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U.S. Ambassador visits American. TRANSCRIPT: 1/2/19, The 11th Hour w/ Brian Williams.

Guests: A.B. Stoddard, Robert Costa, Nancy Cook, Barry McCafrey, Michael McFaul, Ned Price, Eugene Robinson, Ken Thomas

STEVE KORNACKI, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Tonight, the dawn of a new era for Donald Trump.  No end in sight for the government shutdown, neither side backing down.  And just hours from now, Democrats take control of the house.  Plus, criticism of Trump from within his own party as Mitt Romney pens a scathing op-ed before being sworn in as a U.S. Senator.  And the field of 2020 Democrats begins to emerge.  One candidate announces she`s running and she`s heading to Iowa this week.  THE 11TH HOUR on a Wednesday night starts right now.

Good evening once again from our NBC News headquarters here in New York.  I`m Steve Kornacki in for Brian Williams, who will be back tomorrow.  Day 713 of the Trump administration and we are just hours away now from the dawn of a new day for this president.  He`s about to enter a brand new political reality, one that could prove rougher than what he`s experienced over the past two years.  Tomorrow Democrats will take control of the U.S. House.  Leader Nancy Pelosi is the presumptive speaker and there are clear signs that when it comes to her party she is firmly in control.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The plaque is not yet up but the furniture was moving this afternoon.


KORNACKI:  This new era of divided government comes as we head into what will be day 13 of the partial government shutdown, affecting nearly 800,000 government workers.  Today, the Senate chaplain offered a prayer to end the stalemate.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Rise mercifully upon our darkened hearts and deliver us from the trench warfare of yet another government shutdown.


KORNACKI:  President Trump, though, is making it clear he is not backing down on his demand that Congress fund a wall on the Mexican border.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Is there a number below $5 billion that you might be willing to accept in order to reopen the government and get this thing moving forward?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  How long do you think the government`s going to stay partially shut down?

TRUMP:  It could be a long time, and it could be quickly.  Could be a long time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  How long are you willing to keep the government shut down --

TRUMP:  As long as it takes the people of the country think I`m right.


KORNACKI:  Late this afternoon, Trump posted Nancy Pelosi along with top Congressional leaders from both parties in the White House situation room for what the administration called a briefing on the border wall with homeland security officials.

From all accounts, it did little to bring about an end to the shutdown.  Pelosi said the house intends to bring up legislation tomorrow to reopen the government measures that will not include funding for a wall.  And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer continued to blame Trump.


SEN. CHUCK SHUMMER (D), NEW YORK MINORITY LEADER:  On our last meeting, the president said "I am going to shut the government down."  They are now feeling the heat.  It is not helping the president.  It is not helping the Republicans to be the owners of this shutdown.  Today we gave them an opportunity to get out of that.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), CALIFORNIA SPEAKER DESIGNATE:  We`re asking the president to open up government.  We are giving him a Republican path to do that.  Why would he not do it?


KORNACKI:  Two sources familiar with the meeting tell NBC News that when Schumer repeatedly asked President Trump why he would not support the passage of funding measures not related to the wall, at one point Trump responded "I would look foolish if I did that.

"Tonight, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate will not take up the Democrats` spending package.  The president was quoted of saying he wants to meet with congressional leaders again on Friday.

Hours ago he posted this on Twitter, "I remain ready and willing to work with democrats to pass a bill that secures our borders, supports the agents and officers on the ground, and keeps America safe."  Trump is also facing a new challenge from an incoming Republican senator from Utah Mitt Romney.  Romney of course, the 2012 Republican Presidential nominee, he wrote an op- ed in the "Washington Post" today criticizing Trump.

Romney concedes he supports some of Trump`s decisions but also writes, "On balance, his conduct over the past two years is evidence that the president has not risen to the mantle of the office.  With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable and it is in this province where the incumbent`s shortfall has been most glaring."

Didn`t take long for Trump to fire back on Twitter, "Here we go with Mitt Romney but so fast.  Question will be, is he a flake?  I won big and he didn`t.  He should be happy for all Republicans, be a team player and win."

When asked about Romney at today`s cabinet meeting, Trump drove home his team player theme.


TRUMP:  Well, I wish Mitt could be more of a team player, you know, I`m surprised he did it this quickly.  I`d love him to be a team player.  Possibly he won`t be.  I just hope he`s going to be a team player, and if he`s a team player, that`ll be great.

I think he`s going to end up being a team player.

I don`t know if he`s going to become a team player.  I hope he does.


KORNACKI:  The "Washington Post`s" Robert Costa who`ll join us in a moment captured the impact of Romney`s move, writing "Romney`s assertion of independence is a thunder clap in the GOP thrusting him forward as Trump`s highest-profile Republican foil in the new Congress in stoking talk of Trump`s vulnerability to a challenger for the party`s 2020 nomination."

In an interview today, Romney seemed to leave open the possibility of endorsing a Trump challenger in 2020.


MITT ROMNEY (R), UTAH:  I haven`t decided who I`m going endorse in 2020.  I think it`s early to make that decision and I want to see what the alternatives are.


KORNACKI:  As Trump prepares for what could be a monumental, some monumental changes in the second half of his first term, he`s also juggling transitions within his inner circle.  Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney has newly taken over for John Kelly.  There`s also the brand New Acting Defense Secretary, Patrick Shanahan.  And tonight we learned that William Barr, Trump`s choice for attorney general, who`s been critical of the Mueller investigation, will begin his confirmation hearings in the Senate on January 15th.

Let`s bring in our lead-off panel for a Wednesday night.  Robert Costa, national political reporter for the "Washington Post" and moderator of "Washington Week" on PBS.  A.B. Stoddard, columnist and associate editor at Real Clear Politics and Nancy Cook, White House reporter for Politico.  Thanks to all of you for being with us.

Nancy, you spent plenty of time at the White House today.  And let me lead off with you, the world changes in Washington.  A couple hours from now, Democrats for the first time in eight years will, again, be the majority party in the house.  They say one of the first things they will do is pass legislation to reopen the government.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, the majority leader, says that`s dead on arrival in the Senate.  So if that`s what plays out tomorrow, what would then happen after that?

NANCY COOK, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, POLITICO:  Well, think what`s going to happen is we`re going to see Republicans at least go back to the White House on Friday.  You know, Republican congressional leadership will go back and try to come up with some deal.

It was so interesting being at the White House today because I don`t think it`s entirely sunk in that the Democrats are taking over tomorrow and that it`s not necessarily in their interest to give Trump all the border wall funding or any border wall funding that they seek.

There`s definitely a sense that the administration I think that they`re not totally prepared for that and they`re starting to feel some heat.  But don`t think it`s sunk in with Trump just the array of challenges that he`s going to face in the coming weeks from the special investigation, from the House Democrats.

You know, Republicans have so much fallen in line with Trump for these last two years, but I think the administration just hasn`t really conceived yet of the problems that they`re going to face.

KORNACKI:  Yes.  And Robert, just in terms of watching Trump`s behavior, how he`s handled and sort of postured his way through this shutdown the last two weeks or so, I`m curious what your sense of it is.  Is this a situation where he perceives a political advantage and he actually wants to extend this a little bit possibly, or is this a situation where he`s beginning to see some political risk and he`s looking for a way out but perhaps struggling to find one?

ROBERT COSTA, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST:  If you look at the shutdown as a chess game, as a political challenge for President Trump, talking to White House officials today and outside advisers of the president, they say it`s clear the president is losing for shutdown fight.  It`s unlikely for him to get that $5 billion he wants for the border wall.  But they are quick to add that the president`s playing a different game in their eyes.  That he`s playing to try to keep the Republican base with him in 2019.

And he knows he`s not going to probably get what he wants on the wall this time around but with Robert Mueller on the horizon, all these subpoenas flying from House Democrats, Nancy Pelosi ascendant as the incoming house speaker, it`s more important for him to signal to his core voter that he`s fighting for his signature promise even if he doesn`t get there in the end.

KORNACKI:  Well, along those lines on Fox News tonight, on Sean Hannity`s show, Lindsey Graham, Republican senator from South Carolina, who`s developed a fairly close relationship with Donald Trump these past two years, he had this to say on the subject.


LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), NORTH CAROLINA:  They won`t give a dime to this president because they want him to fail.  Walls work.  Trump said let`s make a deal.  Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer said go to hell.  He`s not going to sign a bill that doesn`t have money for the wall.  If he gives in now, that`s the end of 2019 in terms of him being an effective president.  That`s probably the end of his presidency.


KORNACKI:   Well, A.B. Stoddard, if the positions out right now and have been for a while and you heard President Trump reiterate it today, $5.6 billion for a wall, and the Democratic position is the wall is a non- starter, it`s immoral, zero dollars for the wall, to get out of this at some point and reopen the government what is the minimum that Trump needs to show for this to tell the Republican base he got something?

Is just having the fight even if he ends up with nothing to show for and reopens the government on Democratic terms, would that be seen as acceptable to the Republican base?

A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR AND COLUMNIST, REAL CLEAR POLITICS:  That`s what`s so interesting was that he pulled back from what was passed by voice vote in the Senate just -- so let`s punt this all until February 8th.  It wasn`t I don`t get any wall funding.  It was just let`s not shut the government down over the Christmas holidays.

The reaction from his conservative supporters in talk radio and conservative media scared him so badly that he turned around after the Senators had gotten on airplanes to go home for Christmas and changed his mind.

Now he`s dug in and he says it`s still slats and he says it`s only a wall that will work, and he says he needs the money, we need to desperately, and then he says Mexico is paying for the wall, most of it`s already been built.  He is all over the place on that -- in this way that he usually is where he says we`ll see what happens, it could be quick, it could be long.  I think he wants to give himself some room to the point that Robert`s making that.

If he has to fold in the end he`s going to call whatever comes across the finish line money for a wall even if it`s 1.8 billion and he`s going to say he got other stuff and it`s all going to work out fine and he`s probably in a fight for fighting`s sake.

That said, what Lindsey Graham is saying is a bit dramatic, that it could end his presidency.  I don`t think there`s a way he`s going to get what he`s asking for, and I think President Trump knows that.  But I do think he`s just savoring the fight.  He does not see a down side politically to a shutdown even though there are down sides.  He doesn`t really know the cost.

I think Senate Republicans will ultimately make him feel the heat on this because they`ll get sick of Nancy Pelosi passing bills in the house side and sending them over there and they won`t have a chance to vote for anything to reopen the government.

But I think the president knows ultimately he`s going to brand it as a win and he`s going to end it when he feels like it.  But I think that that makes perfect sense, that he likes to stay on offense and he doesn`t really care about the resolution.  He likes the fight and that`s what he`s engaged in right now.

KORNACKI:  And in fact, just on this subject in the last few seconds, put it up on the screen, the president just tweeting out, "Sadly," he writes, "there can be no real border security without the wall."  The president making that statement again on Twitter just in the last few seconds.

Well, Nancy, in terms of that potential middle ground I guess if you want to call it that that A.B. is outlining there, where the Democratic position is no money for the wall but they have been willing to talk about money for border security, border security that can include some form of fencing, some form of enhanced fencing, the president sometimes saying wall, certainly in his tweet right now saying wall, but also talking in terms of, you know, a slat fencing, things like that at other times.

In terms of that potential middle ground, is there any chance that with Democrats taking control of the house tomorrow and this continuing to linger, has the democratic position on this changed at all?  I know Nancy Pelosi and democratic leaders have been getting some pressure from activists on the left to withdraw even that offer of any money for border security and for fencing to the president.

COOK:  I don`t really think that the Democrats at this point politically see a lot of upside in negotiating.  I think that what, you know, as I talk to folks in the White House today and Republicans close to the White House, for me what I`ll be watching is next week.  That is when there`s the next pay period and that`s going to be a pay period when federal workers don`t get paid.

And so I think that that will be a pressure period next week for both parties because, you know, 80 percent of federal workers live outside of Washington.  So I think that`ll be a pressure point for Democrats and a major pressure point for Trump as well.

I think the White House definitely wants to put the Democrats on the offensive -- the defensive, excuse me, and make it look like they are soft on immigration, soft on border security.  But at this point given the Democratic base, given the outcome of the midterms, I just don`t see the Democrats folding and giving Trump a ton more money for the border wall.

They just need to give him a little bit and, you know, give him a way to call it a wall in some way and that`s where I think the compromise will lie.

KORNACKI:  We mentioned as well the rumblings being heard from the incoming Republican Senator from Utah, Mitt Romney, former Republican presidential nominee, certainly somebody who was very critical of Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign.

Robert Costa, you write about this new role he`s poised to play here, Romney in the Senate being certainly the most visible potentially critical voice in Washington when it come -- Republican voice when it comes to Donald Trump and his presidency.

I guess my question is maybe we can put this up on the screen.  If you look at Donald Trump standing with Republican voters as he enters year three of his presidency, I am struck by this.  Just with his own party, that number there, 88 percent, we show it up on the screen.  Next his approval rating with Republicans, that`s pretty much as high as any modern president`s been at this point with his own party.

Does Romney pose a threat to Trump standing with Republican voters or is this likely to be a continuation of what we`ve seen for two years where for lack of a better term, maybe it resonates with never Trump pundits and that`s it?

COSTA:  At this moment the polling, as you indicate there, shows that President Trump is in a very strong position with Republican voters for 2020.  Why Romney matters is that over the last six months talking to never Trump conservatives and Republicans.  It would be calling up John Weaver, who works for the Ohio Governor John Kasich, or Bill Kristol, and they really didn`t seem to have a lot of options but besides Governor Kasich of Ohio for 2020 challenger.

Romney`s entering into this conversation now with this op-ed in the "Washington Post", giving permission, as Kristol told me today, for donors throughout the party, people who are calling up Spencer Zwik, Romney`s top finance guy, and saying maybe Romney can be a 2020 challenger.  Not if President Trump`s at 85 percent, 90 percent with GOP voters.  This is all about laying the foundation for a 2020 challenge should Robert Mueller`s investigation hobble the Trump presidency, should President Trump leave office for some reason.

This is all about Romney setting in motion something that could happen.  He`s not moving formally toward a race, but this is giving traction, giving political capital to a movement in the Republican Party, that never Trump bloc that had all but become stagnant.

KORNACKI:  It does, A.B., to play out sort of the long game that Robert`s outlining there, if this Mueller situation were to take Trump out of the 2020 equation somehow.  If you`re Romney or if you`re somebody like him and that happens to be your thinking or part of your thinking right now, is there a possibility that by making a move like this at this point you end up alienating a huge part of the Republican Party that`s loyal to Trump so that even if Trump is gone they remember and they hold it against you?

STODDARD:  I think that`s a great point, Steve.  I mean the devotion to President Trump among the primary voters particularly in the Republican Party is so durable and that is not only because, you know, the party has really changed, the voting base of the party has changed.  It`s not embracing limited government and spending cuts and all of the things that the party stood for until Trump, but also many Republicans have left the party.

So those numbers are -- it`s more of a pure base at 81 percent, 85 percent approval.  And they`re very angry with Mitt Romney today.  And so -- and every one of us heard about Mitt Romney, you know, he wanted to be Trump`s secretary of state and then he didn`t speak a lot about his feelings about Trump while running for Senate this last year in Utah.  And so -- and so why come out now with this broadside?

So they will remember and I think it`ll be very hard for someone like Romney running from the old Republican Party that barely really exists anymore to succeed in a primary challenge against Trump.  Unless what Robert outlines comes to pass where he`s just completely crippled by the investigation and what comes out of it or he decides to just take a pass and leave.

KORNACKI:  A.B. Stoddard, Robert Costa, Nancy Cook, thank you all for being with us.  And coming up, President Trump says he would`ve made a great general after he rewrites history on the departure of James Mattis.

And later, an American accused of espionage in Russia visited tonight by the U.S. ambassador.  But is Paul Whelan a spy or the victim of Russian revenge?  THE 11TH HOUR, just getting started on a Wednesday night.


KORNACKI:  It is roughly 90-minute long pool spray this afternoon.  President Trump also spoke extensively about Syria and Afghanistan.  On Syria, the president now says U.S. troops will leave over a period of time but didn`t give specifics.

Trump also criticized his now Former Defense Secretary James Mattis whom he forced out early last week before his planned departure date of February 28th.  The president said he was not happy with Mattis`s role in overseeing the war in Afghanistan.


TRUMP:  What`s he done for me?  How has he done in Afghanistan?  Not too good.  Not too good.  I`m not happy with what he`s done in Afghanistan.  And I shouldn`t be happy.  But he was very happy.  He was very thankful when I got him $700 billion and then the following year $716 billion.

So, I mean, I wish him well.  I hope he does well.  But as you know, President Obama fired him and essentially so did I.


KORNACKI:  We should point out that Mattis was not fired.  He resigned on December 20th.  President Trump went on to offer his thoughts on the conflict in Afghanistan and added that he himself would`ve been a good general.


TRUMP:  We have an area that I brought up with our generals four or five weeks ago where Taliban is here, ISIS is here and they`re fighting each other.  I said, why don`t you let them fight?  Why are we getting in the middle of it?  I said let them fight.  They`re both our enemies.  Let them fight.

Sir, we want to do it -- they go in and they end up fighting both of them.  It`s the craziest thing I`ve ever seen.  I think I would`ve been a good general.  But who knows?


KORNACKI:  Here to talk about all of it, General Barry McCaffrey, a former battlefield commander in the Gulf War, retired U.S. Army four-star general.

General, thanks for joining us.  This -- it`s interesting we spoke in the last block about Mitt Romney, incoming U.S. Senator.  In this op-ed he wrote critical of some aspects of Donald Trump`s performance as president.  And Mitt Romney said that one of the reasons he chose to write that op-ed was the exit of James Mattis from this administration and the resignation letter that James Mattis penned.

To see the president going after his now former defense secretary in public, it is to put it mildly an unusual situation in any administration.  What do you make of it?

GEN. BARRY MCCAFREY (RET.), U.S. ARMY:  Well, it was one of the more cringe-worthy moments I`ve ever encountered.  I hope everybody around that table was just ashamed of being present.

My wife actually cried over this incident, to hear a president of the United States talking in such a manner about Jim Mattis, four-star marine.  By the way, McChrystal, General McChrystal, Admiral McRaven, these guys aren`t pentagon staff generals.  They`re people who grew up in combat under machine gun fire and RPGs getting fired at them and they get to be four- star officers because they were incredibly effective battle-tested leaders keeping America safe.

So, look, you know, you back off the thing and one of the dangers -- the commander-in-chief of the armed forces is the president of the United States.  One of the things we don`t want is him becoming a semi-comical figure, abusive, irrational, erratic, you know, ignored by his allies, conned by his adversaries, Kim Jong-un.  We`re in a very tricky situation with this man.

KORNACKI:  Well, he spoke obviously coming into the presidency of the high regard he had for what he would call the generals, "my generals", certainly putting the idea out there he would be reliant on them in many ways.  To see the evolution of his relationship, the disintegration of his relationship with a lot of "the generals" in his administration, I think most pointedly with Mattis and what we`re talking about right here.  How would you characterize this president`s relationship right now with this country`s military leadership?

MCCAFREY:  Well, I wouldn`t want to speak for the country`s military leadership.  I think they`re going to remain apolitical.  I think they`re going to follow the legal orders of their commander-in-chief.  You know, President Trump can pick up the phone, call one of the nine combatant commanders, our globally deployed more than 2 million men and women of the armed forces, active guard and reserve, and they`ll do what he tells them to do unless it`s illegal on the face.

So I think the problem right now is, look, we`ve got an acting White House chief of staff with no background in foreign policy.  Bolton who`s a very smart experienced guy looks to me like he`s out of the loop.  General Dunford, our chairman of the JCS, was unaware until he read the tweet, on the withdrawal order from Syria.

We`ve got a president of the United States dealing with North Korea.  These people have continued to develop fissile nuclear material and missiles.  And the President says he loves Kim Jong-un, this brutal despotic character.

So again, it`s hard to understand what`s going on.  I just hope -- what we shouldn`t worry about, by the way, is the armed forces.  They`re going to do just fine.  The service sector is our first rate.  The service chiefs are absolutely excellent, grew up in warfare.  So the military will be OK.  But the country`s national security process is flat broken.  Nobody`s coordinating either with our allies or pulling together defense, state, CIA, treasury, and the other elements of national power.  We`re in a very bad situation.

KORNACKI:  All right, General Barry McCaffrey, thank you for taking the time tonight.

MCCAFREY:  Good to be with you.

KORNACKI:  Coming up, this Russian operative recently pleaded guilty to conspiring against the U.S, but is she the reason an American man is behind Russian bars tonight accused of espionage?  We`ll ask a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and a former CIA official when THE 11TH HOUR continues.



DAVID WHELAN, BROTHER OF AMERICAN DETAINED IN RUSSIA:  There`s no way that Paul is a spy.  He definitely wouldn`t do anything to break the laws.  And I can`t imagine that he would have broken spy laws.  In any country, let alone in Russia.


KORNACKI:  That was the twin brother of an American being detained in Russia on espionage charges.  US Ambassador Jon Huntsman was allowed to visit Paul Whelan today and offered the embassy`s support.

Whelan is accused of spying but the Kremlin hasn`t offered any details about what led to his arrest.  Whelan is a former marine whose extreme family says he was in Moscow for a friend`s wedding.  But the timing of the arrest is raising flags for US intelligence officials.  It comes just weeks after Russian gun rights activist Maria Butina pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges here in the US.

With us to talk about it, Michael McFaul, former US Ambassador to Russia, and Ned Price, a former Senior Analyst to the CIA and former Senior Director to the National Security Council.  Ambassador McFaul, let me just start with you.

That -- what would look to many people like a potential, if you want to say quid pro quo, Maria Butina a few weeks ago here, now this in Russia.  Does it look that way to you?

MICHAEL MCFAUL, FORMER US AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA:  Well, so far it does because the Russian authorities haven`t released any information about why they arrested Mr. Whelan.  And we`ve seen it before.  Remember back when Putin met with Donald Trump in Helsinki, right before then Mr. Mueller had indicted 13 Russian intelligence officers.

And so Putin came to Helsinki with this crazy scheme that a dozen Americans had also committed crimes against the Russian government.  I know because I was on that list.  And that`s what it feels like until the Russian government gives us an alternative way to understand this event. 

KORNACKI:  Well, Ned Price, you`re more familiar with this world than I am.  Just looking at the profile of what we know about this individual who the Russians are claiming is a spy, does it from a profiling standpoint?  Does it fit what you might expect to see in a spy?

NED PRICE, FORMER SENIOR ANALYST, CIA:  The profile here, Steve, fits the theory you were articulating before, a quid pro quo for Maria Butina.  And I say that because the Russians by arresting this individual, a businessman who was based in Michigan, are implicitly claiming that he was an intelligence official for the US government working under what`s known as non-official cover.  They`re claiming he was a NOC.

That is highly implausible if not impossible to my mind for two primary reasons.  One, as you said, this individual is a veteran.  He served in the marines for 15 years.  And that`s important because what gives NOCs their currency, what gives them their utility is their ability to disavow any and all connections to the US government.  The fact that this man served in the armed forces would itself be disqualifying in almost all cases for individuals to be NOCs for the US government.

And number two, this individual was discharged from the US military with a bad conduct discharge.  That`s not to impugn his character, but that is to say that this would not be befitting of the profile that the central agency or any other US intelligence community entity would look for in someone to whom they would grant one of the highest status, provide the most sensitive information, send on the most delicate missions there are.

What is interesting about his profile, however, is that he has said very positive things about President Trump on social media and as I said before he`s a veteran.  I think the Russians look at those two traits and they see this individual who they probably know perfectly well is nothing more than a private businessman but they see him as someone for whom President Donald Trump would deal, someone for whom he`d be willing to make a swap.

KORNACKI:  Well, just in terms of the, Ambassador McFaul, just in terms of the administration and how it can and should be handling this, we know that Jon Huntsman, the US ambassador to Russia, was able to visit with him today.  What else should the administration -- what else can the administration be doing right now?

MCFAUL:  Well, that was a big step.  You know, I was a former ambassador, I dealt with incidences like this.  And I never visited a US citizen in a jail.  So that was a big symbolic step.

I think, you know, at the end of the day, President Trump claims he has a special relationship with President Putin.  So he should call up President Putin and say what are you doing with our guy and you should release him.  Now, I don`t expect that to happen.  But for years we have been told by the President we`ve had a theory about foreign policy that developing these personal relationships can be good for American outcomes.  Well, here`s a concrete test of the case.  I think that`s what the President should at least try to do.

KORNACKI:  So, Ned Price, if the President did try to do that, let`s say, and it wasn`t successful, what other avenues are there?

PRICE:  Well, there`s one avenue they shouldn`t take, and that is to undertake a swap in this case.  To swap a private American businessman for a Russian agent would send a terrible signal.  It would send a signal that the Russians can arrest any American who`s there on tourism or legitimate business purposes, and secure the release of someone who is doing the bidding of Moscow, contrary to our national security interests.

What gives me pause about this, Steve, is the fact that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump once again have aligned interests in this case.  Of course Vladimir Putin wants nothing more than to get back Maria Butina, to get her back to Russia.  And strangely Donald Trump also would be incentivized to do that because his administration wants nothing less than to have her go into a court and for the details of not only her activities, her ability to penetrate the soft underbelly of the Republican Party and the broader conservative movement including the NRA, but also to detail her cooperation with the US  Government.

That is not something that the Trump administration would benefit from having out there and it`s something that I fear President Trump and President Putin could find some agreement on.

KORNACKI:  All right.  Ned Price, Ambassador Michael McFaul, thank you both for being with us.

Coming up, she is the first big name Democrat to wade into the 2020 race, but how do the numbers look for Elizabeth Warren as she heads to Iowa this weekend?  I`m heading over to the big board when THE 11TH HOUR comes right back.


SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D), MASSACHUSETTS:  We are building a movement across this country.  You saw it.  You saw it in 2018.  Look at all the people who came off the sidelines.  Look at all the people who said, look at all the women who said never thought I was going to be called on to do this but they stood up and they said I`m part of this.  This is my country, my voice will be heard and my government will reflect my values.  That`s what I believe.

And I think the best place to fight that is right there from the presidency of the United States of America.


KORNACKI:  That was just a couple of hours ago right here at 30 Rock, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren on the Rachel Maddow Show tonight.  Of course, Elizabeth Warren now running for president, one of the big names in the Democratic side, been a lot of speculation she is in.  And we thought we would take a preliminary look.

What do we know about Elizabeth Warren`s standing with the voters she`s now going to try to convince to nominate her for president?  So the most recent national poll we have of Democratic, likely Democratic primary voters that comes from a little less than a month ago.  This is what we found.

A huge potential democratic field here, some of the names they threw at Democratic voters across the country, Biden, the former vice president and first, Sanders the 2016 runner-up in second.  You see Warren back there at 3%.  There have been a lot of other polls since the 2016 election where Warren`s done a lot better with Democrats, was running at just 3% in this poll.

Take a look at this too.  When you look at Biden, Sanders, Warren, these are the three most well-known Democrats who are out there right now, and you poll how they stand among all voters, Democrat, Republican and Independents, sort of general election voters, take a look at this, sort of their favorable-unfavorable.  We saw Biden 54-29, Sanders 51-35, Warren 30- 32.  These are the only three where more than half -- there`s higher than 50% name recognition there.  You see those numbers to those trouble Democrats when it comes to Elizabeth Warren at all?

We also had this poll.  This is from Suffolk University and USA Today measuring sort of how receptive are potential Democratic primary voters, Democrats, Independents who might vote in the Democratic primary.  How receptive to these potential candidacies are they?

And you saw, again, this was a couple weeks ago, Warren clocking in.  33% saying she shouldn`t run.  27% saying they were excited.  Those were not necessarily great numbers.  What is this telling us?  It`s telling us her numbers at the end of 2018 among Democrats were down from where they`d been on questions like this.  Why is that?  It may be because that controversy toward the end of the year over the DNA test about her trying to prove native American ancestry, did that knock her numbers down at the end of the year?

Then it raises a basic question, is she getting in this race at sort of a low moment in her standing, that she can quickly reverse, that she can quickly connect, improve those numbers, or did it linger -- did it reveal something about her political instincts, that controversy?  That could be more problematic for her as the campaign unfolds.

That`s the question to be answered.  But the most recent numbers, that is where Elizabeth Warren starts in this race that`s still got obviously a long way to go.

Coming up, Elizabeth Warren may be the first potential challenger to Donald Trump but many others are lightning up behind her.  We`ve got the latest reporting on who could be the next to announce when THE 11TH HOUR continues.


KORNACKI:  It may only be the second day of 2019 but 2020 is already top of mind for many Democrats.  Dozens of names are being tossed around as potential challengers to President Trump.  This wide political pool led one of our next guests to ask "Who isn`t running for the Democratic presidential nomination?"

With us tonight, and Ken Thomas, Political Reporter for the Wall Street Journal covering the 2020 Democrats.

Ken, let me start with you.  We`re just talking about Elizabeth Warren, who certainly made the first big move in this thing.  The fact that she did it the way she`s rolled this out right now, is that likely to speed up the decision of other potential candidates?  Are we going to suddenly see a lot of activity now because she made this move?

KEN THOMAS, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL:  I don`t know that it will.  I think there are a lot of Democrats who are planning to get in sometime this month or within the first six weeks of the year.  I think, you know, you should look to the Senate for a lot of movement initially.  People like Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand.  Kamala Harris is going to have a book out next week.  We expect her to make some kind of decision, an announcement after a very short book tour.

So, you know, Warren I think by getting in she is seizing upon this progressive message that has animated so many Democrats, and it also may be a way for her to send a message to Bernie Sanders, who is a big question mark in this race, whether he decides to get in.  It`s possible that she could be stealing some of that important terrain.

KORNACKI:  Yes.  Eugene Robinson, that`s an interesting question.  You wrote that column we referenced there asking who isn`t running.  I mean, I think it was, you had more than a dozen there on the Republican side in 2016.  The Democrats could potentially break that mark here in 2020.

But what about the Bernie Sanders dynamic?  The runner-up from 2016 certainly has a solid core base there that even if it`s not enough to win a nomination it`s certainly enough to be a factor in the race.  Does Elizabeth Warren getting in right now?  Do you think that is going to affect his calculus?

EUGENE ROBINSON, COLUMNIST, THE WASHINGTON POST:  Well, it might.  We don`t really know what Bernie is thinking about another run.  Look, he did like better than really well last time around.  You know, he came really close to knocking off the great favorite in that race.  Political rock star Bernie Sanders, who knew before that race but that`s what he is.  He has that option.

But I think what Warren has done is very smart, and that the message is the message in this case, I think.  She is king of staking out ideological turf, with her message now.  And I think that`s important.  I think she has the ability to get people to actually listen to her message in a way that would be more difficult, say, in a week with three announcements, which we`re inevitably going to have at some point, given all the people that will get into this race.

There are going to be weeks that -- I mean, not everybody is going to get their own week to -- or longer, to have -- to roll kind of out their message.

KORNACKI:  Ken Thomas, I guess someone who might get their own week if they did it, would be Joe Biden, the former vice president.  I know he`s 2004, 2016, he is somebody  who flirted with the idea of running, walked close to the starting line but didn`t actually run.  Are you getting any signals from how his world about how likely he is going to do it this time?  Or if this is another might he back off at the end?

THOMAS:  It still seems like it`s a jump ball.  But the poll that you just showed shows, you know, a great indication of why he would want to get in.  He still remains very popular within the party.  He`s a very well-known commodity.  And he`s got a strong team around him that would be able to, you know, quickly mobilize.

But the question is, do the results from 2018, you know, the new faces that we saw in the party, does that indicate that, perhaps, the vice president`s time has ended, and that he will seem like more of a relic in the party, if he were to run.  And it`s not going to be something that would be handed to him, either.  He would be establishment -- probably the establishment favorite.  But this might be a party based on my reporting, that wants a fresh face and it`s just very interested in a full and robust primary.

KORNACKI:  Yes.  I guess that`s sort of the big question, Gene, that hangs over all of us.  There`s sort of a almost a psychology that defines every one of the nomination races.  2004, remember Democrats, they ended up -- it was electability.  It was the idea of electability.  John Kerry was sold with Democrats as the electable candidate.  He didn`t win in the end but they ended up sort of dumping Howard Dean and going with Kerry on the basis of that.

Electability would have to be the Biden pitch here, right?  The idea that, hey, I can win Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, game over, what`s the market for that right now?

ROBINSON:  I`m not sure what the market is because there is certainly also a market for new faces, new blood in the Democratic Party.  There`s a sense that the party needs somebody who has an understanding of how politics is getting realigned in this country.

I mean, look, Donald Trump got elected president.  That can`t happen.  But it did happen.  And it happened because there is some sort of as yet, not a fully understood realignment going on.  One aspect of it, is that the independents are the largest single group of voters now.  So party affiliation is weaker than it used to be, and issues are up for grabs.

The issues like the social safety net are up for grabs.  Issues like tariffs versus free trade are up for grabs.  And I think there`s a sense in the party that somebody -- that the candidate needs to have a grasp on the political realities of 2020. 

KORNACKI:  All right.  Eugene Robinson, Ken Thomas, thank you both for joining us.

And coming up, after spending the holidays home alone holed up in the White House, the President had a lot to talk about today.  We`re back after this.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES:  I was here on Christmas evening, I was all by myself in the White House.  That`s a big, big house, except for all the guys out on the lawn with machine guns.  Nicest machine guns I`ve ever seen.  I was waving to them.  I never saw so many guys with machine guns in my life.


KORNACKI:  During his first cabinet meeting of the New Year, President Trump took time to reflect on all the alone time he`s recently had at the White House.  And he had a lot to say.


TRUMP:  When they say the wall is immoral, well then you better do something about the Vatican because the Vatican has the biggest wall of them all.  There`s a reason why politicians and wealthy people build walls around their houses and their compounds.  I know more about drones than anybody.  I know about every form of safety that you can`t have.

You can`t have a partial wall because people come through the area, it`s not built, unless you`re a world-class pole vaulter in the Olympic team.

I`m the only person in the history of our country that could really decimate ISIS.  Everybody gives me credit for decimating ISIS.  In many respects, it`s very exciting because I like winning.  We`re hitting the hell out of them, the ISIS people.  We are talking to the Taliban, we`re talking to a lot of different people.

I had a meeting at the Pentagon with a lot of different generals, like from a movie, better looking than Tom Cruise and stronger.  I said, this is the greatest home I`ve ever seen.  I saw more computer boards than I think they make today.


KORNACKI:  Still with us, Eugene Robinson.  Gene, what did you make of the president off-the-cuff, I guess, if you want to say today?

ROBINSON:   No, off-the-cuff, off-the-wall, off-the-ranch, whatever.  He just made stuff up.  And, you know, if he won`t read a history book, get him books on tape or something like that.  He also invented particularly and especially pernicious version of the history of Afghanistan, in which he said, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in order to stop terrorists who are coming across the border.  It`s just totally absurd.

The Soviets invaded Afghanistan to shore up a puppet communist government there that was about to be toppled.  And that`s history.  You know, fact and history don`t matter to him.  he makes up histories at whatever point he is trying to make.  It was bizarre, unsettling and I think profoundly disturbing performance.

KORNACKI:  All right.  Eugene Robinson, thank you and that is our broadcast for tonight.  Brian will be back tomorrow.

Thank you for being with us and goodnight from NBC News headquarters in New York.

  THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.                                                                                                     END