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AG Barr defends Trump's executive authority. TRANSCRIPT: The 11th Hour w/ Brian williams.

Guests: Jacqueline Alemany, Michael Crowley, Lahnee Chen, Lanhee Chen,Chuck Rosenberg, Niall Stanage, A.B. Stoddard

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Would be impactful to the process.

AYMAN MOHYELDIN, MSNBC HOST:  All right (INAUDIBLE) we can only hope that Mitch McConnell has ready or up at least over the holiday break.  Thank you very much for joining us.

That`s tonight`s last word, I`m Ayman Mohyeldin.  "The 11TH HOUR" starts now.

STEVE KORNACKI, MSNBC HOST:  Tonight, the impeachment tensions increase.  The President keeps up his attacks on the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, as critical decisions about the Senate trial hang in the balance.  What and who could make a difference.

Plus, a rebuke of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the President`s notable endorsement of a Republican who refused to back him, in 2016.  And could the President pardon Roger Stone and Michael Flynn in an election year?  All of that as "The 11TH HOUR" gets under way on this Thursday night.

Good evening once again from our NBC News quarters in New York.  I`m Steve Kornacki in for Brian Williams.  Day 1071 of the Trump administration.

And as the President spends the holiday week at his Mar-a-Lago Resort in Palm Beach, he is continuing his attacks on Democrats.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in particular and also the vote making him the third U.S. president to be impeached.  Trump also continues to act as his own defense on Twitter.  This morning, he called Democrats liars for the delay in sending articles of impeachment to the Senate.  He also retweeted a post from last night that read, "Why should crazy Nancy Pelosi, just because she has a slight majority in the House, be allowed to impeach the President of the United States?  Got zero Republican votes.  There was no crime.  The call with Ukraine was perfect, with no pressure.  She said it must be bipartisan."

Congress won`t be back in session for another 10 days, set to reconvene January 6th.  And the actual start date for an impeachment trial in the Senate remains unclear.  This week, Trump has sent mixed signals when asked if he is worried that Pelosi might hold up the articles of impeachment indefinitely.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES:  Well, all I know is my poll numbers are the highest they`ve ever been.  Our fund-raising of the Republican Party is the highest it`s ever been.  She hates the Republican Party.  She hates all of the people that voted for me and the Republican Party.

So now they get to the Senate.  And now we have the majority.  And it`s up to Mitch McConnell.  Now they want McConnell to do wonderful things for them.  I mean he`s going to do what he wants to do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  But the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, may be facing some potential dissension in his ranks over Trump`s impeachment trail.  During an interview that aired in her home state of Alaska on Tuesday night, Senator Lisa Murkowski publicly expressed her concerns about McConnell, saying that he is working, "in total coordination with the White House."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI (R-AK):  In fairness, when I heard that, I was disturbed.  If we are tasked as the full Senate to do impartial justice under the constitution and the law, to me it means that we have to take that step back from being hand in glove with the defense.  And so I -- I heard what leader McConnell had said.  I happen to think that that has further confused the process.

If it means that I am viewed as one who looks openly and critically at every issue in front of me rather than acting as a rubber stamp for my party or my President, I`m totally good with that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  Today, one of Murkowski`s Republican Senate colleagues was asked about her concerns.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R-LA):  The senator is entitled to her opinion and Senator McConnell is entitled to his.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Do you have any uneasiness when it comes to leader McConnell coordinating with the white House?

KENNEDY:  So far as best I can tell from the rules of impeachment, there are very few rules.

And I dare say just about every senator will approach this differently.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  Murkowski is one of several Republican senators who will be closely watched during any Senate impeachment trial.  The others include Maine`s Susan Collins and Utah`s Mitt Romney, who both criticized the President in the past.  Collins faces a tough re-election next year as does Colorado`s Cory Gardner, that was worth remembering, that each also has to contend with the threat of a potential primary challenge before they even make it to the general election.

Trump made a point of publicly supporting Collins this week, he quoted a tweet from Senator Lindsey Graham, who wrote that Collins, "showed unbelievable courage during Justice Kavanaugh`s confirmation."  The President added to that, I agree 100 percent.

Another Republican senator, Mike Lee of Utah, is said to be working behind the scenes to coordinate with the White House ahead of the impeachment trial.  "Politico" says, that Lee has emerged as one of the de facto leaders of the case to acquit Trump and says the senator`s task is to, "track the wide-ranging viewpoints within the Senate Republican majority, including his Utah colleague and impeachment wild card Mitt Romney."  Lee is perhaps one of the few in the GOP conference that can win praise from both Trump skeptics, Republicans like Romney and senior officials in the White House.

As Trump rails against the impeachment process, he claim this is all impacting his ability to carry out U.S. foreign policy.  Writing, "it makes it much more difficult to deal with foreign leaders and others when I am having to constantly defend myself against the do-nothing Democrats and their bogus impeachment scam.  Bad for USA."

But yesterday, "The Washington Post" offered a far more new ones view of Trump`s current situation, reporting that, "the fallout of the impeachment battle extends far beyond Trump`s political survival in a Senate trial.  Tensions exposed by impeachment had fed Trump`s belief that he is surrounded by disloyal subordinates and have fueled animosity among congressional Republicans toward the supposed "deep state.  Today the idea that a cadre of nonpartisan civil servants can loyally serve presidents of either party in pursuit of shared national interest, a bedrock principle of the country`s approach to foreign policy since World War II is under attack."

That level of mistrust seems to have been key to Trump`s dealings with Ukraine and the charges at the heart of his impeachment.  "The Washington Post" repiece (ph) -- recently reported that Trump`s refusal to accept U.S. intelligence findings of Russian interference in the 2016 election was rooted in his belief in the debunked theory that Ukraine was behind the 2016 hack of the DNC.  One former senior official told "The Post," "Trump even stated so explicitly at one point, saying he knew Ukraine was the real culprit because, "Putin told me."  The President was pressed on that issue a few days ago.  In his response had the hallmarks of a who`s on first routine.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Sir, what did President Putin say to you that convinced you that the Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election?

TRUMP:  What did he say to me?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Yes.

TRUMP:  About what?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  That what the President Putin say to you that --

TRUMP:  You`re putting words in somebody`s mouth.  Who you referring to?  Me?  I never said anything about it.  I never said to think about.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  Here for the our league of discussion on a Thursday night, Jacque Alemany, political reporter for "The Washington Post" and the author of the paper`s morning newsletter of Power Up.  Michael Crowley, White House correspondent covering for and policy for "The New York Times" and Lanhee Chen, research fellow at the Hoover Institution and former campaign adviser to both Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney.  Welcome to all of you.  Thank you for joining us.

Jacque, let me start with you.  We`ve talked about the strategy behind House Democrats and their decision, at least for now, to withhold transmitting these articles of impeachment to the Senate and the standoff that has ensued there.  One of the reasons we`ve been told behind that is the idea essentially that Donald Trump will be driven crazy by that and that that would give Democrats some leverage in dictating terms or negotiating terms of a Senate trial.

Looking at Donald Trump`s reaction on Twitter in the last 24 hours to these developments, to where things stand, do Democrats feel they`re getting what they wanted at all or is this just sort of par for the course as Presidential tweets go?

JACQUELINE ALEMANY, AUTHOR, POWER UP:  Well I think that what Nancy Pelosi is doing is giving the Democrats some extra time to establish some favorable parameters to a Senate trial.  Obviously, Senate Majority Leader McConnell has dug in and has said no witnesses and no documents.  And with public opinion being at a complete standstill, I think Democrats realize that they`re going to need something in order to push the needle here.

So, this -- by withholding transmitting the article ss, it gives Chuck Schumer some extra time to apply that public leverage on to Mitch McConnell and to drive a wedge potentially between McConnell, Trump and some vulnerable Senate Republicans.  That`s why we saw someone like Lisa Murkowski come out and that actually she`s uncomfortable with that, because as we know, while Republican voters are overwhelmingly against impeaching the President, they`re not as comfortable with, you know, a trial, a Senate impeachment trial that maybe doesn`t appear to be fair and impartial.

Two and three Republicans believe the President should allow witnesses he`s previously blocked from testifying in a Senate impeachment trial and I think that`s the political calculation that Democrats have made here.  That if they apply as much public pressure on McConnell as possible and really highlight the fact that they are withholding information from coming forward that it`s going to hurt him and some of his more vulnerable senators.

KORNACKI:  Well, let`s look a little more closely then specifically at Lisa Murkowski, at the distance that she staked out publicly between herself and Mitch Mcconnell and what he has outlined in terms of his thinking on an impeachment trial.

Michael Crowley, she certainly made headlines with her comments, she expressed specific displeasure, a specific disapproval of McConnell`s statements that he was working closely with the White House on this.  That is still a long way from endorsing a Democratic witness list.  How exactly do you view what Murkowski is doing here?

MICHAEL CROWLEY, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "NEW YORK TIMES":  Well, I think you`re right.  She hasn`t gone as far as, you know, some people may assume -- she hasn`t gone as far in the direction as some people may assume that she is headed.  There`s a long way to go from what she said to actually rebelling against McConnell, casting a vote.  And we also don`t know, you know, is she actually a canary in a coal mine here, is she a harbinger of a changing mood among Senate Republicans or is it possible that she is uncomfortable with what McConnell said, the Democratic pressure is having an effect and she is, you know, as Senate moderates are notorious for doing through the years, kind of, you know, doing some performative politics here to demonstrate independent thinking, I`m not just a party line voter.  I`m assessing this for myself.  I`m fair minded.

But at the end of the day, does that really turn her into a rebel and does that really mean that any other Republicans are going to bolt?  You know, if this is the beginning of a trend like that and we do see defections, even if it`s not enough for McConnell to have to change his positions and swallow witnesses and documents that he is a (INAUDIBLE), it`s going to drive the President crazy, because, you know, something that Trump was really proud about after that House impeachment vote.

I was at the rally in Battle Creek, Michigan.  And I guess it was last week.  Where he interrupted his Republican remarks to announce Republicans held strong and there was a unanimous vote against at least the one article that was announced in the middle of his remarks and he was very pleased with that.  Now, if he starts seeing Senate defections, he`s going to be really upset.  But I don`t think we can`t assume yet that`s what Murkowski is doing.

Again the Senate moderates are sort of notorious for making a lot of noise and at the end of the day disappointing people.

KORNACKI:  Yes, I mean Lonnie, if we look at this in terms of what Democrats are trying to achieve here, they`re trying to set to them a set of rules.  They believe, they say these are the fair rules for an impeachment trial.  McConnell obviously fighting them on there right now.

But Democrats to get their way, they would need -- assuming all Democrats sort of stay together on this, they would need four Republicans to break with McConnell if it came to a floor vote, four Republicans to vote with them.  So obviously, I think they would look at Murkowski today and say hey, potentially maybe that could be one of the four.

You know, the Republican Party well.  The other Republican senators there, whether it`s Romney, whether it`s Collins, Gardner, Tillis, could you see a scenario where four Republican votes emerge on the rules of a trial?

LANHEE CHEN, FORMER POLICY DIRECTOR, ROMNEY-RYAN CAMPAIGN:  I suppose you could see that.  I mean I think the big challenge is what intervening factors between now and when a vote on the rules of the trial happen that would impact the thinking of the four members of the Senate.  You mentioned potentially others like Rob Portman, who might be in that next traunch of Republican senators who would want to have a fair trial.  You know, what`s going to change their minds between now and the actual vote?  It`s not clear to me that either Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer have something up their sleeves that`s going to change anyone`s minds.

And so we come back to is the reality that you`ve got Pelosi holding the articles of impeachment from the Senate with no real sort of end game in terms of what may happen because McConnell has been very clear.  Now, obviously, you know, we can all talk about what Murkowski`s statement means to the rest of the Republican conference.  But the reality is that Murkowski speaks for Murkowski.

Now if you start to hear other senators begin to say they`re uncomfortable and you can understand electorally, for example, why someone like Cory Gardner of Colorado in a very tough reelection race may want to see something similar.  What Lisa Murkowski does is he gives -- she gives a someone like Gardner a lifeline to make that kind of comment and potentially be OK, not be the first one out to make that sort of comment going forward.

KORNACKI:  Jacque, it seems the President`s posture on this has changed a little bit in the last several days, initially when Nancy Pelosi made that decision to hold back these articles of impeachment from the Senate, you had Trump out there saying hey, I want my trial.  Bring those articles over right away.  Now you have in that clip we just played, being differential to Mitch McConnell who`s out there saying, hey I`d be thrilled if the Democrats didn`t transmit these articles to me.

It seems at least for the moment the President is placing his strategic trust in Mitch McConnell.  Is there a scenario there where McConnell, what we`re talking about scenarios for votes here?  Forget a vote.  Is there a scenario where McConnell just feels he has to negotiate a different set of rules with Democrats?  Could that plausibly happen here?

ALEMANY:  Well, it remains to be seen just how far Senate Majority Leader can push the envelope on this.  But you are right in pointing out that Trump has really shifted.  You know, there was this sort of tension before.  Where Trump was really eager to have his name be cleared and be fully exonerated and wanted Pelosi to transmit the articles and wanted the Senate to be eager to take up a trial and call witnesses and tell his side of the story as the White House put it.

But again, you know, I think Michael is completely right.  This is really a cut and paste scenario that we`ve seen time and time again throughout the Trump administration.  Democrats try to drive a wedge, you know, then you see the Senate Majority Leader hold the bloc aid for the President for as long as possible.  And then you see sort of this moderate Republicans come out, sort of make dramatic statements and gestures, but ultimate -- and ultimately create some distance from the rest of, you know, the Senate majority, but ultimately the President gets his way and the majority of senator -- of Republican senators is sort of coalesce to what Trump wants.

KORNACKI:  Lanhee, as this impeachment drama was coming to a head in the House, there was a development, a significant one potentially, on another front, a familiar topic, health care, a court ruling delaying a final decision on Obamacare until after the 2020 election.  We`re having all these conversations certainly about how impeachment plays into political strategy for both parties in 2020.  But the specter of health care potentially being an issue in 2020 as well.  I think back to the 2018 midterms and there were many Democrats they`re saying this was a strong political weapon for them to wield against Republicans in 2018.  Is this something Republicans should be mindful about now heading into this 2020 campaign?

CHEN:  Yes, absolutely.  Look, much more than impeachment.  I think by the time we get into the fall campaign, September, October, November, health care is going to be a much more critical issue and is going to present a serious conflict between the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, and whoever the Democratic nominee is.

So, I think this is going to be a significant issue.  And what the court decision basically allows for is for Obamacare and health care to continue to be a live issue.  The court decision that was issued by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals last week didn`t actually resolve anything.  And so Obamacare remains, "under threat".  And to the extent that it is under threat, it becomes a campaign issue that Democrats will want to seize on.  They`ll look back to 2018 and say we were successful in that campaign, running on health care issues.  Potential wanting to put Republicans on the defense.

So I would fully expect health care politics to play a huge role in this general election campaign.

KORNACKI:  All right, Lanhee Chen, Jacqueline Alemany, Michael Crowley, thank you all for being with us.

And coming up, the feds are reportedly looking into what the former governor of Kentucky did during his final few weeks in office.

Ad later what the President will do next week to keep an essential part of his 2016 coalition from walking away.  "The 11TH HOUR" just getting started on a Thursday night.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI:  After weeks of outrage, there is a report the FBI is now looking into controversial pardons issued by Kentucky`s now former Republican Governor Matt Bevin.  Just before leaving office on December 10th, Bevin handed out more than 600 pardons and sentence reductions.  Those included pardons of men convicted of child rape and murder, whose families had supported Bevin`s campaign.  Last week Democratic members of the Kentucky State legislature called for a special prosecutor to look into the pardons.

One of those Democrats, Kentucky State Representative Chris Harris, told the Louisville Courier Journal that he has since heard from a criminal investigator, asking what Harris knew about Bevin`s last-minute pardons.  Two sources with knowledge of the inquiry told the Courier Journal it was an FBI agent who spoke with Harris.

NBC News has reached out to Bevin.  But he has not responded and the FBI is not commenting.  In a statement to NBC News, Harris said, "I am happy to confirm I was contacted by a person in the law enforcement community.  During the call the investigator asked questions about the pardons and it was my clear impression that an investigation was ramping up.

Let`s bring in Chuck Rosenberg, former U.S. attorney and a former senior FBI official.  Chuck, thanks for joining us.  Let me start.  It does seem - - the particulars here are new, but the idea of a controversy over a last- minute pardon by a governor or, for that matter, a U.S. president not new.

And where these things usually seem to land, in my experience, is the politician who is leaving office does something that`s considered extremely distasteful with a pardon, and there`s a frenzy to find out, is there anything the public can do about this?  And the answer usually seems to come back no because the pardon power is very broad and very clear.  Is that likely to be the case here, or could this be different?

CHUCK ROSENBERG, FMR SENIOR FBI OFFICIAL:  No, the pardon power is very broad and very clear.  You`re exactly right, Steve, under Article II of the U.S. constitution for a President and by the way under Section 77 of the Kentucky State Constitution for the governor of Kentucky.  And so the thing we look for is not whether somebody acted, you know, rashly or recklessly or foolishly or imprudently but whether they acted corruptly.  If the pardon was corrupt, the pardon still stands but there could be repercussions for the governor.

KORNACKI:  How is something like that proven just again, given how broad and clear this power is?  How would corrupt intent be provable from a criminal standpoint?

ROSENBERG:  Sure.  Well intent is always the hardest thing to prove, because you have to get into someone`s brain in order to figure out what it was they were planning to do or intending to do, trying to do.  But investigators do this all the time.  I mean, the FBI is very, very good at public corruption cases.  And they built it through documents and through cooperating witnesses and circumstances.

And so if there is an investigation, I can assure you that investigators are looking at the records of the people who were pardoned and whether they or their families have any financial connections to the governor, whether money was raised by these families in order to try and, you know, buy a pardon.  If they turn up evidence of that, Steve, it could be a problem for the governor.

KORNACKI:  Yes, I mean, does that -- the kind of evidence you`re talking about, does it have to end up being almost -- yet, the term smoking gun, somebody saying on take, I`ve got the money.  Now I`m going to give the pardon?  That sort of thing.  My mind goes back to Bill Clinton with Mark Rich, the final days of Bill Clinton`s presidency, international fugitive whose wife he was very -- ex-wife, whose very close to, had given a ton of money to the Clinton Library, I think to Hillary Clinton`s Senate campaign, got this extremely controversial pardon.  The FBI looked into it and basically said can`t prove anything here.

ROSENBERG:  Correct.  Well look, smoking guns are, you know, few and far between in real life.  I mean we talk about it a lot.  You occasionally see it in the movies, but in real life you prove cases through primarily circumstantial evidence.

In other words, we infer things from circumstances.  And the law is very clear, circumstantial evidence is every bit as compelling, every bit as lawful and every bit as missable as direct evidence.  And that`s well how you have to prove these cases and that`s hard.

KORNACKI:  All right speaking of pardons, there is the question of hovering over Roger Stone.  Roger Stone just going through the criminal justice system.  Obviously somebody with a long and close relationship with the President.  The President was asked the other day about the prospect of a pardon for Stone.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Roger Stone, are you going to pardon him, sir?  He has been convicted of felonies.

TRUMP:  We`re going to (INAUDIBLE).  Well, I haven`t thought about it.  Roger Stone was not involved in my campaign in any way other than the very beginning, before -- I think -- long before I announced a little bit.  I`ve known Roger over the years.  He is a nice guy.  A lot of people like him.  And he got very -- he got hit very hard, as did General Flynn and as did a lot of other people.  They got hit very, very hard.  And now they`re finding got result a big hoax.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  Chuck, you hear the President also mention the name Michael Flynn there.  Michael Flynn, Roger Stone.  The possibility there of an election year it would be -- unless it came in the next two days or so, it would be an election year pardon if Trump were to do that in the immediate future.  What do you think of the prospects of that?

ROSENBERG:  Yes, I hope that I`m right in saying that the prospects are slim.  I fear that I`m wrong Steve.  By the way let me take on one thing.  There`s no hoax, Michael Flynn under oath pled guilty in a federal court and Roger Stone was convicted unanimously by a jury of his peers.  That`s not a hoax.  That`s justice.  The President, however, has an unbridled authority to pardon whoever he wants for federal crimes pursuant to Article II of the U.S. constitution.

Again, it can`t be for a corrupt purpose.  So if it turns out that he`s doing it for something in return, the pardon would probably still stand.  I hope he doesn`t grant it to either of these two gentlemen.  But if it`s for a corrupt purpose, it could lead to trouble for the President down the road.  Just as if the former Kentucky governor was granting pardons in return for something of value, he could be prosecuted for that.

KORANCKI:  And of course, we`ve had speculation about Trump and pardons with others as well.  Paul Manafort, lots of speculation.  Hasn`t happened yet.  Does that tell us anything about the President being maybe a little more reluctant with these, at least before an election, than we thought, than some thought?

ROSENBERG:  Yes, to your point earlier, Steve, it`s really important one.  So I want to reiterate it.  Presidents often do this late in their tenure, meaning after they`ve either lost an election or on their way out after their second term.  Because pardoning somebody when you have another election to go can be quite controversial.  And so if the President wins in November or loses in November, it would give him more of a clear path to a pardon.

You know, at least historically -- and I think this is an important point, pardons are, you know, sort of governed by a very careful process and through the Department of Justice.  We want presidents to act in good faith and on good information.  And so there`s a really exacting process in the Department of Justice to recommend to a president who ought to be pardoned and why.  Of course, the President is free to ignore that.  But I would make a strong argument that neither General Flynn nor Mr. Stone, nor Mr. Manafort have earned anything approaching a pardon and are entitled to one.

KORNACKI:  All right, Chuck Rosenberg, thank you, as always, for the time.

ROSENBERG:  Yes, sir, thank you.

KORNACKI:  All right and coming up, while one Senate Republican says the majority leader`s impeachment trial maneuvering has her disturbed it will, as we said, take four Republican defections to change the scope of the trial.

An in-depth look at who could cross party lines when "The 11TH HOUR" continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI:  All right, we`re back.  We have been talking about the U.S. Senate the dispute over how and, frankly, whether there`s going to be an impeachment trial.  And if so, how will we perceive?  And of course the partisan math on this, the basic divide in the U.S. Senate right now, 53 Republicans, 47 Democrats right now.

If Democrats want to get their way on the rules, what do they need?  They need four defections from Republicans.  They need every Democrat to stay in line with them and then they need four Republicans to cross over.  Remember, 50/50, Mike Pence, the VP, he breaks the tie.  So Democrats need four defections.

Where do they look?  We`ve been talking about this.  Lisa Murkowski is the name everybody is talking about right now.  She`s sending some signals of clear discomfort with what McConnell is saying right now.  Would that lead to her breaking completely with McConnell and her party and the White House on rules?  That`s a question.

There`s also Mitt Romney.  Mitt Romney, of course, just elected from the state of Utah, has a different sort of stature than many of his Republican colleagues in the Senate.  A lot of people think that Romney maybe has a lot more latitude in terms of breaking with Trump on something this momentous.

So Murkowski, Romney.  You look at that, that`s two potential votes right there.  Who else is being talked about?  These four names, you see these four names a lot whether it comes to even conviction or just a question of the rules.  Collins from Maine, Gardner from Colorado, McSally from Arizona, Tillis from North Carolina, what do all four have in common?  All four are running for re-election in 2020.  All four have to face the voters.  Collins in a state that Clinton won, Gardner in a state that Clinton won, McSally in a state that Trump won but only barely and seems to have gotten bluer since then, and Tillis in a state that Trump won but only by 3.5 points.

In other words, all of them have to think long and hard about how this vote was going to resonate with general election voters.  That`s the leverage that Democrats think they have.  But when you see these four names mentioned and you see the general election mentioned with them, remember, there is something else that`s on their minds as well.  It is this.  Republican primaries.  Susan Collins isn`t getting to the general election unless she gets through the Republican primary.  Same for Cory Gardner, same for Martha McSally, same for Thom Tillis.  These are the dates of those Republican primaries.  These candidates in many cases right now, they have challengers who are going to be on the ballot, who haven`t gotten much traction.

But if they cast a major vote against Donald Trump that gets Trump mad, that gets Trump in the mood to get revenge, those challengers could get a lot of attention and a lot of money fast and these Republicans could get in a lot of trouble in those primaries really fast.  So those are competing incentives for them and very quickly keep in mind there also are some Democratic wild cards, most notably Joe Manchin from West Virginia, state Trump won by 42 points, Doug Jones running for re-election in Alabama, Trump state there and even Kirsten Sinema from Arizona.

Now on the rules, would they break with their party?  But when you get to the question of the trial and conviction and acquittal, these names come into play potentially from the Republican standpoint in terms of getting party flips.

Anyway, coming up, the President is counting on Mitch McConnell doing whatever happens next on the impeachment front.  We`re going to talk to two journalists who are keeping a close watch on Capitol Hill when "The 11TH HOUR" continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI:  President Trump may be brushing off impeachment in public.  But as one of our next guests reports he is feeling the gravity of it all privately.  According to White House columnist for "The Hill", Niall Stanage, "President Trump is blasting back at impeachment, but he will feel its scars deeply, according to people who know him.  He has sought validation and respect for much of his adult life and has often been frustrated when it has not been forthcoming.  That was true when he was a young real estate developer from Queens, who felt he was looked down upon by old money rivals in Manhattan and it`s true now as he confronts the reality of impeachment, which will put a taint forever by his name in the history books."

With us tonight, Niall Stanage from "The Hill", the gentleman who`s article we were just reading from, and A.B. Stoddard, columnist and associate editor at Real Clear Politics, who contributes to the Bulwark.

Thank you both for joining us.  Well, Niall, we read from your article, so let met begin with you.  We`ve been talking about what Mitch McConnell is trying to hold the ground on here, what Democrats are trying to make him budge on.  In terms of the President, you write about how is he looking at this privately.  How much latitude is he willing to give Mitch McConnell here?

NIALL STANAGE, THE HILL WHITE HOUSE COLUMNIST:  Well, I don`t think he`s willing to give him a lot of latitude, but I don`t necessarily think Mitch McConnell wants a lot of latitude.  I mean Mitch McConnell has hitched his wagon to Donald Trump`s fortunes for good or for ill.  And we see in Senator McConnell`s comments that there`s really not even the pretense of approaching this impeachment trial with any kind of high-mindedness or any attempt to even portray himself in a neutral way.  He is saying that he will work hand in glove with the White House.  So, in that sense, the issue of latitude, frankly, doesn`t really arise.

KORNACKI:  It`s interesting, A.B., we`re taking a look here at all these potential Republicans who might break with McConnell on the rules in the Senate.  I`m having some flashbacks to the House side of things.  There were no Republicans who ended up breaking in the vote to open the impeachment inquiry and then there were no Republicans who ended up breaking with their party when it came to the actual impeachment vote.  That included -- there were three of them, I believe, at the end, there were three Republicans who represented districts that didn`t go for Trump.  They also voted against impeachment, voted against the inquiry.

Is that potentially a preview of what`s going to happen on the Senate side?  Or do you think the dynamics are different there with some of the names we`re talking about?

A.B. STODDARD, REAL CLEAR POLITICS ASSOCIATE EDITOR AND COLUMNIST:  Right.  I think that if we see them -- Republican senators act like House Republicans, we`ll look back and say to Niall`s point, we weren`t surprised, right?  Of course they were going to do this.  They were going to march in lockstep and there can be no dissent.  The same time, I think we don`t yet know how challenged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be to keep -- to protect his members and sort of keep them from Trump`s ire and give them some kind of path to express any criticism or discomfort short of, you know, obviously voting to remove the President, which we don`t expect them to do.

And so, it`s going to be on those process votes or those process decisions where I think you will see some disagreement.  We just have no sense from, you know, how many senators we`re going to see disagreement.  But I would not be surprised, actually, if Senator McConnell was quite pleased or involved in Senator Murkowski`s decision to provide cover for people who are going to have to have some room to wiggle, who are facing tough re- election next year.

KORNACKI:  In terms of other Republicans to watch, we went through the four who are up for re-election next year, Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, sort of that group of six right there.  A.B., are there other names you think we ought to look at?

STODDARD:  Well, I think Joni Ernst in Iowa, she`s -- it`s not looking all sunny in her re-election fight at all.  Iowa will be a battleground and she is not really excited about her money and approval numbers at this point in the campaign.  So McConnell is worried about more than just those four.

And I do think that you have to look at the retiring senators who are going to be quiet now.  They`re not going to say anything in December when the trial hasn`t even started and we don`t have a date for it.  And I don`t think they`ll necessarily going to vote to remove.  But Lamar Alexander, Mike Enzi and Pat Roberts, they`re marching into the pages of history.  They don`t have to deal with the world of Donald Trump any more after next November and I think they`ll be taking a longer, more institutional view about this process.

KORNACKI:  All right, we`re going to squeeze a quick break in here.  But our two guests are staying with us in.

Coming up, the President`s campaign is stepping up efforts to hold on to the support of Evangelical voters.  Does he have something to worry about there?  We`ll talk about that.  We`ll talk about that when "The 11TH HOUR" continues.

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DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Nobody has done more for Christians or Evangelicals or frankly, religion than I have.

Our Evangelicals are here tonight and they`re all over the place.  And what we`ve done for them and for religion is so important.

Jewish population and Evangelicals unbelievably happy.

I hear we`re more popular than ever with the Evangelicals.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  President Trump is banking on the Evangelical support that he had back in 2016.  To keep it, he may be trying to do some damage control.  Just days after a blistering editorial in "Christianity Today," called for Trump`s removal from office.  "The Palm Beach Post" reported over the holiday, "On Christmas eve, the President and first lady ditched services at the liberal church in Palm Beach where they were married and headed to a conservative Baptist affiliated church in West Palm Beach."  At the same time, the Trump campaign announced plans to rally Evangelical voters in Miami next week.

Still with us, Niall Stanage and A.B. Stoddard.

Niall, I think back to the 2016 campaign, the Republican primary faced all of the commentary about the million one reasons why Trump was expected to struggle with Evangelicals voters, and certainly the general election indefinitely after the release of that "Access Hollywood" tape weeks before the election.  The fact that all of that played out in 2016 and Trump received the level of support he did from the Evangelical voters in that election.  With that as context, do you think this editorial in "Christianity Today" or anything else on the horizon could plausibly dent that support?

STANAGE:  Not really is the short answer.  I mean you`ve quite rightly laid out all the drama in 2016, all the things that one would have thought would have almost prohibited Evangelicals for voting for Donald Trump in the numbers that they did.

But, look, I think that there is an argument to be made that Evangelical support, white Evangelical support for Donald Trump is much more about a brand of identity politics, which is a label that I think wrongly tends -- mainly to be used with nonwhite voters.  There`s a white Christian identity politics that portrays America as a Christian nation under attack from liberals and from people who are not Christian and all of that.

And it seems to be that that glue of what I consider a rather noxious form of identity politics keeps Evangelical voters loyal to Donald Trump.  About 80 percent of white Evangelicals voted for Trump in the 2016 election despite the numerous controversies that you alluded to in your question, Steve.

KORNACKI:  Let`s take a look here in minutes we have remaining as well.  At the Democratic presidential race, actually, we are inside of 40 days now until the Iowa caucuses.  This point was made today.  I`ll put it up for viewers to see where the race stood, the Democratic race at this point last year versus where it stands now.  This is the Real Clear Politics average.  A year ago at this time, Joe Biden 27.3 percent.  Today, Joe Biden 27.9 percent.  Bernie Sanders a year ago, 18 percent.  Bernie Sanders today, 19 percent.

A.B. Stoddard, there have been many debates this year, there have been ads up on the air, all sorts of media coverage.  And yet at top two identical one year ago and today.

STODDARD:  Right, but for instance Biden`s durable lead in national polls that has kept him the front-runner is not going to help him if he`s weak in the early states, and that`s what -- we continue to see that bear out in polls.

Yes, a lot can change in this last march towards the early votes.  But I think this is an incredibly fluid situation.  I think Bernie Sanders coalition is a real wild card and an ominous one for the establishment.  He doesn`t lose that support ever, where is he going to take it?  I think the fact it`s a four-person race, maybe five in Iowa just makes this incredibly volatile and fluid.

KORNACKI:  There`s two theories, Niall, I think that are interesting here.  I`m not sure where I fall on this one, but folks look at Iowa, A.B. mentioned this, very fluid race there, and there`s one theory that, hey, Joe Biden`s in real trouble out there and somebody else could very well emerge, win that, roll that into New Hampshire and then be off and running leaving Biden and the others in the dust.

There`s the other theory that, hey, Joe Biden has built-up really deep and durable support particularly with African-American voters and he could lose Iowa, he could lose New Hampshire, he could maybe even lose Nevada and he could still be the nominee.  How do you look at it?

STANAGE:  I`m skeptical of the second argument, Steve, for this reason.  Joe Biden`s central argument is electability.  For me in the scenario that you sketched out, to lose three contests and go into South Carolina claiming electability doesn`t seem like it would work to me.  Now, a lot of things depends on what happens in Iowa.  As you and I both know that can transform the whole race very fast as it has done before.

KORNACKI:  All right, Niall Stanage and A.B. Stoddard, thank you both for being with us.

And coming up with 2019 rapidly coming to a close, an update on the status of the President`s long promised border wall when "The 11TH HOUR" continues.

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GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  My opponent won`t rule out raising taxes, but I will and the Congress will push me to raise taxes and I`ll say no, and they`ll push and I`ll say no.  And they`ll push again and I`ll say to them read my lips, no.

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KORNACKI:  Last thing before we go tonight is about campaign promises.  That one from George H.W. Bush in 1998 ended up having a long tale.  Four years later the broken promise, by then a broken promise and facing re- election Bush was taking fire from inside his own party.  Pat Buchanan challenged Bush from the right in 1992 Republican primaries, telling Bush and his Vice President Dan Quayle, "George and Danny boy read our lips, no second term."  Buchanan`s campaign made sure that no Republican voter ever forgot that famous broken promise.

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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Now I don`t believe a word the President says.  I don`t believe anything that comes out to his mouth anymore.  I think it`s all double-talk and I just -- I suspect everything he says.  I don`t trust him.

BUSH:  Read my lips.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Send a message.  Vote Pat Buchanan for president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  Pat Buchanan didn`t win the nomination that year, but he did fare far better than expected in the New Hampshire primary, and that inflicted a major wound on Bush`s re-election effort.  And of course Bush did go onto lose in the general election against Bill Clinton.  Fast forward to now and we have a president entering an election year seeking a second term who also ran on a big promise to his supporters.

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TRUMP:  I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will have Mexico pay for that wall.  Mark my words.

We`re going to build a wall.  An impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful southern border wall.

Who`s going to pay for the wall?

CROWD:  Mexico.

TRUMP:  Not even a doubt, OK?

So the wall is a thousand miles, right, believe me, so easy.  You build buildings, this is like easy.

The wall just got 10 feet taller, 10 feet taller.

It`s going to be built.  It`s not even believe it or not, it`s not even a difficult thing to do.

That wall will go up so fast.  Your head will spin and you`ll say, you know, he meant it.

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KORNACKI:  And where does that promise stand near the 1,100 days into the Trump administration?  Well, today "The New York Times" explained along with the scale of the project, its cost and the actual topography along the border one of the biggest obstacles are the people who own the land.  "The Times" points out that the President promised 450 miles of new border wall by 2021.  But the head of Trump`s U.S. Customs and Border Patrol had said last week that 93 miles of wall have been built so far during the Trump administration.  At least 90 miles of that replaced existing structures according to CBP figures.

That means that only 3 miles of the border -- of new border wall exists where there wasn`t one before.  The border of course nearly 2,000 miles, so the promise is not even close to being fulfilled.  What`s interesting, though is politically what`s happening in Trump`s party.  Within Trump`s party, this is not playing out like read my lips did for George H.W. Bush.  At this point, 28 years ago, Bush`s approval rating with Republicans was dropping fast and fell to the high 50s around the time of the New Hampshire primary.  But Trump, he promised a wall that`s barely been built and he`s sitting at nearly 90 percent of his own party. 

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