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Pentagon says U.S. Strike. TRANSCRIPT: 1/2/20, The Last Word w/ Lawrence O'Donnell.

Guests: Daniel Benaim, Ned Price, Cory Booker, Wendy Sherman

LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC HOST:  Good evening, Rachel, and we`re going to be continuing the breaking news coverage of this event. 

The information in the last 10 minutes has just changed dramatically. 


O`DONNELL:  As you began reporting on it, it was hard to even confirm this had happened, we really just had Iraqi sources at the beginning and we finally had Iranian forces and now the Department of Defense.  So it seems everything we need for confirmation of this we now have. 

MADDOW:  They all fell into place fairly quickly.  It was for long tonight, not that long, but for the initial coverage, it was all those Iraqi TV sources and then everything sort of fell into order pretty quickly in term of Iranian sources, unnamed U.S. government sources and then finally this on the record statement. 

O`DONNELL:  Andrea Mitchell is going to join us this hour, as she`s rushed into the D.C. bureau, of course, as she would in a situation like this.  But one of things striking about it is, she had Secretary of Defense Esper on her program this afternoon.  And when he was speaking about this situation, it really sounded like from his perspective, things were under control now and the situation had calmed down. 

You couldn`t get any clue from that appearance this afternoon that something like this was planned. 

MADDOW:  Yes, and I mean -- you know, U.S. military and CIA targeted killings around the world are a big deal, and they always are.  But in terms of a consequential targeted assassination, in term of its military consequences, it`s hard -- it`s hard to imagine all that many that would be more consequential than this.  I mean, when you set aside putting a strike on the head of a foreign head of state, for example.  If you take away the idea of decapitating a state, one level below that kind of the most consequential military assassination you can imagine in the world is to kill the head of the Quds Force from Iran. 

I don`t know how long they had this planned and how much they prepared for what the response is going to be, but we are about to see it. 

O`DONNELL:  We have a bunch of experts here going to help us with it.  Thank you very much, Rachel.

MADDOW:  Thanks, Lawrence.

O`DONNELL:  We appreciate it. 

Before we get to what`s happening in Iraq tonight, I just want to say that presidential candidate and future Trump impeachment trial juror, Senator Cory Booker, will be joining us tonight.  And there has been plenty to talk to him about as a presidential candidate and a Senate trial juror, but now, we will also drawing on Senator Booker`s expertise as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to get his reaction to these developments in Iraq tonight where the Pentagon has just confirmed that the top Iranian general has been killed in a U.S. missile strike at Baghdad airport. 

I want to read you the Department of Defense statement on this that has just been released.  I`m going to read it in full. 

It says: At the direction of the president, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Quds Force, a U.S. designated foreign terrorist organization. 

General Soleimani -- this is continuing with the Department of Defense statement.  General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.  General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more.  He had orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months, including the attack on December 27th culminating in the death and wounding of additionally American and Iraqi personnel.  General Soleimani also approved the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad that took place this week. 

And this is the final part of the Department of Defense statement tonight, the final two couple of sentences.  The strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.  The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world. 

We are joined in our breaking news coverage of these developments in Iraq tonight by Andrea Mitchell.  She is the chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News. 

Cal Perry is with us.  He`s an international correspondent for MSNBC and NBC News. 

Ambassador Wendy Sherman, former under secretary of state in the Obama administration will join us.  She was the lead negotiator on the Iran nuclear agreement, and she`s now an MSNBC global affairs contributor. 

Ned Price is with us, a former CIA analyst and a former senior director and spokesperson for the National Security Council in the Obama administration. 

And Daniel Benaim, a former State Department and White House official in the Obama administration, is also with us. 

Andrea, I want to start with you and I actually want to start with that interview you did this afternoon with the defense secretary.  I watched every minute of it.  It seemed as though things had calmed from his perspective, and there was no clue about what was going to happen tonight. 

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT:  Well, there were some hints along the way because he had briefed Pentagon reporters this morning as well and said there could be a preemptive strike if they felt that U.S. interests or certainly U.S. lives were at stake.  But there`s no real hint in our interview.  We asked what would happen next, and appropriately, if they were planning this, he certainly would not comment on it. 

They had him do our interview, he did one other interview I know of, and Mark Esper was very carefully saying that the U.S. had the forces, that the U.S. would respond, that enough is enough, said he.  And we also heard earlier today over at the Pentagon that correspondents there from the chairman of the joint chiefs saying that anyone trying to issue a further attack would run into a buzz saw.  Certainly, Esper was saying they thought other attacks were planned. 

And what they are saying in the statement tonight is that they have a legal predicate for what was done because they said U.S. interests, that further attacks were planned and that this was defensive in nature and that would be according to the legal strictures that have been obtained for decades on official kills or assassination, targeted assassinations. 

This is, as you and Rachel were discussing, the most significant attack I can remember since certainly what happened with Baghdadi, what happened with bin Laden.  But this is more hierarchical and now this relates to -- certainly, the widespread state sponsored terror that has emanated from Iran, that has been the source of what Esper was saying 40 years of Iranian activities. 

Now, they have claimed they had diplomatic overtures to Iran.  There`s none that I can detect.  Wendy Sherman whom I covered for years during the Iran negotiations, both the secret negotiations, that she under -- that she was leading and then the former negotiations knows very well that there is diplomacy that`s engaged with Iran for years until that was canceled by this president with the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. 

And that and the increasing sanctions, the maximum pressure that failed to collapse the regime which certainly was the underlying theme even though they denied it, has certainly led to this eventuality.  Now, I cannot predict what will happen, but in talking to Ali Arouzi, our Tehran bureau chief, and talking to other experts, in my experience of having covered every other engagement that the U.S. has had with Iran since the taking of our embassy back in 1979, and having witnessed what happened when the shah fell in all of these years, Lawrence, you`ve seen this from your experience as a journalist and previously at the Senate -- there are going to be reprisals around the world. 

Iran is the most widely engaged foreign military force in both terror and in diplomacy and is recognized by Great Britain, by all of our European allies who had embassies in Tehran.  Iran is not Iraq.  This is not Saddam Hussein.  This is much larger country, a much more established culture and regime. 

And we`re going to face repercussions for this now acknowledged that it was an American military strike that killed Soleimani who is an official leader in Iran. 

O`DONNELL:  Cal Perry, I want to quote one more line from Andrea`s interview with Secretary Esper, defense secretary today, because there were lines, as Andrea says, where he said enough is enough, he said other things.  But one of the notes struck that sounded to me he was trying to take down the temperature was this, he said, there`s a lot we can do and then he followed that immediately by saying, but I think it`s important at this point in time to not make this a United States versus Iran issue. 

His department tonight has just issued a statement saying this is a United States versus Iran issue. 

CAL PERRY, MSNBC INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT:  Yes, I`m not sure what the communication is inside the Defense Department.  I think Donald Trump`s tweet of just an American flag is going to leave many people to wonder, what is the strategy here?

This man is and was an icon in Iran and in the Middle East.  The face of the Middle East as we know it, and it`s hard to overstate this, is in large part drawn by Qassem Soleimani.  The war against ISIS ended the way it did in large part because of Qassem Soleimani.  Lebanese Hezbollah has its power because of Qassem Soleimani. 

Many hundreds of U.S. troops and this is something we will hear from the Pentagon, died during the war in Iraq because of Qassem Soleimani.

So, depending on who you talk to, he was a terrorist.  Others will say he was a stabilizing force.  It`s impossible to imagine anyone in Iran and Iraq and Syria and Lebanon viewing this as anything but the U.S. versus Iran from today forward. 

And as Andrea is saying, you can expect there will be a response.  Iran is now put in a position where its back is against the wall, and it has to respond.  And, you know, with someone like Ambassador Sherman on the panel, I have to wonder how we step this back. 

The Iran nuclear agreement was partly such a break through because it opened communication between the U.S. government and Iran in a way that we haven`t had in a generation.  And those communications tonight are just not going to exist.  The U.S. will certainly as far as its military posture have to go to a war footing.  Folks who are in that Baghdad embassy are going to be in an incredibly delicate position to say the least.  And Iraq will go almost immediately to a war footing. 

So, you know, however you want to put it, the doomsday clock has ticked another step towards midnight.  And it certainly looks as though the U.S. is headed towards a wider conflict now in the Middle East, Lawrence. 

O`DONNELL:  Ambassador Wendy Sherman, Cal Perry has just handed it to you with now what? 

AMB. WENDY SHERMAN, FORMER UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE FOR POLITICAL AFFAIRS:  Well, I wish I knew what all the now what`s were.  I quite agree with what they`ve said.  There will be terrible, terrible reprisals.  They will likely happen in the Middle East, but they could happen really anywhere in the world.

And as both of these journalists have pointed out, we have people all over the world that could become targets.  And, of course, our military and Iraq are targets.  Our embassy in Baghdad is a target.  Lebanon is a likely place to be targeted. 

In a situation like this, Lawrence, what usually happens is if there`s a small group in the White House with all of the Pentagon, the intelligence community, the State Department meeting very quietly, they send out a classified note or briefing to key embassies to have a regional security meeting, to get ready to figure out how they`re going to defend themselves, whether there are authorized departures so that families can leave embassies.  An enormous amount of work goes in so we can make sure we`re steady and ready when such an action is taken. 

Qassem Soleimani is a ruthless, ruthless killer.  There is no doubt about that.  Nobody weeps that he is gone as a person and what he did and the terror he brought about in the world. 

But that said, the Obama administration at least to my knowledge did not go after him and target him because we understood what the consequences were.  We were in the midst of diplomacy.  We hoped that we would find a peaceful path, understanding that there were many issues in Iran that still had to be addressed besides their nuclear program, and we had the sanctions, the tenacity, the alliances to do it. 

So I think tonight, the immediate concern for all of us is what both Andrea and Cal have said, and that is the reprisals, where and how they are going to happen, they will be asymmetrical.  It doesn`t matter where our troops are, they can be targets.  But Qassem Soleimani had deputies.  They know how to do what he did in, even though he was this unbelievably unique counter military strategist.

But we are at a very, very escalatory moment here which can lead us into a wider war.  I hope we do not go there. 

I pray with all my heart that the Trump administration has a plan and strategy.  But all I`ve seen to date the Iran policy is one off actions, and this one off action can have unbelievably horrific consequences. 

O`DONNELL:  Ned Price, given what we just heard from former Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, there comes the question of why.  We understand the reasons not to do this as just outlined by Ambassador Sherman, the reasons why the Obama administration did not take an action like this and presumably what the resources they had could have. 

What is the why for the Trump administration?  When you read the Department of Defense statement tonight, it seems to be because of what they expected General Soleimani to do next.  They say General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. 

Now, that`s the Trump administration asking us and the world to believe them about that point. 

NED PRICE, FORMER CIA ANALYST:  Well, certainly, Lawrence, I think it`s true what others have said that no one should be shedding any tears for Qassem Soleimani.  He was, in fact, responsible for -- he had American blood on his hands, indirectly so, and American blood nonetheless in conflicts throughout the region from Syria to Iraq to elsewhere. 

But at the same time I think the fact as Ambassador Sherman said that the consequences of this could be unbelievable.  Look, my concern throughout this had always been a conflict with Iran would start not with a bang but with a whimper, a whimper that was the results of any number of tit-for-tat escalations and retaliations derived from this so-called maximum pressure strategy that the Trump administration has mounted against Iran since May of 2018.  Today, however, tonight I should say, I think we heard that bang and it was a very loud one. 

It is impossible to overstate the level of prominence, the authority figure that Qassem Soleimani was within the Iranian society.  He was a military figure.  He was a security figure.  He was a political figure.  He was a cultural figure. 

Unlike Osama bin Laden, unlike Baghdadi, this was not a transactional and essentially stateless terrorist that was homeless without a country who would weep for him.  This is -- this was, I should say, a revered figure in Iran and I think we have consider all possibilities for retaliation, and I certainly hope the Trump administration has done so.

Ambassador Sherman mentioned a few potential theaters, I would add one more.  I think back to a case in 2011 when individuals were arrested in the United States for a plot to attack the Saudi ambassador at a Washington, D.C. restaurant.  Just across town from where I am now.  This was a plot that had links to the Quds force that Qassem Soleimani oversaw at the time. 

So, it`s certainly to true to say that our diplomats, our service members in Iraq, Americans in Syria, Americans in Lebanon, Americans throughout the region will be under increased threat.  My concern more so is that Americans here at home will also be under increased threat as a result of what happened tonight. 

O`DONNELL:  Daniel Benaim, your reaction to where this story stands at this hour. 

DANIEL BENAIM, MIDDLE EAST POLICY ADVISER, OBAMA ADMINISRATION:  Well, first of all, I`m thinking about the Americans who are serving overseas right now who are facing incredible danger of retaliation and are hoping that the Trump administration as folks have said have a real plan to deal with that.  This is brutal thug with blood on his hands all across the Middle East, in his own country, peaceful protesters in Iraq. 

So, again, no tears for Qassem Soleimani.  The question is, what now?  And America and Iran had been in a kind of slow-boiling collision course, stuck in between war and peace ever since Trump walked away from the Iran deal. 

And the question now really is, where do we go?  We seemed to have entered a whole new phase of this conflict marked by serious escalation and a risk of a kind of spiral into retaliation and more bloodshed.  I still don`t think that Iran wants to go to full-fledged war with America, but I think they`re backed into a corner where they`re going to have to find some way to respond and inflict pain. 

And that could well lead both sides into further escalations that neither side wants, and that`s a really dangerous place to be.  And what concerns me most maybe is I don`t see a way back from them.  It is a good thing that Qassem Soleimani is dead.  The question is where the Middle East goes from here and where America and Iran can go? 

O`DONNELL:  Andrea Mitchell, where does the story go from here?  Tell us how to cover this story and the questions we should be asking? 

MITCHELL:  All the questions that you are asking and the experts that you have around you, Lawrence, because we`re all caught between knowing his history, his history of terror and oppression against his own people.  But the fact is at recent stages, he was the most popular political figure in Iran because of Iranian popular reaction against the so-called moderates -- and I use that phrase very carefully against Rouhani and Zarif and others who blessed the Iran nuclear deal. 

They were blamed because the Iranians had been promised economic benefits for signing onto a deal they also did not like.  It was a compromise neither side is totally satisfied with as Wendy knows better than any off of us.  And it was a compromise the first step to limit for at least ten years and for longer than that in terms of the fuel supply lines, to limit production of nuclear weapons material to permit space for diplomacy to get to the delivery systems, the ballistic missiles and other things that were never contemplated to be covered. 

It was not signed off by the Senate because the Obama administration could probably not get confirmation in the Senate.  So, it was not a treaty but it was a U.N. agreed upon agreement signed by the United States and by the other six powers ratified by the United Nations.  And the fact we walked away from it was such a dramatic departure from diplomacy, from agreed upon, you know, deals that it marked a real departure and an end of diplomacy with Iran. 

And how we cover this now, there`s no way to protect our forces adequately overseas because individual Americans will be targeted, individual intelligence operatives, as well U.S. uniform military and our diplomats as well as others, as well as American interests.  I mean, Iran through Hezbollah has been active in South America, in Argentina, years ago when we covered those attacks against Jewish community groups in South America. 

So there`s no telling what will happen to Israel, and it is interesting that Saudi Arabia, Iran`s adversary, has recently been having back channel talks to try to reach accord with Iran because they felt after Iraq -- the U.S. did not really support them following Iranian-backed attacks against the largest Saudi oil field.  Half of their oil supply for weeks knocked out that they could no longer rely on America, their closest ally in the West. 

So, there are so many ramifications diplomatically, military and in the war on terror.  And as both Ned and Wendy have pointed out, we do not know that the usual steps to protect American interests overseas and American diplomats have been taken. 

O`DONNELL:  Ambassador Wendy Sherman, you helped negotiate and put in place the Iran nuclear agreement with the United States and other countries that prevented Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.  Where would you put that, the Iran nuclear deal if say you were part of editing tomorrow`s page one "New York Times" story about these events tonight? 

SHERMAN:  I think some of those things have even been said in the last couple of days after the attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and that is in my view very painfully, it is President Trump`s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement that started a series of steps that have led us to this day.  Now, that doesn`t mean Iran is not responsible for taking steps to counter steps we have taken.  Iran does bear enormous responsibility, but nonetheless there seem to be a set of one off actions as I said earlier without a coherent strategy. 

The president, I think, believed that the Iran nuclear deal should have dealt with all of the problems in Iran, the states sponsorship of terrorism, the unlawful detention of American citizens which goes on even today and those Americans who were held in Evin Prison today I also have great concern for under these circumstances.  They`re not getting out any time soon. 

Iran`s human rights abuses, Iran`s maligned behavior in the region and all over the world, all of these things, their ballistic missile programs, all of these things are of great concern, but you cannot deal with all these issues in one negotiation.  Otherwise, you just end up with a mediocre middle on everything.  Iran would say, OK, I`ll have a few less centrifuges but I want some more missiles, or I will agree to maybe not give Hezbollah so much money but I want this nuclear technology.  So you don`t end up really solving any problem because it`s a negotiation.

So, President Obama thought he had to first get rid of the potential for a nuclear weapon, because if Iran had a nuclear weapon, imagine if we are where we are today and if they could project power of a nuclear power into the Middle East, how our deterrent would be so nearly impossible.  So I think that President Trump walking away without a strategy basically hoping that maximum pressure would either incite a riot that would overthrow the theocratic regime or that Iran would be brought to its knees was without an understanding of the consequences. 

We saw the other day that the president should have known if in fact we took the retaliatory action we did in response to Americans being killed, by taking a strike on KH, on Kataib Hezbollah, that there would be a reaction.  So, we should have fortified our embassy. We should have talked to the Iraq government and it doesn`t appear we did any of those things, to get ready for that retaliatory attack, which makes me very nervous about whether in fact there is a plan to deal with what`s to come in the days ahead. 

And Iran would be smart about this.  They would react but do it as we would, at a time and place of their choosing and that means we have to be prepared everywhere. 

O`DONNELL:  Joining us by phone from West Palm Beach is Hallie Jackson, NBC News chief White House correspondent. 

And, Hallie, what are you learning from the White House tonight, and have you heard anything from the White House about plans to deal with retaliation? 

HALLIE JACKSON, NBC NEWS CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Yes.  It`s an interesting question, Lawrence.  We`ve been doing a lot of reporting from our sources here in West Palm and back in Washington.  I can tell you that President Trump was at Mar-a-Lago tonight. 

Our team is confirming he spoke with his national security advisor and Ambassador Robert O`Brien.  Tonight, I`m told by one source that O`Brien is at Mar-a-Lago with the president or had been this evening at Mar-a-Lago with the president, obviously, and not surprising given the enormity what`s at stake here. 

The president, you have to think about how he spent his day.  He was largely for most of the day off Twitter which has been somewhat unusual over this holiday break.  He`s been particularly vocal about the impeachment proceedings against him.  We did not see much of that after 9:00 this morning.  He spent about 5 hours plus at his golf club and then returned back to Mar-a-Lago where he`s been since right around 3:15, 3:30 this afternoon. 

So, that is what we know about the president`s activity.  The White House is leaning on this statement you have been reporting tonight from Defense Secretary Mark Esper confirming, of course, the death of Soleimani, the question now is what happens next with Iran, how does the U.S. essentially disentangle itself or not from this escalation that has occurred tonight? 

The president -- keep in mind -- the activities this week just 48 hours ago was standing at the steps here in Palm Beach telling reporters, telling Americans, telling the world he believed that peace with Iran would be the better solution, essentially.  Telling people he did not want war with Iran.  Yet, that is exactly the concern from experts we`ve been talking to tonight, that that is what the U.S. is stepping into potentially here. 

The other piece of this we`re watching is not just what would happen to the president tomorrow, and by the way, it`s still not clear what his schedule will be.  Typically, we know sometime in the evening, to see what the president is going to be doing the next day.  I can`t share that with you right now because we just don`t know.  He`s been set to visit a church for an evangelical sort of rally or event with evangelicals who support him.  So, it wouldn`t be surprising if we did see the president tomorrow.  I would imagine he would want to speak about this now the defense secretary has confirmed it. 

You also have what`s happening in Congress, and how Capitol Hill is going to react to that.  We have seen some of this already tonight and perhaps surprisingly really bifurcated along party lines.  You have some conservatives, for example, Senator Ben Sasse, others, Senator Marco Rubio, who are coming out, essentially supporting the action here of the killing this terrorist, as they put it.  Senator Sasse calling Soleimani, forgive my French here, but an evil bastard essentially. 

You have on the other hand, people like Senator Chris Murphy who are very concerned that the president took this action without seeking congressional approval, and I think that`s the other piece of this fight that you`re going to see play out on Capitol Hill side of this thing, Lawrence.

O`DONNELL:  Hallie Jackson, chief White House correspondent, thank you very much for joining us.  Really appreciate that. 

I want to go to Cal Perry.  Cal, the question comes up -- I`d also like to ask the control room to go back to the photographs we have of the scene tonight.  That`s what you were seeing before.  That is at Baghdad airport, that is where this missile strike occurred. 

And, Cal, it raises the question what was General Soleimani doing there?  Why would someone that high ranking, a military officer that valuable be in the line of fire tonight? 

PERRY:  I think it speaks to who he was as a figure in Iran when I tell you he did this fairly frequently, that he would visit the front lines, that he would visit the battlefields both in Syria and in Iraq, and then his photo would then be circulated across Iranian media and across the country. 

Interesting to note it was actually his name being spray painted along the walls, the outer walls of the U.S. embassy during those protests.  Our bureau chief, Ali Arouzi, in Tehran, just actually handed me this.  The former head of the IRGC is, quote, vowing revenge against the United States. 

So, we`re starting to get some reaction now from Iran. 

When you look at this from the Iranian perspective, we talk about why perhaps Obama never followed through and did something like this to Soleimani.  And keep in mind, it was widely understood across the region that Qasem Soleimani is somebody you don`t touch because of the repercussions.

I can`t think of anybody who else who is sort of in that category, maybe Hassan Nasrallah, who is the secretary-general of Hezbollah, who would fall into that category.

But the reason you don`t do this is because of that strong response, but also because of what it does politically in Iran.  It strengthens those who are radical and those who speak out against the U.S.  It lends weight to those who want to develop nuclear weapons in Iran to protect Iran from what they would consider a rogue state in the United States.

That is how this is going to be viewed in Iran and in parts of Syria and in parts Iraq and in parts of Lebanon.  And keep in mind, we`re talking about a region that continues to sort of lie on a knife`s edge, especially when you look at Lebanon.

And when you talk about the places that we could see a reaction, Lebanon has to be the top of that list where Hezbollah is very strong in the south and could retaliate in some way against Israel.  And it raises the question, and I know this is a string of questions of what the president knew, when he knew it and how the U.S. prepared for this.

What did the Israelis know?  Were they a part of this?  What was the talk amongst allies, if there was any talk?  Certainly a figure of this stature makes you wonder not only how the decision was made, but as everybody else is saying, not only what happens now but in what way was the U.S. military prepared, in what way the U.S. State Department prepared?  This is going to have ramifications on countries that not in the regions.  This is going to ramifications, frankly, on the global economy this morning, Lawrence.

LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC HOST:  Ned Price, again to this question of Soleimani putting himself in the line of fire like this.  We never see an American commander of that high rank, this is equivalent in effect to a cabinet level position, joint chiefs of staff officer.  This is just an extraordinarily high level.

But Soleimani himself had to know -- General Soleimani had to know the kind of chance he was taking by being in Baghdad and being in the Baghdad Airport.

NED PRICE, FORMER SENIOR DIRECTOR, OBAMA NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL:  Well, it`s possible, Lawrence.  But at the same time, this is something that General Soleimani had done for quite some time, frankly.  And he had this aura of invincibility around him.  He was quite often in Iraq, he was quite often in Syria, he`s quite often elsewhere, even traveling as far afield in some cases as Russia.  Because, again, this was not a stateless terrorist as Bin Laden or Baghdadi was.  This was a powerful military, security and political figure within Iranian life, probably the most powerful -- the second most powerful person in Iranian society.

And to your question, we`ve been talking about this question of why.  I think we also need to raise the question of how this was done.

And I would flag two things.  Number one, this was done in Iraq.  And that is significant, I think, because it really puts on a knife`s edge and potentially even has the potential to eliminate the partnership that we have enjoyed with the Iraqi government for some time, a partnership that was, of course, predicated on the initial disastrous decision in 2003 but that successive administrations have found a degree of success working with Iraqi authorities against collective challenges, chiefly the challenge of counterterrorism and combating ISIS.

I think the operation tonight on sovereign Iraqi soil really calls into question whether we will have a partner in Baghdad going forward.

But, second, we are already seeing the Trump administration essentially crowing about this.  The Department of Defense has issued a statement saying very explicitly that President Trump ordered this operation himself.

Look, the chances of retaliation on the part of the Quds Force, on the part of other Iranian proxies are profoundly high, and I don`t think we`re going to get away without some sort of retaliation.  At the same time, if the administration had taken a different approach, even if they had decided to undertake this operation but had done so in a way that was quieter, in a way that was perhaps more discreet, leaving open questions and even this idea of plausible deniability.

Look, this is region where bad things happen to bad people.  Instead of taking that route, Trump has decided really to, it seems, take a victory lap, tweeting this strange American flag tweet, having his Defense Department say it was him who personally ordered this strike.  And I think that unfortunately puts even more of a target on Americans both in the region and, as I said before, even further afield to include in the United States, where we know the Quds Force in the past has had associates and even some degree of operational capability.

O`DONNELL:  Hallie Jackson, when she was just with us, talked about the president this week, saying that he was interested in peace with Iran.  We have video of that, of what Hallie was referring to.  Let`s watch that.


DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT:  I don`t think that would be a good idea for Iran.  That wouldn`t last very long.  Do I want to, no.  I want to have peace.  I like peace.  And Iran should want peace more than anybody.

So I don`t see that happening.  No, I don`t think Iran would want that to happen.  It would go very quickly.


O`DONNELL:  That was the president Tuesday night on New Year`s Eve.  Here we are Thursday night.  Daniel Benaim, a couple of things to react to in there, but let`s react to the last thing the president said.  He doesn`t want war with Iran, but he said war with Iran would go very quickly.  I guess he means it would go quicker than war with Iraq.

DANIEL BENAIM, MIDDLE EAST POLICY ADVISER, OBAMA ADMINISTRATION:  Well, that`s exactly it.  Look, America is the most powerful military in the world.  We have the most powerful conventional military.  We`re stronger than Iran.  They are experts at unconventional warfare.  It`s not clear where that kind of war would end.  It would be incredibly destructive for both sides.

And Trump is right that, conventionally, we are superior, but they have all sorts of other ways to make America feel pain, and there are simply better ways to handle this problem than reaching the precipice of war with Iran.  And I think the Iran nuclear deal showed that, and the kind of violence we may see in the days ahead is deeply troubling.

And I personally hope -- I agree with President Trump.  I prefer peace.  I just don`t see that he`s put us on a path to de-escalate this conflict.  It`s good to get rid of bad people, but it`s bad to have the region on the brink of war.

O`DONNELL:  Joining in our discussion now, Jonathan Alter.  He`s a Columnist from The Daily Beast and an MSNBC Political Analyst.

And here is President Trump who ran on the, I was against the war in Iraq, I`m going to get everybody out of there.  He`s actually increased the number of troops in the region, specifically in Iraq and certainly increased the tensions to put it mildly in Iraq tonight.

JONATHAN ALTER, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  You know, when he said it wouldn`t last very long --

O`DONNELL:  War with Iran wouldn`t last very long.

ALTER:  You know what that reminded me of, Lawrence?  In 1914, both the Germans and the French thought that this little fight between them was going to last for a couple of weeks.  It was kicked off by an assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Sarajevo, it was called World War I.

People don`t know how wars end.  It`s much easier to start a war than to end one.  And this was an act of war.  I mean, maybe the predicate made it necessary.  We don`t know all the details yet.  But the only comparison to this in all of American history was after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt ordered the assassination of General Yamamoto, who was the architect of Pearl Harbor in retaliation of that.  But that was 1942.  That was in the middle of the war.

So what the United States did tonight, I think it will be understandable for the Iranians to react to it as an act of war.  The question is how hardened are our targets around the world?  And I think the answer is not hardened enough.

Look at the $750 million embassy that we have in Baghdad.  They were able on December 26th to breach the wall of that unbelievably fortified embassy.  Now, think of all our other embassies around the world and what the folks who work there thinking about tonight.

O`DONNELL:  Yes, all of which are generally less fortified than Baghdad.

Andrea Mitchell, I want to bring you back into this going off the point that President Trump made on New Year`s Eve where he said it would go very quickly and he`s talking about, of course, full-scale war with Iran, if now, which will occur, it would go very quickly.  It`s reminding people of different things.  It`s reminding me of a moment on MEET THE PRESS with our dear friend, Tim Russert, when the vice president of the United States said to him that the American troops would be greeted as liberators in Iraq and in Baghdad, meaning that was his way, that was Dick Cheney`s way of saying it will go very quickly.  We are still with guns drawn patrolling Iraq.

ANDREA MITCHELL, MSNBC CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT:  And I`m glad you brought it back to Iraq because one of my deepest concerns tonight is how this would be viewed in Iraq, where there`s so much Shia influence, so much Iranian influence, where the U.S. embassy is so close to Baghdad (ph) City , where Iranian militias, Iranian-backed militias and the attacks they were -- the U.S. retaliated against killed 25 Iraqis.

Now, they were Iranian sympathizers, Iranian supporters but there was fury in Iraq.  All those protests, weeks and weeks of protests that we`ve seen over the months, in fact, against Iran and other interests in Iraq changed almost overnight after those weekend attacks because it was considered disproportionate because Iraqis died, because there was no warning.

We warned other leaders in the region, but there was no warning to the Iraqi leaders.  That was probably considered because of military security.  But the fact was that Iranian -- Iraqi nationalism has arisen against America over this in the last couple of days.

We`ve seen anti-Americanism run rampant in Iraq and no longer considered liberators at all with all the ups and downs of our terrible experience in Iraq, which you remind us of with that Dick Cheney interview with Tim Russert.

The fact is that in the days since last weekend`s strikes, where an American contractor tragically died and there was reason to retaliate, but the way we retaliated and the deaths of 25 Iraqis really enraged the Iraqi leaders.

And when Mark Esper said to me, the defense secretary said to me today, well, they reacted too slowly solely, that was a signal we`ve also heard from other U.S. officials that I`ve been told that there`s no way that the militias -- they`re not protesters, they were militants, they were rioters, they could not have gotten into the green zone that close to the embassy walls if there was not some compliance from the Iraqi security that is so heavily embedded with Iranians and with Iranian supporters.

The Iranian influence, I mean, the Iraqi government is torn between the U.S. and Tehran and Tehran is its neighbor next door, and we`re not going to win that battle.

O`DONNELL:  We`re going to have squeeze in a quick break right here.  Everyone is going to stay with us.  When we return, we`ll be joined by presidential candidate Senator Cory Booker.  We will get his reaction to the developments in Iraq tonight.

We`ll be right back.


O`DONNELL:  We`re covering breaking news from Iraq tonight.  It is best described in a statement issued by the Defense Department, which I will read the beginning of tonight.  It says, at the direction of the president, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Quds Force, U.S.-designated foreing terrorist organization.

General Soleimani was killed in a missile strike by the United States at Baghdad Airport tonight in Iraq.

Joining us now is presidential candidate Senator Cory Booker.  He is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  And, Senator, I want to get your reaction to this development from Iraq tonight, the killing of the top Iranian general at Baghdad Airport.

SEN. CORY BOOKER (D-NJ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Well, first, let`s be clear, Soleimani has American blood on his hands.  He has been involved and ordered attacks that have cost American lives and wounded many of other soldiers.  This is somebody who is a bad person.

But we also have to look at the larger strategic situation in that area.  We have a president who has had really a failure in his Iranian policy, who`s had no larger strategic plan, who has made that region less stable and less safe not only for Americans but for other countries, whether it`s our ally, Israel, whether it`s the fact that Hezbollah as of now better armed.  And, in fact, Syria now has become a super highway for arming those terrorists, whether it`s a situation in the gulf, whether it`s a situation in Yemen and more.

And so this is something that facts are still unfolding.  We have a lot more to have to understand whether this met the standards for the authorization of military force.  What was the involvement with Iraqis in terms of their strategic objectives and what will be the following days be like for the safety and security and the strength of our overall situation right now with Iran?

O`DONNELL:  If the Iran deal -- the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by President Obama and Ambassador Wendy Sherman, John Kerry, if that had held in place, if President Trump had not tampered with it, where would we be tonight?

BOOKER:  Well, first of all, understand, the president`s America first policy is really America -- isolated America alone.  We turned our backs at having a -- standing firmly with our allies in a strategy with Iran, and we pulled out of that deal.  And now Iran has been doing more things to disable that region as well as now violating the original plans, the original part of that deal by heading more quickly towards a nuclear weapon.

So, clearly, that was a bad decision and has destabilized the region and has alienated us more so from critical allies we would need in a diplomatic fashion to reduce tensions in that area.  And this again goes to the fact that this president has no larger strategic plan for that area, has destabilized it, made it less safe and made it a lot harder for us, frankly, to come to diplomatic conclusions that won`t necessitate what it seems like he`s going towards is more and more military conflict.

O`DONNELL:  Now, if the Iran nuclear deal had stayed in place and we never got to this point, which may be the case this wouldn`t have come up, but it is now in front of us as a presidential decision, and I want to put the presidential decision to you.  And it`s in the first -- it`s in the second sentence, actually, of the Defense Department`s statement tonight.  They said this.  General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iran and throughout the region.

How would you make the presidential decision about what to do about that if that`s accurate and if you were accurately presented with information that said General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats?  What would you need to make a presidential decision about what to do here, and what would that decision be?

BOOKER:  Let`s have no -- no unclarity about this.  Let`s be resolute and clear.  If there are imminent attacks on the United States of America, the president of the United States has an obligation to defend this nation, whether it`s here at home or our troops abroad.  And so, again, these are statements coming from the Trump White House.  There`s a lot more facts that have to come out to see if indeed this president who already has done things that have undermined what people on both sides of political aisle on the Senate have said do not constitute an authorization for the use of military force.

Again, our involvement in Yemen, bipartisan rebuke of that, again, his attacks on the Assad regime, there were many of us in the Senate that said very clearly that that did not amount to having an authorization, the use military force.  So, clearly, there`s no question about it.  The presidents need to be resolute and strong in defending this nation.

But this is a president that, again, has made this country less safe because of his lack of strategy and doing foreign policy by impulse, by Tweet against even his generals and his advisers, who many of them are finding out about his policy decisions from his social media.  This is not a way to run American foreign policy and not a way to create safety, not to mention peace in that region.

O`DONNELL:  Senator, I want to ask you about the president`s New Year`s Eve comment.  We ran it earlier on video on the show, what he said about war with Iran.  He was asked about that by a reporter who said, do you foresee going to war with Iran, and he said, I don`t think that would be a good idea for Iran.  He said, I like peace, and his final line about a war with Iran was it would go very quickly.  What is your reaction to that?

BOOKER:  Look where we are right now in Iraq and Afghanistan.  This is a president who has had now years of being a president at war, and he has not ended them very quickly.  This is a president who claims to know more about military issues than his own generals.  This is president who has shown, in my opinion, from the situation in the Middle East to the situation in countries like El Salvador, Honduras, to be an ultimate failure when it comes to foreign policy.  He believes the national security threat is Canada then because he used national security waivers to put tariffs on our Canadian neighbors.

So I have grave concerns about the safety of this nation and our ability to stand with our allies to meet our challenges, whether it`s nuclear proliferation in North Korea or in Iran, or even the greatest national security threat we see, the humanity over the next 20-plus years, which is climate change.  And, again he pulls out of international agreements.

This Middle East we have seen is not going to be solved.  As we know in Afghanistan now with the Afghan papers coming out, we are not going to solve these problems, as our own generals are saying with our United States military.  There must be diplomatic solutions.

And we had a clear diplomatic with our Iran anti-nuclear deal with multiple nations, from China to Russia, to our European allies.  This is a president who turned his back on that.  And now, we`re seeing the consequences of more instability and unfortunately more violence.

O`DONNELL:  Senator, before you go, I have to ask you about Impeachment.  Senator Schumer had a conference call with all of you Democratic members of the Senate on the last day of the year, and I think the afternoon of New Year`s Eve.  He apparently told you where he was strategically, where he is going forward.  He intends to make a speech, as he told you, Democratic senators, on Tuesday.

Tomorrow, on the Senate, presumably after Mitch McConnell makes a speech on the Senate floor about what to expect in the impeachment trial or where their two positions are at the moment in the impeachment trial.  What do you expect to hear from Senator Schumer tomorrow?

BOOKER:  In the short strokes, I`m not sure how this is going to play out.  I know in the longer term, this is a trial that will come to the United States Senate.  But, clearly, there`s something wrong here and most Americans know that.  We have serious accusations but yet the relevant witnesses have never come before Congress because this president hasn`t allowed them to do.  We could clear this all up real quick if having people the president`s chief of staff, who was in the room when this happened, swear under oath that you`ll the truth and then tell the American people what happened.

I don`t know what they`re afraid of, but they don`t want to let relevant witnesses come in that could let us shine a light on exactly whether the president is exonerated or, frankly, what I think is more likely to happen because we already know from information that all the people around him knew what he was doing was wrong, tried to cover it up or tried to get him to change his mind.

So it`s time that we have the relevant witnesses come to the United States Senate.  All of us should want the truth to come out.  Why are they preventing the truth being presented to the American people?  These folks should testify in the Senate in a trial.  And I know that`s what Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are trying to achieve.

O`DONNELL:  Presidential candidate Senator Cory Booker, thank you very much for joining us.  I really appreciate it.

BOOKER:  Thank you for having.

O`DONNELL:  Senator Cory Booker joining us from New Hampshire.

And our panel is back with us.  And, Ambassador Wendy Sherman, having worked on the Iran nuclear deal, that it contained, I believe, a hope beyond just control of nuclear weapons, but a path, an opening to generally better relations with Iran, if that had gone the way you hoped it would go, where would we be now three, four years later after negotiating that deal?

AMB. WENDY SHERMAN, FORMER LEAD NEGOTIATOR ON THE IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL:  Well, I would hope he would be in a very much better place than we are today.  It would have at least, as I think Cal said earlier, opened a channel of communication that will allow us to take care and deal with very difficult situations that happened after the deal when American sailors were taken by Iran.

John Kerry, secretary of state, was able to pick up the phone and talked to Foreign Minister Zarif and get our sailors back within 24 hours.  So it became a sort of a hotline ability to deal with very difficult situations and we still had plenty of sanctions in place to deal with all of the other nefarious behavior or Iran.

I would hope we get back there someday tonight.  I`m rather skeptical.

O`DONNELL:  Cal Perry, it seems like there`s no hotline to anyone in Iran now.

PERRY:  No.  And I think it`s worth mentioning we are, of course, mindful of U.S. troops in the field.  But as the sun comes up in Iran and it is 7:00 A.M. there now, it is worth mentioning, it is worth remembering that millions of people in Iran and in Syria and in Lebanon and in Israel are waking up this morning very, very scared in a region that seems to be one step closer to another war, Lawrence.

O`DONNELL:  Daniel Benaim, what do you expect to see in news coverage what we will see, literally see in Iran tomorrow?

BENAIM:  I think you`ll see Qasem Soleimani treated as a martyr and treated as a hero of his country, which is not how we Americans see him.  But you can certainly expect the Iranian regime to use this for all the propaganda value they can inside Iran, across the region, and in Iraq, where the Iraqis are just caught in between America and Iran and feeling trampled under these big dogs at the moment, as you can expect Iran to try to use this for propaganda value everywhere.

O`DONNELL:  And, Jonathan Alter, one thing we are sure of is that this president won`t be handling the aftermath of this publicly the way any other president would.

ALTER:  Right.  I think that`s what`s maybe most frightening about it.

But let`s assume for a minute that he was at the Baghdad Airport and deserved this, okay.  Let`s just stipulate that.  Let`s just say maybe it was the right decision to take him out.  But you have in that case, right decision, wrong commander-in-chief.

So you need somebody at the helm who can navigate skillfully in extraordinarily complex set of events that he has now set in motion.  And I personally have no confidence that this particular commander-in-chief can do that.  So we have like a guy who is driving down the highway at 100 miles an hour going through the guardrails.  He was going through guardrails here in the United States.  Now, he`s going through guardrails internationally.  And we do not know what the wreckage is going to be.

O`DONNELL:  Andrea Mitchell, what are you looking at as the next stage of this story?

MITCHELL:  Well, there is going to be a lot of claiming of credit for this.  The president with his flag tweet has certainly made this a U.S. versus Iran event, if it weren`t already from the claim of responsibility for this as a defensive act, they say.

Interestingly, Israel had many opportunities to take Soleimani out and did not for fear of retaliation, for fear of what a cultural figure he was throughout the Middle East.  So I fear retaliation.

And as others have suggested, at the time and place of Iran`s choosing, which could even reach over the waters to the United States, grave concerns that there is no plan, that there is no policy, that this is another one- off act, perhaps, well, justified by Soleimani`s career of murder and terrorism, but one that has not been well thought and well planned.

O`DONNELL:  Wendy, on that point that Andrea just mentioned that Israel certainly had the capacity to do this, they chose not to.  Israel is a bold actor in the region.  They`re not timid about making the decisions that may make.  Review for us quickly just the case against taking out this general this way.

SHERMAN:  The case against taking him out is because of the retaliation, because of how he is seen in the Middle East.  He`s not loved by all the Iranian people.  But among the politicians in Iran, he is a cult figure, and he has used to really pull the country together.  So this will increase the nationalism, and it will increase the retaliation.

O`DONNELL:  That is our last word for this hour.  I want to thank you all, Andrea Mitchell, Wendy Sherman, Daniel Benaim, Jonathan Alter, Ned Price, Cal Perry, thank you all for guiding us.