Hardball with Chris Matthews, Transcript 8/8/17 Trump: N. Koreans will be met with "Fire and Fury"

Guests: Gordon Chang, Jon Wolfsthal. Susan Page, Zerlina Maxwell, Megan Murphy, Azi Paybarah

Show: HARDBALL Date: August 8, 2017 Guest: Gordon Chang, Jon Wolfsthal. Susan Page, Zerlina Maxwell, Megan Murphy, Azi Paybarah

STEVE KORNACKI, GUEST HOST: Fire and fury.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

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

President Trump today issued a dramatic warning to North Korea. It came hours after the news that U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that North Korea has successfully developed a nuclear weapon small enough to fit on a missile.

"The Washington Post" was the first to report the news. NBC News has now confirmed it,"The Post" citing a U.S. intelligence assessment From July 28th that determined, quote, "North Korea has produced nuclear weapons for ballistic missile delivery." That is a milestone many experts believed was years away.

Today, at his New Jersey golf club, President Trump issued this warning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening, beyond a normal state. And as I said, they will be met with fire, fury, and frankly, power the likes of which this world has never seen before. Thank you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: All right, I`m joined now by NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, Jon Wolfsthal, former special assistant to President Obama for national security, and Gordon Chang, author of "Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World." Thanks to all of you joining us. Obviously, a very big day here.

Andrea Mitchell, let me start with you, a couple questions. Let`s start on the nuts and bolts, though, first, in terms of what U.S. intelligence knows specifically. It sounds like what they`ve learned, they believe, sort of it speeds up the timetable, at least, in terms of potentially what North Korea`s capable of.

How confident is U.S. intelligence in this (INAUDIBLE) are U.S. officials in this intelligence that they`ve got? And what does it mean in terms of the potential for North Korea to pull off some kind of attack that would affect the United States? What does it mean in terms of a timetable for their ability to do that?

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Well, those are all very good and tough questions. I would call this an estimate or an assessment from the Defense Intelligence Agency, which is a little bit more forward-leaning than some of the others. So this is not an intelligence-wide or a community-wide assessment by all the intelligence agencies.

But it is alarming. It`s alarming because the timetable is so much faster, the pace of this is so much faster than what had been previously assessed. The fact is that on the 11th of July, they fired off a missile that could reach Denver or Chicago. This was not expected to happen for another year or so.

And now they believe, at least from this agency, that they have managed to miniaturize a weapon that could go inside that ICBM. They have not yet solved, as we understand it, the hurdle of the reentry of this weapon, nor testing it for accuracy, for effectiveness.

But that said, this is a much more rapid pace. It reduces to months rather than years the front line of what could be possible by North Korea. And that obviously makes it a lot sooner that they could really materially threaten the United States.

It has to raise questions by the administration of what kind of options, Dianne Feinstein saying that the president`s response was bombastic, criticizing it and saying that we now should initiate, without preconditions, diplomatic talks. John McCain saying that he thought the president`s rhetoric was not helpful and that he cannot imagine any president from Eisenhower through Reagan who would use that kind of rhetoric unless he`s prepared to carry it out, and he does not think that the president is really carried -- prepared to carry out military action.

KORNACKI: Yes, let`s stay on it then, President Trump`s response here, because it was so striking. We just played that clip from that golf club, his golf club there in New Jersey today. He sat straight up when that issue came. He delivered the line there about "fire and fury." Just before that, he`d been reading a script about opioid addiction. He`d been looking down at the papers, didn`t seem to have a lot of emotion. The change in body language there I think was striking.

But Andrea, stay on that point here. And I think the question here is this is a president who said he looks at President Obama, he looks at what President Obama did with Syria, he said Barack Obama`s mistake was drawing the red line. He, Donald Trump, would never draw a red line. But those statements he made promising fire and fury if North Korea goes any farther with this -- does that amount to any kind of a red line here?

MITCHELL: Well, it certainly could be interpreted that way. And it`s -- it`s perhaps a message to China and to others to really pay attention. Now, obviously, we have diplomacy in play. The sanctions are a non- military response, those new sanctions, very effectively done by the U.N. ambassador and also carried out in the recent Asian summit by the secretary of state.

So there was praise for that diplomacy, for that circling the wagons, aligning all of those Asian countries, 25 Asian countries and -- Asian Pacific countries, including Russia and China, and the United States, of course, leading the way against North Korea, isolating North Korea.

Now the question is, will China really live up to it? Many people are doubtful of that. So it`s sort of a front door, but not closing the back door on the economic pipeline to North Korea. So there was a lot more room for maneuvering.

But this new assessment clearly has raised the stakes because the president and his advisers seem to feel they needed to send a very strong message, which they did. Now, North Korea has already responded with a threat against Guam. This is because they`ve been so upset by what they see as a provocation, which is the B-1 bombers that are flying overhead, based in Guam.

KORNACKI: Yes, in terms of that response from North Korea, let me bring Gordon Chang in here, someone very familiar with the North Korean regime. So you have the president making the statement promising "fire and fury." Now you have reports from North Korean state media, through North Korean state media that the response from Kim Jong-un`s regime to this rhetoric from President Trump is to say, OK, we`re going to wipe out Guam, the U.S. possession of Guam.

How do you interpret the response from North Korea?

GORDON CHANG, AUTHOR, "NUCLEAR SHOWDOWN: NORTH KOREA TAKES ON THE WORLD": Well, Guam is always going to be in the sights of the North Koreans, and clearly, it was also in response to the "fire and fury" message. But the other thing the president was trying to do, I think, as Andrea mentioned, was to signal to the Chinese that the U.S. was running out of patience and that there was a sense of urgency.

But more important, he was trying to reinforce the sense of deterrence, and that`s becoming critical right now because when the North Koreans are confident in their arsenal -- and they will be fairly soon -- they`re going to use to it blackmail the United States, not just over Guam but over Los Angeles, because they want to break the treaty with South Korea. They want our troops off the peninsula. And then they want to destroy the South Korean state, which has been the long-held goal of the Kim regime.

KORNACKI: Well, how do they -- do they take this seriously? When they hear Donald Trump talk this way, do they say, This guy really might attack us, or do they say he`s constrained, the U.S. talks tough? How do they regard these kind of words?

CHANG: Well, I think that they might have yawned a little bit. But when they start to think about it, I think they`re going to be concerned because Trump is very different from every preceding president. He used languages -- language that does not -- you know, in the American vocabulary. And so I think that they are worried that he is unpredictable.

This is Richard Nixon`s madman theory, that, you know, the idea is to convince the rest of the world that they got to do what we want because we`re just crazy enough to do something completely unimaginable. And that`s what I think Trump is doing here.

KORNACKI: And Jon Wolfsthal, look, I -- Andrea was just reading off some of the responses from United States politicians, leaders on both sides of the aisle, expressing concern, maybe even alarm over how the president addressed this in public today. But look, you`ve got Rex Tillerson over there, who`s been working on the sanctions and working on the diplomacy end with China, trying to get North Korea, basically, to the table on this. Now you got the president talking this way.

I think one of the questions this raises -- I think this is a key question. The president talking that way today -- does that reflect the president himself just deciding on his own with the cameras in the room, This is what I`m going to do? I`m going to sound tough. I`m going to try to some kind of "Dirty Harry" routine here, or is this strategic on the part of the entire administration?

Is there some sort of strategic thinking here that, Hey, this is going to buttress Tillerson somehow in these negotiations? Is there coordination in the administration? Is there communication in the administration? Or is this a president who`s just out there on his own? How do you interpret it?

WOLFSTHAL, FORMER SENIOR DIRECTOR NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL UNDER OBAMA: Well, I think those people that have been hoping that there would be some sort of strategic thought coming out of this administration have been disappointed time and time again. On North Korean policy, we are all over the map. We`ve said -- the secretary of state himself has said there will be no negotiations until North Korea denuclearizes. Now he`s said that we`ll negotiate as long as they stop testing. Then he said there`s no preconditions for negotiations. The president, the secretary of defense, secretary of state, U.N. ambassador have all been out of sync. And it makes you wonder what they use the Situation Room for, if they`re not going to coordinate policy.

I have no doubt that this was off the top of the president`s head. He felt that this is the role that he needs to play, but it`s clear that he hasn`t thought it through. This is a statement unlike anything we`ve seen out of a president in the nuclear age.

President Obama used to say superpowers don`t bluff. And if you`re going to make a statement like this, that you`re going on threaten to preemptively use nuclear weapons against North Korea, all you`re doing is increasing the risk that a conflict is going to erupt, the North Koreans are going to believe that we`re prepared to strike first and they`re going to feel the need to do so and beat us to the punch. And that`s not the way the United States has maintained stability and security in the region for 50 years.

KORNACKI: Well, so where does this go, then? I mean, look, we`ve got -- and it looks like sort of blustery rhetoric here in terms of response from North Korea, saying, OK, you said that. We`re going to try -- we`ll wipe out Guam. Nobody thinks that`s where they are right now. But in terms of -- with the statement Trump put out today, what can he tolerate from North Korea going forward that`s not going to make it look like he`s letting them will cross his de facto red line?

WOLFSTHAL: Well, I think the president has backed himself into a corner, just as he did in January, when he said that a North Korean ICBM "won`t happen." So I think he`s already been embarrassed, and I think that`s part of the reason that he`s put forward such bluster.

The challenge is not what President Trump is saying or what Kim Jong-un says never response. It`s the escalation that gets out of control by those things that we`re not on top of. Is there a North Korean fishing vessel that gets fired upon? Is there a power outage on North Korea that they can`t explain that they think somehow is a -- is a prelude to an attack?

President Kennedy said famously during the Cuban missile crisis, when our U2 plane got shot down over the Soviet Union, that why is it there`s someone somewhere who never gets the word? We`re not in control of the situation, and neither is the North Koreans, and that`s why we worked very hard over the past 50 years to make sure that we are providing calm, stable leadership, we`re coordinating with our allies, that we`re not the ones adding gasoline to the fire, which is what President Trump just did today.

KORNACKI: And Andrea, the timing on this is so interesting, too, because you have a new White House chief of staff. You have John Kelly, somebody with a military background who came in with I think a lot of hopes of folks in Washington, again both sides of the aisle, is maybe there`d be a little bit more discipline, a little bit more organization, a little less chaos in this White House.

Now you have a situation where this is the president`s response immediately after being confronted with the most grave foreign policy crisis of his presidency. This is his response with John Kelly now there as his chief of staff.

MITCHELL: What is surprising is that Defense Secretary Mattis has made it very clear that a war with North Korea would be catastrophic, that there really isn`t a viable nuclear of preemptive option against their nuclear facilities because we don`t know where everything is. We couldn`t take it all out. They have conventional artillery that would for 48 hours rain down on South Korea. There are 100,000 American citizens in South Korea, as well as 28,000 U.S. troops right there. The distance between the DMZ and Seoul, where there are 25 million people, is about the distance from Washington to Baltimore.

So we`ve had a lot of warnings from very cautious military people in this administration, and we now have a military man, very well regarded, who is the chief of staff. That`s what is so confounding about this particular response, the rhetoric that was used.

We don`t have a hotline. Even at the height of the cold war -- I covered the cold war with -- you know, the Reagan years, before Gorbachev, when there were Soviet leaders who were not communicating in any kind of way with the president of the United States other, than through the Soviet ambassador in Washington. But there was a hotline. There were fail-safes.

We don`t have any communication like this other than an antiquated communication at the U.N. with the North Korean ambassador, and that has not been working very effectively.

KORNACKI: Gordon, look, I think everybody right now, their minds are on, is this something that could lead to a some sort of military confrontation? But let me look at it from the other standpoint here.

If the timetable is speeding up, if North Korea is looking at this kind of nuclear military capability as sort of the solution to so many of the problems that they face as a state -- if that`s their attitude towards this, is there a scenario where the United States is going to have to confront the question of, can we live with, can we tolerate a North Korea with this kind of capability? And if so, is there a chance the United States could live with that, could tolerate that, or does it reach a point where a military option somewhere down the line, a military option, there becomes a consensus is a thing the United States has to do to avoid that?

CHANG: We deterred the Soviet Union for decades. We`re deterring China now. The issue is going to be whether North Korea is stable enough to deter. And I think so.

But we got to look at some of the things that happened this year in the regime, starting from about mid-January, going to mid-February, indicating real turbulence inside the ruling group. If that ruling group is as turbulent as it looked at that period, then we have to have a whole review of where we`re going with this.

You know, we may very well may end up deciding we have to use force, but there are a lot of things that we can do that are non-kinetic. So we can talk about sanctions on North Korea much more severe than the ones on Saturday. We can go after Chinese banks, which have been money laundering for the North Koreans. We can stop the flow of technology and equipment to North Korea`s ballistic missile systems.

Those things we really haven`t done, so there`s a lot to do before we exhaust all of the non-kinetic options.

KORNACKI: OK. Andrea Mitchell, Jon Wolfsthal, Gordon Chang, that`s to all of you for being with us. Much more, of course, on this during the show tonight.

And coming up, the political reaction to the big North Korean news. What is behind that hard-line rhetoric from President Trump we are talking about here? And what is next after his promise that North Korea will not be able to put a nuclear warhead on a missile on his watch? This is his first grave foreign policy test as a president. That is ahead.

Plus, the news today that President Trump himself through his attorney has corresponded privately with special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Trump`s potential Russia ties.

And we have got two new polls 200 days into the Trump presidency. Overall, the numbers do not look very good for the president. We`re going to find out what it could mean for Trump, what it could mean for his party, and what it could mean for the Democrats, who of course, are hoping to take back the House and maybe more in those mid-term elections next year.

And finally, the HARDBALL roundtable is going to weigh in on the North Korea crisis and Donald Trump`s response. They`re going to tell us three things you might not know tonight.

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: Well, Americans are uneasy about the threat posed by North Korea, as well as the president`s ability to handle it. According the a new CBS News poll out just today -- good timing on this one -- 61 percent are uneasy about Trump`s ability to handle the nuclear situation. Just 35 percent, about 1 in 3 Americans, say they are confident he will deal with it.

This poll was obviously conducted before today`s comments by the president, where he said that threats from North Korea would be met with "fire and fury." Much more on this.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: And welcome back to HARDBALL. The news that North Korea could now fit a nuclear warhead on a missile that might reach the United States represents the biggest foreign policy test of the Trump presidency to date. The intelligence assessment comes after the president appeared to draw a red line, or what amounted to a red line, on North Korea`s rapidly advancing weapons program. "It won`t happen," he said in January.

According to "The New York Times," President Obama also warned Trump before his inauguration that North Korea was, quote, "the most urgent problem he would confront upon taking office."

Now, despite President Trump`s confrontational rhetoric in the face of the threat today, Politico is reporting that, quote, "behind closed doors, the Trump administration is pursuing a strategy that`s not all that different from President Barack Obama`s approach."

I`m joined now by Robert Costa, national political reporter for "The Washington Post" and an MSNBC political analyst. And Susan Page is the Washington bureau chief for "USA Today."

Robert Costa, let me start with you.

And if you could, take us a little bit behind the scenes here. I think one question on people`s minds as they watch Trump now deal with this test in a very public way is, how prepared is he behind the scenes, a president who came in with no foreign policy experience, obviously?

There have been reports that maybe he`s not as interested in the briefings he receives as president as past presidents have been. Of course, he has got all those military folks around him.

How prepared was he over the last few months behind the scenes to deal publicly with what he is confronted with now?

ROBERT COSTA, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Based on my reporting, Steve, the president has been briefed each week, sometimes each day, about the threat in North Korea. This has happened at national security meetings.

H.R. McMaster, the general, the national security adviser, has been doing a lot of that. He has also briefed in national security meetings during the week at the White House. But the pace of which this has unfolded has confronted the president now while he`s on vacation.

And so he is working, I`m told, with General Kelly, his chief of staff, to try to figure out a strategy and a response, with McMaster as well.

KORNACKI: And, Susan Page, we see this. How many times in history with all sorts of different presidents do we see this? I don`t think North Korea was an issue that Donald Trump particularly campaigned on last year.

Obviously, he talked about it here and there, but if you looked at the polls, if you looked at the debates, this was not a subject that was preeminent in the campaign last year, didn`t seem to motivate him to run for president.

We have seen this a lot. George W. Bush didn`t expect to be dealing with 9/11. It ended up defining his presidency. But here we are. It`s so interesting. Six, seven months in, Donald Trump, for all the controversies, for all the chaos of his presidency so far, here he is dealing with something on a very, very serious level now that I don`t think necessarily he thought he would.

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "USA TODAY": Yes, this was certainly not an issue that animated his presidential campaign. It is not something he talked about much.

On the other hand, it was certainly no secret that North Korea was going to be the biggest foreign policy challenge facing whoever got elected president. That wasn`t new. But it did not get dealt with in the campaign in a serious way.

And, of course, as you say, that is, in a way, not surprising. That often takes, -- that often happens, that a president faces a challenge that -- for which he was not either prepared or was not really in his natural wheelhouse.

And the difficulty with North Korea for Donald Trump, as it was for Barack Obama, and even for George W. Bush, who was around, who was serving as president during the first nuclear test, is that the options for what to do are so limited, and all of them carry such serious downsides.

COSTA: Yes.

KORNACKI: Robert, it sounds like you have something. Go ahead.

COSTA: And the challenge facing President Trump is not just a direct one with North Korea.

He has to figure out, I`m told by my sources inside of the West Wing, how to have a regional response. What is China`s role going to be? He`s built a relationship with Abe in Japan. What is the international response, whether it`s from the United Nations or other U.S. allies?

All these factors are being discussed at Bedminster tonight, as the president thinks through, yes, he wants to have the hot rhetoric when it comes to testing Kim Jong-un, but he also needs to really craft a response that takes in international order.

KORNACKI: Yes. And hanging over all this, too, a sort of big-picture, basic philosophical picture about foreign policy, about how U.S. interests are defined.

Speaking about North Korea on the campaign trail, Donald Trump took more of what you might call non-interventionist approach, saying countries like Japan, if Japan could mount more of a defense, should be able to protect itself against North Korea.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A case could be made that let them protect themselves against North Korea. They would probably wipe them out pretty quick. And if they fight, you know what? That will be a terrible thing. Terrible. Good luck, folks. Enjoy yourself.

So, North Korea has nukes. Japan has a problem with that. They have a big problem with that. Maybe they would in fact be better off if they defend themselves from North Korea.

QUESTION: With nukes?

TRUMP: Maybe we would be better off.

Including with nukes, yes, including with nukes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: You know, in the context there, we forget about this. Donald Trump in the campaign was talking about other countries having nuclear weapons. Of course, Japan since World War II hasn`t had the kind of military it had then. He was saying maybe they should to deal with North Korea.

But, Susan, what that gets to is, in the bigger philosophical question, is, Donald Trump made a lot of non-interventionist noise as a candidate, but he also made a lot of aggressive noise. Bomb the hell out of ISIS, he liked to say. The idea of being tough with other countries.

And this could also be one of those situations where those two things come into conflict a bit.

PAGE: You know, I think when he talks about America first, that meant let`s not get involved in kind of a messy, difficult, possibly deadly situation like the confrontation with North Korea.

But you know what? The reality is, once you`re president, you don`t have the option of saying no, given our commitments to South Korea and Japan. So, that has been a learning lesson for Donald Trump.

And I think he`s been surprised on another aspect, to pick up on something Robert was saying. I think that Donald Trump thought that he could do more to pressure China into handling North Korea. And, of course, China did join the sanctions that were imposed by the United Nations just the other day. That was a step forward.

But the idea that China is going to fix this problem for the United States, I think, is just not realistic.

KORNACKI: Let me make an abrupt shift here for a second, Susan, and ask you about this as well.

On any other night, I think this would be our lead story here. But there`s some news today about the Trump-Russia investigation as well. It is in your paper, so we want to get to you on it.

"USA Today" reporting that -- quote -- "Through his lawyer, Trump has sent private messages of appreciation to special counsel Robert Mueller."

That communication was confirmed by one of the president`s attorneys, who said, without elaborating -- quote -- "The president has sent messages back and forth."

Another lawyer familiar with the matter now telling NBC News that only pleasantries were exchanged.

Of course, you had the whole situation with Trump and Comey and the communications there.

What more can you tell us about this? PAGE: Well, I can tell you, the question that is raised in our minds is, is this appropriate for the president to do with a special counsel, to be sending these friendly messages at a time when he is also denouncing the investigation as a hoax?

And just to know, this is a story that is based 100 percent on named sources, John Dowd, the president`s chief lawyer, telling us that these positive, respectful messages were sent. This is quite at odds with the president`s public posture.

KORNACKI: OK. And we will try to get a little bit more into that later in the show as well. We want to juggle some big breaking news here obviously on multiple fronts.

But, Susan Page, Robert Costa, thanks to both of you for joining us. We appreciate that.

And up next: Donald Trump trying to shore up his base with some new polling out today, two new polls that do not look good for the president. But are the numbers bad enough for the Democrats to capitalize and make a comeback in the midterms?

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: All right, welcome back to HARDBALL.

Well, meanwhile, we have got some news about Donald Trump and his standing with the American people, some of the people who voted for him, the people who didn`t vote for him, three new polls to tell you about saying some interesting things here.

Let me give you the headlines on this, three new polls out there.

Gallup, they do a daily tracking poll every afternoon. They spit out -- 37 percent say -- they have Donald Trump`s approval rating sitting at 37. CBS got him at 36, CNN at 38.

What is interesting about this is, it is not a surprise that Donald Trump`s numbers are low. They have been low his entire presidency. They were low his entire campaign.

But for really two weeks now, close to two weeks now, they have been extra low, at least by Donald Trump standards. They have been in the 30s. It seems consistent now. He seems to be, at least for the moment, settling in there at the 30s, not at 40, not in the low 40s. That`s a potentially critical difference, the difference between the low 40s and the mid to high 30s.

Of course, we have been talking all about North Korea, this big crisis, how Donald Trump will handle it. This is subject to volatility. Let`s see if his response to it changes these numbers at all.

But, right now, Donald Trump seems to be settling in at what may be a new low level for his presidency. Now, keep this in mind, though. If you`re a Trump supporter, if you are in the White House, this is the number maybe you`re paying attention to more, his performance on the economy, how he handles the economy. That`s actually running ahead of his job approval.

We don`t usually see this, but we`re seeing an almost 10-point improvement when you ask people, how do you think he`s handling the economy? Well, 46 percent approval on that. How do you think he is handling his job, the number goes lower.

Which of those two will factor more into voters` decisions? That`s a trend. That`s a separation maybe to keep an eye on as we move forward. But, again, the big picture, by any modern historical standard, Donald Trump is rock bottom here, 37 percent. You see the only modern president at this point who comes close to an approval rating this low, it was Bill Clinton, 1993, 44 percent. Now, obviously, Bill Clinton ended up being a two-term president.

But remember, Bill Clinton had been higher than 44 percent early in his presidency in those first few days, first few weeks. He was dropping at this point. Then he came back. Donald Trump, like we said, he has never really been higher than the mid-40s, even as a candidate.

So Bill Clinton was able to get much higher during his presidency. We haven`t seen Donald Trump ever rise to those levels. It seems to be almost a different strategy, almost a different model.

But the thing we also have seen historically is, if you have got a low approval rating, your party pays at the polls in the midterm. Obama in 2010, he was 44 percent. And you remember that massacre for Democrats, a 63-seat gain for Republicans in the House. In `06, Bush was in the low 30s. Republican lost the House. In `94, Clinton was at 43 percent; 40 years of Democratic control of the House disappeared in that election.

Reagan in `82 -- Republicans didn`t have many seats to lose in `82. They still lost 26. And, remember, Donald Trump, his numbers right now lower than Clinton, lower than Reagan, only ahead of Bush in `06.

So, history, history says this is a very bad place for Trump to be, not just for Trump, but for the Republican Party.

For more, I`m joined now by Michael Steele, former RNC chairman and MSNBC political analyst, and Zerlina Maxwell, director of progressive programming for SiriusXM and former director of progressive media for the Clinton campaign.

Thanks to both of you for joining us.

Michael Steele, let me ask you. Look, I think it is clear to say there has been slippage here for Donald Trump.

MICHAEL STEELE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes.

KORNACKI: From the low 40s, I think we could say that`s sort of been where his sweet spot has been, if you want to call it that since the campaign, now into the 30s.

I guess the question is, if you get to a campaign atmosphere in 2018, does polarization, does the polarization of the country bring it back into the 40s then? Or does he need to do something else?

STEELE: No. I don`t know if it brings it back into the 40s.

I think that what the president has to be cognizant of, as I`m sure many Republican operatives are right now, is that, among independent voters, he is at a minus, a big minus. He has a very, very small number of them supporting what he`s been doing with the administration.

That, for me, is the sweet spot, soft D`s for sure. But those independent voters are going to help fill in those important gaps around the country, particularly in maybe close, tight congressional races. Those independent voters can come out. And if they`re pissed, if their frustrations with the president are still manifest for them, you could see a repeat of what we saw in 2006.

While the president is not on the ballot, his party is. And anyone that has that R behind their name could pay a price there. So it does behoove the administration and Republicans right now to pay close attention to where these numbers are.

They can`t afford to have them stay in the cellar much beyond October, November. They have to show some rise and increase.

KORNACKI: Yes, Zerlina, we say, by any modern historical standard, this is disaster for Republicans in 2018.

ZERLINA MAXWELL, FORMER CLINTON CAMPAIGN DIRECTOR OF PROGRESSIVE MEDIA: Correct.

KORNACKI: A president with this approval ratings. They got all that low- hanging fruit in a lot of those congressional districts. You think the Democrats would be positioned for a huge gain.

But, by any modern historical standard, Donald Trump should have faced a disaster on Election Day last year as well. I guess my question here is to Democrats, how confident are you that you have a really good grasp on sort of the nature of his appeal, what he`s tapping into, how he was able to win an election last year with such poisonous numbers, and what that could mean for 2018?

MAXWELL: I think Democrats are trying to come to terms with that.

But I do think that there are 91 or so districts that are closer than Georgia 6, which we saw a few months back was very close, and swung wildly in the favor of Democrats, although they came up short. So I think that going into 2018, it is more about finding a positive message.

It can`t just be an anti-Trump message, because that didn`t work in 2016, but also looking back beyond 2016 as a lesson for how we should message in 2018. You have got to look back to 2008. You have got to look back to 2010 and elections prior to the Trump era, because I think that actually is more accurate in terms of indicating what we should expect, even though Donald Trump is a factor in 2018.

KORNACKI: So, right now, are Democrats giving people a reason to vote for Democrats? Or are Democrats right now basically just, hey, you think Trump is going too far, vote for us, we`re a check on him party?

MAXWELL: I think that certainly there are different sections of the Democratic Party.

You have got the DNC. You have congressional Democrats all coming up with messages for their particular constituencies. What I do think though is that there`s a core message. It`s about inclusion and opportunity.

So it is about diversity being a strength, not a weakness. It`s the antithesis to essentially what Donald Trump ran on, which was identity politics, but it was about white identity. And I think that that`s one thing that in our analysis of 2016, we`re missing, because we`re putting identity politics up against economic issues, as if those two things are in conflict with one another, and they`re not, because identity as -- whiteness is actually an identity.

And there are plenty of working-class brown and black voters that would come out for Democrats if the message was fine-tuned to those constituencies.

KORNACKI: Quickly, we`re up against a break.

But, Michael, I have got to ask you a quick question here, because I`m thinking back to 2010. You were the Republican chairman then. You can maybe speak to this. My recollection of 2010 is, the Republicans -- I wasn`t really sure what they were for in 2010. I know they were against Barack Obama.

STEELE: Hmm.

KORNACKI: And it did seem, in that environment, they were against Obamacare, they were against the stimulus, they were against Obama, and they got a pretty big payday electorally.

STEELE: No, but we were for something.

We had a galvanizing message around the idea of you taking control, taking power away from government, which is what the whole fire Pelosi campaign was about. It worked, whether you`re running for a local city race or if you`re running for governor of your state or the United States Senate.

The idea was empowering people. When you talk about the constituencies that are out there -- and I appreciate this notion of you want to get these voters out to the polls and all of that. But if people feel that they`re still isolated, they`re not going to come around to your table.

And so you have got to find a way to create that energy. And if the way you think you`re going to do that is a better deal, that`s not galvanizing the base. That`s not elevating that argument for them to actually get off their couch and go out and support a Democrat.

And, meanwhile, Republicans are looking over their shoulder saying, how much do we have to do to hold this House? And those are two tensions that are going to be very interesting to watch over the next year.

KORNACKI: All right.

Again, by any historical standard, they are very bad numbers for Donald Trump and Republicans. Of course, we will see, with North Korea, how that affects things. It`s going to affect a lot of things in this world, but certainly his standing would be among them as well. We will be monitoring that as well.

But, Michael Steele, Zerlina Maxwell, we thank you both for joining us.

And up next: President Trump promised today he would meet North Korea`s threats with fire and fury, just the latest provocative statement he`s made about North Korea. We`re going to look at the tale of the tape.

That`s next. You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: North Korea does not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEVE KORNACKI, MSNBC HOST: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was President Trump today with a strongly worded warning for North Korea, but it comes amid a series of statements that at times been contradictory. Take a watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

TRUMP: China is helping us possibly or probably with the North Korean situation.

I wish we would have a little more help with almost to North Korea. That doesn`t seem to be working out.

As far as North Korea is concerned, I don`t know. We`ll see what happens. I don`t like to talk about what I have planned. But I have some pretty severe things that we`re thinking about. That doesn`t mean we`re going to do `em. I don`t draw red lines.

We`ll handle North Korea. We`re going to be able to handle them. It will be -- it will be handled. We handle everything.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

KORNACKI: And let`s bring in tonight`s HARBALL roundtable. Beth Fouhy is a senior editor for NBC News, Megan Murphy is an editor for "Bloomberg Businessweek", and Azi Paybarah is a senior reporter for "Politico".

Beth, that statement from Donald Trump today, fire and fury. One of the things I`m trying to figure out -- I`m curious what you think is -- who do you think his audience was for that? Was this a message aimed at North Korea? Was it a message aimed at China to say look what I might do? Was this a guy who was trying to sound tough for the American people?

Who do you think he was thinking of when he delivered that statement?

BETH FOUHY, MSNBC SENIOR POLITICAL EDITOR: Well, Steve, I wish I thought that he was being strategic about this. To me, he was being as impulsive as he is about many things that he tweets, says, thinks, blurts out loud. He was offended, is concerned by the stories that had come out, that we report in the "Washington Post," that this nuclear weapon is apparently in process of being made much sooner than we thought. He wanted to show he`s tough. He wanted to show he`s a big guy. He had the opportunity to speak with the press. It was the first time he`s spoken to the press since he went on his 17-day vacation to New Jersey.

So, this is his chance to get on the record. He was quite blustery. He often is. You can see it in his real estate dealings, brinksmanship. That works in real estate. Is that the right way to handle this moment as president? That`s the question.

KORNACKI: And, look, Megan, in 2001, after 9/11, I remember George W. Bush, there was a criticism -- even people around him, his administration, I think some of them would privately voiced that he was a little too much in public trying to sound like an old west sheriff. They wanted him to tone that down a little bit.

But with the Bush administration then, you knew there was a cohesive strategy in place. They were on the same page strategically. They were working towards the same ends. I think the question with Trump is it`s not just about the rhetoric today. Is this a president who has sort of laid out, is he participating in a strategy that`s sort of administration-wide or is that still being worked out here?

MEGAN MURPHY, EDITOR, BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK: It`s definitely being worked out. I know that`s not to say that we don`t have a strategy in place for the escalation of the nuclear threat in North Korea.

We have to remember, this has been decades in the making, but that`s a strategy that involves diplomatic efforts, serious talks, that Rex Tillerson has been trying to lead, bringing China to the table, bringing Russia to the table. This is Japan, South Korea, Australia, all of our neighbors in that region.

And let`s put this into context. We had an incident with President Trump where he announced a transgender policy that immediately his generals went back on and said they were unaware of. This is now so much more serious than that in terms of this bluster he`s put out there. It would be funny in terms of fire and fury if it wasn`t so serious in taking us to the brink.

Do I have confidence that he is the man that has a plan in place? Absolutely not. Do I have confidence that there are people around him who can hopefully deescalate the system, convince -- the situation, convince him of the merits of coming back to diplomacy and looking at this in a realistic way?

This has definitely gotten far out of hand. His rhetoric has only escalated. We already see senior Republicans and Democrats joining forces on that. He`s going to have to dial it back, get off Twitter, get with his generals, get with the people who are credible voices on this, foreign policy experts, not making our foreign policy through statements like this and on social media.

KORNACKI: Well, I guess, Azi, then, the question is, how do you step back from this kind of rhetoric today? Because already, I think we`ve seen a bit of a test at least potentially where he says, fire and fury. And now through state media, we have North Korea basically saying, OK, well, we`re going to go and attack Guam. We`re going to go wipe Guam out.

Well, is that something the president now, given the way he talked today, can just ignore? Can just let go? How do you take a different tone after taking the tone he took today?

AZI PAYBARAH, SENIOR REPORTER, POLITICO: You know, nobody wants what the president seems to be suggesting, and seems to be lurking toward. He is taking posture of someone who is acting as if he`s crazy enough to do what he`s saying. The way that you could possibly pin it back to something more responsible, deferring to his administration officials that do have a plan, is to hopefully latch on to any opportunity to claim a victory and say, look, the North Koreans aren`t doing what they had been planning on doing. They`ve responded to my threats. Now, let`s go back to the table.

Any opportunity he has to declare victory, to say that my loud rhetoric worked, and bring this back into a conversation, rather than its escalating rhetoric, would be possibly the only way that he can sort of walk us back without looking like he was intemperate in his remarks.

MURPHY: Except we`re dealing with the regime that has proven consistently that they do the exact opposite and when this type of rhetoric hits them, they in turn ratchet up their own rhetoric. So, it`s almost a chicken and the egg. Two very, very --

(CROSSTALK)

KORNACKI: We had Gordon Chang on earlier. I mean, that`s what I was asking him. Are they -- the North Koreans, is that regime listening to and looking at what Donald Trump said today and saying, this is different than we`ve heard from a past president. This is more of an imminent threat to us.

It doesn`t sound like they`re necessarily interpreting it at that level right now and how would Donald Trump react to that reality as well. Roundtable is sticking with us.

Up next, though, a report card on the Trump presidency from one of his foreign Republican rivals.

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: Well, Jeb Bush gave a brief interview earlier today in which he commented on President Trump`s first 200 days in office. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPORTER: President Trump has just passed the six-month mark of his 200 days now. What kind of grade would you give him?

JEB BUSH (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He`s exhausting. I mean, it`s an incomplete grade in the sense that not much has been done. But it feels like the whole world has been turned upside down. He`s created controversy where there`s no need for it. He should lead. I hope he assumes the mantle of leadership that he has not yet done.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: Jeb Bush there. That was the guy who was supposed to be the overwhelming front-runner for the Republican nomination once upon a time.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

North Korea might be President Trump`s first major crisis. And his legacy could end up being defined by how he handles it. That moment for President George W. Bush, of course, was 9/11. Here`s his famous Ground Zero speech three days after that attack.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT: I can hear you. The rest of world hears you. And the people --

(CHEERS)

And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.

(CHEERS)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: I think we all remember he that.

The round table is back with us.

Beth, look, obviously, what we`ve learned is nothing like 9/11. But that is an example, I think, what happened on 9/11, how that changed the direction of history, certainly the Bush presidency. There was in that moment there, a chance for him to become something very different to the American people than he had been before then.

In some ways, a crisis like this tests Donald Trump I think in way -- whatever you think of Donald Trump, he is being tested in a way he has not yet been tested as president.

FOUHY: Absolutely. I mean, looking at that video of President Bush, I mean, remember at that time that we all said, this is not a man who is ready for this type of challenge. And he stepped up to it. He won re- election the following -- two years later. His leadership was widely praised, initially, at least, until the invasion of Iraq and things went south from there.

But it was definitely a time that he had to step forward and do something and confront a crisis that was unlike anything else he ever dealt with. And this pales in comparison to what our president, President Trump, will face in the event that this nuclear escalation goes in the direction that it could. He has absolutely no -- is not equipped to handle this whatsoever.

He famously said at the convention last year, I alone can fix it. That was his line for how he`s going to conduct his presidency.

He alone cannot fix this.

KORNACKI: It`s on a scale that`s bigger, in many ways more frightening than we`ve seen before. Anything he`s confronted. But it`s a question I think we`ve been asking about Donald Trump, does he have something there that we haven`t seen yet, that`s going to sort of change the way he`s viewed by a lot of the country? And I think again, it is a test. We will see what develops from here.

The roundtable is staying with us.

Up next, these three will tell me something I don`t know. That`s the easiest part of the show.

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: All right. We are back with HARDBALL roundtable.

Megan, tell me something I don`t know.

MURPHY: We may be grappling with the potential nuclear holocaust, but it hasn`t stopped Dems and other people from still digging into Trump, his taxes, and his business entities. Expect more pushback from Dems this week when some structural issues about how he structured his business entities and how he might have avoided taxes, including a tax break he wants to scrap. That was part of the Affordable Care Act.

KORNACKI: OK. We`ll keep an eye out for that.

Azi?

PAYBARAH: Trump grew up in Queens. For apparently 600 bucks a night, you can stay in the childhood home he grew up in. And it includes a cutout of the president.

KORNACKI: Six hundred dollars a night?

PAYBARAH: Yes, according to "Newsday".

KORNACKI: The Clintons who were renting out the Lincoln Room, not quite that.

Beth, how about you?

FOUHY: OK. This is for you, Steve, a nice, nerdy political thing. Glenn Campbell who died today, country crooner, very famous rhinestone cowboy, by the time I get on Phoenix, he sang the national anthem at the first night of the Republican National Convention in 1980.

KORNACKI: There you go. The convention that nominated -- oh, look at that. We`ve got some great footage of it right there, 1980. And that was in anybody, political nerds out there, where was it? Do we know?

FOUHY: Detroit.

KORNACKI: Detroit, Michigan. That`s right. You got Joe Louis Arena right there.

All right. Beth Fouhy, that was a good one. I like that one. I like the archival footage, too.

Megan Murphy, Azi, Paybarah, thanks to you for joining us.

That is HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us.

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.

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