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updated 9/8/2013 12:35:14 PM ET 2013-09-08T16:35:14

DAVID GREGORY:

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This Sunday morning, the crisis in Syria, huge test for President Obama. Can he successfully make the case for a military strike?

[TAPE: PRESIDENT OBAMA:

It's tough, because people do look to the United States. And the question for the American people is, is that responsibility that we're willing to bear?]

DAVID GREGORY:

The President's hard sell. Will Congress go along? Here with me live to answer that question, the White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. Right now, much of Congress is undecided. And all show strong public opposition. We'll go coast to coast with three influential members of Congress. Plus President Obama's primetime address to the the nation Tuesday. Our roundtable weighs in on his challenge ahead. And it's just 48 hours before New York City's primary.

[TAPE: MAN AT BAKERY:

Stay out of the public eye.

ANTHONY WEINER:

Right, I'm not going to stay out of it. That's up to you to judge, my friend.]

DAVID GREGORY:

In battle of mayoral candidate, Anthony Weiner goes one on one with Today's Savannah Guthrie in an exclusive interview. I'm David Gregory, all that ahead on Meet the Press for Sunday, September 8th.

(MUSIC)

ANNOUNCER:

From NBC News in Washington, the world's longest-running television program, this is Meet the Press.

DAVID GREGORY:

And good Sunday morning. The Obama administration has released disturbing pictures that apparently show the aftermath of a chemical attack in Syria. This is video the administration showed members of Congress this week in order to make the case for military strike. It appears to show victims of the August 21st attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that killed more than 1,400 people. Joining me now, the president's Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. Welcome back to Meet the Press.

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

Thanks for having me, David.

DAVID GREGORY:

You have made statements that these pictures, among other evidence, makes the case to Congress and the American people. And yet Congress doesn't appear to be with you when it comes to military strikes. Why not?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

Look, I hope that every member of Congress, before he or she decides how they'll cast their vote, will look at those pictures. Let me tell you what I've been up to for the last couple weeks, David. Talking to members of Congress, dozens of them, including at least two of those who will be on your panel. Nobody is rebutting the intelligence. Nobody doubts the intelligence.

That means that everybody believes that Bashar al-Assad used chemicals weapons against his own people to the tune that you just said, of killing nearly 1,500 on August 21st. So the question for Congress this week are what are the consequences for his having done so, how Congress chooses to answer that question will be listened to very clearly in Damascus, but not just in the Damascus. Also in Tehran.

DAVID GREGORY:

But you're making the case, Mr. McDonough--

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

And among Lebanese Hezbollah.

DAVID GREGORY:

I just want to underline that I apologize for interrupting. You're saying, "Look, if we don't do this, Iran," which you believe is developing a nuclear weapon, looks at that and says, "Aha, the United States can be trifled with."

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

I think it's very difficult for us to know exactly what is happening in Tehran. But what we do know is to communicate with them, we have to be very clear, very forthright. There's an opportunity to be both with the Iranians to make sure that they understand that they do not have greater freedom of action, they do not have greater operating space to pursue a nuclear weapon which would destabilize that entire region, threaten our friends and allies, and ultimately threaten us.

DAVID GREGORY:

Is this more about Iran than it is Syria?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

This is about a series of very important things. In the first instance, almost a hundred years old now, a prohibition against the use of chemical weapons. Why does that matter? Well, it matters for the reason that you started to show with. But it also matters for another reason. Our troops have not been subjected to chemical weapons attacks since World War I.

Imagine it was the weapon of the day in World War I but because of our work and the work of our partners, it has now been prohibited except in many few instances. And we have to make sure that for the sake of our guys, our men and women on the frontlines, that we reinforce this prohibition.

DAVID GREGORY:

I'm hearing you make this case, I know the president's speaking Tuesday night and I'm sure he will say similar things. And yet you look at the polling. This past week, nearly 60% of the American public is opposed to military strikes in Syria. It's almost a collective sense in the country saying, "Why is the United States going to start another war?"

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

Right. And it's entirely understandable, given everything that our country has gone through. The great sacrifices that our families, that our troops and their families have made, the investments that we've made. That's why the president's been very clear. And let me just underscore that now.

Here's what this is not: no boots on the ground, not an extended air campaign, not a situation like Iraq and Afghanistan, not a situation even like Libya. This is a targeted, limited consequential action to reinforce this prohibition against these weapons that unless we reinforce this prohibition, will proliferate and threaten our friends and our allies.

DAVID GREGORY:

But Mr. McDonough, what's the point? If you're outlining what it's not, what does it actually accomplish that forces Assad to never use these weapons again?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

Here's what it does. It degrades his capacity to use them again, it also makes him think twice before he goes to these dastardly weapons again. And why does that matter? If he's going to use these things more aggressively, David, he's going to take them out of secure storage, push them in to the frontlines. When they're on the frontlines, you know what that means? They're a greater risk of them being proliferated.

DAVID GREGORY:

Is there any question that he ordered the attack himself personally?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

No question in my mind.

DAVID GREGORY:

No question?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

And I just want to bring back to this question, David, not a single member of Congress has rebutted the intelligence, as I've consulted with them. And the question then becomes what are the consequences for him for having done this, and what does the world read from how we react to it?

DAVID GREGORY:

But Congress nor the public is convinced that what you say you'll will actually accomplish what you say you must accomplish.

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

Well, that's why it's so important, and that's why the president went to Congress and said, "You know what? We want to get off this permanent war footing." That's what the president has been doing. He ended the war in Iraq. And he said to Congress, "I want you to be my full partner in the prosecution of this effort. You, Congress, as full partners, will ensure greater discipline in how we carry this out. You, Congress, will ensure that when we say it's a targeted mission, it does not creep." And that's exactly why we want Congress involved.

DAVID GREGORY:

Are you committed to changing momentum on the Syrian battlefield?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

We have a policy that includes all of the indications and all the weapons of our strength, diplomatic, economic, and kinetic, that would underscore and help us carry out our policy goal at the end of the day.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right, does the president want the rebels to win or not?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

The president wants there to be a political resolution among Syrians. That's how these things end. So we need to empower the Syrians, the moderate opposition, we're supporting them. This military action though David--

DAVID GREGORY:

With military action?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

This military action--

DAVID GREGORY:

Direct question. Do you want to change the momentum on the battlefield?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

There is no doubt that this military action will degrade his capability and it will send a very clear signal. We've seen now indications that for these several weeks since we've been having this debate in this country, the Syrians are on high alert. When they're on high alert, worrying about what's going to happen to them, it erodes their capability to attack the opposition. It erodes their capability to carry out these heinous attacks. That's in our interests.

DAVID GREGORY:

Do you want to change momentum on the battlefield? I think it's a critical question in terms of where the mission goes.

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

There is no doubt that the momentum on the battlefield will be changed by a targeted, limited effort. But ultimately, the resolution of this, David, there's not a military resolution to this. There is a political resolution. And our effort to target this effectively will only help that political diplomatic resolution.

DAVID GREGORY:

The president, it seems to me, has a bit of a predicament here. He doesn't want to get into hypotheticals in case Congress says no. But here's the reality. Both the president and Secretary of State Kerry have made references to the Holocaust. They have said American credibility is at stake. The president in Europe said "Europeans know what happens, referring to the Holocaust, when Europe basically turns away and doesn't act in the face of this kind of carnage. My question is, how does the president not act even if Congress says no?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

Look. What the President's been clear is that going to Congress was a step designed to make Congress a full partner. When they are a full partner, we're stronger. So this is not an empty exercise. Now the question for members of Congress is, if you want there to be consequences for the Assad regime, with all the attendant and associated complications for our national security, if we don't, then you have to vote yes on this resolution. And that's the message that will be working throughout this week after having really set the table--

(OVERTALK)

DAVID GREGORY:

But my question is, if they say no, has not the president made it impossible not to act given what he says the consequences, the stakes are? And the fact that he's already made it clear, he doesn't feel he needs congressional authority to act.

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

David, I'm not going to be the first person who answers the "if" questions on your show. I'm not going to get into hypotheticals. It's a very high-stakes question for Congress this week with the intelligence showing what it shows, what are the consequences for the Assad regime, and they have an opportunity to answer that question.

DAVID GREGORY:

I think a lot of the criticism of the president has been trying to understand why there's been some zigzag to the approach, some changes in the approach. And indeed, what the ultimately leadership position is of the president. He said something that raised some eyebrows on Wednesday with regard to the red line. Here's what he said.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:

My credibility is not on the line. The international community's credibility is on the line. And America and Congress's credibility is on the line.

DAVID GREGORY:

Why is the president's credibility not on the line? He's the one who issued the red line. He's really out in front of the international community, isn't he?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

No, David. If you look at the prohibition against the use chemical weapons, it goes back more than a hundred years. In fact, it was them ratified in the Chemical Weapons Convention by the Republican-led Senate working with President Clinton in 1997, where they passed it in a bipartisan way. So this is a bipartisan thing. There is an international standard that--

DAVID GREGORY:

Is the United States just an equal partner on the international stage? Or are we the world's leader?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

There's no question that we're the world's leader.

DAVID GREGORY:

It appeared that he was trying to distance himself from his own credibility. He is the one who said if he used a bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized that would change my calculus, that would change my equation. Hasn't the President of the United States put his credibility on the line saying, "If you do this, if you cross this line, you're in trouble."

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

Declaratory policy is something we do all over the world. And we communicate very clear signals to our adversaries, so that they understand exactly what's on the docket. I was sitting in the National Security Council staff at that time. We saw indications, public and private, of what he was preparing to do.

And so we undertook a very aggressive effort publicly and privately, directly with him and his cohorts, but also with our other allies to make sure that this did not happen. Because the implications of it are very robust, very negative for our national security interests. And what this intelligence shows, what we've debated, and what we've briefed and nobody has debated or rebutted is that he did it.

DAVID GREGORY:

Before you go, I want to allow you to respond to some criticism that has come from the right, a consistent critic, columnist Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post, really summing up some of the criticism against the president. I'll give you a chance to respond. I'll put it on the screen.

"'Assad has to go,' says Obama, and then lifts not a finger for two years. Obama lays down a red line, and then ignores it. Shamed finally by a massive poison gas attack, he sends Kerry to make an impassioned case for righteous and urgent retaliation. And the very next day, Obama undermines everything by declaring an indefinite timeout to seek congressional approval. This stunning zigzag, following months of hesitation, ambivalence, contradiction and studied delay, left our regional allies shocked and our enemies gleeful."

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

So a couple things here. One is, the president has led the international community in isolating the Assad regime and bringing to bear sanctions, travel bans, and greater isolation for them. But what we've learned is that it's insufficient to stop them from using these dastardly weapons. And so it's a very precise question. He, having used these weapons, should be held to account.

That question is before Congress this week. And it's an opportunity for all of us, in partnership, we are stronger. And I think Charles Krauthammer as well as anybody else, would recognize that Congress working together with the president makes us stronger and sends a very clear signal to Damascus, to Tehran, and beyond. That's the opportunity Congress has this week.

DAVID GREGORY:

Victory in Syria means that Assad can never use chemical weapons again. Is that the--

(OVERTALK)

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

Victory in this targeted effort means that he is degraded from being able to do it again and he is deterred from doing it again. Ultimately, resolution of the wider confect, that's an issue for Syrians to resolve. We will continue to support the moderate opposition in ways that the president has already laid out to the country. So we will help them resolve it. But that's theirs to resolve. We have a very narrow issue here that we need to address, which is the use of these dastardly weapons which have not been used against our guys in nearly a hundred years.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right.

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

We want to make sure that continues.

DAVID GREGORY:

The debate goes on. I appreciate your time very much this morning.

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

Thanks, David, it's great to be with you.

DAVID GREGORY:

Thanks very much. We want to turn now to the fight on Capitol Hill, where the president is trying to convince even skeptical members of his own party. Joining me now, the Senator from New Mexico, Tom Udall. A Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. He voted against giving the president the authority for strikes this week in a key preliminary vote.

SENATOR TOM UDALL:

Yeah.

DAVID GREGORY:

Senator, welcome. You just heard Denis McDonough preview what the president will say to you and the rest of the country Tuesday. Have you changed your mind?

SENATOR TOM UDALL:

No, David, I haven't changed my mind. And I think the most important thing here is we all know, first of all, that what he did, Bashar al-Assad, was a heinous act, it's despicable, my heart is broken when I see that video. And you see-- women and children dying as a result of chemical weapons.

So let's be clear on that. And I think it's pretty clear that he did this. But the big question for the Congress right now is what is the most effective way to move forward. And I think the American people don't want to be embroiled in a Middle Eastern civil war. This is an act of war that we're going to take. We haven't exhausted all of our political, economic, and diplomatic alternatives.

And that's where I want to be focusing. We ought to be rallying the world. We ought to be rallying the world, because all the world agrees, David, all the world agrees, you shouldn't use chemical weapons. And make sure that Russia knows that they're complicit in this. This is what we need to be doing. And I'm very disappointed that the administration has given up, they have given up on the United Nations and on rallying the world.

DAVID GREGORY:

Senator, we have a three-second delay, so it's difficult. I apologize for jumping in, but I want to pin you down on something. The world has not been rallied. Russia is opposed to this. But you just heard the chief of staff of the president say that the intelligence here is rock solid. The president has issued a red line. Are you not concerned about inaction on the part of the United States if this in fact occurred and the president said he'd have to take action if that were to happen?

SENATOR TOM UDALL:

I don't think we have inaction, number one. I think we're doing more than any other country in the region. I think we have moved effectively there to provide defenses to our allies. We're rallying the international community in terms of humanitarian aid. But the key question right now is how are we going to be effective in the future.

How are we going to save lives, how are we going to move to this political solution? And I don't think a couple of tomahawk missiles delivered in on top of the Syrian military are going to do that. I think what we're talking about is moving much too rapidly down the war path and not trying to find a political solution through the international community.

And Russia, we haven't even made them vote. You know, everybody says, "Well, Russia's going to veto it." They keep saying they haven't seen the intelligence. We ought to show them the intelligence. We ought to take the intelligence to the world. And like has been done in the past, if the United Nations and the security council, the presentation as to exactly what has happened here and why Russia is complicit in all of this, and I think we have a real chance to move us forward in a very, very positive vein.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right, Senator Tom Udall this morning, with quick reaction to the administration's case. I appreciate your time very much. Coming up later here, our political (MUSIC) roundtable on what may be the biggest challenge yet for the presidency of President Obama. David Axelrod, Newt Gingrich, Jane Harman, and Chuck Todd with us.

Plus, Today's Savannah Guthrie and her exclusive interview with New York City's mayoral candidate Anthony Wiener. Why is he still in the race? And when we come back to debate in Congress over Syria, three House members on the tough choice they are now facing. We're back here in 90 seconds.

* * *TRANSCRIBER'S NOTE: COMMERCIALS NOT TRANSCRIBED.* * *

DAVID GREGORY:

We are back. Now to the debate in Congress. Joining me from Orange, California, near Los Angeles, Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, Republican Congressman from Austin, Texas and Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, Mike McCaul, and from New York, Republican Congressman Peter King. We're going coast to coast this morning. To all of you quickly, if the vote were held today, Congresswoman Sanchez, I'll start with you, are you a yes, no, or maybe, we'll get into the whys in just a second. You first.

REP. LORETTA SANCHEZ:

I'm a leaning no. It's about national security.

DAVID GREGORY:

Okay. And Congressman McCaul, yes, no maybe?

REP. MIKE MCCAUL:

I think as it stands today, I cannot support the president's plan. I think it's irresponsible.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right, and Congressman King?

REP. PETER KING:

I would vote yes, in spite of the president's conduct.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right, so, let me come back then to Congresswoman Sanchez. You heard Denis McDonough. He said two things, limited airstrikes, the victory in his mind, in this campaign, is degrading Assad's ability ever to use chemical weapons again. And it is not a long-term military involvement. Why are you not persuaded that that's worth doing and achievable?

REP. LORETTA SANCHEZ:

Well, first of all, it is about national security. And I haven't heard any of our interests. I haven't heard that Assad wants to use weapons against us. I haven't heard that he wants to use the weapons against our allies, that he's moving them to terrorist organizations. So I'm asking where is the national security issue.

And make no mistake about it. The minute that one of those cruise missiles lands in there, we are in the Syrian war. It's a civil war and we're taking sides with the rebels, many of whom are still associated with Al Qaeda, the groups that mean to undermine us. So for the president to say this is just a very quick thing and we're out of there, that's how wrong wars start.

DAVID GREGORY:

Congressman King, answer that concern.

REP. PETER KING:

First of all, (THROAT CLEAR) I share some of those concerns. I do believe though there's real access between Syria and Iran that for Syria to be allowed to use chemical weapons to continue to have their chemical weapons at the same time we issue a red line to Iran not to go ahead with nuclear weapons, that makes that Iran/Syrian access predominant in the Middle East.

It endangers Jordan, it endangers Israel, and that necessarily endangers our national security. I just wish the president had laid this out better. I wish he'd quit backing away from his own red line. And I wish he was more of a commander in chief than a community organizer.

DAVID GREGORY:

Well, why do you say that? That's like a campaign line. What does that mean? More commander in chief than community organizer?

REP. PETER KING:

What I mean by that is, he was commander in chief, for one year he said this red line was there. And then the red line is crossed and he sends Kerry and Hagel out all said to basically have an attack. We're told that Congress is not needed.

At the 11th hour he brings in Congress. And then he says it's not his red line. So here's a person who's vouched for it. I can't imagine Harry Truman or John Kennedy or Ronald Reagan or Dwight Eisenhower ever putting a nation in a position like this on a military policy.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right, let me ask Congressman McCaul. Is American credibility a real reason to go to war even in a limited fashion?

REP. MIKE MCCAUL:

Well, we always are concerned about our credibility. The problem is, I think lobbing a few tomahawk missiles will not restore our credibility overseas. It's kind of a face-saving measure for the president after he drew the red line. That's what I'm very concerned about is that once we, as my colleague from California mentioned, once we're in, we're in.

And once we hit, this is an act of war. Little wars start big wars. And I think we have to be very cautious. And the other thing I'm very concerned David, you haven't mentioned in the program yet, is who are we supporting in this war? We are supporting a rebel faction, the rebel cause, that has now been infiltrated and hijacked by many Al Qaeda factions.

So the idea on the eve of 9/11, as we move into that, to have this vote ironically, that we're going to support a plan that could potentially put these chemical weapons in the hands of Al Qaeda that could be turned against Americans. Those images I saw of the children in Damascus are horrific. Assad is a brutal dictator. But I don't want to see those images broadcasted and shown in the United States with American kids.

DAVID GREGORY:

Congresswoman Sanchez, a year ago, it was the attack in Libya on our consul there, murdering our ambassador. And this is also supposed to be a limited operation. But when the country disintegrated, United States interests on our own people were targeted and killed.

REP. LORETTA SANCHEZ:

Well, as I said, the fact of the matter is that you can't just lob in a few missiles and say that that's the end. And it's the unknown consequence. It's the irrational people who-- who will respond, how will it be. I think the risk is very, very high. And believe me, I understand why the president's come to the Congress.

Because the legal framework, I mean, there are only two ways in which under the U.N. security, under the U.N. charter, which we are a part to, which is our law, that is our law, says the only time you go and attack is one, if you have the U.N. security resolution on your side, which we haven't even gone to ask for that, as Senator Udall suggested.

And secondly, that we have been directly attacked or we feel we're in imminent danger from that. And I believe that in both of those cases, that doesn't exist. And by the way, Great Britain is also a permanent member of that security council. And they have said no force to be used. So you can't just blame Russia on this. We have to really say, "Let's go to the U.N. council and let's get this resolution out of this."

DAVID GREGORY:

Congressman King, as I talked to people, and I have over the weekend, what I get back is, "Gosh, this is just a mess." And as I'm talking to the three of you, I am hearing, yes, you support the resolution, but you don't really trust the president to execute it.

The other side seems to be what's the point of what we're going to do, and then there's a third side, it is, good heavens, let's just not get involved to the point where we get deeply involved where there's no way out. How does the president get to the other side of this and get this resolution passed given all of these concerns?

REP. PETER KING:

It's going to be very difficult to get the resolution passed. One reason I think doing nothing is worse because then we're going to allow this to spiral out of control. As far as what Mike McCaul said, and I understand his concern about the rebel forces, but I'm on the international committee, we've met extensively on this.

I believe ways can be found to isolate the Al Qaeda elements (UNINTEL) within there. And as someone who represents so many 9/11 victims, I am concerned about this spiraling out of control. As far as what Loretta Sanchez said about the U.N., Bill Clinton attacked foreign countries six times without U.N. approval.

The U.N. is basically a useless organization on these matters and again whether it's Harry Truman or whether it's Eisenhower or whether it's Reagan, whether it's Clinton, when forceful action has to be taken by the commander in chief, it can be taken. President Obama should've taken it and he failed. When the moment came, he flinched.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right, quick response from Congressman McCaul before I let you go.

REP. MIKE MCCAUL:

Well, it's been a failed policy in the Middle East. There's instability in Egypt, Libya, Syria is the next shoe to drop. I don't want to Syria, the vacuum being filled by Al Qaeda forces. Very, very concerned about that. Any action, this is such a limited action as well, it's not going to achieve anything. And I think at the end of the day could inflame the region.

It could be Hezbollah and Iran geared up against Israel, which I'm very concerned about at the end of the day. I think the solution quite frankly, David, is to get the intelligence community involved, as the senator said, to rally behind the use of chemical weapons. There are no good sides, no good outcomes in Syria. But the international community can secure and destroy these chemical weapons. That should be our chief objective here.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right, we'll leave it here. Loretta Sanchez, Mike McCaul, Peter King, Congressmen and woman, thank you all very much. We'll be watching this debate closely. Coming up here, (MUSIC) the president facing perhaps the biggest challenge, you're hearing it, of his term, in office. He makes the case for the strikes in Syria. Plus what the debate means for those eyeing the White House in 2015. Our political roundtable will be here to break it all down. David Axelrod, Newt Gingrich, Jane Harman, and Chuck Todd. Back here in just a moment.

* * *TRANSCRIBER'S NOTE: COMMERCIALS NOT TRANSCRIBED.* * *

DAVID GREGORY:

If you haven't yet, download ZBox for your mobile device so you can join the conversation online. We've posted some exclusive photos, behind the scenes, and poll questions too to get your take on the issue. There is a link on our website MeetThePressNBC.com. Up next here, our political roundtable on the president's handling of the Syria crisis. Joining me Newt Gingrich, Jane Harman, David Axelrod, and our own Chuck Todd. They're here in 60 seconds.

* * *TRANSCRIBER'S NOTE: COMMERCIALS NOT TRANSCRIBED.* * *

DAVID GREGORY:

We got a little news this morning, I want to check in with our Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent, Andrea Mitchell. She's in Paris traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry. And Andrea, he's rallying the international community. What have you learned?

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Well, Kerry said today that he is picking up a momentum. He said today that the Saudis have actually endorsed air strikes, but they have not said so publicly. So so far he has no public endorsements of U.S. air strikes except from the French. And the French said today and yesterday that they now want a delay. They want a delay to go back to the United Nations.

Because they are also of course pressured by public opinion here in France. So the secretary said just now that he is going to take that back to the president, consider a delay, going back to the U.N. where you know there is that Russian veto. It does seem to be going on step forward, two steps back. But all of the Arab leaders here today did condemn Assad's use of chemical weapons universally.

They said that it was Assad and they condemned it as crossing an international red line. By the way, Kerry picked up a lot of friends here in France by doing an entire speech about Assad condemning Assad in French to the French people and in flawless French at that. David?

DAVID GREGORY:

Andrea Mitchell, thank you very much, in Paris traveling with the secretary of state. Our roundtable is here, Jane Harman, Chuck Todd, Newt Gingrich, David Axelrod, welcome to all of you. And the question for all of you, president's got it all cut out for him now. Tuesday night, he's got to try to change the trajectory of this, Chuck Todd, and convince the public and Congress to act. How does he do it?

CHUCK TODD:

It was amazing though, you have a Northeastern, moderate Republican, Peter King, a Southern conservative Republican just now in McCaul, a liberal to moderate, centrist Democrat from Orange County, California. And all in some ways beating up the president, even the yes vote for him wasn't exactly a show of confidence on that.

What's interesting here is the White House is doing this full-court press, even as they realize the House might be close to a lost cause. They're going to try this P.R. effort, you see the videos are coming out, then you have what Dennis is doing today, what the president's doing tomorrow with a bunch of interviews, then the nation.

I thought the most effective thing he did on Friday is the press conference that I was at in Russia is when he made it about-- he made an interesting, I thought, patriotic pitch. Which is, "You know what? We're America. We're stuck. I'm sorry we have to be the world's policeman. I don't like it." You know, it was sort of this reluctant, like, "We have no other choice."

No one else will act. No one else is going to punish him. And it's terrible that we're in this position. But we're stuck doing it. I actually thought it was effective. The first message I heard out of the administration that was potentially effective.

DAVID GREGORY:

But Newt, Denis McDonough is saying, "It's going to be limited. Don't worry. Very, very limited, very targeted. And by the way, if we don't act, Iran, the real enemy, is watching." That's what Denis McDonough said this morning.

NEWT GINGRICH:

No, look, I thought Denis was very effective, making a bad case. And I think that's their problem. If the strategy is inexplicable to a normal American, we're going to sort of punch you, but we're not going to punch you too hard, and we really would like you to leave, but we don't want you to leave enough to get rid of you, and we hope there's a political solution, although we haven't got a clue what it is.

I mean, that's very hard to build momentum for. And you have to be communicator in chief before you're commander in chief. And Tuesday night's speech I think really matters, because he has to show a coherence and a discipline and a directness that average Americans can identify with.

DAVID AXELROD:

I mean, the issue here-- I'm sorry, Jane, go ahead.

FMR. REP. JANE HARMAN:

Well, I get it. I served in the House for nine terms, I won 17 elections, including primaries, I was "primaried," as they say, it's a new word in our lexicon, three times as my vote for the Iraq intervention where I said, "I believe the intelligence--" the intelligence turned out to be wrong and I was wrong.

But the notion of going to war or launching a limited strike, at least to me, to project American power in a way that deters really bad consequences in Iran and North Korea and so forth is by my rights, the right thing to do. And I think what's going on here, in my view, is all these folks in both parties, especially in the House, are worried about being primaried.

The base in each party is against this. I'm sympathetic to that, the economy hasn't rebounded in most parts of the country. They're against it. So these folks think that the reelection, my view, matters more than perhaps taking a principled stand.

CHUCK TODD:

I think that's too hard.

(OVERTALK)

FMR. REP. JANE HARMAN:

Well, but let me just-- but they want this to pass.

CHUCK TODD:

I think it's perfectly rational. I think it's perfectly rational for them to think--

(OVERTALK)

FMR. REP. JANE HARMAN:

Chuck, they want it to pass. They just don't want to vote for it. And that's why again, the president's pitch matters so much.

DAVID GREGORY:

America, David Axelrod, doesn't want to go to war. And I don't think America necessarily believes that Denis McDonough says, "We're not going to war," that they can take that to the bank.

DAVID AXELROD:

Well, of course, the president here is kind of whipsawed between those who want a more aggressive action and those who are afraid that this will lead to war. And the irony is he was a president who got elected because he recognized early that the case on Iraq was faulty, that it was a bad thing for us to do. But on this, I think that it's very, very clear.

Chemical weapons are in a different category. We have 400 kids basically gassed as they slept, tortured, and then killed, their ability to breathe taken from them. And this is what these weapons do. This is why we proscribed them for a hundred years. And the notion that we're going to let that go without an answer is an open invitation to use them again not just by Assad, but other players in that region and around the world.

(OVERTALK)

DAVID GREGORY:

I remember how Democrats went after the Bush administration for raising the specter of weapons of mass destruction being used against our own troops to make a case for war. That never happened because there were no W.M.D.'s there. Denis McDonough, Chief of Staff, just said that, Newt, here. He said, "We don't want our own troops being targeted by these awful weapons."

CHUCK TODD:

But David, but these weapons are there. I mean, this is a completely different case. The weapons were used, we have the film, we have all kinds of intelligence that suggest who used them. It's a much different thing.

DAVID GREGORY:

Is the argument that Syria's going to attack the United States with weapons?

CHUCK TODD:

Well, there's no doubt that they're fighting side by side with Hezbollah, they could certainly use them against Israel, they can be proliferated from there. And it gives a signal to everyone else, that every bad actor on the planet, the United States, the world community is in a fetal position and you can do what you want. That would be a terrible signal.

NEWT GINGRICH:

I think Peggy Noonan actually captured a good part of this is in her column this week. This country has been engaged in the Middle East seriously since October of 1979. We are tired of being a region where everybody wants to kill each other. It's very un-American. And there's this whole side, we're a country that wants a solution. Tell me what the endgame is. Well, the Middle East, the endgame may just not being not killed. Israel has survived.

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

This is the problem. To me, and I'm as cynical as anybody when it comes to political motivation. And I think about half of the Republican opposition here is a political opposition. But I think a good 50% of it is not. I think about 75% of the opposition to the Democratic party is rational in principle and maybe about 25% of it is politics.

I don't think it's as political as you think on this. What does this look like on day four? The president, Denis McDonough has (UNINTEL), what does it look like on day four when we get to Syria? And that's what the president hasn't answered.

FMR. REP. JANE HARMAN:

Okay, but let me answer that.

DAVID GREGORY:

Okay, good.

FMR. REP. JANE HARMAN:

First of all, the word un-American makes me cringe. We're all Americans. We're all patriotic Americans, whatever our point of view is on this. We want America's interest to be advanced. The people who have looked at this carefully thinks day two comes out okay, Israel is prepared for day two, and we're prepared for day two. And day three and four won't be beautiful either. But this is a choice among bad options. This is the least bad option. Even a guy like Nick Kristoff writing in The New York Times--

DAVID GREGORY:

Wait a minute, I have to interrupt. But wait a second. When the Iraq--

CHUCK TODD:

We're going to kill some civilians in Syria.

(OVERTALK)

FMR. REP. JANE HARMAN:

They're going to be killed anyway. 5,000 Syrians are dying every--

DAVID GREGORY:

Part of the legacy of Iraq was that the Bush administration failed to anticipate what could go wrong. So if Denis McDonough says, "Limited strike degrade his ability to use chemical weapons." What happens if they retaliate against Israel? We get drawn in. What happens if he uses weapons again?

Do we have to strike again? What happens if the battlefield momentum is changed dramatically because of our military action and the state begins to disintegrate? We had this point of view going into Libya and what happened a year later? We had Americans killed including our ambassador because the place was chaotic.

DAVID AXELROD:

But there's no doubt. Look, this is a bunch of bad choices. But the question is, what is the result of inaction? And the Israelis themselves have sent a signal that they feel we have to act because if we don't, it will encourage the use of these weapons.

NEWT GINGRICH:

Let me, first of all, my reference to un-American is the behavior of the people in the Middle East. I mean, it's very hard for us to understand people who three, four, and five generations kill each other in order to set up a blood feud for--

DAVID GREGORY:

For deep religious beliefs, by the way. This is Crusades type stuff.

NEWT GINGRICH:

Well, very often.

(OVERTALK)

DAVID GREGORY:

This is not the history of America.

NEWT GINGRICH:

I think part of what you have happening in the country, and I think in a democracy this isn't a bad thing. People are allowed to have views. And partly you have happening is a country talking to itself and the American people saying, "A) I don't understand why it's our problem, B) I doubt very much that we can fix it, and C) the guys who are against Assad strike me as about as sick as Assad is." So you really don't have a good guy/bad guy environment here.

DAVID AXELROD:

Yeah, the problem is it's not our problem until it's our problem. So if you don't accept the moral argument, how about the practical argument that we live in a very small world now and if these weapons proliferate, that ultimately it washes up on our shores? We've seen that in a tragic way already. We need to contain this. And I think that is a fundamental point the president has to make.

FMR. REP. JANE HARMAN:

And he's going to make it. I mean, he knows that this is crunch time. When the tough decision came about taking down Osama, he did it. And I think he's unflinching here. And I actually think the move toward Congress, the process is very messy. But putting this in Congress's box is a very smart thing to do. There's an international lesson on what a mature democracy looks like going on right now. And whatever the result is, there won't be rifle fire in our streets.

DAVID GREGORY:

Okay, but given what David just said, the moral case, the practical case, and the fact that the president has made all the Holocaust references, I want to ask you all the question I asked Denis McDonough, how does he not act even if Congress says no?

CHUCK TODD:

Well, that's why I think this whole limited, it's--

DAVID GREGORY:

I'm not making a case for war in saying that, I'm just saying it's a predicament.

CHUCK TODD:

I think his case would look better. The moral argument would be-- the practical argument that you just made would be easier to understand if they weren't saying, "But it's going to be a very limited strike and it's not going to tip the balance of power too much." Although I noticed Denis was saying, "No, no, no, no, it may tip the balance."

But I think they're trying to change that tune. And I think that that goes to the third part of this equation, right, if you're a member of Congress, you're sitting there going, "Well, then what does it do?" And then we're going to, again, there are going to be TV pictures. We are going to kill civilians. We're going to kill some innocent victims with these bombs.

DAVID AXELROD:

The president has to make the case that this will have an impact--

CHUCK TODD:

And that's hard to do.

DAVID AXELROD:

--and we've seen examples in the past and both of you were in Congress when they happened, when there were limited strikes that did make a difference. But in answer to your question, David, I think Denis answered it in just the right way, which is don't answer an "if" question. But the reality is, I think it's very hard for him to act if Congress votes it down. Very hard for him to act.

NEWT GINGRICH:

And I think the decisive point was that Friday night walk with Denis where the president said, "I'm going to go to Congress." Prior to that, he literally could've bombed, done a national speech, and said, "Here's why I did it. I'm commander of chief."

DAVID GREGORY:

Yeah, asked for our forgiveness, not for permission.

NEWT GINGRICH:

And there would've almost no negative fallout. Now he's in a situation where he can't win this vote, I don't see how he politically is--

(OVERTALK)

DAVID GREGORY:

But you said that you thought it was right for him to take us there.

NEWT GINGRICH:

I do think it's right for him to take it there, but I think then he's got to understand he has now basically told the American people, "You get to define what I will and won't do."

DAVID GREGORY:

Let me...quick thoughts.

FMR. REP. JANE HARMAN:

Well, but that's brilliant, that's brilliant. I mean, the American people should buy into America's actions around the world. And this has serious consequences, I think, serious consequences if we don't act. We should've been doing this for 12 years. We haven't had a post-9/11 conversation. We've had commanders in chief taking unilateral action. And this is much better.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right, the debate continues. We'll take a break here and come back, more with our roundtable. Also, Today's Savannah Guthrie (MUSIC) with an exclusive interview with Anthony Wiener. Will his wife Uma be by his side on election day on the final days of the New York mayoral campaign. Back in just a moment.

* * *TRANSCRIBER'S NOTE: COMMERCIALS NOT TRANSCRIBED.* * *

DAVID GREGORY:

Even with all the grim news in Syria, there is a welcome distraction tonight. That's the premier of Sunday Night Football on NBC. I want to go around the table on who we like for the Super Bowl. I think the Red Skins have a shot, I say they go deep into the playoffs at least, but watch out for Denver too.

DAVID AXELROD:

Well, I'm going to be-- my favorite team actually is a Super Bowl contender, so how do I not say the Packers? But I'm going Cincinnati Bengals coming out of it.

DAVID GREGORY:

Jane Harman?

FMR. REP. JANE HARMAN:

If there were a Los Angeles team, I'd be there. But on behalf of my two sons, Dan and Brian, hail to the Red Skins.

DAVID GREGORY:

All right. Speaker?

NEWT GINGRICH:

Green Bay versus Denver and Green Bay wins.

DAVID GREGORY:

Wow, see I like he set up the matchup. He gave the complete.

DAVID AXELROD:

You're going to be a homer, I got to be a homer too. I'm excited about the bears and I think they're going to be facing Denver in the Super Bowl.

DAVID GREGORY:

Denver? Looking good around the roundtable. We'll be back in just a moment with Today's Savannah Guthrie and her exclusive interview with Anthony Wiener right after this.

* * *TRANSCRIBER'S NOTE: COMMERCIALS NOT TRANSCRIBED.* * *

DAVID GREGORY:

And we're back. The race for mayor of New York, the country's biggest city would make national headlines in any other campaign cycle, after all being the mayor of New York is one of the most high-profile positions in America. Giuliani, Koch, and Bloomberg, all familiar names to most. Anthony Wiener is trying to join that list. But he's facing an uphill battle.

He resigned from Congress two years ago amid a highly public and personal revelation that involved texting lewd pictures of himself to other women other than his wife Huma Abedin, who by the way, is a close confidant of Hillary Clinton. He lied not once but twice about his inappropriate behavior. Which contributed to his slide in the polls.

He's now in fourth place, at 7%. But despite all of that, Wiener has vowed to stay in the race to the very end. We've got 48 hours to go until the primary election. Today’s Savannah Guthrie went one on one in this exclusive interview with the embattled candidate.

[TAPE:

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

Do you still think you have a realistic chance in winning?

ANTHONY WEINER:

Well look. The answer is yes. From the moment go, I was waging this campaign on a bet. And the bet was basically that I know that people have embarrassing things they will hear about me and did know about me in my background. But I also knew that I had the best ideas and I'd be the best mayor for the city. So before we do post mortems on what happens if I lose, let's have us have the campaign and see if I win and then we'll move forward from there. And after I serve two terms, perhaps we can have that conversation.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

Are you really saying that with a straight face? I mean, it just feels like a politician thing.

ANTHONY WEINER:

Well, in the highest of the highs, the lowest of the lows in this camera, when there are 15 cameras from Malaysian shouting questions at me, I'm still talking about issues every single day. I just came from doing an event talking about issues important to the middle class.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

Let me ask you about that because you're a realist. You have been in politics a long time. Didn't you know going in that you were something of a flawed messenger? That because of your past, that would detract some of the very issues you professed to care about?

ANTHONY WEINER:

100%. Yeah. This is not about me, it's not about you. No. It's about the fact that in this city, millions of people every single day are struggling to make it.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

Aren't there other ways to contribute other than putting yourself out there, putting your family through it, in some ways, embarrassing the city of New York with all of these things?

ANTHONY WEINER:

Well, let's leave that to the voters.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

Before this campaign, you participated in a couple of profiles that portrayed you as a rehabilitated and changed person. You left out the key fact that some of this behavior continued after your resignation from Congress. Was that not at the least misleading?

ANTHONY WEINER:

First of all, anyone who read that story in The New York Times, that long, painful story, where I specifically said these things were not far in my background, if you're saying, "Should I have said, 'Well, it happened on a particular day,'" maybe you're right. Maybe I should've.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

Well, that it happened after you resigned. Because you were portraying yourself as somebody who learned a very tough lesson but deserved a second chance.

ANTHONY WEINER:

Right.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

And ultimately, you left out this key factor allowed in this perception to exist.

ANTHONY WEINER:

That's fair enough. That's fair enough. I did say I did these things. I did say I did them over an extended period of time. I said that I did them with more than one person. And I said the more things would come out. I said those things very honestly and was pilloried for saying those things. I regretted them deeply, I was deeply sorry for them, that my wife and I had gotten past them.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

Well, let me drill down on that just a little bit because you sat for a piece in People and your wife Huma was part of it. And in that piece she talked about how you had changed. At that time, she didn't even know that your behavior was continuing, that it was still going on. Does that not show a capacity to look someone in the eye and lie? Not just your wife, but a reporter, but the public.

ANTHONY WEINER:

No, things were a lot better during that People Magazine profile. They were a lot better.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

But she didn't know that it was continuing.

ANTHONY WEINER:

No. But things were a lot better. Look, I was working through things.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

Do you ever fear of a relapse, for lack of a better word? That it might come back?

ANTHONY WEINER:

No. I think that with the help of my wife, with help of professionals, I've got it behind me. It's something in my private life. People have things in private lives that they overcome all the time.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

Do you think Huma will come out on the campaign trail between now and election day? Will she be by your side on election night?

ANTHONY WEINER:

I don't know. I'm walking a fine line. You have, as a reporter, you have an appetite for the Huma side of the story. I want to talk about issues important to the middle class and the issues that citizens care about.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

Fair enough. But Huma was a key part of your rollout, she spoke on your behalf quite passionately the moment of that second wave of scandal. The media didn't put Huma into this. You and Huma put Huma into this.

(OVERTALK)

ANTHONY WEINER:

--for the future. And I answered your question.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

Well, I guess the question is is she out of that now? Does she kind of regret being so public with your campaign? Because she's paid a price for that.

ANTHONY WEINER:

That's for sure, that's for sure. And an unfair one. I don't think she did anything wrong. I mean, her crime is standing at my side and helping me get through it. That's her crime.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

Knowing how tough it would be on you and your family, you'd still run?

ANTHONY WEINER:

No one gets to go back and redo things. I'm convinced that the decision I made was the right one. I'm convinced that I'm going to be the next mayor of this city.

DAVID GREGORY:

A quick programming note, you can watch Anthony Wiener live tomorrow on Today. Coming up here in just a moment, Chuck Todd is back with a look at the major political stories for the week ahead. It is his Sunday First Read after this.

* * *TRANSCRIBER'S NOTE: COMMERCIALS NOT TRANSCRIBED.* * *

DAVID GREGORY:

We're back. We want to look ahead at the big political stories for the week. Our political director Chuck Todd is back with me here. His Sunday First Read, all eyes on Syria, the vote in Congress. You're looking inside the politics.

CHUCK TODD:

Look, there's going to be a political influence, as much as I think some of the opposition is not politically motivated, there are some political maneuvers. Number one to watch is Mitch McConnell. He's up for reelection. He's got a primary fight from the right. Rand Paul is leader of the Senate--

DAVID GREGORY:

Leader of the Senate Republicans.

CHUCK TODD:

The only leader in Congress that hasn't said which way he's leaning. Very interesting to see if it is a political decision or one where he sits, thinks about being Senate minority leader. The second group I'm watching is Congressional Black Caucus. Does the White House twist arms and say, "The Obama presidency relevancy is on the line."

Do you want him to be a lame duck starting tomorrow? Does that twist some arms against the group that is really leaning against this. And then finally, the other guys up in 2014, senators and stuff like that, we see Mark Pryor, Mary Landrieu, particularly Democrats in red states, a lot of them right now leaning no.

DAVID GREGORY:

The question hanging over the Syria debate, how much of this devours the rest of his second term. You're watching other votes outside of Congress, we talked about New York mayor's race.

CHUCK TODD:

But if I joke, if it's Tuesday, somebody's voting somewhere. Colorado, this is a state trending blue, they did a big gun control, bunch of gun control legislation, and the N.R.A. funded some recall elections that gave state legislatures. If they win those I think it tells you that possibly the Republicans have found a way back using guns in Colorado.

DAVID GREGORY:

And whether or not the gun issue comes up in Congress again, (UNINTEL) comes up 2014. Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, strange bedfellows. What are they doing now?

CHUCK TODD:

If it wasn't for Syria, this would actually be the biggest political story of the week. Jeb Bush as Chairman of the National Constitution Center if giving an award to Hillary Clinton. The first families of presidential politics hanging out together and giving an award. The right's not happy that Jeb's doing that. Hillary's doing this on the eve of Benghazi. There will be a lot of stuff percolating over this. But Syria is drowning out that.

DAVID GREGORY:

Our Sunday First Read, Chuck Todd, thank you very much. Thanks to our roundtable as well for a great discussion. That is all today. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

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