This is a rush transcript from "Special Report with Bret Baier," April 19, 2017. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: I think it is important in any conversation on JCPOA, and I think this was one of the mistakes on how that agreement was put together is that it completely ignored all of the other serious threats that Iran poses. We have to look at Iran in a very comprehensive way in terms of the threat it poses in all areas of the region and the world, and the JCPOA is just one element of that.

JIM MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Everywhere you look, if there is trouble in the region, you find Iran. So we will make progress on this. The international community will make progress on it.


BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: You heard the secretary of state and secretary of defense. The JCPOA is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. That essentially is the nuclear deal between the U.S. and Iran. And this comes as there are multiple reports that Iran in fact may be moving forward with a weapons program. The Weekly Standard had a report on that. The question is, what is the administration saying with this letter today?

The Washington Post, Paul Waldman writes in an editorial, "The negotiations to arrive at the existing deal were extremely complex and delicate, required extensive technical and diplomatic expertise and took years to complete. Even if the other countries were interested in a renegotiation, which they aren't, the Trump administration, frankly, just isn't up to it. Presumable people in the administration are telling the president that for now the deal is doing what it is supposed to, and even he may have trouble denying that."

With that, let's bring in our panel and start there: Eli Lake, columnist for Bloomberg View; Susan Page, Washington bureau chief at USA Today, and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer. Eli, welcome. What do you think of this Iran deal, with the secretary of state said, and the letter that he produced today?

ELI LAKE, BLOOMBERG VIEW: Well, based on what Secretary Tillerson said today, we are going to see, in some ways testing what the Obama administration initially told us in 2015 about the deal, which is that it's only applying nuclear sanctions. And I think what you'll see is more pressure on the nonnuclear sanctions. But that really wasn't done by Obama, and there were a lot of kind of special benefits that Iran got in the last year and a half. They are not going to get that anymore, and I think that's where the pressure is going to be.

BAIER: But isn't that redoing the deal, in essence?

LAKE: No, I don't think it is because the argument from the Obama administration is this is a narrow nuclear deal. The sanctions on human rights, on terrorism, things like that would remain. the Trump administration is going to take them at their word.

BAIER: Susan?

SUSAN PAGE, USA TODAY: I think it is interesting. Tillerson found it pretty tough when he came out and talked to reporters, likening this to North Korea, saying we are heading down the same path as North Korea. But we have seen on a series of issues, including declaring China a currency manipulator, removing the U.S. embassy in Israel, that President Trump has moderated some of the positions he's taken. And one of the questions is, will that be the case with what he called during the campaign the worst deal ever negotiated?

BAIER: Speaking of that timeline, here's a little compilation of that.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: My number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.

My administration has already imposed new sanctions on Iran.

I will do what I have to do with respect to the Iran deal.

TILLERSON: The Trump administration is currently conducting across the entire government a review of our Iran policy. The Trump administration has no intention of passing the buck to a future administration on Iran.

JOHN ROBERTS, FOX NEWS: Is the president concerned that Iran may be cheating?

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: That is why he is asking for this review. I think if he didn't, if he thought everything was fine, he would have, you know, allowed this to move forward.


BAIER: Charles?

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Look, it is the worst deal we've ever done. There's no question about that. But it's done and it cannot be undone. And the Obama administration structured the deal so that it wouldn't be undone by doing this. It gave Iran all of the benefits upfront. So essentially it gave billions of dollars, but more importantly, it ended a carefully constructed, decade-long effort to construct an international sanctions regime. It fell apart, blew it with the wind. There's nothing left of it.

Now, for the Iranians, they got what they needed, and now all they are doing is adhering to some of the technicalities, which doesn't hinder them at all. We have nothing to gain by tearing it up. All that's left in the deal is what we want, which is to adhere to these technicalities to keep the infrastructure frozen.

The problem is, a, that it doesn't address the other problems, i.e., Iranian imperialism, interventionism, what it's doing in Yemen and Lebanon with Hezbollah in Syria, it doesn't do anything about that. Our sanctions remain for all that extracurricular activity, but it's not international sanctions. It is a very small bit.

And the worst part of it is, Eli mentioned, is in the end it's just a freezing of the program and they are going to go nuclear. It's in the deal. It's allowed. And all that means is, a few years from now we are going to be in a position where we have no way to legally restrain Iran.

BAIER: But yet people like Senator Lindsey Graham, who has had his problems and issues with President Trump on foreign policy and domestic policy, have had good things to say about all of this.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: We've got a president and a national security team that I have been dreaming of for eight years. So in 80 days he has done more to correct the world, President Trump, then Obama did in eight years. We sent out by letter to our good buddy, the ayatollah. Hey, knock this off. You've got this nuclear deal, you may be complying with it, but you're destroying the Middle East. We are putting you on notice. If you continue this behavior, we are going to re-impose sanctions for state sponsorship of terrorism.


BAIER: So it is getting some applause on Capitol Hill.

LAKE: It's getting applause on Capitol Hill because, as Charles Krauthammer pointed out, there's not a lot of options in terms -- it doesn't make much strategic sense to pull out of the deal at this point because the deliverables were already made upfront which is why it was a bad deal. So you make the best of a bad situation. But the one thing you can say at this point is that there is a renewed emphasis in Congress as well as the administration to actually sanctions the Iranians for all their destabilizing behavior perhaps that will have some sort of deterrent event.

BAIER: I want to turn to Venezuela. Eli, start with you, and the pictures out of Venezuela, these protests are pretty intense, they are bigger than we have seen across Caracas and other cities. And President Maduro is under pressure there. Your thoughts on what this means for the U.S. and how important it is?

LAKE: I think it is very important, and I think Senator Rubio made some excellent points in the interview earlier in the program that this means a lot in terms of destabilizing the region, other migrants, and things like that. The thing to watch right now is what does the actual military and Venezuela do? What do these institutions do? If they are sitting on their hands, which it looks like they've been so far, then that is often the recipe when you have a dictatorship and you start to see the transition to a freer system at this point. He can rely on these militias that Hugo Chavez's predecessor created, he can rely on his secret police. But if he can't rely on his military, if he can't rely on those institutions and they will not obey the order, that is when we see dictators fall. It's what happened in Serbia, it's what happened in eastern Europe. And hopefully that would be what happens in the next couple days in Venezuela.

BAIER: Susan, the stats are remarkable. Venezuela has one of the highest homicide rates right behind El Salvador, and the hunger and inflation, it's pretty remarkable.

PAGE: That's true. And the question is, what is the U.S. role? You asked Senator Rubio, he said the U.S. is actually taking a position in the OAS, but we haven't heard much from Washington about the situation in Venezuela. Secretary of State Tillerson did get a question from a reporter about it this afternoon and answered it, but I think people who care deeply about this issue and about the deteriorating situation there hope the Trump administration will do more.

BAIER: Let me play that. This is Maduro and Secretary of State Tillerson.


NICOLAS MADURO, VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT (via translator): The time for combat has arrived, my fellow patriots. People alert -- the hour has arrived to decide the future and the destiny of our country, and we are in the crucial hours of the destiny of our country.

TILLERSON: We are concerned that the government of Maduro is violating its own constitution and is not allowing the opposition to have their voices heard, nor allowing them to organize in a way that expresses the views of the Venezuelan people. Yes, we are concerned about that situation. We are watching it closely and working with others, particularly through the OAS, to communicate those concerns to them.


BAIER: charles?

KRAUTHAMMER: For all of his ruthlessness and cruelty, Maduro has now become an object of mockery. He is a tin pot Hugo Chavez, and Hugo Chavez was a tin pot dictator to start with. I think the best for us is to stay out of it in the sense that Maduro's only argument is this is all a plot by the Yankees, the imperialists. We don't have to step in. The Venezuelan people are up in arms and in revolt. If there are massacres in the use of the army and that appears on the scene I think we will have a role, but up until then, our best role is to give them encouragement, support, and to watch Venezuela liberate itself from socialism.

BAIER: We'll watch that closely.

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