GEOFF BENNETT, MSNBC HOST: "THE BEAT WITH ARI MELBER" starts right now on this big and busy day.
Ari Melber, good to see you, man.
ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST: Yes, we`re following a lot of breaking news.
Nice to see you as well, Geoff.
We have a lot here on THE BEAT tonight, cascading twin pressures of both the impeachment process -- news on that late in the day breaking, and we have it for you -- as well as everything that is going on with the enduring fallout from Donald Trump`s choices in Iran.
First, let me tell you this.
Right now, Nancy Pelosi is huddling behind closed doors. That`s why we have sort of the empty microphone shot for now. But we know that she`s speaking with her Democratic leaders. This is the first time they have huddled in the new year. And she could come out and address the microphones.
Of course, we will bring you any developments as we get them.
Late today, President Trump linking his impeachment defense with the situation in Iran. We will unpack that and why many see a disturbing parallel to Nixon, someone who tried and failed to invoke national security to both prevent investigations, the discovery of evidence, and ultimately the impeachment process that ousted him.
But we begin with the big news. You may have already heard some of the hints.
The Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, is now saying he will move forward with a plan to conduct the trial of Donald Trump, the impeachment trial, and they won`t reach any initial agreement about witnesses. Democrats say the cover-up is unfolding in plain sight.
Let me explain exactly what`s going on before we bring in our experts.
Mitch McConnell is now saying, look, he has the votes to begin this trial with the framework that he wants, meaning no effort at a unified, bipartisan agreement like there was in the `90s.
This would, if you believe McConnell -- and he would appear to come through with votes when he has them in his caucus -- it leaves him ready to come in and announce these ground rules that still leave open or kick down the road some of the biggest debates that are going on right now, especially after the news from John Bolton this week.
So, basically, you would have the start of the trial, the opening arguments, and later the Senate would then deal with and then later have the clash over the big evidentiary issues, including these witnesses.
Now, McConnell`s making the point that this is basically, in its thrust, the same framework that was used during President Bill Clinton`s Senate trial.
Now, he`s also ignoring a very big difference. And we can show it to you. Some of the major players, basically all of them, including the president, had dramatically testified already before even reaching the Senate trial.
That includes, of course, President Clinton, who faced down Ken Starr by videotape and his investigators. Now, three of those witnesses were then brought back in the Senate trial in the Clinton case for re-interviews.
Now, McConnell`s comments come, of course, with that other news I mentioned that I`m sure you have heard about, because it went off like a bomb, or like a broken drug deal, to use his terminology.
I`m talking about former Trump National Security Adviser John Bolton, who came out of the blue yesterday, amidst everything else on Iran, on the Senate squabbling, on Speaker Pelosi holding back the articles, and said, hey, now he`s suddenly decided he`s actually willing to testify if the Senate asks him.
Today, one of the few Republican senators to say that he does want to hear from Bolton still basically stayed in line with McConnell. Take a listen to Mitt Romney.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
QUESTION: Are you still open to voting to convict the president?
SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): I`m remaining impartial, as my oath will require. Assuming that impeachment articles actually reach the Senate, I intend to do impartial justice.
QUESTION: And do you think Mitch McConnell is acting in an impartial manner right now?
ROMNEY: I think he will consider what he believes is the best for the country.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: That`s a dodge. The word impartial here can`t be parsed out of existence.
And it is literally the oath required before anyone, any senators hear this case.
Now, Senator McConnell has stated in public that he`s not impartial, which made a lot of waves. In fact, it`s part of the reason that Speaker Pelosi is looking at this range of options. We`re looking at her when she was coming in today and their meeting closed doors.
What they decide, where they go in the House and the pressure they want to put on the Senate, could be critical.
I will tell you, because we always tell you whether there`s news or not, that, earlier today, Speaker Pelosi was staying mum.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KASIE HUNT, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Madam Speaker, when do you plan to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate?
Do you plan to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate?
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): Happy new year.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: Also today, we`re seeing some new reporting about how Donald Trump`s team will approach this looming trial, lawyers and their strategy.
They are looking also at Clinton`s game plan. White House counsel Pat Cipollone will take a lead role as a government lawyer. Reports are that Jay Sekulow, Trump`s longest serving personal attorney, could participate in some way.
We have discussed some of this when have had him on THE BEAT. Here`s what he said:
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAY SEKULOW, ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don`t see where it`s a high crime or misdemeanor. Tell me what rule, law or statute has been violated by the president as commander in chief, and as the chief executive under Article 2 of the United States Constitution, violated any rule.
You may not like the politics of it. You may not like the statement, but where does it violate a law?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: Joining me now to kick off our coverage, Shawna Thomas, former D.C. bureau chief at VICE News, now back with the NBC News family, and Maya Wiley, former counselor to the mayor of New York City and a former civil prosecutor in the Southern District of New York.
And we will have some Hill reporting as well tonight.
Nice to see both of you.
SHAWNA THOMAS, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Good to see you too.
MAYA WILEY, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY: Good to see you.
MELBER: Maya, let me start with where Mitch McConnell has a point.
He does have a point that, in the Clinton trial, they started with opening arguments and kicked the can down the road to debate the witnesses later.
Where a lot of people say he doesn`t have a point is, he`s not pretending or even claiming to be impartial about bringing in witnesses later. This looks like a prelude to trying to block them.
WILEY: Right. I mean, the real question is, do we fear daylight or do we fear darkness? Because, really, what Mitch McConnell is saying is, I fear the daylight.
Because the difference with Clinton, as you said earlier, is, they had all the documents. They had heard from all the witnesses. They knew all the facts. You could decide. After we have a second round and after we have heard questions from the senators, we will decide whether or not there`s anything more we need to hear.
That makes sense in -- at least in a context in which all of the facts. In this case, they`re literally saying, we don`t know all the facts. In fact, every time new information comes out, because someone else outside of Congress was able to get some documents and make them available to the public, we learn something we didn`t know before.
That`s why it`s so important to have these witnesses. That`s why it`s important to have the documents if it`s going to be a trial in daylight vs. a nonexistent trial.
MELBER: Both of you stay with me, because we`re getting some developments from the Hill.
I actually want to bring in right now Kasie Hunt, who was questioning Senators Romney, other senators, and Speaker Pelosi today.
Good to see you, Kasie.
What are you hearing on the Hill tonight?
HUNT: Great to see you too, Ari.
I mean, we are all in wait-and-see mode, waiting for the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to tell us what she`s going to do. And right now, it`s the battle, frankly, of wills between her and the majority leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell.
And depending on your perspective, either Mitch McConnell has rolled Senate Democrats and forced them to agree or really shown that they don`t have any leverage to force him to give them the witnesses that they have demanded, or, as Chuck Schumer would argue, that Democrats have extended this process long enough to at least allow some new developments, those documents that came out over the Christmas break, and, of course, the news from John Bolton yesterday that he would be willing to testify.
Democrats use that as evidence that her strategy so far has worked on extending this period where we`re all talking about when this trial is going to begin. We know that Mitch McConnell has seemed to be in something of a hurry to get this done and over with. There`s been some reporting that he`s, of course, been at odds with the White House occasionally -- or at least with the president -- about that, although everybody does seem to, in Republican corners, be getting on the same page.
MELBER: Let me get you on the Speaker Pelosi front. I know you have been keeping an eye on that.
It would seem that whatever effort she`s making, it does have some kind of end date. Is there any indication from Democrats in the House that, having made her point and Mitch McConnell moving forward, there`s a time now to hand it off?
HUNT: We know that they`re meeting. This is a regular meeting of Democratic leaders now.
We don`t think that she would have made this decision in any kind of a vacuum. So we can anticipate that, at the very least this is the first conversation they`re having since everyone was away on break. We don`t have any timeline or guidance. Everybody here in the Capitol is asking the same set of questions.
HUNT: But, if you listen to Chuck Schumer today, he essentially gave her permission to send those articles over. And we know that the two of them are talking very closely and coordinating.
And a lot of this is Pelosi looking at Schumer and saying, OK, I`m willing to do what you want me to do in order to get the best results in your chamber.
So I took Schumer`s words today to mean, OK, we`re going to try to get the ball rolling a little bit here.
And that`s the other thing. With everything going on, if, at a distance people thought, wow, Iran and other developments, does this change the timing, far from it. What you`re reporting, what we`re seeing in the House side, and what obviously is coming out of the Senate is really barreling towards the preparations to begin the trial of the president of the United States.
Kasie, thank you for keeping us posted from the Hill. I know you have got a busy evening.
I want to turn to Shawna and get your thoughts on all the above.
THOMAS: Well, I do think there`s a little bit of a timeline, in that you have I think it`s five senators who are still running for president of the United States for the Democratic nomination.
THOMAS: I think there was some reporting today that Senator Bernie Sanders was talking about the plane that would take him back and forth.
But, at a certain point, their campaigns look at Nancy Pelosi and say, hey, we have the Iowa caucuses, which are followed the next week by New Hampshire, which are followed like two weeks later by Nevada and then South Carolina. There`s only so much we can do. And they know they have to be in that Senate chamber when this is going on.
They cannot run for president and not be part of this process with the president of the United States. So you have some very practical political concerns that she needs to take advantage of.
And I also think Kasie made this point about Nancy Pelosi`s leverage, Speaker Pelosi`s leverage, and that she kept this conversation in the news over the Christmas holidays, kind of until we got this Iran situation. She got people to question the process that Mitch McConnell was going through.
We did learn new information. But here`s the deal. She is running out of leverage. What else can she do, other -- and if she doesn`t send them over, then will they claim that she is not doing a fair process in the Senate? She`s not giving the president of the United States the chance to argue his case.
So, at a certain point, you kind of got to get on with it.
MELBER: Yes, I think substantively -- and there`s always more than just substance in Washington.
But, substantively, if this is urgent, which they have said on the record, and if this is going to be a trial, which it is, then, at a certain point, all deliberate speed, speedy trial, all the other terms you can use, even if you don`t think the president always affords them to everyone else, is still the standard.
I don`t think holding them for a couple weeks just to talk about the format violates that.
But, sooner or later, you get there. And you have the Senate Republicans, Maya, pressing, saying, well, maybe we will dismiss the whole thing if we don`t ever get it.
I do want to play for you from the throwback machine.
WILEY: Uh-oh. Uh-oh.
THOMAS: There`s always something in the throwback machine.
MELBER: Lindsey Graham back when he said what Speaker Pelosi is saying today, that, if it`s a trial, you need witnesses. Take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, 1999)
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): In every trial that there has ever been in the Senate regarding impeachment, witnesses were called.
The big problem I have, if we don`t get to call meaningful witnesses, direct witnesses, to the point, is that you`re basically changing impeachment. Impeachment in the House is not the trial.
When you have a witness who was there, who was engaged in it, who was in the middle of it telling you about what they were doing and why, it`s a totally different case.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILEY: You know, so there you have it. There`s a lot of hypocrisy right now in this conversation about what precedent is or isn`t.
What I would say is, the House absolutely can -- there`s one game-changer that we didn`t talk about, which I know you have covered last night, Ari, which is John Bolton saying he will now testify, should be some leverage.
Now, it may not be leverage in the sense of the timeline. But let me tell you what I think is the principle that should connect all these pieces. The American public deserves to know.
The American public needs to hear from those people who were in the room when the conversations were happening, and understanding what decisions were made. That means that what the House should absolutely do is subpoena John Bolton, because what that will do is ensure that the American people are still hopefully getting facts, and not fiction.
THOMAS: It goes back to what you were saying, that if you really think that this is -- that what President Trump did is a matter of national security, is a matter of an impeachable offense, then they should -- the House of Representatives, whatever the Senate decides to do, should then try to get as much -- as many facts out and hear from John Bolton, if he`s willing to actually talk to the House.
MELBER: Yes. Judge Napolitano, on FOX News, was discussing the same point, the value of someone like this who`s such a key witness, echoing you, but saying it to an audience that may hear that less often.
Take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ANDREW NAPOLITANO, FOX NEWS: He could say, I was there when the president said, fill in the blank. I`m not giving this guy his money until he goes after Joe Biden.
I mean, if something like that comes out of his mouth, that would be very harmful.
QUESTION: Absolutely, it would.
NAPOLITANO: And it might -- it might force the president to take the stand in his own defense.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: Shawna, is that Judge Napolitano fan fiction episode 24 coming to you -- near you, or...
THOMAS: The president of the United States taking the stand in his own defense in this particular situation, I think that`s a little bit of legal fan fiction.
But, I mean, the thing is, we know John Bolton knows something, right? He has totally telegraphed it. He said he`s willing to talk. So I think the thing to take away from that is that, Judge Napolitano, you are saying, hey, let`s hear from John Bolton.
I have to think -- and tell me if I`m wrong -- that all of the lawyers that President Trump has around him would tell him, do not take the stand, because also that lends, like, credibility to this process, that they want to argue in a political context that it has no credibility.
MELBER: Well, and he took -- he didn`t take the stand with Mueller.
WILEY: Well, and look, he doesn`t want -- no lawyer wants him to take the stand, because the man does not make consistent statements.
THOMAS: He did answers questions from Mueller, though, though we found that some of that is inconsistent.
MELBER: Interrogatories aren`t really by the client.
WILEY: And saying he didn`t remember things. It`s a little hard to believe he didn`t remember. Maybe he didn`t.
But if you actually had him as a witness, you could actually go harder on, you say you don`t -- well, let me give you a document that refreshed direct recollection. Let me remind you of something you said publicly, because now it sounds like you`re saying something different.
That`s why you don`t want him on the stand.
MELBER: Or Giuliani says, you did send him to Ukraine. So, if you say you didn`t, who is lying? One of you, and that kind of pressure.
I want to talk to you a little bit about the Senate side. Speaker Pelosi has played this even past the point when she would seem on paper to have a role.
MELBER: Which is interesting, and shows you again some of the way that she has proven to be such a strategic communicator in this era, this very different era since 2016, obviously.
Chuck Schumer sometimes -- and you`re a student of Washington, of these stories. I`m very curious what you think, not on the law, but on the communication and the politics. How is Chuck Schumer doing?
Take a look at him responding today to McConnell coming out with this partisan plan on the rules. Take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): Whoever heard of a trial without witnesses and documents? It`s unprecedented.
We say witnesses and documents, fair trial. No witnesses and no documents, cover-up. That simple sentence describes it all.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
THOMAS: I mean, I got to say, this is sort of typical Washington, D.C., in some ways, even though we`re talking about an atypical thing, because it is impeachment.
But in the House side, you know what? Nancy Pelosi has the power, because she`s the speaker of the House and the Democrats are in control. On the Senate side, even though you have 60 votes and a couple of other things, though the impeachment rules are a little different, Mitch McConnell is in control.
And what you`re seeing there is Chuck Schumer trying to spin the story for the Democrats in that particular case and saying, hey, if Mitch McConnell doesn`t work with me to maybe call witnesses, to do -- to be willing to have more documents, he is saying that the process in the Senate was illegitimate.
We had a bunch of Republican senators saying the process in the House was illegitimate. We had a bunch of Republican House members saying this process is illegitimate.
This to me sounds like very typical Washington, D.C., I got to admit.
And lightning round, given McConnell`s statement today, how soon does this trial start?
THOMAS: No, I don`t know. I mean, I think it starts soon, to be honest.
MELBER: Shawna, we have worked together before.
THOMAS: We have.
MELBER: If you don`t know, I need you to just make it up.
THOMAS: I mean, that`s what television is for.
No, I mean, I think it`s very clear, based on what Kasie was saying, and Nancy Pelosi huddling with people, that there`s only so much longer they can hold this. So, it starts soonish.
WILEY: A couple of weeks, because you said I had to make something up. So I just did. I made that up.
THOMAS: You`re following the rules, yes.
WILEY: Well, I always follow the rules when Ari sets them.
But -- but I will say one thing. This is not spin to call this a cover-up. There`s an article of impeachment on obstruction. And we have never seen a sitting president deny Congress what this president has denied him.
I don`t -- I think cover-up is not actually a spin word, although I agree that there is a tradition within Washington. It`s something that`s actually happening right now.
MELBER: Really interesting to get both of your wisdom, especially given your knowledge of these issues, legal, Washington, politics.
Shawna and Maya, thank you so much. I`m going bring you back as well.
Up ahead, I mentioned we are watching Speaker Pelosi there in this closed- door huddle. We`re going to bring you any news that breaks out of this on what she`s going to do with the articles of impeachment that she is still holding.
Also coming up, did you know, of course, the other president who faced these problems, Richard Nixon, also was invoking a national security crisis during the whole process? Many seeing echoes of that this week. We`re going to dig into it.
And another twist today -- why a former Trump aide could actually potentially go to prison for longer than expected.
All that, plus another important story that cuts into life and death and policing in America that we`re going to bring you only on tonight`s show.
I`m Ari Melber. You`re watching THE BEAT on MSNBC.
MELBER: This escalating Iran crisis may not have anything to do with impeachment, but the number one Republican in the House is already invoking it to attack Congressman Adam Schiff.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): Maybe, having spent the last year working on that, trying to protect us from what was happening in Iran, from the bombing of the takers, Saudi Arabia, taking down our drone, instead of taking that committee and making an impeachment.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: Is national security fair game in this kind of debate?
Well, history shows President Nixon repeatedly tried to invoke national security to thwart investigations that led to the impeachment probe, to hide evidence, and to literally plot the cover-up that helped get him ousted, because, of course, he put his own plotting on tape.
So consider that and consider how dangerous it is to have someone with the power to bomb plotting openly about using that power and that defense, that rationalization, that authority as something that could cover up a probe.
We`re going to play for you some of the infamous Watergate tapes. They`re a little scratchy, but they`re really fascinating.
Here`s Nixon with senior aide H.R. Haldeman and counsel John Dean.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
JOHN DEAN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL: You might -- you might put it on a national security ground basis, which it really -- it was.
H.R. HALDEMAN, SENIOR PRESIDENTIAL AIDE: It absolutely was.
DEAN: And just say that, uh...
RICHARD NIXON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Yeah.
DEAN: That this is not, you know, this was...
NIXON: Not paid with CIA funds. No, seriously, national security. We had to get information for national security grounds.
DEAN: Well, then the question is, why didn`t the CIA do it or why didn`t the FBI do it?
NIXON: Because they were -- we had to do it, we had to do it, on a confidential basis.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
MELBER: That turned out to be a false cover-up defense.
And then, as the grand juries were convened, Nixon tried to formalize this. Now, no one is today saying this has happened yet.
But consider where these arguments can go in history. They went back to the national security argument citing executive privilege in court.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
JOHN EHRLICHMAN, ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT NIXON: Well, I have been thinking about this a little bit. If I ever got a question like that at the grand jury...
EHRLICHMAN: ... I would have to step out, ask the U.S. attorney to step out, and tell him that, under executive privilege, since it`s a national security matter...
(END AUDIO CLIP)
MELBER: What you see there in the Nixon history is the temptation to use things, be it executive privilege, national security privilege, attorney- client privilege, all things that do have real contours, but aren`t supposed to be used to cover up crimes, and the temptation inside the White House that can exist to do so.
Take a look at this. Two days before the public hearings, "The New York Times" wrote that Nixon was invoking national security about Vietnam and over Watergate to silence domestic opposition.
Or take some of the best reporting we have from legendary journalist Bob Woodward about that period. In his book "The Final Days," he wrote about how Henry Kissinger began reaching in those dark final days for a broader argument against impeachment, that impeachment, the process, the removal of the president itself was a threat to American strength on the global stage.
Quote: "Watergate was shattering the illusion of American strength," Kissinger said, "and with it, American foreign policy. The specter of the U.S. as a pitiful, helpless giant, aptly described the Watergate America of Richard Nixon," a warning that was not ultimately heeded.
We`re going to get into that and the limits on this type of debate when we`re back with our panel of experts in 30 seconds.
MELBER: I`m joined by "New York Daily News" contributor Mike Lupica, host of "The Mike Lupica Podcast," and Daily Beast columnist Margaret Carlson.
Margaret, I want to be clear, as I mentioned in the earlier setup for viewers. It`s not that everyone is doing this. And yet, even only a couple days into this Iran crisis, which is very serious, some people are doing it, and invoking it as some sort of cudgel against people who think the president may have abused his powers.
MARGARET CARLSON, COLUMNIST, THE DAILY BEAST: Well, it`s an easy one to do. There`s a movie about it, "Wag the Dog."
And everyone -- I mean, people get accused of using distractions, like Trump. Every time there`s something bad going on, he shifts the topic. Now, this is not -- this is a huge thing. And what he did by killing the general is another huge thing.
If we believed Trump, if he was a truthful person, if he didn`t have 14,000 lies on the ledger, we`d be more inclined to believe there was an imminent threat to which he responded. And if we believed he ever invoked his National Security Council, the way other presidents do, we`d be more inclined to believe him.
But trust, but verify, at the very least, with Trump on this -- on this issue.
MIKE LUPICA, "THE NEW YORK DAILY NEWS": Well, I mean, my first reaction last week, Ari, was that imminent attack is the new weapons of mass destruction.
And you use a Jay-Z line here and say, we in a whole different mode here, except, as you keep pointing out, it`s not a different note mode, that everything old is new again. All of the arguments that Nixon tried to use during Watergate are coming up again.
This guy`s desperate to be a hero wartime president. I mean, if you`re on social media at all, you have seen all of his old clips saying, don`t let Obama start a war to get reelected.
And now here we are, all this time later, in a mess with Iran. Did we take out a bad guy? Yes, we took out a bad guy, just like we took out Saddam Hussein once. And after we took out the bad guy, what was the human cost?
And people who think this is some sort of event for which there should be cheerleading, wait until Americans start dying, and then ask them how they feel about this.
MELBER: Yes, I mean, Margaret, Mike speaks to not only some potential bars that may apply, but also to the issue of the credibility, whether it`s of the president, or the intelligence agencies, or political appointees who are dancing around something that is a very clear line.
Either there`s an imminent threat, which can in some cases provide justification for certain actions, or there wasn`t. Either there were WMDs or their weren`t. And in the case of this president, the question being raised, at least by some, does this environment of impeachment make him likely to change his governing in his own self-interest, Margaret?
M. CARLSON: I don`t know that Trump is able to change. If he were able to change, he might have. Even a toddler getting bad feedback tends to change. Even a lion being trained, you get a good piece of meat or you get smacked.
It doesn`t matter to Trump, to the extent that, even if he wanted to, he might not be able to. So he`s not going to change even during impeachment. I mean, in impeachment, he wanted witnesses and he wanted a trial, and then he didn`t. He was talked out of
Now, Mitch McConnell, of course, said he didn`t want witnesses, and now Democrats are fighting that.
There`s no way to gauge your way through Trump land, because we don`t deal with the same basic facts. And when you say about credibility, I don`t have a rapper to invoke, but remember when Lillian Hellman said of Mary McCarthy, you can`t believe anything, not even the a, the and, or the the?
MELBER: I don`t know if I remember. Do you remember that, Mike?
M. CARLSON: Come on, Mike. Come on, Mike.
M. CARLSON: You will get it.
LUPICA: Margaret, I think the line was everything is a lie, including the and, and the, OK?
M. CARLSON: Oh. Well, good. You do get it.
MELBER: Not only does he remember it. He thinks he really remembers it.
M. CARLSON: Wow.
MELBER: Well, look, however it goes, I think it speaks to the level of historic proportion of lying.
And people said in this -- quote, unquote -- people like to claim "nothing matters" era, well, does it catch up with the president? It certainly caught up with him on the world stage. It`s certainly caught up if you`re going to have other allies involved in anything over there.
And then back home, on the impeachment side, on a night where McConnell is moving forward on a partisan plan to get this trial on the road, it`s a lot of pressure on the White House.
I want to play with regard to the credibility piece one other interesting thing. Sometimes, we show folks -- we show quotes of folks because they`re saying things that seem completely unreasonable. Sometimes, we show it for the opposite reason.
And I want to give some credit here to Tucker M. CARLSON:, Mike, who, whatever you think of him, is being consistent in his arguments against the excessive use of projecting American power abroad, even for a president that he has at other times cheered.
And here he was speaking to that.
Take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TUCKER CARLSON, FOX NEWS: Just the other day, you remember, our intel agencies were considered politically tainted and suspect.
It seems like, about 20 minutes ago, we were denouncing these very people as the deep state and pledging never to trust them again without verification.
But now, for some reason, we do seem to trust them implicitly and completely.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: Criticizing kind of the hawkishness that comes with saying, well, let`s do whatever the military folks want if they`re controlled by a politician you like.
What do you think of that, Mike, first?
LUPICA: Well, I mean, Tucker coming to that realization, it`s kind of the example of the blind squirrel finding an acorn, isn`t it, Ari?
But he happens to be right in this case. And it was shocking to hear him say it. And now -- now he and Sean are fighting. And I am sure the viewers of FOX News just hate it when mom and dad fight like that. But in this case, Tucker Carlson was right.
M. CARLSON: Yes, the broken clock once a day.
M. CARLSON: So the other astonishing thing about the Trump White House and Cabinet is how easily Trump gets other people that you thought adhered to some code to lie for him.
You know, Pompeo is -- Secretary Pompeo is lying for him. Some military people are shading the truth for him.
So you feel like you`re in a fun house, and there`s no one you can completely rely on, if they`re touched by Trump, because they`re so fearful of him, they will say anything.
You can gauge an amount of time in between when Lindsey Graham says something that`s semi-truthful, a phone call from Trump berating him, and then Senator Lindsey Graham coming out and saying, oh, well, listen, I`m going to hold hearings on Joe Biden and his son.
That`s how fearful and whimpering the United States Republican senators are.
MELBER: Go ahead, Mike. I see you. I see reacting.
LUPICA: No, I -- no, Ari, how about Nikki Haley? How about Nikki Haley acting as if you`re practically un-American if you`re not on board with this?
I mean, it`s astonishing to see just how much she wants to be president, because every time she makes a statement like that, she -- you just imagine her shrinking to the size of a jockey.
M. CARLSON: Yes.
And, Mike, can I just say, the book that Nikki Haley wrote isn`t nearly as bad as her book tour. She`s gone much further.
M. CARLSON: Maybe book sales were down. Maybe she really wants to be vice president or president more than ever.
But you can -- you see, like, today, I mean, how far will this person go that we used to think was one of the bulwarks of the administration?
MELBER: I want you both to stay with me. We actually have some breaking news related to the very topic we were just discussing.
We have a quote here from a U.S. military official tonight, saying that an American air base in Iraq has now taken two rounds of rockets.
We can`t yet state whether there are any reported casualties. There are immediate questions about how this may or may not relate to the ongoing and escalating crisis with Iran, coming just days after President Trump authorize the deadly strike on Iranian General Soleimani.
You`re seeing file footage of him here.
I can read as well from a reporter.
And both of you, my guests, here obviously learning this breaking news as we are.
But reporter Zeke Miller quoting from an AP lead, saying Iran state TV -- consider the source -- but Iran state TV says Tehran has launched some of these surface-to-air missiles in Iraq, where, of course, there are still U.S. troops stationed.
Margaret, we also know that, although the United States has been disclaiming any sudden changes there -- I`m just getting some of this as we talk -- although the United States has been disclaiming any sudden changes there, there was at least the initial vote by the Iraqi Parliament to try to expel those U.S. troops.
Margaret and Mike, obviously, stay with me.
Our NBC analyst former General Barry McCaffrey, I believe, joins us by phone.
General, your reaction to this breaking news story, sir?
GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY (RET.), NBC MILITARY ANALYST: Well, the bottom line is, you have to know what kind of missiles are being fired at the air base.
They`re under almost constant intermittent attacks in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Fortunately, the U.S. has now deployed some high-technology anti-aircraft defenses that we borrowed from the U.S. Navy.
And most of these, including mortar rounds, are actually destroyed before they hit the ground. You mentioned surface-to-air. I`m sure you meant surface-to-surface missiles.
Now, if they`re being fired out of Iran, that`s a game-changer, because then they will be bigger warheads. Some of these missiles they fire, .107- millimeter, not too bad. The big ones, .122-millimeter and up, are really scary.
So I will listen up for technical evaluation, which will happen very quickly. They will know what kind of missile it was. And if it`s fired out of Iran, then we have got a game-changer in progress.
MELBER: And appreciate your point there. That is indeed surface-to- surface missiles. So let me repeat that and thank the general for that point, surface-to-surface.
Stay with me, General.
Ayman Mohyeldin, who our viewers have come to rely on, on many of these stories, also joining me by phone on the breaking story, which, again, is limited information at this point, but this report of the rocket attack there in Iraq in a place that houses U.S. troops.
Ayman, your view?
AYMAN MOHYELDIN, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: So, Ari, this was something that it`s safe to say the entire region was bracing for on a few different levels.
One, there`s no doubt that, over the past several days, the Gulf countries, the Persian Gulf countries, the Arabian Gulf countries, were anticipating a response by Iran into their neighborhood, so to speak.
There were a few scenarios that were mapped out. The Saudi deputy defense minister, Khalid bin Salman, the crown prince`s younger brother, was in Washington, D.C., yesterday, precisely for this type of scenario.
He was meeting with members of the NSA. The White House had a brief meeting with President Trump one on one, I understand. And all of it revolved around what would happen in the event that Iran responded.
They gamed out a few scenarios, including the possibility that Iran would attack directly, as opposed to through its proxies.
Now, in the last 72 hours or so, the rhetoric coming out from Iran made clear that Iran would take ownership, would take some kind of ownership of whatever that response was going to be.
And that certainly is what we`re seeing tonight, because we`re getting confirmation, not only from the official Iranian news agency, which is the state news agency, very closely aligned with the government there, pretty much the mouthpiece of the government, but, essentially, that it was the Iranian government that launched these missiles into the northern air base there in Iraq, an air base that I believe President Trump visited last year on his surprise visit to the battle zone.
So, this is a pretty significant development on two fronts. One, as we assess the damage, as we assess whether or not there were any casualties -- and, certainly, we will find out more about that in the coming hours -- what you are seeing is that the Iranians delivered what they said they were going to do, which is a direct response on an American military target in the region.
They did not shy away from making that the goal of what they said.
Now, interestingly, some Iran analysts I have just kind of been speaking to over the last few minutes have said the timing of this is also significant.
It seems to have been coordinated or to have happened around the same time that General Soleimani was killed. And there is some speculation that the name of the operation may be actually named after him. So we will wait and see as more information comes out.
But in the initial read of what has happened over the past couple of days, and certainly tonight, it is Iran delivering what it said it was going to do, which is an initial response.
And, as General McCaffrey was saying, it is a bit of a game-changer. Iran has not been known to act directly against military assets, certainly not American military assets. They have carried out those drone attacks. They have used proxies to attack other facilities and other Western interests.
But this would be the first time in recent memory that the Iranian military has directly engaged the American military with these surface-to-surface missiles.
The region had been bracing for something like this. We know a lot of the Gulf countries that house American military bases, the United Arab Emirates, the -- Bahrain has the Naval 5th Fleet. Qatar hosts Central Command, Al Udeid Air Base.
All of those had been put on heightened state of alert, as well as the diplomatic facilities as well. They had all been bracing for something like this.
And the speculation was that it could have been any one of these targets. It`s interesting to see that Iran has gone after a U.S. air base or a U.S. facility inside Iraq. That is obviously where General Soleimani was killed.
But it does once again put the Iraqi government directly in this fight between Iran and the United States.
So, we are entering definitely unchartered territory here with this direct military response from Iran on an American military facility in the Middle East.
MELBER: Ayman Mohyeldin reporting on this breaking news, these new reports of this rocket attack on the Iraqi base there, basically, that houses U.S. troops, Ayman walking us through how unusual that is.
Stay with us, Ayman.
General McCaffrey, I wonder if you could speak to that context that Ayman is adding. This is new reporting we`re getting about this attack, and Ayman saying this kind of direct attack from Iran onto a place where U.S. troops are is rare.
No, it`s -- it was an excellent report by him.
I`m looking at AP wires from five minutes ago. And it is saying that Iran state TV says Tehran has launched tens of surface-to-surface missiles at the American Al Asad Air Base.
I think this is truly alarming. My instinct is, it`s going to turn out that these were very large rockets to go the range, to target an air base.
We do have incredibly effective protective measures, not just bunkers and concrete reinforced command centers all over these bases. Afghanistan, routinely, they`re rocketed every two, three days every week, that sort of thing. So they have learned to live with this with very few casualties.
But the large missiles are a quite different thing. They`re horrifying. You hear them coming in for miles. And when they hit, it shakes the ground for a half-mile around it.
So, this could be a serious blow. We will have to wait and see what the casualty count is.
MELBER: Well, and, General, without -- and I should stress no casualty reports of any kind. So we are obviously in the early, early period of this reporting.
But, General, from your extensive experience, how rare is it to have Iran - - and you mentioned that this kind of rocket exchange can happen. How rare is it for Iran to be directly doing it?
MCCAFFREY: I don`t believe I have ever seen them do anything like this.
They -- now, the Quds Force is actively in both Afghan -- Western Afghanistan and inside Iraq. And Quds Force agents took part in direct attacks on U.S. servicemen. They abducted, I think, six at one point U.S. servicemen.
So they`re on the ground. They`re in the fight, but -- and they have supplied technology that`s been incredibly difficult for us to deal with, both the directed-energy IEDs, as well as rockets to the Shiite militias that have been attacking us over the years.
And they also cooperated with the Sunni insurgents. The ISIS and al Qaeda agents, sometimes, they have provided them with technology.
But if this is a Iran state act, with tens of surface-to-surface missiles, again, we should assume that now they`re saying this is the initial stage - - stages of high-intensity war against U.S. forces, at least in the region.
My assumption, by the way, was their targets would be senior U.S. military and diplomats in the region, and put pressure on oil deliveries out of the Gulf. So, the fact they have gone with a direct-fire attack on a U.S. military base from Iran is truly a game-changer.
MELBER: A game-changer.
That`s General Barry McCaffrey speaking here in our breaking coverage.
Bringing Ayman Mohyeldin back in, who is also with us by phone.
This is one of those times, with breaking news, where we get little pieces as we go. And we always try to emphasize what we know, don`t know and haven`t confirmed.
I`m reading first from the U.S. government, which has a fairly standard reaction here, Ayman, from the press secretary`s office of the president, saying -- quote -- "We are aware of the reports of attacks on U.S. facilities in Iraq. The president has been briefed and is monitoring the situation closely, consulting with his national security team."
Obviously, no great details there.
But, Ayman, a fellow foreign policy colleague of yours, ABC News` Julia Macfarlane, is reporting -- and we have not confirmed this -- but reporting, courtesy of her at ABC News -- quote -- "A U.S. official confirms to ABC ballistic missiles have been fired from inside Iran at multiple U.S. military facilities inside Iraq. The facilities include Irbil in Northern Iraq and Al Asad Air Base in Western Iraq, this single official said," according to ABC News, not confirmed here.
But I know you know that colleague, Ayman.
Your view of that report?
MOHYELDIN: Look, in the beginning, I will say I`m going to take everything that is coming out of Iran -- and I know that the U.S. is going to be slow to respond on this, and that perhaps we will probably get an initial readout from the Department of Defense, which is monitoring this very closely.
But here`s what we can rely on. And when I say rely on, this is what we know the Iranians are actually saying they did.
And it`s important to emphasize that, because they know that, even if the base is not hit, even if the missiles land somewhere errantly, even if the base is hit, but no American casualties are reported, Iran`s state news agency, which is a verified account, is taking responsibility for these attacks -- or the Iranian government is taking responsibilities for these attacks, and saying that they launched tens of missiles at an American military base.
That, in of itself, is significant, because what Iran is doing here is, they are saying to the world that they have responded in kind. And what I mean by in kind is with a direct military operation against U.S. military personnel in the region.
That has been the rhetoric coming out of Iran for the past couple of days. They did not say they were going to use proxies. They said everything was legitimate. Some people speculated it could happen over the course of several days.
Some people said it could happen within the year. The Iranian foreign minister said it would be up to Iran`s timing and choosing and location of where and when they take these attacks.
But when Iran comes out, and essentially, again, based on their verified Twitter account, the Fars News Agency...
MOHYELDIN: ... saying that the IRGC confirms hitting the U.S. Al Asad Air Base in Iraq with tens of missiles, that means they want it to be known that they are responsible for that.
And that`s why I think, as we were saying with General McCaffrey, it is a game-changer. Now, the assessment of the damage is going to be pretty significant, I think, because there`s two components to this.
One, there`s going to be a deterrent component, whether or not the United States as it can absorb this type of attack and not necessarily respond, or you will definitely see the American military respond by targeting where those ballistic missiles were fired from inside Iran.
The scenarios are endless. But this goes, again, what the diplomatic efforts have been over the past 72 hours, because I was trying to say earlier the region had been trying to backdoor some kind of messaging both to Iran and to the United States not to escalate.
Obviously, that`s not the direction where things were going. The Arab countries that have relationships with Iran, mainly Qatar, the Qatari foreign minister went to Tehran, I believe, the day before yesterday to communicate with him, to say that it wasn`t Qatar airspace that was used in that drone, but, at the same time, to try and de-escalate the situation.
We also understand that the Saudis have been trying to backdoor some kind of communication with Iran through Pakistan, which maintains a relationship with Iran, to say, nobody in the region wants this type of escalation.
MOHYELDIN: So we have now entered into that escalation with these missiles launched that the Iranian -- the IRGC is taking responsibility for.
And Ayman Mohyeldin, who has been joining us by phone, as well as General McCaffrey, speaking to this breaking news report of these rocket attacks fired into Iraq where U.S. troops are stationed, Iran, as Ayman was explaining, claiming publicly through official channels responsibility and directly linking it as retribution for the killing of the general in Iran.
My experts, stay with me.
But I want to bring in a new voice to this, longtime Pentagon reporter and producer Courtney Kube with NBC News.
What can you tell us?
COURTNEY KUBE, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Well, not much so far.
We know that there were -- the Al Asad air base did come under attack. It`s not clear if the attack is still ongoing. There were at least three separate barrages that came in.
But there have been various accounts of what exactly it was. Initially, U.S. military officials were saying they were rockets. I know there has been some media reporting of potential ballistic missiles, but no one is confirming that from the U.S. side yet.
Look at the distance between -- if in fact these were attacks that were fired from inside Iran, that would make sense that, in fact, they were ballistic missiles, just given the distance that it would take.
But no one is saying that yet. We have to also point out -- and General McCaffrey knows this very well -- I`m sorry, because I have been on the phone and kind of running around, so I`m not sure if this has been covered yet or not.
But the difference between Katyusha rockets or some kind of rockets impacting Al Asad and ballistic missiles is -- it`s a significant difference. And the people there are on the ground would know that difference very quickly.
So I just want to say we don`t yet know what exactly was hit or where exactly it was coming from or who`s behind it.
Now, just given the tensions right now, I will say there has been a lot of activity here in the Pentagon and amongst U.S. military officials in Iraq who I have been talking to today that they were expecting something.
There have been a couple of false alarms. There were reports that the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. military in Baghdad came under attack earlier by rockets. Those were not true.
But it did lead to the military there hunkering down in bunkers and awaiting -- expecting some sort of an attack that, fortunately, did not happen.
There were also reports of some sort of incoming at Camp Taji, which is just north of Baghdad. It`s a much smaller installation with U.S. military. That one also ended up not being the case.
But we do know now that there were actually -- there was incoming at Al Asad. Iran -- there`s Iranian state media who are saying that this is the beginning of a larger coordinated attack, but, so far, we`re not tracking that here.
But, again, it`s very early. I will say, nerves have really been on edge today. It`s clear that the U.S. military was expecting something today, Ari.
MELBER: That`s interesting that you say you were picking up the idea of some expectation.
Walk us through what we do know about the current U.S. presence in Iraq, the discussion about any potential changes to that, which obviously has also been a big part of this story, and could potentially shift further in an escalating environment, where Iran is publicly tonight taking responsibility for these attacks.
KUBE: That`s right.
So, we -- there`s been a large military presence there, and it`s spread throughout the country, but the large installations are -- obviously, there`s -- in Baghdad. Al Asad, it`s housed U.S. military for some time. It`s actually an Iraqi base, as General McCaffrey and Ayman know very well.
But there`s also a relatively large U.S. military presence up in Irbil. There`s also a smaller bases throughout the country, Makhmur, Kirkuk, Qayyarah West outside of Mosul, Camp Taji. So, there are smaller installations around.
What`s become clear is that the U.S. military, both since Qasem Soleimani`s death and since the Iraqi Parliament decided that -- they voted this nonbinding vote to -- that the U.S. military was going to have to leave.
The U.S. is clearly repositioning there in the country. So it`s a combination of things. The Qasem Soleimani death has led to a very real and serious concern about the force there and the protection of the U.S. military force.
It`s also led to the counter-ISIS and training mission there being suspended. So, because of that, some of the U.S. military who are specifically assigned to those missions have been moved out of Baghdad and out of some of the surrounding areas into safer areas, some up towards into Kuwait, and then some have sort of been repositioned throughout the country into safer areas.
But they also, at the same time, have been bringing some troops in for force protection. So, we have heard a lot about the Marines who went in for embassy protection initially several days ago, and then -- but also some 82nd Airborne who were brought in specifically for force protection, embassy security, U.S. military security and whatnot.
So the footprint is shifting.
KUBE: What remains unclear is what`s going to happen next. Based off of what the Iraqi Parliament and now the prime minister is saying, is there a timeline for the U.S. military to actually leave, and are they going to do it?
All we keep getting out of Secretary Esper is that there`s been no change in the U.S. plans.
KUBE: So, we just don`t know.
MELBER: To the context you`re adding, which is so vital, there`s also the question of whether the commander in chief`s view of any potential or pre- planned changes will alter again, if it is viewed in the Middle East or in the world at large that the troops are being moved or removed in response to or after this kind of attack, all very preliminary.
I`d like you to stay with me.
I want to mention an update and also bring in another expert we have by phone, which is former Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, who served in the Obama administration with President Obama.
Thanks for joining me on the fly here, sir.
BEN RHODES, FORMER U.S. DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Yes, no problem.
MELBER: Let me tee up some of the other information we`re getting and get your views of this.
Number one, we mentioned earlier, and Ayman was reporting for us, that Iran state TV, which is an arm of the government in that country, was publicly claiming responsibility.
We also have, courtesy of "The New York Times" now, a statement from the Revolutionary Guard Corps themselves, saying -- quote -- the brave soldiers of their unit have launched a -- quote -- "successful attack with tens of ballistic missiles on Al Asad military base."
And they go on to say it is in the name of Soleimani.
That is -- would seem to confirm and follow up on what we heard from Iran`s state TV.
Your view of what our experts have said thus far, what we need to understand, given the imperfect information at this hour, of this attack in Iraq, after the Trump administration`s killing of that general?
RHODES: Well, look, it`s obviously early, and there`s a lot that we don`t know.
But, to me, it is very striking that, if it is true that these were ballistic missiles -- and, as your reporter just indicated, we will have to determine if that`s true -- but for the Iranian government to publicly acknowledge and announce that type of conventional attack on -- directly on U.S. military forces is very consequential.
It`s a big deal for them to come out this fast with a retaliatory act that they themselves are claiming that is directly against the U.S. military.
It strikes me that, given their influence in Iraq politics, they certainly might have had something to do with that vote that took place over the weekend in the Iraqi Parliament demanding the withdrawal of U.S. forces, followed by this attack.
So, what we may be seeing is Iran acting on kind of its strategic objective. There was a lifelong objective, at least in the lifetime of -- during the Iraq War, of Qasem Soleimani to try to evict the United States from Iraq.
I would also add that this retaliatory act doesn`t necessarily amount to the totality of the Iranian response. They also, of course, have different proxies in different parts of the world, countries like Lebanon, in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan and other places.
So, there may be a mix of this type of direct, more traditional attack against U.S. forces, and then subsequent attacks on diplomats or other U.S. personnel.
And, Ben, given your experience serving at some of the highest levels of U.S. national security, although you can`t tell us what is literally going on tonight in those rooms, but you can tell us a little bit about how something like this is traditionally viewed.
Is this something where, in your experience, the United States starts, after gathering information, considering its potential measures and retaliation, or how does the U.S. view what you say may be part of even a larger set of consequences?
RHODES: Well, I think there are a number of things that you would be doing in a normal process in the White House Situation Room.
Number one, you would be trying to figure out how to best protect your personnel across Iraq, but also in other parts of the region, particularly a country like Lebanon, where Iran has a lot of influence.
How are we hardening embassy security? Are we drawing down personnel? How are we securing military facilities? So, number one priority should be the security of our personnel.
Then, secondly, I`m sure that there are on the shelf plans for different ways to target the Iranian -- the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, the IRGC, potentially inside of Iran. So you have response options as well.
This is the dangerous escalatory cycle that many of us have been concerned about, that we do something, Iran does something, we do something, and this continues to spiral.
And then, lastly, I think you would be consulting with your allies and partners to try to come to some common view, both those in the region and those in Europe.
But priority one has to be the safety of our people, and taking every measure that you possibly can to protect U.S. personnel. That`s complicated when you`re dealing with an adversary like Iran, because they have the capacity to strike in multiple countries.
MELBER: Ben Rhodes, a former top national security official in the Obama administration, thank you.
General McCaffrey, with the moment we have left, what should people keep in mind?
MCCAFFREY: Well, I think we will wait until the facts come in.
It sounds as if the Iranians have made a strategic decision to directly employ military power against U.S. forces in the region. I don`t think, as Ben mentioned, we have seen the end of this. They`re announcing this as a phase of a more comprehensive attack.
And I would think that the days ahead are going to be perilous, because our only good response at this point is an overwhelming dominance of U.S. air and naval power that can be employed against the Iranian homeland. And that means against the IRGC, their submarine force, their fast boats, their rocket units.
When that goes, we`re really into high-intensity warfare with the Iranians.
MELBER: General Barry McCaffrey, part of our panel of experts, our thanks to him, Ayman Mohyeldin, Margaret Carlson, Mike Lupica, Courtney Kube at the Pentagon.
MSNBC will have much more on this breaking story, starting right now, with Chris Matthews on "HARDBALL."
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END