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Negotiations to end partial shutdown. TRANSCRIPT: 12/26/2018, Hardball w. Chris Matthews.

Guests: Bret Stephens, Basil Smikle, Gerry Connolly, Ryan Costello

Show: HARDBALL Date: December 26, 2018 Guest: Bret Stephens, Basil Smikle, Gerry Connolly, Ryan Costello


STEVE KORNACKI, MSNBC ANCHOR: Donald Trump in Iraq. Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I am Steve Kornacki in for Chris Matthews.

President Trump made an unannounced trip to Iraq to visit troops at a base just west of Baghdad today, this the first time he has visited troops in a combat zone. Just last week the President shocked his own allies and advisers by announcing a plan to withdraw troops from Syria. In Iraq today, he defended the decision.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If they want us to do the fighting, they also have to pay a price, and sometimes that`s also a monetary price. So we are not the suckers of the world. We are no longer the suckers, folks. And people aren`t looking at us as suckers. And I love you folks because most of you are nodding your head this way.


KORNACKI: The visit comes amid that growing stalemate back in Washington with part of the federal government still shutdown. The President spent much of the long Christmas weekend alone in Washington, raging against criticism of both that withdrawal from Syria and his ouster of secretary of defense James Mattis. Today, he defended those decisions.


TRUMP: One year ago I gave our generals six more months in Syria. I said go ahead, get them. And it turns out it was really a year and a half ago. I said go get them. We need six months. Go get them. And they said give us another six months. I said go get them. Then they said go. Can we have one more like period of six months? I said no, no. I said I gave you a lot of six months. And now we are doing it a different way.


KORNACKI: Since the weekend, the President has tweeted over 30 times, lashing out against a host of critics. Trump took particular aim against Mattis and Brett McGurk his special envoy battling ISIS who resigned protesting the administration decision to withdraw troops from Syria.

President Trump tweeting quote "when President Obama ingloriously fired Jim Mattis, I gave him a second chance. Some thought I shouldn`t. I thought I should. Interesting relationship."

According to "The Washington Post," the President was angered by the coverage of Mattis` resignation. Senior administration official reportedly telling the Post that the President was quote "seething about the news coverage and decided to expedite the former general`s departure in reaction to negative news coverage."

For more, I`m joined by Philip Rucker, "Washington Post" white house bureau chief, Evelyn Farkas, former deputy assistant secretary of defense and Charlie Sykes, author of "How to the Right Lost its Mind."

Thanks to you all for being with us.

Philip Rucker, let me just start with you. The unexpected news that crossed our wires this afternoon, the President making this surprise trip to Iraq. Tell us what you know. I think he left Washington, you reported, at 12:06:00 a.m. today. Tell us what you know about when the White House, when President decided to make this trip and how exactly it came about.


It was a sensitive secret trip that was being planned for several weeks, no doubt, but the President decided to leave Washington in the dark of night just after midnight. So after Christmas, early this morning, and took that flight over to Iraq.

It was an 11 hour flight. He was aboard air force one. There were some clues he may be gone but we did not know officially he was going to Iraq until the moment we started getting news, which was three hours into the visit on the ground there.

He met with troops. He posted for selfies with them. He got a briefing from some local commanders and diplomatic leaders and then gave that speech that you have been playing clips of to a group of troops there in Iraq.

It comes at a moment of really intense turmoil at the Pentagon. Not only the personnel changes that you mentioned but the decisions by the President last week to withdraw troops suddenly from Syria and he also made a decision to his advisers according to the reporting, it is not formally announced, that he intends to draw down the footprint in Afghanistan. That`s the war we have been fighting for 17 years now. So a lot of change in terms of our military strategy and leadership at the defense department.

KORNACKI: Well, you say, yes, that this may have been in the planning a few weeks. I guess that`s what I`m trying to figure out here. I`m wondering if you had any reporting on that, if you heard anything about any direct connection between the decision to make this trip now and the withdrawal from Syria, possibly more in terms of troop withdrawals.

Is there a direct connection? I mean, this is the kind of trip he hasn`t made before. He has given a number of explanations for why he hasn`t made this kind of trip. Is it connected directly to the decision on Syria?

RUCKER: It is a good question, Steve. I don`t think it is directly connected. I mean, certainly it is falling on the calendar along with that decision, but it is not like he began planning for this trip to Iraq last week because of criticism for Syria. This is something that takes many weeks of preparation.

Trump actually mentioned to reporters who are traveling with him today that he tried to get out to go to a war zone a couple times before and not been able to make the trip because of security problems. I had an interview with President Trump about a month ago in late November and asked whether he planned to try to visit troops before the holidays and he was a little circumspect, but it was clear to me that this was something he wanted to do and was looking for the right time to do it. And so, I don`t think it is connected directly to the Syria decision.

KORNACKI: Evelyn Farkas, in terms of we played clips there a minute ago, the message the President brought to those troops, and really brought to the world today in that speech, addressing the idea of withdrawal from Syria, saying essentially I gave the generals more time than I wanted to give them. I said enough. That`s the message. What did you make of what he is trying to convey? What did he end up conveying?

EVELYN FARKAS, MSNBC NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, the first thing he conveyed is that he cares because he went there. So we got to give him a little bit of credit for that, Steve. And often, we don`t give him much credit, because he does fumble, and there was a bit of a fumble from my perspective because he called us suckers, you know. He said we were suckers. We were suckers. We were suckers. And now we are not going to be seen as suckers any more.

I don`t think that`s useful. And unfortunately, the decision he made on Syria actually makes us look weak and unreliable, including in the eyes of the Iraqis. And if you notice, he didn`t meet with Prime Minister Mahdi. He should have been meeting with him. And so, that was also kind of a misstep.

I don`t know what the back story was. Maybe he was unwilling to leave the base, you know, but you can`t ask the prime minister to come to the base. That`s a little bit tricky, you know. You are in his country, you should go there.

But I would say overall, the message of saying, OK, I gave them time and we need to withdraw. That isn`t bad either because if you, you know, follow how President Obama dealt with the military, he often had that same reaction, that same conversation, like guys really, another six months? So that`s understandable. Every President goes through that.

The problem is that he made this decision as far as we can tell unilaterally. I mean, went against his cabinet. He didn`t seem to consult with anyone except maybe the Turkish President, right, and that`s a problem because it effects allies fighting with us. We have 74 other countries in the coalition, including some on the ground. The French are on the ground today.

And the other thing about ISIS, I mean, you guys were talking about what`s going on with ISIS, there was just an attack right in Talafar (ph) which is right near Mosul in the northern part of Iraq. So ISIS is very much a threat to Iraq. They are concerned about our withdrawal, you know, the Syrian withdrawal, because they will have to obviously step up.

So I think the real message is not that we are suckers, it is a question mark. And so the allies are thinking we are looking weak and may not be the most reliable allies. For the troops, the message is I`m here, I care, you know. I`m going to give you support but it is not unconditional.

KORNACKI: You know, I`m trying to, Charlie Sykes, also figure, I guess to see polling on this, I`m sure. How this is going over with the public. I do wonder just, you know, after a decade and a half here of Iraq, of Afghanistan, sort of all the post-9/11 foreign policy developments, we see in polling here does seems to be more hesitancy than there was, you know, a decade-and-a-half ago or so when it comes to deploying troops, the idea of not being the world`s policeman. I think Trump used that actually in the speech that used that line. I think that does seems to have some popular resonance now. I wonder, what is your sense of the public`s reaction to troop withdrawal from Syria?

CHARLIE SYKES, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Well, I`m interested in that as well. There is no question about it that there`s a great deal of fatigue over the endless wars. And I think that may be reflected in all this.

And I want to echo what Evelyn had to say. You have to give the President credit for doing the right thing. I wish he had done it earlier. I wish we didn`t have to shame him into doing it. And after a weekend of sitting home alone at the White House being petty and petulant, unfortunately, at this moment where you could have Presidential Grace and leadership on display, he chose to be petty and petulant as well. I mean, standing in front of troops describing America`s commitments as being suckers is really deeply offensive when you think about it.

Not only did he lie to the troops and politicize the event, lie to the troops about the salary increases, but to describe American commitments as being suckers. I mean, you need to step back about and reflect on the crass transactionalism of the President of the United States would imply that men and women who have served their country in the Middle East, perhaps given their lives, were suckers. And this is the tone deafness that he has.

So to your point, yes, I think that there are a lot of Americans that are more than willing to draw down, but the way it is being done, the betrayal of our allies, the lack of a process, the lack of consultation with the military, the lack of respect for somebody like general James Mattis, and that performance today, yes, the pictures are wonderful and maybe that`s all that people will take away from it, but I think it was an unfortunate event on top of a series of unfortunate events.

KORNACKI: And you mentioned, Charlie, too, in the full address today, there were political overtones at several points in the President`s speech. Donald Trump going after Democrats at one point, noting not just how many supporters he had in the audience. You can watch a little bit of that here.


TRUMP: When you think about it, you are fighting for borders in other countries and they don`t want to fight the Democrats for the border of our country. We are here to help others. And for all of you that have those red caps, and I saw them before, I signed a lot of them, it says make America great again. And you know what, that`s exactly what we are doing.


KORNACKI: You know, Evelyn, it is interesting there, just listening to some of these lines from the speech, it sounded at times like a Trump political rally, like we are showing, you know, him talking to his supporters somewhere. A lot of lines and a lot of the themes he might press there.

We know this is a presidency that has to put it mildly broken with protocol, the number of cases of what we have seen Democratic and Republican Presidents do in the past. What is protocol? What has protocol been in the past for a President delivering a speech like this?

FARKAS: Yes. As a defense geek, you know, somebody who has worked what 20 years in Washington, D.C., watched how this usually works, usually Presidents don`t politicize any time they are speaking in front of the military audience. They talk about America. They talk about Americans. They talk American values, American interests. They do not talk about Democrats, Republicans. Maybe they might say I want Congress to do x or y, you know, but Congress is bipartisan and bicameral. So - but you don`t do what he does.

And we, unfortunately, have gotten used to it, Steve. So it is even more outrageous, frankly speaking, doing it in a war zone, but he has done it in America every time he goes before an audience practically he can`t help himself. And it is really kind of a violation, frankly speaking, of the hatch act which, you know, prohibits political officials from politicizing in official business, meaning you don`t want the incumbent to have the upper hand over the opposition when you are giving a government speech or when you are doing a government function.

So technically, the President is actually I guess breaking the hatch act, but it is not really enforceable against him.

KORNACKI: The visit to Iraq also coming after a week where the President`s decisions left even his allies concerned. Some Republicans like South Carolina`s Lindsey Graham have openly criticized the President`s abrupt decision to withdraw troops from Syria.

Graham telling "the Associated Press" that he warned Trump over the weekend and quote "a southern wall isn`t going to row protect you against ISIS."

One former senior administration official telling "the Washington Post" that the President`s recent behavior may necessitate an intervention.

President Trump invited reporters into the oval office Christmas morning and delivered this message to the American public.


TRUMP: It`s a disgrace what`s happening in our country. But other than that, I wish everybody a very merry Christmas.


KORNACKI: Well, Phil, by the way, we show you Lindsey Graham right there. And it brings back memories to me of the 2016 campaign. That was one of those issues, foreign policy, troop deployments overseas where Trump during the campaign, during the Republican primaries did rhetorically often seemed to separate himself from Republicans like Lindsey Graham. Of course, Graham has been since Trump became president, increasingly one of his allies on Capitol Hill.


KORNACKI: And in terms of divisions between Trump and his fellow Republicans, these Republicans in Congress, what has the last week done? Is any of it lasting?

SYKES: Well that we have certainly seen fracturing of the Trump coalition when you look at Republicans in Congress and it is not limited to the Syria decision. You go back a few more weeks back and the Senate overwhelmingly rebuked President Trump by voting to punish Saudi Arabia`s crown prince for his role - his apparent role based on U.S. intelligence in the brutal murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And there are other measures as well, a group of conservative Republican senators voted against the President`s criminal justice reform bill last week which ended up passing sort of a rare bipartisan success for President Trump.

But it indicates that rock solid Republican support from lawmakers is not as strong as it once was. And it portends some trouble potentially for the President going into January when he has going to grapple with divided government and a democratic majority in the House that is going to be looking to try to get some things done with Republicans over in the Senate.

KORNACKI: All right. Philip Rucker, Evelyn Farkas and Charlie Sykes, thank you all for joining us.

And coming up, Trump says he will do whatever it takes to get funding for his border wall. Is there any path to reopening the U.S. government anytime soon?

And Democratic voters sounding off about what they are looking for in 2020. And you may be surprised what they are saying. And we will head over to the big board and breakdown in some new numbers we have got. Interesting stuff there.

Plus, more on Trump`s visit to Iraq and the dramatic news out of Wall Street today.

And finally, let me finish tonight with President Trump`s perceived silver lining of the looming Democratic takeover of the House.

This is HARDBALL where the action is.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How long do you think the shutdown will last, Mr. President?

TRUMP: Whatever it takes. I mean, we are going to have a wall. We are going to have safety. We need safety for our country.


KORNACKI: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was President Trump earlier during his surprise visit to Iraq. Today marks the fifth day of the partial government shutdown. There is no end in sight. Trump remains adamant over his request for billions of dollars for a wall along the southern border.

There he was at the oval office yesterday.


TRUMP: I can`t tell you when the government is going to be open. I can tell you it is not going to be open until we have a wall, a fence, whatever they would like to call it. I will call it whatever they want. But it is all the same thing.


KORNACKI: The president has shifted his terminology about the wall. You heard a little of it right there.

He also called it recently a steel slate barrier. In an interview over the weekend, House Minority Leader, soon-to-be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took a jab at the president.

She told "USA Today" -- quote -- "First of all, the fact that he says we`re going to build a wall with cement and Mexico is going to pay for it. Well, he`s already backed off the cement. Now he`s down to, I think, a beaded curtain or something. I`m not sure where he is."

For more, I`m joined by Congressman Gerry Connolly from Virginia and Congressman Ryan Costello from Pennsylvania.

Congressman Costello, I will start with you.

You`re leaving the House in a few days, your party, the Republicans, losing their majority in a few days. Can you see, do you see a realistic scenario where this shutdown is resolved before that turnover of power?

REP. RYAN COSTELLO (R), PENNSYLVANIA: No, I see no chance under the sun for the government being open until new members are sworn in on January 3 or January 4.

KORNACKI: What will then happen? Democrats then would have control of the House. Republicans maintain control of the Senate. Do you then see the Democratic control offering a renewed path?

COSTELLO: No, I think that we`re going to get less.

I mean, to the extent that you want more border security, you will have less, I think, when -- and Gerry can speak to this more than I can. But I think the Democratic bill out of the House that the Senate will then take up will be less than the 100-0 Senate vote that was had, or at least no better, in terms of border security, which is why the Freedom Caucus and the president going this route makes absolutely zero political sense and zero legislative sense.

KORNACKI: All right, Gerry Connolly, let me bring you in on that too, a Democratic perspective here.

Do you agree, first of all, with your colleague? Or do you see a path between now and that transfer of power for the government to reopen?

REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D), VIRGINIA: I, sadly, believe that the government will not deal with a reopening until the Democrats take over the majority on January 3.

I do believe, however, that one of the first orders of business of the new Democratic House will be to pass a clean continuing resolution to fund the government.

KORNACKI: It seems this issue here -- you heard Trump changing his -- as we say, the terminology a little bit there. It`s been the wall in the past. He used the word fence in that clip we just -- we just played, the steel slat barrier. He`s saying whatever you want to call it.

I guess there seems to be, Congressman Connolly, part of the issue here, it seems to me at least, is, Democrats say they`re willing to fund border security, but the idea of giving Trump a penny for anything that he can go around and call a wall is a line for you.

Is that is -- that correct? Any penny for a wall is too much, from a Democratic standpoint?

CONNOLLY: Well, I think we need to back up a little bit here, Steve.

I mean, remember, all of the Republicans in the U.S. Senate voted for a clean continuing resolution, without any additional funding for a wall. Secondly, Trump explicitly campaigned on, there will be a wall, and Mexico will pay for it, not U.S. taxpayers.

So the idea that somehow we`re in a situation where it`s the burden of the new Democrats coming into the majority status in the House to fund something called a wall, where did that idea come from?

And then there`s a third problem. Who do we negotiate with? Remember, President Trump just last week said -- or the White House said he would sign a clean continuing resolution and would accept the fact that there would be $1.3 billion worth of border security and no more.

What`s changed that, suddenly, there`s a hard line, and somehow we Democrats bear some burden to meet that hard line that wasn`t in existence a little over a week ago?

KORNACKI: Well, so, Congressman Costello -- and you were making this point a little bit -- a few minutes ago, but to bring it back to what Gerry Connolly just said there as well, if you try to play this out, Democrats take control of the House early 2019.

They pass a resolution here, they pass a bill that does not fund any kind of a wall. It moves to the Republican-controlled Senate, which has already shown its willingness to do something similar. Do you see President Trump -- do you anticipate that, at that point, President Trump gives in? Does he change his mind?

What do you think would happen then?

COSTELLO: I think two things will happen.

Number one, the Senate will not take a bill up until the president says that he will sign it, because what happened was not supposed to happen. The Senate only put -- McConnell only put that bill on the floor because the White House had said that the president would sign it. Then the president changed his mind after the fact.

And the second thing that I would say there is that I don`t see a scenario where -- no matter what happens, the president is going to say that he got money for the wall, OK? Let`s just be real blunt about this. It doesn`t matter if there`s money for a wall or not. He`s going to say that there is.

And some of his supporters are going to say, oh, fine, the president got his money, everything`s good. I mean, that`s just the -- that`s the kind of -- that`s the world we`re living in right now.

KORNACKI: Well, it`s not just Democrats who`ve been going after the president for his handling of the shutdown.

Here`s what some of his fellow Republicans have also been saying.


SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI (R), ALASKA: And I will just remind the president, the Republicans are in charge, and so the shutdown is on us. We can`t figure this out.

SEN. PAT TOOMEY (R), PENNSYLVANIA: We have an impulsive president. We know that.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: This is a made-up fight, so the president can look like he`s fighting. But, even if he wins, our borders are going to be insecure.


KORNACKI: And the president went back after Bob Corker, retiring Republican senator you just saw there at the end of that sequence, in a pair of tweets, Trump blaming him for the Iran nuclear deal, also saying the reason Corker is retiring is because -- quote -- "He asked for my endorsement. I said no. And the game was over."

Congressman Costello, the relationship between the president and the Republicans who will remain in Congress for the next two years, maybe a split there between the Senate side and the House side; is that fair to say?

COSTELLO: Well, perhaps.

But, Steve, I would actually say that there will probably be more solidarity than there has been in the past year, just because many of the retirements, many of those who lost were in districts where you did need some differentiation from the president in order to at least have the potential to win. Most ended up losing.

In the Senate, you saw it with two retiring senators, so that the conference, to use the phrase in your phenomenal book, is much redder.


COSTELLO: And when you have a redder conference, you would probably have more alignment with the president, because the president is very popular in the most conservative districts.

As we get closer to 2020, you start seeing Colorado and some other swing -- swingy type Senate seats, and perhaps maybe you do -- you do start seeing some differentiation. But I think, going into 2019, the conference, at least in the House, is going to be very much aligned behind the president.

KORNACKI: You may be retired from Congress, but you still have the instincts of a politician there, flattering your host. I did not ask for that. But I appreciate that.

The shutdown, meanwhile...

COSTELLO: No, he did not. I can vouch for that.


KORNACKI: I appreciate that.

While a shutdown continues over Trump`s border wall fight, 800,000 federal workers aren`t getting paid, even though about half of those, people whose jobs are considered essential, have to show up for work anyway.

According to the president yesterday, he has their support.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But many of those workers have said to me, and communicated, stay out until you get the funding for the wall. These federal workers want the wall. The only one that doesn`t want the wall are the Democrats.


KORNACKI: And, Congressmen Connolly, your colleague a minute ago said something interesting.

And I`m curious, do you -- do you share the view that, no matter what happens here, the president is going to be claiming that he got money for the wall?

CONNOLLY: The president can turn night into day in his delusional world.

You just heard him say, lots of federal workers are apparently championing the shutdown and the fact that they`re not going to get paid for their work, maybe not even called into work.

I have yet to meet a single federal employee -- and I represent the third largest number in the country -- who has said that. So I would love to meet some of those people.

But the Republican Congress has been an enabling Congress anyhow, so I probably don`t disagree with Ryan. But I haven`t seen much independence from a Republican in the House of Representatives in the last two years.

And I think that contributed to their demise in the midterm elections. And there are another dozen incumbent Republicans who are coming back who saw a near-death experience in November. And if they continue down the line of enabling behavior for this delusional president, I think they will pay a price in 2020, whether they understand that or not.

But I think the numbers are there in a lot of purple and blue states, because most of this country is disgusted with the lack of accountability demanded or not demanded by a Republican Congress. That`s why we have a Democratic Congress starting on January 3.

KORNACKI: And, Congressman Costello, you said this a minute ago too, just looking at the composition of the new House, the idea of Republicans from these sort of swing districts who were -- who lost their seats in the November midterm.

It is striking that the campaign ended, the midterm campaign ended, with President Trump pressing this issue, with pressing the immigration issue, with pressing sort of the cultural themes right there.

Do you see a connection between the way he campaigned in the final days and that -- what you`re talking about, the idea that those Clinton-Trump districts, those Republicans have pretty much been emptied out of there now?

COSTELLO: Well, that -- we have been emptied out.

The final few days and the caravan and the birthright citizenship made absolutely no sense, particularly if you look at California and Florida and the competitive House seats there.

The last thing that you want to do is gin up an immigration issue, when you had republicans -- I was part of this group -- looking for an immigration compromise over the summer, trying to solve DACA, trying to do visa reform, and getting away from what I think is an extremely hard-line immigration position that some Republicans have, and which I think is a political loser, and which is certainly not reflective of where 80 percent of the country is, to be sure.

So there`s no doubt in my mind that shutting down the government over the wall funding and, frankly, the president`s hard-line immigration rhetoric, it will not grow the party. I think it will diminish it over time. And that -- it gives me great concern.

KORNACKI: All right, Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly from Virginia, Republican Congressman Ryan Costello from Pennsylvania, thank you both for joining us.

And up next: tried and true or shiny and new?

I`m going to head over to the big board, because we have got a new poll of Democratic and independent voters, folks who might be voting, probably will be voting, in those Democratic primaries in 2020. Who do they want to see challenge Donald Trump?

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KORNACKI: All right, welcome back to HARDBALL, where we`re coming up on the end of the calendar year 2018, means 2019, obviously, right around the corner.

That pretty much puts us a year out, believe it or not, about a year out right now, and a little change, from the first primaries and caucuses of the 2020 presidential election.

And who knows. Sometimes, these things are months-long slogs. They can go all the way to the spring. Sometimes, they can be neat and tidy affairs, and they can wrap up real quick.

So, if it`s one of those, we may not be much more than a year away from finding out who the Democrats are going to nominate to run against Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

Now, you know there`s a massive potential field lining up. We will see who actually steps forward, gets in the race, stays in the race, all of that to be sorted out in the year to come.

But we`re starting to get some polling readouts out there.

Here`s an interesting new one, came out just today. The folks at Suffolk University, "USA Today" took a poll. They decided, hey, we`re not going to do the usual horse race poll. They said that measures too much name recognition at this point.

They said, what we`re going to do is, we`re going to ask voters, we`re going to ask Democratic voters and some independent voters. Remember, independents can often vote in Democratic primaries. We`re going to ask them basically what they think about a number of big-name potential Democratic candidates.

Are they excited for that candidate, for that name, for that potential candidate to run? Or do they think, hey, you know what, I hear that name, that`s someone who should sit this one out, that`s someone I would rather not see run for president? So, just sort of, how open, in theory, that the Democratic electorate is to some of these names, that`s what they`re trying to find out here.

Some interesting numbers. Let`s take you through them here.

First, these are the bottom-line numbers here among these voters, Democrats and independents. This is sort of taking the temperature.

And what you see here, maybe not too surprising, but it is Joe Biden, the former vice president, probably the best known name here, more than 2-1 margin, the only one with a majority of respondents saying they are excited at the idea of Joe Biden running for president in 2020, 53 percent excited, 24 percent, about a quarter of them, saying no, you know what, maybe don`t run, Joe.

So, Biden there, he`s promised a decision sort of by the end of this year, early next year. So we may be hearing from him soon.

Then you got Bernie Sanders. Look, the runner-up in the 2016 primaries, 36 percent saying they`re excited about him running, but that number right there, more, a plurality, saying he shouldn`t run, more than 40 percent of Democratic independent voters right now saying Sanders should sit it out.

Beto O`Rourke, he`s sort of become maybe the flavor of the month right now, the month of December 2018. Maybe it`s a little early, but still interesting, coming off a losing Senate campaign, a two-term member of the House. Look at that. Fully 30 percent nationally saying they`re excited about the idea of him running.

Kamala Harris, similar number there. Cory Booker, these folks all more people saying they`re excited than not excited.

Here, though, I think one -- this may be the biggest surprise of the poll. Elizabeth Warren, look at that, underwater, more Democratic independent voters saying they don`t think Warren should run in 2020 than she should run.

Michael Bloomberg, of course, he has been a Republican before, been an independent. He`s been a Democrat before too. He`s sort of been all over the place. He`s making some noise. You see the numbers there, just in terms of his standing in the Democratic -- with the Democratic electorate, maybe not encouraging for him.

Hillary Clinton, just maybe as a benchmark here, you see overwhelmingly folks saying she shouldn`t run again, probably not a surprise there. Amy Klobuchar, her name also got included.

There were also some interesting disparities here when you looked at white voters and black voters. Some different preferences there seemed to emerge, a couple that might be worth highlighting.

First, these are the numbers among white voters, saying they are excited about the possibility of these candidacies. If you then compare that to what you`re getting among black voters, a couple things jumped out here.

Warren, we just showed you those numbers were upside-down for her, but significantly more black voters saying they`re excited about the idea of Warren running than white voters. Kamala Harris had a double-digit edge there too, Sanders as well. Look at that.

Then you flip it around when you come to Beto O`Rourke, almost 2-1 white voters more excited about the idea of him running. Biden of course, near majority of white voters, two-thirds of black voters. Again, that was a majority overall saying they`re excited.

So, some interesting early patterns here. Again, there other names that are out there as well that are not tested here. Sherrod Brown from Ohio comes to mind. About 30 others are out there possibly as well.

But it`s an interesting early look, candidates right now deciding whether to run or not, deciding whether to take a shot at it here, just this sort of question of, how receptive, even potentially, is the electorate to these candidates? That is sort of what they`re trying to measure here.

Interesting, interesting look at it.

Hey, December 2018, January, February 2020, that`s when this race will really be in full swing. It`s going to come sooner, sooner than you think.

All right, quick break here.

Up next: President Trump`s surprise visit to Iraq, the trip coming less than a week after his defense secretary resigned in protest and with Trump`s Middle East policies in some turmoil. Can he turn the skepticism around?

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DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Under my administration, we`re winning now. We`re not playing to lose slowly like they have been doing for 19 years. We`re fighting in areas where we shouldn`t be fighting and spending hundreds of billions of dollars doing it. No. You have the right thought process going for the first time in a long time. Thank you.



That was President Trump today during his surprise visit to Iraq, telling the troops that the country is now winning under his administration. He also defended his withdrawal of troops from Syria, saying that Americans are no longer, quote, the suckers of the world anymore.

Let`s bring in tonight`s HARDBALL round table. Beth Fouhy is a senior politics editor for NBC News, Basil Smikle is a Democratic strategist, and Bret Stephens is an op-ed columnist for "The New York Times".

Bret, let me start with you. I know you`ve been critical of the president`s decision on Syria. What did you make of the message and how he delivered it?

BRET STEPHENS, OP-ED COLUMNIST, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, it was totally bizarre because it is so completely in variance with reality. We had been winning in Syria, thanks to a relatively small American presence which led to very few American casualties. I believe just three in the last year, and yet with extraordinary gains, managing to reduce ISIS` footprint while serving as a deterrent against Turks, against Iranians, against Russians. Now he`s removing that.

Remember, one of the key Republican criticisms which I thought was fair of the Obama administration was removing U.S. troops from Iraq too soon, allowing al Qaeda to go from nearly defeated to suddenly metastasizing into what became Islamic State, ISIS. Now, Trump is repeating precisely that mistake. Now, at least you could say with Obama he was doing so at the end of a long war in Iraq. Americans were exhausted. There was good political motive.

It is difficult to explain Trump`s logic other than capitulation to an Islamist strong man in Turkey, President Erdogan. It is one of the most bizarre, upsetting decisions. It is why someone like James Mattis had to say enough.

KORNACKI: It is interesting, Beth, to look back to the 2016 campaign, measure what Trump said on foreign policy versus what he is doing as president. He said different messages.

What Bret is talking about in terms of the Obama decision, he was critical of that. He said that Obama was creator of ISIS. He was sending that message. He talked about bombing the hell out of ISIS.

He also did criticize the Iraq war. He also talked about not getting involved in as many -- he tapped into that sort of noninterventionist string you used to associate with Ron Paul and Rand Paul. It seems now to be trying to go for that same, that seems to be the course he is trying to follow here now.

BETH FOUHY, NBC NEWS SENIOR POLITICS EDITOR: It is a contradictory message, he wants the biggest, most powerful, strongest, best wonderful military but doesn`t want to engage it very much in hotspots. Now, that message in the campaign to withdraw, to draw down troops, obviously there was receptivity to that among many Republican voters, which I think a lot of Republicans and conservatives were surprised, thinking that, wait a minute, you had the Republican electorate, pretty bellicose, they want to fight, they want to be number one across the world. Actually those sort of laborers, working class voters to supported Trump, many of whom fit that profile are the ones that are sending their kids to fight these wars, not the elite, not the people who have no relationship to the U.S. military, which is a lot of people that have been to college and so forth.

So the fact that the message was well received and actually could have brought together folks on the left or libertarian streak as you said, sort of the Paul voters, he had an opportunity there, President Trump, if he were a different type of politician to sell that message and do it in a strategic way that sort of draw down of troops, which many support. Instead it was done in an impulsive way, not consulting allies, very much in the Trumpian means and just kind of following his gut.

And this trip to the war zone was perhaps a smart move to try to explain to those troops, many of whom are probably worried and upset about General Mattis leaving, what he is trying to do in an unchallenged way. But as Bret says, there`s still a ton of problems with his approach.

KORNACKI: Yes, and, Basil, I wonder, too, about sort of where the country is on this. We talked about it earlier in the show. But you look at Iraq, Iraq did go through Congress 15 years ago, 16 years ago now, Afghanistan, you know, right after 9/11, the authorization for that.

Syria is one of those, the engagement there, I wonder if the announcement from Trump was to a lot of people the first they heard of it. How wedded are Americans to the mission in Syria? How -- were they ever to it?

BASIL SMIKLE, FORMER EXECUTIVE DIRECOTR, NEW YORK STATE DEMOCRATIC PARTY: I think about that. You talk about Barack Obama in Iraq, he was criticized for not going into Syria when a lot of people thought he should when they started to use chemical weapons.

And it is interesting. I was in Israel and talked to some soldiers at a hospital who were being treated there, they were fighting in the war there, and they were concerned that the United States wasn`t doing enough, especially under Barack Obama, because they felt here`s a man who understands and believes in civil rights and was not there for us, which I thought was incredibly startling for me to hear that.

So to answer the question more specifically, my guess is there are a lot of Americans that are not as focused on this, but folks in the Middle East are very focused on the American position with respect to Syria. And I think one of the -- what comes out of the Trump decision and his visit today is in whose hands is he leaving Syria? And what`s going to happen once Americans pull out.

I absolutely agree, I don`t think there`s a stomach, American people don`t have the stomach to fight wars on multiple fronts over this long period of time, how long in Iraq, 15 years or so? So, I don`t think the American people have the stomach for that. But I also don`t know that Donald Trump is a messenger for how we deal with the Middle East after the fact.

STEPHENS: But right now in Iraq, we`re not fighting a war, we`re preserving peace. That`s an important distinction Americans should understand. We pull out, we might find ourselves going back in all over again because a new ISIS emerges.

KORNACKI: OK. Roundtable is staying with us.

Up next, these three will tell me something we don`t know. You`re watching HARDBALL.


KORNACKI: All right. Back with the HARDBALL round table.

Beth, tell me something I don`t know.

FOUHY: OK. So, Trump`s trip today to Iraq got me thinking about how his overseas travel compared to President Obama. So, this is how it compares, Trump`s made ten trips to 20 countries in two years, first visit to the war zone today, December 2018, two years into it. Obama, 16 trips to 25 countries in the first two countries, first trip to a war zone, also Iraq, April of 2009, so four months after he took office.

KORNACKI: Here you go.


SMIKLE: Tariffs are a little more abstract to the average voter than, say, personal income tax. But an article in "The Wall Street Journal" talks about the fact that if you want to increase the value of your home by doing something like kitchen renovations, guess what? Cabinets, refrigerators, sinks, all of those come from China. So, earlier, tariff agreement means you`re going to be pay a little bit more to do that.

KORNACKI: All right.


STEPHENS: Nothing so elevated (ph). A lot of people know we`re on the anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission to the moon. What they don`t know is, December 26th is the 50th anniversary of Led Zeppelin`s first concert in America. That was when the comet really hit the Earth.

Thank you for many, many years of great music. Above all, "Physical Graffiti", the greatest album, rock and roll album of all time.

KORNACKI: There you go. Definitely something I actually -- I didn`t know that.

All right. Beth Fouhy, Basil Smikle, Bret Stephens, thank you for being with us.

When we return, let me finish tonight with the president apparently seeing as a silver lining in the Democratic takeover of the House.

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KORNACKI: Let me finish tonight with what Donald Trump apparently sees as the silver lining of the looming Democratic takeover of the House. There`s new reporting that the president believes Democrats running the House for the next two years will provide him with foils that he can position himself against heading into 2020. This is, of course, how it`s worked for a few recent predecessors, Bill Clinton playing off Newt Gingrich in the Republican Congress to bounce back from the midterm drubbing of `94 and easily win reelection in `96, and Barack Obama doing the same with the Tea Party Congress after 2010 to win in 2012.

Whether Trump can replicate this with Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Congress, we will soon find out. But it is clear, by now, that to win reelection, Trump will need some kind of a foil. And this is because of the choices he has made since winning two years ago, past presidents have taken steps to try to expand their appeal and to enlarge their coalitions once elected, but not Trump. He seems more interested in locking in the lines of division that existed in 2016 in trying to ride the same coalition to victory in 2020.

For two years now, his political standing as president has looked every bit as shaky as it did throughout the 2016 campaign. His job approval rating rarely makes it out of the low 40s, that`s on a good day, and he`s never cracked 50 percent, not even in the early days of his term, what they used to call the honeymoon period. The challenge for Trump is that the path he took to victory in 2016 was unusually and incredibly precise and narrow. Everything had to go right for him to win and it did.

But if he`s going to try to make that happen again in 2020, then he can afford no slippage. Everything will have to go right for him once again. Just the right number of votes in just the right places.

And that`s why he needs a foil. He had one in 2016. Hillary Clinton, whose popularity by the end of the campaign was as damaged as his, making it possible for Trump to get just what he needed to win and nothing more.

These are some of the big political questions as we prepare to enter 2019. Republicans tried this year to run against a specter of a Pelosi-run House. But they got no payoff. Will it be different for Trump when Pelosi runs the House?

And as the Democratic field takes shape in the coming months, who will emerge? And will the ultimate winner appear to be as polarizing as Clinton? The polling now says that no Democratic prospects are. How much will that change?

Two years to the Trump presidency, Trump so far has not built on the support he had as a candidate. If he`s going to have a chance in 2020, he will need a Democratic opponent who`s even less popular.

That`s HARDBALL for now. Thank you for being with us.

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.