KATY TUR, MSNBC HOST: "THE BEAT WITH ARI MELBER" starts right now.
ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST: Hi, Katy. Thank you so much.
We begin with breaking news that is completely upending negotiations over the president`s Senate trial.
A key witness who served at the top of the White House now agreeing to testify.
With the world obviously on edge over the continuing fallout from President Trump`s deadly strike against Iran`s top general, today, the White House surprised by new impeachment pressure from one of Donald Trump`s highest- ranking aides and a well-known Iran hawk, John Bolton, who picked today, of all days, to release this new formal statement announcing for the very first time ever that he is actually agreeing to testify in the Senate trial of his former boss Donald Trump.
Now, as you hear Bolton`s new position, keep in mind, this is a statement that no one in the White House wanted and that most Senate Republicans oppose, and that, as far as reporting goes, this is an answer that few journalists were asking for right now, because Bolton`s moment had already passed, effectively, during the impeachment probe in the House.
You may recall Democrats withdrew the court efforts to compel witnesses in order to avoid any lengthy delays. And yet now, today, John Bolton announces -- quote -- "The House has concluded its constitutional responsibility by adopting articles of impeachment," which, as far as announcement goes, is really something, because everyone already knows the House impeached Trump.
Then this statement continues. "It now falls to the Senate to fulfill its constitutional obligation to try impeachments."
Now, at this point in this statement that is riling everyone up, Bolton is still doing a -- kind of a civics summary, saying, after impeachment comes the trial, which we know.
But then he announces -- quote -- "Since my testimony is once again at issue, I am prepared to testify."
There it is in black and white: "I`m prepared to testify."
This is the guy who spent weeks claiming he was caught in this constitutional conflicting order between the White House and the Congress, and now he says, well, he won`t be caught. He is ready to give testimony if the Senate asks him, if they subpoena him. And he will do it regardless of what the White House says.
Now, this is a major breakthrough in the potential public evidence for Donald Trump`s trial. Bolton would be the highest-ranking official to testify in Ukraine. His testimony could be damaging, and that`s not just according to, say, Donald Trump`s critics.
Former Trump White House officials would say this would be, yes, damning to Mr. Trump and put additional pressure on moderate Republicans to consider convicting the president.
Now, it`s anyone`s guess whether any of the moderates would join the ultimate vote required to request his testimony, subpoena him. The House probe already unearthed clues to what Bolton`s eyewitness account would look like. He was warning against Giuliani`s Ukraine plot as it unfolded.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
FIONA HILL, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL OFFICIAL: Then, in the course of that discussion, said that Rudy Giuliani was a hand grenade that was going to blow everyone up.
"You tell Eisenberg," Ambassador Bolton told me, "that I am not part of the -- this -- whatever drug deal that Mulvaney and Sondland are cooking up."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: Now, even with everything else obviously going on right now, John Bolton`s moves making waves in Washington late today.
You have these headlines about his curveball, and conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin concluding the move shows Speaker Pelosi`s strategy is paying off.
Now, this is a debate that Leader McConnell does not want to have right now. He said that already. Before the holiday break, he argued the Senate trial should begin with any opening arguments from both sides and then tackle the debates over witnesses later.
Now, that is the same order that the Senate used in the trial of President Clinton. And McConnell may have concluded that delaying the witness debate is good for Trump.
Today, though, John Bolton has single-handedly reignited the whole witness debate, joining the ranks of people who argue that any serious trial should include fact witnesses and raising the question that McConnell already admitted he wants to kick down the road.
The question is really straightforward. If you are fighting from hearing against fact witnesses that are hired by Donald Trump himself, how do you even pretend you`re trying to find the facts as a Senate juror?
And as these senators keep invoking historical precedence, it`s worth noting a precedent above all others. The Senate rules require each senator to stand on the floor -- you`re seeing the last time they did it right here -- to hold up their hands to take an oath to do impartial justice.
And that would seem to be impossible without pursuing the facts.
We have several experts lined up for you tonight.
And we begin with someone who will take that very oath, U.S. Senator from Connecticut Chris Murphy.
Good evening to you. Thanks for joining me. I know it`s very busy.
Your reaction to John Bolton saying he is now willing to testify in the Senate trial?
SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D-CT): I think the first thing to note is that, for many of us, this isn`t a mystery that still needs to be unwound.
The evidence that we have thus far makes it crystal clear, to me at least, that the president directed a vast conspiracy to defraud taxpayers of dollars to try to convince a foreign power to intervene in the United States` 2020 presidential election.
So, I think it`s first important to make clear that, for many of us, we think the story is pretty well filled in. But it apparently is not filled in for many Senate Republicans, who right now are expected to vote to acquit the president.
And thus I think it`s really important that we continue to try to bring more evidence of this scheme before my colleagues. As you have mentioned, this, I think, is going to be very hard for Republicans to say no to.
You have the chief -- you have one of the most important people inside the White House directing Ukraine policy, somebody who has direct knowledge of the president`s involvement in this scandal, asking to testify, begging to testify.
And for Republican senators to say no, to sort of keep that evidence hidden, I just don`t think is going to go well over with their constituents.
MURPHY: And, in the end, that`s who they have to answer to.
MELBER: ... do you have any indication why Bolton changed his mind?
MURPHY: I don`t.
I read through his comments earlier today. It seemed a little hard to parse. I`m not exactly sure why he felt this need to withhold his testimony, and now feels that it is necessary to bring it forward.
I guess I view his offer with a little bit of suspicion. I have never thought that John Bolton was going to add something brand-new. But he may. And I think that my Senate Republicans should want to hear all of the evidence, especially the evidence that hasn`t been presented yet and is ready to be presented.
MELBER: What do you think of Senator McConnell`s point that, when a Democratic president was facing an impeachment trial, the plan was executed to wait and decide on witnesses later in the middle of the trial?
MURPHY: Well, I just don`t take Senator McConnell`s offer in good faith.
Remember, this is not exactly apples to apples. That was a very different moment with Republicans in charge of a Republican-led impeachment of the president. This is a Senate majority that is interested first, second and third in defending and protecting the president.
And so I think it stands to reason that we should take his offer to start the trial without any agreement on witnesses with a bit of skepticism.
And so I just watched Senator McConnell basically order his priorities around protecting this president and protecting his members. And so I just don`t believe that, if we start the trial without an agreement, that we are going to somehow magically come to some agreement after the fact on witnesses and documents.
MELBER: Do you have any indication what the so-called swing senators are thinking or what the outreach plan is? Are you at a stage where you and the leadership or Chuck Schumer are trying to talk to them?
Because we saw some reporting -- we have more of it later in the show for our viewers -- but on where Romney and Collins are. Is this partly something you guys are trying to organize?
MURPHY: Well, we only need four votes, right? Only four Republican votes are necessary in order to try to get more facts before the Senate, so that we can have a fair trial.
And, yes, many of us have been engaged in those conversations going back to the -- to December of last year. And I think that the public has made it pretty clear that they want a fair trial.
Even those that support President Trump that actually don`t want him removed from office think it`s important to have all the facts on the table. And I imagine that Senate Republicans heard that from their constituents when they were home from break, to the extent they engaged with their voters.
And that may change some of their disposition, along with this news of Bolton`s offer, now that we`re back. We just came off the Senate floor. We were seeing each other for the first time since before Christmas, and so we will all have some more intel and information in the next 24 hours.
Senator Chris Murphy kicking us off tonight, appreciate your time, sir.
MELBER: Now we turn to another one of the experts we have lined up to kick off the show, former acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal Katyal.
Neal, when we talk about constitutional clashes, balancing the interests of different branches of government, our nation turns its lonely eyes to people like you who take those things seriously.
I couldn`t help but get the impression that John Bolton takes them less seriously, because if this were truly substantively a constitutional executive-congressional clash last month, then, certainly, it would still be one this month.
He seems to have decided that, well, forget it. If he is not getting subpoenaed by the House, if that case was mooted, he still wants to speak.
NEAL KATYAL, FORMER ACTING U.S. SOLICITOR GENERAL: Well, Ari, as Justice Frankfurter said, wisdom comes so rarely, even if it comes late, we should listen to it.
KATYAL: And I certainly don`t want to characterize John Bolton`s views.
Look, he is one of the most conservative people I have ever met, but he is also a lawyer. And I think, as a lawyer, he probably listened to what happened last week in the oral arguments in our nation`s second highest court on whether McGahn would have to testify and other things and concluded that, you know, this was his duty.
This is truth and the American way that we`re literally talking about here. We`re talking about the fate of the president, who said, basically: Trust me. I don`t need to have any witnesses or anything else. What I did was perfect and beautiful.
We now have heard secondhand from people like Dr. Fiona Hill that Bolton said, uh-uh, don`t -- I don`t trust this. This is a drug deal and other things.
So, I think this is an enormously important development and one that`s going to hopefully help us get at the truth.
MELBER: Let me read you a little bit of the brief reporting we have. This was all happening, of course, late over a busy day in Washington.
But with regard to the Republicans, there`s not an indication publicly that Bolton gave much of a heads-up to the White House. There is this reporting here, Bolton calling McConnell today, informing him of the decision before the statement went public.
That`s according to a firsthand source, NBC reporting that, but they didn`t ultimately connect.
What, if anything, do you think can be gleaned from this among Senate Republicans, who, as I was just discussing with one of their colleagues ultimately are going to have, presumably, some votes during the trial on who to hear from?
KATYAL: Yes, I think it`s inevitable that the Senate is going to hear from Bolton. There is no way to hide this key witness.
Bolton is like Zelig. He is everywhere. And I understand that Marco Rubio just went on TV and said, well, we shouldn`t have any witnesses. That`s the House`s job.
I honestly can`t believe this guy is a lawyer. But Marco Rubio did go to law school. But I don`t think anyone who has graduated would make such a statement.
In the Andrew Johnson impeachment, the Senate had 41 witnesses. In the Clinton impeachment, there were three. We have never had a presidential impeachment with zero witnesses, particularly someone like John Bolton, who the defendant in the impeachment trial, President Trump, tried to gag.
So Marco Rubio wins the three monkeys award for see no evil, hear no evil and so on. And while he may close his eyes, I don`t think the American people are going to let the Senate do that.
I mean, this is a key witness. It`s the president`s own guy. It`s his national security adviser. This is not some Democrat or deep state person or something like that. He is central to the story.
I agree with what Senator Murphy said on your show just a moment ago that the evidence is already overwhelming. But for the Republicans who have been trying to close their ears and their eyes to it, I think someone like John Bolton, with solid conservative credentials, who was in the room for a lot of this stuff, is going to change the dynamics immensely.
MELBER: And finally, before I let you go, your thoughts about what it means for the country to be moving towards this constitutionally mandated trial of the president, while he exercises, obviously, his commander in chief powers, to much controversy.
And I`m writing about this in tomorrow`s "Washington Post." The Iran strikes, there is a lot of suggestion now that the president jumped the gun. His own national security aides were stunned by the strikes and the like.
And so one question that has to be raised is, was he doing it as a distraction? Indeed, he had a tweet today which suggested that: Don`t impeach me. I`m too busy fighting this war in Iran.
And, look, I hate to make those accusations against the president, but the president has acted in his personal interests at every turn, not the nation`s interests. So, I think what`s happened in Iran underscores the need for a real trial in the Senate to get to the bottom of, is this president in it for the American people or is he in it just for himself?
MELBER: Neal Katyal, as always, great to hear from you.
And I should mention you can always find Neal on our "Opening Arguments" series at MSNBC.com/openingarguments.
We turn now to former federal prosecutor John Flannery, rounding out a series of experts.
And I want you to listen to the way John Bolton put this back when he was not only refusing to come forward and speak publicly about the issues, but also implying, as I mentioned earlier, that there was some great constitutional standoff.
Take a listen.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
JOHN BOLTON, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Although I have a lot to say on the subject, the prudent course for me is just to decline to comment at this point.
QUESTION: Why not testify? People ask. I want you to have an opportunity to answer that.
BOLTON: Well, I appreciate that.
But, as I say, Dr. Kupperman, my former deputy, is in litigation now on what to me is a critical separation of powers question.
When the House issues a subpoena and, in his case, and I think it would be true in mine, the president tells him not to testify, which authority controls?
(END AUDIO CLIP)
MELBER: John, your view of what`s changed? Something presumably inside Mr. Bolton`s mind, not -- not anything in the law yet.
JOHN FLANNERY, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, I think both facts and law could have changed for him.
Both the legal argument has been taken apart pretty well by the courts. And so he had that. And I think he probably or may have thought that a court will decide it one way or the other, and then he won`t hold me responsible for talking, if that`s the decision.
But I think he may be concerned that events are passing him by. That is to say that the Senate is going to pass him by. And, as a lawyer, a good lawyer, he might be concerned about having observed what could be classified as a crime, not just an act that is impeachable.
He is an officer of the court. And I think that he may have thought from the beginning that it would be decided that way. And so he feels comfortable as a lawyer pushing aside a concern about the subpoena to testify before the Senate.
I think that what he`s done is, to draw upon a Roman senator, Seneca, the fates lead you to your destiny or drag you to it. His announcement, however he is motivated, puts the Senate in a position of either, in McConnell`s case, probably being dragged to having witnesses, like you would at a trial, and, for other, it assists them to object to those who think you can patch together something that won`t give us -- the nation, that is -- any evidence of what happened here that constitute the high crimes and misdemeanors.
I would think that he would be very upset by the several meetings that have also become public as a matter of fact. That is where he is trying to persuade the president to not withhold the funds in several meetings.
Also, his early efforts for others were to tell, you know, Fiona Hill, for example, go talk to Eisenberg, the lawyer, and nothing comes of that.
So, I think there would be a frustration for anybody who thought, I have a responsibility here of some sort and how do I deal with it?
And I think he has found a way to leave it now up to the Senate to decide...
FLANNERY: ... to hold real trials or not, and to let him off the hook if they don`t.
MELBER: And I think that you put it very fairly and with nuance, but so fairly as to be warm towards where he`s coming from, because the other possibility is that this is not all high-minded lawyering...
MELBER: ... but a Washington strategy game about when to get in and get out, and the appeals to the constitutional stuff earlier lasted as long as it fit his interests, and now it`s chucked out.
MELBER: I`m not saying we can prove that yet either, but just in terms of fleshing it out.
As far as what happens, viewers have now heard a couple experts and a U.S. senator talk about when these votes come. And under the rules, as we have explained, there are ways to force votes on each or several witnesses.
Here is Chuck Schumer discussing some of that. Take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): You can`t have a fair trial without witnesses and documents, particularly those that were right at the scene of the charges.
But four Republican senators can join us. We have the ability to require votes on the four witnesses we have asked for, whether there`s an agreement or not. And I hope, pray, and believe there`s a decent chance that four Republicans will join us. If they do, we will have a fair trial.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: Briefly, John, as a former lawyer for Congress, a counselor to Congress, walk us what he means there.
MELBER: What would that look like?
FLANNERY: Well, I -- many of us are concerned that we`d be informing the Senate, but we`d also be informing the nation that we know how to conduct a fair proceeding.
That is to say, there is nothing frivolous about these charges. And additional evidence that continues to come out should be evoked. And the fact that the obstruction involves these very witnesses is a way to prove doubly to the Senate and to the nation that, when these witnesses appear, that they did have evidence and there was a reason for the president to withhold them and to muzzle them, because they would further implicate him and give details showing that what he did was exactly what he`s been charged with, an abuse of power and an obstruction of Congress.
MELBER: And, John, you mentioned Seneca earlier, who I know you like to quote. Your other favorite Seneca quote is, it`s not that life`s too short, right? How does it end?
Well, it`s not that life is too short. It`s that we waste too much of it.
Now, are you talking about this in the context of Congress now?
MELBER: I was more thinking of Seneca`s -- his B-sides, his freestyle raps.
MELBER: No, I`m just thinking in general that you`re such a Seneca maven. And I suppose, when it comes to wasting time, it applies to life and government, no?
FLANNERY: Well, yes, it does.
We have an opportunity. Each day is an opportunity to do something. It`s a mixed blessing some days. And the nation is in a particularly difficult place, as you know I believe. And we have to be concerned about a president doing something worse each day, because he won`t deal with this, either to resign or apologize or admit to what he has done.
And so we have a combination of fearful Republicans who seem to be embracing this cultist problem here, Trump. And we have to find our way out of this. And the trial in the Senate is the way, and we have to pick our way through this, this constitutional crisis.
But now we`re also concerned about an existential crisis that has been raised by this president, the chief of state.
MELBER: All important points.
John Flannery, as always, appreciate you tonight.
FLANNERY: Thank you.
MELBER: Thank you, sir.
FLANNERY: Thank you. Nice to be with you.
Coming up, we get into exactly what it means for Senate Republicans to have this Bolton pressure.
And the crisis in Iran fallout from what many critics say, is Donald Trump now openly, brazenly threatening war crimes?
Later, I have a special guest that will take us inside exactly how these investigations work when the president is on trial.
I`m Ari Melber. You`re watching THE BEAT on MSNBC.
MELBER: John Bolton has upended negotiations over Donald Trump`s Senate trial, announcing he is ready to tell his story under oath.
Bolton is the ultimate witness for this case. By canceling out any claims of national security preventing his testimony, he is putting this new heat on at least some of the self-described moderate Republican senators who have said they`re open to the idea of witnesses.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI (R-AK): And, in fairness, when I heard that, I was disturbed. To me, it means that we have to take that step back from being hand in glove with the defense.
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME): I am hope to witnesses. I think it`s premature to decide who should be called until we see the evidence that is presented and get the answers to the questions that we senators can submit through the chief justice to both sides.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: Open to witnesses sounds open-minded, but it`s pretty abstract.
Well, tonight, Bolton is making things specific. Are you open to this key witness, probably the most crucial fact witness who hasn`t spoken yet?
Well, Susan Collins has just been asked about this. Take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
QUESTION: Are you amenable to hearing from Ambassador Bolton in stage three?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you.
COLLINS: There are a number of witnesses that may well be appropriate for the stage three, of which he would certainly be one.
Of course, it`s always possible that the president would exert executive privilege and try to block that testimony. We just don`t know what would happen. But it`s very difficult to decide that until we go through the first two stages.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: You`re hearing again this theme, trying to keep it abstract, as Bolton makes it specific.
And, look, this is all unfolding tonight. This is all real news, real developments that these senators feel the need to respond to.
Here is Senator Romney just moments ago:
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): I`d love to hear what he has to say. He has firsthand information. And assuming that the articles of impeachment do reach the Senate, why, I`d like to hear what he knows.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
MELBER: He`d like to hear, but we should note that Romney also declined to take a position today on whether he would actually vote to subpoena him.
And here is the thing tonight. We are now in the legal trial process. The way you hear from witnesses is by calling them and issuing subpoenas.
If nothing else, Bolton`s move will flush out which senators want to do fact-finding, because if you don`t want to hear from the national security adviser witness who warned of the White House drug deal, who was on the inside, with conservative credentials from administrations ranging from Bush to Trump, if you don`t want to hear from him, then, apparently, you don`t want to hear from some of the most noteworthy, reliable insider witnesses you could find.
We`re joined now by "Mother Jones"` David Corn.
Your view of the way this is playing out tonight?
DAVID CORN, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "MOTHER JONES": Well, I`m laughing a little bit, because watching Susan Collins there, those are -- if you looked up in a dictionary the phrase weasel words, you could put that as an example, because what she is saying is, yes, I kind of want to hear from Bolton, but maybe, not sure. I can decide once the trial begins.
And that`s the whole thing here. Nancy Pelosi is saying, hey, if you guys -- you`re giving me every indication you`re not going have a straight-up, fair trial that is committed to presenting facts and witnesses.
And can we have some real talk? Because I know, as a journalist, you like things being real, right?
CORN: Yes, I like to get down and be real.
MELBER: Here is the real talk.
We do know what the start of the trial looks like. House managers will walk across the Congress and present the case that we have heard. The White House counsel and any other defenders that the president designates will respond.
Then there will be a vote on witnesses. That could take a few days. It could take over a week. That`s it.
MELBER: The untrained ear, listening to Susan Collins, might think, oh, yes, I guess there is some new thing that has to happen.
There is nothing much left with the facts, right?
CORN: Yes. Right.
And if you -- they keep comparing to it the Clinton impeachment, saying, we took a vote on impeachment after hearing at the beginning of the trial.
But in the Clinton impeachment, every witness testified either -- to the grand jury.
CORN: Even the president, you know, was forced to submit to the grand jury and to be interviewed by Kenneth Starr`s team.
So, this we -- President Trump hasn`t done that, let alone Mick Mulvaney, Secretary Pompeo, Bolton, and other people who the Democrats have called before the committee on the House side who said no.
So it`s a completely different situation.
MELBER: As a congressional observer, what do you see here in Collins, Romney? What they`re doing tonight, to you, looks like what?
CORN: Pussyfooting. That`s what it is.
They`re not saying, we want to know going in that we`re going to have witnesses. We want a commitment from Mitch McConnell that there will be witnesses, because, if you wait for a vote halfway into the impeachment, it may not happen. I mean, they may even have a procedural method to get rid of the vote.
And Mitch McConnell is an excellent master of Senate rules. And so, yes, it seems like there has to be a vote on the witnesses. And if the Democrats can get four or five Republicans to join with them, then they will get witnesses, but maybe not.
I don`t put it past Mitch McConnell, who did say that he`s going to be marching in lockstep with the Trump defense team, to try to find a way even to vacate such a vote like that.
So, unless they`re saying, going in, we want a commitment from our leader that there will be witnesses...
CORN: ... and that they -- and that he will support a vote to subpoena the witnesses, because that`s what Bolton says he needs, then I would say there is no -- there is no assurance that there will be witnesses...
CORN: ... even if Susan Collins thinks it would be a nice idea, maybe, perhaps to have witnesses.
And, finally, you mentioned the Trump defenders. Here is someone who is not on the defense team, but who was making the point of asking this question on a FOX-related broadcast. Take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
STUART VARNEY, FOX NEWS: Where does it leave impeachment? Are we now going to try to impeach and remove from office the commander in chief who has just taken out one of the world`s leading terrorists?
That`s quite a question, I suggest.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: David, is that in bounds or out of bounds?
CORN: Well, no, I think that is quite a question.
But what he is saying is that any time a president gets impeached, if he commits an act of war, whether it`s justified or not, impeachment`s off the table.
I didn`t see that clause in the Constitution when it comes to impeachment. So, you know, I do think, though, it is a consideration. Impeachment is a political act. And if people think it would really hurt the national security of the country to remove a president, that`s a legitimate reason to not do so.
But at the same time, would it hurt the country`s national security? Right now, it looks like Trump -- Donald Trump himself is making reckless decisions and that the Pentagon and the State Department and others are totally out of control in terms of having input into these decision-making processes.
So one could argue, Stuart, hey, if that`s your standard, maybe removing him is the best thing for national security.
And, as you put it, this is not a drill. This is Congress assessing the conduct on foreign policy and the allegations of unconstitutional abuse of power and foreign policy powers. And he has responded to that by doing -- well, everyone can see.
MELBER: I`m almost out of time, so final word, sir.
CORN: I would say that that consideration of his fitness for office and whether he has abused power is even more important now that he`s escalated military action in the Middle East.
MELBER: David Corn, thank you, as always.
CORN: Thank you.
MELBER: There is a lot of fallout from Trump`s move in Iran. We will be back with all of that in just 30 seconds.
MELBER: Now we turn to the other major story nationally and internationally, the escalating fallout from President Trump`s strike on this top Iranian general.
Massive crowds filling the streets of Iran`s capital for the funeral today. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei seen here weeping as he stood over the casket. His government now formally threatening retaliation equal to what the Trump administration did.
Meanwhile, the president stoking the fires by threatening to attack cultural sites in Iran, a potential violation of international law and the laws of war.
The U.S. strike is driving other reactions today, Iran pulling completely out of a 2015 nuclear deal with the U.S., stoking an arms race in the region. Neighboring Iraq voting to expel U.S. forces, a new complication that the president may not have foreseen.
As those actions pile up, the strain on Trump`s foreign policy increases, because the question for any proactive military strike, a strike of choice, is not simply what it may achieve in the moment. Eliminating enemies often looks effective in the moment.
But military experts are cautioning that long-term security always requires a full military strategy. Otherwise, the U.S., like any country, even a superpower, can get bogged down in the unintended problems of its own making.
This is exactly how one former NATO commander explained it today. I want you to listen as he ticks off a list of the unintended consequences from President Trump`s action.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS (RET.), FORMER NATO SUPREME ALLIED COMMANDER: Our troops are almost certainly going to have to leave Iraq. Unintended consequence. Our fight against the Islamic State is going to be seriously degraded as a result. Unintended consequence.
Israel may come under attack from Hezbollah rockets. Unintended consequence. And I would argue, as you look around the world, look what`s happening today in Venezuela, where Maduro, a dictator, is imposing his will over the democratically elected leader, Juan Guaido.
Why is he doing that? Because of these distractions. Unintended consequence.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: We turn to Elise Labott, a longtime foreign affairs journalist, a veteran reporter also reporting out of the Middle East, at Georgetown University now.
Thanks for joining me tonight.
ELISE LABOTT, FOREIGN AFFAIRS JOURNALIST: Good to be with you, Ari.
MELBER: Your view of what was laid out there, the so-called unintended consequences of this action?
LABOTT: Well, that`s right.
I mean, look, you could say -- I think, if you want to be generous, the idea that General Soleimani was someone who was really the architect of Iranian misbehavior in the Middle East.
And if you take out that architect, that even if Iran is going to continue to launch attacks, destabilize the Middle East, you don`t have that kind of strategist.
But as General Stavridis said, it is really the idea that now all of these unintended consequences -- it`s not really clear whether the president thought out what the strategy is right now. And, certainly, you know, the goal -- and you have been hearing the president say for the last year that he wanted to get Iran to the table, that a lot of this was to change Iran`s calculus in terms of moving them back to some kind of productive discussion.
You know, it kind of fails to see how that does that right now.
MELBER: And the president is well-known for the way he speaks, the way he writes online.
But this is conducting foreign policy, and it is shaping how his own allies in the country speak. We just got in some brand-new reaction from a senior Republican senator that would appear to normalize or, at least, you know, minimize the president`s very brazen threat to break international law to attack cultural sites.
We were talking about this earlier today. One of the reasons, when you visit places like Jerusalem, that you can see these amazing sites of great religious significance to multiple faiths is partly because, even during wars, they weren`t bombed out by everybody, that there are laws of war.
I say that as a very basic thing you probably shouldn`t have to say.
Here is Senator Inhofe responding, though, to the president`s threat. Take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
QUESTION: Should the president target Iran by saying that he would go after their cultural sites? Some have said that that would amount to a war crime.
SEN. JAMES INHOFE (R-OK): Well, you know, I guess the president -- I didn`t see how that was worded. But that`s -- it doesn`t surprise me, because he`s the president. And this is something that they`re very sensitive about, and maybe it would work.
QUESTION: Going after cultural sites?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: Your response?
LABOTT: Well, I mean, look, the president for the last three years, whether it was the president, the vice president, Secretary Tillerson, before Secretary Pompeo, has said that this fight with the U.S. and Iran is not about the Iranian people.
And, in fact, successive administrations and now this administration have kind of paid homage. I think President Trump himself said the Iranian people are a great people. They have a rich heritage. They have a rich cultural heritage.
So, I fail to see why hitting cultural sites would be effective here. Yes, the Iranian regime would be upset about it. But all of the Iranian people would unite further around the regime.
The way to dehumanize a country in war is to make them think that they`re all the same, the regime, the people. And so I think this would backfire even more. You have seen what happened on the streets during Soleimani`s funeral procession today. It`s really kind of unheard of, unseen even by Iranian standards, in terms of the kind of nationalism and patriotism that you have seen on the streets.
And a hit on one of these ancient cultural sites, I think you would see a similar reaction.
MELBER: Yes. And your analysis, your nuance there about how it works and the distinction between the government and the much larger population there is apt, which brings us back to where we started, widespread concern about the unintended consequences as this escalates.
Elise Labott, thanks for coming on. I hope we can have you back.
LABOTT: Thanks for having me.
MELBER: Hope you will join us again. Thank you.
When we come back: John Bolton has put on heat in a very interesting way for the Senate trial, and we have a very special guest with a kind of firsthand insider experience that we have come to value here.
That`s when we come back.
MELBER: Welcome back.
My next guest has an insider and unique perspective on many of the investigations facing Donald Trump, including, of course, impeachment, SDNY veteran and former independent counsel Robert Ray, who took over from Ken Starr and issued the office`s final reports on investigations into the Monica Lewinsky matter, Travelgate, among others.
Thanks for being here.
ROBERT RAY, FORMER DIRECTOR, U.S. OFFICE OF THE INDEPENDENT COUNSEL: Nice to be with you, Ari.
MELBER: You know this terrain. You have done this job.
RAY: A little bit.
MELBER: Most lawyers have not.
When you look at this news of John Bolton saying he will testify, what do you think he is up to, and should he be a part of the trial?
RAY: I don`t know what he`s up to, although it`s interesting it came the day after, you know, weekends excluded, from the D.C. Circuit arguments in the McGahn case.
And I think, before you ever get to his testimony, first you have to have a vote by the Senate for witnesses. And he would have to be among them, right?
And then you still have the questions of -- that are still being litigated before the D.C. Circuit relative to Don McGahn about absolute immunity. And even, once you pass that, you still have executive privilege.
So there is a number of hurdles, it seems to me, legal hurdles before you would ever actually get to, OK, are we really talking about live testimony or testimony in a committee before the United States Senate involving John Bolton?
MELBER: And your point is, Bolton saying he changed his mind doesn`t mean that it resolves those potential hurdles for the U.S. Senate?
RAY: I really don`t think so. I understand how people might view that differently, but I still think you sort of have to pass through. It`s not just a legal exercise.
There actually are mechanics to this. You would have to have a subpoena. The only way there is a subpoena is if there is a majority vote for one, and then you have got whether the president instructs the witness not to testify and whether there is an assertion of absolute immunity or executive privilege.
And those issues, again, are still being litigated. And the Democrats sort of pushed forward here before we got a final answer to that question. And we had Kupperman and we had the withdrawal of a subpoena.
And so a lot of things happened, but the Democrats` position in this has been all along, we have more than sufficient evidence to proceed with these articles, except for the fact that the articles in effect are still being held hostage to what kind of trial procedure there will be actually in the Senate.
MELBER: Let`s get into the articles.
MELBER: Because, with your wealth of experience, I think it`s really useful to hear your analysis and potential defense on behalf of the president as you look at these articles.
Here is, of course, article one, the abuse of power. Let me read just the core of it.
MELBER: "Solicited the interference of a foreign government, Ukraine, in the presidential election."
MELBER: Is the president`s best defense that that`s true, but not impeachable? Or do you have to argue that it`s not true?
RAY: I think the best defense, honestly, first of all, is, what articles? I mean, there aren`t any articles in the Senate. So we`re not having a trial, at least as I understand Senator McConnell, unless there is a change in the rules.
And there is some debate about that with Senator Graham. And then the second question is, when are the articles going to get there? So...
MELBER: OK, that`s procedure. But I`m pressing you on the actual substance.
RAY: Fair enough.
Look, I think the best defense is that -- I have said for many, many months, before we ever went through the House of Representatives, that well-founded articles of impeachment allege crimes. It says high crime for a reason.
And it seems to me that the House chose to proceed with articles that do not allege bribery, extortion, obstruction of justice, federal campaign finance violation.
MELBER: You think it would be stronger had they gone into bribery and campaign finance?
RAY: I think their view of it was that they didn`t want to have to pass through those hurdles under federal statutory law in order to prove that, which leads me to conclude that they didn`t think they could prove it.
MELBER: Can I use a nonlegal term?
RAY: Go ahead.
MELBER: Are you saying they chickened out?
RAY: Look, I don`t disparage the United States House of Representatives.
They proceed as they deem appropriate. Now we deal with the consequences of that. So, my next procedural question also is, are they going waive with regard to reopening the articles of impeachment relative to John Bolton?
MELBER: Well, let me ask you, while I have you. You mentioned bribery.
Let me read from one other article for your analysis.
MELBER: It says a president conditioned the $391 million to obtain this improper personal benefit. It seems to allude to bribery without using the words.
MELBER: And do you think that is true? Or do they have to, to have a best defense, argue that that didn`t happen? Because there is a lot of evidence that it did.
RAY: I think the best defense is to say that the impeachment managers would not be able to prove that the aid was given in exchange for, you know, investigations relative to former Vice President Biden and his son.
MELBER: But how do you deal with then the president on the White House law saying, I wanted them to investigate the Bidens?
In other words, as a client, anyone making this case, I think you would agree, would be better off with a president who kind of just didn`t admit as much.
RAY: Well, look, there is nothing wrong about the president doing something indirectly what he`s absolutely allowed to do directly. There is no problem with the president saying through the Department of Justice, you know, let`s get legal assistance from a foreign government with regard to a lawfully constituted investigation before the Department of Justice.
MELBER: What if, instead of that, though, he says, I just want to announced it on TV, so it makes them look bad?
RAY: Well, that`s this whole question about, what was really being asked for here? Is it the announcement of an investigation? And what should we interpret from that?
MELBER: Let me ask you this. They didn`t fire Gordon Sondland, the ambassador, who said under oath that it was the announcement.
MELBER: He still works there. You would think, if there defense is, that`s not true, don`t they have to say that and get rid of him?
RAY: But I think the better argument with the regard to the announcement of the investigation is what they were trying to do was lock in the Ukrainian government`s position, so that they couldn`t walk that back.
There is nothing wrong with the president asking for an investigation and receiving some commitment and, on his own, or through the administration, withholding aid to see what the Ukrainians do.
What`s illegal is expressly conditioning on it that only one will be done in exchange for the other. That`s what makes it bribery. And I think that`s why the House impeachment managers avoided an allegation that it constituted bribery under federal law.
MELBER: We`re out of time.
And as you know from earlier in the broadcast, Seneca said the issue is wasting time. Right? I`m out of time now.
MELBER: That`s my best Seneca reference. I don`t know if you have one.
RAY: Well, look, being serious about it, I hope -- we`re all going to be judged at the end of this about whether or not we acted in the best interests of the country. I do think it`s time for the articles to come over for the Senate and to go...
MELBER: You don`t like the whole...
RAY: And to go through the process.
MELBER: And I appreciate that and getting your perspective, so everyone can hear it.
RAY: Thank you. No...
MELBER: Mr. Ray, thanks for coming by THE BEAT.
RAY: Pleasure to be with you again, as always.
MELBER: Appreciate you. Great.
And we will be right back.
MELBER: Income is rising right now for low-wage workers in America.
In fact, since the financial crisis in 2008, the highest earners` wages have been growing at this faster rate than the lower earners, who saw slower wage growth.
But look at this new data. Since 2009, 10 years of economic growth, lower unemployment, and now you have high earners growing slowly -- you see the dip in that green line -- while, since 2017, the lower earners have actually outpaced the highest in wage growth. That`s the steady climb you see in red at roughly 4 percent.
Now, why? Well, a new report in "The New York Times" explains one of the factors here is the increases in state minimum wages across the country, policy making change that affects working-class daily workers.
Take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this. If you truly believe you can work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, try it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: This is policy that affects everyday working people.
In fact, the House has passed legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage. But some workers aren`t only waiting for the federal government, because this -- a lot of this happens at the state level, and 20 more states are on track to increase their minimum wages this year.
That`s some news we wanted you to know.
MELBER: Take a look at this moment from Michelle Williams at last night`s Golden Globes.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHELLE WILLIAMS, ACTRESS: As women and as girls, things can happen to our bodies that are not our choice.
Women, 18 to 118, when it is time to vote, please do so in your own self- interest.
It`s what men have been doing for years, which is why the world looks so much like them. But don`t forget we are the largest voting body in this country. Let`s make it look more like us.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: And she gets tonight`s last word.
"HARDBALL" starts now.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END