IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 4/12/2017

Guests: Derek Chollet, David Nir

Show: The Rachel Maddow Show Date: April 12, 2017 Guest: Derek Chollet, David Nir

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour.

At the southernmost tip of the great state of Nevada, there`s a town called Cal-Nev-Ari. Cal-Nev-Ari, which sounds like a pasta, I know. But it`s not, it`s actually kind of a portmanteau, it`s a combined jumble of abbreviations for California, Nevada and Arizona. Cal-Nev-Ari, that`s the name of this town.

It has 200 or 300 people in it. It`s on Route 95. I have driven through Cal-Nev-Ari. It`s way out in the desert. But it is emphatically not in the middle of nowhere, which you can tell from its name. It`s in a very specific, identifiable memorable place. It`s right at the point where California, Nevada, and Arizona come together on the map. Hence the name Cal-Nev-Ari.

Now, there is a place sort of that has that same function on the map, all the way around the world in Syria as well. It doesn`t have the same catchy name, it doesn`t have a little portmanteau. It`s a place called Al-Tanf. But it is that memorable in the same way in terms of how it fits on the map.

Al-Tanf is inside Syria, but it is right at the corner where the borders of Jordan and Iraq and Syria all come together in a triangle point. And as such, it`s an important spot.

It is really remote. It is way out there in the Syrian deserts, but it is close to that three-way border between those three countries and it`s also right on the main road that runs from Baghdad in Iraq to Damascus in Syria. When ISIS controlled big swaths of both Iraq and Syria, so much so that they basically obliterated the border between those two countries and areas they controlled that spot, al-Tanf, was considered to be an important point on an important supply line for ISIS between major ISIS-controlled cities in Iraq and the ones in Syria. Again, it`s called al-Tanf, I think that`s how you say it.

And these days, it`s a well-known place. It`s sort of on the map internationally, not just because it defines that triangle, not just because it`s tucked into that strategic corner where those three countries meet.

The reason al-Tanf tough is now a very high-profile spot it`s because that is where U.S. troops are based in Syria. It`s not the only place, but it`s one of them. The United States has about a thousand servicemen and women on the ground in Syria. The new administration is quietly arranged to send hundreds more American service members into Syria, but because they have abandoned in the practice of previous administrations of making announcements about those troop deployments, we don`t know much about where the new Americans are going.

We do know that several hundred U.S. marines set up in our artillery base, studded with howitzers several weeks ago. We do know, of course, that U.S. pilots are flying bombing raids against ISIS targets in Syria basically every day. But the biggest longest standing complement of U.S. troops in Syria are the special operations troops, and special operators will sometimes do raids themselves on high-value targets, but their primary mission and what they spend most of their time doing is arming and training and assisting some of the rebels that are fighting in the Syrian civil war, rebels that specifically are fighting against ISIS.

And even though these are special operations forces who are doing this work and special operations stuff is often secret, this mission, this arm and train and assist mission, it`s not -- it`s not entirely a secret. It`s a known and widely reported thing, for example, that one of the basis that U.S. forces are operating from to do this kind of work is a small base in southern Syria that`s right at that Cal-Nev-Ari spot, right at that key border spot between Iraq and Jordan and Syria. That little base called al- Tanf.

Well, on Friday, Syria time, when the new administration decided to shoot Tomahawk missiles at Syrian air base in a different part of the country, that was not an abstract thing, that was not just a matter of political debate for these hundreds of U.S. service members who are on the ground in Syria. "The Wall Street Journal", NBC News, "Stars and Stripes", few other outlets have all now reported that when those U.S. missiles were shot into Syria, the U.S. Special Operations troops who specifically were based at that that little base at al-Tanf, that little base at that corner of those three borders, when those missile strikes were launched Thursday night East Coast Time, Friday morning in Syria, those special operations troops left. They left their base.

Now again, it`s not a secret that they`re there. I mean, the United States has been bombing ISIS targets in Syria every day for a long time now thousands of airstrikes the U.S. has had some military presence and involvement in Syria all the way back to September in 2014. In all of that time though, the U.S. has not had American pilots shot out of the sky by Syrian aircraft or by the Russian fighter jets or by Syrian ground-to-air anti-aircraft defense systems, right?

The United States has not had U.S. forces on the ground attacks wholesale either by the U.S. military or by the Russian military. American forces have been able to mount what are now sustained military operations of various kinds inside Syria all this time, all the way back to 2014, because the U.S. has not become a full-scale combatant in that country civil war, right?

We have said all this time that our troops are only there to, yes, occasionally fight ISIS ourselves, but mostly to help other people fight ISIS inside Syria, and that limited U.S. mission is what has created room to operate. It sort of created political space around these hundreds of U.S. service members that have been in this very dangerous place in the middle of this very bloody civil war for years now doing this work. And that political weather changed all of a sudden.

On Thursday night, Washington time, which was Friday morning in Syria, that whole political arrangement changed. That whole weather system blew out and another one blew in. And that had a very significant material consequence for dozens of American special operations troops who real quick had to get out of that base at al-Tanf, because with ordering that missile strike, the United States government changed its policy position 180 degrees all of a sudden, and now, the U.S. military is not just in Syria fighting ISIS. Now, the U.S. military is in Syria to attack the Syrian military.

So, that changes the proverbial weather for American forces who are in Syria that day right there already in a dangerous place but that changed the weather in which they operate from stormy to hurricane, instantly, right? If there was going to be a retaliation for that U.S. missile strike, if there was going to be retaliation by the Syrian military or by the Russian military, if they were going to come after U.S. forces in retaliation for that missile strike, it suddenly became very important in very practical terms that the United States should not have a known base full of dozens of American elite troops sitting there inside Syria, with a bull`s eye on them waiting to be attacked because everybody knows they`re there.

And so, when that missile strike happened, these U.S. special operations troops left al-Tanf quickly. And reportedly, they took off into the desert. So, they wouldn`t be sitting ducks on that base. And from out in the desert they would wait out whatever retaliation might come.

And in fact, after those special operators left their base and went out into the desert, all hell did break loose. But it was not a bombing raid by Syrian planes or by Russian planes. Turns out it was a car bomb at the base.

ISIS fighters rolled a car bomb up to the entry to al-Tanf, that U.S. base and they blew the gates open and then they streamed in. U.S. military is describing to ISIS fighters, some of them wearing suicide vests. They used a car bomb to blow the gate. They breached the perimeter. They got inside they started to overrun that us base in southern Syria.

Now, the U.S. special operations troops who have been there, they had left. They had gone out into the desert. But some U.S. -allied Syrian fighters were at that base they did their best to defend that position. CentCom now says that three of them were killed in the resulting firefight.

But once that battle started, it wasn`t just Syrians against Syrians, it wasn`t just Syrians against ISIS, once that battle started according to multiple reports those U.S. special operations forces who had hunkered down out in the desert to try to avoid whatever retaliation might come from the missile strike, once the firefight started at their base they came screaming back out of the desert to try to save that base.

And what followed were told was about three hours of an extraordinary close combat firefight between these 20 to 30 ISIS fighters and dozens of U.S. special operators who are based at that base in southern Syria. Apparently, the fighting culminated in the U.S. troops calling in multiple airstrikes to hit the ISIS guys and thereby save that outpost.

And in the end, these U.S. forces were able to take it back. They won that battle. They save that base. But as I mentioned, CentCom is now confirmed some of their allies were killed in the fight.

And the Pentagon is calling this a serious fight. They`re describing it as a rare, extended close quarters battle between U.S. troops and a large number of ISIS fighters. One Defense Department official telling "Stars and Stripes" this was a coordinated complex attack.

American military families who have loved ones serving overseas on the ground in Syria, they know acutely, right, obviously now that`s a very seriously risky place for any American to be serving right now. But with that missile strike, with the United States, with that missile strike becoming a whole different kind of combatant in this six-year-long civil war, with that missile strike launched Thursday night U.S. time, Friday Syria time, with that strike, all of a sudden, the threat environment in which these American troops are serving in Syria, their threat environment changed dramatically.

And again, this is not an academic thing. This is not esoteric. This is not a, you know, broad-scale generic assessment. This is about specific Americans.

This is these dozens of Americans who are operating out of that base at al- Tanf. That missile strike put those Americans in a position of having to ultimately fight tooth and nail for hours in close combat ultimately with air support just to hold on to that base.

Today, the new president did an interview on the Fox Business Channel, where in the middle of that interview, he volunteered and sort of an awkward new thought about Syria. I should tell you I`m going to play what he said here, but I should tell you, it`s also awkward how they broadcast. They sort of covered it with a fancy cable TV animation, but you can hear what he says here.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Just so you understand, we`re not going into Syria.


MADDOW: So, this was not the, you know, response to a question. This is the start of their segment. We`re not going into Syria. I don`t know if by we he means -- I don`t know who he means. Like me and my interviewer? You know, we the Trump family? I don`t know.

But it if by we he means the United States military isn`t going into Syria, that makes no sense because the United States military is already in Syria, in pretty big numbers, and that makes these comments today -- these sort of volunteered out of nowhere, eurph comments about Syria, it makes -- it makes them a strange thing to hear.


TRUMP: Just so you understand, we`re not going into Syria. Just so you understand, we`re not going into Syria. Now, are we going to get involved with Syria? No.


MADDOW: No. We already are involved with Syria, if by involved you mean hundreds of brave Americans risking their lives there every day.

I mean, this -- this president, any president, right, is commander-in-chief of the U.S. Armed Forces. Right now, that includes hundreds of U.S. troops who are very much involved in Syria as we speak tonight. And the administration`s actions in Syria just over the last few days have already raised the mortal stakes for those Americans immensely.


TRUMP: Now, are we going to get involved with Syria? No.



As the administration, this new administration strides into the middle of some of the most complex stuff on Earth, for a lot of Americans, statements like that from the president today, right, they bring about kind of a like a gut check moment on whether or not our government -- this is the only government we`ve got -- whether they`ve got you know handle on the basics, right, whether they understand the basics. Whether, of course, they can do the basic stuff that an American government ought to be able to do.

In that same interview today, the president told Fox Business that in the last call that he just had with the president of China, he says the Chinese president walked him through thousands of years of history between China and Korea. He said -- this is what he said, quote, "He explains", meaning the Chinese president, "explains thousands of years of history with Korea. Not that easy. In other words, not as simple as people would think."

By which I mean presumably what he means is not as simple as he thought it was, but now that the president of China has explained it to him, whoo, no idea was that complicated.

The president of the United States learning basic world history from the president of China in a phone call is not ideal in terms of this -- this gut check moment as to whether the government knows what it is doing. But worrying about one person even if that one person is the president, that`s an easier thing than worrying about the government more broadly, right? And this isn`t a one-man worry.

There are also gut-check questions now on days like today in the news about how the whole us government operates and whether basic standards basic minimum standards are something they can handle or that they even have an interest in attempting.

For example on that call with the president of China today, both sides, the Chinese side and the American side, both sides released what`s called a readout of the call, a readout of what was discussed between the two leaders. And this is how it`s done, right? When presidents of countries have discussions with each other, it`s never a personal matter. That`s literally international relations and there is a national interest in both countries.

There`s an international interest in knowing what happened in those calls. There`s a basic expectation that there will be note-takers. There will be an official record of what happened in that call. There will be a public statement about what was discussed between these two leaders, right? That`s how it`s done. For obvious reasons , that`s how it`s done.

So, as to avoid misunderstandings, to make sure everybody is on the same page, nobody misunderstands something that happened, nobody mischaracterizes something that happened, nobody accidentally starts a war. We had a conversation. We agree. This was what was said and what was decided. That`s how you do it.

After this call today between the Chinese president and our president, the Chinese side released a lengthy readout. This isn`t all of it. I would quote from parts of it.

The Chinese president and his U.S. counterpart had a telephone conversation. They discussed the situation on the Korean peninsula and in Syria. President Xi said China sticks to the target of the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. China holds that the issue should be solved through peaceful means.

On Syria, President Xi said any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. He asked for teams from China and the United States to work together closely to make sure that President Trump`s visit to China later this year could achieve fruitful results.

The two leaders held in-depth discussions and reached important consensus on bilateral relations in the new, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

Yes, that`s -- it goes on and on and on and on, about all these points of detail, all these points of discussion. That`s what these readouts are like. That was the Chinese read out today of what happened in that call.

Here was the American read out today of what happened in that call. Here it is: President Donald Trump spoke with President Xi of China to follow up after President Xi`s visit to Mar-a-Lago. It was a very productive call. End.

That`s the official U.S. government readout of what happened on that call, from the press secretary. I mean, maybe it`s progress, no mention of Hitler. But seriously, that was it, that`s it.

And that -- that`s not like taking a test and getting the answers wrong. That is like showing up to take a test and you`re not wearing pants and you`re drunk and they won`t let you in. I mean, this is not even trying to meet the basic standards of what even a lousy government does in basic international relations easy stuff.

And when it comes to expectations not just for how any country will behave, but for how the us government will behave specifically, there`s another thing to understand today about how they are blowing it, how they are just doing it wrong, and the best we can hope here is that they`re just ignorant and screwing up, because if they`re doing it this way on purpose, we need to have a whole different conversation. And that story is next.


MADDOW: Take a look at this. This is a famous piece of tape here at NBC News. I actually think it`s famous among American foreign correspondents generally. It`s not just NBC famous.

But you`ll get recognized that this is an incident that happened in 2005. It`s in Sudan. The dictator of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, is meeting with the then American secretary of state who was Condoleezza Rice at the time. This was during the George W. Bush administration.

And during their meeting, the American press corps was on the outskirts of the photo op between Condi Rice and the Sudanese leader. And American reporters including NBC`s Andrea Mitchell started to ask questions, which is what they do, but the Sudanese did not like that and they reacted very poorly to the reporters shouting these questions.

So, you`ve seen some of this tape. We`ll play some of it now. But watch in particular, watch the way the U.S. people in the room responded. Watch out like that the State Department, Condoleezza Rice people, in the room responded.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don`t ever touch our journalists again.


MADDOW: Did you catch that? And we put a subtitle on that so you can you can catch that. This is the place I want to replay. This is one of the State Department people, one of the American people is on this trip with the U.S. secretary of state and watch just what he does. When the Sudanese start pushing around these U.S. reporters, just watch.


MADDOW: You guys -- this is wrong tape we get to that in a second.

What happened in Sudan in 2005 is that Andrew Mitchell shouts out this question. The Sudanese minders sort of grabbed her. She gets manhandled out of the room. She just grabbed from behind and thrown out, and this official from the U.S. State Department steps up and says, as you saw there in the previous tape, never touch our journalists again.

Now, that was news itself when it happened, but after that happened, the Secretary of State at the time, Condoleezza Rice, to her credit, but also because it`s why you expect of an American secretary of state, she made a huge issue out of this on her trip. She demanded an apology from the Sudanese government. She demanded assurances that this would never happen again.

And, you know, in that moment, she`s not just sticking up for an American citizen who was grabbed and thrown around by the foreign government, but she`s also standing up for journalists, right? Standing up for the American ideal of how a reporter gets treated even if in this other country, they`re not used to treating reporters with respect or allowing them to ask questions.

That`s the way we expect the secretary of state to deal with something like this and it doesn`t have to be a physical altercation, right? Fast forward a decade to 2016, Andrea Mitchell again, this time in Cuba. You might remember the weird press conference where President Obama and Raul Castro appeared side-by-side. Castro on one point tried to make it a photo-op and he held Obama`s arm up and Obama wouldn`t put his fist in the air and the strange thing.

Part of the tension, part of the difficulty in that press conference even before that failed attempt at that photo op was because President Obama stood up for American reporters. In this case, again, Andrea Mitchell, when she was ignored and then insulted by Raul Castro.

President Obama called on Andrea Mitchell to ask a question. She asked a question that was directed at both President Obama and President Castro. President Obama answered first, and then this is what happened when he finished up his answer and Raul Castro didn`t want to answer Andrea`s question, frankly, because he`s not used to having to answer any reporters questions.


BARACK OBAMA, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: I guess, ultimately, what this comes down to, Andrea, is I have faith in people. I think that if you meet Cubans here and Cubans meet Americans, and they`re meeting and talking and interacting and doing business together and going to school together, and learning from each other, then they`ll recognize people are people. And in that context, I believe that change will occur now.

But I`m done, but, Senior Presidente, I think Andrea had a question for you just but your vision. It`s up to you and he did say he was only going to take one question I was going to take two. But I leave it up to you if you want to address that question.

Andrea -- she`s one of our most esteemed journalists in America, and I`m sure she`d appreciate just a short brief answer.




MADDOW: Mr. President.

He`s going to ignore Andrea Mitchell and President Obama is like, she has asked you a question, she`s one of our most esteemed journalists. Raul Castro is not happy about it.

But that is how the U.S. government usually handles foreign leaders, right, mistreatment, foreign leaders` disrespect, foreign leaders` disregard of American reporters and the whole idea of a free press, right? That`s what we expect of American president, of American secretaries of state, because we have a free press in this country.

And ostensibly, the United States government believes and promotes the fact that there should be a free press everywhere, and part of that part of a basic way we do that as a government is that our government officials, particularly somebody like the president of the secretary of state they model what it means to respect the free pass, to respond to the free press. We model what that means by in part standing up for American reporters when our government goes abroad and leaders from other countries disrespect them.

Well, today, the new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, went to Moscow where the Putin government has increasingly taken over all forms of the media. And at the start of a photo op with the American press corps, on the edge of the proceedings, a lot of people thought what happened here was actually injury Mitchell again. I think this is related to his reputation for asking tough questions in difficult environments. But this wasn`t Andrea Mitchell actually. It was Carol Morello of "The Washington Post".

And she shouted out a question at the start of the photo op as American reporters want to do, and the Russian foreign minister responded by staring her down by yelling at her and insulting her and watch out Rex Tillerson reacted.


CAROL MORELLO, THE WASHINGTON POST: Mr. Secretary, the Russians don`t believe the intelligence. How confident are you, Mr. Secretary, that intelligence is correct?

SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: Who was bringing you up? Who was giving you your manners, you know?


MADDOW: And Rex Tillerson smiles and puts on his glasses. I actually think we had that subtitled as Andrea Mitchell. That was not Andrea Mitchell, though. It`s Carol Morello from "The Washington Post".

But the reaction there from Rex Tillerson is astounding, right? This foreign minister is yelling at an American reporter, "Who brought you up? Where`d you get your manners?" Tillerson puts on his readers and smiles to himself.

That is not how the U.S. government behaves in situations like this, right? That is doing it wrong, when it comes to the basic expectations for the behavior of the U.S. government. That is -- that`s screwing up even the easy stuff that you`re expected to do on behalf of long-standing non- controversial American values.

I mean, sometimes when these guys threw stuff up, it is funny or it is embarrassing or it is insulting. Sometimes, it`s potentially life and death.

No matter how much you dislike or disagree with any American president, this kind of stuff is the reason nobody should ever root against an American president, because when they fail, when they can`t be even basically competent, when they can`t do even the basic day-to-day easy stuff, it can very quickly get very scary.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don`t ever touch our journalists again.



MADDOW: Today, the former campaign chairman for the sitting U.S. president registered retroactively as a foreign agent. He registered as having worked as a foreign agent in the past, although he`s only filed the registration today. Paul Manafort spokesman said today that former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort has been in talks with the government on this matter, talks, quote, "with federal authorities about the advisability of registering under the Foreign Agents Registration Act for some of his past political work."

Mr. Manafort received formal guidance recently from the authorities and he is taking appropriate steps in response to the guidance.

OK. This retroactive registration as a foreign agent after talks with federal authorities, that makes Paul Manafort the second high-ranking Trump campaign official to have to retroactively register as an agent of a foreign government now, but after the fact.

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn was also apparently advised that he should register for his previous work on behalf of a foreign power. He made that registration several weeks after he was fired from the administration for lying about his contacts with the Russian government.

Today`s news about Paul Manafort comes on the same day that the "Associated Press" confirmed that Paul Manafort received at least some of the millions of dollars that were earmarked for him in a secret ledger maintained by the ousted pro-Vladimir Putin dictator of Ukraine for whom Paul Manafort used to work.

Now, these payments were reportedly routed through shell companies in Belize for some reason. Paul Manafort had previously denied that the ledger of secret payments was real or that he had received any payments listed in that ledger. He now basically admits that he did receive those payments but he says there`s nothing wrong with them. He says they were not illegal off the books cash payments. They were wire transfers and wire transfers aren`t cash. So, there. Nothing to see here.

It is an amazing fact that the sitting presidents former campaign chair receiving off the books payments from an ousted dictator routed through Bolivian shell companies and then retroactively registering herself as an agent of a foreign country, it`s an amazing fact that that`s not even the biggest story unfolding in this news cycle about the Trump campaign and its connections to foreign governments.

Last night, of course, "The Washington Post" broke the news that this past summer, the FBI obtained a FISA warrant to surveil a foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign because they were able to persuade a FISA court judge that there was reason to believe he was knowingly acting as an agent of a foreign power, specifically of Russia.

They obtained that FISA warrant for Carter Page last summer, according to "The Washington Post". After they initially obtained that warrant last summer, they renewed it at least once after 90 days. For all we know, the FBI still has him under FISA surveillance.

Quoting from "The Post", "The government`s application for the surveillance order targeting Carter Page included a lengthy declaration that laid out investigators basis for believing that he was an agent of the Russian government and knowingly engaged in clandestine intelligence activities on behalf of Moscow."

Carter Page denies that he had any inappropriate contacts with the Russians. Since this news broke, he`s been telling all sorts of news outlets that this FISA warrant to surveil his communications just shows that the Obama administration was out to get him. In an interview this afternoon, Carter Page still would not say who exactly brought him into the Trump campaign, although he was asked many, many times in many ways that question by Jake Tapper.

Everything we are learning pretty much every day now about the Trump campaign, about people like Paul Manafort and Carter Page, the question still remains unanswered of all the people in the world, Donald Trump could have hired for his campaign, why did he end up with all these guys, with all these creepy previously undisclosed now emerging ties to Russia?


MADDOW: This was a question, do you support or oppose President Trump`s decision to launch a missile strike on a Syrian air base? Right? Maybe a complicated issue but that`s a very straightforward question. Do you support or oppose?

That`s when "The Washington Post"/ABC poll this past week. Now, here`s the fascinating thing -- that same poll, "The Washington Post"/ABC poll, they asked that question now, this week, but they also asked that exact same question back in 2013 when it was this guy, President Obama, who is considering a missile strike in Syria.

So, we not only have the new polling on that question this week, we have basically the exact same polling question frozen and amber from four years ago in 2013. And just look at the response -- everybody who`s ever told you that Democrats and Republicans are mirror images of each other, they both have all the same problems, look at -- look at this.

Look at the Democrats numbers first. Back in 2013 when it was President Obama considering missile strikes in Syria, the proportion of Democratic voters who supported that was 38 percent. Now, four years later, new president 2017, it`s no longer 38 percent, it`s 37 percent, difference of one point, basically a rounding error. So that`s how Democrats have changed their minds on that issue over four years.

Now, let`s look at the Republicans. 2013, when it was President Obama, the proportion of Republican voters who said they thought it would be okay for President Obama to shoot missiles into Syria was 22 percent. Ask Republicans today, now that we have a Republican president, look at their response -- oh! The number jumps from 22 percent to 86 percent when you ask Republican voters if they support missile strikes into Syria now that the president doing it would be named Trump instead of Obama. A difference of 64 points, a 64-point slides is the polling equivalent of a unicorn that spits fire and also makes delicious lasagna out of vegan food stuffs.

But there it is -- raw data, clear as day. Democrats moved on this by one point. Republicans move 64 freaking points, after the one variable that changed then to now is the political party of the president considering this policy.

Anybody who tells you that Republicans and Democrats are flip sides of the same coin, they`re also partisan, anybody who tells you that look at that and just tell me that makes sense.

National security sort of ought to be a nonpartisan thing. If we`re going to have anything that`s nonpartisan, that ought to be it. For some people, it is a nonpartisan thing.

Joining us now is Derek Chollet. He`s a former assistant secretary of defense for international affairs in the Obama administration. He`s also a former senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council.

Mr. Chollet, I wanted to talk to you for a long time. Thanks for coming.

DEREK CHOLLET, FORMER ASST. SECY. OF DEFENSE: Great to be here. Thanks, Rachel.

MADDOW: Secretary of state is in Russia today. The tensions are reportedly off the charts in part because of this U.S. missile strike into Syria on Thursday.

Is it clear to you that that air strike fits whatever U.S. policy is now in Syria?

CHOLLET: No, because I don`t think it`s clear what us policy is. I don`t think Trump or his team had really decided. They`ve been all over the place in the last several days.

You`ve heard from Nikki Haley about regime change. You`ve heard Rex Tillerson say, no, we`re not going to do that. It`s all about ISIS.

And they seem to be changing their view almost hour by hour. I`m just going back to that poll that you pointed out -- I mean, it`s notable that one of the people who is driving down those Republican numbers in 2013 was Donald Trump who was, of course, tweeting to President Obama not to take the strike. I spent a lot of my time up on Capitol Hill during that I`m advocating for congressional authorization for the use of force.

And it`s -- it`s really depressing that we see that flip that you pointed out where the 60-some percent now support a strike that they opposed in 2013.

MADDOW: It is one thing to see that happening among senior administration officials, to see these public statements that don`t cohere among the different seniors in the administration. It`s a very practical thing though -- part of what we`ve been talking about tonight is that there are a thousand U.S. service members in Syria.

CHOLLET: And I`m very glad you in sorry either way.

MADDOW: Is it clear to you -- even just thinking about them, even just thinking about their families tonight -- is it clear that the knock-on effect -- the potential knock-on effects of those strikes, the potential retaliation, the way the threat environment changes for those Americans -- is it clear to you that that has been considered? That that`s being adequately factored into American decision-making?

CHOLLET: Well, I think certainly the Pentagon, there`s evidence that it was considered, which is why those special operators were moved out of that base.


CHOLLET: As you pointed it out at the top. I mean, that was a force protection move that I`m sure this was acutely on General Mattis or Secretary Mattis` mind. Whether or not it`s in the calculation of the president, who knows?

MADDOW: Do you have any idea what the president means when he says we`re not going into Syria given that there are a thousand American already there?

CHOLLET: I don`t. I mean I think I`m very glad you pointed out at the top of this show that the United States has been bombing Syria every day since September of 2014. American pilots are getting in the aircraft or driving drones from afar to try to fight ISIS in Syria, and we have special operators on the ground about a thousand now who are risking their lives to support Syrian forces in their fight against ISIS.

So, we are engaged in Syria. Now, U.S. military forces are not engaged in an effort to try to take down Assad or conduct regime change. I actually think that`s a smart move.

My guess is that`s what President Trump is saying when he`s saying we`re not going to get into Syria, but I think he at least should acknowledge the fight that our troops are in in Syria against ISIS, absolutely.

MADDOW: And how he may be changing that with his actions that even if he doesn`t recognize.

CHOLLET: It absolutely raises the risk, no question.

MADDOW: Derek Chollet is a former assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration -- I really appreciate your time tonight. Will you come back and talk to me more about other national security?

CHOLLET: Absolutely. I`m happy to.

MADDOW: Thanks for being here. I appreciate it.

CHOLLET: Thanks.

MADDOW: All right. We`ll be right back. Stay with us.


MADDOW: Here is the man changing his mind, a member of Congress changing his mind for real. Watch.


GAINESVILLE RESIDENT: I have a very simple, direct question.

Why do you not support bills that force Trump to show his IRS records?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Answer that question.

REP. TED YOHO (R), FLORIDA: I was against this, because umber one: it`s not constitutional.


YOHO: Sara Walters, came in, and I said that to her. And she goes, "Don`t you think that the executive, the president of our country, that has business deals all around the world that we might want to know what`s going on with this taxes, to make sure that here`s no funny business?


YONO: And she changed my opinion.


MADDOW: She changed my opinion. This person from the Indivisible group locally came into my office, walked me through this, talked to me about it in a way that made me change my position.

That was Florida Republican Congressman Ted Yoho in his very Republican district, explaining to them that pressure from them, his constituents, had changed his mind and now, he`s willing to say you know what, you`re right. I disagreed with you before, but you`re right, the president should release his tax returns. You have changed my mind about that.

It can happen. That was it happening in nature.

Members of Congress are home this week supposedly sort of getting a little taste of what things are like in their home districts, talking to their constituents. It`s not always going the way they expect it to that is starting to have some national implications and that`s next.


MADDOW: The Republican who used to hold the seat in Kansas`s fourth congressional district is Mike Pompeo who is now the CIA director. He was just reelected in November by 31 points. Trump won that same district in November by 27 points.

Last night, the Republican candidate elected to replace Mike Pompeo, though, he only won by about seven. Democratic contender got within inches of that Republican in deep red Kansas, and he did it with barely any support from the national Democratic Party. While on the Republican side, every Republican up to and including the president big-footed themselves into that race to try to help save that race.

So, the Democrats lost but they sort of feel like they won. Is that an outlier or is that the start of a pattern?

Republicans are reportedly also anxious about holding on to Ryan Zinke`s old seat in Montana now that he`s interior secretary. Republicans in the state nixed a bill that would have made that an all mail-in election, an all vote by mail election because the Republican state party chairman said it would make it too easy to vote and that might help Democrats win that seat.

In Georgia, there`s Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price`s old seat. He won that district in November by over 20 points, but Trump barely won that district by less than two. Is that winnable?

Republicans have launched many attack ads now against leading Democratic candidate in that race Jon Ossoff, who has raised a startling $8.3 million for that race, which is an astonishing amount of money for a congressional election anywhere.

Whether or not the Democratic Party itself gets it together to contest these special congressional elections, the Democratic base is freaking fired up about trying to win these seats. How realistic is that enthusiasm?

Joining us now is David Nir. He`s political director for "Daily Kos" and publisher of "Daily Kos Elections". "Daily Kos", I should tell you, helped raise a majority of Jon Ossoff`s campaign donations in Georgia sixth, and a big chunk of what was raised from outside the state in Kansas.

David, it`s nice to see you. Thanks for being here.


MADDOW: So, how do you view Kansas last night?

NIR: I think that Republicans should be very worried about that result. It should have been an utter blowout for them. It should never have been closed. And the fact that we`re even talking about it at all speaks to the huge grassroots enthusiasm that made that election close in the first place and there are a lot of much more vulnerable Republicans and much more at risk seats who are going to be up for re-election next year. If they continue on as they have with Donald Trump, there`s a huge chance that GOP loses the House.

MADDOW: Which is almost -- something you couldn`t even imagine talking about in any realistic terms, you know, even before the presidential election I think. People it felt like the House would be out of reach.

The Democratic Party itself seems to be getting increasingly enthusiastic about that race next week in Georgia. Do you think they should also be more involved in Montana, potentially in South Carolina, and some of these other races that are going to come up in red states?

NIR: I think that it`s definitely all hands on deck time, and I think, as you said though, it`s that grassroots enthusiasm that has just been absolutely through the roof. We saw it with the Ossoff donations, but we have also seen it with huge fundraising halls from small donations in Montana as well, where Democrat Rob Quist has raised over a million dollars.

And what I like to say is follow the small money, that`s where stuff is really happening and Republicans should be afraid.

MADDOW: In Montana, it`s interesting because Montana that`s it`s one congressional district but it`s the whole state and Montana has been very happy to elect statewide Democratic candidates. They`ve had a Democratic governor for a decade now, more than a decade. Jon Tester has been reelected twice -- been reelected for that Senate seat there.

It seems -- yes, you can look at Montana and say Donald Trump won there by a lot, but that seems like very much reachable goal for the Democrats if they could sort of come up with a big push for it.

NIR: I definitely agree with that. Montana is certainly in reach and also Republicans nominated a candidate who`s a very out of touch one percenter while the Democrat is this very popular folk musician running a populist campaign. It`s almost the perfect matchup that you`d want in a state like that, and it could definitely be in play.

MADDOW: David, the last time you and I talked -- one of the things we discussed was a question of whether or not there is a split between the Democratic Party and its activist base, is personified more than anybody I think by "Daily Kos" and by your community there. Is this a fight on the Democratic side now?

NIR: I don`t feel it that way. I feel that we at "Daily Kos", we like to lead by example, and that`s why we made these endorsements, especially the early endorsement of Jon Ossoff, where we infused a whole bunch of money into his campaign and got him a lot of attention and it`s been this amazing feedback loop leading to that $8 million haul that you mentioned.

And I think that people are taking what we do seriously and taking what the grassroots is doing seriously and I feel surprisingly unified for the Democratic Party for sure.

MADDOW: David Nir, political director for "Daily Kos", publisher of "Daily Kos Elections" -- David, it`s nice to see you. Thanks for being here.

NIR: Thank you, Rachel.

All right. That does it for us tonight. We will see you again tomorrow.


Good evening, Lawrence.



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.>