Meet The Press’ Chuck Todd joined me today to discuss this coming Sunday’s Meet The Press:
HH: So pleased to welcome the host of Meet The Press, Chuck Todd of NBC News. And Chuck, welcome, congratulations, you had a great first week as host of Meet The Press, one that would make Russert smile. You put the President on the hot seat.
CT: Well, Hugh, I appreciate that. And the thing I love, this is the second time I’ve come on where I’ve got the Game of Thrones intro music. There’s something amusing about it. I like that.
HH: I use it every…
CT: But I miss that season, like hurry up. I want Season 5.
HH: Yeah, I use it every single hour, and everyone comes on from D.C. and they love it. I don’t know what had a higher proportion of viewers – Game of Thrones or House of Cards. What do you think?
CT: Oh, I’m a Game of Thrones guy. House of Cards, for me, was odd. It’s still a little too, I haven’t watched it, it’s a little too over the top for me.
CT: A little too absurd. For some reason, Game of Thrones isn’t. And it’s almost like give me more fantasy.
HH: I love, I’ve read the books. I hope George R.R.R. Martin gets them done before he goes to his reward. Chuck Todd, you start off with Barack Obama. What do you do for an encore? What have you done for us lately?
CT: The Pope or Fidel Castro, right? You know, something like that. Well, as I’ve been saying, right, it’s the second show that is more of a harder work, you know, because not every one you’re going to have the automatic newsmaker. When you have the President, I always say any president that you interview in a political forum, it’s the closest you’re going to have of having a guest that has all the answers, and your job is to figure out how to get as many of them out of that person as you can. Every other guest, sometimes, doesn’t have the same amount of answers to every potential question that you have. So it’s certainly a different and more normal show that I’m trying to put together.
HH: And so have you booked it? Do you know who’s going to be the headliner?
CT: We do, yes. Denis McDonough, White House Chief of Staff. We’re going to have him. I’m going to have Jim Baker, former secretary of State, getting his, to me, the story right now is about…
CT: …is about whether the United States is going to be able to build the coalition that the President promised. Not a single military advisor has told the President that you can defeat ISIS without combat troops in Syria. Now the President said they’re not going to be Americans, so they have to be some form of a coalition. And the last person to successfully actually put together a Middle East coalition was Jim Baker, one that actually was, you know, fighting side by side. So I think getting his perspective on this will be very helpful.
HH: That is a very interesting booking. Again, must watch TV, Meet The Press is back. Over the last 24 hours, Chuck Todd, former President George W. Bush at the Cuyahoga Community College did not criticize the President directly, but said look, we’ve got to lead. Yesterday, James Mattis told Rajiv Chandrasekaran, and Rajiv came on the show last night to talk about that, first time Mattis has spoken publicly, don’t give them any time, get in there. And then today, David Petraeus, this is the first time I’ve heard Petraeus say anything on the record since leave the Agency, here’s what David Petraeus told a think tank audience today.
DP: ISIL in Iraq should not be overestimated. This in many respects is a, it has nowhere near the roots, the numbers and the structure that al Qaeda in Iraq and the associated Sunni insurgents had when we launched the surge.
HH: So I get the sense, and I want to know if you agree with this, Chuck Todd, that former President Bush, General Mattis, who was the Marine Corps’ warfighter, David Petraeus, the Army’s warfighter, they’re all trying to nudge the President to take out IS before it nests.
CT: And by the way, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, Martin Dempsey. I would say, I felt like even some members of the President’s own National Security Council were trying to nudge him over the last month or two. I mean, and so you’re right. It’s not just those. And I think the President’s there. I think he’s reluctant about it. I think, I don’t know this, you can’t crawl inside somebody’s head. I think the legacy thing got to him a little bit, sitting there going I got elected to get us out of these wars, and now here I am, and this isn’t going to end, and I’m going to hand my successor. But he’s there. Now he’s there with an approach that I think is going to be hard to implement, because his approach essentially is to try to do the maximum against ISIS with the minimum amount of American military power, which essentially is always what the country wants, right? The country always wants America to go do all of these things as long as it doesn’t cost any American lives, you know. And that’s, and I think the President is actually trying to find that policy. I just don’t know if that’s possible. I think what he’s trying to do, I think Syria’s a Pandora’s box. I think the Iraq part of this is the easy part.
HH: I have to agree with that, because Kurdistan borders there. It can be managed out of Kurdistan.
HH: And it’s not even Baghdad. But in Syria, you’re working out of Jordan, and that’s not even a stable place. That’s just, it’s a very difficult problem.
CT: Well, and by the way, I do think the motivating factor here is, I think what really moved the President is you don’t move soon enough, Jordan’s in trouble.
CT: And the fact is, if we lose Jordan, that’s, you know, then all of a sudden there’s a domino that is just…and you don’t want it to become every Middle Eastern country for themselves. I mean, already, look at how Turkey’s acting in this, right? Turkey is not being the ally that I think the United States thought they were going to be, at least militarily on this. They’re suddenly basically more worried about their own borders rather than thinking you know what, maybe we are going to band together and try to stop this, and then worry about our own, worry about the other fights down the road.
HH: I’m talking with Chuck Todd, host of Meet The Press. On Sunday, his guests will include James Baker, former Secretary of State, former chief of staff of the White House, which gives him a unique perspective on both, how to manage a president and how to manage the Department of State when you’re putting together an international coalition. I haven’t seen him out and about, Chuck Todd.
HH: How hard was that get?
CT: Look, I’ve honestly been working on trying to get, look, for the reasons you say, you know, basically Leon Panetta and Jim Baker, when you think about it, are the two people who have done more on either side of the aisle and been everywhere – a chief of staff, budget director, Treasury secretary, one CIA director, another one Secretary of State. So I think to me, especially now with Baker, I think he’s one, and look, he’s somebody what was involved in what many people believed was the most successful military operation of the last generation, which was Gulf War I. And here’s the other thing about Baker. He used to be known as the Assad whisperer of sorts. He was the guy actually that always tried to find a diplomatic way of dealing with, more dealing with Assad’s father, and so I think that that perspective is something that I’m interested in…
HH: Chuck Todd, how much culpability…
CT: It wasn’t easy, but I talked him into it.
HH: How much culpability, and I don’t mean blame, I mean just responsibility, to Baker and Bush I have for everything today because they pulled up. They did not go to Baghdad. They abandoned the Shiites in the Basra region. They in essence allowed Saddam another decade of terror.
CT: Well, it depends on your point of view on that one. There are others that will argue, and that I think, I’d be curious to see what Secretary Baker says on this, but there are others that will argue that trying to take out, trying to take out Saddam has created the situation we have. And look, there’s been two different philosophies on this, right, which is stability versus freedom. And the fact of the matter is I think President Obama has been caught between that debate when it comes to the Middle East. I think President Bush was caught between that debate when it comes to the Middle East, which is how much is stability more important than fighting for American ideals of freedom? And I think that that’s, you know, fundamentally to me, that’s been the missing piece of why we don’t seem to understand if President Obama, for instance, has a foreign policy at least when it comes to the Middle East, because I don’t think he’s made that decision what’s a priority.
HH: All right, now let me switch up on you. When I took this job in July of 2000, I had only one requirement, that they had to allow me to subscribe to Hotline, which cost a whole bunch of money in 2000, if you recall. That was a big lift for a radio network.
HH: You want to spend how much for a publication: I said I’ve got to have it if I’m going to do this show. So as the old editor of Hotline, I want to ask you the Politico question. In today’s Politico, Robert C. O’Brien and I write an article called Romney 3.0, “Third Time’s A Charm.” What do you think? Is it possible he’s going to get in?
CT: I think he only gets in if he’s drafted. I feel like that that’s the hint he’s been saying, and I’ve talked to some folks who know him very well. He is not going to go through a grueling primary campaign. He is not going to sit here and defend his conservative credentials again, go through schlepping around, allowing all these guys to take pot shots on him. I think he is open to this if it’s a draft movement, and if it’s sort of like everybody else doesn’t fit. Now here’s why I think Mitt Romney, it’s funny you bring this up, because I think the reason why Romney 3.0 has gotten traction is less about Romney, and more about the current issues of the day. I think the Republican 2016 field as we thought we knew it, think Scott Walker, think Chris Christie, think Marco Rubio, think Bobby Jindal, you know, throw those names in. I think if you have issues like national security front and center, that’s an incredibly shrinking, I feel like all of those guys are suddenly shrinking in stature. None of them, if the chief criticism of Barack Obama by a lot of people is you know what, he just wasn’t experienced enough, he just didn’t have a grasp of everything you needed to know to be able to be commander-in-chief, right?
CT: That’s among, particularly among the conservative criticisms. Well then, how does Scott Walker fit into that? How does Chris Christie? How does Bobby Jindal? How does Marco Rubio? You know, they don’t, and so suddenly, Mitt Romney, while not having a lot of experience on foreign policy, certainly running for president and certainly now he can go back and say hey, I made these points against the President, and I look a little more prescient today than maybe some people thought three years ago. So I think that’s why he seems to look larger right now in stature because of the issues of the day that are front and center, and if you look at the rest of this Republican field. They don’t seem as if they have the resume to reassure hawks in the party.
HH: Prescient as always. Chuck Todd, we’ll be watching Sunday for Jim Baker. Thanks for joining us.
End of interview.