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Hardball with Chris Matthews, Transcript 09/03/15

Guests: Robert Costa, Matt Schlapp, Fred Karger, Anne Gearan, April Ryan

STEVE KORNACKI, GUEST HOST: Pledge of allegiance. Let`s play HARDBALL. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have signed the pledge. (CHEERS AND APPLAUSE) TRUMP: So I will be totally pledging my allegiance to the Republican Party and the conservative principles for which it stands. And we will go out and we will fight hard, and we will win. (END VIDEO CLIP) KORNACKI: Good evening. I`m Steve Kornacki, in for Chris Matthews in New York. We begin tonight with Donald Trump`s pledge of allegiance to the Republican Party. It`s been a month-long circus since that Fox News debate where Trump thumbed his nose at the GOP and went rogue on the RNC.   (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BRET BAIER, FOX NEWS, DEBATE MODERATOR: Is there anyone on stage, and can I see hands, who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican Party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person? Raise your hand now if you won`t make that pledge tonight. (CHEERS AND APPLAUSE) BAIER: Mr. Trump, you`re not going to make the pledge tonight. TRUMP: I will not make the pledge at this time. BAIER: OK. (CHEERS AND APPLAUSE) (END VIDEO CLIP) KORNACKI: But it wasn`t until today, believe it or not, that things got really interesting. In typical Trump fashion, the last 24 hours have been chaos. Last night, word leaked that the RNC was engineering a coup to try to force Trump to pledge his loyalty to the party. That story was promptly met with derision from one of Trump`s closest allies, his former adviser Roger Stone, who tweeted, "We don`t need your stinking pledges." This morning, more leaks. Politico and others report that Trump will, indeed, sign the pledge. But again, more confusion. The campaign pours cold water on the story, telling NBC News that Trump has signed nothing.   Then the curtains part, and there`s Trump, holding a big press conference to formally announce that, yes, he has signed on the dotted line. He has pledged his loyalty to the Republican Party. But here`s the strange part. The guy who wrote "The Art of the Deal" says he got nothing in return and his decision is non-negotiable. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TRUMP: What did I get for signing the pledge? Absolutely nothing, other than the assurance that I would be treated fairly. I have no intention of changing my mind. I see no circumstances under which I would tear up that pledge. (END VIDEO CLIP) KORNACKI: Michael Steele was NRC chairman, Joan Walsh is editor-at- large with Salon, and Robert Costa is national political reporter with "The Washington Post." He was one of the first reporters to break today`s big news. So Robert, I`ll start with you. Trump says, I got nothing. But come on. He`s not doing this unless he`s getting something out of it. What is in this for Donald Trump to make this pledge today? ROBERT COSTA, "WASHINGTON POST": There`s a big back story here. Trump and the RNC have been in talks for over a week. They set up the timing. Trump wanted Priebus to come to his home turf to appear to have this be a Trump event. What does Trump get? According to Trump`s advisers, he forces everyone else to pledge to back Trump, in effect, should Trump become the nominee. That`s the biggest thing he wanted out of it, to get that pledge, because he thinks he will be the nominee.   KORNACKI: Well, let me ask you -- yes, that was the interesting thing, Michael Steele, watching this today. Trump didn`t want to talk too much about the idea of supporting any of the other candidates. He framed this as, They`ll have to support me if I`m the nominee. This is a way for him to unify the party. But the other way I read this today for Donald Trump is he`s maybe entering a new phase of this campaign, where the one thing that`s been missing so far, for all of his success in the polls -- he hasn`t gotten any endorsements yet. He hasn`t gotten any big-name Republicans to come out and say, This is my guy. I`m with Donald Trump. By signing this pledge today, does he make that possible? MICHAEL STEELE, FMR. RNC CHAIR, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Probably not likely. I don`t see certainly any establishment Republicans coming out and making that run towards Trump because of this. And I don`t think Trump really cares one way or the other if he has anyone`s endorsement and probably would not want establishment endorsements, to begin with. I think the other big thing he gets out of this is that not only does he now have the opportunity to have the other folks on the stage pledge their support to him, should he be the nominee, but he gets access to the entire network of the GOP. He has now mitigated the fact that in South Carolina and other states, who were planning to come after him -- they`re no longer going to be in that posture. So he is now a full-pledged player on the GOP stage, with very little obstacles in front of him and nothing but wind in his sails and a big rearview mirror as he`s creating a greater distance between himself and the other candidates. KORNACKI: Yes, speaking of that distance, Trump continues to soar. A new Monmouth poll out today now has Trump ticking up to 30 percent, and Jeb Bush, despite everything he`s thrown at Trump, has fallen down to 8 points. That`s a 4-point drop in just a few weeks for him. Even more striking is Trump`s favorability among Republicans. It only goes up. Right as he was announcing his candidacy back in June, it was just 20 percent. In July, it had jumped to 40 percent. By August, 52 percent. Today, it`s near 60 percent. So Joan Walsh, let me ask you about that side of it. Donald Trump has positioned himself as a force that is sort of simultaneously working within and outside of the Republican Party, the only candidate on the stage at that debate a month ago to raise his hand and say, I`m not willing to commit. Clearly, that`s part of his appeal is that perceived independence. Is he giving part of that appeal today by saying, yes, I`m a party man?   JOAN WALSH, SALON.COM, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I don`t think he`s giving it up. I think he`s taking over the party. I think what today means is this is Donald Trump`s party, you know, which I know is uncomfortable for Michael, perhaps, and for people who`ve tried to broaden the party`s reach. But now the party is really stuck with that image of, I`ve signed the pledge. You know, so I think that he -- that he did it and he won, and that`s what he got. And I really think Robert`s point is interesting about how much it matters that he now gets the endorsement of other Republicans. I mean, poor Jeb Bush. Has he really now promised that no matter what racist, crazy thing Donald Trump says, he`s going to... (CROSSTALK) COSTA: Bush did. He did earlier day. WALSH: I know. No, I`m saying that, Robert. I know he did. KORNACKI: I mean, yes, speaking of that, we have clips here (INAUDIBLE) Jeb Bush, no intention of letting up on Trump. Trump has criticized Bush for speaking in Spanish at his events. And today, Jeb Bush fired back. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So what was your first thought when you heard him criticize you for speaking Spanish? JEB BUSH (R-FL), FMR. GOV., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I laughed. I mean, this is a joke. You laugh because it`s so bizarre. But it`s hurtful for a lot of people, and Mr. Trump knows this. So here I am, a candidate for president of the United States, believing that we should campaign (SPEAKING IN SPANISH) with our arms wide open.   (END VIDEO CLIP) KORNACKI: And not to be outdone, Trump went on the offensive. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TRUMP: You know, one of the things that I`m most honored about is that so far, everybody that`s attacked me has gone down the tubes. As far as Jeb is concerned, I watched him this morning on television, and it`s a little bit sad. Don`t forget, he was supposed to win, and he just doesn`t have the energy. (END VIDEO CLIP) KORNACKI: So Robert, I`m trying to figure out what a reconciliation would ultimately look like here, whether if Bush wins and Trump has to endorse him or Trump wins and Bush has to endorse him, if we go through another year of this. I`m also thinking this is Donald Trump, who used to be for partial-birth abortion. This is Donald Trump, who was for single- payer health care. He`s reinvented himself so many times so fundamentally. Is he really going to be bound by a pledge he makes today? COSTA: No. I checked in today with Republican establishment figures and people close to Trump. And I said, Let`s say this plays out and that the race becomes volatile. Is Trump going to stick to this pledge? They say he has an out. This is not a legally binding contract, this is a political document. It was political theater. And if you`re Jeb Bush or Reince Priebus and you think Trump goes down a path you don`t like, again, this isn`t a binding contract. This is a moment of unity, but it`s a moment. KORNACKI: Yes, I mean, is that -- Michael Steele, that`s what I`m imagining is, I mean, look, if thing go south here for Donald Trump one way or the other, and he wants this third party possibility, all he has to do is say, Look, I made this deal in good faith. The Republican Party stopped being fair to me. They pulled the rug out from you under me. They screwed me.   STEELE: Yes, but Steve, as you well know, that -- you know, saying the words and following up with the action are two very, very different things. It is not the easiest thing in politics to run as a third party candidate at a point in time that Donald Trump would be doing that. And you`re talking perhaps maybe sometime early January, February, maybe even as late as March of next year. The organization on the ground is impossible. The state obstacles are horrendous. So this is -- I mean, in one sense, the chairman, Reince, and the party have put him in a little bit of a box in terms of the states where he would need to get on the ballot and put together the organization. So this -- you know, there is sort of that -- that -- that tension that still exists there. Donald Trump still has the strength, I think, to other points that he can go out and make a big noise. But the idea of, you know, abrogating this agreement, though political, does have a huge down side in terms of organization and actually getting it done. KORNACKI: Yes, and Joan, you were making an interesting point a minute ago about -- that Donald Trump -- you`re reading this as sort of the Trumpification of the Republican Party. He talked about not wanting to make this pledge before because he would give up his leverage. What kind of leverage do you think he has going forward right now? WALSH: Well, I think he does have these, you know, soaring poll numbers. And again, we can all say and we all should say that it`s still early. It`s September. We`ve seen other front-runners crash and burn. But this is a -- this is a lead that he`s held and expanded through thick and thin. You know, there have been many things that some of us, you know, in this segment have said, Well, that might -- that might do it. That might be the thing that takes him down. And nothing has. So I think he doesn`t feel like he needs leverage. And what he needs is the imprimatur -- it helps him to have the imprimatur of the whole party. And it also -- you know, I think it really helps inoculate him against what has been Jeb Bush`s attack so far, that he`s a closet Democrat. Well, no, he`s not. He said before, Ronald Reagan was a Democrat, I`m like him. And now the party is -- you know, Reince Priebus has come to New York, he`s kissed the ring, and he`s basically said, Yes, this guy (INAUDIBLE) He`s embraced him with open arms, as Jeb might say in Spanish. But I just want to say I did love it when Jeb Bush spoke so passionately, and I do think -- I don`t know if that`s the secret. I can`t say that Republican voters are going to really be excited to hear him speak Spanish. If I was excited, they probably are not excited. But I think he`s got to -- he`s got to be that passionate, and I think he`s got to speak that way. How can it be -- how can there be a down side to a president speaking another language so fluently and being able to court citizens? We were talking about people who are here legally and want to vote Republican. How can that be bad?   KORNACKI: Yes, well, so Robert, you`re really plugged in there. What do the Bush people tell you about this strategy? Do they think they`re getting traction, turning up the heat on Trump here? Do they think they`re getting -- he always said at the beginning, he wants to be willing to lose the primary to win the general election. I think what Joan`s talking about is consistent with that. But what do they think -- what effect do they think it`s having in the here and now? COSTA: Well, there`s another chess game going on because Bush is trying to revive his campaign, and part of that is framing, as Joan said, Trump as a Democrat. You have Danny Diaz, Bush`s campaign manager, Bush himself going after Trump as a liberal. Trump`s people see this. Trump has mentioned these attacks. And now they`re trying to counter them with this pledge. So Bush may have to recalibrate his whole critique on Trump because Trump now is ensconced within the GOP. KORNACKI: All right, Michael Steele, Joan Walsh, Robert Costa, appreciate you all joining us. WALSH: Thanks, Steve. COSTA: Thank you. KORNACKI: Coming up -- the Kentucky clerk who refuses to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples has been held in contempt of court. She is now in custody, and her case has become a hot issue on the campaign trail and it is dividing the Republican field. Plus, New England Patriots superstar quarterback Tom Brady beats the NFL. A federal judge nullifies the four-game suspension that commissioner Roger Goodell wanted to impose as part of "deflate-gate." And it`s not the headline the Clinton campaign wanted. A former IT staffer will plead the 5th and refuse to testify before the House committee on Benghazi. What, if anything, can Hillary Clinton do to put this controversy behind her? And finally, back to our top story, Trump, loyalty and the GOP. Do we have any reason to believe that Donald Trump will make good on his pledge not to bolt and run third party?   This is HARDBALL, the place for politics. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) KORNACKI: Be sure to tune into "ANDREA MITCHELL REPORTS" tomorrow at noon Eastern here on MSNBC. Andrea is going to be sitting down for an exclusive interview with Hillary Clinton. The two are going to discuss the presidential campaign, Clinton`s use of a private e-mail server and the Republican field for 2016. That is tomorrow at noon Eastern time here on MSNBC. Be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) KORNACKI: There was a dramatic turn in the case of that county clerk Kentucky today who refused to issue marriage licenses since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. She said doing so would conflict with her religious beliefs. Well, a federal judge today found Kim Davis in contempt and ordered her jailed until she agrees to issue the licenses, Judge David Bunning telling Davis, quote, "The idea that natural law supersedes this court would be a dangerous precedent." There`s been political reaction to the case. Senator Rand Paul said jailing Davis will backfire against supporters of same-sex marriage. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. RAND PAUL (R-KY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think it`s absurd to put someone in jail for exercising their religious liberty. You know, if you want to convince people that same-sex marriage is something that`s acceptable, I would say try to persuade people. But you know, if we`re going to use the federal government and we`re going to get involved in every state, locality, you know what`s going to happen? It`s going to harden people`s resolve on this issue. There`ll be no open-mindedness on this. (END VIDEO CLIP)   KORNACKI: Ted Cruz issued a statement saying, "Today, judicial lawlessness crossed into judicial tyranny. Today, for the first time ever, the government arrested a Christian woman for living according to her faith." And Mike Huckabee tweeted, "Kim Davis in federal custody removes all doubts about the criminalization of Christianity in this country. We must defend religious liberty." Huckabee also said he`s heading to Kentucky next week. I`m joined now by Matt Schlapp, a former White House political director for George W. Bush and the chairman of the American Conservative Union, and Fred Karger, the president of Rights Equals Rights. He ran for president as a Republican in 2012. Well, Matt, let me start with you. And I`m curious how you read this one. We have those statements up there from Huckabee, from Ted Cruz basically saying this is the persecution of Christians trying to exercise their faith. And it raises the question to me, what about a gay Christian who`s trying to exercise his or her right to get married? MATT SCHLAPP, AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE UNION PRES.: Well, guess what? The Constitution allows for us to exercise our faith as we choose to exercise it. And this is the problem when the Supreme Court in the stroke of a pen up-ends 50 state laws on marriage. We have had a tradition where states would adjudicate how a marriage would happen in its state, and the Supreme Court upended it all. And in one fell step... KORNACKI: Well, sir, so what... (CROSSTALK) KORNACKI: But that`s how it works, isn`t it? I mean, the Supreme Court... SCHLAPP: No, it`s not. No. KORNACKI: The Supreme Court strikes down...   (CROSSTALK) KORNACKI: But for instance, the Supreme Court 50 years ago, 60 years ago strikes down separate but equal with Brown versus Board of Education, and suddenly, laws are upended around the country. That is what happens. SCHLAPP: You`re right. It does, and I think it happens too much. I think when it comes to civil rights, clearly, we`re still debating these important issues around civil rights today. But we did pass -- we had a war, a civil war, and we passed three constitutional amendments around these issues on civil rights. The problem is with issues like abortion, and now we have the questions around marriage, is that when the Supreme Court upends all the state laws without going through that amendment process, so without going through democratic process, we will spend another generation, Steve, fighting about this. And I guarantee you -- I don`t think this county clerk is interpreting the law correctly at all. I think she needs to issue these licenses. But I agree with Rand Paul. If people start going to jail for exercising their religious beliefs, how is that going to get this country to any type of consensus? KORNACKI: Well, let me -- Fred, let me bring you in on that point because it is interesting. I think we`re entering this interesting cultural debate that`s probably going to define the next few years, where gay marriage is now the law of the land in 50 states, and the people who remain morally or opposed to it on religious grounds are trying to carve out some kind of role in this society. Is putting somebody like this in jail only going to inflame the situation, and the opposition that`s still out there? FRED KARGER, PRES. RIGHTS EQUAL RIGHTS: The clerk had ample opportunity to enforce the law. She was warned if she didn`t, that there would be consequences. And a very conservative federal judge, Judge Bunning, put her in jail. And you have to obey the law when you`re an elected official. She had so much nepotism going on in that office, it`s a crazy place. And she is very hypocritical. But, yes, she needs to obey the law. She needs to grant marriage licenses to everyone, or pay the consequences. KORNACKI: Well, the case of Kim Davis has divided the Republican presidential field. Several candidates have come out strongly supporting her. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. RAND PAUL (R-KY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think there ought to be some room for people to exercise their religious beliefs and not be told they have to do something they find morally objectionable.   GOV. BOBBY JINDAL (R-LA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don`t think anybody should have to choose between following their conscience, their religious beliefs, and giving up their job or facing financial sanctions. QUESTION: Do you actually want to see other court clerks doing this? MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I want people to stand up for their convictions. I want them to have the courage of their convictions, not to acquiesce... QUESTION: Do you want them to follow the law? HUCKABEE: ... a court ruling that even -- well, again, I would say to you, it is the interpretation of five unelected lawyers on the court. (END VIDEO CLIP) KORNACKI: On the other side, several candidates have pointed out that Davis doesn`t work for a private company. She is employed by the federal government. She swore an oath to follow the law. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I sympathize with her religious beliefs. But she is a public official. And those of us in public life have to administer the law to every American as the law is written. CARLY FIORINA (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Given the role that she is playing, given the fact that the government is paying her salary, I think that is not appropriate. I think it is a very different situation for her than someone in a hospital who is asked to perform an abortion or someone who is a florist who is asked to serve a gay wedding. I think, when you`re a government employee, you are put in a different position. (END VIDEO CLIP)   KORNACKI: So, Matt, you say, ultimately, she should be issuing the licenses. Carly Fiorina is saying that. Lindsey Graham is saying that. But why is no one else out there in the Republican field saying this right now? Why are so many -- Mike Huckabee, for instance, Ted Cruz, why are they saying that this woman should not be giving out these licenses? SCHLAPP: Look, I don`t -- I`m trying to look at the words of these presidential candidates as well, and it is hard to parse them. And I think, over the next several days, we will understand it better. I think most of them are saying that the Supreme Court did us in this terrible place where you can go to jail for exercising your religion in something as basic as marriage, which has been well understood in this country`s history. So I think what they`re saying is, they sympathize with her. At the end of the day, if all these county clerks or elected officials take it on themselves to interpret the Constitution and to interpret Supreme Court decisions in their own manner, we will have legislative -- we will have legal chaos. That`s not a good thing for a democracy. We actually have to have the rule of law. And the Supreme Court has spoken. I don`t like how they have spoken, but they have spoken. And these clerks need to follow the law. I think many of the Republican candidates will actually explain that in the end. But I think they sympathize with this terrible position she`s in. KORNACKI: Well, that`s interesting, because there is one candidate who is definitely not articulating the Supreme Court ruling that way. That is Mike Huckabee. SCHLAPP: Right. KORNACKI: This morning, he said that Davis was in her right not to issue the licenses because she was following Kentucky law. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) HUCKABEE: But when you say it is the law of the land, can you quote the statute that has been passed by the people`s elected representatives?   No. The only law she`s following is the Kentucky law, which, by constitutional amendment, defines marriage as a man and a woman. The specific form that she is required to fill out for a marriage license specifically requires male and female. Now, if the Kentucky legislature decides that they agree with the Supreme Court, and they change the laws of Kentucky, that`s a whole different thing. But we`re bordering on judicial tyranny here. (END VIDEO CLIP) KORNACKI: Fred, I watched that this morning, and that was astounding to me. First of all, let`s clear this up. The form in Kentucky has been changed. It no longer requires male and female. There is party A and there is party B, so that part is inaccurate. KARGER: That`s right. KORNACKI: But what Huckabee is saying there, is flat-out saying, is that if a Supreme Court issues a ruling, it is only binding if individual states then put that ruling into legislative language. That is a shocking interpretation of the Constitution. KARGER: And this is a man running for president of the United States who a year ago said that, if this happens, if the Supreme Court allowed gay marriage, it is not the voice of God, and he encouraged civil disobedience. So, I today am calling for Mike Huckabee to step as a candidate for president of the United States. He is unqualified to serve. He should drop out, refund the money and go back the money to preaching or whatever he is doing. KORNACKI: I have a feeling he is going to actually end up raising a lot of money off this one, especially now that she`s been brought off to jail. But, anyway, thank you to Matt Schlapp and Fred Karger. Appreciate you both being here.   And up next, victory for Tom Brady and the Patriots, as a judge overturns the star quarterback`s four-game suspension. This is HARDBALL, the place for politics. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The only thing Tom Brady is guilty of is being the greatest quarterback ever. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We`re so excited that the judge came down and freed him today. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Whatever we do, they can -- it`s never going to change. They`re always going to call us cheaters and they`re always going to hate on us. (END VIDEO CLIP) (LAUGHTER) KORNACKI: Welcome back to HARDBALL. New England Patriots fans are thrilled today after a federal judge threw out Tom Brady`s four-game suspension over Deflategate. Judge Richard Berman said the NFL lost the case because during the investigation, Brady wasn`t told that he could be suspended and that Brady`s lawyers had no access to NFL officials.   NFL commissioner Roger Goodell hit back in a statement that reads, in part: "We will appeal today`s ruling in order to uphold the collectively bargained responsibility to protect the integrity of the game." Patriots nation sees today as redemption for Brady and for the team. New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski tweeted, "Let`s go. This season to be one heck of another ride. Pats Nation." And even Donald Trump got fired up for Brady this afternoon. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He is really a very good friend of mine and I just spoke to him a little while ago. He is so thrilled and so happy. Tom Brady, I think what they have done is terrible. And he has been exonerated. (END VIDEO CLIP) KORNACKI: Joining me now is Mike Florio, the host of "Pro Football Talk" on NBC Sports. Well, Mike, the bottom line here right now, we have one week from tonight the NFL season starts. As of right now, Tom Brady would be the start he for the Patriots in that game against the Steelers. The NFL says it is appealing this thing. Is this going to be resolved once and for all before that opener a week from tonight? MIKE FLORIO, NBC SPORTS: Well, there is no way this is going to be resolved in the next week. The NFL has taken no steps to try to get the suspension imposed pending the appeal. I don`t think this is going to be resolved until after the season, maybe not even until at some point during 2016 season. The appeals courts tend on move at their own speed. And I don`t believe this case is going to move any more quickly than any other. So, I don`t look for Tom Brady to miss a single game during the regular season or the postseason. KORNACKI: I mean, yes, if this thing continues, is there going to be some kind of allowance if you get into the middle of the season or late in the season where both parties would agree, let`s just put this off to the off-season, so we`re not talking about playoff game suspensions or something like that?   FLORIO: Well, I think what will happen is, there will be a schedule produced by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit as to when briefs are due, when other information is due to be filed. And then at some point, after all the briefs are filed and the NFL goes first, the NFL P.A. goes second, and the NFL gets the last word since they`re appealing. At some point after that, you get a date for an oral argument. This is something that is going to take a period of months, not weeks. And it`s not going to be a matter of the two sides having to agree, hey, let`s just wait until the season ends. This is going to be at what point after the season ends does this all get resolved? KORNACKI: Well, the Patriots had some fun on social media today. They changed their Twitter profile to a picture of Brady holding the Lombardi Trophy and showed a blinged Brady with his four Super Bowl rings in a sweepstakes ad. So, obviously, Mike, a very happy day in New England, but what about from the standpoint of the league on this? Roger Goodell, as the commissioner, has taken so much heat over the last couple years. First, it was over his handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence situation. And then it comes to Adrian Peterson, a running back for the Minnesota Vikings. There`s a suspension that was also overturned by a court. Now you have a second suspension overturned by a court. His clout, his standing as commissioner, what does this say about that? FLORIO: Well, it depends on who you ask. People not connected to the NFL, fans, members the media may look at this and say, how can the commissioner continue to lead to NFL, given all of these hits to his credibility? But it doesn`t matter what anyone other than the 32 owners of the teams believe. And if they`re happy with Roger Goodell, if they believe he did the right thing, if they support him in this fight, then it doesn`t matter. And regardless of anything that has happened off the field, the NFL continues to be wildly popular, making billions of dollars every year. And the NFL will continue to make billions of dollars. And if anything, these embarrassments tend to drive more interest. I think the ratings next Thursday night on NBC will be even higher than they would have been, given everything that has happened off the field the last seven months. KORNACKI: Yes. The cynics would say, oh, what the NFL got over the last seven months was, they he kept themselves in the news. Mike Florio, "Pro Football Talk," thank you for joining us tonight. Appreciate it.   FLORIO: All right, thank you. KORNACKI: Up next, a former aide to Hillary Clinton plans to invoke the Fifth Amendment on her e-mails, as another testifies behind closed doors. What that means for Clinton`s presidential campaign ahead. You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MILISSA REHBERGER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Milissa Rehberger. Here`s what`s happening. The manhunt continues in Fox Lake, Illinois, where a police officer was fatally shot this week. Authorities are analyzing significant surveillance video from a home security system, hoping it will provide clues about that shooting. And refugees desperate to reach Austria and Germany stormed a train in Hungary after days in limbo outside a transit station. Police eventually stopped the train and tried to escort the migrants to a camp. That led to scuffles and protests. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are flooding into Europe to escape violence in the Middle East -- back to HARDBALL. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have said repeatedly that I did not send, nor receive classified material, and I`m very confident that when this entire process plays out, that will be understood by everyone. It will prove what I have been saying. (END VIDEO CLIP) KORNACKI: Welcome back to HARDBALL.   More bad news for Hillary Clinton in the saga surrounding her e-mails today. A former I.T. specialist who served as an aide to Hillary Clinton on her 2008 presidential campaign and at the State Department has now indicated that he will plead the Fifth to a congressional subpoena from the House Benghazi committee. That staffer, Bryan Pagliano, has been identified as the individual who set up Hillary Clinton`s private server back in 2009, his attorney writing -- quote -- "While we understand that Mr. Pagliano`s response to this subpoena may be controversial in the current political environment, we hope that the members of the Select Committee will respect our client`s right to invoke the protections of the Constitution." The Clinton campaign`s national press secretary, Brian Fallon, was on MSNBC earlier today. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BRIAN FALLON, CLINTON CAMPAIGN SPOKESMAN: This is a young man who I think was in his mid-20s when he set up the server. And he is an I.T. professional, a wonderful human being, according to everybody that knows him. I think his lawyer is understandably not wanting him to get caught up in a partisan swirl, where he will be used as a pawn in a political -- what has increasingly turned into a political exercise on Capitol Hill. All I can say is, we encouraged him to testify. We agree that there is nothing, absolutely nothing that went on that was wrong here. He didn`t do anything wrong. Again, so that`s why we urged him to testify. But, ultimately, it is his decision. Bryan`s lawyer in this case was judging that he wouldn`t get a fair share from the committee Republicans. (END VIDEO CLIP) KORNACKI: Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton`s State Department chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, did testify before the Benghazi committee earlier this morning on Capitol Hill. Anne Gearan is political correspondent for "The Washington Post." Alex Seitz-Wald is a political reporter for MSNBC. And April Ryan is White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks. Well, Anne, let me start with you.   So, this guy, Pagliano, he sets up the e-mail server in the Clintons` house six years ago. Obviously, politically, the headline looks bad for the Clintons. Any time there`s a political investigation and the Fifth Amendment is invoked, it doesn`t look good. But what are we really talking about here? Do we have a sense of what this guy might have done, of what - - is there some potential exposure here for him? ANNE GEARAN, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, clearly, there are a couple kinds of exposure. Right? There`s the potential down the road for criminal exposure. There is an FBI investigation into whether classified material was compromised through this system that he set up. They`re a long way from getting to that point. But looking down the road, as you would have to if you were in his shoes, he has hired lawyers. And those lawyers in the meantime have said to him, clearly, don`t complicate matters. Don`t put yourself in additional jeopardy. Don`t become a political pawn by testifying before this committee. So, it looks bad for the Clinton campaign a couple ways. It makes it looks like potentially they have something to hide if someone who worked for her refuses to talk about it in a -- in that setting, at the Benghazi committee. And it also potentially looks like they can`t control their own troops. I mean, he no longer works for them, and he doesn`t really owe them anything, except political allegiance. And he said, thanks very much, but I`m going to go my own way. KORNACKI: Yes. So, Alex, I mean, you covered the Clinton campaign all the time. They have to be obviously, if nothing else, very frustrated and probably concerned about the direction this thing has taken and sort of the relentlessness of this. I mean, we`ve been talking about this for months now with this FBI investigation going on, with these continual releases of parts of her e-mails. It`s not going to go away any time soon. Do you have a sense -- do they have a plan in mind for how to deal with this because what they`ve been doing so far is not making the story go away? ALEX SEITZ-WALD, MSNBC POLITICAL REPORTER: I mean, Steve, it just goes to show how little control Clinton and her team have over the story, as our colleague Mark (INAUDIBLE) this morning. A Democrat put to it me this way, it`s like they`re playing a game of cards where not only are they not dealing, but they don`t even know how many cards are in the deck. I mean, they could wake up any day and not really know what`s coming down the pike. This is a guy who used to work for them. They tried hard to get him to testify. He refused to testify and there`s not much they can do about it. It looks terrible. They`re hoping that after all of this staffers testify and then after Clinton testifies in October, that will be a big event. There`ll be a ton of media attention. They hope that will kind of be the pink press conference in the `90s and maybe get had behind him. But I`m not sure. I mean, you know, who knows what`s coming next? Even they don`t. KORNACKI: Yes. So, I mean, April what does, what would put this behind the Clintons? Is it the testimony this fall, is there an opportunity there? Is it this FBI investigation? Do they have to wait and hope the FBI comes out and basically gives her a clean bill of health? What do you think it would take? APRIL RYAN, AMERICAN URBAN RADIO NETWORK: I think each probe has to literally give her a clean bill of health. Even if there is something, it has to be so slight that it really doesn`t matter if they do find something. And October cannot come fast enough for her to -- before Hillary Clinton would stand before the, or sit before the congressional hearing and talk about what actually happened.   And what`s interesting is, the Clinton campaign is trying to show that they are transparent. They pushed for Cheryl Mills and others to have public testimony, or public conversations, and it didn`t happen. They were hoping that this guy with the server would come out and he didn`t. And I asked the White House today, what did they think as this happened during the time that secretary Clinton was within the Obama administration. They had no comment. They don`t want to put their hands on it. And that`s saying that there is an issue she has to deal with. She has to get it behind her. KORNACKI: OK. Anne, you`ve been looking at this closely. I mean, there`s obviously a lot of controversy here. There`s a lot of hype around this too. Here`s what I`m kind of wondering. Here`s what we know so far -- the Obama administration did not want her setting up this server in the first place. She did that any way. She has since deleted e-mails. They may not get those things back. Classified information that was retro actively classified. It popped up and a few years later it was deemed to be classified information. Is that the worst of what we know happened so far? Or is there more? GEARAN: Well, as Alex alluded to, part of the reason the story is as confusing and confounding as it is, nobody really knows the answer to that. I mean, the FBI investigation could go many ways. There could be any number of other twists and turns here. Politically, it`s just something that the campaign never saw coming months and months ago when they were planning very carefully, what her strategy would look like. I mean, they were focused on Iowa, New Hampshire and what not and not the way her e-mail system was set up five and six years before. One thing, though, you mentioned the Obama administration. I mean, it is not clear even now how many people knew and whether she cleared this at any high level, with the Obama administration at the outset when she set it up. The State Department has refused to say now from the podium for days and days and days who at the State Department approved it. And so, it`s an open question -- how, you know, was she even, did she get permission? Did anybody even really know how this was set up? KORNACKI: All right. Well, as we mentioned before, you can catch Andrea Mitchell with her exclusive interview with Hillary Clinton. That is going to be tomorrow at noon Eastern Time, right here on MSNBC. Pretty sure a lot of it will come up then. The roundtable is staying with us. Up next, back to the big story of the day, Donald Trump signs the pledge, averting a potential third party run. At least he says. The question now: will he stick to it?   This is HARDBALL, the place for politics. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) KORNACKI: There are new numbers on how Hillary Clinton is faring against potential Republican opponents, in the latest PPP poll. Let`s go to the HARDBALL scoreboard. Clinton beats Jeb Bush by four points. It`s Hillary 46, Jeb 42 in that matchup. Against Carly Fiorina, Clinton is up by just 2 points, 45-43 for Clinton in that one. And it`s a 2-point margin also in a potential match-up of Clinton and Donald Trump. There is Clinton 46, Trump 44. And the closest match-up, well, that`s Hillary versus Dr. Ben Carson. It is all tied there, 44-44, Carson-Clinton. Be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The chairman just left, as you probably know. And he`s been extremely fair. The RNC has been absolutely terrific over the last two-month period. And as you know, that`s what I`ve wanted. I`ve wanted fairness.   (END VIDEO CLIP) KORNACKI: We are back with the roundtable, Anne, Alex and April. In his press conference today, Donald Trump unambiguously closed the door on a third party run should he not win the Republican nomination next year. Since first raising the idea back in July, Trump had repeatedly used the prospect of an independent bid as a not so subtle threat against the party as leverage to ensure he would be treated fairly. The question is, why did Trump give up that leverage now? Well, in his explanation today, he said his decision was based in part on his lead in the polls. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TRUMP: I think the big thing, Dana, that`s changed is -- and it`s been obvious to all. Number one, after I announced, we went up like a rocket ship. I think the biggest thing is that I went early to number one and the RNC has treated me with great respect. (END VIDEO CLIP) KORNACKI: Well, April, I want to know what you made of the scene today, because there`s two ways to look at it. Was this Reince Priebus coming to Trump world headquarters and bending to Donald Trump`s will or was it Donald Trump looking at the Republican Party chairman and bending to his will? RYAN: I don`t want -- politically, I don`t want to get into the bending piece, but I will say this, I believe that the Republican Party realizes what they have. And they have to deal with Donald Trump. They have to do it in a way that appeases Donald Trump because really right now the Republican Party is, in my opinion and many others who are analyzing this presidential campaign, it`s fractured. And in order to keep the party together, they have to play ball with Donald Trump. But the issue really is, you know, he says, you know, it`s about fairness. Well what happens if Donald Trump feels that there is not fairness right now? Because this is not a legally binding document. So, you know, he could move on. We have seen it before. So, if Donald Trump were to say, next week, I don`t feel they are being fair to me, you know, there is a little question mark. Will he go? Will he forget about the pact and move on?   So, I don`t know. I think Reince Priebus is doing what he has to do for the Republican Party right now. KORNACKI: Yes. I mean, 180-degree reversals are not exactly a new concept when it comes to Donald Trump. RYAN: Exactly. KORNACKI: Well, Alex, let me ask you about the question of leverage as well between Trump and the Republican Party. A lot people look at this and they say, Trump has given up some of that leverage today by making this decision. I look at it and wonder if he really has the next debate. Take for instance the next debate. If Donald Trump were to threaten not to participate in the next Republican debate, the party would be panicked. They`d lose 20 million viewers. Meanwhile the party, if they tried to threaten Donald Trump with not getting into the debate, they`d be committing some form of political suicide. SEITZ-WALD: Yes, Steve. I mean, as he said, he still got the polls. I mean, that means he has the power, he has the leverage down the road. Keep in mind that at the end of this month to get on the South Carolina ballot next year, he would have to take a loyalty oath. He has to do it no matter what. I think it was smart to do it now when you can make a show of the chairman of the party coming to Trump headquarters, you know, hold it up. And as April said, it`s not a legally binding document. He didn`t write the right date. He wrote August 3rd instead of September 3. He`s made tearing up trade treaties a part of his platform. Those are legally binding. So, I don`t think he would have trouble throwing this out down the road if he decides that`s the right thing for him to do. KORNACKI: Trump is also facing a surging Ben Carson. On Monday, a Monmouth poll showed both of those candidates tied at 23 percent in the crucial state of Iowa. And now, a new national poll by Monmouth today shows that Ben Carson has taken second place, surpassing Jeb Bush. Trump is at 30 percent. Carson is at 18. Bush is tied in third with Ted Cruz at 8 percent. Trump has praised Carson in the past and was less courteous towards his rising competitor today. In an interview with "The Daily Caller", Trump said, "Well, Carson is a wonderful guy. He thinks it would be very tough for someone who spent life as a surgeon to handle the job. I just think it is a difficult situation that he puts himself into to have a doctor who wasn`t creating jobs and would have a nurse or maybe two nurses. It`s such a different world. I have created tens of thousands of jobs over the years." Ann, I just -- take a step back. This is amazing to me. We are now - - it`s basically Labor Day. We were told the Trump thing was a temporary, fleeting phenomenon. And at Labor Day, if you add up Donald Trump and Ben Carson, you`re almost at 50 percent now. And, meanwhile, Jeb Bush, son and brother of former presidents, is sitting in single digits. GEARAN: Yes, it is remarkable. I mean, I like a lot of people assumed that Trump was a summer phenomenon and Carson wasn`t even really on our radar screen at the beginning of the summer. To be where we are is pretty remarkable. I will go out on a limb here and say that I don`t think that Carson will be in the same position as he has now maybe say after the next Republican debate. But you see Trump is spending most of his energy attacking Jeb Bush and not attacking Carson. He`s being very careful there. I think he doesn`t want to take on Carson too directly and run risks there if he does, so he goes after Bush.   KORNACKI: Yes. April, is that -- is it a different game -- going after Jeb Bush looks like an easy target for Donald Trump. When you look at Ben Carson, you look at the poll numbers among Republicans, there is all these candidates running. There is no Republican candidate who the voters of that party right now respect more than Ben Carson. That maybe makes it more complicated for Donald Trump in trying to take the wind out of his sails. RYAN: Ben Carson, Dr. Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon is an intelligent and brilliant man when it comes to medicine. He`s separated the brains of Siamese twins -- the bender twins. How do you go up against that? He said, you know, Carson hasn`t created jobs. Well, Ben Carson has kept people healthy, so they are working. So, I mean, there may be a play on that. But when it comes to Ben Carson, he is a minority. I don`t care any way you put it, he`s a minority, and you also have Carly Fiorina, who is a minority as well. She`s a woman. So, he`s got to be very careful, particularly with the issue of women that he`s already had a problem with and then with the minority issue. He`s already trying to smooth over things, I can`t even talk today, with the Hispanic community and then with the black community he doesn`t want to go down that road. He`s already started something when it comes to the issue of the birther issue with President Obama. So, he`s got to be careful in how he attacks Ben Carson. KORNACKI: Yes, I mean, it would be interesting to watch. I mean, we are coming up on the next presidential debate. Donald Trump, making a loyalty oath today, is that going to affect his behavior, his posture, his approach towards other candidates when he`s on stage with them, or is this still going to be the gloves are off for Donald Trump? It`s something to check out a few weeks from now. But thank you for now to Anne Gearan, Alex Seitz-Wald, and April Ryan. And HARDBALL is back right after this. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) KORNACKI: That`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us. "ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.   THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END Copyright 2015 CQ-Roll Call, Inc. All materials herein are protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written permission of CQ-Roll Call. You may not alter or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the content.>