THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW April 13, 2018
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Chris. Thanks, my friend. Much appreciated.
We`re used to Fridays being very busy and having lots of unexpected stuff going on. Tonight is a different kind of Friday. We are awaiting remarks, live remarks from the president that should start at any moment.
We believe these remarks are going to concern a potential military strike in Syria. One of the signs this evening that something was going to be happening presumably out of the White House was when we found out that vice president Mike Pence, who`s in South America, he`s in Lima, Peru, unexpectedly left what he was doing and went back to his hotel. That was part of how we got sort of informal confirmation that we were expecting some sort of statement from the White House.
Honestly, all week long, we`ve been wondering if there was going to be some sort of statement or if we were going to find out that there had been a military strike. Saturday, this past Saturday was the gas attack that prompted what we expected to be a U.S. military response. That gas attack this Saturday happened almost exactly at the one-year anniversary of President Trump ordering a missile strike on Syria last year in response to a different chemical attack by the Assad regime against its own people.
Last year that was 59 missiles, 59 Tomahawk missiles that were fired at an air field. That event last year, April 7th, is not perceived to have had any strategic impact in Syria. It`s not perceived to have changed the course of the war in any significant way, even to have changed the course of American involvement in the Syrian civil war in any significant way.
But now exactly one year later as gas attacks have continued, as the Assad regime has continued to consolidate its hold on that country, and as Iran and Russia have been even more steadfast in their support of Assad in that continuing civil war, it looks like the president is poised again this evening to announce yet another military engagement. Again, we`re watching that podium there because we`re expecting the moment the president here at any moment.
Courtney Kube is going to be standing by for us at the Pentagon. She`s been there for us all this evening waiting for the latest briefings.
We`re also -- I mean, you hear from the president on nights like this. You also hear from military experts. In terms of in the region and on the ground reporting, we expect to be hearing from Richard Engel, who is in Istanbul.
COURTNEY KUBE, NBC NEWS NATIONAL SECURITY AND MILITARY REPORTER: Right.
MADDOW: Turkey, of course, is an important player here that almost never gets discussed when we`re talking about Assad and his allies. But Turkey and Iran and Russia are key allies for the Assad regime.
ITN, the British news service, has reported tonight that British jets have taken off from Cyprus. We don`t know where they were headed, but with the time difference, it`s seven hours ahead between now and Syria. That means it`s roughly 4:00 a.m. in Syria right now. If British jets are taking off from Cyprus, there is speculation that this may be some sort of event that involves not just American military power but also our allies.
I`m told that we are less than a minute out now from the president`s remarks. We don`t know how long these remarks are expected to be. We are expecting that these remarks are only going to be about a military strike in Syria. If you`ve been following the news today, you know that there is a lot of news today, particularly news involving the scandal that surrounds the president, the Russia investigation and a newly announced criminal investigation into his lawyer.
The president`s going to address us live from the White House right now.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My fellow Americans, a short time ago, I ordered the United States Armed Forces to launch precision strikes on targets associated with the chemical weapons capabilities of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. A combined operation with the armed forces of France and the United Kingdom is now underway. We thank them both.
Tonight, I want to speak with you about why we have taken this action.
One year ago, Assad launched a savage chemical weapons attack against his own innocent people. The United States responded with 58 missile strikes that destroyed 20 percent of the Syrian Air Force.
Last Saturday, the Assad regime again deployed chemical weapons to slaughter innocent civilians -- this time, in the town of Douma, near the Syrian capital of Damascus. This massacre was a significant escalation in a pattern of chemical weapons use by that very terrible regime.
The evil and the despicable attack left mothers and fathers, infants and children, thrashing in pain and gasping for air. These are not the actions of a man. They are crimes of a monster instead.
Following the horrors of World War I a century ago, civilized nations joined together to ban chemical warfare. Chemical weapons are uniquely dangerous not only because they inflict gruesome suffering, but because even small amounts can unleash widespread devastation.
The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread, and use of chemical weapons. Establishing this deterrent is a vital national security interest of the United States. The combined American, British, and French response to these atrocities will integrate all instruments of our national power -- military, economic, and diplomatic. We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.
I also have a message tonight for the two governments most responsible for supporting, equipping, and financing the criminal Assad regime. To Iran, and to Russia, I ask: What kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women, and children?
The nations of the world can be judged by the friends they keep. No nation can succeed in the long run by promoting rogue states, brutal tyrants, and murderous dictators.
In 2013, President Putin and his government promised the world that they would guarantee the elimination of Syria`s chemical weapons. Assad`s recent attack -- and today`s response -- are the direct result of Russia`s failure to keep that promise.
Russia must decide if it will continue down this dark path, or if it will join with civilized nations as a force for stability and peace. Hopefully, someday we`ll get along with Russia, and maybe even Iran -- but maybe not.
I will say this: The United States has a lot to offer, with the greatest and most powerful economy in the history of the world.
In Syria, the United States -- with but a small force being used to eliminate what is left of ISIS -- is doing what is necessary to protect the American people. Over the last year, nearly 100 percent of the territory once controlled by the so-called ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq has been liberated and eliminated.
The United States has also rebuilt our friendships across the Middle East. We have asked our partners to take greater responsibility for securing their home region, including contributing large amounts of money for the resources, equipment, and all of the anti-ISIS effort. Increased engagement from our friends, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, and others can ensure that Iran does not profit from the eradication of ISIS.
America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria under no circumstances. As other nations step up their contributions, we look forward to the day when we can bring our warriors home. And great warriors they are.
Looking around our very troubled world, Americans have no illusions. We cannot purge the world of evil, or act everywhere there is tyranny.
No amount of American blood or treasure can produce lasting peace and security in the Middle East. It`s a troubled place. We will try to make it better, but it is a troubled place. The United States will be a partner and a friend, but the fate of the region lies in the hands of its own people.
In the last century, we looked straight into the darkest places of the human soul. We saw the anguish that can be unleashed and the evil that can take hold. By the end of the World War I, more than one million people had been killed or injured by chemical weapons. We never want to see that ghastly specter return.
So today, the nations of Britain, France, and the United States of America have marshaled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality.
Tonight, I ask all Americans to say a prayer for our noble warriors and our allies as they carry out their missions.
We pray that God will bring comfort to those suffering in Syria. We pray that God will guide the whole region toward a future of dignity and of peace.
And we pray that God will continue to watch over and bless the United States of America.
Thank you, and good night. Thank you.
MADDOW: The president speaking live from the White House, announcing new military strikes on Syria.
Just a point of personal privilege here just for a second. You know, it is -- this is not personal. It is not just spectacle. It is not just political.
As we follow the news in these incredible days that we have been having recently in our country, it is worth considering on a night like tonight that there are -- there are national security consequences to having a presidency that is as chaotic as Mr. Trump`s presidency, a presidency that is as consumed by scandal and criminal intrigue as his presidency is. It has national security consequences when the president orders missile strikes on Syria on a night like tonight.
The strategic effect of that strike will be assessed by both our allies and our enemies. Other countries and entities involved in the fight in Syria are considering their role in Syria are going to try to figure out how they`re going to react to this U.S. strike. It will affect those other countries` view of this strike, it will affect their reaction to it, it will therefore affect the utility of this military strike if the president of the United States is believed to have issued the order to launch this strike tonight even in part because people think he wanted to distract from a catastrophic domestic scandal that is blowing up at home at the same time.
The perception that the president may have ordered these strikes in part because of scandal will affect the impact and the effectiveness of these military strikes. Unavoidably. Even if the tail is not wagging the dog, even if you give the president every benefit of the doubt, even if his calculations about whether to launch this action against Syria tonight was taken with absolutely no regard for what else is going on in the president`s life right now, what else is going on in the president`s life right now unavoidably creates a real perception around the globe that that may have been part of the motivation both for what he did and particularly for when he did it.
And it`s -- it is -- it is a sad thing and it is an upsetting thing in terms of American influence in the world and the risks that we take when we use American military power anywhere. But that perception, that this president under this much siege may have made this decision that was in any way inflected by the scandals surrounding him, that by necessity has shaped America`s national security options for who we are in the world tonight and it will unavoidably shape the impact of this military action.
We were on watch today for the U.S. military to potentially launch some sort of strike versus Syria in reaction to the chemical attack that Assad launched on his own people last weekend. Tonight, the "Wall Street Journal" reported that the president was prodding his military advisers to agree to a large strike, a more sweeping strike in Syria, quote, than they consider prudent. The president wanting a bigger strike reportedly this evening according to the "Wall Street Journal" than what his advisers thought was wise.
Defense Secretary James Mattis was said to be, quote, resisting. "The Journal" reporting tonight that over the past two days, Defense Secretary James Mattis twice said no to strike opportunities in Syria but "The Journal" further reported that James Mattis stood alone in that opposition. According to "The Journal`s" reporting tonight, Trump`s brand new national security adviser John Bolton, quote, "favored an attack that would be ruinous."
Well, now the strike has been announced, although with no actual details from the president. This, of course, is life and death news that we have been waiting for and now we are watching very closely tonight. Now that the strikes have been announced by the president from the White House, we`ve now got to figure out the scale of the strike and its targets and its likely effects in every way.
Joining us now from the Pentagon is Courtney Kube, NBC News national security and military reporter.
Courtney, thank you very much for being with us.
What can you tell us about the president`s decision, the timing, and what do we know about the scale of this effort?
KUBE: We know very little, as you mentioned, Rachel. A couple of things that he mentioned were these are precision strikes on President Bashar al Assad`s chemical infrastructure. We don`t know exactly what that means yet. But he also mentioned that the U.S. and the British and the French, who he said were part of this alliance, part of this strike package, that they were willing to -- or prepared to sustain this response.
So, what that means is it`s possible this could be more than one night of targeting. We don`t know exactly what the targets will be, though. We`ve been hearing for the past several days that military planners have been talking about hitting the chemical infrastructure. So what that means is potentially storage facilities. We`re waiting to hear, the Pentagon is going to brief at 10:00 p.m. tonight and hopefully give us some more specifics about exactly what happened here, including the platforms.
Did this come from U.S. Navy ships? Was this from aircraft overhead? What specifically did they hit? And what exactly does the president mean by a potential sustained response to this?
We reported exclusively yesterday, actually, Rachel, that, you know, the U.S. now has evidence that President Bashar al Assad, the Syrian regime, are behind -- were behind this chemical attack last weekend. And President Trump spoke directly to Iran and Russia tonight and called them out for their involvement in that attack and their support of the Assad regime.
So, you know, as you said, Rachel, we`re still waiting for the specifics here but President Trump announced for the second time in just over a year the United States military has struck directly against President Bashar al Assad`s military and regime in Syria.
MADDOW: Courtney, the only thing I`m able to add as we`re just starting to get initial information is that "Reuters" has just reported that explosions have been heard on the east side of Damascus, capital city in Syria.
Do we know anything about efforts to target populated areas versus non- populated areas, targeting specifically military infrastructure versus the kinds of chemical infrastructure you were describing that might conceivably be moved in among urban populations?
KUBE: So, all we can really point to is what we`ve seen in the past. And what I know, you know, from years of covering the U.S. military, I can tell you historically what we usually see is that the reason they`ll take strikes in the middle of the night is they`re trying to limit the casualties. They`re trying to limit certainly civilian casualties.
But when they`re taking strikes on infrastructure in the middle of the night, that is generally because that`s a time when there aren`t going to be a lot of people around. So let`s say, for instance, if they were to strike some sort of Syrian military regime building -- well, it`s right now, you know, very early morning in Syria, in Damascus. Most likely the building wouldn`t be as staffed as it would be at noon.
But like I said, we`re still waiting to hear exactly what it is that they struck and the kind of targets and also the assets that they used. We really don`t know much from President Trump.
But I mean the one thing that I thought was also very interesting from his speech just now, from his statement was he specifically called out the fact that the regime has been using chemicals here. We have seen this regime target its people, target civilians for years. They use barrel bombs. They drop any kind of ordnance, mortars, rockets, munitions on their people. But this was the line that President Trump, he called here, he called it particularly gruesome when they attack their people with chemicals.
And so, you know, as I`ve said, we`ve seen yet another time that the U.S. military has responded. Of course, another thing that`s very different from this attack, or from the response from last April of 2017 is this is a coalition. The British and the French are involved. We don`t know how much, though. We have no idea of the coordination here.
Hopefully, this 10:00 briefing tonight will give us a better sense of some of these specifics. This Pentagon press corps, if we`re one thing, it is we are a group that wants to know the very nitty-gritty, the details of these operations. Hopefully, we`ll be able to get that.
MADDOW: And, Courtney -- that`s exactly right. As we are awaiting that, until we know more about the type of military effort this is, the scale of the targeting, the exact strategic goals here and the likelihood of achieving those goals, one of the things that we`re left to try to figure out before we get that information from the Pentagon is the decision process. There has been some sort of eyebrow-raising reporting about who has been advocating what within the administration. What the president wanted here. How the strike a year ago was viewed. The brand new national security adviser John Bolton is seen as being on the hawkish end of the hawkish wing of the more hawkish of the two parties.
And this is -- he`s not yet one week on the job, he was described in the "Wall Street Journal" tonight as wanting these strikes to be, quote, "ruinous." Defense Secretary James Mattis on the contrary was described as having resisted some of the efforts to -- some of the arguments that these should be larger strikes.
Do we know anything about those internal discussions about who was pushing for what on either in terms of the scale of this or the timing?
KUBE: We know that Secretary Mattis has frequently talked about his concern about drawing the U.S. military further into a conflict like the one in Syria. It is -- it is an extremely complicated civil war that`s going on on the ground in there. What the U.S. military is doing is specifically going after ISIS. They`re really actually in a relatively small pocket in eastern Syria right now, the U.S. military, working with Syrian Democratic forces targeting ISIS.
So, Secretary Mattis has time and time again talked about the United States not being drawn further into this conflict that involves Russia and Iran on the ground. We have heard that the administration has wanted a larger response to the attack further into this conflict that involves Russia and Iran on the ground. We have heard that the administration has wanted a larger response to the attack last weekend than we saw in April 2017.
Remember, April 2017, that was really meant to send a signal, send a message. Look at the targets. They pocked up on one Syrian military airfield. They pocked it up, they hit some of the aircraft. It had an impact on the military but it was really short-lived.
It was pretty cheap and pretty quick for them to rebuild that runway. They had other aircraft. And they were able to use Russian military aircraft, frankly, to take over some of these operations. It did not have a long- term strategic impact on the ground in Syria.
So, now, that Bashar al Assad has used chemicals again killing more than 40 people reportedly from U.S. officials I`ve spoken with and injuring upwards of 500. The U.S. didn`t want to do something that would just send another signal that Bashar al Assad could ignore. And there`s also the possibility that, you know, if Bashar al Assad continues to attack his people and the U.S. continues to respond in the same way that sort of sets a line, he knows how far he can push and what the United States will do.
So, the U.S. was really painted into a corner here to have to respond in a bigger way. Just the fact that this is an international response in and of itself is larger than we saw in April of last year. But Secretary Mattis, he is very cautious about not letting the U.S. military get drawn further into this conflict, which by all accounts is really a quagmire on the ground.
MADDOW: Courtney Kube, NBC News national security and military reporter. Courtney, I know this is going to be a long late night for you reporting this out. Thank you for being with us tonight. I know we`ll be talking to you later on when you get more details. Much appreciated.
KUBE: Thank you.
MADDOW: Courtney`s on standby for us at the pentagon tonight.
I should tell you that the British Prime Minister Theresa May as Courtney was just saying there, it`s an international effort, has just released a statement saying: This evening, I`ve authorized British armed forces to conduct coordinated and targeted strikes to degrade the Syrian regime`s chemical weapons capability and deter their use. We`re acting together with our American and French allies.
I want to go now to the White House. Hallie Jackson is NBC News White House correspondent, and she`s been reporting tonight on the evolution of this as a decision tonight, the involvement of White House staffers and how much we knew about how -- about the fact that this was coming before we actually got this announcement.
HALLIE JACKSON, NBC NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Rachel, it was incredibly close hold. I can tell you that. Even as members of the press had been gathered in the room where the presidential was speaking, they had been asked not to report that because of national security basically. The reason given was the safety of the troops who are carrying out some of the action we`ve been talking about tonight.
I can tell you that I just spoke with a senior administration official who tells me that relevant lawmakers over on Capitol Hill just down Pennsylvania Avenue were notified just prior, presumably just prior to the president speaking. I can`t tell you how many minutes but we`re talking about leadership, armed services, foreign relations, for example, that knew that the president would be making this announcement. Again, very tightly held here at the White House, at least tonight.
But Rachel, that was not the case just a couple of days ago because President Trump himself tweeted "get ready Russia."
JACKSON: Putting out this warning. Putting Vladimir Putin on notice that this is coming. It could only be read one way. It could only be read as strikes imminent. The question had just been how many, where, and when.
And now, we at least have some. We`re beginning to get some of the answers to those questions. The president then tried to re-inject this element of surprise yesterday when he said, hey, I never said -- in a tweet, I never said just how soon it was going to be, maybe soon or maybe not at all.
But at this point, it looked as though frankly the train was down the tracks when it came to these discussions, particularly you`re talking about this new statement just in from Theresa May, particularly with Prime Minister May and with Emmanuel Macron of France. That was one thing consistently that I heard really all week long from White House officials was we are coordinating very closely with those two nations, with those two allies.
There`s no expectation ever, Angela Merkel or Germany would be involved in this, for example, and that`s what we ultimately did see. But the cooperation with regional allies and specifically with May and Macron was incredibly important, Rachel.
So, listen, significant moment for Donald Trump tonight, particularly given that just a couple of weeks ago, this was a president who was reluctant to even keep troops in Syria at all based on our reporting. Now, as we learned just in the last 24 hours or so, he had actually wanted a tougher response. His defense official had been concerned and said, hey, maybe pull back, we don`t want to completely inflame things with Iran and Russia.
But it was notable, Rachel, in his remarks, and you know this, this is a president whose rhetoric has not always been as tough as some of his critics have wanted to see on Russia. Tonight he issued a warning to `Vladimir Putin and said, and I`m paraphrasing here, don`t go down that dark road. So, really putting Putin on notice.
And that I think is one of the big storylines that we`re going to have to be watching over the next 48 hours as this unfolds.
MADDOW: It`s -- what you`re talking about there in terms of the whipsawing around on the messaging here, I mean, I think it can`t be sort of under -- we shouldn`t understate it. As recently as last week, the president is reported to have erupted in a Situation Room meeting, saying that not only did he want all U.S. troops out of Syria, he wanted them out within 48 hours, which is something that probably logistically wouldn`t even be possible if he had a magic wand.
Then that`s followed immediately by the new hawkish national security adviser John Bolton coming in. We get on the anniversary of U.S. missile strikes in Syria, we then get another chemical attack in Syria.
The president then says, get ready, Russia, the missiles are coming. The White House aides then told reporters they were shocked and alarmed by those comments. There was no decision made at that point that there was going to be a strike, there was no negotiations -- negotiations had not been completed with our allies like the U.K. and France that those things were going to happen.
"The Wall Street Journal" reporting as recently as this evening that there was incredible differences of opinion between the president and his defense secretary.
So, there has been -- I feel like it`s whipsawing but it`s gone back and forth and back again in terms of what to expect here. Hallie, I have to ask you about -- because of that in particular, I have to ask you about whether there have been -- there`s been sort of appreciation of the sensitivities that the country might feel about this decision given the other news that`s been breaking around the president. I mean, federal prosecutors in New York confirmed today that the president`s long-time personal lawyer is under criminal investigation. Just a couple of hours ago, "McClatchy" news service reported that a key element of the Christopher Steele Russia dossier that relates to the president`s personal attorney Michael Cohen is something that Robert Mueller`s investigators have received evidence to support.
The president has been absolutely off the hook, upset at the FBI and the Russia investigation in particular over the last couple of days with James Comey now doing his first interview about his new book, which accuses the president of all sorts of things.
Are they sensitive to the perception that the president may be making this announcement to distract from his woes?
JACKSON: So, a couple of interesting points you that bring up there, Rachel. To the sensitivity aspect of it, I haven`t had a chance to sort of run back in and talk to folks inside. I imagine that if anything they would take umbrage to that assumption, as one might predict that they would. Given that they would point to sort of the national security pieces to this and what`s at play here.
I will say just to give you a sense, though, of everything that is happening, the avalanche of news, as we are literally sitting here having this conversation about the potential and the military action that the president is now taking in Syria, I heard from Michael Cohen`s lawyer -- talk about juggling stories. And there was that report that I think you referenced earlier from McClatchy indicating that Michael Cohen perhaps had in fact traveled to Prague during the 2016 campaign. It`s something he had vociferously denied back when that was first revealed, and something that according to McClatchy, the special counsel is looking at and has evidence of happening.
Cohen`s lawyer, we just heard from him saying that is definitively not true, that that report is not true. Telling you first, haven`t even had a chance to send a note to our NBC News team, Rachel.
But I share that with you because this is the moment in time that we are in. Where you have a president who is taking, not just contemplating now but taking significant military action overseas at the same time by our reporting incredibly frustrated, furious with Rod Rosenstein, with Robert Mueller, with the special counsel investigation, angry at the raid of his long-time lawyer`s home, somebody who is now under investigation after having been in his circle for decades, and at the same time looking ahead next week to a talk with the prime minister of Japan about meeting with North Korea, Rachel.
So, a lot`s happening, to say the least.
MADDOW: I`ll put your note in the system if you want me to.
JACKSON: Thank you.
MADDOW: Hallie Jackson, NBC White House correspondent. Much appreciated, Hallie.
I should tell you, while I`ve been talking about lots of things happening at once. Ayman Mohyeldin, who`s an incredible reporter who`s here with us now at NBC, has just reported that Syrian state television has broken into programming. It`s about 4:30 in the morning in Syria right now. They`re about seven hours -- they are seven hours ahead of the East Coast time in the United States.
Syrian state TV has broken into programming and is now reporting that Syrian air defense forces have launched counterstrikes against the, quote, American, French and British aggression on Syria.
Syria does have relatively advanced air defense systems. We had been expecting that if there were manned aircraft rather than missiles or drones that were involved in a significant air attack in Syria tonight or at any time that Syrian air defenses would have to be part of the calculus in terms of how the attack would be structured, what the first targets would be and what the overall expectations could be for what could be hit effectively.
Joining us now for more on that and the rest of this news is Colonel Jack Jacobs, MSNBC military analyst, Medal of Honor recipient.
Colonel Jack, it`s a pleasure to have you with us. Thanks for being with us tonight.
Let me ask you about the air defense force factor. How serious are Syrian air defenses and how much would that have to factor in to planning for this strike tonight?
JACK JACOBS, MSNBC MILITARY ANALYST: Well, they`re not insubstantial, but we`re probably launching missiles, both sea-launched cruise missiles and air-launched cruise missiles launched from B-52s. Some distance away, 1,000 miles away perhaps.
Missiles are extremely difficult to shoot down. We`re not very good at it, and the Syrians are even less good at it. You can occasionally knock one down, but they`re extremely difficult to knock down.
But what it sounds like in that -- that announcement that says counterstrikes sounds less like air defenses. A counterstrike usually means a strike on the enemy`s positions. Now, it would be extremely difficult for them to strike our ships. They`re very heavily protected.
But what they could do is fly in zones where we have American troops or American allies like the Kurds. That`s entirely possible.
But it sounds more like bluster. It`s very, very difficult to shoot down an incoming missile, Rachel.
MADDOW: Colonel Jack, we had an initial report very quickly after the president`s remarks concluded, a report from "Reuters", which said that explosions could be heard on the eastern side of Damascus. Damascus obviously the most populous city in Syria and an urban area even -- a densely populated area despite the absolute value of its population.
Are you surprised to hear that Damascus at least from this initial report might be one of the targets? Would you have expected the targeting here to be more far-flung military locations?
JACOBS: Well, if the objective is to knock out some of their capability, either their stores of chemicals, which I don`t think we`re interested in doing that because it would just disperse them and that would be much more dangerous to the population, or to their delivery means, which are typically helicopters, you might expect there to be helicopter locations, bases near populated areas and particularly around Damascus.
So, my guess is they`re attacking delivery means rather than the stores themselves. And we have a pretty good way of tracking exactly where the assets are. Meanwhile, in the interim, when we first started talking about the fact that we were going to attack, when the president says well, the missiles are coming is and so on, the Russians have been moving their assets, including aircraft to safe locations and my guess one of the reasons we`ve waited is so that the Russians would have an opportunity to move their stuff away.
But probably air bases near Damascus and helicopters in particular.
MADDOW: When the president used the word "sustained" to talk about this response, did that say anything to you about the scope of this campaign or how long it might last?
JACOBS: Yes, we`ve been talking about that for some time in discussions with other people who`ve been looking at it come to the same conclusion. You remember back in April when we launched the attacks with the 59 cruise missiles, that was a one-shot deal. It was pretty much toward one target. And Trump telegraphed what he was going to do a couple of days ago when he was discussing it in public.
What you`re probably going to have here are several days` worth of attacks and multiple targets that we`ve picked out that the Defense Department has picked out as the most likely targets for us to use. So, not a -- more likely to be not a one-shot deal like it was in April, but a couple of -- not a sustained attack but a couple of days` worth of attacks.
MADDOW: Colonel Jack, one last question for you. And if you do not want to answer this question, you absolutely do not have to and you can just say good night. But I`m wondering when decisions like this are made, obviously this gas attack that these strikes are a response to happened last week. The president said early in the week that the missiles were coming, get ready Russia.
We`ve been expecting, you know, here at NBC News, we`ve been standing by all week long every night thinking about when these things might happen. They have been launched tonight. When these decisions are made about both the goal and the timing, are there considerations given to the perceived motivations of the president?
Obviously, when the United States takes a military action like this, the rest of the world takes notice, both in terms of the actual damage done but also what it signals in terms of American resolve and what America might do next. If the president might be perceived to have a "wag the dog" problem, if the president is in the midst of an increasingly consuming domestic scandal that`s getting very, very close to him personally, is that factored in as a military strategic matter in terms of how a military action ordered under those circumstances might be perceived both by our enemies and by our allies?
JACOBS: Well, I think the president uses it, surely, when he makes a decision. And I think observations from afar, from our allies and our enemies, from some distance, there`s a certain measure of that that is perceived. But I think one of the reasons why it`s taken so long -- I mean, there are a couple of reasons why it`s taken so long.
And one of them I think -- I mean, the timing is clearly -- I don`t believe in coincidences. But the timing is clearly a coincidence given what`s been emanating in the domestic front. But I think our government has had a hard time getting our allies on board. That`s taken some time.
I think also that there`s been a great deal of discussion inside the White House and between the White House and the Defense Department about whether or not there ought to be retaliation and punishment and what form it should take and that`s taken time to. At the end of the day, I`m not a fan of single factor analysis, all of these are important and you can`t discount the "wag the dog" factor in this particular case any more than you can discount any other factor. I think they all pile on to produce exactly what we see now and the timing that we see now, Rachel.
MADDOW: Colonel Jack Jacobs, NBC military analyst, thank you so much for being with us tonight, sir. Invaluable to have you here. Thank you.
We`re now going to go to Moscow. NBC News foreign correspondent Keir Simmons is up in the middle of the night for us in Moscow.
Keir, thank you very much for joining us tonight. These strikes have been announced by the president in conjunction with the U.K. and France. Obviously Assad`s greatest allies in Syria are Iran and Russia and the Russia factor here cuts a lot of different directions.
What can you tell us about the response tonight in Moscow?
KEIR SIMMONS, NBC NEWS FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it was interesting to hear, Rachel, you reporting that Syrian television saying that Syrian air defenses are engaging I think you said against these strikes by the U.S., Britain, and France. That`s interesting. There are two forms of air defenses in Syria, S-300, S-400. They are all Russian.
But one group of the air defenses are manned by Syrians. The other air defenses are manned by Russians. Those Russian air defenses are ostensibly there to protect the Russians who are in the country.
And one of the questions here in Moscow in the build-up to this has been whether the Russian air defenses would engage. It sounds as if from that reporting from Syrian television, perhaps they are not.
We have been texting multiple and trying to contact multiple Russian government officials here in Moscow. As you say, it is 4:00 in the morning. We haven`t heard back from them, perhaps understandably, I did have one message from an official at the Russian foreign ministry saying the question of course we are asking each of them is were the Russians given advance notice of these strikes.
The message back from one foreign ministry official saying we`ll soon find out. So, that slightly dark Russian sense of humor there, doesn`t tell us necessarily whether that kind of communication is taking place.
We were told in the build-up to this that there were communications between the Russian military and between the Western military to try to avoid Russian casualties because that clearly would be run of the concerns. Our understanding from the Russian foreign ministry is that there are 8,500 Russian civilians in Syria. And according to polling returns from the recent Russian elections, government officials say there are just under 3,000 members of the Russian military there. They said that because of course they were saying how many members of the Russian military had voted in those elections.
So, that gives you a picture of the issues here. We assume, and I think we safely assume that there is a good deal of work under way to ensure that Russians are not casualties of this strike because of course the real concern or a real concern would be that that would lead to an escalation.
MADDOW: And in terms of that prospect, obviously something that sets not just our teeth on edge but people all over the world because of the capabilities of the Russian military and the American military. With Russians having such a significant military presence in Syria, with reports earlier this week that some Syrian assets may have been moved to Russian- controlled bases in Syria, essentially to get them out of harm`s way, do you have any clear sense, Keir, from your reporting about what the Russian response would be, what they would do next if Russian assets are targeted or if Russian troops or indeed civilians are harmed?
SIMMONS: That`s the question I`ve been asking Russian officials for the past few days, as you would expect. I think that the message that we heard from the Russian ambassador to Lebanon suggesting that Russia would strike back at U.S. missiles, that even Russia would target the source of those missiles, I think that was overblown.
After those comments, I spoke to a number of Russian officials both in the Kremlin and in the foreign ministry to see, and they wouldn`t repeat that kind of warning. Although at the same time, of course, warning very much that there could be an escalation depending on what kind of strikes these are and most importantly, as I was mentioning, whether Russian targets are involved. And it does create that kind of military chess game is the kind of thing you`re describing there, which is of course -- I don`t think we know for sure but it wouldn`t be surprising at all when you would expect that the Syrians would be moving their assets closer to the Russian assets in order to protect them, knowing that the U.S. would be wanting to -- would not be wanting to target Russian assets within Syria.
And then the wider question, Rachel, Russians have been bringing up over the past few days, most recently Foreign Minister Lavrov yesterday has been there warning that this could escalate. And Foreign Minister Lavrov saying quite specifically, referring to his troops, saying god forbid this turns into an intervention like Libya or the Iraq experience. The Russians, this is the kind of argument they make here.
The Russians very strongly argued against intervention in Iraq. President Putin has consistently said since then that it was a mistake and criticized the West for it. And that is some of the reasoning that they bring to arguing that an intervention like this should not happen.
MADDOW: Keir Simmons joining us from Moscow tonight and staying up till past dark to do it. Thank you, Keir. Much appreciated to have you with us this evening.
I want to now cross the region a little bit and go to Richard Engel, who`s NBC News`s chief foreign correspondent and a dear friend to this show. Richard is in Istanbul tonight covering this both in terms of what we know about the scope of the strike and the reaction in the region.
Richard, my friend, thank you very much for being with us. What can you tell us about your reporting thus far this evening?
RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Rachel. We are still trying to figure out exactly what is being hit. There are reports of at least two locations on the outskirts of Damascus that have been targeted. Unclear exactly what they are.
One is reportedly associated with the Syrian National Guard, a regime place, but all the attacks not exactly in Damascus center but around Damascus. Also reports of explosions in eastern Syria. Two different locations in eastern Syria.
But what struck me in listening to President Trump is that this isn`t designed or wasn`t explained to be a one-off operation. He said this is an open-ended commitment that the U.S. is prepared to continue these operations until Bashar al Assad stops using chemical weapons. That is if not a new war in the Middle East, it is certainly a new open-ended mission, and it is one that carries significant risk.
Already, Syrian air defense, according to Syrian state TV, according to some video posted on social media I was just looking at, Syrian air defenses are in action. Syrian state TV broke into its coverage, and it is now about 4:30 in the morning in Damascus, to tell whoever was watching that Syrian air defenses are in action launching counterstrikes against what it described as the U.S., French, and British aggression.
I`ve been told by U.S. officials that there were great efforts made to try and communicate with the Russians, that this was not in any way, shape, or form a coordinated operation with the Russians, that the Russians weren`t happy with it, continue to oppose it, but that they were informed clearly about U.S. intentions. That`s easy to do on day one of an operation. But President Trump said this is an open-ended operation.
So, we will see what happens as this continues into day two, day three. Will there be a pause? Will there be an assessment? Was that an empty threat? But it is certainly a major commitment to say the U.S. will respond every time there is a report of chemical weapons.
Nikki Haley today said at the U.N., there have been 50 uses of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime in the last five years or so. So does that mean the U.S. is going to respond in that kind of scale?
MADDOW: Richard, let me also ask you, with what you`re talking about there, obviously we know about the admitted Russian military presence on the ground in Syria. Syria has been a long-term beachhead for Russia in the Middle East. We also know about irregular Russian forces, essentially mercenary or contract forces from Russia that are playing a role in the Syrian conflict. We also know less about but we know about the existence of Iranian forces being involved on the ground in Russia, both the Russian forces and Iranian forces in support of the Assad regime.
Is there worry about American intelligence, American understanding about who`s -- about who we might end up engaging with, about where those forces are, about having clarity as to who we might be engaging with if indeed as you say the strikes appear to be happening in multiple places and they appear to be scheduled to go on in an indefinite fashion?
ENGEL: There absolutely should be concern, and I`m sure there is about the intelligence picture in Syria. It is the most complex civil war that I`ve covered in the last 20 years covering the Middle East. You have uniformed Russian troops who are there helping the Syrian regime. It`s not exactly clear where all those troops are based. The Russians certainly aren`t telling their American counterparts where they are.
Then there are these unofficial Russian mercenaries that -- I was with American commanders in Syria not very long ago, and they were describing a firefight that they got in with some of these Russian mercenaries, and they ended up killing between 200 and 300 of them on the ground. And they felt that they were being lied to by the Russians, that the Russians were telling them one story and then not necessarily giving them all the facts and then trying to cover their traces.
And this is with the Russians. With the Iranians there is even less communication because the Iranian advisers on the ground are much less formal. It is more of an intelligence relationship where they have influencers there working with different militia groups, working with Iraqi militia groups that are there to help them.
So, it is an absolute mess. And on day one it is easier to communicate. There had been a build-up. People knew more or less that a strike was coming in this period. President Trump tweeted it out. He said, a strike is coming. Get ready. Get ready.
So you can more or less be precise on day one, and the Russians and the Syrians and the Iranians can take precautions. But if this is supposed to be continuing until the Syrians decide they`re going to cry uncle and never use chemical weapons again, which obviously is what the U.S. mission is designed to do, then there is a major concern or risk of hitting the wrong target, of having people be in the wrong place at the wrong time, effectively.
MADDOW: Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent, joining us from Istanbul tonight. Richard, I know it`s going to be a very long night and long morning for you. Thanks very much for being here, my friend.
ENGEL: Thank you.
MADDOW: On the left side of the screen there what you`re seeing, and we`ve got it labeled there, it says Syrian state TV. This actually is our live feed of what you would be seeing in Syria right now if you were on the ground. As I said, it is seven hours ahead of the American eastern time. So just coming up on 5:00 in the morning in Syria right now.
Syrian state TV has broken into programming. You see they`re showing the night sky. Obviously, they`re watching for missile strikes, bombs, other explosions. They`ve reported tonight that Syrian air defense forces have launched, quote, "counterstrikes" against the American, French, and British aggression on Syria.
As Keir Simmons was explaining, Syria does actually have fairly sophisticated air defense system. They`ve got the S-300 and S-400 air defense systems, both of which are Russian systems. Some of those are manned by Syrian military personnel. Others are manned by Russian military personnel.
In the case of the Russian air defenses, those are there purportedly to defend significant numbers of Russian personnel who are in uniform in Syria. And as Richard was just explaining, there`s also significant numbers of Russian personnel who are not in uniform in Syria, which also complicates the geopolitical picture here. As U.S. and French and British forces launch these strikes tonight, obviously the intent as voiced by France and the U.K. and the United States is to hit the Assad regime in response to it using chemical weapons against its own people again.
But when you start launching kinetic strikes inside a place as complicated as Syria is right now, you are potentially engaging Russian targets, using chemical weapons against its own people again. But when you start launching kinetic strikes inside a place as complicated as Syria is right now, you are potentially engaging Russian targets, Iranian targets, Turkish targets, Kurdish targets, American allied targets, Syrian defense forces.
Ayman Mohyeldin, NBC reporter, reporting tonight that a Syrian opposition figure has said that four different cities have been so far in these strikes. The initial reports we got from Reuters that explosions had been heard on the eastern side of Damascus.
Richard just reported moments ago, Richard Engel reported that two locations were known -- were thought to have been hit on the outskirts of Damascus. We are getting piece by piece information.
Cal Perry is NBC News global editor of digital content. And as far as I understand it, Cal is just off the phone, with somebody in Syria who we believe is an eyewitness to what`s been happening thus far since these strikes have happened.
Cal, thank you very much for joining us tonight. What can you tell us we`ve been able to learn this evening?
CAL PERRY, NBC NEWS GLOBAL EDITOR OF DIGITAL CONTENT: So, Rachel, I`m talking to somebody in western Damascus. He`s huddled with his family. He`s a journalist.
I`m marry together what he`s telling me with what Ayman is telling me, and what we`re hearing from Syrian opposition groups. They`re confirming three sites in and around Damascus have been hit at this hour. I`m going to walk you through the three of them because they give us a very clear picture that this is different than what we saw a year ago, that the United States military looks as though they`re targeting command and control facilities and specifically chemical weapons facilities.
The first location is the Mezzeh Air Base. That`s in the southern part of Damascus. Very large air base. Dozens of hangars there. That would be a command and control facility.
The second location is in Jemraya. That is in the northern part of the city. It appears as though this was a special forces republican guard command and control facility.
Again, I want to stress in keeping with what Keir said, in keeping with what Richard said, there`s been a lot of time to clear out these facilities but again, these are the facilities we`re hearing that why hit.
The third facility is in Barzeh in eastern Syria. This is a known facility by the OPCW. It is what the Syrian government has called a, quote, scientific research facility, that is code for a place where chemical weapons are made by the Syrian government.
Those three sites were pummeled abo8ut 35 minutes ago. There were eight explosions in Damascus, a series of explosions. There was about 20 minutes of quiet, and then loud bangs that we believe are being now associated with those surface-to-air defense batteries that the Syrians have, they call them S-300 batteries. So, about 20 minutes of gap between the incoming American fire and outgoing Syrian fire, Rachel.
MADDOW: OK, Cal, thank you very much.
And we are piecing together from the various sources of information we can get, both eyewitnesses like Cal was talking to there, an eyewitness in Damascus, in western Damascus, a journalist who was able to get on the phone, got there, also reports from news services.
I should tell you in less than ten minutes, we are expecting to get a briefing from the U.S. military, from the Defense Department at the Pentagon is past is any prologue, we expect we`ll get more detail about what the U.S. military is doing tonight, along with the French and British, then what we got from the president. The president in his remarks at the top of hour essentially describing the aims of these strikes, describing it as a sustained effort. And as Richard pointed out, essentially an opened- ended effort, rather than a one-off strike, like we saw from this president one year ago.
But we expect at the top of the hour to get more detailed information from the Pentagon.
I also want to now go to Beirut, to Lebanon where Bill Neely has hopefully a little more information that he can give us in terms of what we`re learning about targeting and the overall aims of these strikes.
Bill Neely, thank you very much for joining us.
BILL NEELY, NBC NEWS, BEIRUT: Yes, good evening, Rachel.
The latest we`re hearing from Syrian television is that the Syrians are claiming that they have downed 13 incoming missiles. That`s not obviously confirmed by NBC News. But that`s what the Syrian regime is reporting.
We know there are 21 air bases in Syria that are controlled by the regime. They have about 260 war planes, more than 80 helicopters. At this point, we don`t know whether those aircraft have been targeted.
But remember, the aim is to destroy the chemical weapons capability of Syria. So, those are the aircraft that deliver the chemical weapons, so one might presume those are being targeted.
Now, I know Damascus very well, I`ve been there about a dozen times. I`ve been monitoring social media and reports by "Reuters," and Agence France Presse news agency and they are reporting significant strikes in three areas in particular. To the north, to the east, and the south of Damascus.
And indeed, one trusted source has told me that this is the largest ever series of air strikes on Damascus. Those three targets are a research center called Jamraya which is north of Damascus. It`s thought it is a place where chemical weapons and nonconventional weapons and missiles are developed, and indeed it is hit by the Israeli air force earlier this year and on at least one other occasion.
A second target east of Damascus is the Dumayr air base. Now, why that`s significant is it`s thought that was the airbase from which the helicopters took off last weekend to drop the chemical weapons on the suburb of Damascus, on Douma.
And the third significant target, and again, this is backed up by what I`m seeing on social media, some people posting videos, some people posting audio of Syrian air defenses engaging incoming missiles.
The third site is an air base south of Damascus called Mezzeh. It`s used by Bashar Assad`s elite republican guard.
So, President Trump talked about presentation air strikes. It would seem from what we`re hearing from trusted sources in Damascus that those are indeed precision strikes on significant chemical weapons facilities and on air bases.
But, of course, Rachel, you know one question is, how long these strikes will last? And it would seem that there are waves of airstrikes. We`ve about nearly an hour of airstrikes, one was reported just about five minutes ago.
But, you know, in the long-term, this doesn`t really change the calculus or the course of the war. After these airstrikes, President Assad will still be in power, the war will be as complicated, obviously, if not more complicated, than it was.
So, for President Trump, the question is, you know, air strikes do not mean -- do not equal a strategy. So what comes next? Will he follow through with what he hinted a while back that he will pull those 2,000 U.S. troops out of eastern Syria or is he here for the medium or the long haul?
That is the strategic question that must follow tonight`s tactical air strikes, Rachel.
MADDOW: Bill Neely joining us life from Beirut. Bill, invaluable. Thank you very much for being with us.
I want to tell you at home, that we are just a couple minutes away from what we expect to be a Pentagon briefing, which is likely to be at least -- again, if past is prologue, it`s likely to be more detailed in terms of what`s happening right now in the skies above and the grounds on Syria.
Andrea Mitchell is NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent. She joins us now by phone.
Andrea, is it your expectation we`ll get further detail about both the aims and the scale of what`s underway tonight?
ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESONDENT (via telephone): Yes, I think precisely. One of the important issues will be did James Mattis win the argument, arguing for a more limited approach, worried about a wider war or is the John Bolton approach?
We understand there was quite a debate over this policy that may have been part of the reason why they need a number of days. It also could have been communicating to the Russians to try to avoid direct hits on Russian bases and Russian activity. As we understood the Syrian regime moving equipment and personnel into Russian areas to use them as Russian shields if you will. A very big concern about winning a war in the Pentagon.
There`s another concern as well is an asymmetric response from the Russian and Iranian cyber capability, offensive capability. It could be a cyber hit that the NSA is not (AUDIO GAP) Cyber Command based in Fort Meade has also been geared up trying to see if any incoming from the cyber -- the cyber possibilities.
The State Department has been pretty detached from all of this. The acting secretary of state, John Sullivan, is in Peru where he was on a mission with the vice president, he joined the deputy national security meeting by telecom conference and phone, but the fact is he is not in the country, is out of the country, we do not have a secretary of state and there`s a division in the Senate whether Mike Pompeo is going to get an easy confirmation. There`s a lot of dissatisfaction on the Democratic side, and you have Rand Paul on the Republican side vowing to vote against him.
Just earlier today, I was in New York and interviewing Kristen Gillibrand, and she`s was against any action because there`s not been an authorization of military force since right after 9/11.
MADDOW: Right, of course.
MITCHELL: There`s an expanding contingent of Democrats like Tim Kaine with Chris Coons, Kirsten Gillibrand, and some Republicans, who believe there should be a debate next week on the authorization of military force that`s long overdue considering the 17 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, it should not become a wider war in Syria.
MADDOW: Andrea Mitchell, NBC`s chief foreign correspondent, joining us live now.
We`re watching the podium, expecting a briefing from the Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the Chairman of Joint Chiefs, General Dunford.
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