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Hardball with Chris Matthews, Transcript 11/23/15

Guests: Timothy Murphy, Jay Newton-Small, Clarence Page, Mindy Finn, HeidiPrzybyla, Michael Schmidt

ALEX WAGNER, GUEST HOST: Brussels on lockdown, America on edge. This is HARDBALL. Good evening. I`m Alex Wagner, in for Chris Matthews. For a third straight day, the city of Brussels resembled a ghost town -- shops closed, the subways stopped schools shut. One government worker told the Associated Press it feels a bit like a dead city. Belgium`s prime minister has warned about an serious and imminent attack similar to the Paris assault, and the country has raised its threat level to the highest designation. Meanwhile, there is a massive manhunt under way for Salah Abdeslam, who is believed to have taken part in the Paris attack. Since Sunday, police have carried out at least 19 raids, arresting 21 people. Today, the Belgian prime minister said schools and subways would likely reopen on Wednesday. Across the border in Paris, there was some unsettling news. An explosive belt was discovered in a suburb of the city. The Associated Press reports the belt contained bolts and the same explosives used in the attacks earlier this month. Britain`s prime minister, David Cameron, was in Paris today to pay tribute to the victims of the November 13th attack. Along with French president Francois Hollande, Cameron visited the Bataclan concert hall, where 89 of the 130 victims were killed. Members of the American band performing that night, The Eagles of Death Metal, gave their first interview to Vice News. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)   UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Several people hid in our dressing room, and the killers were able to get in and killed every one of them except for a kid who was hiding under my leather jacket. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Killers got in your dressing room. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wow. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People were playing dead and they were so scared. A great reason why so many were killed is because so many people wouldn`t leave their friends. And so -- and so many people put themselves in front of people. (END VIDEO CLIP) WAGNER: Back in America, officials say there is no credible evidence of an attack similar to those carried out in Paris, but a new poll shows 81 percent of Americans say they think a massive terror attack is likely in the near future. Those fears are especially high ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday. And late today, the U.S. State Department issued a worldwide travel alert to American citizens, citing the risk of increased terrorism threats overseas. We begin with the latest from Brussels with NBC`s Keir Simmons. Keir, can you tell us a little bit more how they expect to safely open schools amidst this climate? KEIR SIMMONS, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Well, it`s a good question, Alex, because what the prime minister said today, sitting in a news conference with his senior ministers flanked alongside him, was they would continue the security level at the highest level until at least Wednesday. But at the same time, they wanted to start opening the schools, opening the subway stations -- for example, you can see behind me here. And the people are asking themselves the question, Well, how do those two things go together? It`s confusing. Parents are saying, OK, shall I send my children to school or not on Wednesday, given the fact that you`re saying the security level is still high and you`re still searching for a number of people in connection with this?   One man was charged today, by the way, Alex, charged with participating in the activities of a terrorist group, and with the terrorist attack, that makes four people charged. But as you mentioned, Salah Abdeslam, one of those key suspects in the attacks in Paris, is still at large. They still don`t know where he is. And they say they are searching for a number of others. So it is a frightening picture here. That said, Alex, many people are still trying to go about their business. And in the end, the problem is that they have to get life back to normal. They have to restore confidence, even if they aren`t able to find what they appear to be looking for, some kind of a terror cell somewhere in this country. WAGNER: Thank you to NBC`s Keir Simmons in Brussels. We go now to Paris, where NBC`s Gabe Gutierrez is live with us tonight. Gabe, what can you tell us about this explosive belt that was found in a suburb of Paris? GABE GUTIERREZ, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Alex. Good evening. Well, it`s very unsettling news here in Paris. Just a few hours ago, reports came in that authorities had found an explosive belt in a suburb just south of the city, Montrouge. That`s according to the city prosecutor`s spokesperson, saying that that belt was found. Now forensic experts are going through, trying to find out if it was tied to the Paris attacks. The Associated Press is reporting that it did contain bolts and some explosives used in the attacks. But again, we are still waiting for confirmation on that as forensic experts further their investigation. We did speak with several witnesses on the scene. It was an area that students -- there`s a dormitory in and around that area. And several students were told to leave their homes early in the afternoon. The entire street was cordoned off. This is a city that has been on edge since these attacks 10 days ago that killed 130 people. You can see the memorial behind me. This is a city that has tried to bounce back. Now, today, French president Francois Hollande hosted British prime minister David Cameron, who is here. They toured the Bataclan theater, the site of the worst carnage from that attack. And Hollande is expected to meet tomorrow, to go to Washington to meet with President Obama before he meets with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow later this week as he seeks to build a stronger international coalition to fight ISIS. Alex, back to you. WAGNER: Thanks to NBC`s Gabe Gutierrez in Paris.   As I mentioned earlier, a new poll found more than 4 in 5 Americans fear a large-scale terror attack in the near future. Over the weekend, President Obama urged Americans not to give in to fear, characterizing ISIS as a bunch of killers with good social media. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We do not succumb to fear. That`s the primary power that these terrorists have over us. The most powerful tool we have to fight ISIL is to say that we`re not afraid, to not elevate them, to somehow buy into their fantasy that they`re doing something important. They`re a bunch of killers. (END VIDEO CLIP) WAGNER: Joining me now, Evan Kohlmann, an MSNBC terrorism analyst, and Timothy Murphy, a retired deputy director at the FBI. Timothy, let me start with you. It`s understandable, I think, that the president would be urging Americans not to succumb to fear, but that seems a daunting task, given those poll numbers, the amount of fear in the atmosphere and also this State Department-issued travel warning. What do you make of that? TIMOTHY MURPHY, FMR. FBI DEPUTY DIRECTOR: Well, look, I think -- I agree with the president. We don`t succumb to fear, right? But we also need to be more vigilant. We need to be on the same footing today as we were after the 9/11 attacks. This is serious. It`s happening in countries all around the world. You know, my contacts tell me in the law enforcement intelligence communities, they are on that footing similar to after 9/11 to make sure this doesn`t happen in this country. People should still go about their daily business, just like the government`s telling you to do because the risk -- although the risk is very low of it happening, there still is the probability of something happening here either directly inspired from abroad or from some of our homegrown radicalized youth in this country. WAGNER: Evan, Belgium`s interior minister was asked how key suspects like Salah Abdeslam could remain at large, given the unprecedented measures being taken by Belgian security officials, and he said he must have a lot of support on our soil. What did you -- what did you read in that statement? EVAN KOHLMANN, MSNBC TERRORISM ANALYST: Yes, not on his own. Obviously, there is a network of folks that either he`s personally connected with, he`s friends with, or perhaps they`re sympathetic to what his mission are (sic). And for some reason, these people decided to help hide him. He`s obviously not doing this by himself. It`s very difficult to imagine that someone that`s the subject dragnet the size of what`s searching for him right now would be able to slip through without assistance from others. And everything we know so far is that he`s received assistance from others, and that`s exactly how he managed to get to Belgium in the first place.   WAGNER: Timothy, I want to read a little bit from a "New York Times" op-ed last week, which one Belgian scholar wrote, and he explained in part that the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek, which has emerged as a hotbed of extremism, is in part such because of the administrative dysfunction of the Belgian government. And included in the deficiencies of the Belgian intelligence campaign is a lack of Arabic speakers at the Belgian state security service and a failure to recruit former radicals or even people from Muslim backgrounds. I guess I wonder, do you think that we`re going to see Europeans become more systematic and comprehensive in their intelligence gathering? MURPHY: Oh, I think they have to. And we have to do the same thing here. What you face -- what they`re facing in Belgium is, you know, not unlike what you are facing in other European countries and not unlike what you`re facing here. We have -- the FBI says there`s investigations in every single state in our country alone. We have 250 foreign fighters that have been documented traveling to Syria. So it`s not unlike Europe. What we`ve seen in the past with these events is they`ve always occurred somewhere else, but they eventually have made it to our homeland. So we can talk about Belgium and their communities and not being integrated well, enough into society. And that`s where these individuals are radicalized. The same thing is happening around the world, and that`s what we have to get our arms wrapped around. While we`re doing that, we need to have better intelligence collection and sharing among all the intelligence agencies and law enforcement that are cooperating in this fight against ISIS. WAGNER: Evan, the sheer multiplicity of this threat almost makes it seem impossible to conquer. I mean, you have Timothy talking about -- we have investigations around the world, in all 50 states, the State Department the travel warning includes Boko Haram, ISIS, the Islamic State. I mean, this is more than -- this is a multi-headed hydra! KOHLMANN: Look, I think it`s fair to say that there is a threat out there, and it`s a threat that`s existed not just today or last week but for months. And unfortunately, it`s only because of what happened in Paris that people paid attention. Nonetheless, it`s extremely important to understand that more Americans die from very ordinary things like going out in the street than they do from terrorism, and that doesn`t stop us from going out in the street. There was this crazy rumor floating around this weekend that ISIS was going to target the Phillips Arena in Atlanta and try to attack a World Wrestling event? I mean, people have got to be reasonable, and they cannot let paranoia take hold of them. And I think the president is right. The reason why ISIS keeps releasing these videos -- they`ve released seven videos in the last eight days. The reason that they keep doing this is because they want to create a drumbeat. They want to spread fear. They want to spread paranoia. It`s one thing to take into account a serious threat and take reasonable precautions. It`s another thing to go out and start denying refugees any right to come here, to start talking about not going shopping. These are not reasonable reactions to this kind of threat.   There`s a threat, but this is not the end of the United States, and it`s important that we put this into proper context. WAGNER: Timothy, I want to just hit one last point on the ISIS propaganda machine which is perhaps more sophisticated than I think a lot of folks realize. "The Washington Post" interviewed former prisoners and former media savants for ISIS, and among he things that they single out, "The Washington Post" reports the description of ISIS`s propaganda machine resemble (ph) the medieval realty show. Camera crews fan out across the caliphate every day, their ubiquitous presence distorting the events they purportedly document. Battle scenes and public beheadings are so scripted and staged that fighters and executioners often perform multiple takes and read their lines from cue cards. Does this sound like something you`ve ever heard of? MURPHY: No. And it`s risen to a level -- and we do not have a proportionate response to this. And over the last few years, as they`ve continued to radicalize and have people join ISIS over in the war zone in Syria and Iraq, with 20,000 foreign fighters and radicalize individuals in this country, we have not as a whole of government or NGOs or communities really gotten together and helped counter this narrative that ISIS is being able to send across the Internet from Syria, from Yemen, from North Africa and individuals buying into this propaganda. And we have yet to respond to that as a government in a powerful way to counter that message. And that is part of the solution. There`s not one solution for this. There`s a multiple-prong whole-of-government community involvement and NGOs really responding to this to help turn the tide on this. WAGNER: Multiple solutions for a multi-faceted problem. Thank you to Evan Kohlmann and Timothy Murphy. KOHLMANN: Thank you. MURPHY: Thank you. WAGNER: Coming up -- fear and loathing in the Republican Party. 2016 front-runner Donald Trump says thousands of people in New Jersey were cheering after the September 11 attacks. It is just not true. It never happened, and yet Donald Trump is only getting stronger in the polls. Plus, did U.S. military intelligence cook the books on ISIS to paint a rosier picture about the fight against the terror group? The Pentagon is investigating and now President Obama is pushing for answers. And the empire strikes back. We will get a look inside the mainstream Republican Party`s campaign to stop Donald Trump.   Finally, the HARDBALL roundtable tells me and you something I don`t know, just maybe a lot of different things. This is HARDBALL, the place for politics. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) WAGNER: Deep red Louisiana has elected a Democrat as the state`s next governor. State representative John Bel Edwards brought in 56 percent of the vote, defeating long-time U.S. senator David Vitter, a Republican, who finished at 44 percent. Vitter has held the seat for a decade and was reelected even after a 2007 prostitution scandal. Vitter says he will not run again when his seat comes up next year. We`ll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering! (END VIDEO CLIP) WAGNER: Welcome back to HARDBALL. In defending his call for the surveillance of mosques, Donald Trump said on Saturday that he remembers thousands of people in Jersey City actually celebrating the 9/11 attacks as they took place in 2001. It is the latest in a pattern of alarmist and controversial rhetoric we have heard from Trump since the Paris attacks. And when he was asked about it on ABC yesterday, he doubled down.   (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: You know, the police say that didn`t happen, and all those rumors have been on the Internet for some time. So did you misspeak yesterday? TRUMP: It did happen. I saw it. It was on television. I saw it. STEPHANOPOULOS: You saw that with your own eyes? TRUMP George, it did happen. STEPHANOPOULOS: Police say it didn`t happen. TRUMP: There were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey, where you have large Arab populations. They were cheering as the World Trade Center came down. I know it might be not be politically correct for you to talk about it. (END VIDEO CLIP) WAGNER: Facing pushback today, Trump demanded an apology and cited a 2001 article in "The Washington Post" reporting that law enforcement authorities detained and questioned a number of people who were allegedly seen celebrating the attacks. But as "The Washington Post`s" own fact checker writes, of course, a number of people obviously does not equal thousands and allegedly indicates there is no video footage or other proof that celebrations actually took place. After investigating the origins of Trump`s story, "The Post" concluded this appears to be another case of Trump`s overactive imagination.   Donald Trump has maintained his lead over the GOP field even as the political debate turns to issues of national security. He`s ahead of his nearest competitor, Dr. Ben Carson, by 10 percentage points, according to the latest national poll conducted by Fox News. Trump is in Columbus, Ohio, for a campaign rally tonight, and NBC`s Katy Tur is there. Katy, we know that the Donald called you. What did he have to say? KATY TUR, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Well, he called me late today. And when I asked the campaign for an official comment on all the pushback that he`s been getting from news organizations and from politicians and from police officials saying that they had no evidence of that happening in Jersey City, or even northern New Jersey, in the aftermath of 9/11, after the towers came down, he called me to defend his claim, saying that he is sure that he saw it. He cited that "The Washington Post" article that you just mentioned, saying that tailgate parties to him equal thousands and thousands of people. I said that it was allegedly -- they were detained for allegedly celebrating. He said allegedly to him means confirmed, basically. He also told me that he did see it on television. I asked him repeatedly where he saw this video, Alex. I said, give me one place you saw this video. He said he couldn`t remember, but he does know he did see it because he told me he has what he calls the world`s greatest memory. He said he`s seen it since on YouTube. He said he might have seen it on FOX 5 in New York City. He also said that a number of people have been tweeting him telling him that he was right and they saw it, too. So, he`s definitely not backing away from these claims whatsoever. He even mentioned Ben Carson, whom he`s accused of being a liar in the past. He said Ben Carson is defending him because he saw that video. Of course, as we have mentioned, Ben Carson walked back his own claims today, saying that he was confusing New Jersey with the Middle East. Now, I asked Donald Trump that specifically. Do you think maybe you were confusing video from Palestine, from Gaza, Palestinians cheering after 9/11? He says, no, absolutely not, he did see that in New Jersey. I`m sorry. It`s getting kind of loud here, because Donald Trump is about to take the stage right now -- Alex. WAGNER: And we will be monitoring that event as it progresses. Thank you, Katy, for that update.   As Katy just mentioned, Ben Carson told reporters that he also remembers seeing video of terrorist sympathizers celebrating in New Jersey on 9/11. Here`s Dr. Carson. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) QUESTION: Did you see that happening, though, on 9/11? BEN CARSON (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I saw the film of it. QUESTION: In New Jersey? CARSON: Yes. QUESTION: Just to follow up on my question of 9/11, you say you saw the film. What film are you referring to? CARSON: The newsreels. QUESTION: The news coverage from the time of 9/11? CARSON: Correct.   (END VIDEO CLIP) WAGNER: But just hours after making that statement, Carson`s campaign walked it back, saying: "Dr. Carson does not stand by the statements that were reported today. He was hearing and thinking something differently at the time. He does, however, recall and had his mind focused on the celebrations in the Middle East. He is not suggesting that American Muslims were in New Jersey celebrating the fall of the Twin Towers." I am joined now by MSNBC political analyst Eugene Robinson of "The Washington Post," as well as Heidi Przybyla with "USA Today." Eugene, why does Carson`s campaign feel the need to walk this back, as Donald Trump seems like not cowed at all by comments? EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, Alex, I`m going to try to hear and think about your question, rather than something random that crosses my mind. (LAUGHTER) ROBINSON: You know, obviously, they walked it back because it`s not true. It didn`t happen. So, he couldn`t have seen it, the film or the newsreel or whatever it was he thought for a minute that he saw that he couldn`t possibly have seen. And maybe just a little ray of reality penetrated that campaign and they realized that, gee, it actually didn`t happen this way. And so he took it back. It was a very weird episode that is kind of a sideshow to the main event, which is Trump doubling down on this paranoid, frankly, racist fantasy. WAGNER: Yes, so, Heidi, let`s talk about Trump`s fantasy here. The notion of backing down, period, has not only been something foreign to Donald Trump`s campaign. His insistence on his version of reality seems to in some way have strengthened him. HEIDI PRZYBYLA, "USA TODAY": And that is something that you see time and time again, whether it`s referring to Hispanics or the statistics that he tweeted out today.   And I think in the case of this videotape, you can`t prove a negative, right? You can`t prove that something doesn`t exist. We all saw the footage of Palestinians cheering after September 11. And I could see how maybe he conflated the two. But I don`t think you ever would come out with some of the urban legends that are spread on the Internet, which is something that Donald Trump seems to seize on. Has he ever apologized, for example, for kind of fanning the whole birther movement around President Obama, saying that Obama was born in Kenya and that he is Muslim? That`s patently false. And he`s never come back and kind of backtracked on that, as he hasn`t for a lot of things that he said that are untrue throughout the course of this campaign. I went back and looked actually at the poll fact-checker. And this is the 14th of 15th untruths that are so untrue that they are determined Pants on Fire untrue. WAGNER: Eugene, it`s clear that Donald Trump bookmarked the far corners of the conspiracy Internet, either with this or previous -- previous moments in the Trump campaign. But Trump supporters at a rally in Birmingham, Alabama, got in a physical altercation with a Black Lives Matter activist this weekend. That scuffle which occurred while Trump was speaking was captured on video by a CNN reporter before the protester was removed from the event. Trump reacted to the incident on FOX News on Sunday and he suggested that the protester deserved what he got. Let`s look at the footage. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, FOX NEWS CHANNEL) DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The man that was -- was -- I don`t know -- you say roughed up, he was so obnoxious and so loud. He was screaming. I had 10,000 people in the room yesterday, 10,000 people, and this guy started screaming by himself. And they -- I don`t know, rough up? He should have been -- maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing. (END VIDEO CLIP)   WAGNER: OK. So, Eugene, Donald Trump later retweeted after that a chart of inaccurate murder statistics that falsely allege African-Americans are responsible for the majority of homicides against whites. Now, not only are the figures completely wrong, but the source on that graphic, the San Francisco Crime Statistics Bureau, does not even appear to exist, Eugene. ROBINSON: No. It doesn`t exist. And the figures are totally wrong. And, look, this plays to Trump`s core base in the Republican Party. It really does. This sort of paranoia, this sort of us vs. them, us in this case being older, whiter, not college-educated voters, vs. black people, Muslims, foreigners, whatever, it obviously plays very well for him. WAGNER: Heidi, I wonder, because there is at least some glimmer of bipartisan efforts to reform the criminal justice system and outreach to African-American communities, whether the rest of the GOP stands idly by in a moment like this, where Trump is further alienating black voters? PRZYBYLA: That`s been the issue all along and why Trump -- part of why Trump has been able to kind of propagate these myths, is that his competitors don`t go after him. And I think part of the reason is because many of them assume that, by this point, he would have imploded and that they would position themselves to kind of pick up his core supporters, but you are starting to see some of them, for example, on the Muslim comments that he made about 9/11, Marco Rubio is starting to come out and say that that`s just not true. And you would hope that, on this one, particularly given the source -- not only does that agency not exist, but it looks like the person who put this information out there is actually a self-described neo-Nazi sympathizer. So, that`s really shocking. (CROSSTALK) WAGNER: Indeed, not where you want to be getting your news and information from. ROBINSON: No.   (CROSSTALK) WAGNER: Thank you to Eugene Robinson and Heidi Przybyla. Up next: A new investigation is looking into whether CENTCOM officials painted an overly optimistic picture about the U.S. fight against the Islamic State, rather a full accounting of what was actually happening on the ground. I will speak with a reporter who uncovered that story. This is HARDBALL, the place for politics. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: One of the things I insisted on the day I walked into the Oval Office was that I don`t want intelligence shaded by politics. I don`t want it shaded by the desire to tell a feel-good story. We can`t make good policy unless we have got good, accurate, hard-headed, clear-eyed intelligence. (END VIDEO CLIP) WAGNER: Welcome back to HARDBALL. President Obama says he wants to get to the bottom of reports that U.S. military officials may have altered intelligence reports on ISIS after "The New York Times" revealed that the Defense Department`s inspector general is widening a probe into that matter. There is special concern that analysts at U.S. Central Command were ordered to make it seem like U.S. airstrikes against ISIS were more effective than they were in reality. Congress is also investigating the matter.   Joining me now from Washington is "New York Times" national security reporter Michael Schmidt, who co-authored that story. Michael, scoop upon scoop, my friend. Let`s talk first about what -- who -- what the practical effect of these altered reports may have been. The White House is greatly pushing back on the notion that this intelligence informed the president`s decision-making. MICHAEL SCHMIDT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Dozens of analysts have come forward down at CENTCOM, Central Command, which oversees our military operations in Iraq and in Syria, and said, look, we were providing assessments that weren`t making it into the final product. And our assessments were not as rosy as the intelligence that was rising up and going to policy-makers in Washington. WAGNER: OK, there is the interpretation and the analysis of those reports. But there is also this. Congress is investigating, and some of the DOD`s documents on the rise of ISIS capabilities are missing. And you write that military officials are telling Congress that -- quote -- "Some of those e-mails and documents may have been deleted before they had to be turned over to investigators." And if anything, that seems like perhaps the most suspect ingredient in all of this. SCHMIDT: So, this is what`s going on. The inspector general for DOD, for the Pentagon, is doing this investigation. And they are trying to get their hands on every document they can, all the e-mails from the analysts and the documents they were producing and what they ultimately turned out to be, what the intelligence was that was going up to Washington. And what they`re trying to see is, what changed? And in the process of that, some folks have told us that there are e-mails from people that were making changes that have disappeared. Now, if that is true, that is a very big deal, because you`re basically destroying evidence in an investigation. And all of a sudden, something that turned out to be initially something about intelligence will likely become criminal. WAGNER: OK. Let`s talk a little bit about how Congress is handling this, because at present, this is mostly driven by Republicans in Congress. Is that right?   SCHMIDT: That`s right. The Republicans -- look, they look for everything they can on Obama. And they haven`t been terribly successful in the scandal area. But they see this perhaps as another chance. They think this may go all the way to the top. This was a White House that wanted to see special intel reports - - that`s what they are saying -- that backed up their foreign policy decisions and their view of the world. And, look, we haven`t seen any evidence of that yet. But that`s, I think, where this is going on the Republican side. WAGNER: Let`s talk a little bit about the inspector general, Michael. When do we expect the results of his or her report? SCHMIDT: I don`t think it will be any time soon, because on top of looking at all the changes, what the inspector general has to do is look at what the intel was at the time. What was the CIA saying? And how is that different from what CENTCOM was saying? And were there significant differences? And is there a pattern here? And these documents are classified, which means they are harder to handle. And do some of them have to be declassified if there is going to be a report that is made public? I don`t anticipate getting an answer on this any time soon. WAGNER: Well, and then there is the practical matter of hindsight being 20/20. Right? Now that ISIS is more of a threat, it seems more sort of willfully ignorant to ignore perhaps signals that maybe everybody would have ignored at one point, right? SCHMIDT: Well, look, it`s certainly clear that the administration seemed like they were caught off guard in the summer of 2014 when there was the beheadings and all of a sudden we found ourselves back on a war footing in Iraq and Syria. And because of that, there`s a lot of questions. Was the administration ignoring things? What type of intelligence were they getting? Why didn`t they anticipate that ISIS was going to be as powerful as it was? There have been a lot of questions there. And Republicans have long wondered, why hasn`t the president had more accurate assessments of what is going on? They point to his comments just the other day where he said that ISIS was contained, and then there was the attack in France. That is the sort of backdrop that we are looking at. WAGNER: Thank you to "The New York Times"` Michael Schmidt.   SCHMIDT: Thanks for having me. Coming up, Republicans may be talking tough, but a new poll shows it is Hillary Clinton with the edge when voters choose who is best to handle terrorism. The HARDBALL roundtable is coming up next. You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Our goal is not to deter or contain ISIS, but to defeat and destroy ISIS. It`s time to begin a new phase and intensify and broaden our efforts, to smash the would-be caliphate and deny ISIS control of territory in Iraq and Syria. A more effective coalition air campaign is necessary, but not sufficient. And we should be honest about the fact that, to be successful, airstrikes will have to be combined with ground forces actually taking back more territory from ISIS. (END VIDEO CLIP) WAGNER: Welcome back to HARDBALL. That was Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton outlining her plan to defeat ISIS in a speech to the Council -- Council on Foreign Relations in New York last week. The Republican Party has long held an advantage when it comes to national security issues, but a new poll out today suggests they might not have that edge in 2016.   The "Washington Post"/ABC News poll finds that Americans trust Hillary Clinton to handle the threat of terrorism over all her GOP rivals. Clinton leads Donald Trump by eight points, Ben Carson by nine, Ted Cruz eight, Marco Rubio by four, and Jeb Bush by three. But while the former secretary of state is trusted more than the GOP to handle terrorism, 40 percent approve and 54 percent disapprove of the way her old boss, President Obama, is handling the issue. Even though she is closely linked to his foreign policy, why do more Americans trust Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama and the Republicans to handle terrorist threats? Jay Newton-Small is a correspondent with "Time" magazine, Clarence Page is an opinion writer with "The Chicago Tribune", and Mindy Finn __ is a Republican strategist. OK, Jay, so how and why is this happening? JAY NEWTON-SMALL, TIME MAGAZINE: Well, I think, really, Clinton benefits from two things here. One is the sort of foreign policy shine of being this incredibly popular secretary of state under Obama in his first term when he was a lot more popular. But, secondly, there`s also this kind of Clinton nostalgia, you know? Like her husband was president during a time when terrorism didn`t really exist or at least not in the same way it existed after 9/11. And people felt safer at that time, more secure at the time. So, I think a combination of those two things -- her own kind of foreign policy chops and the Clinton brand in terms of foreign policy overall. WAGNER: So, Clarence, can she maintain her hawkish street cred, if you will, in a Democratic primary that`s favoring more dovish progressive voters? CLARENCE PAGE, CHICAGO TRIBUNE: Well, I think we saw back in `08 she knows how to maintain her hawkish stance. She got the image being more hawkish than Barack Obama at that time, though the public I think was more war-weary, especially Democratic voters with two overseas wars going on. Right now after Paris, we certainly see that the public opinion has shifted toward the need for some kind of ground troops. That concession was no longer banned like it was before from public discussion, you might say. But folks don`t want somebody too hawkish. I think that`s how Hillary has an advantage over Donald Trump, for example, and others who want to bomb the whatever out of ISIS. She has an image for more sensible experience with foreign policy and not that eager to get us involved in a deeper war. WAGNER: Mindy, how did you read the numbers of Hillary against the GOP field? The fact that this is traditionally an area of strength for the Republican Party.   MINDY FINN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, it is one poll and comes on the backs, that we have to remember, there was a Democrat debate the night after the Paris attacks where Hillary had an opportunity to address these issues. She gave her speech last week, as you point out. And right now in Hillary versus the GOP, voters aren`t sure who is the GOP. We have a huge field with more than 12 candidates. We have a new speaker of the House. And so, it`s not surprising at this point, she might get a bump in terms of those numbers. We have to remember, though, there is a year until Election Day. And I think there`s certainly a lot of time once there is a nominee chosen for them to make their case. And it`s hard to see where against that Republican nominee, Hillary will still be the one that`s seen as more hawkish or even trustworthy on foreign policy and on defeating ISIS. WAGNER: Jay, if there is a deeper dive into foreign policy in 2016, and it becomes more of a central issue, Hillary Clinton has pluses and negatives in terms of her time as secretary of state. Libya, for example, versus Syria and her positions on both. I mean, where do you think she ultimately nets out? NEWTON-SMALL: Well, I think a lot of will depend who the Republican nominee is. If it`s somebody who doesn`t have a lot of foreign policy experience, and the, frankly, field doesn`t have a lot of huge foreign policy wonks except for Lindsey Graham, who`s a long term member of the Armed Services Committee. You know, her depth of experience is certainly a plus, her deft hand as secretary of state and seems more of an expert than even Barack Obama on a lot of issues, as Clarence was saying. But also, it depends -- if it`s Marco Rubio, somebody less experienced versus George -- Jeb Bush, excuse me, who has more foreign policy experience or has a lot more to say about it, a lot more record on the issues. WAGNER: All right. The round table is staying with us. Up next, is Willard Mitt Romney the Republican antidote to Donald Trump and Ben Carson? A new poll of New Hampshire voters shows him well ahead of the current GOP field for 2016. This is HARDBALL, the place for politics. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) WAGNER: Unaffiliated is the largest growing group in Pew`s latest study of religions in America. And the share of Christian population is on a decline. Evangelical Protestants are the largest group in the U.S. today. And unaffiliated Americans are second. Catholics come in third, followed by mainline Protestants. Adherence to non-Christian faiths including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism represent the smallest share of the American public. We`ll be right back.   (COMMERCIAL BREAK) WAGNER: We are watching Donald Trump live in Columbus, Ohio, where he is speaking to supporters. Can we take a listen? (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Two people. So sad. You know, it`s sad and rude. And you know part of the problem? We have 10,000, 12,000 people here, those two people will have a little line, oh, they were bigots. They`re not bigots. Yes, you can get them the hell out. Go ahead, get out. (END VIDEO CLIP) WAGNER: That was Donald Trump addressing a protester apparently at a rally. We are back with Jay, Clarence and Mindy. Shell shocked by Donald Trump`s unexpectedly long shelf life as a presidential candidate, the Republican establishment finally appears to be playing proverbial hardball with the GOP front-runner. A super PAC supporting Ohio Governor John Kasich released this web ad against Trump earlier today. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, POLITICAL AD) SUBTITLE: Presidential? TRUMP: I have a great relationship with the blacks. I`ve always had a great relationship with the blacks.   UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The blacks. SUBTITLE: Commander in chief? TRUMP: Well, I just don`t respect her as a journalist. You know, you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever. SUBTITLE: Leader of the free world? TRUMP: Somebody`s doing the raping, Don. I mean, you know, somebody`s doing it. It`s women being raped. Well, who`s doing the raping? It moves this way. It moves this way. How stupid are the people of Iowa? SUBTITLE: To be continued -- (END VIDEO CLIP) WAGNER: "The Wall Street Journal" reported on Friday that a group called Trump Card LLC is uniting donors and preparing to launch a guerrilla campaign against the real estate billionaire. A memo reviewed by "The Wall Street Journal" reports one possible ad would link Mr. Trump`s views and style to his celebrity foe Rosie O`Donnell, in hopes of provoking a reaction from Mr. Trump, according to the memo. Other possible tactics include using a Trump impersonator to show him insulting people and attacking his business record in stark nasty terms. The goal, according to the memo, isn`t to convert Mr. Trump`s supporters into backing other candidates but to dissuade them from voting altogether. So is there still time to bring him down or does the Donald hold the proverbial trump card?   Clarence, Rosie O`Donnell, and Trump impersonators, can they bring this man down? PAGE: Well, we have certainly seen Donald Trump defy all of our expectations. The punditocracy, all our expectations, saying -- well, that John McCain remark that`ll kill him, you know, all the way down the line. Nothing kills him. He`s like Godzilla. He just gets stronger the more he gets attacked. So, I`m questioning whether or not even this new attack from fellow Republicans is going to make a difference. We`re just dealing with a different kind of candidate, different kind of constituency here. A lot of these folks who are following Trump so closely are folks who haven`t voted that much before because they`ve been too cynical about the whole process. And this is something that will make a difference. Those voters in Ohio didn`t show up for Mitt Romney in 2012, and that made the difference for Barack Obama`s victory. So, if they do show up for Donald Trump, we may be further surprised as these primaries go along. WAGNER: Mindy, I wonder if this has the opposite effect, which is the narrative of the GOP establishment banding together to kick Trump out of the race, doesn`t that just further impassion Donald Trump supporters? FINN: Well, it`s possible. I mean, I think a lot of people underestimated that Donald Trump is actually quite a talented politician. You know, at the beginning people said, well, he`s a celebrity, he knows how to get attention. He`s actually quite a talented politician. He`s a smart man that knows exactly what he`s doing. So, I think it`s really challenging. That`s what`s been challenging the establishment in figuring how the how to bring him down. I mean, ultimately, you have to remember, though, I mean, even this effort, there`s not -- we talk about the Republican establishment, what you`re talking about is one PAC, one campaign`s PAC or an outside PAC. There isn`t a unified effort at this point where kind of all the typical traditional donors and all the political organization that are part of the party are focused on taking him down. So, I think it`s important to remember that. It`s also important to remember for those who don`t want to see Trump nominated, which is a lot of political insiders, is that while he has a lot of support right now, he does seem to have a ceiling. And a third of -- winning over a third of Republicans nationally is not enough if you can`t go beyond that in these primaries. So, whether this effort takes him down or not, there still is a path where, you know, just by the nature of the race and the fact that he does have this hard ceiling, he`ll take himself out. WAGNER: Jay, Donald Trump has not been shy about suggesting that he might run as an independent, and I guess I wonder -- does this rhetoric further inflame an already pretty volatile temper as far as that`s concerned?   NEWTON-SMALL: Certainly, I think his goal here -- I`ve never been convinced that his goal is to be president. I think his goal is to get what he`s getting which is a lot of attention, a lot of fame. And if that`s your goal, would you really want one speaking slot at the Republican nomination or the Republican convention versus three primetime speaking slots on the stage in three presidential debates? That`s always seemed more appealing to me. If I were him I`d get so much more attention, it lasts longer. But we`ll see what happens. It`s certainly entertaining no matter which way he goes. If he becomes the nominee, even more so. But it`s hard to imagine that if he still hasn`t seen these kinds of numbers the last week of January just before we go into voting, then the Republican Party has a lot to worry about. Between now and then, a lot can happen, especially with the establishment sort of coalescing around another strategy against him. So, we`ll see. WAGNER: It is a long strange dip. The round table is sticking with me. And up next, these three tell me something I do not know. You are watching HARDBALL, the place for politics. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) WAGNER: We`re back with the round table. Mindy, tell me something I don`t know. FINN: Well, in what has been one of the most unpredictable presidential elections so far, I think we have more ahead, and specifically I think while everyone focuses on Trump`s support in the South, these big rallies in Mobile, Alabama, we actually will see Trump could win Iowa but he could win New Hampshire. And then you go on to Super Tuesday and you see him winning a state like Massachusetts, while you see a Rubio or even a Cruz winning a Georgia or an Alabama, and that will surprise everybody. WAGNER: Clarence?   PAGE: Well, the Obama Foundation announced today that they`re going to have their headquarters in Hyde Park. And if you knew that, I`ll bet you didn`t know that the address right at 53rd and Harper I notice is a little less than a block away from 53rd and Dorchester where Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson had their first date. He bought her an ice cream cone. And they had their first kiss. WAGNER: Is that a coincidence, Clarence? Is that a coincidence? PAGE: I wonder. I`m tracking that down. I want to tell you. WAGNER: Jay, tell me something I don`t know. NEWTON-SMALL: Alex, I was in Belgium last week covering the attacks. I was in Molenbeek. And, you know, the city`s now under lockdown. And some of my friends who are there spent the weekend not really taking the lockdown that seriously. And so, there`s a meme on Twitter and social media about all the things they`re taking photographs of during the lockdown. They`re out to brunch, at parties. The Belgium government was like, look, you can`t show these things. You have to take these things seriously. So, then instead of showing people out to brunch and parties, they started doing pictures of cats. So if you Google "Belgium lockdown" you`ll find lots of pictures of very cute kitties. WAGNER: That is definitely something I did not know. Thank you to Jay Newton-Small, Clarence Page and Mindy Finn. That is 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. 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