GOP political strategist Steve Schmidt has taken considerable flak from conservatives for occasional Republican-In-Name-Only tendencies, but he held his ground well after taking a gratuitous shot across the bow from Chris Matthews.
With Matthews and Rachel Maddow acting as anchors in covering last night's State of the Union address, Schmidt was one of three MSNBC commentators, along with Chris Hayes and Joy Reid, providing their views on what to expect from the speech and what they thought of it afterward.
Hanging like a shroud over the proceedings was Iran's seizure of 10 American sailors from two US military vessels in the Persian Gulf after one of them encountered mechanical difficulties and both boats apparently drifted into Iranian waters.
After hearing the latest news on the incident from two NBC reporters, the panel got into a contentious discussion over whether President Obama should address it in his speech --
MATTHEWS: Not speaking for Senator McCain tonight (alluding to Schmidt having worked as a senior advisor in McCain's 2008 presidential campaign) but for yourself, this looks like an opportunity for the president's hawkish critics to say, we told you so, you're going to have troubles with Iran.
SCHMIDT: Well, as we sit here tonight, Chris, let's remember that there's an imprisoned Washington Post reporter held by the Iranians on trumped-up espionage charges for over a year and the policy of the administration should be to demand his immediate release, in addition to the 10 captured US sailors.
Secondly, two weeks ago, the Iranians fired a missile off of a ship within 1,500 yards of an American aircraft carrier in international waters, a serious provocation, and you look at their ongoing ballistic missile tests, a violation of many UN sanctions regimes imposed on them with that. So, this is a serious provocation on the part of the Iranians. It will be ...
MATTHEWS (instinctively siding with Iran): How do you know that already? How do you know that already that it was a serious provocation?
SCHMIDT: Well, we know it's a serious provocation because the Iranians have indicated that these sailors have been arrested. They have been described as passengers, not members of the US military. The invocation of the word passengers means, and it's very specific legally, it means that they are not covered by the Geneva protections accorded to uniformed service personnel.
So as we look at this tonight, it will be a profound political mistake by the president of the United States, who has been under criticism for saying that ISIS was the jv, that ISIS was contained shortly before the Paris attacks, for the president to ignore this situation, if these sailors are not released on the schedule that we have speculated about today, but if the president celebrates the Iran deal tonight, and these sailors are not released by the time the Today show starts tomorrow morning, there will be enormous political implications for the president, for the Iran deal, and certainly carrying over into the Republican primary in a way that strengthens Donald Trump.
MATTHEWS: Chris (gestures toward Hayes), this is very different, we had Rand Paul on a few moments ago and Rand Paul said, I hope we can get through this, I hope we can avoid a fight over this, and there's Steve (gestures toward Schmidt), you're relishing this ...
SCHMIDT: Not relishing it ...
MATTHEWS: Yes you are. You're relishing the possibility of a larger incident.
In fairness to Matthews, he wasn't entirely off the mark. Schmidt did appear to be relishing -- that he was running circles around Matthews. Once Matthews picked up on this, he resorted with trademark bellicosity and accused Schmidt of itching for a fight.
With Matthews having upped the ante, Schmidt threw it back in his face --
SCHMIDT: You know, Chris, one of the reasons that the president comes into this chamber with very little good will tonight is that he questioned the motives of his opposition, comparing them to the hard-line mullahs, which you've just done this to me.
MATTHEWS: You mean that the comments that have been made tonight by the Republican presidential candidates have not been adversarial to the president?
SCHMIDT: Chris, my wife was a naval officer.
MATTHEWS (lamely): Right.
SCHMIDT: Trust me -- I want to see these 10 US service members released.
SCHMIDT: I don't question your intentions and your motives but let me be clear about something -- this country has very little reason to trust the Iranians and their intentions because of their past actions. This is a hostile regime.
Whereupon Maddow decided it fell to her to clean up the mess and clarify what Matthews actually meant --
MADDOW: But to that point, and because I, we both know that you care about these sailors ...
Maddow initially said "I" know you care about these sailors before amending that to "we both know," referring to her and Matthews --
MADDOW: ... and we know that that is not, that's the baseline from which we're all coming, everyone in the country is coming from, because of that, isn't there a case to be made that the president should not touch this with a 10-foot pole tonight in this incredibly political environment while this has just happened. Obviously it's very sensitive right now in terms of getting those sailors back onto safe ground. If the president says a comment of any kind about this tonight in a political speech, who knows how that's going to tinker with the negotiations that are already underway internationally to try to get them out. I'm sort of hoping the president doesn't go anywhere near this. Politically it's hard for him not to but strategically I think he has to.
SCHMIDT: Politics always enters into these speeches but this is not a political speech in the manner that a speech to the Republican or Democratic conventions is a political speech. This is the American head of state, the commander in chief, updating the country on the state of the union tonight. At this hour, 10 American sailors, members of the United States Navy, are in the custody, under arrest, by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. How does the American commander in chief not send a signal to the world that his expectation is that they will be promptly released without conditions.
In case you didn't see the speech, Obama did not mention Iran's seizure of the American sailors but did tout the nuclear deal with Iran as one of his accomplishments.