president`s actions over the past four days have made Americans less safe, Colin Kahl, who`s a former deputy assistant to former President Barack Obama, former national security adviser to Joe Biden, and who argued in "Foreign Policy" that, quote, "Trump is playing with fire in the Middle East."
And author and historian John Ghazvinian, the interim director of the Middle East Center, University of Pennsylvania, who tweeted out yesterday, quote, "Well, just landed at JFK and no surprise got taken to the special side room and got asked, among other things, how I feel about the situation with Iran." He also has a timely book coming out in September titled "America and Iran: A Passionate Embrace from 1720 to the Present."
John, let me start with you just -- we have heard sporadic reports of Iranian Americans, American citizens, being taken aside for questioning by sea officials at ports of entry. What happened to you?
JOHN GHAZVINIAN, AUTHOR, "AMERICA AND IRAN": Yes. Hi, Chris. Yes. I don`t want to make too much of what happened to me. It was a really fairly straight forward exchange. It only lasted a few minutes. The officer was extremely courteous and polite and friendly. It wasn`t really a big deal. I actually -- I was more amused than anything else, to be honest, and sort of perplexed.
Amused and bemused to be asked what I think about the situation in Iran, having just spent 10 years of my life researching and writing a book on the history of U.S.-Iran relations. There was quite a lot I could have said, but I just sort of said I don`t think that question is really relevant, and so she let it go. Not really a big deal. I just tweeted about it because I thought it was funny, and I guess it got a lot of attention.
HAYES: Let me ask you this. What -- when you look at what has happened over the weekend and the funeral marches and the like, what do you think the effect of this has been on Iranian society and on the Iranian political elite?
GHAZVINIAN: Yes. I mean, it`s an extraordinary timing as I think many others have pointed out. I mean, just a couple -- a few weeks ago many people were protesting against their government. Now there are many people -- far more people frankly are protesting in favor of the government.
Iran is not unusual in this way. Any country that has a senior and well- respected military commander assassinated by a foreign power on a third country`s soil is likely to -- I mean, that`s likely to create a very unifying effect on the population. You don`t frankly need a historian or a genius to be able to tell you that.
HAYES: Colin, what do you think? You`ve been writing for several years now about the sort of ramifications of the Trump administration`s rhetoric on Iran, this sort of maximalist sanctions, the withdrawal from the Iran deal as essentially pushing us towards a point like this. Where do you see us now on that trajectory?
COLIN KAHL, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yes. I mean, we`re entering dark territory. I mean, Chris, as you pointed out, not just me, but a lot of people have been projecting the tit-for-tat retaliation that could push us to a point where it could spiral out of control for a few years now, especially since Trump -- you know, once he started talking about leaving the Iran nuclear deal which is really what set all of this in motion.
I think, you know, the point that was made earlier is really important. The Trump administration really wants to frame Soleimani as, you know, a terrorist puppet master and a mastermind and kind of like Baghdadi or Osama bin Laden. And there`s some truth to that. But if seen from the perspective of Iran, Soleimani was more the equivalent of or kind of a combination of the director of the CIA, the secretary of Defense and the secretary of State all mashed together, and I see -- you know, you`re seeing hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets.
And actually, the regime using Trump`s language threatening the Iranian nation to rally support for the regime when it was kind of on its back foot. And so I think we should expect that the Iranians will, you know, at a time, place and manner of their choosing, will retaliate against us in the region or even potentially here at home.
HAYES: John, what are the effects? I mean, given this tortured history between these two nations, which goes back very far, but particularly in the sort of the last 70 years, Mosaddegh, the CIA`s involvement in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian leader, the support for a strong man, the support for secret police who killed people on the streets, the taking him in and then of course the Iranian hostage situation at the embassy.
What is the president`s rhetoric mean in the ears of Iranians who are listening to this?
GHAZVINIAN: I mean, I think most Iranians long ago gave up on any notion of Trump as some sort of savior. I think Iranians are now seeing the administration after administration, Democratic or Republican, the chief concern of American administrations, American presidents and American governments is not nor really should it be necessarily the welfare or the prosperity of the Iranian people.
A lot of this rhetoric about saving the Iranians from their government and so on is just not taken seriously in Iran at all. And just to the point about the unification of the country around Soleimani, I think one of the most extraordinary things for me as a historian that I`ve seen in the last 24 hours or so was an interview last night with Ardeshir Zahedi, who`s a name that might be familiar to older viewers.
He was one of the Shah`s last foreign ministers and Iranian ambassador to the U.S. in the 1970s. Deeply loyal to the old regime before the revolution. He`s now 90 years old and lives in Switzerland. And he gave an interview to the BBC yesterday extolling Soleimani as a national hero and a patriot.
This is the last person on earth you would expect to be talking that way. But it gives you some flavor of sort of range of opinion. It doesn`t matter how you feel about the government or about the Islamic republic. Very few Iranians are going to be celebrating the assassination of Soleimani.
HAYES: Colin, there`s also of course the matter of the exposure of American servicemembers in Iraq, not to mention the many civilians who could be at risk in the crossfire of any kind of retaliation. One of the situations that makes Iraq so fraught is that the Iranians and Americans are essentially there cheek by jowl. It seems to me that that`s part of what is so dangerous in terms of the logic of escalatory strikes.
KAHL: Yes, you`ve really hit the nail on the head there. We have about 5,000 troops in Iraq, although Trump has bolstered that number for force protection reasons in recent days. But they`re surrounded by tens of thousands of Shia militia, and many of them with very close ties to Iran. For a number of years, they weren`t striking at us, largely because we were both kind of on the same side against the Islamic state.
But that`s changed recently. And I think with this -- you know, the killing of Soleimani, but also the killing of Muhandis, the leader of Kata`ib Hezbollah, the military that initiated that rocket attack back on September 27th that kind of set in motion all of these events. I think we`re already seeing more rockets falling on bases where U.S. forces are present in Iraq. I think we should expect that to go up.
We also have, you know, a few hundred forces stranded in eastern Syria, guarding these oil fields that are in close proximity to the Iranians. You know, of course we operate in close proximity in the crowded waters of the Persian Gulf in the Strait of Hormuz. We`ve got forces all over the region that are in close proximity with Iran, and I think you can expect that those forces are in greater jeopardy because of what the president did.
HAYES: All right, Colin Kahl and John Ghazvinian, thank you both for sharing your time and expertise.
That is ALL IN this evening. "THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW" starts right now.
Good evening, Rachel.
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Chris. Thanks, my friend. Much appreciated.
HAYES: You bet.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END