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Hardball with Chris Matthews, Transcript 8/7/17 Trump attacks Dem. Senator, Media in Tweetstorm

Guests: Joel Benenson, Nicholas Burns, Jennifer Rodgers, Susan Demas, Tara Dowdell, Evan Siegfried, Caitlin Huey-Burns

Show: HARDBALL Date: August 7, 2017 Guest: Joel Benenson, Nicholas Burns, Jennifer Rodgers, Susan Demas, Tara Dowdell, Evan Siegfried, Caitlin Huey-Burns

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Steve Kornacki, in for Chris Matthews.

Today is the 200th day of Donald Trump`s presidency, and it began like many that have come before it. There was from the president a Twitter tirade, Trump firing off a number of tweets today addressing a litany of issues, everything from defending his working vacation to once again calling the Russia investigation a hoax.

But with each passing day, the investigation seems like it might be picking up steam. NBC News is reporting that special counsel Robert Mueller is issuing grand jury subpoenas to get records and documents related to the investigation.

Then this weekend, Rod Rosenstein -- he`s currently in charge of overseeing the Russia investigation at the Justice Department -- he provided Robert Mueller public protection and granted him wide latitude to investigate any crime -- his words there -- any crime he uncovers during the investigation.

Here`s Rosenstein on "Fox News Sunday."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROD ROSENSTEIN, DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: The special counsel is subject to the rules and regulations of the Department of Justice, and we don`t engage in fishing expeditions. Now...

CHRIS WALLACE, HOST: If he finds evidence of a crime, can he look at that?

ROSENSTEIN: Well, Chris, if he finds evidence of a crime that`s within the scope of what Director Mueller and I have agreed is the appropriate scope of this investigation, then he can. If it`s something outside that scope, he needs to come to the acting attorney general, at this time, me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: It is unclear if the president will allow that. Just last month, President Trump warned that any investigation outside the scope of Russia would cross a red line to him. Here he is talking to "The New York Times."

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If Mueller was looking at your finances or your family`s finances, unrelated to Russia, is that a red line?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Would that be a breach of what his actual...

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I would say yes. Yes, I would say yes.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

KORNACKI: For weeks, the president and his allies have been leading a campaign to disqualify Robert Mueller and his investigation. Just yesterday, the president`s close friend and ally, Newt Gingrich -- he tweeted this. Quote, "President Trump got 68.6 percent in West Virginia, 4.8 percent in Washington, D.C. Guess where Mueller has a grand jury? Guess how biased it will be?"

And here`s Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: And we will continue to cooperate with Bob Mueller in his investigation. You know, he just hired the 16th person. Many of them are Democratic donors. But we`ll continue to cooperate and comply.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: For more now, I`m joined by MSNBC national security analyst and former FBI special agent Clint Watts, Jennifer Rodgers, former assistant U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, and Nicholas Confessore, political, reporter for "The New York Times" and an MSNBC contributor.

Jennifer, let me start from you. From a prosecutor`s standpoint, if you were in Bob Mueller`s shoes and you`re doing this investigation right now as the special counsel and you heard the senior official at the Justice Department, Rod Rosenstein, who has that power to step in there and deny you latitude, who has that power to step in and take you off the case -- if you heard him making the comments we just played yesterday, how as a special prosecutor, as a special counsel, would you interpret that?

JENNIFER RODGERS FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY, SOUTHERN: Well, it sounds like what Rosenstein is saying is that they have an agreement. They`ve spoken at length about the parameters of the investigation, and Rosenstein says that they`re on the same page about it.

I think Mueller just knows he has a job to do. He needs to gather some facts, figure out what happens here. If he does find information that takes him outside of the scope of what he and Rosenstein have discussed, I assume he`ll go back to Rosenstein and they`ll discuss expanding the investigation. But I think he has pretty free latitude at this time to go into not only the Russian stuff directly, but of the collateral issues...

KORNACKI: Because I guess the question there -- because the subtext and all this -- is Donald Trump, Donald Trump`s allies. They`ve made it clear. They don`t have much regard for Bob Mueller. They`re very suspicious of this investigation. They`ve been making all sorts of critical comments.

If you`re on the case, if you`re that special prosecutor, did you read from the tone, from the content of what he said yesterday -- would you say this is a guy who`s going to have my back, if it comes to it? As a prosecutor, how would you read it?

RODGERS: I think I would. I think Rosenstein all along has been supportive of Mueller. I think every public comment he`s made is supportive. I think yesterday`s comments were supportive. I think he`s saying, He has a job to do. He knows what the job is. I know what the job is. He will be allowed to do his job. So I think he would be supported by that.

KORNACKI: All right. And Clint, in terms of the actual investigation, the news here of subpoenas, requests for records, requests for documents -- you`ve been on the investigative side of this. What`s your read? It can be very vague right now in terms of what`s in the public square. But from an investigative standpoint, what`s your read on what`s going on right now in terms of these subpoenas?

CLINT WATTS, FORMER FBI SPECIAL AGENT, MSNBC NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, you start with documents and hard evidence, communications and finances because that then guides the rest of your investigation. So they`re using a very smart strategy. They`re going where the leads are taking them. Now you start with this hard evidence before you start bringing in witnesses and wanting to question them. I think that`s a very logical step and one we`re going to see go on for quite some time. I think the public needs to be aware that this is a very slow process...

KORNACKI: Yes, so what -- put some -- well, roughly, do you have a sense what that means when you say it`s going to take a while? Are we talking months? Are we talking more than year? What could this be?

WATTS: I mean, months, I think, until we get to the point where they`re talking to witnesses. I think the only witnesses they might talk to earlier are those that are cooperating ones or someone whose statement they want to lock in on the investigation, meaning that maybe they have something on somebody, or it`s turned up in these records that they`ve been pulling. They bring them in first to get their statement, to lock their testimony in so they can then find the next avenue they want to take the investigation after that.

KORNACKI: And Nick, on the politics of this thing, too, then, look, we have that -- the tweet there from Newt Gingrich. He`s trying to basically say -- he`s basically accusing Mueller there, I guess, of what, shopping for a jury potentially that`s -- that`s going to be more politically hostile to the president? I don`t know why you`d be staging any kind of jury proceeding in West Virginia and not in Washington, D.C., just given the nature of this thing. But the politics of what Trump, what the White House, what his allies are trying to do here with attacks like that?

NICHOLAS CONFESSORE, "NEW YORK TIMES": Look, the potential obstruction here happened in Washington, D.C., if it happened anywhere. If it happened in West Virginia, you empanel a grand jury in West Virginia.

What you see here is the president and his allies trying to muddy up this investigation before it can get started to cast doubt on it and to take the understandable feeling of a supporters that his victory has not been supported or recognized and turn that into a harness and kind of harness that to tarnish an investigation that is just beginning. And it really is only just beginning.

KORNACKI: So while President Trump continues to lob criticism at the Russia investigation and at Mueller, deeming it nothing more than a hoax, Axios now reporting that his lawyers are trying to take a more tempered tone, the Web site reporting that lawyers and spokespeople for President Trump appear to be trying to lower the temperature on the Russia investigation, talking more respectfully about special counsel Bob Mueller, laying off Attorney General Jeff Sessions and making noises about cooperation.

Jennifer, what do you make of that? So Newt Gingrich, not on the president`s legal team. This is a political ally. Newt Gingrich is out there basically casting all sorts of doubt on Mueller. But they`re saying the legal team is starting to look at this differently. Is that significant?

RODGERS: I think it is. I think it`s very smart. So they had Marc Kasowitz, who is not a criminal lawyer and who certainly is not lowering the temperature in any way. And then they brought in Ty Cobb, who does have prosecution experience and is a white collar defense lawyer.

And that`s what you want. You want someone who knows this business, knows what they`re doing and who knows that you actually really want to have a good relationship with the people on the other side because, at some point, you`re going to be negotiating with them about testimony, about documents, and maybe ultimately about a proceeding if it gets filed.

So I think it`s very wise of the new lawyers to kind of lower that temperature and make nice with Mueller`s team as much as they can.

KORNACKI: And does that -- Clint, does that carry into what Jennifer was just saying about cooperation, about trying to have at least a cooperative tone in terms of the White House and in terms of investigators? So if Donald Trump thinks this is a bogus investigation, if Donald Trump doesn`t trust Mueller, and Mueller and his people are coming to the White House saying, We want documents on this, we want documents on that, before it gets to the subpoena point, do you think you`re going to have a White House that`s cooperating more now, it`s going to be turning stuff over? How much can Donald Trump disrupt it, if he wants to?

WATTS: I don`t think he can really disrupt it. What`s ultimately more confusing about this is why you would want to damage America in this way. You have a president going out there, trying to discredit different institutions in the U.S. government. He`s attacked DOJ, FBI, the intelligence community, now director -- or you know, special counsel Mueller`s investigation.

Who is that good for, ultimately, other than Trump? If it`s really about America first, then you`re not going to take down or tear down these institutions. Americans will lose faith.

The other part is every time he goes out publicly and tweets about this, or intervenes on behalf of his son`s personal statement about a Trump Tower meeting that Trump claims he doesn`t know about and his son claims he doesn`t know about, he expands the investigation because he creates openings for investigators to pursue.

I`m sure Ty Cobb is probably wondering, Why do you keep talking about this because you are expanding the investigation which you are then a victim of? You`re not a victim if you create the opening.

KORNACKI: Well, that -- Nick, that`s the other question here. Look, if the White House legal team is looking at this and saying, We better not be antagonizing Mueller, we better be as cooperative, as friendly as possible, is that at all going to be connected to what Donald Trump does in terms of his posture? Are we seeing any signs, any evidence that this new caution that the legal team apparently has is going to rub off at all on Donald Trump?

CONFESSORE: Small signs of evidence. There was a statement of support for Sessions, which I think was prompted in part by what Clint was saying.

Look, I think Donald Trump is a terrible client for his lawyers in this circumstance. He goes after judges, after the prosecutors. The best case scenario for Donald Trump right now is that Bob Mueller does an investigation free and fairly, is unimpeded and then gives him a clean bill of health. That is the best case scenario.

And by doing these attacks, he`s inviting more scrutiny of how this process unfolds and he`s stiffening opposition on the Hill. He`s creating enemies in his own party on the Hill who are now getting together to block him from an end run around Mueller.

KORNACKI: Let me just -- and Jennifer, let me ask you as a prosecutor. Nick says the best case scenario for Trump here is Mueller looks at this, gives him a clean bill of health. And I`m -- correct me if I`m wrong in that. I`m just thinking, though, anecdotally. When you`ve got these big independent investigations -- there used to be independent counsel when they had that statute, now they call it special counsel -- do you ever get a clean bill of health, or when you put this much -- this many resources, this much latitude behind it? Even if they don`t find the thing they set out looking for, they always turn up something, don`t they?

RODGERS: Well, they might. It`s not entirely clear. You know, the independent counsel statute is a different statute than Mueller is now operating under. And Mueller is a guy with a lot of integrity. It`s just -- most people think he wouldn`t really go beyond the confines of what he`s supposed to look at. So you know, where there`s smoke, there`s fire often. You know, I think that they may certainly find some things, especially the collateral issues like obstruction and the like.

But I don`t think Mueller is on a fishing expedition. I don`t think he`s going to go well beyond what he`s supposed to do. So I`m not sure that they`ll find anything kind of no matter what if they keep digging.

KORNACKI: All right. Well, Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat from Connecticut, he became one of the president`s Twitter targets today. Blumenthal appeared on CNN this morning to voice his support for the ongoing investigation into Russia and its meddling in 2016 election. This is what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: There is no minimizing or underestimating that attack by the Russia -- and potential collusion by the Trump campaign and then obstruction of justice. That investigation must be pursued.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: And President Trump was apparently watching. He tweeted, quote, "Interesting to watch Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut talking about hoax Russian collusion when he was a phony Vietnam con artist." The president was referring there to a 2010 campaign issue regarding Blumenthal`s military service. Blumenthal suggested he had served in Vietnam. He had not served in Vietnam.

Senator Blumenthal responded to the president`s tweeting. He said this, "Mr. President, your bullying hasn`t worked before, and it won`t work now. No one is above the law." President Trump was not having it. He tweeted out late this afternoon, "I think Senator Blumenthal should take a nice long vacation in Vietnam, where he lied about his service, so he can at least say he was there."

Nick, I got -- you talked a minute ago about the president and Republican senators and getting some indications of Republican senators wanting to make sure that Mueller is able to complete his job and the investigation is not stopped in any way. A guy like Blumenthal, though, does this have any -- I mean, this is -- look, he stood up to him in response this afternoon, but Blumenthal was embarrassed by the Vietnam thing. Blumenthal was caught saying he served in Vietnam, and he hadn`t.

CONFESSORE: He apologized on the spot very quickly. I can think of some things that the president has said about (ph) -- which he has not apologized for very quickly, or at all.

Look, this is the president kind of blowing off steam. He`s mad. He`s mad at everything right now. He`s been told by his lawyers, Don`t attack the prosecutors. Don`t do it, don`t do it. So the steam comes out in a different direction. He goes after senators on cable TV.

The amazing thing is that the president is in a Twitter war with a senator over things that are on cable TV. It`s just kind of outstanding and amazing.

KORNACKI: There was a report -- I think I saw it in "Roll Call," Capitol Hill paper, too this afternoon saying, Blumenthal -- he was the attorney general of Connecticut for, like, 25 years before going to the Senate. Maybe there was some overlap there with Trump`s business interests, the portfolio that Blumenthal had in Connecticut there, real estate. So there might be a much longer story there.

Anyway, we`ve got to cut it short here. But Clint Watts, Jennifer Rodgers, Nick Confessore, thanks to all of you for joining us.

And still ahead, President Trump says his base is growing stronger. And if you look at his rallies in states he won big, you might think he is right. But then if you take a look at latest poll numbers, it certainly does not support his case. When we come back, we`re going to put Trump`s claim to the test.

Plus, is there a split developing among Republicans? Six months into the Trump presidency, there are new reports that Republicans, including Vice President Mike Pence, might be making moves towards the 2020 presidential election. That`s supposed to be Trump`s reelection year. Pence calling the report offensive, but Trump is struggling to unite his party in some ways.

And why can`t the Trump White House keep a communications director? Maybe the problem is the president himself, who functions as his own de facto communications director 140 characters at a time.

And finally, the HARDBALL roundtable is going to be here with three things I don`t know.

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: Welcome back to HARDBALL. One of the largest suppliers of Apple`s iPhone products, technology company Foxconn, is reportedly opening a new multi-billion-dollar research and development plant in Michigan. "The South China Morning Post" -- that`s a paper over in Hong Kong -- first reported the move on Sunday, but the company put out a statement only confirming that they are considering that investment in Michigan.

This comes just two weeks after President Trump announced that Foxconn would be opening a $10 billion plant in Wisconsin. Now, the question here is, does this help the president in those key industrial states? Those are places where he promised he was going to bring back jobs.

For more, I`m joined by Susan Demas, publisher and editor of Inside Michigan Politics. Susan, thanks for joining us. Well, let me just ask you a bottom line question here. Look, Donald Trump said as a Congress, I`m bringing the jobs back. Obviously, folks in a state like Michigan on some level believed him, thought it was a chance worth taking, had been 30 years since a Republican won out there. He pulled it off.

What is your sense of this story? Are there jobs involved here? I know we`re getting conflicting reports in terms of what Foxconn is saying. Do you have a sense if this is real, if these jobs are coming?

SUSAN DEMAS, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, INSIDE MICHIGAN POLITICS: Well, there are conflicting reports. But certainly, our governor, Rick Snyder -- he`s a Republican -- he`s been sort of hinting at this. He is overseas in China right now, has met with the Foxconn chairman. I think there`s an expectation that something is coming here. Donald Trump could use some good news in Michigan because his poll numbers have slipped to the low 40s.

KORNACKI: Well, politically -- I mean, this is the bottom line question. This is why we`re asking because we`re interested in these states that really swung toward Trump and made the difference. The question is, can you keep him? We`re going to talk more about this later. But look, if this happens, if Foxconn comes to Michigan with these jobs -- you mentioned the governor, Rick Snyder, the Republican -- are folks in Michigan going to say, Hey, this is Donald Trump delivering, or are they going to say this is Rick Snyder delivering?

DEMAS: I think they`d be more likely to credit the president. Our governor is a lame duck. He will be term-limited out in 2018. And the focus has been on Trump. I wouldn`t be surprised if we`d see a visit from the president if these do come our way.

KORNACKI: All right, Susan Demas, Inside Michigan Politics, thanks for taking a minute on that. We`ll keep an eye on that story.

Quick break here. On the other side, though, President Trump`s nationwide approval rating looks like it`s suffering these days. But is his base actually getting stronger, and if so, what would be driving that? We got a debate ahead.

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The reason why Democrats only talk about the totally made-up Russia story is because they have no message. They don`t talk about the all-time-high stock market or about manufacturing jobs we`re bringing back to America by the hundreds of thousands.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was President Trump touting his economic record at a rally in West Virginia last week, that speech coming just one day before a better-than- expected jobs report showed the economy added 209,000 jobs in July.

The president echoed the sentiments from that rally in a series of tweets this morning, writing: "The Trump base is far bigger and stronger than ever before, despite some phony, fake news polling. Look at rallies in Pennsylvania, Iowa, Ohio, and West Virginia. The fact is the fake news Russian collusion story, record stock market, border security, military strength, jobs, Supreme Court pick, economic enthusiasm, deregulation and so much more have driven the Trump base even closer together. Will never change."

Now, Trump may argue that his base is growing stronger. The numbers, however, suggest a different story. Axios reports that Trump has -- quote -- "dangerously low support" when it comes to his base, Axios citing a poll that was conducted by a Republican public affairs firm in the key swing states of Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio.

The number of voters in those states who have a strongly favorable view of the president has dropped from 35 percent in April to just under 29 percent now.

And among Republican voters, that number has also dropped from 54 percent to just 45 percent.

White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway acknowledged the president`s support may be slipping. She blamed it on the fiction of the Russia investigation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: His approval rating among Republicans and conservative Trump voters is down slightly. It needs to go up. They are telling him, just enact your program. And don`t worry about all the distractions and diversions and discouragement of others who are still trying to throw logs in your path are throwing your way.

The entire Russia investigation is a hypothetical. The president has called it a fiction, total fabrication to excuse the colossal and unexpected, unwanted defeat of Hillary Clinton in last year`s election.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: But "The Washington Post"`s Greg Sargent suggests the Russia investigation may be exactly why Trump is seeking to rally the faithful.

He writes in an op-ed titled "As Mueller Closes In, Trump Prepares His Base for the Worst." Sargent writes that amid revelations from the Mueller probe, Trump -- quote -- "seeks to rally his supporters behind the idea that this outcome represents not the imposition of accountability by functioning civic institutions, but rather an effort to steal the election from him and from them."

For more now, I`m joined by Joel Benenson, former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton`s 2016 campaign, and Hugh Hewitt, an MSNBC host and political analyst.

A little bit from the left and the right here.

Joel, I`ll start with you, just this big-picture question of Donald Trump. Look, he is out there saying my base is stronger than ever.

We`re looking at the numbers. We`re saying, we know his overall approval rating by any historical measure is not good right now. We`re also looking at numbers that say, when you look at his voters, it`s not that good.

I have got to say, though, I think back to a year ago, I think back to the campaign, I was looking at the numbers everyday. You were looking at plenty of numbers. I think we saw the same thing. We saw signs throughout that campaign that he was doing terribly overall and that he was having problems in his base.

And then on Election Day, something else happened. So I guess it is a bigger-picture question to me. How can we really be sure with Trump what exactly these numbers mean?

JOEL BENENSON, FORMER HILLARY CLINTON CAMPAIGN ADVISER: Well, I think you can be sure, because right now he is out there by himself. He is the president of the United States. He`s able to dominate the news cycle in a way, with nobody, no opponent out there firing at him the way you are in a campaign. There is a lot of back and forth.

You are running negative ads. Right now, the damage is self-inflicted. And I see numbers beyond his approval and disapproval ratings in a couple of polls that are even more problematic. You now have one in five Republicans in the Quinnipiac poll recently that said he`s not honest.

You have one in five Republicans in the Economist/YouGov poll who say he doesn`t care about people like me. Those are terrible numbers for a Republican president. And if you look at the numbers on each of those metrics with independents, it`s a majority now.

You can`t create a governing coalition with those kinds of numbers, and those are self-inflicted wounds.

KORNACKI: Well, Hugh, let me ask you about some of those numbers that Joel was just talking about, because this is what I have been wondering, about the Republican base, about the Trump base.

I remember seeing devastating numbers for him even with Republicans in the 2016 campaign. And the question it raises to me, from your standpoint, and maybe can you speak to this, is there a type of Republican out there who doesn`t particularly like Donald Trump, doesn`t necessarily think he is all that good of a guy, but thinks he is sort of their -- I don`t know, their vehicle in a broader almost cultural fight that is bigger than politics.

HUGH HEWITT, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I think that`s part of it, Steve.

There is something called social desirability bias, which I`m sure Joel and you know a lot more about than I do. But it is simply the atmosphere in which people are less forthcoming about what they really believe.

I think Secretary Clinton`s new book, "What Happened?" when it comes out, it`s the best title I have seen in a long time, I`m still trying to digest what happened. If I can just use one example and ask you and Joel how to explain this, Trumbull County, my home county, born in Ohio, voted for Al Gore by 60 percent, by -- John Kerry by 60 percent, President Obama twice for 60 percent.

Secretary Clinton got less than 45 percent. What the hell happened? And I think in the Upper Midwest, Upper Mississippi Valley, there is a story by Dan Allott today in "The Washington Examiner," the same thing happened, massive unanticipated shifts. Those people haven`t shifted away from Trump.

I think the president stands for a complete rejection of the political class, both left and right. He is kind of like the dragon in "Game of Thrones." He just did turn the table over. And I don`t know that we can fully trust these numbers to tell us anything yet.

KORNACKI: And, Joel, I got to say, big picture, what Hugh is raising there is where I have been since the election, has been trying to figure this out, because we heard so many ways of analyzing and sort of understanding politics and political campaigns last year.

And by any of those historical or traditional measurements, he was a dead candidate walking on Election Day. You just take that "Access Hollywood" story a few weeks before the election. I think you multiply that by 10 in terms of the number of issues he hit. You had 65 percent of the people saying he wasn`t competent. You had 65 percent saying the guy wasn`t qualified to be president.

And he still -- on Election Day, there was that movement.

BENENSON: But you had two candidates in that race, Steve, who had historically high unfavorable ratings for presidential candidates. Unprecedented. Both of them were underwater. Both of them -- he was at about 60 percent unfavorable the entire campaign. Hillary Clinton was over 50 percent unfavorable.

Yet when you look at, you know, we`re talking about -- and Hugh makes a good point about some of these states. But, remember, he won white-non- college voters on Election Day by a historic amount. I think Ronald Reagan was the last one.

KORNACKI: Thirty-nine points.

(CROSSTALK)

BENENSON: Thirty-nine points.

KORNACKI: That`s right.

BENENSON: If you look at his favorable rating right now in Quinnipiac among white non-college voters, it is 43 favorable and about 57 unfavorable.

This is a massive shift. This is not a minor shift. And I think it is because you got stop focusing on the top-line numbers. He doesn`t have an opponent out there.

KORNACKI: I guess the question I`m asking you is, he had bad numbers with those voters in terms of what they thought of him during the campaign. Then, on Election Day, they voted for him.

BENENSON: You were running in a race against another candidate with high unfavorable ratings and two third-party candidates who polled about 8 percent of the vote.

Remember, across three states, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, I should remember them off the tip of my tongue, we lost by 77,00 votes; 38,000 people vote differently, and we have a different president. That`s how small the margin was, despite his delusional notion that he won some historic win.

KORNACKI: OK.

Hugh, let me ask you from that standpoint, then, because this is one of the interpretations that is out there. I think a lot of Democrats like this interpretation, that, hey, look how small that margin was. Joel just spanned it out there, 77,000 votes, three states. And it was Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton had almost as bad numbers as Donald Trump. If the Democrats just don`t nominate Hillary Clinton again, they make up those 77,000 votes. What do you say to that?

HEWITT: Well, it`s possible.

The stun was so palpable in November that I`m still recovering from it. I was as wrong as everybody else. And that`s why I`m so hesitant to come up with, other than the fact that he was a meteor strike on American politics and he remains a very potent force out there.

If Democrats nominate someone with just high favorables. The remarkable Kamala Harris, for example, is just a (INAUDIBLE) on which a lot will be written, and she`s got amazing positives. That would be a tough race.

But I point to 538 today, their analysis from Nate Silver, which is, if Democrats carry every congressional seat that Secretary Clinton carried and district and all those that Donald Trump carried by less than 3 percent, they are still not going to take the House back and they are going to lose five net Senate seats.

So, there`s a bifurcation in American politics. And I think it comes back to Obamacare. I really do. I really do believe people have lost money with which to live their lives as a result of this disastrous policy, that it will come down to an argument over 15 months about who is advancing the right agenda for working-class Americans.

And thus far, the Democrats have not articulated one. Donald Trump, that Foxconn story that you brought up just now, that is a huge deal in Wisconsin and Michigan. And if he repeats it in Pennsylvania and Ohio, the Trump coalition will stand as strong as it was in Youngstown two weeks ago, where the building was packed and the line was long outside.

KORNACKI: Right. This is a discussion for another time.

I think there is another one here just about what makes a good candidate, what makes a strong -- I can remember in the run-up to 2004, every Democrat said they had to nominate John Kerry because he was a strong candidate, he was a veteran. And after the election, he looked very different.

So, what looks like a strong candidate now may not once they go through rough-and-tumble.

Anyway, Joel Benenson, Hugh Hewitt, thanks to both of you for joining us.

Up next: North Korea lashing out over new U.N. sanctions, vowing to retaliate against the United States. But how big of a threat does North Korea and its missiles actually pose to the U.S. mainland?

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

President Trump is facing an escalating crisis with North Korea. Last month, the North Koreans tested an intercontinental missile that experts say could reach the United States mainland.

In response, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved new sanction on Saturday against the regime of Kim Jong-un. The measure even had the support of Russia and China.

North Korean state media carried a statement from the government calling the sanctions -- quote -- "a violent infringement of its sovereignty."

And it said -- quote -- "We will make the U.S. pay by 1,000-fold for all the heinous crimes it commits against the state and people of this country."

So where is this crisis heading?

Ambassador Nicholas Burns is a former undersecretary of state for political affairs and a former ambassador to NATO.

Thank you, sir, for joining us.

Look, the bottom-line question here, in terms of North Korea having the potential to inflict physical harm on the United States, do you have a sense of how close they are to being able to do that?

NICHOLAS BURNS, FORMER U.S. UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE FOR POLITICAL AFFAIRS: It`s unclear, Steve.

But most experts think they may be a year or two or three away from this capacity to have a nuclear weapon, an ICBM with a nuclear warhead on top, that could reach the western part of the United States and western Canada.

The Trump administration has said, I think quite rightly, that`s an unacceptable threat. We can`t live with that threat. So, you see the series of actions that they have taken, from this very successful vote in Security Council over the weekend, and the administration did a good job on that.

But it`s going to be tough to convince the North Koreans to stand down. I cannot see a scenario where they give up their nuclear weapons.

KORNACKI: Right. OK, so play this out then.

You have got China going along with these sanctions. Now China has their own interest, what, in sort of keeping the regime in place in North Korea, keeping what they see as stability, I guess, not having a refugee crisis.

So, China, do they even have -- going forward -- you have got them to vote for this in the U.N. Going forward, though, are they going to play any role in enforcing this?

BURNS: Yes, that remains to be scene.

the Chinese are not happy with the North Korean regime. The Chinese do not want a war on the Korean Peninsula. They certainly don`t want to see a war in South Korea or Japan, where they`re major trading partners. And they understand what that would mean.

The United States has 25,000 troops just below the demilitarized zone just north of Seoul. And so the U.S. strategy under President Trump, I think, has been good so far. They have said the threat is unacceptable from North Korea, that the North Koreans should stand down the nuclear and ballistic missile tests.

They`re leaning on China. But, Steve, the Chinese don`t -- they don`t like the North Korean regime, but they prefer the status quo to a scenario where there is so much pressure on the North Koreans that that regime might collapse.

The Chinese don`t want to see a democratic united Korean Peninsula aligned with the United States. So, they are not going to be able to provide the leverage that we need, unfortunately.

KORNACKI: Well, this afternoon, President Trump tweeted this -- quote -- "The fake news media will not talk about the importance of the United Nations Security Council`s 15-0 vote in favor of sanctions on North Korea."

Hey, we are talking about it here. Others are as well.

Let me ask you from this standpoint. You have got the sanctions right now. Very unclear whether this is going to work. You have -- as you say, there`s this absolute determination by North Korea to get this capability, to get these weapons.

Look, if these sanctions don`t work, is there any alternative short of military action that could keep North Korea from having the nuclear capability it says it wants?

BURNS: Well, two points.

There`s another sanctions step the U.S. could take. It`s a big one, secondary sanctions. The U.S. could say, we will sanction companies and countries that do business with North Korea. That`s a risk, because you are going to alienate a lot of countries in Asia, but it shows the seriousness of the United States.

I don`t see a military option right now, not with more than 10 million civilians in Seoul just below a demilitarized zone, not because -- and because of the fact that North Korea has nuclear weapons.

Frankly, I think best we can probably do right now is to, in negotiations that may take place, could take place, convince them to freeze their nuclear testing and ballistic missile testing and research.

Eventually, it may be in the United States` interest in a couple of months, if the North Koreans don`t test ballistic missiles or nuclear tests, to have talks with the North Koreans. It is not being kind to them to have talks. It is actually helping us to ascertain, is there an agreement out there that could freeze them in place, so that we buy some time to deal with this very difficult problem?

KORNACKI: All right. Ambassador Nick Burns, thank you for the time. Appreciate it.

BURNS: Thank you.

KORNACKI: OK.

And up next: According to "The New York Times," there is widespread uncertainty among Republicans when it comes to the question of whether Donald Trump will even be on the ballot in 2020. But how true are rumors that other Republicans, including Trump`s vice president, are already looking into possible runs of their own?

Stay tuned for that. You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEVE KORNACKI, MSNBC HOST: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

As President Trump marks 200 days in office, there are new signs of division within his party. "The New York Times" reports that a Republican shadow campaign for 2020 has taken shape as Trump doubts have grown. It notes that Mike Pence`s schedule is so full of political events that Republicans joked he is acting more like as second term vice president hoping to clear the field that a number two sworn in a little over six months ago.

The vice president called the article, quote, categorically false, saying in a statement that: Today`s article in "The New York Times" is disgraceful and offensive to me, my family and our entire team.

Meantime, "The New York Times" also reports that conservative Bill Kristol has begun informal conversations about creating a committee not to renominate the president.

Let`s bring tonight`s HARDBALL roundtable: Tara Dowdell is a Democratic strategist, Evan Siegfried is a Republican strategist, Caitlin Huey-Burns is a political reporter for "Real Clear Politics".

Caitlin, let`s just start on that statement from Mike Pence. They were not too happy in the president`s office about this story. The story was basically saying that Mike Pence is do an awful lot of political work out there, that Mike Pence maybe is trying to set himself up if Donald Trump doesn`t run to make sure he`s the candidate. I think one thing we know for sure, Donald Trump doesn`t like this kind of story.

CAITLIN HUEY-BURNS, POLITICAL REPORTER, REAL CLEAR POLITICS: Exactly. I was going to say, I think that statement was geared towards Donald Trump himself saying, look, I`m not doing this out of -- what`s really interesting here is you don`t take the job of vice president because you want to be vice president, right? Most people envision themselves in that role eventually. And by law, you could be become president one day.

What`s interesting about this though is, of course, how early it is. But also, Mike Pence is in contrast to Donald Trump in so many ways, so loyal to the party, knows how these things work, knows how you have to gear up for these sorts of things. And he`s kind of been running a counter presidency if you will in some cases.

We saw him visiting former Soviet countries last week, talking tough on Russia, presenting an alternate message or tougher message than the president was. You`ve also seen him distance himself in some respects. Remember when the Don Jr. stuff came out. He said, look, I wasn`t part of the campaign that time, releasing that statement. But he`s also remaining very loyal to him.

KORNACKI: Let me get to our partisans down here. Let me put it this way - - why do I feel we are having the same conversation and it just sort of the context of it changes. What I mean is this, in the campaign last year during the primaries, it was, OK, the Republicans are going to consolidate, the non-Trump Republicans are going to consolidate and they`re going to produce Paul Ryan as the sort of the last-minute nominee. They`re going to go to the convention. These unbound delegates are going to stop Donald Trump right there. That was going to be the thing that was going to happen.

Or then in the fall, when the "Access Hollywood" tape came out, well, guess what, Donald Trump has it leave the race right now. It`s going to be Mike Pence. They`re going to pick somebody else.

There is always a scenario it seems, Evan, where the Republican Party is about to regain control over Donald Trump. It just seems like the latest iteration of something we`ve seen a thousand times before. Why would this be any different?

EVAN SIEGFRIED, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I don`t think it would be different. I think Bill Kristol`s group is a fools errand and it`s just folly. I think what is really doing a good job of dividing the party is President Trump. He`s been weak on everything. He has not provided leadership.

Republicans are sick and tired of having to answer every time for any of his tweets. If you have a Republican on the talk about health care, or who wants to talk about health care, pardon, they`re going to have to actually say, you`re going to be probably asking them about the latest crazy thing the president has tweeted. And that sucks the oxygen out of the room and Republicans are frustrated. They don`t have a White House that is really working with them or producing any sort of results. So, we really don`t see him as a powerful president.

KORNACKI: But it just feels, Tara, though, like there`s a disconnect. This has been the story to me, for Trump has been this disconnect between Republican elites, whatever you want to call them, elected officials, and Republican voters. Republican voters kind of knew this is what they were getting when they voted for him.

TARA DOWDELL, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Trump`s base isn`t going anywhere. I know people are reporting that the numbers are slipping and this is happening, Trump`s base is with Trump. And if Trump runs for reelection, barring any kind of really, really super extreme thing from happening, because already big extreme things already happened, barring anything just completely out of orbit, Donald Trump, if he runs for reelection, his base will be with him. They will be mad if someone primaries him.

And so, I -- while I do think that Mike Pence probably is running a shadow campaign, because the House is on fire and that`s clearly not lost on Mike Pence. So, while I do think he is running a shadow campaign, I don`t see him primarying Donald Trump. I see him biding his time, waiting in the wings, along with a bunch of other Republicans, too, I might add, in case something happens, impeachment or something like that.

KORNACKI: OK. Let me -- open question to the panel here. Can anybody think of any Republican out there who is likely or just plausibly going to challenge Donald Trump in 2020 and would actually had a plausible chance of winning? Can we think of a name? Is there name we can put out there? I`ve heard Kasich, I say Kasich could barely win his home state against Trump.

HUEY-BURNS: Exactly. I was going to say, Kasich is the only one that seems to be actually making those kinds of moves and without any fear, right, because as you pointed out, he didn`t win.

You do have different kinds of Republicans. You have the Pences, the Tom Cotton. Remember Tom Cotton was during Iowa during the campaign. Nobody really thought that Trump would win. You have those guys, who have been very loyal to Donald Trump. Then you have the Ben Sasses of the world who never wanted to support him anyway.

But to your point earlier, is that there is also this disconnect between Republicans in Washington and elsewhere and the state parties. Talk to state party chairs, they are happy with Trump. You heard the Republican Party chair in Iowa yelling at Ben Sasse for criticizing the president. I think you`re going to see more of that.

SIEGFRIED: Can we also point out that a lot of people are missing, but there is a civil war in the GOP that`s been quietly raging. You have Republicans --

KORNACKI: It`s not too quiet, is it?

SIEGFRIED: Well, no, it is, because we lost from March -- or pardon me, from December 2015 to March 2017, the Republican Party contracted, we lost 23 percent of Republicans age 18 to 29. That coincides with the rise of Trump. There`s a lot of Republicans, especially younger, who don`t feel there is a place for them at the table because the party has shifted. And I think the party has contracted among other generations. While you see the more alt-right, the Stephen Miller factions, as well as the Mike Cernovich`s claim that they`re Republicans, versus people more along the lines of myself, the Bill Kristols, and others.

KORNACKI: I just think there is this undertone that`s out there, and a lot of us sort of thinking among leaders, it spills over into the coverage -- they`re just waiting for Donald Trump to pack it up and go away. I think you`ve got to reach a point here, where whether you like or you hate the guy, I don`t think he`s going away any time soon.

The roundtable is staying with us. They`re not going away, though.

Up next, the news commentator joins Trump TV to deliver the, quote, real news. Critics are already pushing back. But does it help him manage the message he is trying to sell his base?

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: Today, Chicago became one of the first cities to sue the Trump Justice Department over what it claims is an illegal plan to withhold public safety grants from so-called sanctuary cities. If the policy were to be blocked, it would, of course, affect other major U.S. cities, including New York and San Francisco.

Be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

The Trump campaign yesterday launched a so-called real news series on the president`s Facebook page.

And while President Trump still needs an official White House communications director, "The Associated Press`s" Jonathan Lemire points out that it is Trump who is the White House`s leading expert in the final word on what and how he communicates with the public. Despite decrying most negative media coverage as fake news and personally insulting members of the media, he has inserted himself into the White House`s press operations in an unprecedented fashion for a president.

We are back with Tara, Evan and Caitlin.

And, Tara, I mean, that is ultimately with Donald Trump -- I mean, we were talking about this earlier with the Mueller investigation. You can have all the discipline you want on the legal team in the White House, but if that`s not going to stop the president from going out there when he feels like it or when he`s irked and firing off 20 tweets, well, the same thing applies doubly when it comes to communications message. You can have the most disciplined operation in the world if Donald Trump wakes up in the wrong mood and he is holding that phone in his hand, all bets are off.

DOWDELL: And if you add to that the fact that Donald Trump thinks that he`s the best communications strategist out there, right? He thinks he is better than everyone. And for a long time, he was able to control, he still controls the story, but even before he entered politics for decades, Donald Trump made himself part of the news cycle.

So, he feels like that`s how he -- you know, that`s how he survived a lot of business losses was that banks said, hey, we will still support you if you continue the market the product and they installed other people to run his businesses. Something a lot of people don`t know.

And so, he knows that that saved him and saved him throughout his career, this ability to garner media coverage. So, there is no way he`s going to let up on that or allow someone else to control his media.

KORNACKI: And it feels to me like, Evan, there`s been this ingredient with Trump where what we would call typically in politics being on message, message discipline, sticking to the script, whatever you want to call it, he equates that with boring and he equates boring with sort of death, political death.

SIEGFRIED: Well, he has come up and he thinks it is all ratings and what covers you get. Remember, he came up and he was mastering the press of New York. But it was the tabloid press, "The New York Daily News" and "The New York Post". He`s always craved "The New York Times`" attention and for them to take him seriously. And he is going out and every off base tweet that he goes out and pushes gets that attention and he loves the attention.

And then he gets upset when people say, well, maybe he should stop tweeting. If the problem a lot of Republicans have isn`t the fact he tweets, it`s what he tweets. If he were able to focus that, we have a lot more results. He never even tried to help pass the BCRA or any of these other things. We`re going to see it happen again in tax reform. We`re going to see it happen again with the budget.

KORNACKI: Well, that is something interesting about him, too, is for all the media bashing, all the sort of going after what you might call the elite media, he still gives those interviews to "New York Times". I think there is something there.

(CROSSTALK)

KORNACKI: He`s been the tabloid guy of New York, but he wants to talk, he wants to be taken seriously by "The New York Times". He wants that stamp of establishment approval. Very interesting psychological story with our president.

Quick break here. Up next, these guys will tell me three things that I don`t know. That`s not going to be hard to do.

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: We are back with the HARDBALL roundtable.

Tara, tell me something I don`t know.

DOWDELL: The Google manifesto that came out with the Google employee saying that women are inferior and that`s why there are not as many women software engineers.

KORNACKI: All right. Evan?

SIEGFRIED: Well, we`re saying the Capitol Hill stand up to the president on the FAA reauthorization and the FDA reauthorization, and many Republican aides are showing through ignoring the White House that it`s going to be a lame duck presidency already.

KORNACKI: Caitlin, very quickly.

HUEY-BURNS: It`s recess and keeping close eye on retirements that might come out from members of Congress. We already saw a few that have announced for governor. Keep an eye on that because it`s an indication of the mood.

KORNACKI: All right. Caitlin, Evan, Tara, thank you.

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.

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