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U.S. Airstrike kills top Iranian General. TRANSCRIPT: 1/3/20, Hardball w/ Chris Matthews.

Guests: Robert Malley, Andy Kim, David French, Madeleine Dean, Uncle Murda,David Ignatius

AYMAN MOHYELDIN, MSNBC HOST:  Like I said, I have a lot of respect for American journalist and American journalism.  I don`t like to call them out.  But I think the Boston Globe missed this one completely.  I don`t know if this was a late post, so they weren`t able to get Qasem Soleimani in before publishing, but there`s just no excuse.

If The New York Times, The Washington Post, The USA Today, The New York Post can do it --


ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST:  And, Uncle Murda, I heard when Tom Brady cheats, it doesn`t go on the Globe at all.

UNCLE MURDA, AMERICAN RAPPER:  Yes, I mean, they`re bias.

MELBER:  We`re out of time.  Thank you, Ayman, for putting up with us.  Uncle Murda, thanks for coming.  I hope you do it every year.  That`s THE BEAT.  HARDBALL starts now.

STEVE KORNACKI, MSNBC HOST:  Game changer.  Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I`m Steve Kornacki in for Chris Matthews.

Tonight, tensions between Iran and the United States are at a 40-year high in the wake of a targeted drone strike near Baghdad`s airport that killed six people including General Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran`s elite Quds force and Iran`s most important military branch.

President Trump in a statement this afternoon from his vacation home in Florida defended the strike.


DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT:  We did not take action to start a war.  We do not seek regime change.  However, the Iranian regime`s aggression in the region including the use of proxy fighters to destabilize its neighbors must end and it must end now.

The United States has the best military by far anywhere in the world.  We have the best intelligence in the world.  If Americans anywhere are threatened, we have all of those targets already fully identified, and I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary, and that in particular refers to Iran.


KORNACKI:  Soleimani was reviled abroad for his role in orchestrating a number of deadly attacks including the deaths of hundreds of Americans.  In his home Iran though, today thousands took to the streets today to mourn his death.

The Department of Defense issued a statement last night confirming the drone attacks saying that Soleimani, quote, was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.  This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.  Today, the Pentagon approved the deployment of about 3,000 troops to the region in response to the increased threat levels because of the attack.

Response on Capitol Hill has been mixed with Republicans commending the president`s action and Democrats questioning whether Trump had considered the potential repercussions.

Iran`s supreme leader, the ayatollah vowed, quote, harsh retaliation against those who launched the attack.  The State Department urged Americans to leave Iraq immediately.  Tensions between the United States and Iraq have been building during the three years of Donald Trump`s presidency.  The U.S. has blamed rocket attacks on Iranian-backed forces along with that attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad last week that precipitated Soleimani`s killing.

Joining me now from Erbil, Iraq, NBC`s Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel, and from Tehran, NBC`s Ali Arouzi.

First to Richard in Iraq, let me start with you and just what do we know now?  Obviously, this is something that got lot of folks off-guard about 24 hours ago.  What do we know now about what happened, what led to it?

RICHARD ENGEL, MSNBC CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT:  Well, what led to it is a very long discussion.  This was something that the United States, many in the U.S. military have wanted to do for a very long time.  They had an old score to settle with Qasem Soleimani.  You talk about how he killed hundreds of Americans.  He killed hundreds of American troops who were fighting a war here in Iraq that Iran felt very threatened by.  Iran wouldn`t call that terrorism.  Iran would say that`s what generals do in war, they kill their enemies.

And there were many in the Pentagon who wanted vengeance for that.  They wanted to take him out, so to speak.  And now you`re hearing President Trump talking about how successful he was and talking about Qasem Soleimani in the same breath as the Al-Qaeda leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  They both have killed Americans.  They`re not alike at all.

Al Baghdadi led a terrorist group that carried out attacks in night clubs in Europe, that beheaded hostages, that tortured hostages.  Qasem Soleimani was an official representative of the Iranian government that led a policy to try and expand Iranian influence around the world and was very successful at it and was very popular at home.  You`re going to talk to Ali Arouzi and he`ll tell you what a significant figure Qasem Soleimani was in Iran and what kind of implications this is going to have.

But I think we know a little bit about where this is going because this is not over.  This wasn`t just a one-off strike against the classic dilemma, one man is a terrorist, the other man is freedom fighter.  In this case, one man is a national hero, Iran`s national hero, and the United States terrorist responsible for killing hundreds of troops in Iraq.

But this is now becoming a war against all of Iran`s partners, these proxy militias that Qasem Soleimani was responsible for nurturing and knitting together into a united force, because in the last several hours, there`s been yet another American airstrike targeting a convoy containing several Shia militia leaders.

Now, it may seem like apples and oranges.  These were Shia leaders in Iraq.  They were Iraqis.  He was an Iranian general.  It`s not.  It`s part of the same militant Shia front that Qasem Soleimani was part of, was the founder of.  And now that front which has representatives all throughout the Middle East feels under attack and could very much feel the need to respond violently.

Watch closely what happens tomorrow in Baghdad.  These same Shia militias, the same Shia militias that were allied with Qasem Soleimani, the same Shia militias whose leaders were attacked, maybe six of them killed in a convoy of vehicles just north of Baghdad in the last several hours, those Shia militias tomorrow are going to be holding mourning celebrations for their leaders not far from the U.S. embassy.

And if they try to go into the green zone, crossing one bridge in particular and going into the green zone, U.S. forces there could open fire on them and then we could have a cycle of violence like this country hasn`t seen in years.

KORNACKI:  All right.  Ali Arouzi, let`s go to you then in Tehran.  Richard sets up possibilities here in terms of a response from Iranian-backed militias perhaps.  What is the expectation where you are in terms of what the response will look like and in terms of how prepared the United States is for it?

You heard the president there saying the United States is prepared at all possible locations here.  What is your sense of that?

ALI AROUZI, MSNBC TEHRAN BUREAU CHIEF:  Well, Steve, there`s definitely going to be a response.  There`s no doubt about that.  Iran is going to want some sort of a reprisal for what happened to what was ultimately the second most powerful man in the country, Qasem Soleimani`s assassination.

But I don`t think you`re going to see a knee-jerk reaction from Iran.  Iran is very good at playing the long game.  They are going to plan their reprisal very carefully and that could involve one of many things that they have at their disposal.  The main option being unleashing the Shia militias that Qasem Soleimani so successfully created throughout this region, that network of proxies that were so fiercely loyal to him and are probably still fiercely loyal to him in death.

So there could be attacks by proxies on U.S. assets in this area, U.S. military bases.  There could be cyber attacks by the Iranians, which they have done before.  So they have a lot of options available for them.  I don`t think the Iranians are going to want to get involved in some sort of conventional warfare because gun for gun, tank for tank, airplane for airplane, they are no match for the U.S. Army.  But in an asymmetrical war which involves unconventional types of fighting, that could be an extremely difficult match for America.  That is something they are very good at, and they have honed their skills on doing.

So sitting down in rooms in Tehran right now, senior Revolutionary Guard commanders, members of the Security Council are now probably plotting their next move.  There was a meeting today of the National Security Council in Iran and very, very unusually, Ayatollah Khamenei attended that meeting.  He never attends those meetings.  It`s always someone like General Soleimani who would attend those meetings or one of his very close deputies that would be there on his behalf.  He`s not around anymore, so the supreme leader is stepping in making some of those major military decisions.

So in the coming days, Richard is right, we can expect some sort of reprisal from here somewhere in this region, Steve.

KORNACKI:  All right.  Ali Arouza in Tehran, Richard Engel in Erbil, thank you both for joining us.

And America`s European allies who were not given advanced notice of the strike warned today of potential retaliatory violence.  Regional experts tell NBC News that while Soleimani is gone he, quote, built a global web of proxies, militias and allies capable of doing Iran`s bidding while operating largely in the shadows.  Now, that same network is likely poised to avenge his killing, posing a threat that could strike just about anywhere in the world.

For more on that, I am joined by Courtney Kube, NBC News Correspondent, and David Ignatius, Washington Post Correspondent.  Thank you both for being -- Columnist.  Thank you for being with us.

Courtney, let me start with you.  In terms of establishing what the United States was seeking to achieve here, we said it up front, the word from the administration is that there were imminent attacks that were being planned and this was a preventive step to keep that from happening.  Do we know anything at this hour about what attacks the administration had in mind here, had on its radar, and do they believe that this killing has stopped that threat?

COURTNEY KUBE, MSNBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  So we know a little bit.  We don`t have a lot of specifics about it, so some of it on the record, some of it on background.  General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, spoke to a small group of reporters today.  He declined to give any specifics about the intelligence they were tracking, but he told a little bit of the atmospherics around it saying that they gathered the information very recently.  He felt confident that it was solid.  He praised the intelligence actually as being rock solid, that, in fact, Qasem Soleimani was directing and planning and helping with these imminent attacks that were in more than one place.

We know from U.S. officials and defense officials across the U.S. government that they were concerned about three specific possible attacks that were in the coming days, planned to be in the coming days.  One was in Lebanon against both diplomatic and potentially some financial institutions there.  And then one was U.S. military locations in Syria, primarily in the eastern part of Syria.  And then there was, of course, Iraq.

We also know, my colleague, Carol Lee, and I have been reporting today that, in fact, Soleimani, he took two recent trips.  He came actually from Damascus into Baghdad yesterday, but he also was in Lebanon recently.  And then officials are telling us that, in fact, those trips were to go and finalize some of the planning and approve some of the planning for these attacks.

But I need to stress that no one is talking in the U.S. government is talking on the record with any of these specifics yet.  And so that`s why it`s being met with some resistance, that, in fact, there was some kind of imminent threat here.

Qasem Soleimani and these Iranian-backed Shia militia groups that operate in Iraq and throughout the region have presented a threat to U.S. and coalition and Iraqis, locals in these areas for some time.  The Kata`ib Hezbollah, who the U.S. took these strikes against last weekend, is responsible, according to the U.S. military, for hundreds of deaths and more than 2,000 American service members being wounded from these new explosive form projectiles that they introduced in the battlefield more than a decade ago in Iraq and for some of their tactics.  So that`s why it`s being met with some resistance.

Qasem Soleimani and the Quds Force and these proxy groups, they have represented a threat in this region for some time, Steve.

KORNACKI:  David, we say that the tensions have been building for three years under Donald Trump between United States and Iran.  You write though in a new column at The Washington Post that war with Iran has been coming at us in slow motion since 1979, the year of the Iranian revolution that took out the Shah, put Ayatollah Khomeini, put this moment in that bigger context.

DAVID IGNATIUS, COLUMNIST, THE WASHINGTON POST:  People of my generation have a searing memory of the seizure of our embassy in Tehran in 1979.  The image of America held hostage by the new Iranian revolution.  In all the years since then, just over 40 years, the United States has struggled to find a way to deal with this revolutionary regime that has been consistently destabilizing in the Middle East.

The U.S. has tried everything.  It`s had actions just short of war.  It`s at various points tried to form secret contacts, dialogue with Iran.  President Obama made his nuclear agreement with Iran hoping that that would be a path toward greater moderation.  In all that time, nothing has worked.  The revolution has remained intense, it`s remained a destabilizing force.

And its iconic symbol increasingly has been Qasem Soleimani, the Quds Force commander and general who was killed in Baghdad last night.  He was quiet, in many ways, a reserved man, small in stature from a working class background.  But he built the network that we`ve been discussing.

Across the Middle East, he formed proxy groups, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Syria.  Many analysts think that Bashar Al Assad, the president of Syria, would surely have lost that civil war, the bloody civil war that began in 2011 if he hadn`t been rescued by Qasem Soleimani and his Iranian trainers, fighters and the militia who came across the border from Beirut.

So over all this time, I think America has been moving towards a confrontation with Iran.  I`ve written the phrase brink of war in the Persian Gulf so many times over this period, I should have a function key at my computer.  But now, it`s really here.  The killing of this general acknowledged by our president and by our secretary of defense as it happened, senior -- most senior military officer of another country, that really takes us into the zone of warfare after all this time.

I think there are two final questions I`d note, Steve.  The first is what was done last night legal.  The United States has a prohibition against assassination, so we`ve heard President Trump and Secretary of Defense Esper arguing that there was an imminent threat that Soleimani was involved in, so this was, in effect, an act of self-defense.  They`re going to have to make that case more clearly.

And the second question, much more haunting, was this action wise?  What follows?  What`s our strategy?  What`s our endgame?

KORNACKI:  All right.  David Ignatius, Courtney Kube, thank you both for joining us as well.

And coming up, the political fallout in Washington from the killing of Iran`s top military commander, Republican lawmakers largely showing support for President Trump`s actions, Democrats expressing grave concerns.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The question moving forward is whether the administration has given any thought as to how to manage the fallout that comes from such a drastic action.  This is the equivalent of the Iranians assassination the U.S. secretary of defense.


KORNACKI:  Plus, Congress returns on Monday with the House and Senate still at an impasse over the president`s impeachment trial.  How could this play out, and does the conflict with Iran change anything?

We`ve got much more to get to.  Stay with us.



SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY):  Last night, the United States conducted a military operation designed to kill Major General Qasem Soleimani, a notorious terrorist.  No one should shed a tear over his death. 

The operation against Soleimani in Iraq was conducted, however, without specific authorization and any advance notification or consultation with Congress. 


KORNACKI:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

That was Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on the airstrike that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. 

Reaction to that operation from members of Congress is sharply divided today, with Democrats like Schumer blasting the Trump administration for failing to alert Congress about the strike. 

In a statement last night, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the airstrike -- quote -- "risks provoking further dangerous escalation of violence."

Pelosi noted the strike was conducted -- quote -- "without an authorization for use of military force and without the consultation of the Congress," adding: "The full Congress must be immediately briefed on this serious situation."

But while the speaker was left in the dark about the strike, one of the president`s top Republican allies, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, told FOX News that he was in the loop. 


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC):  I was briefed about the potential operation when I was down in Florida.  I appreciate being brought into the orbit. 

I really appreciate President Trump letting the world know you cannot kill an American without impunity, we will stand up for our people, and that is an absolutely essential message. 


KORNACKI:  For more, I`m joined by Democratic Congressman Andy Kim of New Jersey, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, and was the National Security Council director for Iraq under President Obama. 

Congressman, thank you for taking a few minutes. 

Let me start -- there`s some confusion here, I think, in the responses I`m hearing from Democrats, so maybe clear this up for me.  What do you think the administration`s responsibility here was? 

Was it consulting Congress?  Was it letting them know this was in the offing?  Was it letting you know this was in the offing, seeking perhaps opinion that?  Or did the administration need, in your view, formal authorization from Congress to do this? 

REP. ANDY KIM (D-NJ):  Well, first of all, thank you for having me here today. 

This is obviously such a critical moment for our country and one that we have to proceed with the utmost care.  And that`s exactly what it is that we wanted from Congress, that, with something of this magnitude that the president knew would be something that would reshape the Middle East and be just about the biggest foreign policy decision of his administration and his term, this is something that needs to be thought through as a nation. 

It is putting us right at the brink of war.  It is something that is putting a lot of Americans at risk abroad, and we need to make sure that we have the right strategy and right approach at every single level. 

KORNACKI:  The -- a statement has been made, has come from the administration that there was an imminent threat posed.  It`s established that Soleimani was responsible for hundreds of American deaths. 

The United States considered him a terrorist in the past.  But the administration is saying specifically in this moment there was a particular imminent threat.  Is that something you have been briefed on at all?  Is that something you know what they`re referring to? 

KIM:  I have not.  If there was an imminent threat, then Congress should be briefed imminently about this.  This is something where we have all the proper classifications to be briefed up on this. 

And if it was that much of a danger that posed to American, that is something we need to know immediately and the American people need to know as well. 

KORNACKI:  So I mentioned there is a history with Soleimani.  This is a name that might have been new to a lot of folks last night hearing this news, but to leaders in this country, to military leaders, to foreign policy folks in this country, this is not a new name. 

This is the name of somebody, as I say, responsible for hundreds of American death through the years, somebody of enormous power. 

You were in a position in the Obama administration, obviously, where you were very familiar with Qasem Soleimani.  It is the reporting out there today that the Bush administration, the Obama administration, they had the opportunity, the option of taking out Soleimani and pursuing an operation like this and chose not to. 

Talk about that, if you will, the thinking of the Obama administration to look at this guy and the terrible things he`s responsible for and to not take him out.  What was behind that decision? 

KIM:  Well, you`re right that I`m somebody that has worked on these issues for a long time at the State Department, the Pentagon and the White House, National Security Council. 

I have been working on Iraq issues.  And Qasem Soleimani is certainly someone I thought about and worked on every single day.  He`s someone who has a lot of American blood on his hands and someone that is absolutely a murderer in terms of the threats that he poses. 

That being said, what both the Bush administration and the Obama administration concluded was that killing Qasem Soleimani would unleash a tremendous amount of chaos and violence that could be directed to America, Americans and American interests. 

This needs to be a calculation made with considerable care.  And this is exactly the type of information that we need to hear from the Trump administration about, what is it about this calculation that they felt was worth moving forward on, knowing full well that this could very well move us to the brink of war?

KORNACKI:  Is there an argument to be made, given, they would say, the longstanding role he`d been playing, again, the deaths of Americans that result from him -- is there a case to be made that, in the last year or so, Iran was getting more aggressive, was acting in a more emboldened way, shooting down a drone, Americans believing there were Iranian-backed militias with rockets, the embassy attack last week, that this was reaching a point where perhaps the calculation on somebody like Soleimani was changing or should change? 

KIM:  Well, when I approach these issues of national security, we always have to think about it from the metric of, are we making things safer for Americans? 

Certainly, we have seen a lot of violence from Qasem Soleimani and Shia militia groups under Iranian control. 

We have seen that for years now.  What we have seen recently does not even measure up to the level of attacks that we have sustained in previous years.  So, you know, there certainly is a threat.  It`s not something to be taken lightly, but it`s absolutely critical that we think about, are these decisions that are being made making America and Americans safer? 

And right now that is -- without the Trump administration giving us further details and explaining their decision, that is not an answer that we can answer right now with any confidence. 

KORNACKI:  The administration is apparently citing a vote 18 years ago in Congress, the authorization for the use of military force in Iraq.  That was a vote in October 2002 that the Congress took back then. 

There was also a vote to authorize a global war on terror 19 years ago in 2001.  Those two authorizations have been used by administrations since to justify actions like this, basically, two-decade-old congressional actions, that have not been pulled back by Congress. 

Is it time for Congress to pull one of both of those back?  Is there going to be any movement in Congress to do that? 

KIM:  Well, there`s certainly a lot of discussion about that. 

And I think people on both sides of the aisle understand that, when we are sending our armed service men and women into harm`s way, that they need to have clarity of mission. 

When you are running off an authorization that is decades-old, they do not have that kind of clarity of mission.  It is absolutely necessary for us to be able to make sure that they are given clear details, as well as every measure of success that they need to be able to operate. 

So, that is one aspect of it. 

But one thing I just want to say, while we`re talking about these authorizations, we have to continue to recognize there are Americans in harm`s way tonight, and that this is something that cannot wait.

And this is why it`s so urgent that we move forward right now, I think, so clearly about our diplomats and our military personnel in Iraq and throughout the region.  They are very much in harm`s way.  And we owe it to them to be able to have that clarity and to be able to give them the mission and be able to make sure we have a strategy that underpins that. 

KORNACKI:  All right, Congressman Andy Kim, Democrat from New Jersey, thank you for joining us. 

And up next:  Why now?  Soleimani was a deadly thorn in America`s side, as we have been talking about, for years, but Presidents Bush and Obama declined to take him out, seeing it as a dangerous escalation that could lead to war. 

So, what has changed?

You`re watching HARDBALL. 



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

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

So I don`t see that happening, no.  I don`t think Iran would want that to happen.  It would go very quickly. 


KORNACKI:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

That was President Trump just three days ago saying he wants peace with Iran. 

The Trump administration has hit Iranian proxies before, but yesterday`s airstrike against the country`s top general is the first direct confrontation with Iran itself, this a dramatic escalation of tensions between the two countries. 

As "The New York Times" writes -- quote -- "Mr. Trump`s decision to kill General Soleimani was one that Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama had rejected, fearing it would lead to war."

Meanwhile, the president`s former National Security Adviser John Bolton, a longtime Iran hawk, cheered the move.

He tweeted this -- quote -- "Long in the making, this was a decisive blow against Iran`s malign Quds Force activities worldwide.  Hope this is the first step to regime change in Tehran."

For more, I am joined by Robert Malley, former special assistant to President Obama and lead White House negotiator for the Iran nuclear deal, and David French, senior editor at The Dispatch.

Thank you to both of you for joining us. 

I`m glad to have both of you, because I think there is a fundamental disagreement between both of you, and I would like to hear both sides of this here. 

I think we can stipulate that both of you are in agreement that Soleimani was a very bad individual, somebody, again, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans.

The dispute here is over whether the benefits of taking him out outweigh the costs. 

And I want to hear both sides of this.

Let me start with you, Robert, because I know you were an administration that faced this decision and decided the costs would be more than the benefits. 

Take us through the case for that -- that approach. 

ROBERT MALLEY, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER TO COUNTER-ISIS CAMPAIGN:  Well, first of all, I mean, the real issue was under the Bush administration.  That was when Qasem Soleimani was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans. 

They made the decision that eliminating him -- the cost of eliminating him would outweigh whatever benefits, because of what -- repercussions in terms of Iranian retaliation, but also because eliminating one man doesn`t mean disrupting the entire organization. 

When it came to the Obama administration, let`s recall, during the entire period that -- from the time that we were negotiating with Iran for the nuclear deal to the end, there were no attacks against Americans, because - - well, at least in part because of these negotiations.  There was no threat to American lives in Iraq. 

All of that started because of President Trump`s decision to exit the nuclear deal and to put maximum pressure to try to suffocate Iran.  So, during the Obama administration, again, the decision, the calculus was, the costs would outweigh the benefits, in particular because this was not a time when Iran was targeting Americans in Iraq or elsewhere. 

KORNACKI:  So, David French, that same question.  The cost and the benefits, how do you look at it? 

DAVID FRENCH, THE DISPATCH:  You know, I think that the calculus is different now than it was in the Bush and the Obama administrations. 

In the Bush administration -- I served in Iraq during the surge.  And one of our priorities was, we were trying to get the Shia militias to stand down, to not attack.  And so the idea of hitting such a potent Iranian leader would have inflamed the very Shiite militias we were getting to get to stand down. 

The Obama administration was facing a big fight with ISIS, even at the exact same time it was trying to negotiate with Iran.  That`s a different strategic posture. 

Here, you have the ISIS caliphate is in ruins.  You have Iran in a vulnerable position with its economy crumbling, facing internal unrest.  It is at a weak position. 

It strikes me that if this -- if you`re going to gamble -- and, look, I`m not saying this is going to work out.  I think it`s way too soon to say that. 

But if you`re going to gamble on this kind of move against Iran as they`re escalating in their threats and attacks on Americans, this is as good a time as any. 

KORNACKI:  So, Robert, what do you think of that?  I know you don`t like the posture that the Trump administration decided to take on Iran, certainly when it came to the nuclear deal, all of the tensions that had been building. 

But to David`s suggestion that it is a gamble, but this is the time to do it, do you see a scenario where a gamble like this could work? 

MALLEY:  So, first of all, I do want to emphasize we shouldn`t be where we are today and we wouldn`t be where we are today, with threats in Iraq, threat to Americans, if it were not for the decisions that the Trump administration took, the reckless, shortsighted and unnecessary decisions to throw away the nuclear deal. 

Is it a gamble that could succeed?  First of all, it`s an enormous gamble.  It`s a gamble, as you just heard from Representative Kim, that is putting the lives of Americans at risk.  It`s putting the region at risk, the risk of the confrontation that President Trump has vowed that he wanted to avoid. 

So it`s a huge gamble, a huge gamble, for very uncertain gain and very real risk.  So, I have yet to see the evidence.  Of course, I`m not privy to the intelligence.  I have not seen the evidence that would make this the necessary step that the Trump administration needed to take. 

It is enormously risky.  I think that`s why experts in the Bush administration and the Obama administration didn`t take that step.  It seems like a gamble that one shouldn`t take with the lives of Americans, again, and with the stability of the region itself. 

KORNACKI:  And, David, I`m curious, what do you say to Robert`s point that we shouldn`t be in this position where the gamble is even on the table, that if the Trump administration had not torn up the Iran nuclear deal, had sort of continued along with where U.S.-Iranian negotiations were when he came into office, we wouldn`t be facing a choice like this?

FRENCH:  I don`t think that -- I think that what we were going to be facing was going to be a struggle with Iran regardless, because Iran, in spite of the hopes -- the good-faith hopes of the Obama administration that by bringing -- by creating this agreement, bringing them back into the world economy, that it would begin to normalize Iran, that Iran would stop being this world leading exporter of terror, instead, Iran was continuing, was doubling down on its disruptive efforts throughout the Middle East. 

It was creating unsustainable tensions in the Middle East.  And I think the maximum pressure on Iran was a justified -- a difficult decision, but a justified decision. 

And then, once that was taken -- and I think it`s probably correct that maximum pressure began to lead to this tit for tat.  But once you began to see Iran targeting American soldiers in Iraq who were there according to a congressionally authorized mission, once you began to see these Iranian- backed Iraqi militias targeting U.S. soldiers, then the options began to narrow. 

There is an obligation to defend our soldiers.  And I think this was a justifiable, bold attack, and we don`t yet know if it was wise.  We don`t yet know if it`s prudent.  And a lot of that is going to depend on Iranian decisions that happen next.

KORNACKI:  Robert, quickly, I`m curious too, just the way we have been talking about, all of our guests have been describing Soleimani, I mean, he sounds like the glue that sort of held together a pretty powerful network, a source of power for Iran, a source of considerable trauma for Americans in the region. 

Removing him from the equation, what does that do to -- does it destabilize Iranian leadership at all?

MALLEY:  So, let`s not underestimate Soleimani`s role.  He obviously was the mastermind and played a crucial part in what this network of Shia militia became. 

But let`s not overestimate it either.  He was not the only person.  There was an organization.  He created the organization.  It will survive his death. 

And just ask the Israelis, who have tried time and again to get rid of the leadership of Hezbollah, of Hamas, of organizations -- similar organizations.  They are replaceable.  Even if you get rid of the person who seems irreplaceable, ultimately, the organization survives, which raises another question about why we think that this is really going to lead to a safer region.

You get rid of Soleimani, you embolden or at least you motivate the people behind him to try to retaliate.  And he will be ultimately replaced. 

KORNACKI:  Robert Malley, David French, appreciate both of you joining us.  I enjoyed that discussion.

Up next:  Congress is back in session, facing crises abroad and impeachment apparently in limbo here at home.  What are the chances for a quick ending to the impasse over that impending impeachment trial? 

You`re watching HARDBALL. 


KORNACKI:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

As the Senate awaits the articles of impeachment passed against the president, they remain at an impasse over how to conduct the trial. 

After two weeks of recess, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic counterpart, Chuck Schumer, remain deadlocked over whether the Senate will hear from witnesses. 

And the possibility of a further delay is fueling McConnell`s latest attack. 


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY):  Democrats have let Trump derangement syndrome develop into a kind of dangerous partisan fever that our founding fathers were afraid of. 

The same people who just spent weeks screaming that impeachment was so serious and so urgent that it couldn`t wait for due process now decided it can wait indefinitely while they check the political winds and look for some new talking points. 


KORNACKI:  McConnell maintains that a decision on whether to call witnesses should come after the Senate trial begins. 

However, the minority leader, Chuck Schumer, wants a commitment now. 


SCHUMER:  Will we conduct a fair trial that examines all the facts, or not? 

The country just saw Senator McConnell`s answer to that question.  His answer is no. 

Never, never in the history of our country has there been an impeachment trial of the president in which the Senate was denied the ability to hear from witnesses. 

Leader McConnell`s proposal to vote on witnesses and documents later is nothing more than a poorly disguised trap. 


KORNACKI:  Amid this stalemate, the timing of the president`s trial is still in the hands of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who will decide when to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate. 

Late today, she issued a scathing rebuke of Senator McConnell. 

That is coming up next.  You`re watching HARDBALL. 


KORNACKI:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

While President Trump navigates an escalating foreign crisis in the Middle East, he is also facing an ongoing domestic political crisis here, as the third American president ever to be impeached. 

As Congress kicks off the new year, Democrats are trying to put pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to allow witnesses at the trial.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi went after McConnell this afternoon, saying today: "Leader McConnell made clear that he will feebly comply with President Trump`s cover-up of his abuses of power and be an accomplice to that cover- up.  Every senator now faces a choice, to be loyal to the president or the Constitution."

I`m joined now by Democratic Congresswoman Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania, who is a member of the House Judiciary Committee. 

Congresswoman, thank you for joining us. 

REP. MADELEINE DEAN (D-PA):  Thank you. 

KORNACKI:  We are now into the new year.  The articles of impeachment have not been formally transmitted to the Senate. 

Certainly, to judge by the McConnell, Schumer speeches we saw today, the statement from Nancy Pelosi, the sides here are still miles apart. 

How long, realistically, can Democrats wait before sending those articles? 

DEAN:  That is within the control of the speaker, and obviously very much within the control of Senator Mitch McConnell, if he should decide to have a fair trial. 

Why would we forward articles of impeachment when Senator McConnell has told us in public that he will not be upholding his oath of office, he will be derelict of his duty, he will not be fair and impartial?

So, that really is within the control of the speaker, but even more so the control of the leader.  Will he uphold his oath of office?

And something I want to remind people of is, this is an argument in part about process, but let`s not forget what happened at the end of last year.  This president was impeached.  He stands impeached.  That is not something that will be taken away. 

That is not something that Mitch McConnell can whisk away for him.  This president is impeached for abuse of his office and obstruction of Congress. 

KORNACKI:  You say this is up to Mitch McConnell. 

He has said he`d be happy if the House never transmitted the articles.  What is the leverage here if the threat is, we won`t give you something you don`t want?

DEAN:  I hope the leverage is reminding himself of his oath of office, rereading the Constitution. 

I was impressed with the year-end report by Chief Justice Roberts, who reminded us of the important civics lesson that we`re all involved in, and reminded the judiciary especially that we must make sure that we impart impartial justice without fear or favor. 

That was an important message, I think, to all of the 100 senators who will act as jurors.  I call upon every one of them to come forward and to call upon their leader to say, of course have witnesses, of course do our constitutional duty of having a fair trial. 

So I call upon my own senator, Toomey.  He claims to be an independent, and yet his statement following the impeachment of this president was a very partisan statement.  I call upon him to ask or urge Senator McConnell to reverse course and say, of course I will uphold my oath of office. 

KORNACKI:  If this drags on, though, if what you`re describing doesn`t happen -- it`s already been a few weeks -- if it continues to drag on a few more weeks, we get into February.  We have got the State of the Union address, the presidential primaries and caucuses begin.

The news sort of starts moving on.  The campaign heats up.  Is there a point where you say, we`re not sending the articles at all? 

DEAN:  I don`t know if that is one of the options that the speaker is considering. 

I certainly don`t think we`re anywhere near that.  After all, the president was impeached on two articles of impeachment just the end of last year.  We`re coming back from some time with family and, of course, coming back to serious crises. 

But notice this is a pattern with Mitch McConnell.  We spent last year passing hundreds of bills.  And what did he do?  He sat on most of them.  He called himself the Grim Reaper. 

So, people should not be surprised that he`s not doing his duty, whether it`s about impeachment or about legislation, and holding hearings.  This is somebody who has decided he will be -- I think of Fiona Hill, Dr. Fiona Hill. 

I was in for her opening statement when she testified before the Intelligence Committee.  And she revealed that she discovered that Mr. Giuliani and others within the administration were on a domestic political errand. 

It strikes me that Mitch McConnell has found himself on a domestic political errand for a president not worthy of that errand. 

KORNACKI:  Just looking at the United States Senate, what we have been following here, are there any indications that Republicans are breaking with McConnell`s posture on this, you have seen Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, Susan Collins from Maine say they`re uncomfortable with the public posture he`s taken.

Whether that translates, though, into joining Democrats in calling for the sort of witnesses that you are, that remains to be seen. 

Have you seen any other indications among Republicans of moving in your direction? 

DEAN:  No.

And I wonder if you felt the same reaction I did?  It was impressive, certainly, that Senators Murkowski and Collins stepped forward to say, in the one case, that they were dismayed by Mitch McConnell`s statements that he would not be impartial, that he would work in full coordination. 

But why aren`t 97 other senators saying the exact same thing?  They have a constitutional oath to uphold.  They have a job to do.  And if they don`t want to do this job, they should not be in those positions of authority and power. 

KORNACKI:  All right, Congresswoman Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania, thank you for taking a few minutes. 

And I invite everyone to check out my podcast.  It`s called "Article II: Inside Impeachment."  The latest episode on that upcoming Senate trial, it`s available right now wherever you get your podcasts. 

You`re watching HARDBALL. 


KORNACKI:  And that`s HARDBALL for now, but don`t go anywhere.  NBC -- MSNBC has continuing live coverage throughout the night of the conflict between the U.S. and Iran. 

At 9:00, Rachel Maddow is going to sit down with former National Security Adviser Susan Rice. 

And on Monday, Chris Matthews returns just in time for what is shaping up to be a very busy week.  In addition to the ongoing fallout from the killing of General Soleimani, Congress will take up where they left off, negotiating the impeachment trial of President Trump in the Senate.

Also on Monday, we will be just four weeks away from the Iowa caucuses.  Chris will have the very latest on the campaign.

That is HARDBALL for now. 

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.