Trump not punching back at Daniels. TRANSCRIPT: 03/27/2018. Hardball with Chris Matthews

Guests: Shelby Holliday, Noah Rothman, Kai Wright, Chris Wilson

Show: HARDBALL Date: March 27, 2018 Guest: Shelby Holliday, Noah Rothman, Kai Wright, Chris Wilson

ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST: HARDBALL start now.

STEVE KORNACKI, MSNBC HOST: Silence on Stormy. Let`s play HARDBALL.

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

For a President who has built a career on fighting back, the past few days have been surprisingly quiet for Donald Trump.

On Sunday in front of 22 million viewers, Stormy Daniels broke her silence about an alleged sexual relationship with Trump back in 2006. White House officials have repeatedly denied those allegations. According to the "Washington Post" though, President Trump watched the show and privately lashed out against the adult film star telling aides that her allegations are a hoax and complaining to people that Daniels is not the type of woman he finds attractive.

The paper also reports that according to a Republican in touch with the White House, the President has convinced himself the scandal will blow over in part because for decades Trump deliberately presented himself as a Manhattan millionaire playboy.

NBC News reported that several aides urged the President who remain quiet because the story doesn`t seem -- doesn`t rise, excuse me, to the level of warranting a Presidential response. In the past, however, President Trump has relished the idea of punching back against any perceived sleight. Take a look at this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I noticed that Chuck Schumer yesterday with fake tears, I`m going to ask him who was his acting coach.

The reason why Democrats only talk about the totally made up Russia story is because they have no message. They can`t beat us at the voting booths. So they are trying to cheat you out of the future and the future that you want. They are trying to cheat you out of the leadership you want with a fake story that is demeaning to all of us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You heard what he said yesterday, senator McCain.

TRUMP: Yes. Well, I hear it and people have to be careful because at some point, I fight back. You know, I`m being very nice. I`m being very, very nice. But at some point, I fight back. And it won`t be pretty.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: Trump has used twitter to attack everyone from the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to Republican senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker to former vice President Joe Biden and many others in between.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was asked today why the self- described counter puncher has gone uncharacteristically silent. This is what she had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You also called him a counter puncher many times. Why has he not punched back on this one?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Look. The President, I didn`t say he punches back on every single topic. If he did, he would probably be addressing a lot of stories most of it you write every single minute of every single day. He also has a country to run and he is doing a great job with that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: The President so far has shown restraint in public. But according to the "Washington Post" senior White House officials believe Daniels account to be largely credible and considered a serious news story that could deal real and lasting damage to the President.

For more I`m joined by Phil Rucker, White House bureau chief for the "Washington Post." He wrote that "Washington Post" story we have been quoting from. Michael Steele, former chairman for the RNC and an MSNBC political analyst Midwin Charles, defense attorney and contributor for "Essence" magazine.

Thanks to you for joining us. Phil Rucker, I`ll start with you. And I think the key right now is that when it comes to Trump`s reaction, all we have to go on so far are your descriptions from your sources of what is playing out behind the scenes there at the White House.

Let me first ask you a basic question. Is your sense that it is likely to remain that way? That this will continue to be a drama playing out behind the scenes? Or is it more likely we wake up tomorrow morning at 6:15, 6:20 in the morning and here`s eight tweets from Trump all about this?

PHIL RUCKER, WHITE HOUSE BUREAU CHIEF, WASHINGTON POST: Well, Steve, I`m about 99 percent certain that the drama will continue behind the scenes. The question is whether it becomes public at some point. And theirs is really no predicting that. But certainly, President Trump is paying close attention to what`s happening with the Stormy Daniels saga. He saw that "60 Minutes." He is also been watching the coverage of it on cable news and the newspapers and other places in the media in the days since. And he has been talking to friends and aides and confidantes about the situation. The question really is when he decides to kind of go public and make his first comments. He has not addressed questions regarding this. And frankly, we haven`t seen him in public for a few days now.

KORNACKI: What`s your sense of it though from talking to folks there? I mean, clearly, in your story, you have got him saying things privately. Are aides or people around him fighting to restrain him, to hold him back or is he giving indications that, hey, yes, this is a fight he doesn`t want either at least right now?

RUCKER: I`m hearing from sources say he is fairly comfortable being retrained at this point. He has been convinced in his conversations with advisers that there`s not going to be a real political price yet. That his poll numbers are not dropping because of this. That his base remains loyal to him especially evangelical Christians. That the President believes.

And so, he doesn`t feel like he needs to get out there and talk about it right now. But he would like for other people to be attacking Stormy Daniels. He likes that his press secretary today. And yesterday the deputy press secretary Raj Shah called the allegations untrue and took a few shots there from the podium at the White House at Stormy Daniels. And I think he would like to see surrogates be doing more of that.

KORNACKI: Yes. Michael Steele, Phil Rucker mentions evangelicals who have been one of the largest staunchest voting blocs behind Trump going back to the days of the Republican primary. So look. You have got a President here who tens of millions of people watched on national television as a porn actress said she had an extramarital tryst with him. Nothing - didn`t Trump support from evangelicals Christian but does this potentially change anything?

MICHAEL STEELE, FORMER RNC CHAIRMAN: I don`t think it does. I think those folks have sort of, you know, not just drunk the Kool-Aid but put the IV directly into the veins here on Trump and have been consistent on that. So that gives Trump the space he needs to feel the way he feels.

But here is the other side of that feeling. The fact is, in my view, he has not gone after Stormy Daniels because a, he doesn`t know what she has got. So if he opens up that door where he comes after her, he was like her attitude and her lawyer`s attitude very clearly is really? OK, how about this?

So this pushback from other people, the press secretaries, assistant press secretaries and everyone else saying this didn`t happen is not the same as Trump saying it didn`t happen. And if Trump comes out the moment he does, that changes his whole thing in relation to how Michael Avenatti and Stormy Daniels come at the President.

So far in my estimation, they pushed him back on his heels a little bit here which is why he hasn`t responded the way he typically does because the question of what them have, what other shoe they could drop on him still out there.

KORNACKI: So let me get to that with Midwin Charles here, our legal expert. So that question, and look, I will admit no offense to the legal profession here. But when you get a lawyer like Stormy Daniels` lawyer out there, I always have to wonder how much of this is bluffing? How much of this - how much is there substance here? It`s just - it is the way lawyers talk especially in very public cases like this.

MIDWIN CHARLES, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well, you know, listen.

KORNACKI: What should the Trump people think about?

CHARLES: You know, lawyers are people, too. And I think one of the things that we have seen with Michael Avenatti is someone who is playing Trump`s game. And you know, my mom used to always tell me be careful of the games you play because other people can play it, too. And sometimes they can beat you, too, can play that game.

What we have seen with Michael Avenatti here is what I always say, is a good strategy. When an attorney can play both defense and offense, you never know what you are going to get. I personally think that`s one of the reasons Trump has not said anything. It hasn`t done anything.

I have read the complaint. I have it right here. And it`s very clear that the two of them agreed that there is property that exists here whether it`s photographs or communications or text messages. So I believe the reason why Trump is being quiet is there is a real concern here that this information may get out, if he starts talking.

KORNACKI: The range of possibilities, it`s all speculation, I mean, this potential stuff you are talking about could be embarrassing is stuff, titillating stuff here.

CHARLES: Of course.

KORNACKI: Or are we looking from a legal standpoint, are there things that you see here though that are potentially involved?

CHARLES: I think it could be all kinds of information. It could be photographs, it could be communications, all kinds of things that would, believe it or not, further embarrass the President of the United States. I mean, I think we have all -- we can all agree that many things have already occurred that have embarrassed him. But these are things that potentially could do damage to him, I think.

KORNACKI: The editorial board of the "Wall Street Journal," a conservative editorial board there, they warn that President Trump quote "mistakes of character tends to catch up with everyone," adding quote "the Stormy Daniels case is typical of Mr. Trump`s pre-Presidential behavior in thinking he came with enough threats in disassembling get away with anything. He has never understood that the President can`t behave that way. And this may be the cause of his down fall."

Meanwhile, the new CNN poll finds a majority of Americans believe the women alleging affairs. They believe those women over the President, 63 percent believe the women, just 21 percent believe President Trump.

That CNN poll that is out there, Michael Steele, it also shows President, this may or may not be related to all this, I don`t know, also shows President Trump`s approval rating for him taking up to one of the better place that has bee, still in the low 40 percent range, nothing to write home about but not exactly crashing here. That`s the kind of thing I have been wondering about. I go back to Bill Clinton in the 1990s, and you remember when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke it kind of didn`t come out of nowhere for people. There had been the Jennifer Flowers came in a campaign, Paula Jones, and Steph Ford (ph). We heard these names, we heard these suggestions. So it was shocking in some ways and other ways not so much. Maybe there`s a strain of that here with Trump, too.

STEELE: I think that`s very true, Steve. And in fact, I think that`s one of the ports that the President sort of rests boat right now. We don`t need to leave this particular dock because it is helping him. The people out there have discounted this. They baked into their understanding, appreciation knowledge thinking about this President. So one more reason for him to be quiet. Let`s not disabuse them of the notion that there is, you know, that I can somehow get past this or that I`m a good boy or whatever. He just wants to keep quiet and just do what he needs to do and focus on other things.

You know, the whole entree to the North Korea issue, the economy, all those other things are stronger points for him to help take away from the Stormy Daniels story line because a lot of people, as the poll says we believe the women but we have also baked is into who Trump is and therefore he is not going to pay a penalty point at this point.

KORNACKI: Well, and that`s an interesting question for Phil Rucker, the White House. Because in your piece, though, you had people around the president. Some of his advisers fearing that there could be serious damage, some long-term damage from this. Are there more specifics there in terms of what they are saying and what they think that damage would look like?

RUCKER: Well, publicly, the White House said that these accusations are not true. That the President denies them. But privately, senior officials in the White House tell me and my colleagues that they believe Stormy Daniels is credible. That her story is real. That this relationship did happen. And that there could potentially be a political problem for the President down the road based on the payment, the hush money as it were of $130,000.

There`s also a danger I think and this is according to some political sort of experts we talked to yesterday. If the President were to come out and dress this and lie to the American people about the situation, he could lose even more credibility in that scenario. So for him to stay quiet right now and let his spokespeople do the talking is in some ways protecting him from that danger.

KORNACKI: Right. So, so far, we haven`t had that scene we had with Bill Clinton in January 1998 where he said I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.

RUCKER: Exactly.

KORNACKI: Yesterday, the lawyer for Stormy Daniels had this to say about reports the President believes the Daniels controversy is a political hoax. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL AVENATTI, STORMY DANIELS` ATTORNEY: Why doesn`t he just tweet if in fact he claims this to be true, why doesn`t he tweet she was never in his hotel room, he never had sex with her, he never knew anything about the agreement, the $130,000, you know. He sends out the surrogate on network television yesterday to call this a hoax. Yes, it`s a hoax. It is a hoax like 9/11 and the moon landing. That`s the kind of hoax it is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: So Midwin Charles, if you are Stormy Daniels` lawyer, what is the next move here? Is it just wait for something from Trump? Is there something some sort of proactive? What`s the next move from their standpoint?

CHARLES: Wait for something from Trump. But remember, when I talked about defense and offense, one of the offensive things that Michael Avenatti just recently did, I think just yesterday is to sue Michael Cohen for defamation for saying that -- what Stormy Daniels said was a lie.

So he is just waiting. I mean, what he just did in that clip was essentially bait Donald Trump to say this isn`t true because guess what, defamation lawsuit and the thing with the defamation lawsuit is the truth is a defense. And boy, can`t we wait for the discovery.

I mean, we are talking depositions, we are talking documents, we are talking pictures, we are talking --. All kinds of stuff to prove that what she is saying is credible. And I just don`t know anyone who would cut a check for $130,000 for absolutely no reason. If nothing happened, why write the check?

KORNACKI: All right. We will see if this is something we are still talking about in a few weeks, if that sort of legal process ends up kicking in and gets dragged out. Remember with Bill Clinton, that`s what it was, he had the independent counsel that kept that story alive even when the polls were showed the public was kind of done with that. Let`s see where this one goes, if it dos goes.

Michael Steele, Phil Rucker, Midwin Charles, thanks to all of you for joining us.

And coming up, the Trump administration is announcing he is adding a citizenship question to the next census in 2020. Expert says that could cause if you are immigrants to take part. The state of California already suing. They say it is unconstitutional. Either way, the stakes are very big here. We are going to debate the move. That is next.

Plus, as we look ahead to the midterm elections this fall, the Republican Party getting worried about keeping control of the House of Representatives. They may have good reason to. A backlash may be brewing against the Republican Party in America`s suburbs. Traditionally Republican territory. I`m going to break that down at the big board tonight with my one good hand.

And later, a former U.S. President weighs in on what he thinks is President Trump`s biggest mistake yet.

And finally, the HARDBALL roundtable is going to be here with three things you might not know.

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I will build a wall. Don`t worry. We will build. I promise. We are building the wall. And Mexico will pay for the wall. I promise.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: Well, that was President Trump on election eve 2016 saying that Mexico would pay for the wall. These days, though, it looks like the military may have to foot the bill. According to "Washington Post" Trump quote "is privately pushing the U.S. military to fund construction of his signature project," suggesting that Pentagon could fund the sprawling construction citing a national security risk.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dodged questions about that topic earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Does he mean he wants the military to pay for the border wall? Can you speak generally to that?

SANDERS: Again, I`m not going to get into the specifics of that. But I can tell you that the wall is continuing to be built currently. And we are going to keep pushing forward until it`s fully completed in the way that the President feels is necessary to defend the country.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Isn`t it true that Mexico is not going to pay for that wall?

SANDERS: I`m not going to go beyond what the President has already said. He still has plans to look at potential ways for that to happen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: And we will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

The latest battle between Democrats and the Trump administration is over a question, are you a United States citizen? Commerce department on Monday announced the upcoming 2020 census will include that question for the first time since 1950.

Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross said the move was in response to a justice department request and quote "will permit more effective enforcement of the voting rights act which protects minority groups from discrimination at the polls."

Now critics charge the decision is a political move designed to discourage immigrant communities from participating in the census. They argue that could lead to an undercount of the population which would have a significant impact on federal funding as well as the distribution of congressional seats.

State attorneys general in New York and California have already filed lawsuits to block the move with former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder has also threatened to sue. California attorney general Xavier Becerra addressed his state`s lawsuit this afternoon.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

XAVIER BECERRA, CALIFORNIA ATTORNEY GENERAL: Given the way this administration has attacked immigrants, you can understand why immigrant families would be afraid to fill out the census questionnaire.

An undercount resulting from this decision would jeopardize vital services for all Californians. It would also jeopardize our representation in government.

Adding a question on citizenship threatens to derail the integrity of the entire process.

This latest move by the Trump administration to threaten California is not just a bad idea; it`s against the law.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: And, for more now, I`m joined by Chris Wilson, Republican pollster and former executive director of the Texas Republican Party, and Raul Reyes, an attorney and MSNBCNews.com contributor.

Gentlemen, thanks to you both for joining us.

I know you see this very differently. I want to try to get the two of you talking a little bit here.

Chris, I`m going to start with you. You just heard the attorney general there in California making his case against this.

Let me ask you to make the case for it. It has been 70 years since this question has been asked on a census. Why do it now? Why is it so important to do it now? What will be achieved by that?

CHRIS WILSON, REPUBLICAN POLLSTER: Well, there`s lots of different research that are driven by and this data would be important to, sociology, political science, economics.

But it`s strange to me that Democrats, the party of science, as they like to brand themselves, is all of a sudden against the collection of data, when that data doesn`t support their agenda, doesn`t support sort of the narrative they`re trying to push.

This is important for the purpose of civil rights. It`s important for the purpose of one man, one vote. It`s important for economic and sociological purposes.

And so the fact is, it is important that we`re able to count citizens of a voting age population. The key word there is citizens. And if somehow we start to pare that back and say, well, let`s count everybody, immigrants, illegal immigrants, illegal immigrants, and citizens all the same it, well, what that does is, it harms civil rights, it harms the voting, it ability to the count votes.

And I think, from an overall standpoint, it`s just really a silly argument.

KORNACKI: All right, Raul, that`s the case Chris is making for it.

What do you say to what he -- he`s saying, look, it`s common sense. The United States of America, we`re counting our citizens every 10 years. Let`s make sure we`re counting citizens.

RAUL REYES, NBC.COM CONTRIBUTOR: Right.

Well, actually, we are counting citizens every single year in the American Community Survey. And when we`re talking about the census, which obviously is every 10 years, it comes basically to the Constitution. Article 1, Section 2 and the 14th Amendment specifically enumerate that there is a constitutional mandate to count all people.

Now, our founding fathers could have said all persons, all eligible voters. They did not. That principle was upheld by the Supreme Court as recently as 2016 in the Evenwel v. Abbott case.

And that same principle is codified into law under the statute of the APA, which says that you cannot rush through these types of changes to law without public comment, field testing, and all of these types of things.

So, we have a good news/bad news type of situation. The good news is, yes, California and New York will likely prevail ultimately in these cases adding that they`re bringing against this, this question.

The bad news is that, as the legal wrangling goes on and the reports go on, it sows confusion, it depresses turnout. And we will see lower numbers of responses among Latinos, immigrants and across all communities of color.

KORNACKI: Let me ask you Chris about that in a second, but first let me just follow up, because what I heard Chris saying there and I want to get your response to is the idea that you`re saying we have got count everybody.

And he`s saying, well...

REYES: Well, I`m not saying it. The Constitution says count all people.

KORNACKI: OK. But when you count everybody, should you make a distinction between whether somebody`s a citizen or not a citizen from the standpoint of, hey, we do these congressional districts, 600,000, 700,000 people or so? Should you make sure each district is 700,000 citizens, as opposed to 500,000 citizens, 100,000 folks who are undocumented?

Is it important from that standpoint to make that distinction? That seems to what Chris is saying.

REYES: Right. I understand that he -- he seems to think it`s an important distinction. And I just go back to the Constitution.

They chose not to make that distinction. Our government, Congress did make the distinction, because they did want to know how many citizens are in all of our districts. And that`s why they created the annual American Community Surveys.

And, remember, when we`re talking about the U.S. Census Bureau, by their own reports, the last time we had the census -- now, this is internal census documents that are now public -- they undercounted Latinos by 1.5 percent. They undercounted African-Americans by 2 percent. They undercounted African-Americans by 4 percent.

Now, that was 2010. This time, we have such a politicized environment, where people are afraid of Donald Trump`s deportation force. They feel betrayed by DACA. There`s so much mistrust with the government that it`s not just going to depress turnout among many immigrants.

It`s going to depress turnout among many Latinos, because, in this country, we have between -- estimates say between nine and 16 million what we call mixed status family. That will be a family where maybe the children are U.S. citizens, but the parents are undocumented.

In many of those families, they will just throw it away, because there`s such fear and anxiety about the government.

KORNACKI: So, Chris, let me ask you to address that then.

He said, look, in the age of Trump, we`re going to reintroduce this 70 years after it was last on there. And it happens to be a president who talks about walls and deportation and these sorts of things.

What Raul is saying, mixed status family, wouldn`t that discourage participation?

WILSON: It`s a bit speculative and, at worst, laughable.

I think what we get down to here is, Donald Trump becomes a convenient foil in these kind of situations. But if you`re implying that, all of a sudden, because there`s a question that asks citizenship that people are going to be more likely to fill out a form than they would be if it didn`t ask that, it`s just -- it`s a joke. There`s no way.

The fact is, is people are going to fill it out or they`re not going to fill it out.

(CROSSTALK)

KORNACKI: Let Chris finish first.

(CROSSTALK)

WILSON: ... people in it. And that represents one member of Congress.

Well, if half of those are not -- are illegal immigrants, then you`re undercounting and you`re under-representing real citizens in the United States.

And that`s a real problem when it gets down to the fact that we have a representative democracy, and people are supposed to get one vote for one citizen. And what he`s replying is, that that no longer is the case. So, we count everybody equally, whether they`re an illegal immigrant, whether they`re an immigrant, whether they are a citizen who has the right to vote.

And that`s not the way democracy is supposed to be, and that`s not what the founding fathers meant when they wrote the Constitution.

REYES: Well, our founding fathers, just going back to the language of the 14th Amendment, count all people. That`s the constitutional mandate that they cannot overcome.

And I think it`s also a mistake to look at this in the political sense, because, to me, it speaks volumes that the six former directors of the Census Bureau, going all the way back to the Nixon administration, Republicans and Democrats, have all come forward and said this is a bad idea, number one, because they disagree with it, but, also, two, because they have rushed this process.

Traditionally, when questions are added to the census, they are field- tested. And the way they formulate questions can have an impact on the outcome. That has not been done. This request was only made in December. So, the fact that they`re rushing through this process, these former Census Bureau directors say, this is problematic.

And given our political climate, it will just further depress the turnout among Latino communities. And that`s not speculative. That`s census data.

KORNACKI: All right, Chris, quickly, I will give you the last word here.

WILSON: Well, I think what`s interesting about this, this would even undercount the African-American vote. That`s the thing about it.

This is not a benefit for Republicans. And, frankly, this would increase the number of African-American and Democratic districts, because what this does is, it actually downgrades that and it undercounts those.

And from a civil rights standpoint, this is not -- this is a negative for votes of all races. And I think that`s the real problem here is, this should be counted equally.

KORNACKI: OK, Chris Wilson, Raul Reyes, two very different perspectives. Thank you both for sharing them. I appreciate that.

WILSON: Thank you.

REYES: Yes, thank you.

KORNACKI: And up next: Republicans are increasingly nervous they may lose the House this November. And one particular group of voters could spell big trouble for the GOP.

I am going to break that down that dynamic at the board next.

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Are you going to be seeking reelection in Pennsylvania`s 6th District?

REP. RYAN COSTELLO (R), PENNSYLVANIA: Yes, it`s the most difficult decision I can recall having to make, but the answer is, I will not be.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: Well, that was the news that broke two nights ago right here on MSNBC on Kasie Hunt`s, "Kasie DC."

Ryan Costello, a Republican congressman from the Philadelphia area, not running for reelection in 2018. And, boy, if that isn`t a blow to Republicans in their effort to hang on to the House. And it`s not just the story of Costello we`re talking about here.

He embodies a much bigger story when we talk about battle for control of the House.

Let me take you through exactly what I`m talking about. This is Costello. This is his district here in the Philadelphia area. Now, here is the key in Pennsylvania. Already coming into this year, we knew he was going to be endangered. We knew this was going to be a competitive district.

We`re talking about the suburbs here. We`re talking about -- we always say those college-educated, higher-income, upscale voters, traditionally Republican, in the age of Trump, though, maybe not so sure on the Republican Party.

Well, look, this is a district Hillary Clinton won in 2016. So, coming into this year, Costello was already very vulnerable.

But then in Pennsylvania, remember, they had that court fight. They changed the district lines a couple of weeks ago in that state. And, suddenly, what was already a very difficult campaign for Costello, this is what happened to it.

His district changed. And look at that. Even more suburban. Even more pro-Hillary Clinton in 2016. This was a 10-point Hillary Clinton district. And you can see, Ryan Costello looked up and he said, you know what, given the climate this year, given how midterms usually go, given what this district looks like, maybe not worth it to go and run.

So, Costello is out. Republicans, looks like they are not going to be stuck with a candidate they`re very excited about in a district that`s a big uphill climb. So, suddenly, Democrats with a prime opportunity for a pickup.

And we said this is not just a Ryan Costello story. This is a national story. Suburban districts, traditionally Republican, that swung toward Hillary Clinton in 2016, check this out. You got 25 of them. Not all of these are suburban. A lot of these are, but they all have one thing in common.

These are Republican districts now, but Hillary Clinton won these districts in 2016. Now, remember, for Democrats, the magic number here really is 24. You will see 23 some places because of the special election they just had; 24 is what it really is, though, for some technical reasons.

They need 24. You got 25 Republicans sitting there in Clinton districts. In Pennsylvania, where you got this new map that is in play right now, you got four right there. Costello`s district is one of them.

You go out to the West Coast, that`s the other sort of -- look at this. In California, you got seven, you got seven Republicans is sitting out there in districts Hillary Clinton won. You got a bunch in between. Some of these Republicans, like Ros-Lehtinen down there in Florida, they have already given up. They have already said they`re not going to run.

But this is sort of ground zero. Democrats are hoping 2018 is a blue wave. This would be ground zero. This would be the sort of first tier to look when we get to election night in November. How many of these are districts that are flipping, are districts that traditionally vote Republican, but, in the age of Trump, in the midterm election especially, say, you know what, we`re going to go to the other party, we`re going to go to a check on Trump.

So that is, for Democrats, when they look at Costello, they look at that decision, they say, how many other districts is something like that playing out in?

The one cautionary note here you got to give to Democrats, though, is, we talk about it from this angle. There is another side to this that Democrats have to keep in mind. Quickly here, there are districts out there where Democrats represent them right now, but Donald Trump carried them in 2016.

There are Democratic Trump districts. There`s a dozen of them across the country. Now, again, look, in a midterm election, it`s the Democrats who are playing offense this year. But there could be a few of these by Election Day Democrats actually have to worry about.

Very different dynamic there. We`re talking about sort of upscale, college-educated white suburbanites in those Clinton districts. We`re talking a lot more blue-collar, a lot more rural in some of these cases.

You look at like the Iron Range up there in Minnesota. So, that`s another dynamic to keep an eye on. Can Democrats defend all of these?

And then how many of these 25 can they get? Hey, look, could get them awfully close to that 24 they need. That`s what they want. The more they`re doing here, the closer they are going to be to flipping the House.

So, that`s one story line we are going to be talking about a lot, believe me, a lot, between now and November.

Up next here on HARDBALL, though, Republicans, they face a catch-22 this November. It centers around the man leading their party, President Trump.

That is next with the HARDBALL Roundtable.

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Republican Congressman Ryan Costello`s decision to end his bid for reelection in Pennsylvania is another signal the 2018 midterm elections may prove to be a referendum on the president.

As Costello tells "The New York Times," his decision to pull the plug was in part because -- quote -- President Trump`s conduct made it impossible to talk about anything else." The issue, he says, is one of character, not policy.

Here is Costello on MSNBC today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: I have little kids. And I don`t want them to ask me, what does Stormy Daniels do for a living?

I think that a lot of voters support a lot of the policies, but we cannot discount the fact that a lot of Americans legitimately look at the president of the United States, any president of the United States and say, he or she should be a role model.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: Now, Costello is the 23rd Republican member of Congress to retire in advance of the 2018 midterms. That`s now a record for the most retirements of any cycle dating back to 1974. That was the Watergate year.

And Costello joins others outgoing Republican lawmakers, like Congressman Charlie Dent and Senator Jeff Flake, who have publicly blamed the political environment under President Trump.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: We`re talking about porn stars and the president, rather than about tax policy or what we need to get done by the end of the year or what should have been in the omnibus.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: The path to victory in the Republican primary these days is to agree with the president, not just his policies but the behavior, as well. And not to speak out.

REP. CHARLIE DENT (R), PENNSYLVANIA: This administration at times has taken the fun out of dysfunction. It`s not about ideology anymore. It`s about loyalty to the president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEVE KORNACKI, MSNBC HOST: According to "The Times," Republicans are increasingly alarmed that their losses may be worse than feared because the midterm campaign appears destined to turn more on the behavior of the man in the White House than any other in decades.

I`m joined now by the HARDBALL roundtable. Shelby Holiday is a political reporter with "The Wall Street Journal", Noah Rothman is an associate editor "Commentary Magazine", and Kai Wright is a radio host with WNYC and a columnist at "The Nation".

Thanks to all of you for joining us.

Noah, I`ll start with you because you were saying something during the break that I felt for a longtime is a politician who decides to retire, they suddenly start answering the strategy questions very honestly. And what you`re hearing there from Costello is what every Republican member of Congress in a competitive district is thinking.

NOAH ROTHMAN, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, COMMENTARY MAGAZINE: Yes, they play pundit, which is usually a problem for you until you don`t have to worry about re-election. And it`s interesting.

He`s talked about, yes, it`s very difficult to thread the needle. It`s hard to get Trump voters to stay with you while also trying to play nice with the base of educated white suburban women, for example, who have turned on Donald Trump.

What I found really fascinating was something he told "Slate" recently, Representative Costello, saying that we don`t have an agenda. There`s nothing to run on. So, substituting an agenda is Donald Trump the man his personality, whether you`re for him or against him. We don`t get to talk about policy because there is no policy there. He`s buffeted by the news cycle.

KORNACKI: What is like -- if you`re a Republican member of Congress in a suburban district, I guess the message could be the tax cuts, could be the economy, you know?

SHELBY HOLLIDAY, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: They want it to be the tax cuts and there actually is an agenda if you have time and just a breath to even talk about it. But that is not the circumstances with the President Donald Trump. The news changes hour by hour. A lot of times any sort of news about a porn star or a tweet will overshadow tax cuts. Who wants to talk about tax cuts when you can talk about a porn star?

So, these Republicans are increasingly frustrated that they are trying to focus on this message. And usually, a booming economy and more economy in people`s pocket is great for the party that`s ruling. In this case, it doesn`t even really matter so much. We`re seeing it in the polls. But as everyone`s been pointing out, that`s not what people are talking about. That won`t be the focus of the midterms.

KORNACKI: I`ve to say, at the same time, Kai, we go through cycles it seems where at the end of last year, I know we were seeing all these polls, the Democrats were up 15 points in the generic poll and Trump`s approval down to 34. There`s one yesterday from CNN. We`ll see if this is replicated elsewhere. It ticked up to, you know, 42 percent.

It`s not a great number, but when you talk to Republicans trying to keep the House, they say not much more than 42, they think they can hold on this thing. They think they can keep the losses in check.

KAI WRIGHT, WYNC NARRATIVE UNIT, EDITOR AND HOST: It`s a bad number, not a great number. But also, the more important number is the strongly approved and strongly disapprove numbers, those are really what we`re talking about for the midterm elections. And we`re in the 20s for strongly approve for the president, and it`s been difficult to get much above that.

And I think when we talk about the message, the message has traditionally been Nancy Pelosi and I think that`s the message you`re going to hear a lot of. We saw how well that worked with Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania. It just doesn`t resonate when it`s up against her as an evil, scary thing, doesn`t resonate against --

HOLLIDAY: Well, it resonated in Georgia six. I mean, that`s a referendum on Nancy Pelosi and it worked.

(CROSSTALK)

KORNACKI: We talk about the suburban districts. Georgia six is basically that profile. It was one-point race in 2016 and the Republicans were able to hold on to it. You think it was Pelosi?

HOLLIDAY: Well, I know that the Pelosi attacks didn`t help Jon Ossoff. But he was young and didn`t have much experience, so that tend to overshadow.

But I do think there`s a message in that race in that if Republicans are running against moderate Democrats, I could see a lot of Republicans voting Democrat because they were able to swallow sort of this economic moderate and in some cases conservative message with a person who is opposing Donald Trump`s personal life.

WRIGHT: And the candidate is what`s going to matter. I mean, I think when we get back to Costello, I mean, it`s a great example. He`s -- it`s the worst case scenario for Republicans in a whole lot of ways. But also, the Democratic candidate in Chrissy Houlahan is a good candidate. She`s a veteran, she`s a woman and she`s a great fund-raiser.

And I think that`s going to be something that Democrats need to think about as we go through the summer and look at districts. They`re all -- the map you laid out.

KORNACKI: How much -- the interesting thing I see and I try to figure out how much this trickles down and spreads out across the country. I see a lot of anger I think or frustration on the left that this idea of reaching out to Trump voters and meeting them in the middle. I wonder sometimes, and I wonder what you think about this, the idea that the Democratic base in response to Trump in response to these last two years is to go further to the left and say we don`t want to be compromised.

WRIGHT: I mean, the actual story of the Democratic base is about new engagement, you know? And I think that one of the things we`re seeing my colleague at "The Nation", Joan Walsh, writes about, you know, is that we think about the top of the ticket driving the bottom of the ticket. But Virginia, for instance is a place to think about the midterms where all of these new engagement in the state legislative level, these -- all of these women that are running for office, the pink wave we saw in Texas as well, is -- will drive a whole new set of voters and a whole new set people into the congressional election as well.

And I think that actually is going to be the story that we`re going to start to see in these districts is the way in which new candidates and new voters, particularly women and women of color, in these districts are entering the conversation because of the state level.

ROTHMAN: This is the philosophy of the governing wing of the Democratic Party. There is a progressive wing, the Tea Party wing of the Democratic Party thinks that this is their moment. This is their environment. They do not need to compromise. They can go for broke.

And they do not need to invite the Trump coalition into their coalition which is going to ascendant. I sympathize with this point of view. As a more establishment friendly Republican, it strikes me as the way to get elected. But Democrats point to the successes that Republicans had in 2010 and 2014 where all they saw was no compromise, no reaching out to the other side, just pushing ahead with an agenda that was essentially obstruction until they got power and they want to replicate that. It makes sense to me.

KORNACKI: All right. The roundtable is staying with us. Squeeze in a quick break here.

But up next, one former president weighs in on what he says is the worst mistake of the Trump presidency.

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump and Mitt Romney went to war with each other.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, THEN-PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Mitt is a failed candidate. He failed. He failed horribly. That was a race that absolutely should have been won. And I don`t know what happened to him.

MITT ROMNEY (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He creates scapegoats in Muslims and Mexican immigrants. He calls for the use of torture. This is the very brand of anger that has led other nations into the abyss.

TRUMP: Poor Mitt Romney. Poor Mitt. I mean, I have a store that`s worth more money than he is.

ROMNEY: Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.

TRUMP: And he walks like a penguin onto the stage. Do you ever see? Like a penguin.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: Well, they seem to be on better footing now that Romney is running for the Senate in Utah. During a question and answer session yesterday, Romney played up his relationship with Trump saying: The president has endorsed me in this race. He respects people who speak their mind because now and then as you know, if he says something I think is wrong, I`ll point it out. And if he disagrees with me, he points it out even harder.

Romney added that he won`t be afraid to stand up to Trump should the president say something divisive in the future.

Be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT: I think his last choice for national security adviser was very ill-advised. I think John Bolton has been the worst mistake he`s made. He`s advocated going to war preemptively against North Korea, against Iraq, against Iran even. And so, I think that that is particularly ill-advised because the national security adviser I know from experience is the most listened-to advice that a president gets.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was former President Jimmy Carter calling Donald Trump`s choice of John Bolton for his next national security adviser the worst mistake of his presidency thus far.

We`re back with our HARDBALL roundtable, Shelby, Noah and Kai.

Shelby, I`ll start with you. Jimmy Carter, former president, coming out and making a statement like that, is that surprising? Does this move the needle in any way?

HOLLIDAY: I don`t think it moves the needle. I was reading more about what Jimmy Carter was saying and he just doesn`t agree with the fact that you should surround yourself with yes men. Jimmy Carter said, you know, you want diversity of thought. You want people who will stand up to you. He sees this move as hiring someone who agrees with you and who might be more volatile and maybe create a little more uncertainty in terms of world peace.

KORNACKI: Well, that`s an interesting question though.

HOLLIDAY: The fact he said the worst mistake of his presidency I thought was a -- I mean, that`s a very bold way of saying it, of all the things President Trump has done in the last year, the fact he said that was the worst means a lot.

KORNACKI: Is it surrounding yourself with yes men though? Because I`m trying to get a read still on what this means exactly. You got Donald Trump there in the campaign saying the Iraq war is the biggest mistake, you know, ever and John Bolton was one of the -- you know, champions of the Iraq war.

ROTHMAN: No, it doesn`t make any sense from that perspective. John Bolton was a veteran of 41 and 43. He`s a competent steward of national security affairs.

People who have painted him as a horrible bad guy ignored the fact that he is a realist and a realist views hard power as the single most important instrument in the conduct of foreign affairs. Now, if you`re an internationalist, an intuitionalist like Jimmy Carter is, that is disconcerting, it`s even threatening.

But it is not out of the bounds of American foreign policy. It`s firmly within it. But while having come after Kissinger in that role, I can imagine that he would see somebody in Kissinger`s mold, as somebody very threatening. But it is a check on Donald Trump`s instincts which are to retrench, to isolate, to withdraw. So, I think this is a check on his impulses.

KORNACKI: We`ve got a wide range here, Kai. We`ve got Jimmy Carter saying worst mistake. We`ve got Noah here in our set saying firmly within the bounds, check on some of these things. Where do you land on this?

WRIGHT: Bolton is a hawk among hawks, you know? And we can spin that however we want. But this is a man who believes in military action and has said so in every form he can think of and across the board. And we live in very dangerous and volatile times with a president that has very little experience on these issues. We have this North Korea conversation coming up.

And I think the point that Jimmy Carter is making, which by the way he`s not the only one making it. There are Republicans and Democrats alike, people in the foreign policy establishment all around saying, whoa, I`m a little concerned this is the guy that`s going to be advising this president and this president of all sorts. So, I think when he says the worst, he may mean the most grave mistake.

HOLLIDAY: But there`s also the question of, does it matter? Does President Trump listen to anybody? Jimmy Carter says he`s hiring a yes man. But does Donald Trump ever listen to any of his aides? I mean, that`s a fair question.

WRIGHT: Well, it`s a frightening question.

ROTHMAN: It is a fact that America`s policy towards DPRK is a preventive strike is an option. It is a fact that our policy towards the Islamic Republic of Iran is that a preventative strike is an option. We haven`t taken these things off the table. And to say that out loud is not an offense to god and nature. It`s a fact.

WRIGHT: It`s frightening --

KORNACKI: I like what Shelby is saying, though, because I think when you do look at the history of Trump as a candidate and as a president, you see folks around him and you`re tempted to sort of discern some ideology. And then three weeks later, it`s a completely different set of people are around him. So, I`m not sure what it means either. The HARDBALL, though, they are staying with us.

Up next, these three are going to tell me something I don`t know. That`s the easiest job in the world.

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: All right. We`re back with the HARDBALL roundtable.

And, Shelby, tell me something I don`t know.

HOLLIDAY: Well, I just asked if you had quit Facebook. And you said --

KORNACKI: It`s been two years since I used it. I don`t know if that counts.

HOLLIDAY: Facebook lost $80 billion in market cap since it suspended Cambridge Analytica. Mark Zuckerberg we expect will be answering very tough questions in about two weeks.

KORNACKI: Not a fun time for him.

Noah?

HOLLIDAY: Yes.

ROTHMAN: "BuzzFeed" published a report, information leaked to them from the FBI. Apparently, they have a report detailing a former RT chief, an Putin allied, didn`t methodically beat himself to death over the course of several days in Washington. It was a hit. And so, we could have a Sergei Skripal situation in Washington.

KORNACKI: Ooh. And, Kai?

WRIGHT: I`m watching these kids that we are all so excited about, changing the world. And I -- in the middle of it was making a podcast about juvenile justice. I was shock to learn that there`s another group of kids that are being put on -- handcuffs put on them at age 10 and 12 years old. I don`t think you know that. Maybe you do, Steve.

KORNACKI: I did not know that at all. But that`s the contrast between that and what we saw over the weekend. That`s -- that is something.

Shelby Holliday, Noah Rothman, Kai Wright, thanks to all of you for joining us.

That is HARDBALL for now. Thank you for being with us.

And "ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END