Allies surprised by Trump's Russia stance. TRANSCRIPT: 03/30/2018. Hardball with Chris Matthews

Guests: Michelle Goldberg, Noelle Nikpour, Emily Ngo, Basil Smikle, Jen Kerns, Nina Khrushcheva

HARDBALL March 30, 2018 Guest: Michelle Goldberg, Noelle Nikpour, Emily Ngo, Basil Smikle, Jen Kerns, Nina Khrushcheva

STEVE KORNACKI, MSNBC HOST: Getting colder? Let`s play HARDBALL.

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

There are new signs tonight that the already strained relationship between the United States and Russia is reaching a combustible new phase. Those tensions are now testing the relationship between President Trump and the man he has stubbornly refused to criticize, Vladimir Putin.

After the United States expelled 60 Russian spies from the country on Monday, the Kremlin retaliated yesterday by ordering the removal of 60 American diplomats and forcing closure of a U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg.

Then hours later in a conspicuous show of force, the Kremlin test launched a new intercontinental ballistic missile. They did that this morning. It is said to be capable of delivering up to 15 nuclear warheads. Putin claims the weapon is impervious to American defenses.

All of this sparked by the unprecedented chemical attack this month against a former Russian spy and his daughter on British soil, an attack that the UK and U.S. both blame on Russia. Despite Russia`s provocations which date back to their interfering in the 2016 election, the new Russian ambassador to the United States says that both countries are to blame.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why do you think the relationship between our two countries has deteriorated to this point, and what part of it - what responsibility is Russia willing to take for that?

ANATOLY ANTONOV, RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES: First, you see that I don`t understand why Russian should take any responsibility because you will see that when we advance, it means that we both party are responsible. It seems to me that atmosphere in Washington is poisoned, is poisoned. It`s a toxic atmosphere. Even I made a joke, my press secretary saying that today, Russia is responsible for everything even for bad weather. It`s high time for us to stop blaming each other.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: And now in the wake of that assassination attempt in Britain, NBC News reports that the poisoned former spy was allegedly on a Kremlin hit list along with seven other targets this according to another former Russian agent living in the UK who spoke to NBC`s Richard Engel in a recent interview. He says the alleged Kremlin hit list includes the name of Christopher Steele, the of course, the former British intelligence officer who blew the whistle on Russian meddling in the U.S. election in 2016.

For more I`m joined by the author of that report NBC`s Richard Engel. He is in Salisbury, England where the poisoning occurred. Peter Baker is the chief White House correspondent for the "New York Times" and Nina Khrushcheva is a professor of international affairs at the new schools. She is also the great granddaughter of the former Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushcheva.

Thank you all for being with us.

Richard, let me start with you. The idea that this assassination attempt part of a hit list. What can you tell us about that?

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Well, it`s certainly plausible according to a former British intelligence official who is familiar with Russia and Russian tactics. I can tell you that the poisoning that happened here in Salisbury sent a chill down the Russian community living in this country. The UK has been something of a magnet for Russian dissidents for critics of Vladimir Putin and frankly, for spies who have changed sides and come here to take refuge.

We spoke to two former spies, both people that the Kremlin considers traitors. They are both concerned for their future, concerned for their lives. And one of them said that in February, he received a call from someone on the inside. We have no way to verify that he in fact received that call. We weren`t on call. But he described that he was on this call. That he got a tipoff that his name was on a hit list that Steele and Skripal was on the hit list. And that he became deeply concerned when a short time after that. Skripal was found in a state of paralysis on a park bench not far from where I am right now.

KORNACKI: And you are being told seven people supposedly on had list including Steele, five others. Any sense who they might be if these are all connected, if these are all sort of individual isolated cases? What else do you know about it?

ENGEL: One of the other prominent names on the list was a businessman named Bill Browder. I have interviewed Browder before. He says that he knows the Russians want him, that the Kremlin wants him dead he thinks. He said that this is no -- he told me specifically if something ever bad happens to me, everyone should know who did it. And he means the Kremlin. So that his name was on it and other people who Russia considers -- who the Kremlin considered traitors.

KORNACKI: Nina Khrushcheva, poisonings on foreign soil. This is missile test that Russia launched today Putin saying impervious to American defenses shutting down consulates. Spies being kicked out of this country. I think a lot of people`s minds go back at things we read about, saw, witnessed during the cold war. When you think back to the cold war and you look at the present moment, the state of relations between the two countries how do they stack up?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA, PROFESSOR, THE NEW SCHOOL: Well, it`s very cold war-ish. I`m constantly confronted with the thought that I`m watching something the spy who came in from the cold and reading John (INAUDIBLE). And unfortunately, it is just developing right in front of our eyes.

So yes, it`s a very chilling reality and it is a possibility that there is a hit list. I mean, I wouldn`t imagine that there`s anything in writing because no good Kremlin would ever leave something like that in writing. But Putin doesn`t like his enemies. And we do know that he has a very long memory. He has been trained by the KGB in a KGB universe. A traitor is a traitor and needs to be punished at any cost.

KORNACKI: If there is a hit list, is there anything more to it, though, in this moment? Anything more to be read into it the fact not only that he doesn`t like traitors that he wants to, you know, settle a score or whatever, but that he is willing to go and do it on foreign soil in this moment?

KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, I think what he is doing, I mean, they are using an opportunity. I mean, from what I know the way KGB functions it`s not even the KGB, it`s a GRU, the military intelligence. The way that -- there is an opportunity and they do it. It can be anywhere. Whatever the opportunity presents itself. So this is something that needs to be considered. And for them, the world is the limit. So that is a possibility.

But I also think that in some ways the combination of things may not necessarily -- and I`m almost sure that it`s not by Putin`s making, it`s just all of the kind of the stars collided in this one thing and suddenly we are talking about not just about the poisoning nor just the new testing, I think, the missile is called Satan 2, which is quite appropriate, exactly. And all these other things and just the election happened in Russia.

So I think it`s one of those very big waves. And the question is whether Russia or the United States or together would get out of that wave and actually turn into some sort of road that where they can be some conversation happening.

KORNACKI: And that brings to us the question of the leadership in this country, the recent escalation with Russia, also of course testing President Trump who is frequently since becoming a candidate for President expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin.

While President Trump has shown a reluctance to publicly criticize the Russian leader for his actions, Trump`s tougher line toward Moscow in recent days quote "even caught U.S. allies off guard" according to "the Washington Post." As one Russia scholar said, the President`s heart doesn`t seem to be in it but for whatever reason, he is willing to go along with his advisers. According to NBC News, Trump`s public silence about his shift in policy may stem from his continued desire for closer relations with Putin and taking a more aggressive stance toward Russia on Ukraine, for instance, the President quote "told his aides not to publicly tout his decision." Doing so, Trump argued, might agitate Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Peter Baker, let me bring you in on that because the accusation against Trump since the days of his candidacy has been that he is soft on Putin. That he has some kind of admiration for Putin that would have a policy ramification as President.

Now we have seen obviously this week kicking out five dozen spies from U.S. soil. And a couple months ago, we are talking about this policy in Ukraine, sending anti-tank equipment, missiles over there to Ukraine. That`s a step even the Obama administration didn`t take. How can we square their posture in terms of policy from Trump with that refusal to publicly say much about Putin?

PETER BAKER, CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Yes. That`s the central mystery right now about this administration when it comes to Russia. You do see a hardening line. Our reporting shows that before secretary of state Rex Tillerson was fired, he had come to the conclusion that cooperation, the attempt to cooperate with Putin`s Kremlin wasn`t working. And they should take a new approach. That approach would involve, you know, more active measures like sanctions which we saw that imposed in retaliation finally for the 2016 meddling in the campaign. And then obviously, this action this week in terms of the expulsions.

But you are right. The President himself chooses not to say anything about it publicly. He doesn`t want to alienate President Putin. And I think there is also a reluctance on his part to in effect validate his critics who are saying how come you don`t say anything tougher on President Putin. He doesn`t like this whole investigation that continues to dog him. He insists the notion of collusion during the campaign was just a hoax and therefore, he doesn`t want to give in to the critics who had been (INAUDIBLE) him and his view. But it does create this dichotomy, this duality of policy where they are willing to throw out more diplomats than at any point, frankly, even in the coal and yet the President of the United States remains silent.

KORNACKI: Yes.

And Richard Engel, I`m curious. What do you know from the standpoint of Russia, from the standpoint of Putin these actions - again, it was a couple months ago with the missiles to Ukraine but this week kicking out all those spies, dozens of spies from the U.S. did Putin, was he expecting that? Did he think this might happen? Did that catch him off guard? Does he feel maybe he has misread Trump in some way?

ENGEL: It`s hard to know what`s going on inside Putin`s, mind inside the Kremlin. But I think we have a good sense of why there was this international outburst and this international flurry of diplomatic activity expelling Russian diplomats and from a couple dozen countries. And I think it was about the precedent.

This was not just some enemy of the Kremlin who was assassinated. This man or attempted to be assassinated. This man wasn`t strangled. He wasn`t pushed out a window. He was exposed and his daughter to a military grade nerve agent in a small city where I am right now in England.

Two people were seen on a bench frozen solid foaming at the mouth. That is not something that people could ignore. And there was a deep concern among European officials, certainly among British officials and I think probably American officials, as well that unless some sort of line was drawn in the sand, this could be replicated.

KORNACKI: And Nina, on that question of whether this posture shift from the United States if you want to call it that, has caught Putin off guard. Anyway, I think I saw you saying no to that?

KHRUSHCHEVA: I don`t think so. I think he didn`t expect probably 23 countries to do that than most of European Union including countries including Georgia which was former soviet republic and really has been recently having good relationship.

But I think he is preparing himself. I mean, he is -- I think he is -- the game is on. He is waging a war. We just heard from the new Russian ambassador that what is Russia to blame for and if the west wants to approach it this way, Putin is very willing to take that brinksmanship and really stare and see who will break first.

KORNACKI: What is his bottom line? When you look at Russia in the world stage, is this about - is this posture he has taken in the last few years, is it about Russia`s role on the world stage or is it about using other global actors to advance his own domestic agenda, his own standing domestically within Russia.

KHRUSHCHEVA: I think as (INAUDIBLE) would say, and your question, there is an answer. I think there is both. He really wants to be -- Russia to be seen as great power, to return to the super power status. He has very little to show in terms of economy. His gas and oil kind of game really has gone down. So what does he have left? He has left his posture and he has his nuclear and other military things.

And also, he wants to be seen as somebody who can stand up to the United States which he thinks is hypocritical, is unfair to Russia. And it is I think one last line of defense that until Trump speaks to him and says Putin, you are a murder, Putin is still going to play this game slightly less pushy than he has because he thinks that there`s some possibility with Trump.

But I think that is really quite quickly waning away and soon enough, will be in an absolute kind of brinksmanship that we saw, not even at the end of the cold war but sort of in the `60s, say the Cuban missile crisis.

KORNACKI: It is - I mean, to be in this moment given certainly Trump and what he has said publicly and not said publicly about Russia, the expectations versus the moment that you are just describing there, this is in some ways very difficult a process.

But thank you for helping us all tonight.

Nina Khrushcheva, Peter Baker, Richard Engel over there in England. Appreciate all of that.

And be sure to tune in tonight for an all new on assignment with Richard Engel. That is going to air 9:00 eastern right here on MSNBC.

And coming up, we are following two breaking stories tonight. There are protests in Sacramento. This following the police shooting of an unarmed black man there comes as authorities released new body cam footage of another deadly confrontation with police and this one in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

And later, the White House playing defense over its new pick to head the VA. Once again, President Trump seems to have gone rogue in calling out his latest cabinet nominee.

Plus, Trump may have coined the catch phrase "you`re fired," but tonight there`s more proof he likes to leave the dirty work to others.

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

This is HARDBALL where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID HOGG, SENIOR, MARJORY STONEMAN DOUGLAS HIGH SCHOOL: She is a bully and she needs to be held accountable. I don`t care who he are or what title you have. A bully is a bully and that must be held accountable. And I think that`s really what we are trying to do here.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: As Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg today speaking out about FOX News host Laura Ingraham. Earlier this week, Ingraham tweeted to Hogg has been rejected by four colleges and quote once about it. In response, the 17-year-old took to twitter asking advertisers to boycott Ingraham`s show. And since then at least ten companies have pulled their ads including Trip advisor, Office Depot and Johnson & Johnson.

Ingraham has apologized. She said I apologized for any upset or hurt my tweet caused or any of the brave victims of Parkland. Be right back

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

We are watching two major stories both developing tonight. In Baton Rouge, the chief of police announced that one of two officers responsible for the death of Alton Sterling will be fired. And that another would be suspended for three days. Sterling`s 2016 killing which was captured on video prompted nationwide protests.

On Tuesday, the state attorney declined to charge the officers because of insufficient evidence. The department of justice also concluded there wasn`t enough evidence to bring federal civil rights charges against the officers.

Late today, police released video showing the moments leading up to Sterling`s death.

Here`s NBC`s Gabe Gutierrez with that new footage. And a warning, it is disturbing, this newly released video to watch.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GABE GUTIERREZ, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Footage shows officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake responding to a 911 call in 2016.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We got an individual at the Triple S. He is selling CDs. He has got a 9 millimeter whatever in his pocket and he draw it.

GUTIERREZ: A man claiming that Alton Sterling who was selling CDs outside this Baton Rouge convenience store.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get on the ground.

GUTIERREZ: The officers confront Sterling and the encounter escalates quickly.

Previously released cell phone video from a bystander showed part of the struggle. But this surveillance video from the store shows the moments before and after as officer Salamoni yells at Sterling.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KORNACKI: Meanwhile, in Sacramento, the family of Stephon Clark released a private autopsy today. It found that the 22-year-old was shot six times in the back and eight times total.

In response to those findings, the Sacramento Police Department said that it had not been provided with the official report from the county coroner`s office yet.

The 22-year-old father of two was killed on March 18 in the backyard of his grandmother`s house. According to the department, the officers who shot Clark thought he was armed. No weapon was found, though, just a cell phone.

The officers have been placed on administrative leave.

For the latest from Sacramento, I`m joined now by NBC`s Joe Fryer.

Joe, what can you tell us? JOE FRYER, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Well, Steve, here`s what we can tell you.

So, this autopsy was an independent one that was commissioned by the attorneys who are representing Clark`s family. Up until now, all we knew is that police officers fired 20 shots at Stephon Clark. What we didn`t know is how many times he was hit.

Well, according to this independent autopsy, they say he was hit eight times. All of those times were either from behind or to the side. Dr. Bennet Omalu, who conducted this autopsy, says none of them were from the front.

Now, this is what he believes happens. He believes that Clark was actually facing his grandmother`s house at the time that the first shot basically came in from the side, hit him near his armpit. That spun him around. Then the next six shots were behind him. And then the eighth and final shot hit him in the leg either as he was falling down or while he was on the ground.

Dr. Bennet Omalu also believes that Clark was still alive for anywhere from three to 10 minutes after he was shot. This is key in the minds of a lot of people, because Clark did not immediately receive medical attention -- Steve.

KORNACKI: All right, Joe Fryer out in Sacramento, thank you for that.

And, on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders was questioned about the fatal shooting of Stephon Clark and the absence of charges in the Alton Sterling case. This is what she had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Certainly a terrible incident. This is something that is a local matter, and that`s something we feel should be left up to the local authorities at this point in time.

The president is very supportive of law enforcement. But at the same time, in these specific cases and these specific instances, those will be left up to local authorities to make that determination and not something for the federal government to weigh in to.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: And at Stephon Clark`s funeral, the Reverend Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network and an MSNBC host, called out the White House for their response.

Here`s what he said:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AL SHARPTON, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: Let me say, yesterday, the president`s press secretary said this is a local matter. No, this is not a local matter. They have been killing young black men all over the country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: And for his part, President Trump has weighed in on a number of local issues. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The result in the death rate around sanctuary cities in and around for innocent Americans is unacceptable. Take a look at what happened in San Francisco and Kate Steinle and countless others.

The city of Chicago, what the hell is going on in Chicago? There are those that say that Afghanistan is safer than Chicago.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: For more, I`m joined by Basil Smikle, Democratic strategist and former executive director of the New York State Democratic Party, and Jen Kerns, former spokeswoman for the California Republican Party.

Jen, it is certainly true that the White House has not weighed in on every local issue. There`s lots of exceptions, but it`s also true they have weighed in on some.

And you hear the case there from Al Sharpton saying, this is one where something ought to be said. What do you think about that?

JEN KERNS, FORMER SPOKESWOMAN, CALIFORNIA REPUBLICAN PARTY: Well, I agree with you. I think the statement from the White House was a bit ineloquent.

Clearly, from your clips there, anyone can see that the White House has clearly weighed in on local issues. But I think this case is different and I think this is why you`re seeing President Trump not weigh in on this.

You have got a case here where you have got the first African-American police chief in Sacramento. Seems to be doing a very good job. The police department issued those body cam recordings within, gosh, I think 48 hours. So, I think that was a good start.

They also released, which they didn`t necessarily have to, release the overhead helicopter video, as well as radio transmissions, as well as the 911 tape. So, by and large, I think the Sacramento P.D. is doing a good job and they`re following protocol. And I think that`s why you see the White House not weighing in.

If you compare it to cases kill the Kate Steinle case, where clearly you had a city that was part of this sanctuary city policy that President Trump vehemently disagrees with, and he was not sure that there would be justice served for Kate in the end, and, in fact, there really was not, I think that`s why you see he would weigh in on one topic, maybe not weigh in on the other.

I think he has a bit of confidence that the proper procedure is being followed here.

KORNACKI: What do you think, Basil?

BASIL SMIKLE, FORMER EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NEW YORK STATE DEMOCRATIC PARTY: Well, I think it`s, on the president`s part, very hypocritical.

We actually have see him weigh in on local issues related to police brutality, because when NFL players were taking a knee to protest police brutality, he called them SOBs. Whenever it comes to the lives of African- Americans in this country and Latinos in this country, the president is silent or he rails against them, which he has done throughout his campaign.

What we have seen now is the president saying that the White House is not going to get involved. He might as well just say, we don`t care.

And to me, the objectification, the commodification of black lives, we are overtaxed and taxed disproportionately, we are jailed disproportionately, and we are killed at the hands of police disproportionately.

And the White House is basically saying to us, you cannot and should not go to the federal government for any recourse. You cannot go to us for any help and support.

And we have seen that in the way that he has gutted the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. We have seen that over the last few years when you look at the Supreme Court rulings with respect to the Voting Rights Act. It`s a signal to communities of color or anybody that cares about equity anywhere that the federal government is not open.

KORNACKI: Is that -- Donald Trump got 8 percent of the black vote in 2016. And there`s a broader pattern here. I think you got to go back 50 years to find a Republican candidate who cracked even 20 percent of the black vote. So, it`s not just Donald Trump.

But everything that Basil was just talking about that`s bigger than this case in Sacramento, do you see Donald Trump and the Republican Party coming up short in addressing that? Is that linked to those vote totals that we talk about every four years?

KERNS: Well, I think some of what Basil mentioned, most of what you mentioned happened before Donald Trump took office.

You have to remember he`s been in office about a year. So I don`t think he can own a lot of things like the Trayvon Martin shooting. Police shootings were happening in these communities long before President Trump took office.

So, I think we have to be clear be that. I think what you see President Trump trying to do here -- and he goes at this as a businessman -- he is trying to work on behalf of the communities.

We see African-American unemployment at its lowest rate ever recorded in American history. I think he`s trying to effect change in those ways. Now, I do acknowledge again could the White House have been a little more eloquent about their response to it, should they have put out a statement? It is true.

But if you look at what we have going on around the world, we have high- stakes negotiations with North Korea coming up, we have critical deadlines looming with Iran, we have got Russian aggression, attacking our allies.

I think when the president decides to weigh in on something, he weighs those factors I mentioned again, which is, are the local police, are they doing a good job, do they understand the...

(CROSSTALK)

KERNS: And I think the African-American...

(CROSSTALK)

KORNACKI: Let me just ask it this way, though. When you look at the 8 percent that he got, when you look at his approval rating with black voters, when we see polls, it`s right around that level, is he missing an opportunity here to communicate something different when it comes -- maybe not just this one story, but in general?

KERNS: It could be.

In the wake of the Parkland shooting, he saw him bring those families to the White House. He could offer an olive branch to the family here in Sacramento, invite them to the White House to have this conversation. And maybe they are. Maybe they have that planned. I don`t know.

SMIKLE: Well, he`s not done it. And I don`t expect him to do it, because the families, they don`t have the same color skin.

And I feel that. I feel that to my core, that this is a president that just has no ear for being able to engage communities of color. And I think that the entire administration has just said, we`re done, we`re going to be hands-off on this.

KORNACKI: Well, let me ask you this.

If he`s watching this or just in general thinking about this, and he hears something like you just said and says, you know what, I want to show that`s not the case, what`s one thing he could do to start to change the dialogue and the perception?

(LAUGHTER)

SMIKLE: You know, he could come out and say, look, I have -- and actually owing to your comment earlier, yes, there were some shootings and there was unrest under President Obama, but President Obama made very some specific statements about it.

He got pilloried on the right for doing so, and to some extent on the left for not doing it early enough. But he started to make comments about these shootings and the relationship that communities of color have with law enforcement.

Donald Trump could do that, and that would signal to some people that, OK, he`s making an attempt. I don`t think that he`s going to solve that problem fully. I don`t think that under his administration that you would see a lot of progress.

But I do think if -- to answer your question specifically, if he`s going to make some inroads, come out and acknowledge that there`s a problem and talk about how you`re going to use the resources of the federal government to address it.

KERNS: Well, here`s what I...

KORNACKI: Very -- we have got to go, but you have 15 seconds.

KERNS: Well, here`s what I think is not helpful.

You saw the protests outside the Sacramento Kings` arena. I worked my sources today in Sacramento. They said those were outside protesters, outside agitators, not members of that community.

If you`re really looking to bridge the gap between police and African- Americans, you need to start with that African-American police chief in Sacramento working with that family. That`s the way...

(CROSSTALK)

KORNACKI: Not being out there, but I can certainly -- there are just a lot of emotions in Sacramento right now you can absolutely see.

SMIKLE: That`s right. Absolutely.

KORNACKI: Basil Smikle, Jen Kerns, thanks to both of you.

And up next: A new poll out today shows the majority of Americans are ready to protest. What do they want to protest? What issues? We have got some data for you. I`m going over to the big board. We are going to show you.

That`s next here on HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KORNACKI: Well, we were just talking about the protests out in Sacramento that are going on right now.

Last week in Washington and around the country, it was the March For Our Lives. There was the women`s march last year. You go back a couple years, there were all those Tea Party marches, those Tea Party protests.

Sometimes, it can feel like we`re living in an era of protests.

Well, guess what? There are some numbers out there that back that up, brand-new NBC/"Wall Street Journal" survey on activism and protests in America right now.

How about this for a question we asked folks? We said, is there something that upsets right now in America enough to carry a protest sign, to go out there and join those crowds?

Look at this -- 57 percent of Americans say, yes. Sign me up. I`m ready to go protest.

There is a partisan split on this. It`s interesting. Democrats and Republicans are both ready to protest. Democrats, though, right now, they are more ready; 69 percent of Democrats say ready to hit the streets. Republicans, still, it`s a small majority, but it`s a majority. They`re at 50 percent there saying yes, 48 percent saying no.

So, what`s firing them up? What`s firing up Democrats? What`s firing up Republicans? Because they`re not going to be protesting for the same reasons.

Well, we gave them in this survey a menu of choices. Could it be this cause or that cause or that cause? A whole bunch of options. Here are the most common answers for each party. These are interesting. Check this out.

For Republicans, they would be ready to protest for protecting borders and limiting immigration. That was their top choice, also maintaining the right to purchase firearms. Those are the two top issues that Republicans say would get them out there protesting.

For Democrats, increasing racial equality and addressing climate change. Racial equality and climate change, according to this survey, those are the most animating issues on both sides of the divide right now.

A couple other things we found in this poll that are interesting want to point out to you. First of all, there`s this question of, this is the story of our times. The demographics of this country, they are changing. They are changing fast.

That increasing diversity, how do the two parties feel about it? Let me just read the wording of this to you, because it`s a little complicated. And I want you to understand what we asked them.

We asked, do you agree or not, are you comfortable or not with this? I feel comfortable with these changes in our society because what makes the country special is taking the very best from people of different experiences and backgrounds and creating a country that thrives in its diversity?

Seventy-four percent of Democrats say they agree with that statement, 29 percent of Republicans. The statement that Republicans were more likely to agree with is that I feel uneasy with these changes, because what makes the country special is our uniquely American experience, speaking English and a shared background that brings us all together. That was more resonant with Republicans. So, a big split there.

And that is sort of -- I thought we had one after that, but we didn`t. But there you go.

You get a real sense here that both sides of the aisle right now, they are very, very animated in this moment for different reasons, though, some interesting findings there from our new NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" poll.

Up next: the White House playing defense over its latest Cabinet shakeup. But now former VA Secretary David Shulkin is firing back at the Trump administration. Not everyone`s on board with the president`s new pick.

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Outgoing Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is leaving the Trump administration but he is not going quietly. Shulkin accusing the Trump administration in its political appointees within the V.A. of conspiring against him and his management with the goal of privatizing the V.A.

Shulkin also told my colleague Chris Hayes that he spoke with President Trump just hours before he was fired.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST: When is the last time you spoke to him?

DAVID SHULKIN, FORMER VETERANS AFFAIRS SECRETARY: I spoke to the president yesterday.

HAYES: What was that conversation like?

SHULKIN: We spoke about the progress that I was making, what I needed to do from a policy perspective to make sure that we are fixing the issues in V.A. Very focused. He was very inquisitive about the things that we were working on, making sure that we were focused on the job at hand.

HAYES: Wait, that`s before you were fired?

SHULKIN: That`s correct.

HAYES: You spoke to him, he made no mention of the fact that he was about to terminate you?

SHULKIN: That`s correct.

HAYES: And then you found out via tweet?

SHULKIN: Yes, right before that, the Chief of Staff Kelly gave me a call, which I appreciated, he gave me a heads-up. And so -- but that was much after the phone call.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: The White House staff are now playing catch up in defending Shulkin`s successor, or would be successor, White House physician Ronny Jackson, after being blindsided by Trump`s announcement. "The Washington Post" reports the White House planned to announce Wednesday that Shulkin would leave the administration and be replaced on an interim basis by Robert Wilkie, undersecretary for defense personnel and readiness at the Defense Department until a nominee was found.

But Trump preempted the plan when he tweeted he intended to nominate Jackson.

Let`s bring in the HARDBALL table. Michelle Goldberg is a columnist for the "New York Times," Noelle Nikpour is a Republican strategist, and Emily Ngo is a national politics reporter for "Newsday".

Not surprisingly, I don`t have a good idea of what exactly happened here and why it happened. There`s a couple of, you know, theories and suggestions out there.

We`ve got Shulkin saying, look, this was about a scheme to privatize the V.A. You had this scathing inspector general`s report sitting out there about Shulkin and the cost of his trip to Europe with his wife a few months ago. You`ve got that. You`ve got Trump`s tendency to make these kind of sporadic decisions.

Do we have a sense that this was more about Shulkin or more about Trump just wanting Ronny Jackson?

EMILY NGO, NEWSDAY NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: It`s hard to discern what it`s actually about. We do have a sense that the White House and its aides are not ready to answer all the questions that we have about Ronny Jackson and his qualifications. We know that he`s telegenic. We know he`s a doctor. We know he`s an active duty member of the armed forces.

But what qualifies him to run a very large and very troubled agency, what managerial experience he had, and where does he stand on privatizing health care for veterans?

KORNACKI: It does seem, Michelle, you look at this, in some ways, this is consistent with what we know about Trump and his style.

MICHELLE GOLDBERG, COLUMNIST, NEW YORK TIMES: Right.

KORNACKI: But in other ways, too, I think putting somebody like Ronny Jackson forward, IT seems like the sole qualification we`ve seen is what he did on television.

GOLDBERG: Right. Well, Trump also wanted to hire his pilot to head the FAA. I mean, this is somebody who has kind of contempt for governing experience, makes snap decisions and really could care less about qualifications.

And I think one of the stories so far has been that the federal government has more or less sort of held together despite having this chaotic, incompetent team an the top. And we`re going to see over the coming years that the corruption and incompetence trickle down in a way that really starts to affect people`s lives because although Ronny Jackson is kind of universally beloved by people in the White House, it is crazy to move somebody from managing a team of dozens to managing the second biggest agency in the U.S. government. I mean, it`s just madness.

KORNACKI: Do you think Republicans go -- he has to get confirmed by the Senate. I mean, Republicans have the votes there. Do you think they`ll all be on board with this?

NOELLE NIKPOUR, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Probably so, if the president wants him, probably so. But you`ve got to look at this -- they have recently become friends. We don`t know what kind of private conversations that Trump and Jackson have had, because I can tell you one thing, I do not there that Trump would have appointed this if Jackson and he did not speak of this, if he didn`t say something about the V.A. I don`t think it blindsided Jackson.

I think they said they`ve been close in recent times. That they`ve been speaking. So, I think what happened is I think that he has discussed something with Jackson. I think Jackson gave him a few ideas about the V.A. and what he would do.

I bet five bucks that can what ended up happening is he thought, you know what? This guy could touch around the V.A. and he`s there.

GOLDBERG: OK, I bet a thousand dollars that Trump does not -- that they have not had substantive policy conversations about what should happen at the V.A., should it be privatized? You know, how should it be reorganized? I mean -- to the depths of my soul I`m positive that is not what went on there.

KORNACKI: It does feel like there`s almost asymmetry and the Trump campaign for president. The Trump message in 2016 was, the ones who you think are supposed to have all these important positions screwed the country up. So, let me the total outsider come in.

GOLDBERG: But it was also I will hire the best people, not I will hire, you know, a bunch of kind of cronies and Fox News.

KORNACKI: But did it mean the best credentialed people or the people I in my gut think are the best people?

GOLDBERG: Right. But the people that he in his gut thinks are the best people are the people that he thinks look good on television.

NIKPOUR: But you`ve got to look at this, all right? I`m going to push back on that. And the reason why is because he won this campaign, he beat out 16 people that were very qualified. He beat out Bush, he beat out, you know, a Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio. Look at the whole line of people that he beat out.

And he did this really by putting his own motley crew together, people that -- you know, Kellyanne Conway, look how many times he changed people on his campaign over and over and over again. So, really, Donald Trump had the credit for the winning team strategy to get where he was. So, he feels like that he can have a strategy for the White House.

(CROSSTALK)

KORNACKI: We got to go to break. Quickly.

GOLDBERG: Him and Putin. The fact that he managed to eke his way out to a freak minority victory does not mean this kind of crazy, improvisational thing he does is a way to run the government.

KORNACKI: OK. The roundtable is staying with us.

Up next, it turns out David Shulkin has a lot in common with some of the other people who have left the Trump administration. That is coming up next. You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: Programming note for you. This Sunday, my colleague Chris Matthews will have an in-depth look at one of the most influential people on the planet, Pope Francis.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: He`s a spiritual leader of more than a billion Catholics. Not to mention his 40 million Twitter followers.

Pope Francis is more than a religious leader.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Holy Father is not just another guy with an opinion.

MATTHEWS: He`s an advocate and an activist, offering a strong voice on climate change.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think Pope Francis honestly has revolutionized the church.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: The MSNBC special "Headliners: Pope Francis" is going to air this Sunday, 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

We`ll be right back with the HARDBALL roundtable.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

V.A. Secretary David Shulkin isn`t the only person President Trump has fired without telling them to their face. Former FBI Director James Comey learned of his ouster while at an event in Los Angeles. According to "The New York Times", television screens in the background began flashing the news in response to the reports, Mr. Comey laughed saying that he thought it was a fairly funny prank.

NBC News also reports that Trump was angry that Comey used a government plane to return home to Washington.

Trump announced the departure of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus via a tweet from Air Force One. At the time, Priebus was sitting on the tarmac outside the plane.

And former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also reportedly learned he was fired following a tweet from the president. It came hours after returning from an overseas trip.

We are back here with the HARDBALL roundtable.

And. Emily, this -- I mean, everybody remembers the boardroom scene at the end of every episode of "The Apprentice." He walks in, stares straight across the table at that week`s victim and says "you`re fired". And yet when it comes to his own administration, folks aren`t hearing this from him.

NGO: It`s not even that he can`t fire them to their faces, he can`t fire them in a phone call. He leaves it up to John Kelly to do. My first impression is that he really wants to be liked. He doesn`t want to be the bad guy. He doesn`t want to do the dirty work.

But that doesn`t make sense. I mean, no one is going to like you if you fire them in a tweet. It must be about the publicity. I mean, this gets a ton of ink and a ton of air time. And the vast number of exits is going to get a lot of publicity anyway. But this makes it even more dramatic. And if we know anything, we know that he likes chaos.

KORNACKI: That`s the one I wonder because on "The Apprentice" show, he`s saying it to them but he`s also saying it to millions of people.

GOLDBERG: First of all, he`s a fraud, right? And if you, you know, news flash, reality TV is not real and people who pride themselves on not believing the liberal media should also realize they should not believe reality television, right?

So, Donald Trump is incredibly non-confrontational in person. He loves people. And if you`ve had to fire someone, it`s unpleasant. And Donald Trump will never do something unpleasant when he can have somebody else do it for him. And so, this is an undecent way to treat people.

NIKPOUR: Well, you`ve got realize that Donald Trump`s background, a lot of people -- I used to work for Rudy Giuliani. He was a big supporter of Rudy Giuliani. The way that the rumor has it the way that he did real estate negotiations is he would go in kind of just throw something out there and then basically turn around and walk out and just leave everything in shambles for the rest of everybody to pick up. That`s his style. His style.

KORNACKI: Seems like what he does on twitter.

NIKPOUR: That`s his style is to be, you know, Kellyanne Conway, I`ll quote Kellyanne Conway. He`s a disruptor. She said it.

I mean, it was over and over and over repeated rhetoric but that`s the truth. He is a disruptor. If you`ve noticed we`re all pawns in the game anyway because every time there`s something that comes out, he will tweet something and the entire news story will change around what he has tweeted out. I have been booked for segments after segments on something we have topics ready to go and everyone will go, wait a minute, he just tweeted.

KORNACKI: Yes.

NGO: We`re talking about it right now.

NIKPOUR: There we go.

KORNACKI: Bigger picture here, too, is the firing of Shulkin, the firing of Tillerson, on and on. It seems like this is going to continue. If you can take a step back, is there any constancy besides Trump himself in -- within the administration or is slowly a new and different administration emerging here?

NGO: It is a turning point, a turnover kind of turning point. I think of it as a spring cleaning. He`s in spring cleaning mode even though he`s technically in Mar-a-Lago mode right now. He is ready for a clean slate and sees it would be better to do it all at once.

KORNACKI: All right. The roundtable is staying with us. Up next, these three have the easiest job in the world. They tell me something I don`t know.

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Michelle, tell me something I don`t know.

GOLDBERG: A woman in Texas has just been sentenced to five years for voting when she was on parole and she didn`t realize that she wasn`t able to vote. And her ballot was caught before it even went through. She`s now going to prison for five years after just serving a three-year sentence for tax fraud and is now going to be separated from her children again.

KORNACKI: Let`s see if there`s some follow-up to that.

Noelle?

NIKPOUR: I have a prediction. My prediction is that Cynthia Nixon will totally beat out Cuomo in the primary. We`re going to see a woman.

KORNACKI: You are -- that`s the Republican dream in New York state, isn`t it?

NIKPOUR: Yes.

KORNACKI: How do you win an election? That`s what the Republican seems to think. We`ll see. Sometimes be careful what you wish for.

Emily?

NGO: "Newsday" is all over the coverage of the federal corruption trial in Nassau County involving the former executive and a lot of big names have come up. But one is Joseph Mondello, who is Nassau County GOP chairman, but also Trump`s nominee to be ambassador to Turks and Caicos. You can expect the allegation he got a $25,000 discount on a wedding for his daughter.

This allegation was made by a man, a restaurateur who has pleaded guilty to bribing other officials. Mondello has denied any wrongdoing and there`s no evidence that he got anything in exchange. But that might bungle his confirmation process a little bit.

KORNACKI: Political corruption in New York. Who knew?

Thank you, Michelle Goldberg, Noelle Nikpour, Emily Ngo.

That is HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us. Chris Matthews will be back Monday.

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