LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC ANCHOR: That is tonight`s LAST WORD. "THE 11TH HOUR" with Brian Williams starts now.
STEVE KORNACKI, MSNBC HOST: Tonight, Hurricane Dorian strengthens off the coast of Puerto Rico, but President Trump is tweeting insults at the island and its leadership.
Plus, division and distractions, Trump spends another day hunkered down in the White House airing his grievances at mounting controversies.
And an ex-Cabinet member rebels against his former boss. All of it as THE 11TH HOUR gets under way on a Wednesday night.
Good evening once again from our NBC News headquarters here in New York. I`m Steve Kornacki in for Brian Williams, who has the night off. Day 951 of the Trump administration and we are following an extremely busy evening of news on a number of fronts. We are tracking Hurricane Dorian, which thrashed the Virgin Islands and skirted Puerto Rico today. That storm could strengthen into a category 3 hurricane and threaten Florida over this coming holiday weekend. We will bring you a full forecast in just a moment.
Today while Puerto Ricans were bracing themselves, President Trump was tweeting, calling them and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz ungrateful, "We are tracking closely tropical storm Dorian as it heads, as usual, to Puerto Rico. FEMA and all others are ready and will do a great job. When they do, let them know it and give them a big thank you, not like last time. That includes from the incompetent mayor of San Juan."
Earlier today the mayor responded during an interview with our own Ali Velshi.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MAYOR CARMEN YULIN CRUZ, SAN JUAN PUERTO RICO (via telephone): That tweet this morning that yet again, you know, this is the kind of man that would fight and scold people that were caught inside a burning building and just blame them for not getting out of there fast enough. Well, you know, again, if he cannot be supportive, let those that are willing to be supportive take on the task of saving lives.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KORNACKI: The President also said, "Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth. Congress approved billions of dollars last time, more than any place else has ever gotten, and it is sent to crooked pols. No good. And by the way, I`m the best thing that`s ever happened to Puerto Rico."
This as the President is not happy with a report from the "The Washington Post" last night that said Trump has told worried subordinates he would pardon them for any potential wrongdoing should they break laws to build the border wall. The President said today, "This was made up by the "The Washington Post" only in order to demean and disparage. Fake news."
The President also went after Fox News today, accusing them of "promoting Democrats." He added, "We have to start looking for a new news outlet. Fox isn`t working for us anymore."
And we heard from former Defense Secretary James Mattis today, who swiped at Trump`s leadership.
The President also, this evening, tweeted about Senator Kirsten Gillibrand ending her presidential campaign. He joked, "I`m glad they never found out that she was the one I was really afraid of."
The President likely doesn`t find anything funny in the new poll numbers that show him losing to all of the top Democratic candidates nationally as well as in the critical State of Michigan.
And for the first time since 2016 more voters now say the economy is getting worse than better.
Also today we found out which Democrats will make the cut for the next Democratic debate. And it will be a one-night event this time. Ten candidates on one stage all together. It will include the top three candidates at the top there, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren there leading the polls. We`re going to get to all of this tonight. Our panelists standing by.
But first, we`re going to get an update on Hurricane Dorian. And for that we turn to NBC News meteorologist, Michelle Grossman. Michelle, take it away.
MICHELLE GROSSMAN, NBC NEWS METEOROLOGIST: All right. Hi there, Steve. Well, this is a storm that has exceeded expectations since the beginning. The first thought about this was a tropical storm the whole way throughout. Since then has increased with every advisory for the past 24 hours.
We just got the latest advisory as of 11:00 o`clock, so just a few minutes ago. And once again, we have seen an increase in the strength. We`re look at winds at 85 miles per hour, still a Category 1 storm. We do project it to be a Category 3 storm in time for it to make landfall somewhere in Florida.
So, let`s take you through the movement. It`s moving at 13 miles per hour. That`s been pretty steady over the past 24 hours. That`s a good thing. At least it was a good thing for the Virgin Islands. It moved pretty quickly even though it did batter the Virgin Islands earlier today.
So looking on radar we see the swirl right there, we see the eye kind of closing in right now but we see the heavy rain around it. Right now over the open waters of the Atlantic. What that means is it`s continuing to pick up that warm fuel from the waters and it`s going to continue to increase the strength of this as it moves to the north and also to the west.
So as we track Dorian we are looking at a Category 1 storm. It`s north of Puerto Rico right now. It`s going to move off to the north and also the west over the next several days. So by Friday at 8:00 a Category 2 storm, 105-mile-per-hour winds.
Look where it is. It`s making no land interaction. That tends to break up a storm, it`s right over the open waters of the atlantic. It`s going to continue to pick up fuel. So by Friday into Saturday, that`s when we anticipate it to be a Category 3 storm.
Now, as we go throughout time here in the Bahamas, in the Northwestern Bahamas, if you live there you want to have a hurricane plan in action. We`re a few days out, but now is the time to prepare as well as parts of Florida. Time will tell where this will eventually make its landfall. But as we head toward Sunday into Monday we do expect a landfall somewhere in Florida. Even into Southern Georgia. Some models are showing parts of Carolinas. But we won`t know really until Friday when we see that steering really set up.
So somewhere along Southern Florida into Georgia we`re going to see a Category 3 storm. The bad news as I mentioned, it`s moving pretty quickly right now. We do anticipate as it gets a little bit closer it`s going to slow down. That`s going to drop even more rain. We`re going to see torrential rainfall anywhere from three to six to eight, even up to 10 inches of rain in some spots.
Spaghetti models are in pretty much agreement that we`re going to see path over the Bahamas into Florida. So a lot of agreement over where this is going to end up.
Now, it could also cross the State of Florida, drop a lot of rain and then emerge into the Gulf, strengthen once again. So we do have to look along the Gulf Coast as well as we head toward next week. But first things first, we`re looking at winds picking up as early as Saturday in Florida.
So again, I mentioned hurricane preparedness in the Bahamas, I want you to do that too in Florida over the next several days because you have three days to plan and that`s what we need to look at. Then by Sunday and Monday that`s where you need to see the winds picking up, we could see tropical storm force winds. We could see hurricane force winds. So we`re going to have a tough weekend in some parts of Florida. Right now this is showing anywhere from Central into Northern Florida.
Rainfall forecasts, I mentioned that. I touched upon it. We`re looking at possible 10 inches of rain in some spots, and that`s because we do expect it to really slow down as it does hit land and then move into the Gulf and eventually along the Gulf Coast. This is something we`re going to watch over the next several hours. Two o`clock, there is no advisory. The next big advisory will be coming at 5:00 o`clock tomorrow morning.
KORNACKI: OK, yes. Something obviously everybody in Florida will be watching closely, everybody who knows anybody in Florida as well. Michelle Grossman --
KORNACKI: -- thank you --
KORNACKI: -- for keeping us updated. Appreciate that.
And as Hurricane Dorian remains a threat, our own Julia Ainsley and Frank Thorp are reporting now that the Trump administration is pulling millions from the Department of Homeland Security to send to the southern border, "To fund temporary locations for court hearings for asylum seekers along the southern border ICE would gain $155 million, all from FEMA`s disaster relief fund."
Here for our lead-off discussion on a Wednesday night, we have with us Nancy Cook, White House Reporter for Politico, Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize- winning Biographer and Historian. Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning Columnist for the "The Washington Post" and retired Four-Star U.S. Army General Barry McCaffrey, a decorated combat veteran of Vietnam and a former battlefield commander in the Persian Gulf among his other distinguished titles. And these honors that all of our guests have tonight certainly put me to shame, just reading through those. Thank you, everybody, for joining us tonight.
Well, General, let me just start with you. On that news that our own Frank Thorp and Julia Ainsley are reporting, we`ve been talking for months, the Trump administration to fund this emergency declaration that he`s made at the border for the construction of the wall, going to have to find the money from somewhere if he`s going to do that. It turns out $155 million from FEMA`s disaster relief fund. Obviously the timing of this raises some concerns with what we`ve just heard about the hurricane. What can you tell us about the significance of that move?
GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Well, it`s a new world. I`ve had a lot of experience dealing with budgets, the Congress approval. It looks to me as if the Trump administration has really changed the norms of the game.
We used to have to go back and petition a congressional committee for their approval to move funds even when we were relatively sure they were legal. So here we`re looking at hundreds of millions of dollars, potentially being diverted from the coast guard, from aviation security, from FEMA funds, all to head to the border. Admittedly it is a problem at the border, 80,000 somewhat undocumented migrants in the month of July alone double last year`s rate at this month. But Congress is supposed to have the power of the purse. This is really new ground for me.
KORNACKI: So Nancy, that`s an action apparently the administration is preparing to take here. The President himself, though, as we just took you through in that opening, very active on Twitter tonight. He was active as well on Twitter yesterday. All sorts of subjects he`s addressing there from Kirsten Gillibrand`s presidential campaign ending to this hurricane passing through Puerto Rico today and potentially heading toward Florida. What`s going on in the White House around him?
NANCY COOK, POLITICO WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, I think that what was happened is he`s come back from the G7 in France where he met with a bunch of world leaders and he has been dissatisfied with the coverage of that meeting. A lot of which was very critical and painted the U.S. as very isolated. So he`s coming back looking ahead. He`s preparing to go to Poland this weekend.
And I think in the interim in this relatively quiet week he`s watching a lot of news. You know Congress is not in session. A lot of people are gone. He`s watching a lot of news and tweeting. And I think increasingly his advisers both inside the White House, outside the White House, and on the campaign are very closely watching the state of the economy and President Trump is getting worried about it.
And I think subsequently he`s trying to either come up with scapegoats to blame if the economy goes south like calling out the Fed Chair Jerome Powell with some frequency but also just a running commentary on, you know, things that he`s commenting on, promises that he`s made like building the border wall. I think that`s a lot of what we`ve seen is being fueled by this anxiety over the economy.
KORNACKI: And Jon Meacham, those tweets we read from the President about the hurricane, ostensibly about the hurricane but by the end of one of those tweets there he is going after personally the mayor of San Juan, this feels like one of those instances, there have been many of these, there probably will be many more, but one of those instances where you can take a disaster, a potential disaster and think about how past presidents, Democrat or Republican, would have addressed them in public and compare it and find a very stark difference with this President.
JON MEACHAM, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Yes. I mean, Donald Trump may be the best thing that ever happened to Andrew Johnson`s historical reputation, for instance. We`re just so far past where the buses run as we sometimes say in the south.
It seems to me that the other example here about his communication perennially, but in this moment particularly, is there is this fundamental lack of empathy that is a striking characteristic of his. And empathy has always been one of the great delineators of truly transformative presidents. Whether you agreed or disagreed with them broadly. They were able to put themselves in someone else`s shoes, whether it was President Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis who explicitly wanted to do that with Khrushchev, whether it was George H.W. Bush with Gorbachev during the Fall of the Berlin Wall. You know, they were people who understood that there were human beings on the other side of an equation.
And for the President it just seems, and just the record would show this, that so much of his view of reality is that it`s not reality but reality T.V., right? So it`s not a hurricane that might hurt people. It`s a hurricane that reminds him of someone he cast as a villain in the past, the mayor. And so he`s playing paintball when other folks are really facing danger.
KORNACKI: One of the other targets of the President on Twitter tonight, we mentioned this as well, earlier today I should say, it was Fox News. Basically saying to his supporters on Twitter, "perhaps it was time to find another news outlet." One Fox News personality, Britt Hume, responded to that, Fox News senior political analyst. He responded to what the President said on twitter saying, "Fox News isn`t supposed to work for you."
Eugene Robinson, this is an interesting dynamic, that relationship between the President and Fox has been the subject of such discussion. And now here`s the President very aggressively going after Fox.
EUGENE ROBINSON, THE WASHINGTON POST COLUMNIST: Yes. It`s fascinating. You know, that recent Fox News poll that showed his numbers where everybody else shows them, which is not, you know, not looking very good, really seemed to set him off. And he went on an earlier rant about how Fox isn`t what it used to be. And periodically he`s come back to that. Today he just sort of went off on Fox.
And the suggestion that we`ve got to find -- we, whoever we are, I guess we meaning his base, have to find somebody else because they`re not with us anymore. You know, the suggestion that I`m sure a lot of people at Fox, perhaps not everybody but a lot of people at Fox find deeply offensive is that they are the home team, they are the ministry of propaganda. That`s the way he sees it. And that, in my opinion, it`s true of some of the Fox primetime hosts and the Fox morning show, but there are also people who work on the news shows at Fox who don`t see that as their role at all. It will be interesting to see how the network reacts to this. And if Fox -- if President Trump continues this campaign against Fox, I mean, where does he want people to go?
KORNACKI: That`s the fascinating question, right.
KORNACKI: If not Fox, where? We will see. Perhaps the President`s Twitter feed will have an answer to that question as well.
Our guests are sticking around with us.
And coming up, more on the President`s reported prodding of officials to build the border wall even if it breaks laws.
And later, a Marine general who was known by the call sign "chaos" denounces the president who appointed him to his Cabinet. THE 11TH HOUR just getting started on a Wednesday night.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: It`s going to be a great wall. It`s going to be a real wall. It`s not going to be one of these little babies.
We`re going to build the wall. And yesterday the top person, president of Mexico, said "we will never, ever pay for that wall." I said, "The wall just got ten feet higher."
It`s going to be a real wall, not a toy wall like we have right now, that`s 10 feet tall and it`s a fence.
CROWD: Build that wall. Build that wall. Build that wall.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KORNACKI: Well, the border wall, of course, was President Trump`s signature campaign promise, and he has certainly talked it up all through his 2 1/2 years in office. Tonight, though, "The New York Times" is matching "The Washington Post`s" reporting on Trump`s determination to finish the wall by Election Day. The "Times" reports that Trump "has repeatedly suggested during meetings on immigration policy that aides take the land and get it done." Both papers report the President spoke of seizing property and then suggested offering pardons to aides who break the law, something that has been suggested before.
The "Times" went on to report, "a senior administration official did not deny that Mr. Trump had made the comments but said that the President had been joking. "He winks when he does it," that person said, and added that Mr. Trump had never seriously suggested the idea of pardons."
The "Times" also reports, "what White House officials have walked back as lighthearted suggestions in the past have proved true. In April Mr. Trump asked Kevin McAleenan, the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, to close the southwestern border to migrants, suggesting he could issue a pardon if he encountered any legal trouble. At the time, White House officials said the President might have been joking."
In public, at least, the President has certainly sounded serious when discussing the issue of pardons.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: I never want anybody to be above the law. But the pardons are a very positive thing for a president.
The question was asked yesterday about pardons with respect to Paul Manafort. I said I`m not taking anything off the able.
We`re looking at a lot of different pardons for a lot of different people. Some of these soldiers are people that have fought hard, long, and then when they fight sometimes they get really treated very unfairly.
The power to pardon is a beautiful thing. You`ve got to get it right. You`ve got to get the right people.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KORNACKI: Today Trump slammed the "The Washington Post" reporting. He wrote, "Another totally fake story in the Amazon "Washington Post" lobbyist which states that if my aides broke the law to build the wall, which is going up rapidly, I would give them a pardon. This was made up by the "The Washington Post," only in order to demean and disparage. Fake news."
Another post included video of a barrier along with the message "The wall is going up very fast despite total obstruction by Democrats in Congress and elsewhere."
Both the "Times" and the "Post" also report about 60 miles of replacement barrier has been completed under the administration`s watch, all in areas that already had existing border infrastructure.
The "Wall Street Journal" notes that "About 654 miles of the 1,991-mile border already had some kind of fabricated barrier when Mr. Trump took office. Much of the rest has natural barriers, approximately 1,295 miles of the border are river and 696 miles are land."
Still with us Nancy Cook, Jon Meacham, Eugene Robinson, and General Barry McCaffrey.
Nancy, let me start with you. This reporting of the President behind the scenes saying essentially do whatever you have to do to get this thing done and there could be pardons. What`s the White House saying? They`re saying this is a joke. What`s the context that they`re saying this was delivered in?
COOK: Well, I think that what they`re saying is -- what`s so interesting to me as a reporter who covered the White House on a daily basis is that they`re not saying that the reporting is incorrect. As the President is saying, they`re just saying that the reporters got the context a little wrong. But that`s an excuse that they often use. They`ll say that the President is joking or you know, don`t take him so literally. But they`re actually not behind the scenes calling into question that he actually said those words.
And in my experience typically when the President goes after on Twitter a news outlet like this and is particularly incensed about an article it later turns out to be 100 percent correct. And again, his own officials are not calling out the veracity of that reporting.
I think that the power to pardon is something that the President didn`t know a ton about when he came into the White House but he`s been very enamored of that potential power once he fully grasped it. And we saw in several instances in the Mueller report in which he, you know, a bunch of aides stopped him from obstructing justice.
I think that the President doesn`t always understand the boundaries of governing and government and we`ve seen that time and time again with instances in the Mueller report with this idea that you can just seize land from people and sort of ask for forgiveness later and do pardons. I think that that is part of the President`s governing strategy.
KORNACKI: Eugene, what do you make of it? The idea that apparently coming from the White House here, the idea that yes, maybe he said the words but the words weren`t meant -- the interpretation of the words coming through these news stories might be off a little bit.
ROBINSON: Well, that`s sort of the go-to move of, you know, what we would call the communication side of the White House which is not a functioning communication shop because he is his own communications director. But when, you know, he gets caught out saying these things, in this case directing officials to break the law, which a President, I think, we can agree should not do.
And so -- oh, well, he was just joking, you can`t take him literally. Well, there are other times when, you know, you have to take him literally or you should take him literally according to them. And that decision is made post-facto. So it`s, you know, depending on how crazy it is or potentially illegal or illogical or just loopy, the statement was they can either say yes, "well, yes absolutely, that`s right" or "no, he was just joking." It`s ridiculous. I`m just getting back to the substance of what he said. I trust the reporting. And that`s just outrageous, that break the law and I`ll give you a pardon.
KORNACKI: In terms of the reaction here coming in, "The Washington Post" has this story tonight about the response from congressional Democrats. They say the notion has alarmed congressional Democrats who had been investigating potential obstruction of justice on Trump`s part as the House continues to weigh whether to launch impeachment proceedings when lawmakers return to Washington next month. Several of the 15 pardons that Trump has issued during his presidency, a power that is nearly unchecked and that Trump has relished, have carried with them an overtly political tone."
Jon Meacham, that is sort of part of the political backdrop for this news about Trump and what he`s saying apparently behind the scenes about pardons. In terms of Democrat -- the potential, I should say, Democratic push to move towards the impeachment inquiry do you think this adds much steam?
MEACHAM: You know, I think this is still in Speaker Pelosi`s court on that decision. My own sense is as was just pointed out, I think the President found out about the pardon power when he became president kind of like the, you know, the one thing that President Kennedy really enjoyed when he was having his transition meeting with Eisenhower in late `60, early `61, it`s like (ph) showed him the button you pushed where the helicopter came to get you and that was the thing Kennedy loved the helicopter coming.
I think the pardon power is like that button for Trump. It`s a nifty thing he didn`t know he had. It appeals to the authoritarian instincts. It appeals to the unilateral instincts.
And the other thing on the obstruction question is we saw this in the Mueller report, where he would say things and if people had gone out and done them that we would be an entirely different place in terms of impeachment, right? So you`re really counting on the people around the President knowing when to take him seriously and when not. And that`s an awfully significant burden to put on people when they`re dealing with the most powerful person in the world.
KORNACKI: Yes, general, I`m curious about that. The people around the President in the administration perhaps who heard this comment, how do you think it was received by them? I mean, on the one hand he`s saying these words, you could look at, we played the clip there, of the President talking about Paul Manafort. He hasn`t at least as of yet pardoned Paul Manafort. Do you think this is the kind of thing that would actually encourage somebody to take a step over the line on a comment that hey, maybe you`re getting a pardon down the line?
MCCAFFREY: Well, you know, there`s a huge sense of loyalty and obedience to the President of the United States, particularly with his own political appointees, many of which whom, I`m sorry to say, are squirrelly characters in the White House. I do think if Trump tells the departments of his government to carry out illegal acts as a general statement they`re not going to do it.
I`ve run into minor experiences like this in public life. We normally send a letter back saying here`s the objections, the problems with what you`re telling me to do. If you want me to do it, put it in writing. And that normally suffices to back people up. But nothing on this order where he`s apparently saying "I`m going to order funds to be spent, actions to be taken, land to be seized," by the way, which is going to go over very badly in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California. I`ve worked that border issue for years. They`re not going to like this.
So I think he`s headed down into a very dangerous spot in which he may see a rebellion in his own government, and should see it if he tells them to break the law.
KORNACKI: All right. All four guests are staying with us.
And coming up, the former Trump Cabinet member now speaking out saying he did as well as he could for as long as he could. THE 11TH HOUR back after this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: General Mattis was so thrilled. But what`s he done for me? How has he done in Afghanistan? Not too good. And I wish him well. I hope he does well. But as you know, President Obama fired him. And essentially so did I. What results?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KORNACKI: That was shortly after former Defense Secretary James Mattis left his post in the Trump administration. Today, we are hearing from him in the first time in the form of some not so thinly veiled swipes at the President. In a "Wall Street Journal" essay that was adapted from his new book, Mattis writes in part, "A wise leader must deal with reality and state what he intends, and what level of commitment he is willing to invest in achieving that end. Wise leadership requires collaboration. Otherwise, it would lead to failure. Nations with allies thrive and those without them wither. Alone, America cannot protect our people and our economy. At this time we can see storm clouds gathering."
Back with us, Nancy Cook, Jon Meacham, Eugene Robinson, General Barry McCaffrey. General, I`ll begin with you. You are certainly very familiar with Mattis. What do you make of this?
GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Look, you know, Mattis is a very unusual figure in the Armed Forces. With the exception of maybe Colin Powell, he`s the most respected military officer since World War II. He`s a defense intellectual. He`s a ferociously aggressive combat marine commander. He has tremendous integrity and balance. So he`s a remarkable public figure.
His highest point of his life, I hope, was the Cabinet meeting, which you will remember. I think it was one of the first ones where the Cabinet was taking turns with this incredible of sequoias (ph) groveling, embarrassing behavior to the President. When it got to Mattis he said, Mr. President, I`m just proud to represent the men and women of the Armed Forces.
This guy is a very tough man, very balanced guy. I don`t think he has any political ambitions. I hope this book is helpful in understanding the incredible chaotic dysfunctional system now in place to deal with national security issues. So Mattis need to give us a warning for the future.
KORNACKI: Yes. It`s interesting reading this essay and curious to read the book. Obviously, you can look for all the veiled references to the current commander-in-chief. There was also sort of a broader critique of the current political climate as well.
We can put this up on the screen from Mattis`s essay. He wrote, "All Americans need to recognize that our democracy is an experiment and one that can be reversed. We all know that we`re better than our current politics. Tribalism must not be allowed to destroy our experiment."
Jon Meacham, picking up on something General McCaffrey just said, he said he doesn`t think there`s a future in politics for James Mattis. What do you think of his future in the public square?
JON MEACHAM, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, people who -- we tend to revere people more so when they are out of the arena than when they`re in the arena, which is an interesting American characteristic. And so people will listen. Part of what General Mattis, Secretary Mattis, was saying there, though, represents and denotes the problem that he will have in being heard by people who aren`t already inclined to agree with him, right? I mean -- So it`s interesting that he wrote that for the "Journal."
A lot of readers of the "Wall Street Journal" are more inclined to be favorable toward the President. And so that`s -- I`m glad he did that there. If he`d written it in the "New York Times," for instance, I think it would have been for people who almost -- many of whom were inclined to already agree with him. And I think that`s one of the issues we have in the country, is we tend to filter out those with whom we disagree.
We saw it today with the President attacking Fox. Fox is apparently reporting things, had some guests on that the President didn`t like. And so the President, you know, unleashes a first strike nuclear rhetorical attack against the network. That`s emblematic of the way our political conversation goes now.
And one thing I would just say with all respect to the General`s point in that, he says, we`re better than our current politics. I would amend that slightly. We can be better than our current politics, but we aren`t always. And the forces that the President represents are perennial ones in American life. Isolationism, xenophobia, nativism, and those forces either ebb or flow.
Right now they`re flowing. The next great leader nationally is going to be the leader who puts those forces in retreat. But they`ll never be permanently defeated because this is a human enterprise.
KORNACKI: Gene, do you think Mattis speaking out with his essay, with his book, is there a chance it registers at all with the President?
EUGENE ROBINSON, COLUMNIST, THE WASHINGTON POST: With the President, no. Absolutely no chance. But does it register more broadly with his readers? And, you know, he got everyone`s attention, I think, with this piece in the "Journal."
And I like everybody else want to now see what else he has to say about the specifics of his time working for this specific President and what it was like I think -- you know, I hope he feels he owes us that narrative. I think it would be a great service just to know in some detail what it was like being defense secretary for Donald Trump.
KORNACKI: Book tour might be interesting on this one. Nancy, we -- it did not end well between the President and Mattis. We played that clip from a couple months ago. But obviously before that the President would be praising him in public, lionizing him, you know, mad dog, he had a term of -- that seemed to resonate a lot with the President. When and how did it go wrong between them?
NANCY COOK, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, POLITICO: Well, I think that the President was so enamored of the idea during the transition of hiring military figures including Secretary Mattis and General Kelly also who originally ran the Department of Homeland Security, and he used to refer to them as "my generals." And he was very high on this idea of having these military men who looked like they were out of central casting, you know, running some key agencies and being key Cabinet members.
I think what happened is that they didn`t always agree with him, either on policies, on, you know, the transgender troops, on pulling troops out of Afghanistan, on just larger national security issues, the threat of Russia. You know, these are not necessarily yes men. And you know, Mattis sort of hints at that subtly in this "Wall Street Journal" essay, where he talks about within the marines, he`s never met so many mavericks and part of innovating wasn`t always agreeing with the dogma of the marines.
And to me that was sort of a subtle dig at the President and his demand, frequent demand for total loyalty of his Cabinet members. And I feel like what happened with Mattis and with, you know, all the military figures really was that they didn`t always agree with the President and the President soured on them. And he`s put in place -- you know, he`s moved away from this idea of generals and has put in place people that at least for now are more amenable to his world view.
KORNACKI: OK. Nancy Cook, General Barry McCaffrey, thank you. Jon and Gene are sticking with us.
And coming up, the latest debate deadline has knocked out yet another Democratic candidate. More on the changing state of the race when THE 11TH HOUR continues.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D), NEW YORK: I know this isn`t the result we wanted. We wanted to win this race. But it`s important to know when it`s not your time. And to know how you can best serve your community and country. I believe I can best serve by helping to unite us to beat Donald Trump in 2020.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KORNACKI: And then there were 20. Twenty Democratic candidates for president remain tonight after Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Senator, Kirsten Gillibrand announced earlier tonight she is withdrawing from the presidential race. There are seven candidates, believe it or not, who have dropped out of this race and yet there are still 20 who remain.
Now, one of the reasons perhaps that Kirsten Gillibrand decided to step away from the race at this point is today was the deadline for candidates to qualify for the next debate. The next debate`s going to be in the middle of September. The DNC put that criteria out a while back. You`ve got to have 130,000 donations. And you`ve got to hit 2 percent in four polls. Today was the deadline for candidates to do that, to get into the September debate.
Gillibrand was not really close to hitting that. She`s out of the race now. But of these 20 candidates who are left, a lot of them also weren`t close. A lot of them also failed to qualify for this debate. In fact, there are a total of 10 candidates, only 10 of the 27 who originally set out to run.
Only 10 will be on the next debate stage. This is based on how they set the podiums up for the last debate. This would be how the next debate would now look. We don`t know exactly what the order will be. But the key thing here is number one, all of the candidates, since there`s only going to be 10 in the debate, there`s only going to be one night of debating.
All the candidates who qualify will be on the same stage. It`s not going to be these two groups, different nights. The thing we`ve seen before. It`s going to be one debate. It`s going to be one night. It`s also going to feature Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren together. That`s something we have not seen in the first two rounds of debates.
It`s something a lot of people have certainly wanted to see that will now happen in the next debate. You will have Biden and Warren on stage. It might even be next to each other on the stage.
Then the question becomes those other 10 candidates, the 10 who did not make the September debate but who as of now are still in the race for president. What happens to them? Can you have a campaign for president? Can you have an effective campaign if you`re not getting in the debate?
These are the 10 who right now they are saying they`re still running. They`re not going to be in the debate. One of the reasons, at least for some of them to stay in at least for a little longer, the debate in October, believe it or not, you can still qualify for that debate with polls from the past summer, with donations from the past summer. What I mean by that is this. Take a look at these three candidates, Tulsi Gabbard, Tom Steyer, Marianne Williamson. They came somewhat close or very close in Tom Steyer`s case to making the September debate. They all hit that donor threshold.
Steyer got three of the four polls he needed to get. Gabbard got two of the four. Williamson got one of the four. Well, guess what. Basically, they get another month to add to this.
If Steyer can get one more poll in the next month where he hits 2 percent, he qualifies for the October debate. If Gabbard can get two more polls in the next month, she qualifies for the October debate. If Williamson can get three more polls in the next month, she qualifies for the October debate. And if any of these other candidates who so far aren`t even that close, they have another month to get there and they can still get in for October. So it`s an interesting thing.
We`ve been talking about this big crunch coming on the Democratic side, and it looks like for the next debate that`s going to happen. Only 10 candidates on the stage. But it`s possible the next debate after that it`s going to expand again and they`re going to be back to two nights. So guess what, folks? You`ve got a one-night debate. Enjoy it. It might be the only one you get for a while.
Coming up, an apparently sarcastic President mocks the Democrats, saying the candidate he was really afraid of just quit. We are going to talk more about those still in the race when THE 11TH HOUR continues.
KORNACKI: And back with us Jon Meacham and Eugene Robinson talking a little bit about the state of the 2020 race. We now know what that debate stage is going to look like in September for the next ground of Democratic debate. I was going to say of Democratic debates, the next Democratic debate. There`s only going to be one this time. Only going to be one night.
And what that means -- I was talking about a minute ago is you`re going to see the match up on stage of Biden and Warren. What are you looking for there?
ROBINSON: Well, I`ll be looking for what I think other Democratic voters are looking for and the whole audience is looking for, we`ll look to see whether she goes after him, he goes after her. They are obviously going to clash on Medicare for All. That will probably be an issue that comes up. But there is a sense certainly from the polling and everything and the crowd size especially that she`s got some momentum, that she`s been moving up.
Biden has held on to his lead. He`s not really growing that lead, and so I think there is going to be sort of a bake off feel to this debate with all of them on the stage. And I don`t count out the role that other candidates will play in this debate, as well. It`s possible that with the two right now central figures, I think you`d call them that, Biden and Warren there in the middle, it`s possible that someone who is a little further out toward the ends could, you know, could really make an impression. It could be another night for a Kamala Harris like the first debate.
KORNACKI: I was just going to say, ask Kamala Harris how that goes with Tulsi Gabbard --
ROBINSON: She could go after both of them.
KORNACKI: Yes. Well she`s been on both ends of it so far in these debates. Jon Meacham, let me ask you about the political standing. I`m curious how you would assess the political standing of President Trump about 14 months before he faces reelection. From this standpoint, we were looking at polling throughout the day today from Quinnipiac. It shows him losing by double digits. I think 16 points even to Joe Biden but double digits to a bunch of different Democratic candidates.
It shows that the public`s assessment of the state of the economy is now more negative than positive. The economy, of course, supposed to be the President`s biggest selling point in the re-election campaign, polling as well out of Michigan, one of those critical states he had in 2016 showing his numbers very upside down there as well. Looking at these numbers, you would say almost by any conventional metric, these are not winning numbers for a president but of course in 2016 by any conventional metric he wasn`t supposed to win. So how do you assess his political standing right now?
MEACHAM: Right. My sense is that fear is a very good starter in American popular politics, but it`s not a good finisher. And to keep the country on edge, to keep them enough folks feeling as though they are on the press and he`s the only thing keeping them from falling over is a very difficult thing to do. It`s hard to sustain that level of emotion. That`s the positive -- the side that suggests he`s in trouble is that a candidate arguing a message of hope is someone who is going to come in and that will be a kind of relief to some extend from the message of fear.
That said, fear is very powerful. And as you say, you know, this -- you know, until 11:00, 11:30 on election night, right, no one thought this was going to happen. To me, the really interesting question for the Democrats is going to be -- and I agree with what Gene said is, you know, the Biden- Warren contrast right now to use an image from Jefferson is the head versus the heart to some extent in the Democratic Party, right?
The head says send Biden in there, see what you can do. You got to carry Pennsylvania. You got to get Michigan, Wisconsin back, you know, all the familiar arguments. But Warren does seem to be with her policy ideas where the heart at least of the Democratic base is and so that battle is going to be fascinating. And, you know, whether Biden can continue to make this argue that he`s the one who can, as the Vice President would say, can take Trump out behind the barn and beat him up, that`s going to be a very, very interesting dynamic.
And we`re not that far away, right? I mean, it`s almost Labor Day. Iowa is, what, January. So it`s closing in.
KORNACKI: Yes. We are down to the final months before really the first votes to the 2020 election are going to be cast. Jon Meacham -- quick Gene, yes.
ROBINSON: Yes, one quick thing about the Q-poll. Thirty-eight, 39, 40 Trump ceiling, that`s what I think his campaign really ought to be worried about, the idea that he`s got a ceiling of about 40 percent.
KORNACKI: Yes. Right now no matter which Democrat you match him up against.
ROBINSON: And a month ago, you and I probably would have said his ceiling look like more like 42, 43 and now it looks like 40. That`s not the right direction for him.
KORNACKI: Yes, there were those reluctant Trump voters. If we talked so much about the base, there were also the reluctant Trump voters. He couldn`t have won without them either. That`s a big wildcard for 2020.
Jon Meacham and Eugene Robinson, thank you both for being with us this full hour. It was a real pleasure (ph) to have you, we appreciate that.
And coming up, today`s surprise development in Georgia politics that has us looking back. We`re back after this.
KORNACKI: And the last thing before we go tonight, today, Georgia Senior Republican Senator Johnny Isakson announced that he will resign due to health concerns. And that means the governor of Georgia will appoint his successor. And you remember the last time this happened in Georgia, it was back in 2000 when Democrat Roy Barns appointed then former Governor Zell Miller who then famously broke with his party in 2004 and endorsed George W. Bush delivering a stem-winder against John Kerry at the Republican National Convention and challenging Chris Matthews to a dual.
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ZELL MILLER, FMR. GOVERNOR, GEORGIA: This is the man who wants to be the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Armed Forces? U.S. Forces Armed with what? Spitballs?
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Switch parties if you`re getting elected --
MILLER: If you`re going to ask a question --
MATTHEWS: Well it`s a tough question. It takes a few words.
MILLER: Get out of my face. If you`re going to ask me a question, step back and let me answer it. You know, I wish we lived in the day where you could challenge a person to a dual. Now that would be pretty good.
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KORNACKI: That is our broadcast for tonight. Thank you for being with us and good night 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