Show: The Last Word with Rachel Maddow and Brian Williams Date: April 6, 2017 Guest: Marco Rubio, Nicholas Kristof, Jim Himes
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: A response from Assad, the response from the Russian -- at this point, we sort of -- we remain -- we await the strategic information in terms of what the U.S. strategic thinking was behind this specific target.
But the response from Assad, the response from the Russians, the response on the ground all is completely up in the air.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: So much of this is about optics. The Syrians have responded. We have some of the wording from Syrian state TV through translation.
I`m sure it loses a little bit. "American aggression targets Syrian military targets with a number of missiles." That`s all we have so far.
We are within 30 seconds now apparently of seeing the video of Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, where let`s not forget he is hosting the leader of China.
There is real work to be done and a real agenda as soon as everyone gets some sleep tonight. We had the first indication something like this was coming this afternoon when we heard of the joint chiefs gathering in the so-called tank at the Pentagon.
Then we heard of the number of aides and caliber of aides who have made the trip to Florida with President Trump, who obviously spent at least a portion of this evening supervising this. Let`s listen in.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: On Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians.
Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many.
Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.
Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched.
It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.
There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council.
Years of previous attempts at changing Assad`s behavior have all failed and failed very dramatically.
As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen, and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.
Tonight, I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.
We ask for God`s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world. We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed.
And we hope that as long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will, in the end, prevail. Good night, and God bless America and the entire world. Thank you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Because that was a rather striking visual, we should probably talk about that in addition to the substance, a lot of which was anticipatable.
When words count in this White House, they keep the president on a two- screen teleprompter. Words really count tonight. We could see still his ad-libs between panes of glass, between the lines of copy.
I wrote a couple down. "Failed and failed very dramatically", and also "to end terrorism" was another one. But a very short statement -- we`re sorry about the audio, everyone got the same copy. It sounded like a radio broadcast from Berlin --
MADDOW: Yes, it`s a little -- it was awkward. I mean this is -- this is as you mentioned, this is tape turnaround from the president`s golf resort in South Florida.
WILLIAMS: A press room that they`ve built there.
MADDOW: A press room that they set up. Obviously, this isn`t something that they have planned for in any permanent way.
But if he continues to spend this much time there during his presidency, there will be other events from which we see him there, and maybe that setting will evolve.
But you pointed out what was sort of obvious ad-libs. "Tonight I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria."
We had that as an advance quote from the remarks before we actually got the tape. He appears to have added to that "and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types."
Actually kinds and types are synonyms so I don`t know why he`d use both if -- unless you`re ad-libbing. Also "good night and God bless America and the entire world" is a sign-off that I haven`t heard him use before or any president use before.
WILLIAMS: Let`s bring into our conversation Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Foreign Relations and of the Intelligence Committees in the Senate.
First of all, senator, your reaction to the news tonight. Apparently 59 cruise missiles into this single target as retribution for the chemical attack.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Well, first, I`d say it`s not just retribution. That site has strategic value to the Syrian regime. It`s where they launched that chemical attack.
It`s where they`re currently involved in a pitch battle, we will probably see future attacks launched from. They had lost some territory to non-ISIS rebels over the last two weeks.
And so this was a chemical attack that you saw a couple of days ago was partially as a result of the hopes of kind of regaining some of that territory.
The second is that they are now clearly in violation of not just a treaty they signed in 2013, but also of a U.N. Security Council resolution, of an OPCW mandate that they get rid of these weapons.
They were signatories to this along with the Russians and the United States, and they are in clear violation of it.
And you saw that a couple of days ago. Obviously, the hope here is that this is the first in what I hope will be a multi-faceted plan to bring this to an end.
Because as long as Assad is in power, you are going to have radicalism in Syria. The people who have lost loved ones to his brutal regime are not going to just accept his rule.
You`re going to -- as long as he`s there, you are going to have a radical Jihadist movement. Even if you destroy ISIS, the Al-Nusra groups will rise and take their place.
So, it is in the strategic interest of the United States. And I will make one more point. There are now significant U.S. assets based all over that region and very near where some of these things are happening.
The presence of chemical weapons poses a threat to American personnel.
WILLIAMS: As it has for some time. Let`s agree for this conversation that this has hampered to some degree but certainly not ended Assad`s ability to launch airborne attacks.
Where do you see this ending, and in that light, what did tonight get us? Does this lead to a next chapter?
RUBIO: Well, first I do think it impacts the cost benefit calculus not just for Assad, but for Vladimir Putin, who himself is a war criminal and has abated and has actually been an accomplice to many of these things that you`re saying.
So, I do think it changes the risk calculus -- I do not want to de- emphasize -- I think it would be a mistake to devalue the strategic importance of this airfield.
We`ll have to see what the assessments are of the damage. That`s a significant number of missiles launched at a site that quite frankly is not Andrews Air Force Base.
It is significant but it`s not of that size and scope. So I`d be curious to see how much infrastructure is still left there for future attacks.
The third thing that I would point out of course is that from a delivery mechanism, I probably -- my guess is they lost significant ability to launch air strikes in that part of Syria for the time being.
And that`s going to have an impact on the ground and some of the battle going on on the ground. So -- but, look, tonight is not symbolic. I do think it has a strategic value to it.
But the question now is, well, what happens next? Is there a comprehensive plan that follows this up?
And that`s perhaps the most critical question because tonight will not end the threat that Assad poses, but hopefully it`s the beginning of something broader.
MADDOW: Senator Rubio, it`s Rachel Maddow here in New York. It`s nice to have you with us tonight.
RUBIO: Sure --
MADDOW: Let me just ask if you think that Congress should authorize U.S. military force in Syria?
There`s been a lot of debate as to whether or not the post 9/11 authorization could conceivably apply to even attacking terrorist groups in Syria.
What seem to be a further stretch to say that it would apply also to attacking the --
RUBIO: Right --
MADDOW: Syrian military. Should there be a new authorization?
RUBIO: Well, those are two separate topics. I do -- ISIS is basically a spinoff of al Qaeda, and so I continue to argue that we have current authorization on the war on ISIS.
In the case of the commitment of American ground troops in an extended battle on the ground, I think that would certainly require an authorization.
And I think you`d find support for it if properly targeted -- or I should say support for that concept that they would require authorization.
In the case of an existential circumstance where you have a government in Bashar al Assad, that not only is he committing atrocities, but is putting at risk American assets and personnel in the region because of the possession and a willingness to use nerve agents.
A factor we didn`t have two, three, four years ago. I do think the president has the ability to act in those circumstances as he has tonight.
But as far as the broader strategy, I mean, that`s going to be the challenge moving forward. What is the posture of the United States now?
I think you have seen a shift in the last 48 hours to be frank. Whether, I know that a lot of people watching this tonight are not supporters of President Trump.
But I can just tell you, I truly do believe that he was impacted, and I think you saw that yesterday in the press conference with the king of Jordan.
It was a different language, a different body tone. I think it`s impossible to see some of these images that we`re seeing and not be moved by what`s happening and the reality of it.
I think one thing is to be a presidential candidate, another thing is to be the president and to be confronted with this reality. And I think tonight was a part of that.
MADDOW: Are you at all troubled by the rapidity in change in terms of this administration`s position toward Assad? I`m struck by the fact that it was just a week ago today that the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was saying that whether or not Assad stayed in power was a decision purely for the Syrian people to make.
The United States had no -- had nothing to add in terms of that decision. He said exactly the opposite today. Regardless of the merits of either one of those positions, have there -- have these changes in position been too sudden or too fast or too unexplained?
RUBIO: Well, first, as you know, I was critical of those statements and I actually said yesterday that I believed it`s one of the factors that Assad took into account.
I think the second thing that we need to wait and hear more about is whether in fact there was evidence, as I believe there probably was, that Assad didn`t just possess chemical weapons but was prepared to use them again at any moment, including Sarin gas.
And if that were the case, then I think certainly you would have justification for a rapid development of your policy with regards to all of this.
So, look, I think the most important thing tonight, this was not a symbolic strike. I truly do believe that it achieved an important objective, but it is not in its totality going to achieve what I hope is going to happen, which is the conditions for an alternative to Assad to emerge.
I don`t think Syria is going to be a stable unitary government anytime in the near future. But I do think we can begin to take steps to provide alternatives to Assad`s rule.
And in particular, you`ve got to figure out who are going to govern Sunnis in Syria because they will never again allow themselves to be governed by (INAUDIBLE) or the government of Assad who has murdered and continues to murder so many innocence as he has done with the assistance of Vladimir Putin and the commission of these horrifying war crimes that we now have seen happen too often.
WILLIAMS: So much to discuss here. Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who we`ll be seeing so much more of as Senate Intel hearings get cranked up.
Senator, please come on again, thank you very much --
RUBIO: Thank you --
WILLIAMS: For your time tonight.
RUBIO: Standing by for us in Washington is Chris Matthews. Chris, I watched your entire broadcast tonight.
One -- and obviously you had to conduct a broadcast. We had some inkling a lot of people did that something could be under way tonight.
You had to conduct your broadcast based on tonight. You had one debate about how an attack tonight would be the antithesis of the Bannon nationalism.
And I think --
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: Yes --
RUBIO: Because that`s politics, that can wait for tomorrow night. But there`s this other thing that people want to know how to process.
White House aides are talking to journalists already tonight, saying presidents from the world of television.
The president sees his world largely through television. The president saw this on television.
So you can say this has been going on for six years. You can say that 45 percent of the population of this country has been on the move.
But this is the part the president saw on television because he has a new prism, and that`s this new job he has.
MATTHEWS: Well, right, and I think he`s like most Americans. They watch television, they saw these hard pictures of these kids struggling to breathe and to survive.
And I think the American people had kind of an eruptive reaction to that the way he normally does to everything.
You want something done quickly. You want something to fix this so it doesn`t happen again. In fact, you`d like it to be erased if you could from history.
But it`s too late for that. So, I think in a way his eruptive reaction to things is very much Trumpian. I think in terms of the politics in that way, this is going to be a very popular act in itself as we`ve been saying, as Richard Engel has been saying, if this is all the narrative there is, if this is the beginning and end, yes.
But as Churchill once said, there`s two kinds of success, initial and ultimate. If this is the whole story, yes, I think there were two lines drawn before tonight.
And one was the red line that Obama talked about in terms of Assad using chemical weapons, and he crossed that line and Obama didn`t do anything.
And the second line which is pretty much the same line is the Obama line. Is this president willing to do something that Obama wouldn`t do?
And I think President Trump will have won on that score because his people, the third of the country that likes him, will say, damn it, this guy is a man of action. he`s macho, he can do stuff.
He doesn`t sit around and think too much, he just does it, and he`s our kind of guy. And in the bar rooms tomorrow night, on Friday night, along the interstates and -- I should say the county roads, he`ll be very popular late tomorrow night for having taken this action.
But, you know, Americans like short wars. And therefore, we want this to be as short as we would like to make it. And these are stand-back weapons, cruise missiles.
And I have to tell you, this will be very impressive at home, and I`m not so sure it will be that impressive in the Middle East because the Middle Eastern countries and their people in the streets have been watching European powers cover their withdrawal with artillery for decades if not generations.
They know what it looks like when we`re afraid to fight. We use cruise missiles, we stand back, we don`t get hurt.
We don`t put skin in the game, and then we retreat. So it`s only good for us. I`m not so sure this is going to change the thinking of the Arab world.
Well, the Sunnis now who are here in Washington in the Four Seasons hotel, will King Abdullah have confidence in us now?
Well, does he have confidence as with the Emirates people? And that`s the question. I think the next step is the very tricky one.
If you`re a hawk like Marco Rubio, does that mean we try to eventually bring down this regime? Well, that`s a big step.
And will Trump break with his ally in Russia and bring down this regime? And I`m not sure he`s going to go that far.
WILLIAMS: All right, Chris, because you and I share this opinion that so much of life -- and you`ll forgive the nature of this because we`re talking about serious business.
Goes back to Aaron Sorkin`s screenplay for the "American President". I am just reading "a top-ranking White House official tonight characterized the attacks as a warning shot.
They were necessary and proportionate." Not a day goes --
MATTHEWS: Right --
WILLIAMS: Without a reference to that script and that storyline. But here`s the question. What about the optics of everything vis-a-vis Russia?
How soon until we read someone saying obviously we didn`t mind taking a swing at that bee`s nest, that no fix was in prior to this?
MATTHEWS: You know, that`s what I was thinking all day because I think like that, and maybe it`s cynicism.
But I thought if there was a way for him to kill the narrative that he`s in bed with Putin, it would be this.
Take on Putin`s fresh water port, take on his ally, his satellite, his loyal ally Assad. And that would be a way of saying, I never was in bed with these guys.
I never planned any kind of coalition with this guy in Moscow. You`re right, I was thinking of it. Who knows? We`ll find out.
It certainly isn`t going to go well with Putin unless we find out they had a phone call this afternoon and they worked this thing out and it was a set piece that was not meant to be particularly antagonistic to Moscow.
WILLIAMS: Well, a bunch of cynics in the political business.
MADDOW: Yes --
MATTHEWS: I think there are, you are.
WILLIAMS: Thank you very much --
MATTHEWS: Speak for yourself, Brian.
MADDOW: Joining us here in studio in New York is Nick Kristof from the "New York Times", Nick, nice to see you, thanks for being here --
NICHOLAS KRISTOF, NEW YORK TIMES: Good to be with you.
MADDOW: What`s your initial reaction to this decision by the president tonight?
KRISTOFF: You know, I started off with a deep suspicion about anything that President Trump does, but in this case actually I think he did the right thing.
And I mean, I was interviewing Hillary Clinton earlier today, and she prescribed pretty much exactly the same response, hitting airfields in Syria with missiles.
And, you know -- look, we don`t know where this is going to go from here. All war plans go astray the moment the first shot is fired.
The real questions are about the legal status of this attack. But at the end of the day, there have been 300,000 people killed in Syria, 5 million refugees sent abroad because Assad has no disincentive.
There`s no reason for him not to use these weapons. And especially the use of chemical weapons violated a taboo that the world tried to put in place a hundred years ago in World War I.
I think that it was the right thing to do. I hope that it`s not just a -- you know, if it`s just done one time, it`s not going to change the overall calculus.
And look, there`s a lot of nice talk about removing Assad from power. We`re not going to remove Assad from power.
We can limit his use of his air assets to drop barrel bombs or chemical weapons on his own people.
MADDOW: In terms of the U.S. involvement in Syria, obviously this is not our first military involvement. These are not even our first cruise missile strikes.
KRISTOF: That`s right.
MADDOW: There have been cruise missile strikes from the Mediterranean at what were described as al Qaeda-linked targets in 2014.
There have been many bombing raids, sometimes unilaterally, sometimes with a coalition of Arab allies targeting ISIS.
In Syria, there are more than 500 U.S. personnel on the ground and ISIS and there have been boots on the ground raids there.
There`s been a lot of different forms of more or less pinpoint military actions by the U.S. in Syria. This one is different because it targets the Syrian military.
KRISTOF: That`s right. I mean, we have focused very much on ISIS, and that is because ISIS has attacked Americans in particularly dramatic and terrible ways.
But more than 90 percent of the slaughter in Syria has not involved ISIS, but has involved a civil war and primarily Assad. And you know, he is able to kill people in lots and lots of different ways that we probably cannot easily affect.
We can affect reasonably easily his ability to drop barrel bombs and drop chemical weapons on people.
He has a very limited number of fixed wing aircraft. Russia has been willing to help him, but he`s not going to want to take over the role of Air Force of Syria.
And that is why we can, you know, disable airstrips, take out his airplanes. Now if we disable an airstrip, it can be repaired fairly quickly, and then the question becomes do we hit it again?
There are real risks here, but over the last six years, we`ve seen the risks that occur if you don`t do anything.
WILLIAMS: Doesn`t this do something really interesting to the Russia story line here in this country?
KRISTOF: It certainly does. I mean in general, I think a lot of us worried that after President Trump took office, there would be a lot of very close cooperation with Russia and lifting of sanctions.
And in fact, since then we`ve seen a tougher approach to Moscow and this is certainly something that Moscow will be unhappy about.
I don`t think -- you know, I don`t think Russia is going to react all that badly. I don`t think there`s much they could do.
I think one of the risks is that Iranians can cause real harm to American forces in Iraq. That would be a pressure point.
And there`s a mine field ahead. There are all kinds of things that can go wrong, but we have to remember the alternative is that all kinds of things have gone wrong over six years.
MADDOW: There`s a -- there may be a variance that I`m trying to get at in predictability because we have had a lot of different U.S. types of military -- types of U.S. military involvement in Syria in the past.
And we have learned over the course of the years that we have been doing that, that we can do so without getting dragged into a wider conflict, without having a lot more ground troops involved than we want.
Without there being major consequences for U.S. troops on the ground and other countries. And that has proven -- it sort of proven all right.
What we`ve done thus far hasn`t had huge blowback for us. But this is now a different kind of intervention, and are we all willed into complacency by the relative ease with which we`ve been able to have this other kind of intervention.
And we should expect a different type of blowback from this different type of target.
KRISTOF: You`re right that it`s a different kind of target and there are different kinds of risks ahead.
But Assad`s military is already deeply overstretched, and as long as we don`t try to take out Assad himself -- and that frankly is just not realistic.
We -- you know, one of the reasons that President Obama wasn`t stronger toward Assad was that we thought back in 2011-2012, that he was going to collapse.
And he proved to be much more resilient than we had expected. We are not about to remove him, but what we can do with the risks that I want to acknowledge.
We can limit his air assets, which are pretty modest, and his ability to inflict slaughter on his own people.
That in turn, I think makes him more aware that there is no military solution and that perhaps slightly improves the possibility of a long- lasting cease-fire in Syria.
MADDOW: Nicholas Kristof of the "New York Times", thank you for being --
KRISTOF: Good to be with you --
MADDOW: It`s good to have you here tonight.
WILLIAMS: So, we`re joined now by Connecticut Democratic member of the House of Representatives Jim Himes who has been on our air a lot by dint of his seat on the House Intelligence Committee.
And who I`m sure we`ll continue to hear about all things having to do with the House Intelligence Committee now under new leadership.
But Congressman, about the subject before us, your reaction to what we`ve all learned took place tonight.
REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: Well, like everything else in the Middle East, Brian, this is not a simple answer. I think Nick Kristof is right.
There is definitely virtue in making sure that Assad understands that if he steps over that line, that line from the conventional -- remember, the conventional brutality has been horrible.
Hundreds of thousands of dead in Syria because of Assad. But if he steps over that line into the unconventional, there is a price to be paid.
That`s a good thing, but there`s some profound questions here. Look, as a member of Congress, I have to note that the constitution of the United States says that the United States will not go to war without congressional approval.
And the fact is that we just did that. And the American people need to think about that, and more importantly perhaps is what`s next?
I remember back in the `90s when the Clinton administration did a similar strike, I believe in Somalia, and, you know, it really didn`t make any long-term difference to the strategic situation.
Now, whether that`s good or bad, who knows? I think it`s good that Assad now knows that he will pay a price for particularly brutal brutality.
But remember, there`s a lot of talk about, well, does he stay or does he go? We have been uniquely bad -- as amazing as our military is, we have been uniquely bad in the Middle East when we decide to remove a ruler.
Libya, Iraq, not experiences that we want to repeat. So I think we need to be very careful about what comes next.
WILLIAMS: I`ve heard a journalist tonight call tonight`s air strike symbolic, and now we just in the last 15 minutes heard Marco Rubio contend that we have made a material difference by dint of these 59 cruise missiles, a material difference in Assad`s ability to deliver weapons of mass destruction by air.
Which do you think is true?
HIMES: You know, again, in the Middle East, both of those things can be true at the same time. We in no way changed the strategic situation tonight.
I do not believe for one second that this is going to lead to conflict with the Russians. I think if you really poked the Russians a little bit, you`ll learn that it`s not easy even for the Russians to be in bed with a man who gases his own people.
So I`m not sure that they`re necessarily all that upset tonight. And it`s also possible -- and I have no particular knowledge on this.
But it`s also possible that the United States so-called deconflicted this attack with the Russians. It`s possible that there might have been Russians on that base. Who knows?
So I don`t think this really changes the strategic chess board all that much. But look, you can`t argue with Nick Kristof`s logic that if you just take out a whole bunch of airplanes that tomorrow would have been used to kill another 50 people, I`ll tell you what, saving 50 lives --
WILLIAMS: Yes --
HIMES: Is worth something.
WILLIAMS: Exactly, especially having seen those pictures. We`ve seen too many of them over six years.
Congressman, I`d be remiss if I didn`t ask you about what was the lead story given the pace of news earlier today.
And that is your committee on the Republican side, the majority side, under new leadership, Devin Nunes is gone as chairman.
Tell our viewers your view of the new guy, the next ranking Republican who moves up and how you think this will materially affect the investigation before you and your colleagues in the Senate.
HIMES: Yes, Brian, I just need to correct you on that point. Chairman Nunes remains chairman. He has simply been -- he`s taken himself out of leadership of the investigation.
WILLIAMS: All right --
HIMES: In favor of Congressman Mike Conaway. And look, on -- I think this was an unequivocally good thing to happen.
You know, Chairman Nunes, as much as I consider him a friend, his behavior in the last two weeks and in a couple of episodes prior really called into question whether he could ever be perceived as impartial as the leader of this investigation.
So, you know, I will tell you that Congressman Conaway is widely respected. Most of us even on the other side of the aisle believe that he is fair- minded.
And so we`re all hoping that the investigation, which never really came to a close -- we`ve agreed on witness lists, we`ve agreed on how to proceed.
That perhaps this investigation will now be able to proceed more the way the Senate was proceeding with a sense of, you know, both parties working together.
So I hope that when we wake up tomorrow, is reality.
WILLIAMS: Congressman, thank you and thank you for that point of information, you`re absolutely right. And I should have said that very same thing. Jim Himes --
HIMES: Thank you very much --
WILLIAMS: Democrat of the state of Connecticut.
MADDOW: We`re going to be joined now -- we`ve got a number of other people who are going to be joining us over the course of this hour.
I do want to say -- I think we`re going to be hearing from Malcolm Nance in just a moment --
WILLIAMS: Yes --
MADDOW: Which is good in terms of the counterterrorism part of this. And also the possible response from Russia here.
I do think it`s worth restating what we know. We are talking about U.S. tomahawk missiles that have been launched here, more than 50 of them.
We`re told there are 59, they hit a Syrian air base, which is near the Syrian city of Homs. The president said in a recorded message tonight from his golf resort at Mar-a-Lago that, that is the air base from which Syrian military aircraft took off when they dropped bombs that are believed to have been carrying chemical ammunitions on civilian neighborhoods on Tuesday of this week.
Again, the death toll for that attack is considered to be north of 70 people, dozens of children among those killed in that attack.
The consensus view appears to be that this was the one target of those 59 tomahawk missiles tonight. Tomahawk missiles are a mainstay in terms of U.S. fire power for strikes like this -- their standoff weapons.
They were shot from very far away. They`re shot from U.S. Navy vessels in the Mediterranean. There were some question strategically in terms of U.S. options here.
Whether the U.S. would use manned aircraft, whether these would be bombing raids or whether there would be missiles.
One of the factors is that Syria not only has a considerable Air Force, they`ve got a lot of surface-to-air missiles --
WILLIAMS: They have defenses --
MADDOW: They have defenses. Russian-made, Russian installed, S-200, S- 300, S-400 I guess different levels of those defenses.
And those are not only capable of shooting down U.S. Aircraft. They also conceivably could shoot down missiles. Tomahawks are considered to be remarkably not vulnerable to those types of anti-missile defense systems, in part because of how low they fly.
So this was a relatively safe option in terms of what the U.S. was putting at risk by doing this. But I think we noted at the beginning of our broadcast tonight, and it`s worth going back to. When we think about what the reaction is going to be here, what it means for the U.S. to be attacking the Syrian military, which is the first time that has happened despite all the other ways we`ve been involved in Syria. And that is this was not an attack on those air defense mechanisms.
This was not the United States going in and taking out those --
BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC CHIEF ANCHOR: Command and control, yes.
MADDOW: Command and control or those things that can shoot down U.S. Planes.
MADDOW: Or other U.S. Missiles. This was not the start of something that allows us to come in more safely with an even bigger attack or additional attacks thereafter. This was a stand-alone effect that will affect that airfield and that`s it.
WILLIAMS: And everything you just mentioned is probably on a target list because you`ve got to have options in the future.
MADDOW: Right. And it remains sort of to be explained. We`re advised we had congressman Adam Schiff here tonight, the top democrat in the intelligence committee on which Congressman Himes serves as well. And he said that the way that he was informed about this, he was basically told this is it. This is -- this is the response. This is not step one in what`s expected to be a multistage response by the U.S. Military in the region.
But, again, we don`t get to decide what happens after this.
MADDOW: And Russia is a wild card here. The Syrian military itself is a wild card here. Bashar Al Assad is a wild card here. There remains this intriguing reporting that it`s at least a minority view in the pentagon that that chemical weapons attack on Tuesday may have been designed for an audience of one. It may have been designed specifically to test this new president to see how he will behave in that region, in which case this has to have been anticipated as a potential response to what they did on Tuesday.
And that presumably means they`ve got in mind what their return volley will be as well. I think we can expect it`s not likely the U.S. Military will be the target of that volley. It will be Syrian civilians once again bearing the brunt.
WILLIAMS: And in plain English tonight, we heard General Barry McCaffrey say in effect there`s a reason these tomahawks are called stand back weapons. There`s a reason they have so many fans in the military. They`ve been steadily improved over the years. They are enormous. They can carry a lot of fire power.
And as a result of this launch of 59 tomahawk missiles tonight, not one young American aviator was in jeopardy in the skies over Syria for all the dangers Rachel just itemized. Most of them Russian-made and/or Russian- supplied, we also mentioned Malcolm Nance is standing by to talk to us. He is our intelligence-gathering specialist. A veteran of the trade and of the U.S. Military over the past several decades, Malcolm, two-part question to start you off, your reaction to this mission, knowing what precipitated it.
And what does this do to the optics that you and I have talked about for months -- U.S., Russia?
MALCOLM NANCE, AMERICAN INTELLIGENCE SPECIALIST: Well, my initial response came right after Secretary Of State Tillerson made a 180-degree turn on U.S. Policy. And that and the information that secretary -- sorry -- Vice President Mike Pence stated in the White House tonight. Those were two key intelligence indicators that the United States was going to do something significant. The level of that significance is proportionate.
A 50, 60-cruise missile strike on Shayrat airbase which by the way is a small secondary air -- air base, it is never been significant except for its close air support against Aleppo, Homs and other areas like Palmyra. But what`s even more significant is that in the last few months, Shayrat has been home to the Iranian revolutionary guard corps, and they have had forces launch attacks from there, not using aircraft but using it as a logistics base and operations base, which is a factor that I`m sure pentagon planners had to take into consideration.
So we may not have just killed Syrians tonight. We certainly have the capacity to strike that base. I know we struck at least, my count, 25 hardened aircraft bunkers and at least 20 weapons storage facilities. But, you know when you hit bunkers, triple-a positions, you`re going to kill individuals. Also we struck facilities that have Sarin Nerve gas and VX. Be prepared for the Syrians to claim that civilians were killed by that, by the dispersal of those weapons in the immediate area. So there are consequential actions which are going to have to take place after this.
And it comes down to what will Bashar Al Assad do? Will he take this strike on the basis that the Russians believe that they`ll just rebuild that base, and as Rachel said just earlier, they will take it out on the Syrian civilian population with an increased ground combat capacity, or will Al Assad feel that he needs to send a message to the United States? And we have U.S. Forces within scud missiles, scarab missile range of Syrian forces and Iranian forces in northern Syria.
It could get much more complex.
WILLIAMS: Malcolm, two things. Number one, we`ve just been notified by our chief White House correspondent, Hallie Jackson, that Secretary of State Tillerson and the national security adviser, General McMaster, are about to brief the White House press corps traveling with the president down in Palm Beach. We`ll get more to come. And, secondly, Malcolm, you just got our attention on the Iranian soldier`s angle.
Are we talking about perhaps dormitories? Are we talking about rigid housing? What?
NANCE: Well, it -- it depends. There`s fixed housing there, but you also have to understand these bases are used as bivouacs.
NANCE: For large quantities of troops that are getting ready to deploy into the field. So you would have troops sleeping out in the open, some in slit trenches. And not just Iranians, there are also Shia -- I`m sorry Iraqi Shia militia men who are assigned to the Assad army and who work alongside the Iranian revolutionary guard corps as combat forces. So you could have a multi-national casualty list out of this. And I think Pentagon planners probably took that into consideration.
We have very good intelligence about where that fighter aircraft that struck with the chemicals came from. Our signals intelligence is second to none. We probably know the pilot`s name. But hitting those weapon storage bunkers is most significant because these tomahawks are generally not from a barrack. They don`t have the capacity to burn through the chemical weapons.
So we may have by morning chemical weapons dispersal in that area that could kill additional civilians or military people.
MADDOW: Malcolm one of the things we`ve been talking about tonight is the certainty around the chemical weapons use on Tuesday. Obviously there was something other than just exploding metal and exploding fuel that affected all those kids and all those civilians and those horrific images that we saw on Tuesday. So far we`ve only had a declarative statement from the Turkish health ministry that it was Sarin. Tonight, though, Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, has told reporters that the U.S. has a high degree of confidence that Sarin gas was used.
That obviously has implications both in terms of how important that attack was on Tuesday, how proportionate this response was tonight by the U.S. Military. But it also has implications in terms of whether or not Bashar Al Assad does have significant hidden quantities of this stuff left over. After that U.S. and international process of supposedly destroying everything that he had. What comes next in terms of trying to truly eliminate chemical weapons there?
NANCE: You know, I -- I have been on the chemical weapon bug hunt, so I happen to know that it is very, very difficult to find an individual rocket, an individual, you know, 250-kilogram bomb filled with Sarin nerve gas, VX nerve gas. It is just hard, it`s like finding an ant in Texas. The -- the reason that we understand that Shayrat was probably significant is that many of these chemicals, especially with an organized government. With the Russians there they will do special chemical weapons handling when they`re bringing those -- those munitions out.
They`ll be wearing full chemical weapons gear, you know protective equipment. The pilot will have a specific type of, you know, oxygen mask when he flies. They will designate that bomb. But, you know, I`m sure we have a very high degree of, you know, probability of that that weapon was used and it came from that air base. Where are the others? I mean they could have given us 99 percent, which is what we understood they gave us, to destroy all the chemical precursors.
But weapons they might have developed themselves, which may have been sitting around, you know, or newly manufactured in the last couple of years. You just can`t find that just anywhere. So, you know, that of course gives us an opening to enlist the help of our -- you know, of Russia in, you know, de -- you know de-conflicting chemical weapons out of this equation.
However, that does not stop the -- the conventional capacity that the Syrians have to inflict massive amounts of -- of damage on civilians. And we see those horrific films every day, but they just don`t come to the same level of seriousness even though they kill many, many more civilians as a single chemical weapon strike.
WILLIAMS: Malcolm, one more question. And that you talked about our ability to listen. For all of us who use Google earth, for all of us who are stunned at how much we can see and the clarity of satellite photos for use in the civilian market when you`re putting together a target package and you have decided on this airfield, how good, how precise, how sharp, at what level is the imagery you have of a target like this before the attack?
NANCE: Well, the imagery is far, far better than Google earth. I mean Google earth is about 20, 25 years behind the technology that -- that we have capacity for. I mean our cold war capacity is better than Google earth`s highest resolution, and that`s all I`m going to say with that. And certainly with regards to special intelligence, you know, our capacity to collect things, I`ve worked against Syria.
I`ve carried out -- supported an air strike against Syria a few decades ago and you know, we constantly work that nation up in Pentagon planning and in local -- you know, local regional strike planning constantly. I mean we -- we know what every bunker that is there. Every munitions facility that`s there, we give them target grid reference constantly, and that`s how we could just pass that data package on to the USS Porter and the USS Ross and within minutes, all they have to do is go to key stations, turn their keys and -- and those targets willing struck.
But there`s another factor to this. We -- all that stuff is, you know exciting. As we say, bombs, guns and helicopter rides. But there is a follow-on to this that we will have to manage. If Syria decides that they want to bring the confrontation to us, they have more than enough surface- to-air capacity to threaten our strategic reconnaissance a assets like the air force reconnaissance , us navy reconnaissance aircraft that fly of off there. Our drones, they may take the opportunity to take down one of them just to show us they have the capacity.
Or they may ramp it up and go to scud missiles against U.S. Forces bases in Northern Syria near Manbij or you know that are preparing for the offensive against Raqqa. And if they don`t do it, the Iranians might do it just to show they are independent of all of this and that if Iranian soldiers are killed here, they may want to exact their own retaliation.
WILLIAMS: Malcolm Nance, our veteran of the overseas intelligence game. I thought the photos were worth a try. Bring them in next time we see you. Thank you very much.
MADDOW: Yes, good to have you here, sir. I want to bring in back into this conversation Michael McFaul, who we were speaking with earlier, the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia. He`s now a professor at Stanford, Mr. Ambassador, thank you again for joining us. I wanted to ask you specifically about something we were just discussing there with Malcolm Nance, which is the further consideration here of Iran.
Whether or not there were Iranian revolutionary guard troops who were using that base. Whether or not Iranians may have been among casualties associated with this strike, what should we understand about the relationship between Russia and Iran, between the other people who are involved in this fight other than Syrians and us, that may decide to, you know, cut their own course here in terms of how they respond to this?
MICHAEL MCFAUL, FMR UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA: Well, let me say two things to that. Since -- since we`ve been talking, we have seen some reports of Iranians there but also Hezbollah might also be at that air base. And so there could be casualties beyond just the Syrians. That`s the first thing.
Second, they formally are all in alliance together. Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and Mr. Assad and but -- but their objectives are different. When we were negotiating with the Russians to try to end the civil war back in 2012, 2013, we wanted a political solution that would lead to a political transition. Putin was against that because he was against regime change.
I don`t think he has any particular affinity or even respect for Mr. Assad. I`ve heard President Putin talk about him, but he has a lot of conviction that the United States cannot do regime change. Regime change is not on the table tonight. Let`s be clear about that. So I think that gives, if he wants to use it -- I don`t want to make any predictions about what he might say tomorrow as they wake up in Moscow.
But if he wants to stand back and not criticize this attack, I think Putin can do that. The Iranians and Hezbollah have different objectives. They are -- are much more closely tied to Mr. Assad, the Shia/Sunni divide is there. And at times when I was in the government, we saw that tension between their objectives on the one hand, fighting this ---- this religious war if you will, sectarian war, versus Russia, which was really just focused on not allowing regime change to happen in the country of Syria.
MADDOW: And of course with those dynamics at work, with those incentives at work on the part of Iran, that does immediately raise the question of where U.S. Troops are in close proximity to Iranian or Iranian-supported forces. Not just the U.S. Troops that we`ve got on the ground in Syria, but particularly the very large numbers of U.S. troops that we`ve got on the ground in Iraq, where Iran has the kind of influence and boots on the ground and control over geographic parts of that country that might conceivably be a real factor for American troops, right?
MCFAUL: Correct. And I don`t want to get ahead of my skis and predict what will be the action/reaction cycle here. But there`s rarely a kinetic action like this without some kind of reaction. And most certainly there are multiple players here. There`s not just Mr. Assad and President Putin. There are multiple players that will look for some kind of reaction in the future.
MADDOW: Michael Mcfaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia. Thank you, sir. It`s good to have you with us tonight.
WILLIAMS: And down in Florida --
MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.
WILLIAMS: Thank you Ambassador. Down in Florida, Chief Whitehouse Correspondent Hallie Jackson has just emerged from this briefing. Hallie, we told our viewers about this. This was the National Security Adviser to the President and the Secretary of State briefing on the record but not for camera. In a visual medium, that means we get our briefing from Hallie Jackson. What did you learn?
HALLIE JACKSON, CHIEF WHITEHOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Let me start with the headline coming out of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson which he described Russia as either complicit or incompetent in dealing with Bashar Al Assad, adding that in response to our questions, Moscow, the Kremlin was not notified of this attack. That nobody from the U.S. government spoke with anybody from the Kremlin prior to the strike being carried out. That said, typical deconfliction procedures were followed in order to make sure there weren`t any, for example, Russians in Syria on the ground. Obviously with those Syrian forces that would have been in harms way.
I will tell you that General McMaster tipped through the National Security Adviser, tipped through a timeline starting with the moment that the President was briefed all the way leading up to the presentation of essentially three options militarily for him. General McMaster said the President narrowed that down to two options, asked for more details, more information, and ultimately after lengthy conversations, made the decision to do what you saw today, a response that the Secretary of State called appropriate and proportional. He was pressed repeatedly about whether he had spoken, whether the President had spoken with President Xi Jinping who of course is down here in Palm Beach for this 24 hour or so summit with President Trump.
No answer there. And as we look ahead to what could happen next, you look at the fallout as you guys have been talking about from potentially members of Congress. You look at some of these other political issues here at home that could develop. You look at the reaction from people like Senator Marco Rubio, from people like senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and so on, who would support the idea of this strike.
There are some questions, though, about whether this was to send a message or whether this was really going to harm the regime`s ability to carry out potentially more chemical weapons attacks in the future. And I`m finding this quote for you here because I don`t want to get it wrong.
WILLIAMS: Hey Hallie, take one second. While you`re speaking, where we usually air file tape, this started while you were talking. This is pentagon-supplied video of some of these 59 launches tonight. That`s the Ross and the Porter, two U.S. Navy vessels in the dark of night.
They were in the Eastern Mediterranean. And as the cruise missile flies, the distance to home as well not exactly a coastal city, is not that much considering these will have an effective range of 900 to 1,000 miles. Anyway, Hallie, forgive me for interrupting.
JACKSON: No, I mean listen, this is some images coming out of the Pentagon here dramatic, Brian. I will say this -- that the administration as we heard from General McMaster believes this was not a small strike and will trigger what he called a big shift in Assad`s calculus. You also heard from Secretary of State Tillerson who talked about the reaction from allies as he called it, supportive. Brian, again the expectation is we will at some point hear from President Putin. I asked Secretary of State Tillerson what he expects that reaction to be, and he said essentially we`ll see what happens when we hear from them.
WILLIAMS: What about the notion of the travel ban? It`s been enough hours.
WILLIAMS: -- Since we learned of this attack. There was enough of a spool-up of theory that it was coming, about the banned Syrians, about the lack of The United States as a safe haven.
JACKSON: I asked that to General McMaster. This idea that the President, as he talked about tonight, Brian, was so struck by the images and by what he had seen these, as he called them, beautiful babies cruelly murdered. And so the question was posed whether that has changed the President`s thinking given that we have seen a shift from him, a reversal from him on his Syrian stance if perhaps this had changed his thinking on that travel ban, specifically when it comes to Syrian Refugees. General McMaster said that did not come up in the conversation surrounding the Syrian Strike, Brian.
MADDOW: That`s -- Hallie, that`s just underscoring that --the dramatic nature of that. I mean the President`s language was florid. You know, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were murdered in this barbaric attack. No child of got should ever suffer such horror, end quote.
But if they do, they will be banned from the United States by virtue of the fact that they are Syrian, and they will not be allowed to seek refuge in this country by virtue of the fact that they are Syrian. That`s a -- I mean you never know what people feel, hard to defend. But that seems to me like that will be hard to defend in coming days. Have you heard any other response from the administration on that point?
JACKSO: Not on that point, Rachel. This is our first opportunity to pose questions on the record and kind of setting though was off camera as Brian pointed to this administration officials. I will tell you that the administration behind the scenes, what we are hearing privately from sources is that they believe this was decisive action from President Trump.
And they saying that publicly as well that this was essentially a move to show strength and it was targeted specifically for a reason. As we look at this video here, targeted at the airfield where they believe this chemical weapons attack was carried out from. And so I expect that we will see more of sort of the behind the scenes story unspool over the coming hours.
WILLIAMS: Hallie Jackson with the traveling Whitehouse at Mar-a-Lago i in Florida, where, oh, by the way, the leader of China is visiting in a working summit of sorts continues with sunup tomorrow. Hallie, thank you. We are joined the tonight by both on the record and on camera, I might add, presidential historian and author and friend of all of our broadcasts, Michael Beschloss
And Michael, I`m looking at these images that overwhelm the screen you and I are sharing. And I mean this with all due respect. The sales department at the pentagon, especially in the era of moving pictures, is very effective.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, HISTORIAN: Yes. Those are very colorful videos tonight, and they certainly are intended, I assume, to get a lot of support for this action tonight. You know, one thing, Brian, as you know. You know, when a President takes a big military move or even a moderate one like this tonight, early in his presidency, it shows us things about him that we did not know before. You know April of John Kennedy`s first year was the month that his disaster in Cuba, the Bay of Pigs. April was also the month that Richard Nixon had to deal with the downing of an Ec-121 by North Korea, killed 31 Americans. Nixon had a very restrained response.
So we have seen a mind-blowing number of things about Donald Trump. The last number of weeks all the way back to the 20th of January. But what we find out tonight and during the next week, why he did this, who advised him, why he changed his mind, we will learn new things about Donald Trump.
WILLIAMS: And add to the list of things the world has seen about him in, what, 75 days. The world has seen him accuse his predecessor of a felony, and the list is long and known to all of us and now this. And the Trump Administration turns deathly serious because this is a deathly serious business and wants cooperation and wants credibility on this issue, on this attack. But as you point out, it is a neck of snapping reversal of policy during this week.
BESCHLOSS: A very big change. Just even the last couple of days. And the language we`re hearing tonight both from the President and from his aides and the Secretary of State suggests they`re trying to draw a distinction with Barack Obama, that Barack Obama was not strong in this area and that Donald Trump was. And perhaps what they`re thinking of is hard to see it, but Ronald Reagan`s first year, as you know, in august of 1981.
Reagan fired the air Traffic Controllers Union when they were on strike. Almost no one thought he would do that. And it is said, and I`ve heard then Soviet officials say this, that the people in Moscow said, we really thought that Reagan might be a little bit of a flake. But whether he fired those air traffic controllers, we saw that this was someone who meant what he said.
There might be some effort within the Trump entourage tonight that this sort of makes the same kind of suggestion to world leaders around the world.
MADDOWS: Michael, one of the things that I`ve been curious about in terms of how the Trump administration maybe factoring this into their decision making and also there`s just sort of anything we can learn from history on this. It`s just the dramatic u-turn from the President himself on the question of how the United States should respond to Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons on civilian populations. In 2013 when President Obama confronted the images of a much, much larger chemical attack. More than 1,4000 Syrian civilians killed including hundreds of kids.
Donald Trump at the time was very, very outspoken. And it`s all on the record saying do not invade Syria. Do not bomb Syria. Do not get militarily involved in it and if you do you must get Congressional Approval.
You cannot hit Syria without any sort of Congressional vote any sort of congressional vote on that I mean he`s on the record to the extreme advocating in move emphatic terms the exact opposite of what he just did. Is there anything we can learn from history in terms of what the impact of that is?
BESCHLOSS: Sure. it can be very dangerous because, you know, both for foreign leaders and also for all of us Americans. just about the only way that we have any idea or expectation of a President -- of what a President is going to do is to know what he has thought and done in the past.
BESCHLOSS: And so when you see this kind of a spin, I guarantee you tonight in capitals all around the world leaders are recalculating what they are going to do about the United States and also about Donald Trump. You remember, you know, when Donald Trump made that statement, you know, it wasn`t very long ago, saying that, you know, yes, I`m changing my mind, and I`m a very flexible person. I think that`s a good thing. Reminded me of the old Senator Edward Dirksen who once said I`m extremely strongly principled person and my biggest principle is flexibility.
MADDOWS: Michael Beschloss, NBC News Presidential Historian, thank you for being with us Michael.
BESCHLOSS: Thank you Rachel and Brian.
MADDOWS: It`s great to have you here.
WILLIAMS: I mentioned respectfully the sales department at the Pentagon. Please note what has happened to these pictures since we received them we have shown nothing but on the screen.
MADDOWS: Yes, I think we have pretty much got the parabola here. We`ve got the got the sense
WILLIAMS: Awesome weaponry at sea.
MADDOWS: Yes. 59 of those shot off on the. These are 1,000 pound missiles. They described earlier about 18 to 20 feet long. Two guided missile destroyers shooting these off from the Mediterranean. They are expensive. They are relatively low-risk in terms of being shot out of the sky themselves.
But it is -- it`s a lot of them to all be hitting one target. I do think that, you know, in terms of -- we`ll have to hear from the military strategist on this, but it has -- it`s almost impossible to imagine that the Assad regime doesn`t have some sort of plan for what they do next in the even of this sort of retaliation from the United States or from anybody else who decided that what they did this week was intolerable. And the United States is showing there is this one thing that we can do. It will be very interesting to see addition-making process in this new administration with this screwed up process they have been through at the National Security Council in terms of how they decide to respond to what will inevitably be a next step by the Assad regime.
WILLIAMS: And will this administration speak now? You mentioned the U.N., State Department, Whitehouse with a singular voice.
WILLIAMS: We have seen differences.
WILLIAMS: Especially where U.N. Representative Nikki Hanley has been concerned.
MADDOWS: Yes. And we have seen differences just Nikki Haley`s statement within the past week.
WILLIAMS: That`s right.
MADDOWS: And the same thing with Rex Tillerson and the same thing with the President himself. And so the National Security Council has an institution is opaque and bureaucratic and not open particularly open to reporting or the public seeing what they do. But their goal, the reason they exist is so that the U.S. Government speaks with one voice.
That there is consensus view within the administration, the President`s decision is both final, widely understood and can be articulated by all the stakeholder within the government. Everybody knows where the U.S. stands and when we speak it is without daylight or without uncertain in terms of where different parts of the government might fall on that issue.
That hasn`t happened in terms of communicating the will and the message of the U.S. Government. They may get it together right quick in the wake this strike. But we`ll be watching for that in terms of next steps.
WILLIAMS: Before we lose you, what did you make of the President`s appearance tonight?
MADDOWS: I thought that as a matter of political stage craft it was strange, which is I suppose not to be -- not that unusual given that he`s operating from this resort. And this was produced by Whitehouse staff, presumably n terms of feeding this out to us rather than this being the President speaking from a more typical location. He has never done anything like this before.
He is awkward on teleprompter so as an artifact, an audio visual artifact, this was very awkward. I think his remarks about his sympathy for the Syrian people will be hard to square in days ahead given his ban on Syrian refugees taking refuge in this country./
WILLIAMS: Thanks for visiting tonight, glad you were a part of our coverage. The 11 o`clock hour has arrived here on the East Coast on an eventful
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