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Trump escalates attacks. TRANSCRIPT: 12/17/2018, Hardball w. Chris Matthews.

Guests: Natasha Bertrand, J. Ann Selzer, Adrienne Elrod, John Brabender, Sahil Kapur

Show: HARDBALL Date: December 17, 2018 Guest: Natasha Bertrand, J. Ann Selzer, Adrienne Elrod, John Brabender, Sahil Kapur

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Twenty tweets for the bunker. Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Mathews in Washington.

Ratted out, Trump retreats to the bunker. President Trump spent the weekend launching a slew of angry tweets as he finds himself under siege on multiple fronts. Hunkered down in the White House on a rainy weekend, Trump tweeted roughly 20 times since Friday night lashing out at the media, denouncing the special counsel`s probe as a witch-hunt and once again, blaming good old Jeff Sessions, of all people, for allowing this total hoax to get started.

At one point President Trump referred to his long-time fixer and personal lawyer Michael Cohen as a rat. Tweeting, remember, Michael Cohen only became a rat after the FBI did something which was absolutely unthinkable, and it hurt up until the witch-hunt was illegally started, they broke into an attorney`s office.

Well, this all comes on the heels of a rough week for Trump and his family. Trump is under scrutiny now on six different fronts. According to reports, the Trump campaign, the Trump transition, the Trump inauguration, the Trump administration, the Trump organization, and the Trump foundation are all being probed for things ranging from campaign finance violations to accounting fraud.

Now over the weekend, another one of President Trump`s cabinet members was forced to resign under a cloud of ethics inquiries, setting another record for the President who has the most cabinet replacements by a first-term president in 100 years. And if this were not enough, President Trump and the Republican trolled Congress have just four days to avert a second shutdown of the U.S. government in just two years.

And looming overall this is special counsel Robert Mueller`s investigation. Rudy Giuliani, the President`s out-front lawyer, insisted that his client will never speak to Robert Mueller now, never. Let`s watch.


CHRIS WALLACE, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Is the special counsel, does he want to interview the President?

RUDY GIULIANI, PRESIDENT TRUMP`S LAWYER: Yes, good luck. Good luck, after what they did to Flynn, trapped him in perjury --

WALLACE: So when you say good luck, there is no way, no interview?

GIULIANI: They are a joke. Over my dead body, but, you know, I could be dead.


MATTHEWS: That`s a strange comment. That might be wise.

A new NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll shows that only six in ten, actually well over six in ten don`t believe the President, 62 percent of Americans now don`t believe the President is being truthful when it comes to the Russia investigation, 62 percent don`t believe him.

And breaking just moments ago, the FBI has released a key memo ahead of Michael Flynn`s sentencing tomorrow. The document contains FBI agents` notes following their initial interview with Trump`s former national security advisor Michael Flynn.

For more I`m joined by Heidi Przybyla, U.S. news national political correspondent - I mean, NBC News. Elliot Williams, former federal prosecutor, and Philip Bump, "Washington Post"/"Politico" reporter.

Philip, I want to get you of heads up when this new report just flashing out right now, these notes on the Michael Flynn investigation and then sentencing tomorrow.

PHILIP BUMP, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Right, yes. So, there is a new memo that just came out that was essentially was transcribed apparently at the time the FBI agents interviewed Flynn in the White House in early January, rather late January 2017.

It documents more completely than we have seen publicly so far what that conversation looked like. Flynn talking to the FBI agents about the fact that he was in Dominican Republic, that he didn`t have good cell receptions, he doesn`t remember having spoken to the Russian ambassador about the specifics of what he was - of the requested Trump administration, the Trump transition team was making of the Russians in response to new sanctions over being imposed by Obama`s government.

So it sort of outlines broadly what it is that we have known in the abstract for months now, which is that Flynn had this extensive conversation with the FBI, made representations to them about the conversations he had had with Kislyak that ended up being undermined by other information the government had apparently from surveying Kislyak`s communications directly.

MATTHEWS: So this is what they are going to use against him in the sentencing tomorrow?

BUMP: Right, yes. So, this is part of the initial plea agreement from Flynn was that he had misrepresented the truth in this conversation with the FBI. There were other aspects to it as well, including that he misrepresented the extent of his relationship with Turkey, which also we had some new news on today with the indictment of two people he used to work with. But yes, this is part of the case the government had made to get him to get to that plea deal in the first place.

MATTHEWS: Lets` talk about this weekend and the President`s behavior. Twenty tweets coming out of the White House starting after this program, after HARDBALL Friday night. He kept at it all weekend. Apparently, the rain had something to do with it. People believe that rain is not good for Trump because it frees him up from (INAUDIBLE) and others sort of active engagements which keeps him from tweeting.

But this weekend it was all tweets. What he -- Heidi, what is his particular fear? Six fronts he is being hit on we pointed out. All these probes coming at him. It only takes one to get him.

HEIDI PRYZBYLA, NBC NEWS NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the turning point did seem to be the Cohen sentencing memo, where this is completely outside the scope of Mueller and yet now we are talking about him being named with a potential crime. It is something that doesn`t have anything to do with Russia collusion. He has been calling it the witch- hunt all this time.

Well now, he is named as someone who was part of a conspiracy, who created a shell company in order to essentially mislead the American people, defraud the American people, and the question now is that people like us are debating whether a sitting President can be indicted. That`s got to really scare him. And on top of that, you see all the staff turnover, General Kelly leaving.

MATTHEWS: Who would make that call to indict him just to get it nailed? Could it be you don`t need Mueller to do it? Somebody up from New York can do it. But what happens then? Who enforces an indictment of the president from the southern district of New York, the sergeant of arms in the Senate? I mean, who does this? They come and get him?

PRYZBYLA: I mean, I guess we are in uncharted territory. You would be better to speak on that.

MATTHEWS: Federal marshals? Who comes and gets the President to say you are under arrest?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: So I believe that the only person who can actually arrest the President is the sergeant of arms of the United States Senate like you said. But again, it would open up years and years of litigation, months and months of litigation over whether you can indict the President. So it sort of create a mess.

MATTHEWS: It might as well be a sheriff of knotting him coming to get because that matter. He is not going to be arrested, the President of the United States. So what`s this indictment fear about? He is afraid, do you think?

WILLIAMS: I think he is afraid. And that is why where all these tweets are coming from. It sort like a TV show "Mad Man" have said, if you don`t like what people are saying, change the conversation. And what they are trying to do is just distract the United States and distract everybody into -- away from what the President is really facing.

What it does is undermines people`s faith in law enforcement. When you`re talking about rats and breaking into the people`s house.

MATTHEWS: Yes. Don`t shoot you, man. I mean, you are having the same series of days -- Heidi, you first. The same -- then to Philip. The same series of days the President talks about being ratted out like he is a gang roadster. He is in the underworld. I have been ratted out. It is like James Cagney in the old movies. I have been ratted out.

And at the same, his guy, time Rudy Giuliani says he is not going to talk. So basically, he is using gang roadster talk to be really crude about it. He is going after people who rat him out and he is taking the fifth -- which he used to say was tantamount to admission of guilt.

PRYZBYLA: I think Lax to use that, you know, make that connection in terms of the mob language. But this isn`t the first time. Remember when he talked about Paul Manafort. Not only is he calling Cohen a rat, but he is saying Manafort was, you know, he is praising him for not flipping on him.

But I don`t think Giuliani did him any favors in those interviews because, number one, he pushed the time frame way back in terms of the Trump tower that Trump may have known about Trump tower and been negotiating with the Russians all the way to November of 2016, which would be a key plank in the argument.

MATTHEWS: Let`s take a look at them. In other words, he was working on his deal in Russia with the Russians all the way through the actual general election of 2016, not up until January of 2016 as previously confessed to.

Anyway, in his interview with ABC, Rudy Giuliani, the President`s out front lawyer, seemed to shift the goal post, as Heidi said, when the President stops talks over building a Trump tower in Moscow. Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress when he told them that talks of the tower ended in January 2016, the beginning of 2016. He later admitted that the talks lasted up until June.

But yesterday another six months, Giuliani suggested the conversation continued through March of 2016. Let`s watch that language.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did the President, did Donald Trump know that Michael Cohen was pursuing the Trump tower in Moscow into the summer of 2016?

GIULIANI: According to the answer that he gave, it would have covered all the way up to November of -- covered November of 2016. Said he had conversations with him with the President --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Earlier they said those conversations stopped in January 2016.

GIULIANI: I mean the date -- until you actually sit down and answer the questions and you go back and you look at the papers and you look at the -- you`re not going to know what happened. That`s why, that`s why lawyers, you know, prepare for those answers.


MATTHEWS: Philip, I imagine the President watching that from his bunker saying, that bone head, why did he confess now that I`m talking Trump tower with the Ruskies (ph) all the way up to my election as if I`m hedging I`m thinking, OK, if I don`t win the presidency I will get the tower in Russia. It seems like he was working both sides of his options.

BUMP: I mean, I read that Rudy Giuliani quote a little differently. I think he was saying - and, who knows the specifics. I think he was saying the answer that he gave to Mueller would cover any conversations through November. I don`t know that if he actually there were conversation through November. But it raises the very good question of why is Rudy Giuliani still going on TV. He never has once done any good for Donald Trump.

Donald Trump is the only person who ever speaks for Donald Trump anyway, so why have someone out there that constantly is muddying the waters, constantly having to change his story when new details come out of a Michael Cohen, for example, it`s baffling. No idea.

MATTHEWS: And George Stephanopoulos, great reporter who was sitting there with a lot of help. You know, need much help. But he sit there and he knows everything today. He could tell everything was at the tip of his tongue. And this guy was just sort of winging it.

Rudy Giuliani cannot wing it, just back from Arabia where he just was a few hours before. Anyway, Giuliani also claimed this weekend that it didn`t matter the President can`t keep his story straight because he`s not under oath. Let`s watch.


GIULIANI: Southern district says, you can get out of jail if you do this. You have got three years now. There`s a real motivation to sing like crazy. He has to do a lot of singing to get out of the three years. And he will say whatever he has to say. He has changed his story four or five times.


GIULIANI: The President is not under oath.


MATTHEWS: You know, I don`t like this reference, but the mob talk never stops. Singing? I mean, what are we watching city hall here? I remember the movie "City Hall" with Danny Ayala, the singer. You remember? Had commit suicide. It is a mob boss. Nina Potatoes (ph), supposedly in Brooklyn. He says, you are a singer. So this kind of language, singing, ratting out, you know, taking the fifth, it`s under world talk.

WILLIAMS: it is underworld talk. But here is - I worked on mob cases before. At least they are smart enough to use code when they are talking on tape. They are smart enough - no, they are smart enough to start to try to cover their tracks. But these guys really are behaving as if they have -- I mean, Rudy Giuliani having been a United States attorney, who has prosecuted mobsters, is actually being an incredible sloppy way.


WILLIAMS: All of the above. But being out there giving these interviews that are not helping his client in any way and actually kind of making things worse.

PRYZBYLA: He is also covering himself, too. He seems realty starting to hedge here. And I thought it was telling that when he was asked about whether Roger Stone tipped off Trump about WikiLeaks, he really paused. That, that was I think really troubling. And a sign of either he knows something or he is unwilling - he is at a point where he is unwilling to fully defend this President.

WILLIAMS: And the other thing is that -- look, again, having been a prosecutor, had a big guy at the justice department, doesn`t seem to understand that lying even not under oath is still a federal offense under 18 U.S. C-1008. He could go to jail --.

MATTHEWS: The movie references here because this I keep hearing -- I used to watch them on TV when I was growing up, the movies from the `30s.


MATTHEWS: And the Cagney stuff and Humphrey Bogart. Let`s take a look. The word rat, for example, is a term used in the underworld described a witness who provides truthful, incriminating information about a high value target, a rat. Here are just a few examples of that kind of mob language.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You take the first like a man and you learn the two greatest things in life.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look at me. Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You dirty yellow belly, I`ll give it to you through the door.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, you didn`t rat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I did a good thing, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, you did a good thing. You did a good thing for a bad man.


MATTHEWS: Philip, your last words here because we didn`t invent this language. The movies made up. I hear mobsters they talk about mobsters in the movies.

PRYZBYLA: Right. Al Capone actually used that word. I looked it up.

MATTHEWS: Yes. Well, he said you dirty rat. Apparently, Jimmy Cagney never said you dirty rat, but it was pretty close.

Why do think that the made a lot of -- they go on TV and talk like characters in the bad guys?

BUMP: I mean, I think there is this undercurrent in politics where everyone likes to feel tough. This is something that comes up constantly. People are always talking about it, going hard after - yada, yada. There is this overlap between the way that people look at themselves in politics quite frankly. And the way that people look at themselves in, you know, criminal activity rarely do we actually see the overlap that is suggested by some of the recent revelations. And quite frankly, I think seeing good fellas at this most permanent at this point in time, he is where he is constantly on the lookout for the helicopters. I think that`s the stage that we are getting to in this administration.

MATTHEWS: Great movie. Thank you so much, Heidi Przybyla and Elliot Williams and Phil Bump.

Coming up, Russia`s campaign to elect Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. Two stunning reports now show how widespread the Russia campaign to influence the 2016 election was and it`s worse than we previously thought, even worse.

Plus, the 2020 Presidential campaign coming up. We are getting a look at who is leading among potential Democratic candidates in the first caucus state Iowa. Most voters say they are looking for a candidate who can beat Donald Trump.

And the White House shuffle continues. John Kelly, Ryan Zinke out while Mick Mulvaney in for a-while temporary on his second job in administration acting chief of staff? How many jobs can Mulvaney handle?

Finally, let me finish tonight with how the Mueller investigation could end. This could be exciting, sort of like Spiro Agnew.

This is ball hard. This is HARDBALL where the action is.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Two stunning reports out today show that Russia`s effort to manipulate the 2016 Presidential election was widespread and went even further than we previously thought. The reports commissioned by the Senate intelligence committee -- this is a bipartisan report conducted a sweeping analysis of the Russian disinformation campaign, reviewing millions of social media posts from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and You Tube, created by a group called the internet research agency.

NBC News reports that the two separate reports found the organization set out in the 2016 Presidential election to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. In part by inflaming right wing conspiracy theories and seeking to engender this trust among and suppress the vote of left leaning groups including African-Americans. In fact, President Trump himself alluded to how African-American turnout may have helped him during post-election appearances in two key states, Michigan and Pennsylvania.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They didn`t come out to vote for Hillary. They didn`t come out. And that was a big -- so thank you to the African-American community.

And the African-American community was great to us. They came through big league. Big league. And, frankly, if they had any doubt, they didn`t vote. And that was almost as good.


MATTHEWS: Well, that was a poker face, wasn`t it?

I`m joined by Natasha Bertrand, staff writer for "the Atlantic" and Ken Dilanian, NBC News intelligence and nation at security reporter.

Let me go to Ken on this because we want to know it would seems to me that they were sharper than a lot of micro analysts on one of the candidates, Hillary Clinton. Because they seem to know exactly how to turn off black voters and make them think, these two guys, Hillary and Trump, aren`t any better than one or the other, so stay home.

KEN DILANIAN, NBC NEWS INTELLIGENCE AND NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: That really was remarkable at this. We knew about this effort, obviously. Robert Mueller indicted the people behind this internet research agency and he described some of their efforts. But these reports make clear that a huge part of it was aimed at African-Americans and, in part, to suppress their vote.

There was a three-prong effort. They were -- they were given misinformation about the timing of the election and polling place location. They were urged to vote for a third-party candidate, Jill Stein. And they were fed all kinds of conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton and videos about police brutality, feeding into their very legitimate grievances with society, Chris.

MATTHEWS: Yes, I wish I had an African-American on this panel.


MATTHEWS: We will get back to this. I feel a little uncomfortable with that. But this came up as part of this discussion.

And what do we make of the fact that they really were smart? Now, some people can say, well, everybody knows you could work the black vote by turning them off to both other candidates. But I didn`t think you could.

NATASHA BERTRAND, "THE ATLANTIC": Yes, I mean, I think that there are serious questions about whether or not certain aspects of this campaign was coordinated with perhaps the Trump campaign, especially when it comes to the geographic targeting.

I mean, how did they know how to target certain areas of the country that were more perhaps vulnerable to manipulation than others?

MATTHEWS: Well, Detroit and Philly.

BERTRAND: Right. So this was -- the geographic targeting is a very interesting part of this.

But I also think that it`s not particularly difficult to determine the cleavages in our society, where it`s gun rights, African-American rights, military and veteran issues.

So I think that there are serious questions about certain aspects of this campaign. But, broadly, this interference effort was based on things that are very obvious about American society.

I also think that the Russians` campaign would not have been nearly as effective if it wasn`t amplified constantly by then candidate Donald Trump. If the Russians` messaging had diverged significantly from messages that were already being put out by Trump, then perhaps it wouldn`t have been as effective.

But because they were so aligned in the things that they were putting out, then it just resonated that much more.

MATTHEWS: Well, in response to the reports, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, North Carolina Republican Richard Burr, said: "Increasingly, we have seen how social media platforms intended to foster open dialogues can be used by hostile foreign actors seeking to manipulate and subvert public opinion. Most thoroughly, it shows that these activities have not stopped."

Ken, and then Natasha again, what do we make of the fact that people that go online to look up something, they want to know what movie -- they can look up anything, and they find themselves in the posting of some kind, and they find themselves being manipulated? You can`t stop it, can you?

DILANIAN: So, this is amazing technology that`s -- that`s spread democracy and democratic speech online. And it`s invented by Americans. And it`s made some people billionaires.

But it`s also made us incredibly susceptible to propaganda. That`s what we`re learning here. The Russians were -- had infiltrated this stuff right under the noses of the American intelligence community, which apparently was unable to stop it, and the companies, which were really slow to come to grips with this.

They tried to say in the beginning that this wasn`t happening. Then they tried to say it was very minimal. This report shows it was widespread.

MATTHEWS: Suppose the same coalition shows up next time, the Russians and Trump. Who is to stop them from working together in 2020, which is coming on next year?


BERTRAND: Right. I mean, hopefully, the social media companies will be a little better equipped to deal with it.

But this report did say that they only did the bare minimum to deal with it.


BERTRAND: And they really did not recognize that it was happening until far too late.

MATTHEWS: Did they do something? Did they to do anything?

BERTRAND: Well, Facebook set up a war room during the midterm elections to kind of monitor fake news that was being disseminated on the platform. And that is a good start.

They have also started setting up kind of fact-checks and notifying people that something is not -- not correct or factually inaccurate. So I think that that`s a good step in the right direction . But with the proliferation of bots on Twitter, for example, and all of the ways in which our social media...




BERTRAND: Bots, automated accounts on Twitter, and all the ways that the social media platforms are still able to be manipulated by the Russians, particularly on YouTube, which is far more influential than anyone thinks, I think it`s really important to keep an eye on this.

MATTHEWS: OK. Let`s cut to the quick.

Is there any way to know whether the Russians threw it for Trump?

DILANIAN: There`s no way to know.

MATTHEWS: Numerically, like Pennsylvania by a certainly majority, Wisconsin certain majority, Michigan? Is there any way to say, well, that -- they accounted for that many votes roughly?

DILANIAN: Just the way you can`t say that particular ad swung votes or this ad buy or this amount of ad spending, you can`t measure that.

There`s no way to gauge behavior. But what we can say is that Hillary Clinton underperformed in the black vote expectations in these key states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

MATTHEWS: But there`s other reasons. Look, I don`t want to challenge this, because I think it`s history, and we`re learning history.

But I also know the excitement in the African-American community -- I wish there was an African-American sitting here, because they would check me on this. We will bring this up with another group.

But it seems to me, without the -- with the absence of Barack Obama, an African-American, the first one, on the ticket -- he had been on `08 and `12. Then he wasn`t on it in `16. You had a white woman running. OK, fine, normal -- not normal, but new at least, whatever, a different kind of knew.

And they didn`t show up as much. That doesn`t surprise me. That wouldn`t take the Russians to change that way.

DILANIAN: It`s not surprising that she underperformed Barack Obama, but it`s surprising that she underperformed even what people thought she was going to get those states.

I`m not a political expert, but that`s what I was told today by those who know.

MATTHEWS: OK, thank you. We`re going to get back this again with a bigger audience. A bigger panel.

Natasha Bertrand, thank you, Ken Dilanian.

Up next: The field of potential Democratic presidential candidates covers a wide spectrum of talents, abilities, experiences, ages. A new poll out in Iowa provides the first hints of what qualities would count most with voters and in first-in-the-country caucus.

It`s only 14 months off. This is not way ahead, by the way. And the debates will be coming up about halfway between now and then.

And this is HARDBALL, where the action is.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

With the 2020 presidential campaign on the horizon, we`re getting our first look at how Iowa Democrats are sizing up the nominees -- potential nominees, I should say.

A new poll from "The Des Moines Register" out there has former Vice President Joe Biden leading the pack with 32 percent. That`s hefty. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders comes in second with 19 points, followed by Texas Congressman Beto O`Rourke in third with 11. Wow.

The poll also finds that a majority say they care more about nominating a candidate with a stronger chance of beating Trump than about picking the candidate who best aligns with their own political views.

Well, the Iowa caucuses, our first-in-the-nation contest, but for Democrats -- catch this -- the winner has going on since 1996 to clinch the party`s nomination. And I believe going back to 1976, when Carter won it, all those middle people back there between -- were basically Midwesterners.

So, if you discount the Midwestern candidate, they pick the winner.

For more, I`m joined by J. Ann Selzer, an Iowa pollster who conducted the "Des Moines Register" poll, and Jonathan Allen, national political reporter for NBC News.

Ann, thank you for joining us.

What do you make of the poll? What surprised you, as a pollster, Ann, when you looked at those numbers as they came in?

J. ANN SELZER, SELZER & COMPANY, INC.: Well a couple of things surprise me.

First of all, it`s a huge field. And so we had to kind of cut it off at 20 candidates who people are talking about AS potential out there. For Joe Biden to get the number that he got, more than 30 percent, out of more than 20 candidates people could choose from, that by itself is an accomplishment.

But there were six people that we have thought of as the top of the leaderboard, three people who are familiar to Iowa and three people who are relative newcomers. So I think, when you`re talking about, are people looking more for a season hand, yes, in some ways. Are they open to a newcomer? Yes.

MATTHEWS: What does it tell you when people that are on TV all the time got down there in the single digits, for example, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Cory, who were so prolific in the Kavanaugh hearings? Everybody saw them in action and down there, really about -- let me go to Jon on this.

Did that surprise you, that they didn`t really get into double digits?

JONATHAN ALLEN, NBC NEWS POLITICAL REPORTER: It doesn`t surprise me, because I think -- and Ann could speak to this.

I think Iowa voters really want to meet these folks before -- this is an incredible process in Iowa, where people campaign all year long. Really want to meet people before they -- before they commit to them.

They know Bernie Sanders. He almost won the caucuses last time. Joe Biden first started campaigning there in 1988. That doesn`t shock me.

What surprises me is that you got a U.S. House member who got in double digits, Beto O`Rourke. You popped the graphic up there earlier. It looked like "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." He`s trying to get -- he is like Charlie trying to get the golden ticket, with grandpa Joe and grandpa Bernie looking on.


MATTHEWS: Well, the age thing is interesting.

Three candidates of the top four, except for Beto O`Rourke, in their 70s.


SELZER: Well, that`s right.

But I think the fact, again, that the field was so dominated by one candidate, Joe Biden, that he sort of is sucking the oxygen out. And this is not Joe Biden`s first rodeo. It`s not his second rodeo.

So he`s the best known of anybody. I don`t know that there`s a living room in Iowa that he hasn`t visited. So that`s room for other people to come in and do well.

And one thing we learned from the last time is that Bernie Sanders, when we first measured him, came in at 3 percent. So I don`t worry too much for these candidates are showing up in single digits. As I say, anybody can come to Iowa and win, anybody.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about the -- about the winnability thing.

I mean, everybody knows Trump will be vulnerable. We know he`s not going to be up at 60 percent. He will be about 45 percent going in next time. I have a theory that almost anybody can beat him and almost anybody can lose to him.

So I don`t say I can pick the winner. I don`t claim that Joe Biden`s a better bet than a Bernie. I don`t know. I will be honest about it, because sometimes passion and ideology can offset moderation in these races. Sometimes, you`re better off with -- Ronald Reagan won big.

I mean, it`s possible you can have somebody who`s all the way. But the voters out there, at least at the margin of 54 to 40 percent, by a 14-point spread, say they want a winner over somebody who aligns with them ideologically.

ALLEN: Well, first of all, I think you`re right. I mean, the floor...

MATTHEWS: That`s the poll, not me. But go ahead.

ALLEN: The floor for Trump is lower than anybody else, and the ceiling may be higher.

Right now, he`s still in that base mentality. And I think the mathematical formula is base plus zero equals loss. So he`s got to figure out a way to expand. But if he`s running against somebody else, he may be able to do that.

I do think Democrats are rallied around the idea they want to beat Donald Trump more than any other idea.

MATTHEWS: Is that right, Ann?

Do you sense that, I don`t care what it takes, we`re going to beat that guy? Was that it? Or I`m a true progressive -- that`s the term of art today -- I`m a real progressive, or I`m even a social Democrat, or Democratic socialist, whatever, I`m a hard ideologue on the left, and I`m damn well not going to let a moderate win?

Which sentiment did you hear?

SELZER: Well, there was a modest majority who said that they wanted somebody who could beat Trump. But that margin wasn`t as big as you might think.

There is still a substantial part of likely Democratic caucus-goers who are true blue, and they want someone who really reflects their -- the way that they feel about the office, the way they think about that office and the issues and what they can accomplish.

And I think, in Iowa, almost uniquely, they see more candidates than any other state, and so they have the luxury of really figuring out, well, where do I align, where do I align?

In the end, as we get closer, I`m going to guess that it comes down to who can win.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about Bernie.

Bernie has got -- I got them in my family, OK? And I got Bernie-ites all the way, all right, lots of them -- not a lot, but significant numbers.


MATTHEWS: And does he have to worry about not being able to do what he did last time at his -- he`s older, and not the most important thing, but he did so well last time?

ALLEN: Absolutely, he has to worry about that.

I mean, certainly, the poll that Ann conducted shows that he`s not nearly where he was in Iowa before. National polls suggest he wasn`t where he was last time. And I think there may have been a tendency for Bernie and people around him to overestimate the degree to which his support last time was about him, vs. activating some -- some latent anti-Clinton sentiment within the Democratic Party.

MATTHEWS: Yes, it`s very hard to read back. You just never know.

I mean, Hillary had such a profound impact on people`s -- in terms of who she is to voters. It`s very hard to control her out of the conversation last time, and therefore to project this time.

Anyway, J. Ann Selzer, thank you. We love this stuff. Keep it coming.

We want to know what it looks -- by the way, how did you have for years Grassley out there, this -- oh, this conservative -- cranky conservative senator for the Republican side from Iowa all these years, reelected year after year, at the same time you elected liberals like Tom Harkin?

What is your state all about, Ann? Explain us.

SELZER: Well, I...


SELZER: Well, I think, when you had both Harkin and Grassley being elected with over 60 percent of the vote, there was a fair number of crossover voters.

These were people who felt that those senators would put Iowa first, put Iowa ahead of party. And they were able to get things done.

MATTHEWS: Thank you so much. Thank you, J. Ann Selzer. And thank you so much.

Up next, more staff -- and Jon Allen, of course.

Up next, more staff shakeups in what is already a remarkably high-turnover White House, don`t you think? And why is it so hard for this president to find and keep qualified pros in key posts?

It`s a decent question, isn`t it? Why is everybody running away as soon as they get there? Everybody is acting at this White House.

You`re watching HARDBALL.



Is he a role model for my, for two of my -- I have 16-year-old triplets, for you who don`t know about me, two boys and a girl. Is he a role model for my sons? Absolutely not.

Yes, I`m supporting Donald Trump. I`m doing so as enthusiastically as I can, given the fact I think he`s a terrible human being.


MATTHEWS: I think he`s terrible.

Welcome back.

That was President Trump`s next chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, back in -- well, not a million years ago, 2016, calling Donald Trump a horrible person. That sort of covers the bases, doesn`t it? Horrible person.

Well, Trump named Mulvaney as acting chief of staff this Friday after a chaotic search, and he was desperate to end the story line that no one wanted to be his chief of staff, according to NBC News. NBC News also reported Mulvaney understood the president was in a jam and felt he didn`t have much choice, but made clear his intention to serve a limited period of time given his general reluctance to accept the position.

Mulvaney`s new job isn`t the only staff shakeup at the Trump administration. This weekend, the president announced in a tweet Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will leave at the end of the year, which is about 20 days -- no, it`s about 10 days.

Zinke asked multiple probes looking into ethical violations, making him the fourth cabinet secretary to leave amid such intense scrutiny, ethical scrutiny. Zinke`s departure makes President Trump`s 11th cabinet vacancy in less than two years overall.

Let`s bring tonight`s roundtable. Adrienne Elrod is the former director of strategic communications for Hillary for America, John Brabender is a Republican strategist, Sahil Kapur is national political reporter for "Bloomberg".

Thank you all.

Mick Mulvaney, you know what I like about politics today? The bad sound quote. Whenever somebody is being picked up on bad sound from ambient -- being picked up by the room rather than personal mic, is something they didn`t expect to be picked up on, John. Here`s a guy who said a horrible person. He didn`t think it was going to be broadcast to the universe, now he has to live with it.

JOHN BRABENDER, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, let`s go back. First, everybody wanted Nick Ayers in that position. The good news for the president is I believe Nick Ayers is going to play a major role in a super PAC --

MATTHEWS: He`s Ivanka`s candidate.

BRABENDER: But that`s exactly where Nick Ayers should be.

MATTHEWS: Can`t they hire him to work at the hotel somewhere?


MATTHEWS: No, Jared and Ivanka, that`s who they want as their guy.

BRABENDER: No, no, everybody knows he`s one of the top strategists around. He should be on the campaign side.

Here`s the deal, though. You can also spin that he said that interview before he worked for him. Now after getting to know him, he wants to be his chief of staff.

MATTHEWS: Adrienne, these aren`t top choices in either direction.


MATTHEWS: This wasn`t the -- Mick Mulvaney`s top choice for president. So the word acting I think should be hung on all the jobs from now on out.

ELROD: Yes, acting. I don`t know how he`s going to actually do this job and run OMB. OMB is a big job.

MATTHEWS: I think it`s crazy.

ELROD: I think it`s crazy, too.

SAHIL KAPUR, BLOOMBERG: He`s not resigning from OMB. Nobody can do chief of staff, run the White House and be OMB director at the same time. That is a Senate confirmable position, though. The fact that the president is not removing Mulvaney from that position --

MATTHEWS: Who is the head of --


BRABENDER: They did say though his full time job is going to be his chief of staff.

KAPUR: Why is he resigning from OMB?

BRABENDER: They have confidence of the people there. But they did say --

KAPUR: He`s auditioning Mulvaney for this position, but not sure about it.


ELROD: Or maybe Mulvaney wants to be temporary and he`s not sure about it.

MATTHEWS: This would solve the problem. We have two weeks of vacation. He`s going to Mar-a-Lago. Who is going to run the country? He doesn`t have a chief of staff any more.

KAPUR: I don`t know that it matters much. The chief of staff sets up processes and structures and the president is resistant to that. He doesn`t abide by it. He`s his own chief of staff, his own senior advisor, his own communications director all rolled into one.

MATTHEWS: Who makes the decision s? John, you`re the most political guy here. Who makes decisions? The president of the United States -- how does he know when to go to Wisconsin next? How does he know when to go to Europe, the next G20 or not? Who makes the big decisions on his schedule, who is he going to butter up -- who does the calls?


BRABENDER: People have to understand, you have to understand this is not the White House we`re used to. When he doesn`t fit into the role, oh, my gosh, something is wrong with Trump. Trump is the CEO of this country.

MATTHEWS: I agree.

BRABENDER: And people come to him and say, here`s my recommendation, not, here`s where you`re going next.

The other thing, too, why we`re seeing this big change in the White House is Trump, I believe, feels a lot of people did it their way and he went along with it. He knows who he likes, doesn`t like, get rid of the people he doesn`t like.

MATTHEWS: That`s the theory he can get up at 5:00 and tweet 20 times and run the country. That proves -- if he gets reelected with that strategy, God help this country. If that`s the way it`s going to be run the rest of our lives.

ELROD: That`s the norm that`s going to be scary. But like to the point you just said, there is not a chief of staff that can come in and be the chief of staff that is a traditional chief of staff.

MATTHEWS: Somebody say go back to bed, Mr. President, at 5:00 in the morning?


KAPUR: No, of course not.

It`s a facilitator job. The president plays it by his gut. He always has.

MATTHEWS: On Friday, he wants not a chief of staff, he wants a concierge.

BRABENDER: That`s one way of looking at it. He wants somebody to execute what he wants to do.

MATTHEWS: That`s a concierge.

BRABENDER: You know what? The people that voted for him knew that`s exactly how he was going to be and that`s one of the reasons they voted for him.


MATTHEWS: Meanwhile, a federal judge in Texas struck down the Affordable Care Act on Friday, a not insignificant event, if you`re on Obamacare. It was upheld by Supreme Court in 2012 as part of Congress`s power to collect taxes. But U.S. District Court Reed O`Connor used Congress`s 2017 removal of the individual mandate, the tax, which required Americans to pay a penalty if they didn`t pay health insurance, to argue that without the mandate, health care law was unconstitutional.

The judge wrote that Obama`s architectural design fails without the individual mandate compare it to a slow game of Jenga. In an opinion piece in "The Washington Post", a law professor described the ruling as, quote, raw judicial activism and impossible to defend. The case is expected to be appealed by the U.S. Supreme Court and the ACA will remain in place for.

President Trump tweeted shortly after the ruling: As I predicted all along, Obamacare has been struck down as a constitutional disaster.

Sahil, it does have a logic to it. John Roberts, the chief justice voted for AC on the grounds Congress has the right to set taxes. The individual mandate was set up as a tax. You pay it if you don`t get health care. Once that was removed by congressional action, there was no more rationale for this being a tax bill.

KAPUR: Right. This is not the debate that Republicans wanted. This is kind of a no win situation for them because based on the fact that Chief Justice Roberts and the other four members of the Supreme Court who upheld this law in 2012 are still on the court, the prospect of success for them are remote. And the fact that health care was --

MATTHEWS: How can Roberts say this is a tax law if it doesn`t have a tax in it?

KAPUR: Well, so, the argument is Congress made a decision December 2017 to zero out the tax penalty. At no point did Congress say it wanted to overturn the rest of the law. It tried to repeal the rest of the law and failed.

So, it`s difficult - the legal argument against this is that Congress has made clear it wanted to repeal just this aspect and didn`t think the rest of the law had to go with it.

MATTHEWS: Adrienne, do you think -- I think this has to be taken to the public.


MATTHEWS: Do we want some form of national health for people that don`t have health care. There would be some way of getting to people that normally can`t get it in the market. Does the country want that say yes to that?

ELROD: I don`t think the country wants to see an overhaul of the ACA, because as we saw that in the midterm election because they know that it took so long to get to that point, the majority of Americans resisted it then when they finally got Obamacare in place, they actually liked it. They weren`t being denied preexisting conditions.

MATTHEWS: I`ll say it a different way. I think we did reach that threshold, John. I don`t think any future Congress is going to say it`s up to you to get health care, we`re not helping you. Go out there and get it, get tough. Those days are over.

BRABENDER: I don`t think anybody believes it. Let`s negotiate this now. You agree in preexisting illnesses, right?

ELROD: Of course.

BRABENDER: Can you name any Republican that doesn`t?

ELROD: I can name a lot of Republicans who want to see this completely dismantled. That means getting rid of preexisting conditions. What are you going to have?


BRABENDER: They don`t want a mandate to say to younger people, we`re forcing you to --

ELROD: That`s what makes it work.

MATTHEWS: I know I`ve been fighting this thing. If you set up a so-called insurance company where only older, sick people are in it, that`s not insurance, that`s health maintenance. If young, healthy people don`t insure themselves, you`re not sharing the risk the health care.

BRABENDER: Look, everybody called it the Affordable Care Act. What happens, the premiums kept going up and going up. Who is it affordable for? It was only affordable if we could find other people to pay for t.

MATTHEWS: Name the last Republican health care bill. Thank you.

BRABENDER: Earlier this year, the Republican in the Senate preexisting --


MATTHEWS: You guys control the Congress --


MATTHEWS: The roundtable is sticking with us. Up next, some think "Saturday Night Live" should be investigated for making fun of him. We`re making progress here.

You`re watching HARDBALL.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

"Saturday Night Live" opened their show this weekend with a spoof of "It`s A Wonderful Life", the old Jimmy Stewart movie, imagining a world where Trump was never, ever elected president.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wow, so everyone is better off without me being president.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, not just them. You`re better off, too.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Clarence, what about my agenda, all the things I wanted to accomplish as president?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, that`s the best part about not being president. You can still say the same stuff, build a wall, bring back coal, but you don`t have to deal with the fact that their ideas are impractical and insane. So, Americans love you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It`s all so great. It`s like Robert Mueller doesn`t exist. Wow, this night put everything into perspective. I`ve had an epiphany. I guess the world does need me to be president after all.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, that was not the lesson at home.


MATTHEWS: Keenan is so great.

Trump reacted to that spoof in a tweet the next morning, writing the "SNL`s" one sided coverage should be tested in courts, noting that, quote, it can`t be legal.

We`re back with the HARDBALL roundtable, Adrienne, John and Sahil.

No comment. Yours -- the floor is to you. He said it`s illegal to have them make fun of him.

ELROD: Well, we always knew Donald Trump was not a scholar of the Constitution, but he probably needs to study up more on the First Amendment. Look, past presidents, "SNL" has always had spoofs on past presidents and non-past presidents.

MATTHEWS: Darrell Hammond did Clinton better than anybody.

ELROD: Exactly. And he`d just have to go with it. It`s fun, the absence of humor to the whole, you know, stifling --

MATTHEWS: It`s not politically balanced. Let`s not kid ourselves.


BRABENDER: No. Look, I believe 100 percent in the First Amendment. They have a right to do this, comedy a bigger pass. However, there is one discussion here. As a candidate, you can`t accept unlimited monies, you`re limited what you can spend and do something. Here you have networks, though, that it`s not even their money --

MATTHEWS: You think the network is writing these scripts? You`re crazy, John. They don`t have the slightest ability to write this stuff.


BRABENDER: They`re paying for it. But there are stations like this, they actually are becoming --


KAPUR: It was harsh, and it was mocking of the president. But it`s not illegal to harshly mock the president.

BRABENDER: No one said it is.

KAPUR: He tweets --


MATTHEWS: "SNL" is great. When we return -- let me talk about how the Mueller investigation could end. This is going to really be excited how this whole thing ends.

You`re watching HARDBALL.


MATTHEWS: Let me finish tonight with how the Mueller investigation could end.

Given the toughness Bob Mueller is showing, it looks like he would have no hesitation indicting anyone he finds guilty in his path. Look at his treatment of Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and all the rest. If you did the crime, you`re going to do the time. That`s unless you`re ready to turn states evidence against the king pin Donald Trump.

Which brings us to a pair of Mueller subjects who lack that option -- Donald Trump, Jr., and Ivanka Trump. The president`s children stand right in the line of Mueller`s investigative progress. They stand as the next dominos to fall. But therein lies the problem.

Where earlier Mueller subjects have given Trump up, these two lack the option to do that. They can hardly testify against their father, which brings the country to the reckoning. If the prosecutor will not be stopped and the kids will not fall to him, we see the president`s adult children heading to prison. But what if the prosecutor were to offer the president an alternative, what if he were to say he would let the children walk if the old man does the same. They get to go scot-free if he`s willing to take the Agnew way out. That would mean giving up the presidency for acquittals all around, not just for himself, but for his kids.

You say this won`t happen? Then what will? Will the Trump kids avoid indictments? Will they turn states evidence? Will Trump allow them to be convicted and sentenced? Can he pardon them when they have evidence to bring against him?

No. The reckoning in the American saga, this one may come down to the solution faced by prosecutors and Richard Nixon`s twice chosen vice- president. Leverage the office while you still have it.

The courts would not have to resolve whether a president could be indicted while in office. History has already decided that a veep can. No one questions a presidential son or daughter could.

So, let`s watch the probable events brick all this to a breaking point. It is going to be historic.

And that`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us.

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.