Show: The Rachel Maddow Show Date: April 6, 2017 Guest: James Stavridis, Adam Schiff, Michael McFaul
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC ANCHOR: Good evening, Chris. Thank you, my friend.
And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour.
We are, of course, watching the Pentagon closely right now. We are watching a golf club in south Florida closely right now because that`s where the president is tonight, at the first night of his major summit with the Chinese president.
We`re also, of course, watching the Mediterranean Sea tonight and the Middle East closely. As we await word as to whether or not this brand new American administration is about to take major military action against the Syrian military.
We will let you know as soon as we have any word either direction from the Pentagon or from any of those other locales that we are watching right now. We`ve got people on standby literally all across the globe tonight as we`re awaiting the furtherance of this news.
But while we`re waiting to find out what the president is going to decide to do and how it`s going to work, it seems to me that there are basically two ways to view the proximate story, the proximate history of how we got here. The sort of two arcs of the story that led to this point.
One of them I think starts in August 2013, in the suburbs of Damascus, when there was a massive, massive chemical weapons attack on two Syrian civilian neighborhoods. That was an attack by the Syrian government. They used chemical weapons. They used what was later determined to be sarin gas.
That attack in August 2013 killed more than 1,400 civilians including hundreds of children. And the global response, the U.S. response, naturally, was absolute horror. Outrage. A clamor for a response of sufficient magnitude to match and dissuade and punish an attack that horrific by the Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad. Again, over 1,400 people killed in that gas attack in 2013.
Now, in terms of the American response to that attack four years ago, the decision-making process in our government was very much colored by the fact that the previous year in 2012, President Obama had described the widespread use of chemical weapons as something that would be a red line in terms of the Syrian conflict. That would be a red line for the United States.
Now, it`s one thing to say that, right, to lay that out as a hypothetical. It is another thing to still have to decide exactly what you`re going to do when that moment arrives in the future. And in August 2013, when that moment arrived, when that terrible massive chemical weapons attack happened, President Obama prepared U.S. navy ships in the Mediterranean to launch cruise missile strikes against Syrian military targets as retaliation.
If that sounds familiar, it`s because that`s what we are being advised tonight, that the U.S. military may be making similar preparations this evening.
But back in 2013, though, when President Obama got those Tomahawk missiles ready on those Navy ships in the Mediterranean, he ended up not using them, he ended up deciding to proceed in two ways. He asked the U.S. Congress to vote to authorize the use of military force in Syria. There had been this clamber in Congress that the United States must respond with military force. President Obama said, OK, authorize the use of military force then, whereupon Congress suddenly got very quiet and never acted on that.
At the same time, a new path opened up in the wake of the gas attack in 2013, a new opportunity that was brokered internationally, chiefly with Russia, to take away Syria`s chemical weapons. So, the practical consequence of that massive gas attack in 2013 was, yes, the threat of U.S. military force, U.S. Congress deciding that they didn`t want to decide about military force, and an international agreement, practical effort to take Syria`s chemical weapons away from Bashar al Assad and destroy them in a verifiable way.
Russia, of course, is Bashar al Assad`s greatest ally. Russia said they would be the guarantor of that progress. They would be the ones who would agree to make sure, they would step up for Assad, they would step up for Syria, and guarantee that Assad would not hide any of his chemical weapons, he would not cheat in that agreement. And in fact, thousands of tons of Syrian chemical munitions were destroyed.
But now, it is 3 1/2 years later and we haven`t had another attack on the scale of what we saw back in 2013 with over 1,400 people killed and hundreds of children killed in a sarin attack, but there was some kind of gas attack. There was some kind of chemical attack on Syrian civilians again, this week, on Tuesday of this week.
And you have probably read or heard over the last few days, you`ve probably read or heard certainly today that what happened in Syria this week was a sarin attack. That it was the same chemical weapon used in the Damascus suburbs 3 1/2 years ago. You know, that may yet turn out to be true, but right now, it is a matter of investigation, international chemical weapons experts right now are trying to determine for sure whether or not sarin was used in this attack on Tuesday.
The only declaration from any official body on this point yet was a statement from the Turkish health ministry today. They said it was sarin, but that`s the Turkish health ministry. There`s to reason necessarily to take them as the international standard on this kind of assessment.
It`s worth noting for context that the Turkish government very much would like to get rid of Bashar al Assad. They are not a neutral party in terms of the Syrian conflict.
So, while we await some sort of more determinative assessment as to whether or not this was sarin. This attack this week undeniably was horrific and was an attack on civilians. The U.S. military says -- two U.S. Pentagon officials telling NBC News today that the attack was launched by U.S. -- sorry, by Syrian military planes. Fixed-wing Syrian military aircraft were seen dropping the bombs that then civilians responded to as if it was a gas attack. The death toll is thought to be over 70. Dozens of children were killed.
Well, in addition to the immediate horror of that attack on Tuesday, there`s also this overarching question of whether this really might have been sarin or might have been some other chemical weapon. There`s a question of whether this means that Syria did cheat that international process that was designed to rid them of chemical weapons, the prospect that Russia didn`t actually guarantee Syria`s compliance with the international effort to destroy all their chemical weapons. It`s possible now we realize that Bashar al Assad retains that capacity and proved this week that he was unafraid to use it against his civilian population.
So, that`s -- that`s sort of one story arc in terms of how we got here. That`s one way to understand the proximate history of how we got to this place that we`re in tonight, where we`re hearing from the Pentagon tonight that once again the U.S. military may be readying military strikes in Syria, may specifically be readying U.S. missile strikes from U.S. Navy vessels right now that are in the Mediterranean.
So, that is -- that`s one way to get there. That`s a history largely of the previous administration intertwines with the moderate history of this terrible Syrian civil war. That`s one way.
Another way to see this, there`s another lens, at least, through which you can view this, a different arc of recent events that bridge brings us to tonight. That`s the story specifically of this current administration. This new administration who`s making the decisions now on this issue.
This is a very young administration. They had a very difficult transition. They had a very hard time doing just the basic work of keeping government up and running between the last administration and the new one. There are roughly 550 key administration positions that need to be confirmed by the Senate. To this day, this administration has not even nominated anyone for more than 500 of those 550 positions.
At the Department of Defense, there`s precisely one person on staff in the entire Pentagon who has been Senate confirmed in this new administration. That`s the secretary of defense, Jim Mattis. Other than that, they got no one through the Senate confirmation process.
Same goes at the Department of State, there`s one person at the State Department who`s been confirmed by the Senate, that is the secretary of state and he`s the only one.
At the National Security Council and in the White House, national security matters have not been handled in a way that is impressive. This new administration made history when they fired their first national security adviser after only 24 days on the job. He was fired because of lying about his contacts with the Russian government. It was only later determined after he was fired that he had also secretly been on the payroll of the government of Turkey. He`s now requesting immunity in response -- excuse me, in exchange for his testimony on the Trump/Russia investigation.
The first person the new administration named as a deputy national security adviser to Michael Flynn was basically unhired from that position before she was ever really on the job. The second person who was named to be a deputy national security adviser to Michael Flynn technically, she still holds her job but she`s rumored to be on her way to Singapore to become the new ambassador to Singapore basically against her will because they want her out of there now, too, but haven`t figured out how to get her out yet.
Mike Flynn`s replacement as national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, tried apparently to fire the National Security Council senior director for intelligence who`s a 30-year-old guy who had been brought in to the National Security Council by Mike Flynn. The White House intervened to stop that firing. They stopped the national security adviser from having his own chosen senior director for intelligence and they instead insisted that that young man who came in with Mike Flynn, he had to stay on at that job.
Subsequently, that young man was one of two Trump National Security Council staffers who became involved in this bizarre plot to feed sensitive intelligence information out of the National Security Council to Congressman Devin Nunes in what appears to have been an effort to divert the various investigations into the Trump/Russia connections during the campaign. That scheme today resulted in Chairman Nunes recusing himself from the Trump/Russia investigation on the House Intelligence Committee that he chairs. He`s now under investigation by the House Ethics Committee for potentially having leaked classified information in the middle of whatever that scheme was.
And whatever you think about Devin Nunes and his role in that, what do you think about the National Security Council being used for that in this administration?
The National Security Council`s a very important thing. We`ve had it since 1947. The main purpose of the National Security Council is to provide the best possible information to the president for the purpose of him making decisions on national security matters. The National Security Council is supposed to sift through various sources of information, various arguments on important national security matters and help the administration arrive at a consensus view -- a clear, unified view that integrates everybody in the U.S. government into an all for one effort when it comes to making important national security decisions.
When it comes to war and peace, when it comes to defending the United States, when it comes to life and death decisions where we work with and sometimes confront other countries, the United States government must speak clearly, directly, consistently, and with one voice.
That has been a difficult achievement in this administration, and it`s a worrying piece of context for what appears to be tonight a decision by this administration as to whether or not they may rapidly increase their military involvement in Syria.
I`m told that we are getting breaking news now. That we`re alerted now that this decision may be under way.
I`m joined now by my colleague, Brian Williams, here in the studio.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC ANCHOR: Rachel, thanks.
And we are just learning from our producers at the Pentagon that there has been a sizable launch of Tomahawk cruise missiles tonight. We`re told over 50 of them in a single volley hitting targets on the ground in Syria.
Our correspondent, Hans Nichols, is ready to tell us what they`ve been told at the Pentagon -- Hans.
HANS NICHOLS, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: We`re still learning more on this. Here`s what we know. There have been Tomahawk cruise missiles fired off Navy ships in the eastern Mediterranean. They had a single target. That target was an airfield near Homs, which is a major commercial city. It was an airfield. It looks like there are more than 50 impacts.
It just looks like the Tomahawks were fired. The goal there might have been to pock up the runway, maybe take out some Syrian aircraft. We`re learning more as we speak but this launch has happened against the regime of Syria`s President Bashar al Assad. This marks an escalation in an already very complicated war.
We`ll get back to you when we have more information -- Brian.
WILLIAMS: OK. Hans, just one more point here. In the Mediterranean, I believe we have the USS Porter and USS Ross that would be ready to fire missiles like this, even though all of our vessels over a certain size and certainly all of our nuclear submarines are potential launching platforms.
How big, how small is a volley of 50 of these considering we`re talking about a thousand-pound warhead on each?
NICHOLS: A thousand-pound warhead is what they can carry. The fact they were just Tomahawks and didn`t include any fixed-wing bombings gives you an indication, Brian, that this is a proportional response. You know, when there had been talk about this leading up to, there had been a range of options the Pentagon had been preparing. Far end of the range, disabling the entire Assad air force.
It looks like they didn`t go in that direction. It looks like President Donald Trump ordered a more proportional response, it came from the two ships you mentioned in the Eastern Med, just Tomahawks.
Now, we want to find out if there are ally conversations with U.S. allies in the counter-ISIL regime, and crucially if there`s a conversation with the Russians. Remember, there`s a deconfliction hotline going on right now for the fight against ISIS. That`s the other enemy and adversary in Syria and the Russians and U.S. counterparts speak all the time on that hotline.
Whether or not the Russians were given a heads-up, any sort of tip, that`s another thing we`ll be looking for. We also don`t know if there have been any casualties on the ground, if there`s been anything like that. We can report the strike happened, it happened moments ago and it appears it`s over, this appears to be a one-off strike.
But President Trump making good in restoring this idea of crossing red lines, doing something President Barack Obama didn`t do and that is attack the regime of Bashar al Assad -- Brian.
WILLIAMS: So, Hans, I understand you`re limited to what we know.
Far from regime change, far from targets all over that country, this could turn out to be a strike on the air facilities where it`s believed the sarin gas, suspected sarin gas, air strike started.
NICHOLS: Yes, we don`t know the source of the sarin gas. We haven`t confirmed that it`s sarin gas, but this would be the airfield from which the fixed-wing aircraft that U.S. radar clearly saw hit that building about 72 hours ago, this is the airfield that they took off from. That gets back to this idea of proportionality.
Now, I know we heard from Secretary Mattis earlier today talking about the idea under way being an effort for regime change or a transition of power for Assad. This doesn`t seem to be a strong hint that the U.S. is militarily going to go in the direction of regime change. This seems like it`s a proportional response.
And also think we should note, Brian, the speed with which this happened, the velocity of this response. Just 72 hours ago on Tuesday morning, dawn in Syria, that`s when this chemical weapons attack happened, 72 hours later, there`s a response from this administration -- Brian.
WILLIAMS: All right. Hans Nichols at the Pentagon, we`re going to let him go report and see what more we can find out about this, again, this volley of cruise missiles launched tonight from U.S. Navy vessels onto land targets in and around the city of Homs in Syria, specifically aviation targets, we`re told. That could change -- airfields, aircraft on airfields and the like.
Kristen Welker is at the White House tonight.
Kristen, what will we hear, if anything, from the building behind you or from the traveling White House in Florida?
KRISTEN WELKER, NBC NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESOPNDENT: I anticipate we will hear something from the traveling White House, Brian. President Trump, of course, meeting with the president of China this evening. The two had dinner.
Vice President Mike Pence, I can tell you, had been meeting with his staffers here inside the West Wing. No word an specifically what those conversations have revolved around, but clearly the key topic of conversation here at the White House has been Syria and trying to determine what those next steps will be. And now, of course, we have our answer to that question.
This is President Trump`s first biggest major foreign policy crisis and test, Brian, and it also marks a shift in tone in terms of how the president has discussed and thought about intervention in Syria. Just several days ago, his secretary of state said it`s up to the people of Syria to determine the future of Bashar al Assad. We heard him change that stance today, Brian. The secretary of state now saying essentially that Assad cannot stay in power and that the United States is working on a political solution with its allies abroad.
And that was a point echoed by President Trump who made it very clear yesterday in the Rose Garden during a press conference that he was horrified by the images that he saw coming out of Syria in the wake of that chemical weapons attack. He described his devastation over that and described the need to take some type of action. And so, again, tonight, we are seeing that shift here in policy.
You`ll recall back in 2013 when then-President Obama was weighing his options in Syria, Mr. Trump at the time urged him not to take action. So, this really marks a shift in tone now that he is the one in the West Wing, in the White House.
Again, he`s traveling right now, Brian, and of course, the White House travels with him. So, he`s undoubtedly huddling with his top advisers there as we anticipate his reaction which I suspect will detail the specific steps he took tonight and what we can expect moving forward, Brian.
WILLIAMS: All right. Kristen Welker, thanks.
And we expect as Kristen pointed out, we expect more from the Pentagon, more from the traveling White House in Florida.
And, Rachel, when we talk about a change in tone, a change in policy, this has been a neck-snapping change in policy in just days.
MADDOW: One of the things that has been, I think, worrying about the new administration is the way their National Security Council has been so much influx. The role of the National Security Council is to coordinate, bring about a whole of government effort, unified message and a stable message, particularly on volatile issues in national security. And for whatever reason, we really haven`t seen that. We saw over the course of one week, Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, we saw him turn 180 degrees on whether or not the fate of Bashar al Assad should be decided by the Syrian people or whether it should be something that the United States should take responsibility for as he indicated today.
We`ve seen a similar U-turn from U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Those changes were not in concert. They were not made at the same time.
Today, the message from president, himself, was that maybe something should happen, essentially.
So, it`s been -- the messaging, the language around these issues has been sort of all over the place and I think it`s led to some worries about the decision-making process is around things like this. Clearly tonight, a decision has been made.
WILLIAMS: And Tillerson`s words were so strong today, there was a walk back on background after he finished speaking.
MADDOW: Yes. And that shouldn`t happen on the same day that you`re making a decision about military strikes.
WILLIAMS: That`s right.
MADDOW: I mean, ideally, you would want to have not just -- not just a whole of government effort, but you would want to have such discipline around your message and around your rollout, especially a unilateral strike you decide on your own terms.
But, you know, helter-skelter. You roll with it, it`s the now reality. This administration will be I think as surprising on national security matters as they are on everything thus far.
We`re joined now by retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis. He`s the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Admiral Stavridis, thank you very much for being with us tonight.
Can you shed some light for us on the strategic decision to do this with Tomahawk missiles? These ship-fired missiles. Some of the other options they may have considered, what are the advantages of doing it this way?
ADMIRAL JAMES STAVRIDIS, U.S. NAVY (RET.): I think they made the right call in terms of doing something proportional, something relatively immediate, something that connects very much with the chemical strike, itself. What this tells you, Rachel, is that they wanted to take a low- risk profile. We didn`t take manned aircraft.
And the fact the strikes weren`t directed against anti-air systems, which is what you would do, knock those down if you were going to send in manned aircraft later, tells you that probably we`ve seen a volley. We`re now going to take a pause, reset, follow the conversation, push the Russians, send the message.
This is a conservative, a proportional, and I think a fairly correct response to what we`ve seen thus far. We`re going to know a lot more in a couple of hours as we hear statements coming from the president and the Pentagon, but I`m confident there will not be another wave. This is not shock and awe over Baghdad. This is more like 1998 when we launched a bag of cruise missiles at bin Laden in Afghanistan after the East African bombings.
MADDOW: Admiral Stavridis, stay with us for moment. I`d love to ask you. Just stand by.
We`re going to go back to the Pentagon briefly for a second. Hans Nichols, our correspondent there.
I believe, Hans, you have additional information in terms of what happened tonight.
NICHOLS: Yes, Rachel, we`re getting a little more confident on the number of Tomahawk cruise missiles that were fired. It`s about 60 and they hit both aircraft and infrastructure on that air base near Homs. It`s the latest from here.
You know, taking a step back on this, given all our reporting earlier today, this does seem like a smaller version of the variety of options that were presented to President Trump. Remember, the big option was actually taking out the entire air force of Bashar al Assad. So, it looks like they went for the smaller one.
A couple things that we need to figure out here. Number one, were allies informed? Number two, was Congress informed? Was it just the Gang of Eight? What sort of back and forth?
And then, ultimately, what led President Donald Trump to use force against a sovereign country, against the government that although there are problems with it, it is the elected government of Syria.
There could be some legal questions. We suspect they will argue on the doctrine to protect, the responsibility to protect. But what legal authority did the U.S. have going in there, launching these cruise missiles?
And remember, there are Russian forces that are working closely with the Syrian regime and you have close to a thousand U.S. troops, about 500 special forces that we know of, they move other troops in and out of, they`re fighting a separate fight against ISIS, but there are a lot of U.S. troops in there that could potentially be targets if the regime is still inclined.
This could get very messy. We still need to figure out all the details. As of now, both aircraft and infrastructure were hit. Tomahawk cruise missiles. And the strike is now over. This was a single target all on the airfield -- guys.
MADDOW: Hans, let me just ask you one clarifying question in terms of who was notified, who was in on this. One of the things Admiral Stavridis just mentioned there was the issue of the Russian government, obviously, the most important ally to the Assad regime, and also a big military presence on the ground in Syria.
Do we know if the Russians were given a heads-up about this?
NICHOLS: We do not. All we know on that, Rachel, is there is this deconfliction line that is used quite frequently because both American aircraft and Russian aircraft are fighting ISIS and more of the eastern part of the country.
This strike took place more in the western part of country, just off sort of the border with Libya, close to Latakia, where, of course, the Russians, themselves, have a big air base. But most of the deconfliction talks that take place, these are daily conversations saying we have a plane up in this area, you have a plane up in this area. It`s designed to avoid any sort of friction or frankly escalating incidents between the United States and Russia.
We don`t know if that deconfliction line was used on this strike -- Rachel.
MADDOW: Hans Nichols for us at the Pentagon.
I believe we got one picture. It`s not a live picture. It would be sort of a conceptualizing picture of al-Shayrat airfield. This is what we were told is the target tonight.
This is, of course, not post-bombing, not if 60 Tomahawk missiles were launched at it. But this is the image we`ve got of that site. Again, close to the Syrian city of Homs, which is the city we`ve read a lot about in terms of our coverage of the fighting in the Syrian civil war.
What Hans Nichols just reported from the Pentagon is that infrastructure at that airfield was hit and also aircraft were hit. The Syrian air force is a considerable force. It`s used for targets in the north of Syria.
But this is what we believe the targets -- this is what we believe the target was of this major U.S. strike.
We`re going to bring back in the conversation Admiral Stavridis.
Admiral, looking at that site, what we know about that location, the fact this was one site that was targeted apparently with pretty massive number, dozens of these missiles, what would be the strategic goal, how much destruction would that sort of rain down on a site like this to hit it with all those missiles?
STAVRIDIS: It is a significant strike but one that is limited geographically as you point out, Rachel. I would put this very much in the category of sending a signal to the Assad regime and to the Russians and oh, by the way, to the Iranians as well that we are not going to hesitate to use force, that we have, in fact, shifted back to what I would argue is the appropriate position, that Assad is a war criminal. We have to undermine him at every step and try and get him out of power.
But this is a signal we have sent. I think what`s really interesting is going to be, what do we do now?
What I would hope the administration will do is go to the Russians, say we`re serious, you cannot continue to support Assad as a client. There`s more firepower where this came from to say the least. And that we are very, very committed to ending Assad`s control in Syria. If you`re going to do that, you need a plan "B", and that is what one would hope the administration`s doing now.
That probably looks like building a Syrian opposition in a serious way in the eastern part of the country, supplying it, creating safe zones. Working with the Turks to provide that kind of operationalization in the north. And, I would argue, over time, diplomatically, with the Russians working on a solution. Much has happened in the Balkans in the 1990s.
Frankly, Rachel, I think Syria as a nation is probably going to have to be partitioned or broken apart. That`s the longer-term strategy. This initial strike is the first step in sending a signal.
MADDOW: Admiral James Stavridis, very helpful to have you with us here tonight, sir. Thank you for your time. Appreciate your insight into this.
WILLIAMS: Also standing by with us retired Army Four-Star General Barry McCaffrey. He is in Seattle tonight.
And, General, welcome. Given the limited target selection of this mission, what do you think the objective is of blowing up this one air facility?
GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY, NBC NEWS MILITARY ANALYST: I think Admiral Stavridis put it very nicely. There`s a lot of political importance to what just happened. There will be a direct devastating impact on the air units that were involved. There may well have been Russians on that airfield, by the way. I`m sure they would have pre-coordinated the strike with the Russians. Not giving them too much time to react.
But at the end of the day, Brian, look, a half million people have been killed in Syria. There are literally a dozen brutal warring factions. There have been multiple chemical attacks since the famous Obama red line.
Assad`s entire sect, the Alawite, and their associated allies, the Christians, Jews and others, know they`re going to be slaughtered if they lose this fight. I`m always uncomfortable about signaling political intent with military power. You never know where it`s going to go. In this case, it clearly -- the military aspect is nominal at best.
WILLIAMS: So, where does this leave us? If you are the Assad government looking and wondering?
MCCAFFREY: Well, I think the best thing to come out of it is the Russians say, oh, my gosh, we`ve gone too far. Now, you know, we`ve got to underscore the fact the U.S. air force and U.S. naval air power is to significant and capable compared to the Russian presence in general, never mind their deployed strength in Syria, they are very unlikely to want to take us on in direct combat.
They may well now have to think through I wonder if we ought to walk away from Assad. But I cannot imagine -- they`re on the wrong side of this argument, by the way. They`re supporting a Shiite minority presence inside Syria. They`re allying themselves with Iranian guards, Hezbollah, militia. They`re on the wrong side of this fight. There`s a lot of Sunni Muslims in the world particularly living near Russia.
So, I think Putin`s way out over his skis on this one. It may well be that it causes him to rethink their support for Assad. We`ll see.
WILLIAMS: And with your familiarity of a kind of target package like this, or this specific target, let`s call it 60 of these, half a million dollars a throw, 18 feet long. I`m guessing we have cratered the runway and the taxiways. I`m guessing since it`s a military air base, they have those protected kind of bunkerized, hardened hangars. But I`m guessing we`ve struck all of those and any visible aircraft on the ground.
MCCAFFREY: Well, we all love the Tomahawk. They`ve been improved dramatically since the first time I watched them used during Desert Storm. They are now incredibly lethal, low-risk, non-jammable option.
They`re not a very good runway cratering device. The air force has got some incredible weapons to do that. So they would have tried to knock out all the aircraft they could find. They would have gone after the command and control.
But Admiral Stavridis makes an important point. They weren`t used in the obvious prep session to take out air defense missiles and radar systems as phase one of a major strike with air power.
So, so far, this is a signal to Assad and the Russians, we`ve had it. But, again, the background of the conflict, most of Syria has been destroyed, self-propelled artillery, tanks, brutal murders of innocent civilians. So, you know, one could sort of question why the sudden chemical warfare strike would prompt a total change in U.S. national security policy.
WILLIAMS: After six years and 500,000 people.
General Barry McCaffrey, thank you for being part of our coverage and continuing to be tonight as we cover this Tomahawk missile launch.
MADDOW: All right. We`re going to bring in Bill Neely now. Bill Neely, NBC global correspondent. And he is in Moscow tonight, which is a particular and interesting place from which to be watching these developments.
Bill, what can you tell us tonight about Russian reaction, if any, to this young news of these big strikes?
BILL NEELY, NBC NEWS CHIEF GLOBAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, good evening, Rachel. Well, it is 4:30 in the morning, so no official reaction here in Moscow. But interestingly, just before news of those air strikes was confirmed, Russia`s ambassador at the U.N. warned the United States that military action in Syria would result in negative consequences. Now that I suppose is to be expected from the Russians.
Remember also that these 50 or so Tomahawk cruise missiles will have flown over the Russian air bases, the naval base at Tartus and the main airfield south of Latakia. They were flown at relatively low altitude and tracked by the Russians and by their S300 radar installations.
We don`t know yet, crucially, what one U.S. official told NBC News and this, indeed, has not been confirmed, but we don`t yet know if the U.S. warned Russia in any way about what it was going to do and, indeed, warned the Russians to get any air crews that it might have at that airfield near Homs out of harm`s way. We don`t know that yet.
MADDOW: Bill, in terms of the --
MADDOW: In terms of the Russian exposure here, you mentioned the Russian base there. Obviously, when, you know, Syrian fighter jet pilots are in the sky, they`re flying Soviet-made, Russian-made planes, right? There`s - - that`s the anti-aircraft defenses that they`ve got and they`re considerable. Those S-200, S-300 missile defense systems and aircraft defense systems. Those are all Russian-made.
But what about Russian personnel? In the United States, we have to worry about force protection efforts for our own 500 to 1,000 service members who are on the ground in Syria. Russia, obviously, has a large number of their own personnel on the ground there. Is there -- is the deconfliction process something that would be expected to protect them as well?
NEELY: Absolutely right. Those are the two key differences between President Trump`s decision now and President Obama`s decision in 2013. When Obama was weighing this up, there were no U.S. grounds on the troop in Syria and there were no Russians. Now for the last 18 months, we have both American bombing and of course large numbers of American -- of Russian troops on the ground.
The last time I was in Aleppo, for example, there were Russian foot patrols out on the streets. The Russians and Syrians are intermingled all over Syria, at air bases, at installations. They are advising the Syrians. There are thousands of Russian troops there. So, obviously, the danger with the United States which does not want a wider war, certainly not with Russia, is the dangerous of Russian military casualties.
MADDOW: NBC News global correspondent Bill Neely on the ground for us tonight, 4:30 in the morning Moscow time -- Bill, thank you very much. Really helpful to have you here with us.
Here in studio with us in New York, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Adam Schiff of California.
Congressman, it`s good to have you here tonight.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: Thank you. It`s good to be with you.
MADDOW: We never know exactly what within your remit of the intelligence committee is going to be the subject or discussion tonight. Obviously, it`s this news that the United States has launched nearly 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles, apparently from ships in the Mediterranean, targeting a Syrian air base on the western side of that country.
Let me first get your reaction, find out how much you know about this.
SCHIFF: Well, I received a call from the director of national intelligence not long I think after the missiles were on their way and he has cleared me to share this. It was I think close to 70 missiles fired from ship at a single target. That target was the airfield where it`s believed that the chemical weapons attack originated from.
It is, I think, at the present not the intention to have more than this single strike, but, of course, the administration is reserving their options depending on whether the regime responds against our troops or takes any other action against the U.S. targets or allies. But it was our best intelligence per the director that this is where the attack, the chemical weapons attack originated from and that was the response.
MADDOW: When you say this is where the chemical weapons attack originated from, meaning that Syrian aircraft that dropped munitions that appear to be chemical weapons munitions on Tuesday, that`s the field they took off from?
SCHIFF: That`s the field, as well as apparently some facilities involved in creating the chemical munitions that would go on that aircraft.
This, of course, isn`t the first chemical weapons attack by the regime and, you know, one of the concerns that I have about the action tonight -- I certainly think it was on the range of military options, one of the more limited options. It didn`t utilize aircraft. There wasn`t the risk of loss of life of our pilots.
They also evidently did everything they could to vet the site to make sure there wouldn`t be human casualties, wouldn`t be Russian casualties. But it is obviously a very abrupt change of course by the administration from just a few days ago when they said basically it`s up to the Syrian people to decide who will remain the leader of Syria, as if the Russians, the Iranians, Hezbollah, weren`t involved.
And, of course, this wasn`t the first time we`ve seen those terrible images, but it was the first time we got a sense that the president recognized the gravity of his office because those were very much the same kind of photos President Obama was confronted with and, of course, President Trump had a very different reaction when he wasn`t the commander in chief, now he is. But, you know, I would certainly strongly caution the administration not to make this a military effort to change the regime.
Now, I fully concur that the regime has to go, because as long as Assad is there, that fighting is going to go on, that terrible war is going to go on. But this is not something that can be accomplished via the air at a standoff location. At most, we can hope that this will deter the regime from using chemical weapons again. That is probably the most significant thing you could hope for as well as a deterrent to other regimes in the future by using chemical weapons.
But there are still a lot of issues to be resolved and one of them for the Congress is all of this is being done, not just the attack today, but the presence of our troops there, all of this is being done without any congressional vote, any congressional authorization and Congress really needs to deal with this.
MADDOW: Was this -- was this strike legal?
SCHIFF: Well, I did ask the director that question. What`s the legal basis for this? What`s the U.S. legal basis and what`s the international legal basis?
That was out of his lane as I thought it might be, that`s really not directly responsibility of the DNI. But that`s a question Congress needs to ask.
But I think we already know the answer to the question in terms of U.S. law and that is none of what we`re doing in Syria is authorized and this is an issue I took with the Obama administration. I introduced the AUMF that would authorize the use of force against ISIS and al Qaeda. I`m going to be reintroducing that after the recess.
But even that authorization, even the argument the Obama administration used that the pre-existing authorizations were broad enough to go after ISIS in Syria, that rationale doesn`t hold up. Even if it did, it wouldn`t extend to attacks like this one on the regime.
MADDOW: If the administration sees this as a standalone, one-off strike, that this isn`t the first in an escalating military campaign, you seem to indicate that was the gist of the message tonight that you got from the director of national intelligence. Does that effect whether or not it`s legal? Does a one-off strike require a different amount of authorization from the Congress legally speaking than an escalating campaign?
SCHIFF: No. I mean, the Congress should still be involved in the authorization even of a single attack of this magnitude. There may be a legal rationale that the White House offers that, well, these chemical weapons were a threat to our own troops. They could have been used against our troops. That`s a tough argument to make I think here.
Then, of course, there`s the challenge of making the argument under international law for the intervention. That`s a problem that the Obama administration was similarly wrestling with.
But it`s really clear, I think what the congressional obligation is here, and that is we still need to have a vote on whether we should be using military force at all in Syria. And, unfortunately over the last several years, there`s been this terrible confluence of interest between then the Obama administration, which didn`t want to have to devote the political muscle to getting that through the Congress, and a Congress that didn`t want to have to vote on it.
A few of us, you know, have been trying, Tim Kaine, myself and a handful of others, but we`ve never been able to generate sufficient political will to actually force a vote on this.
MADDOW: Congressman, let me ask you to go back to the initial point that you raised which is the decision-making process that led to this. Obviously, this does represent a major shift in course by the administration. Not just to escalate to military force, but to strike against the Syrian regime at all.
As you mentioned last week, the secretary of state was saying a week ago today the secretary of state was saying it`s up to the Syrian people whether or not Assad must go. We also had the U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley saying last week that the United States is not looking to bring about regime change. The president, himself, faced with previous chemical weapons attacks by Bashar al Assad had said there should be no invasion, should be no U.S. military force in response.
There has been a 180-degree turn that has -- that was not signaled for very long, that came about very, very rapidly.
What is your perception of why that happened, what are your concerns about that? Is it possible that this attack on Tuesday was just so egregious that it was worth throwing out the entire previous strategy and inventing a new one on the spot?
SCHIFF: Well, I have a couple reactions. The first is, in that footage we saw so often of those photographs of those kids that were suffocating. You also had -- I don`t know as a physician or a parent who was saying no one is doing anything about this. How can the world allow this to happen? No one is doing anything about this. That to me is the most powerful argument against standing still, doing nothing, and countenancing this by our inaction.
That gentleman I thought made the most powerful and eloquent argument that something has to be done and we have this awful paralysis in the United Nations which is really the body that ought to authorize action against people who are gassing their own citizens. But with a Russian veto, with the Chinese veto or inaction, getting that done has been impossible.
But what is the answer to that? Does the world just sit still and let people be gassed?
I think, you know, that`s what the administration is confronting, this administration and the last administration.
What concerns me about the last 24, 48 hours, is this attack, as awful as it was, it wasn`t the first. It`s one of several by the regime, and it does concern me that we not have an impulsive administration that is ready to completely change direction, that isn`t necessarily thinking through what are all the consequences here?
What I would have argued before today is we use coercive diplomacy with Russia. They made this bargain. They brokered this bargain. Assad would get rid of his chemical weapons. He obviously didn`t.
And use coercive pressure, build pressure to use force if Russia doesn`t get their client under control and put an end to this. And the marshaling of that coalition would have put a lot of pressure on Russia. Well, that`s all in the rearview mirror at this point.
You know, it does, I think, send the message to other places like North Korea that this administration is not unwilling to use force, and, you know, that may have a salutary impact in other places. But I do worry that this president who now has this responsibility of office not act impulsively, that these things really need to be thought through. If we`re lucky, there won`t have been civilian casualties and if we`re luckier still, there won`t have been Russian casualties. But even these single strikes can have a danger of getting away from their original purpose.
MADDOW: Let alone trying to understand what the knock-on consequences will be in terms of way all the multivariate actors respond. One of the things you hope has been gamed out in advance.
Congressman Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee -- thank you for helping us understand this tonight. Appreciate it, sir.
I will ask you, if we are going to hear from the president tonight, and we`re advised that we may hear from the president tonight, can we ask you back in terms of responding to what the president says?
MADDOW: All right. We`ll put an ankle monitor on you. Thank you, sir. Appreciate it.
WILLIAMS: Besides, it`s still early in California.
Congressman, thank you for coming by the studios.
During this interview, this conversation, we`ve been receiving a few more facts starting with the exact number as the Pentagon sees it, 59 cruise missiles impacted this airfield. As military airfields go, not massive. Kind of a standard layout of two long military length, mind you, runways separated by the usual taxiways. Styles differ in construction between the U.S. and nations overseas.
This is now -- this airfield has received 59 impacts tonight from these incoming cruise missiles. Indeed, we`re told by the White House, the guidance is we will hear from President Trump tonight who has, of all thing, the leader of about 20 percent of the world`s people in Florida tonight, at Mar-a-Lago -- President Xi of China.
So, we`re told the statement will be a tape turnaround. He will make a statement to news media. We`ll all roll that at the same time. You`ll see it as we see it.
For the moment, our chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel standing by in London.
And, Richard, question that kind of melds politics with what we`re seeing in the military tonight. The world has watched the first 75 or so days of this presidency and this president. They have seen deeds and statements or the lack thereof. With that in mind, how will the world view this military action tonight?
RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: I think it was just enough for president Trump to show that he`s different than President Obama. That he acted when his predecessor did not.
But it is not going to get him into any real trouble. It was not a decisive action. It was more symbolic. It was a slap on the wrist, actually, and it`s the kind of thing you can do -- it has a complete narrative.
The U.S. military said earlier today that it has radar footage showing the aircraft taking off from this now presumably destroyed air base and flying about 70 miles -- 67 miles is the distance to the town that was hit. I wouldn`t be surprised if at some stage we get to see that radar footage. And now, that air base has been obliterated and there`s ISR, there`s drones up in the air probably taking pictures of all of this.
So, it creates a full narrative of a horrific event then how it unfolded and then the air base destroyed. But it doesn`t fundamentally change Assad`s capabilities. It doesn`t fundamentally change his grip on power. It doesn`t change the dynamic of the civil war in that country.
It is a response that I think President Trump can go to the American people and say he did something and here`s the evidence.
WILLIAMS: So, Richard, this is -- if you want to look at it brass tax terms, we just spent $30 million tonight. We endangered in launching these things, as you know, every time one of these clears the tube on a navy vessel, everyone breathes a sigh of relief. All the young sailors on these vessels that launch these things tonight.
We killed some Syrians, I`m guessing. We may have killed some Russians, as kind of collateral damage. I`m guessing there`s fuel on fire. There`s cratered runways. There`s destroyed aircraft.
Is that the extent of what we get?
ENGEL: Well, I`m not saying that this was some political stunt. There was a horrific attack, and there was a response on that location. I`m saying that this was the minimum that could have been done in order to send that message.
WILLIAMS: All right.
ENGEL: The U.S. does have its hands tied in Syria to a degree because of the Russian presence. If the U.S., it turns out, killed some Russian advisers -- and we`re being told that the Russians were given something of a heads-up, which would be standard according to Barry McCaffrey, who was on your air a short while ago, saying that in this kind of sensitive operation, another major power in the battlefield would be given a short amount of heads-up to try and deconflict the area but not enough for them to really change their operating status.
But if the Russians had been killed, it would escalate dramatically. That`s a limitation. There are also hundreds of American troops in Syria right now on a counter-ISIS mission. If this had been a massive U.S. operation and many Syrian troops had been targeted and many Syrian troops had been killed, then it would be logical to assume that these Syrians might try to respond against those American troops, who would be sitting ducks in the country, within range of Syrian weapons.
So, it`s not that he had a full range of options to deal with. All these options are bad. But what he did, it seems, he picked the least amount he could do that has a complete narrative. Hit the base where the attack was launched and leave it at that. And I wouldn`t be surprised if he leaves it at that and then gives a statement in a short while talking about decisive leadership and how the U.S. is now -- is back in a leadership role.
MADDOW: NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel joining us from London -- Richard, thank you for being with us tonight. We do have a couple of quotes from this statement that we are expecting shortly from the president.
Again, it is a recorded statement, and we`re told via the "Associated Press" that the president will say the strike on Syria was in the vital national security interest of the United States. We`re also told that he will call on civilized nations to join the U.S. in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria.
Again, those are sort of advance quotes from what we`re expecting in terms of the statement from the president tonight. The president obviously is in south Florida at his golf resort, where he is hosting the president of the China for their summit.
Joining us now is Michael McFaul, who is the former U.S. ambassador to Russia.
Professor McFaul, thanks for being with us.
MICHAEL MCFAUL, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA: Sure. Thanks for having me.
MADDOW: Let me ask how you think Russia will respond to this. Russia obviously has been Assad`s greatest ally in Syria, not just in politics but in military matters as well. Lots of Russian military personnel. Lots of Russian weaponry. Lots of Russian missile defense systems on the ground in Syria.
How are they going to respond to this?
MCFAUL: Well, as you`ve just been discussing, if there are Russian casualties, that will trigger, of course, a radical negative response. And I hope that there weren`t, and I hope that that was coordinated before this attack.
So far, the Russian government stance has been that there wasn`t a chemical weapons attack and that they`ve denied that. And so, right now, their formal position, I think, will be to defend their ally, Mr. Assad, and defend the sovereignty of the state of Syria.
Having said that, there`s a little "but" in my head, which is to say that in 2013, I was in the government. I was with the president when he met with president Putin. We did a deal with the Russians to eliminate chemical weapons in Syria, and at that time president Putin was the hero. Let`s remember that. He was the guy that convinced Assad to get rid of all these weapons, or so we thought.
This doesn`t make him look like a hero, and so I can imagine a scenario where they do not overreact because after all, this has been a very limited attack. This is not an escalatory attack. This is not regime change just as all your previous guests have said. I could foresee a response that was much more muted than you might otherwise think, but because Putin himself was involved in getting rid of or at least trying to get rid of these chemical weapons in the first place.
MADDOW: There has been -- on the issue of what this chemical weapons attack was on Tuesday, obviously there was an international effort where there was verified disposal of thousands of tons of Syrian chemical weapons. They had a huge weapons of mass destruction stockpile, and a lot of that stuff was gotten rid of. Since then, there have been a number of allegations of the use of chemical weapons, but ultimately what it boiled down to in most of those allegations is that something like chlorine or something like mustard was used, that there was a chemical element to a conventional attack but they weren`t, technically speaking weapons of mass destruction.
We do not have confirmation that this was a sarin attack on Tuesday. The Turkish health ministry has said that it is. No other official body has made that sort of declaration. As far as we understand it, that`s still a matter of international investigation.
Is there an argument to be made that before there was any official determination about the use of banned chemical weapons, that this may have been a premature response?
MCFAUL: That`s a hard question because you`re absolutely right about the forensics of what was exactly used. For me, as somebody who was involved in those negotiations back in 2013, I`m wondering about the inspections regimes. What was -- you know, what went wrong that this was allowed to happen? And most certainly it was a rapid response.
Most -- you know, I watched what the president said yesterday. It was clear to me that he wanted to do something, and he did something.
You know, I have to say for me personally, I support the response. There`s just been too many people that were innocently killed in Syria for me, where we didn`t do enough. And at least to put Mr. Assad on notice that there will be a response, I think is a good thing.
The thing I worry about, however, is what if he doubles down? He gets to respond to this by the way. It`s not like we get a vote and he doesn`t get a vote. And I worry about whether he challenges the United States, he challenges the international regime by escalating and perhaps using chemical weapons again.
What will then be the response from the United States and the Western world? But today, I think it was the appropriate response for a horrible terrorist attack that President Assad did to innocent civilians in Syria.
MADDOW: Mr. Ambassador, let me just ask you one last point. On that matter that you just said in terms of Assad having a vote and it not just being our action and there`s no response, several Pentagon officials told Nancy Youssef, who`s a reporter who`s now at BuzzFeed, a very experienced reporter on national security matters.
MADDOW: Several Pentagon officials told her this week that the chemical weapons -- what appears to have been this chemical weapons attack on Tuesday by Assad may itself have been an action that Assad took to test the United States after Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, said on Thursday that it`s up to the Syrian people whether or not Assad is their leader, after the U.S. appeared to back off its previous insistence that Assad must go, that the attack on Tuesday itself may have been a test of the new administration, essentially to find out where the new lines are.
From your experience in these matters, from the way that you`ve seen this unfold over the years, does that seem plausible to you?
MCFAUL: Well, I`ve heard that reporting and, I don`t want to doubt that reporting. It doesn`t seem plausible to me. I don`t think it would be that quick of a causal chain, right? They said that a few days ago, and then they decided to do this.
I can tell you that the supporters of the Assad regime, including those in Moscow, did react to those statements from Trump administration officials. That seemed like it was a departure in policy, and as of yesterday, it was a radical departure from that departure, as you, yourself, was just talking about earlier in the program. And now this is a radical departure from previous, more deliberative responses before taking this action. And I think it makes everybody uncertain about where this goes forward.
MADDOW: Former Russia ambassador, Michael McFaul, now professor at Stanford University -- Professor, thank you very much. It`s good to have you with us tonight. Appreciate it.
MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.
WILLIAMS: So this is what`s happening in Florida. The president has spoken to television cameras. We`re told he spoke for about three minutes. Rachel read some of the little dribs and drabs we`ve been given from his remarks.
We are -- the tape has arrived back at a central location that feeds all the television networks. It is cued up and ready to go. We`re going to get a two-minute warning to when they roll that. We will then watch the president together. We have one minute left to go in this hour before the top of the hour here Eastern Time.
MADDOW: The one piece of information we`ve gotten in terms of what damage may have been done by this strike, we`ve just had a report from a U.S. official to NBC News tonight, Courtney Kube at the Pentagon actually, saying that these Tomahawk missiles appear to have hit aircraft, at least one runway, and gas fuel pumps.
There`s no word yet that there were human casualties or that there were human targets in this strike whatsoever. So far, they`re saying one runway, some number of aircraft, and gas pumps.
WILLIAMS: At the same time, it is hard to imagine a facility that size, a facility supporting the battle tempo that`s alleged to have been supported there without humans in and on the grounds.
MADDOW: Particularly when you`re talking about more than 50 missiles coming in. Those are thousand-pound munitions.
MADDOW: So, at this point, we sort of -- we remain -- we await the strategic information in terms of what the U.S. strategic thinking was behind this specific target.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2017 MSNBC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Copyright 2017 ASC Services II Media, LLC. All materials herein are protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written permission of ASC Services II Media, LLC. You may not alter or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the content.