IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Mueller's report expected soon. TRANSCRIPT: 02/21/2019, Hardball w. Chris Matthews.

Guests: David Frum

Show: HARDBALL Date: February 21, 2019 Guest: David Frum

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST: We have a very special fallback Friday tomorrow. All three hosts of the breakfast club are here. They are going to do a takeover. They are the great hosts from power 105 in New York. We have been interviewing all kinds of 2020 candidate. We are going to get in to at the breakfast club on THE BEAT tomorrow. That does it for us. "HARDBALL" is up next.

STEVE KORNACKI, MSNBC HOST: Stone cold warning. Let`s play HARDBALL.

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

We are following a wild day of news. In Washington, a judge has banned Roger Stone from making public comments about his case. A gag order all but silences the defiant political operative.

In North Carolina, a state board unanimously voted today to order a new election for a seat in Congress. That original election tainted by ballot fraud.

And in Chicago police arrested actor, Jussie Smollett charging him with staging an attack on himself because he was unhappy with television salary. The Chicago police superintendent slamming the actor saying quote "he took advantage of this pain and anger of racism to promote his career."

We begin though with a riveting courtroom drama that played out in D.C. today. The President`s longest serving political advisor Roger Stone, who is today gagged by a federal judge after his public attack on that judge almost landed him in jail.

Now his highly anticipated hearing today, Stone took the stand to explain why he decided to post the image of Judge Amy Berman Jackson with a crosshair next to her head. Stone told the judge that his decision post that image quote "was a momentary lapse of judgment." Saying quote "I am heartfully sorry for my own stupidity." pleading for leniency. Stone tried to explain that quote "it`s been a stressful situation."

Among other things he said he is being treated for emotional distress and that he is having a hard time putting food on the table. Stone went on to say that the image he posted was selected by someone who works for him.

However, the judge appeared unmoved by Stone`s testimony saying, I don`t find any explanations credible. Rather than revoke Stone`s bail, though, she modified his original gag order, prohibiting him making any further public statements about the special counsel`s investigation.

And today`s decision comes after Stone publicly attacked the judge on Instagram on Monday. He quickly removed that post and filed a formal apology with the court. But just hours before his hearing today, Stone again attacked the justice system describing legal defense as quote "an epic fight against the anti-Donald Trump deep state."

As the judge said at the conclusion of today`s hearings, Stone`s apology, she said, rings quite hollow. Addressing the defendant, she added, I have serious doubts on whether you learned any lesson at all.

And joining me now, Anna Schecter, NBC News investigative reporter, Chuck Rosenberg, former U.S. attorney and senior FBI official, Peter Baker, "New York Times`" chief White House correspondent and Jill Wine-Banks, former assistant Watergate special prosecutor.

Thank you all for being with us.

And Ana, let me just start with you because you are on the scene there. I think those of us who watch Roger Stone mainly through the media are used to him striking a very defiant, very aggressive posture. You remember after he was taken into custody last month, he came out. Gave that Nixon salute really seemed to be enjoying the moment. In that court room today though, a very different Roger Stone on display.

ANNA SCHECTER, NBC NEWS INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER: A very different Stone. A Stone I haven`t seen before. I haven`t seen that kind of contrition with Roger Stone where he was begging for forgiveness. I think he was really afraid that he might not walk out of there today, that he might be going to jail. And so on some level he really understood that.

But the judge would have liked to see him more contrite. There was one moment where she asked about the apology he filed and he said, well, my lawyers just wrote that and I signed it. And I don`t think that sat very well with her. She said well, the lawyers were appalled by his actions. He didn`t show me that he was really appalled by his own actions. So I don`t think that went so well for him.

However, he is walking out of here a free man. In fact, I have heard from an associate that he is actually already on flight down to Florida. And that is a win for him. He could have gone to jail today. Everyone in his inner circle was afraid of that and all of our legal experts were saying that is a very legal possibility.

KORNACKI: Yes. Let me bring --.

SCHECTER: So it is in interesting day.

KORNACKI: Absolutely. On the point and sorry to interrupt you. But let me bring Chuck Rosenberg in.

Because, Chuck, I`m curious too. Anna said there was sort of an expectation there that this judge was going to say this is nonsense. You are going to jail today. Were you surprised?

CHUCK ROSENBERG, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: A little bit. I mean, I practiced in front of a lot of federal judges who would not have shown sort of the equanimity in the forbearance that Judge Jackson showed today. He did enough to earn himself a revocation of his bond. She was kind and considerate, although it sounds like she was really close to putting him in prison. One day he will go there because he will be a convicted felon. It just isn`t today.

KORNACKI: And Anna, just in terms of what they were saying, a gag order now. He can`t talk about the Mueller case. What exactly are the terms? No jail, can`t talk about his investigation, the Mueller case. What are the other terms here?

SCHECTER: He cannot speak on television, radio, do any print media, any online based media and most importantly that we should be paying attention to, he cannot use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or any other forms of social media. So that is actually a big blow for Stone. It remains to be seen if he can control himself and not use these platforms. Because I have to say even after the judge ordered this hearing, she ordered it on Tuesday for Thursday and in the interim period, he has continued to post on Instagram. This morning invoking the quote-unquote "deep state." And I think this changes things for Roger Stone if he can`t talk about it at all.

Part of his motivation for posting these kinds of things is to raise money to pay for his lawyers. And his judge argued strongly today that he should not be gagged in that way but it didn`t fly with the judge. So it remains to be seen if he can control himself and maybe we will be a quiet Stone. I mean, look at Flynn. After he got in trouble, we didn`t hear a peep from him for a year. And Stone is a very different character. But let`s see if that`s what we can see in the coming months. The next scheduled hearing is March 14th. So we will see what happens until then.

KORNACKI: Thank you, Anna Schecter for keeping us posted out there. Appreciate that reporting.

And on that point about Roger Stone and how he uses the media, social media, has now spoken attack dog really for the President. Stone has long used some questionable rhetoric to go after Trump`s adversaries, often describing the special counsel as quote "a deep state conspiracy." After his arrest last month, he was just as vocal about the charges he now faces. Let`s watch.


ROGER STONE, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN ADVISER: This is a lynching. This is a legal lynching of me.

I intend to fight because this indictment is fabricated. An expensive show of force to try depict me as public enemy number one, the OG. It is an attempt to poison the jury pool. This is (INAUDIBLE) attack.


KORNACKI: And so, that rhetoric from Stone after that arrest last month was met with a partial gag order. But even after Stone bust (ph), Stone removed that Instagram post attacking the judge, he still appeared, as Anna was just saying on the right-wing radio program "Info Wars" the same day.


STONE: Let me be very clear. Any inference that I meant to threaten the judge or disrespect the judge or disrespect the court is false. The fake news continues to make me a favorite target. This latest tempest is a perfect example of it. But hopefully here at the war room I have had the opportunity to lay out the facts.


KORNACKI: And to that point the judge asked Stone today why did you continue to talk about how you are being treated unfairly? How is that consistent with what you are telling me now? Stone replied. I did not have a malicious intent.

As Judge Jackson pointed if inclusion of the hearing quote "publicity cannot subside if it`s the defendant that`s fanning the flames."

Jill Wine-Banks, that idea of Roger Stone fanning the flames, you know, his stock and trade is making waves in the media. This is somebody who seems to believe you don`t exist if you are not being talked about in the media, if you are not talking yourself in the media.

In terms of his strategy for dealing what he`s facing right now, what kind of effect is this gag order going to have on him?

JILL WINE-BANKS, FORMER ASSISTANT WATERGATE SPECIAL PROSECUTOR: Well, we can only hope that he has learned an important lesson and that he realizes how close he came to being put in jail. The judge was extremely lenient in dealing with him by just expanding the gag order. He is poising the jury pool. When he talked about the FBI conducted itself ape way to poison the jury pool, they did not. They handled the arrest in an ordinary way to handle the arrest. His words are intended to poison the jury pool. And it is an unfair advantage that a defendant has when they can speak to the public and make claim that the prosecution is evil, it`s the deep state.

He is taking up the Donald Trump mantra of how the evil state is after him which is absolute lee not true. The facts have spoken and it led to an indictment. And he went about his normal pattern of behavior. He has been doing this since the Nixon era.

He is known as a dirty trickster. He speaks very casually in ways that are really harm fool him now. They used to be harm fool the opponents of any candidate he was supporting. And I think hopefully he has learned and he won`t end up in jail for this.

KORNACKI: Meanwhile, as that drama with Roger Stone plays out, multiple outlets are now also reporting that special counsel, Robert Mueller, will submit his final report to the department of justice soon. But there is no guarantee that its conclusions will be made public. It`s still an open questions as to whether any new indictments will accompany that report when it is finally complete.

"USA Today" is reporting tonight that according to Rudy Giuliani, the President`s legal team has not talk to the special counsel in weeks. Giuliani saying quote "if Mueller clears the president, we walk away and say thank you. If it`s damaging, then we will respond."

Peter Baker, let me bring you in on this. There`s two questions here, I guess, that obviously are out there. Number one is that we have had a lot of reports going back months now that this is almost done, that something is going to be revealed shortly. We now have a flurry of them. Are these more serious? And that question of if there is a report, how much of it is the public going to get to see?

PETER BAKER, CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Yes. Those are all the real questions here. We feel like we are on the edge of something but we don`t know for sure. One reason we don`t know for sure, of course, is because Robert Mueller, probably unlike almost any government operation I can remember has been pretty darn leak proof, right. He has not done very much to tell us anything more than his - in legal documents through, you know, indictments and other things that he has filed in court. So his actual intent we are measuring because other people have told us that. What is the justice department expecting from him? That sort of thing.

Once he turns over whatever he was going to turn over, we don`t even know the form it might take. It could be days, it could be weeks. We have no idea, how long will be that Bill Barr, the attorney general decides to review this material before he decided what if anything is released.

He did tell the Senate judiciary committee when he was being confirmed that he wants to air on the side of transparency. But he reserves the right to withhold things that he thought were inappropriate for public release. You can imagine obviously, you know, classified information regarding surveillance of the Russians that might be too sensitive to release.

But you can also imagine fights over whether or not information qualifies as privileged or not. And remember, unlike say Ken Starr who was an independent counsel 20 years ago during the Clinton investigation, Robert Mueller is in effect an employee of the justice department. So Bill Barr has the right to decide as the top justice department official, whether the conclusions that Robert Mueller has made regarding the President are valid or not. So we don`t know in fact what`s going to happen. But there will be lots of time to chew it over.

KORNACKI: Yes, that`s right. That issue of how Barr will react? How he would handle the report that is handed to him, if there is a report that was featured in his confirmation hearings.

But Chuck Rosenberg, look, we are talking about Roger Stone. The case was brought by Mueller. Clearly, this Roger Stone case is not going to be wrapped up by next week when there are now reports saying, we may have something from Mueller. Can we read anything into that? Is Stone likely to be the last indictment that we see from Mueller?

ROSENBERG: Well, it might be the last indictment that you technically see from the Mueller team. Although, I wouldn`t be shock if there were others.

But I think about this, Steve, in two buckets. There`s the Mueller bucket and cases that he brought. Remember his remit was rather narrow. It was to probe Russian election interference and any coordination with the Trump campaign. But there`s this whole other big bucket that you have to talk about. It is the investigations and the cases of the southern district of New York, federal prosecutors in Manhattan, for instance. Investigations of the Trump inaugural committee, investigations of the foundation, of the Trump organization. And the hush money payments that Cohen made to two women on behalf of individual one who we know to be the President.

And so even if the Mueller`s staff wraps up, and it might, there`s a whole other thing we ought to keep our eyes on going on, primarily in Manhattan but also in other U.S. attorney`s offices around the country.

KORNACKI: OK, Chuck Rosenberg, Peter Baker, Jill Wine-Banks, thank you all for being with us.

And coming up over shadowing Trump. Michael Cohen, remember him, set to deliver potentially explosive testimony about the President hours before Trump tries to make history with Kim Jong-Un.

Also, a dramatic turn of events in North Carolina`s election fraud case.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Through the testimony I listened to over the past three days, I believe the new election should be called.


KORNACKI: It was like one of these scenes used to get in Perry Mason or Mat Lock where everything suddenly changes in the courtroom. It happened in real life today. The Republican congressional candidate who once demanded to be seated, now he concedes the election was tainted. A surprising development in North Carolina. What happens next?

And waiting for Joe after Bernie Sanders` big entrance in the 2020 race this week. What is holding Biden back?

We have a lot to get to tonight. Stay with us.


KORNACKI: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Michael Cohen, President Trump`s self-described fixer and former personal lawyer is finally going to face Congress. After several delays, Cohen is scheduled to appear in public before the House oversight committee next Wednesday. That appearance will create a striking split screen on his former boss, President Trump, will be 8,000 miles away in Vietnam getting ready for his summit with it North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un.

According to the democratic chairman of the oversight committee Eli Cummings, Cohen has been cleared to discuss the President`s debts and payments related to any efforts to influence the 2016 election. His compliance with campaign finance law, conflicts of interest, the Trump international hotel in Washington, the trump Foundation and President Trump`s truthfulness.

It will not include questions related to ongoing investigations into Russia`s effort to influences the U.S. political process. Cohen is also set to appear privately before the senate and the House intelligence committees next week. In August, Cohen pleaded guilty to multiple crimes, including two campaign finance violations related to hush payments to an adult film star and a former Playboy model on behalf of Donald Trump. Cohen reports to prison on May 6.

For more, I`m joined by Jason Johnson, politics editor at, and David Frum, senior editor at "The Atlantic" and a former speechwriter for George W. Bush.

David, the Nixon comparisons are always overused, but I`m going to go to one anyway, because I can just remember -- I don`t remember, but I`m reading about Nixon. In the final days of Watergate, he went overseas a lot. He looked to score big points overseas to sort of distract.


KORNACKI: And you have got the reports here of the Mueller thing may be coming to a head. You have got Cohen next week. And where`s Trump going to be? He is going to be over there in Vietnam.

FRUM: But President Nixon had real successes. The breakthrough to China, that was real. The arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union really did make the world safer.

President Trump`s so-called appearances -- appearances are not successes. What he is doing in Vietnam is another in a long line of retreats from previous American positions on North Korea, retreats that would have shocked the Republican Party as it existed until two years ago.

KORNACKI: What do you see him trying? Is this a president who`s trying to find some way to put a win on the board, no matter what?

FRUM: This is a total branding exercise. In the same way that he tried to persuade people that Trump University was better than Princeton, he is trying to persuade people that the -- yielding to the North Korean position in return for nothing.

The North Koreans have made no permanent concessions. They have suspended some tests. That`s true. That`s good. But nothing has changed. But the American position has changed forever, not only vis-a-vis North Korea, but, of course, we have a much worse relationship with South Korea, with the United States constantly making these absurd, petty demands for small sums of money from South Koreans, and frightening the Japanese half to death.

KORNACKI: Jason, again, we talk about that, the split-screen, but, I mean, that will be one of the stories next week.


KORNACKI: You`re going to have the president trying to make this sort of play on the international stage. You`re going to have Michael Cohen there sort of giving this open, public testimony.

Let me ask you. What are you -- substantively, what are you listening for from Cohen next week?

JOHNSON: Steve, it`s not so much what I hear from Cohen. It`s going to be the questions from the Democrats.

You have a lot of people on the Oversight Committee. You have that sort of new group of freshman congressmen who are really trying to make a name for themselves. Where are they going to go with their questions?

Are they just going to ask about 2016? Or are they going to try and expose a lot of Trump`s other behavior to sort of set the groundwork for attorney generals and state senators who are probably going to be doing investigations based on things that Cohen is saying?

Let`s not forget that Cohen`s real importance in this Trump administration is not just that he was Trump`s fixer, but he knows where all the bodies are buried. He knows other crimes this president might have engaged in. He might also know crimes or misdemeanors or bad behavior that were engaged in by Trump`s associates, by his family.

So my question is going to be, how many of these congressmen are going to dig into those answers, and will we get something explosive? I really don`t think that what the president`s doing in North Korea is going to distract anybody. Most Americans care about what comes out of Cohen`s mouth.

KORNACKI: Well, for decades, Michael Cohen has worked as Donald Trump`s personal lawyer, famously telling a reporter -- remember this one -- he would take a bullet for his boss.

All of that changed the day federal investigators raided his office, his home and hotel room in April of last year.

Lanny Davis, who is now Cohen`s legal adviser, told John Dean -- that was Richard Nixon`s lawyer -- that Cohen will -- quote -- "pull the curtain back and we will hear true stories of Trump`s complicity in crimes and his immoral, bigoted and morally vacant character in specific, detailed personal anecdotes."

Just days after the FBI raided Cohen`s office and home, President Trump tweeted out this: "Remember, Michael Cohen only became a rat after the FBI did something which was absolutely unthinkable and unheard of until the witch-hunt was illegally started. They broke into an attorney`s office."

David, Lanny Davis doing a good job raising the bar of expectations in terms of what`s going to come out of this.

FRUM: Right.

KORNACKI: I guess the skeptical question somebody might ask is, Cohen`s been through the legal process here. If there was anything particularly juicy or explosive that he could -- that he could prove there, wouldn`t have -- wouldn`t that have been the forum for it?

FRUM: I think that`s a good guess.

One of the things we learned from -- one of the things we learned from Cohen -- and this is the larger context -- is how squalid all of these Trump scandals are and how comparatively petty.

Now, look, hundreds of thousands of dollars is a lot of money to most people, but if you`re theoretically a billionaire, then hundreds of thousand of dollars are like dimes. Would you steal a dime? Most people wouldn`t.

So if it`s really -- if that -- if Donald Trump is the person he says he is, then the whole Cohen legal operation does not make sense. So, when he draws back the veil, one of the things that he will show is what the Trump operation really was.

It was an operation where people were scrounging for what would be for a billionaire puny sums of money, and taking incredible legal risks, for reasons that don`t make sense if the story Donald Trump tells about himself is a true story.

KORNACKI: And, Jason, the other sort of piece of context for this, too, is, we have been talking this week -- this week about that new reporting in "The New York Times" that President Trump a couple months ago, according to "The Times," went to his acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, and suggested a different prosecutor for the Cohen case, as that was being adjudicated, a prosecutor Trump believed might be an ally, might be favorable to him.


KORNACKI: Was told, hey, he`s already recused himself, you can`t do that.

But that was the president perhaps being mindful of what Cohen might say.

JOHNSON: Well, yes.

Steve, the president is concerned about Cohen embarrassing him. The president is concerned about Cohen making him look bad. But the reality is, every bit of juicy, important information from Cohen has already been squeezed out. Mueller knows what he needs to know.

The Intelligence Committee, their closed-door hearings, they have already found out the questions about Russia. Most of what Cohen can do is remind us, like Lanny Davis` statement, remind us of things we already know. Oh, President Trump is a bigot. We kind of knew that already.

He Bojangles for pennies. He steals money from charities on his own behalf. He`s kind of a terrible guy and he`s kind of a grifter. None of these things are new.

But the president was hoping, well, maybe if I can -- if I can manipulate things from the top here or there, it can change some of the legal consequences. There is absolutely nothing that Cohen will say next week that hasn`t already been chewed through, sorted and already put into files by the people who Trump really needs to worry about, which is the Mueller investigation and anything that might be done by oversight committees in Congress.

KORNACKI: All right. Jason Johnson, David Frum, thank you both for being with us.

And some surprising, to put it mildly -- this was, I would even say, shocking testimony today, as a Republican congressional candidate in that one uncalled House race from last year, he took the stand in a hearing on election fraud in North Carolina`s Ninth District. Something kind of shocking happened there.

What he had to say, what it means for this still undecided race, we`re going to get to all of it straight ahead.


Breaking news in the ongoing battle for North Carolina`s Ninth Congressional District. That`s the last uncalled election of 2018.

And in a shocking turn of events today, the state board of elections voted unanimously to order a new election. They say that November`s results were tainted by ballot fraud.

That decision came after the Republican candidate, who had been leading in the initial count, Mark Harris, called, himself, for a new election.


MARK HARRIS (R), NORTH CAROLINA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: The testimony I have listened to over the past three days, I believe a new election should be called.

It has become clear to me that the public`s confidence in the Ninth District`s seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted.


KORNACKI: Now, Harris` concession comes a day after the surprise testimony of his own son, who`s an assistant U.S. attorney in North Carolina.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You had suspicions from -- about McCrae Dowless from the start?

JOHN HARRIS, SON OF MARK HARRIS: Yes, since -- since the 2016 primary election, based on those results.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And you have expressed that to your father?

J. HARRIS: I did.

I love my dad, and I love my mom, OK? I think that they made mistakes in this process. And they certainly did things differently than I would have done them.


KORNACKI: Harris responded to his son`s testimony today, referring to him as having a little taste of arrogance.


M. HARRIS: Obviously, I read these e-mails today in a very different intellectual light than -- than what I read them when my 27-year-old son, who is a sharp attorney and very...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Extremely sharp.

M. HARRIS: Extremely sharp. But I`m his dad. And I know he`s a little judgmental, and has a little taste of arrogance and some other things.


KORNACKI: Joining me now from Raleigh, Leigh Ann Caldwell, political reporter for NBC News. She has been covering this all week.

Leigh Ann, they always tell us, "Law & Order," "Matlock," any of those shows, the way that the drama always plays out in the courtroom doesn`t happen in real life.

This wasn`t a courtroom. This was a hearing, but surprise witnesses, somebody seeming to melt down on the stand, outcome nobody was expecting, this had all those elements.

Mark Harris -- take us through what happened today, but he abruptly called for a break, came back, and then called for a new election.

LEIGH ANN CALDWELL, NBC NEWS POLITICAL REPORTER: Steve, it was incredible. And that is, by far, an understatement.

When we started this hearing on Monday, this was completely unexpected. When we started the day today, it wasn`t -- it was unexpected.

But things were not looking good for Mark Harris, the Republican candidate who had been fighting since Election Day for the board to certify his election. But these tainted absentee ballots were just too much. They opened an investigation. And here we are.

The things that were going bad for Harris, first of all, his son testified against him yesterday . This morning, there was new evidence that was -- came out late last night where McCready`s attorneys and the state board of investigations were like, where did this come from? Why are we only seeing this document now?

And then McCready (sic) walked himself into a perjury box. He was asked questions about conversations he had had before the hearing started with some of his family members regarding some e-mails. And he answered what could have been untruthfully.

Immediately after he answered, his lawyer said: Hold on. Let`s go into closed session. I need to talk to my client.

They came out of this lunch break, out of this closed session. Mark Harris retracted his statement. And then he said, let`s have a new election -- Steve.


And I think you said McCready. I think you meant to say Harris was the one who was walking into the perjury trap right there.

CALDWELL: Yes. Mm-hmm.

KORNACKI: But -- so that raises the next question, though.

So, Harris was walking in, you say, to a perjury trap, had this abrupt change of heart, cited some medical issues.


KORNACKI: And then there`s going to be a new election now.

Does this mean Mark Harris, who led the initial count by 905 votes, who ran for Congress a couple of times in this district, does this mean we can`t -- we expect him not to run in the special election?

CALDWELL: It`s unclear. His people -- his attorney said that`s a premature question at this point.

I don`t really see how Mark Harris does run. He is tainted after this election. He is having some -- some health issues that are serious.

And so why -- so -- but, regardless of who jumps in the race for the Republicans, they are going to have to have another primary. They`re going to have to have a general election. So it`s looking like there`s not going to be a new election until the fall.

And so we`re going to go months without a candidate or without a representative in the Ninth Congressional District.

KORNACKI: Until the fall, so almost a year since the election last November.

Just to set the stakes for folks, put it on your calendar, whenever they give us the date. We said Democrats got a net gain of 40 seats in the House in the 2018 midterms. I think this one will still count toward 2018, when they finally get around to having the election.

This had been a Republican-held seat. Harris took out a Republican incumbent in the Republican primary. So, if the Democrats win the election, that would then be a net gain of 41 seats. I hope you didn`t etch that 40 in stone anywhere, because it could end up going up to 41 if they win that.

Leigh Ann Caldwell, you have been following this story all week. Great reporting from down there. Really appreciate you keeping us posted on it.

And up next: Why is Joe Biden waiting to declare if he`s running or not? I`m going to head over to the Big Board, look at what the polls are saying about his chances, and what might be holding him back.

We`re back after this.


KORNACKI: All right, welcome back to HARDBALL.

Bernie Sanders is in. Elizabeth Warren is in. Cory Booker is in. Kamala Harris is in. About 300 or so other Democrats, it seems, are in the race for 2020.

And yet there is one name that everybody is still waiting on, the former Vice President Joe Biden.

A decision, we have been told, is coming and coming and coming and coming. It may be soon. It`s probably going to have to be soon. And, as we wait for it, well, you know what? We have been here before. Joe Biden has put everybody through a waiting game like this a couple times during his career. It`s kind of amazing, when you think about it.

You can go all the way back to 1980. There wasn`t a big public agony, like we have right now. Joe Biden was pretty young, but he did consider running for president in 1980. That was the Kennedy-Carter primary. He stayed out of it.

In 1984, he got a little bit of pressure to get in the race from some of his allies. He stayed out in `84. He did try to run in 1988. Of course, there was a plagiarism scandal. It helped knock him out of that race.

And Biden said maybe I`ll run this time. Stayed out of that race. Of course, he ran and lost in 2008 but he got that ultimate consolation prize. He ended up on Barack Obama`s ticket and eight years as vice president.

We all remember the waiting game four years ago. Is he going to get in? Is he going to stay out?

He stayed out in 2016. Everybody thought, I think Biden included, that would be it for him. But here he is. He`ll be 78 in 2020. He`s got it looks like one more crack at it if he wanted.

If he does get into the race for president, where do things stand right now? Look, nationally, these are numbers we`ve seen.

This is the most recent poll from Morning Consul. They got Biden sitting there at 30 percent. You generally see Bernie Sanders running in second place, high tens. This one has got him in the low twenties. One of the best polls Bernie Sanders has had nationally.

Kamala Harris seems now in the early days of her campaign to have established herself in third place. How about those early states? Take a look there in Iowa. In December, you have your most recent Iowa poll. Again, Biden out front there.

New Hampshire, first primary state. Biden out front there. Bernie Sanders there. And his next door neighbor. Remember, Sanders won New Hampshire. So -- convincingly in 2016.

So, that`s where Biden sort of stands when you poll him right now. Here`s one cautionary note. There was another poll, "The Washington Post"/ABC did a couple of months ago, a couple of weeks ago, I should say.

They did this a novel way. Instead of giving the respondents the names of all of the candidates and saying who would you vote for, they made it open ended. They didn`t give them any names to choose from. They just said, hey, Democratic race for president in 2020 who do you want to be the Democratic nominee?

The president has got to come up with a name. What is that going to catch? Maybe that`s going to get who people are really committed to. If they`re volunteering the name, if they`re telling you without being prompted, maybe that indicates a deeper, more committed level of support.

So, what happened when they did that? Check it out, well, Biden still thread the pack but the number to single digits, 9 percent, kamala Harris, 8 percent. Bernie Sanders, 4 percent.

I`m not sure -- I`m interested in this. I haven`t seen this done in all the past races so I can tell you exactly what it means. But it`s an interesting type of poll to start doing I think going into the future.

I`m curious if Biden runs, which one of those numbers ends up being more reliable, the one that shows him start now at 30 percent or the one that shows him starting out at 9 percent?

Anyway, a lot for Joe Biden to be weighing right now. He`s got one more crack at it. Like we said, if he wants it, so what is holding him back?

Well, up next, we are going to talk about that. Let`s say 10 candidates are in the race, we`ve got some new reporting from NBC News about what exactly could be holding Joe Biden back.

We have it for you, next.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: How about sleepy Joe Biden? Sleepy Joe?

Biden is a man that -- number one, he can`t draw a crowd. He had almost no -- you see what we have. I wish Biden the best. You know, I hope he`s going to be the nominee actually. You mean 1 percent Joe?

We call him 1 percent Biden until Obama took him off the trash heap, he couldn`t do anything. Now, he`s talking about running. Tough guy. He`s tough guy. He`s a real genius.

I want to challenge him to a fight behind the barn. Oh, would I love that. Would that be good?


KORNACKI: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

NBC News is reporting, quote, that Joe Biden wants to be president and each day, he`s closer to being ready to run for the office. However, Biden is carefully considering a crucial question, what happens when the president or his top allies try to make his family an issue?

I`m joined now by NBC News national political correspondent, Heidi Przybyla, and NBC News national political reporter Mike Memoli, who did that NBC reporting on Biden on his deliberations.

Mike, this is terrific stuff. So, I mean, take us through this. You`re finding that biggest hurdle right now in Biden`s mind is what this is going to do to his family?

MIKE MEMOLI, NBC NEWS NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: Steve, I`ve been asking Joe Biden and his team about running for president since Election Day, 2012. Obviously, he passed on that with the unusual death of his son.

But as timeline kept shifting again this time around, I`ve been asking the question, what`s different now that wasn`t then? What I was told is that their own planning and his engagement in the process is light years ahead of where it was last time but taking it much more seriously. The conversations outward and inward are much more serious. But the same thing in 2016 is true now with the family factor, but in a very different way.

So, less about whether the family is ready after such an emotional loss of Beau Biden. It`s about what happens in this environment when nothing is sacred, when President Trump has shown in 2016 he was willing to go anywhere to attack his opponents. What happens when a family is an issue?

They`ve been doing drills with the vice president, what happens when Trump tweets, you`re on a rope line, you`re asked about it. And his conversations with top Democrats, with potential donors, he`s raising the issue himself. So, this is very clearly front of mind.

We expect maybe a decision in the next two weeks, by April is the sort of hope of his team. One the last things he has to do is talk to his grandkids and kids, do one final gut check, make sure they`re ready for a very public airing of some of the family`s troubles.

KORNACKI: Is the time factor -- it sounds funny to say, because we`re in February, the election is November of next year.

MEMOLI: Right.

KORNACKI: But all these other candidates are out there. Is that weighing on him? Is there any fear among folks around Biden that by waiting to the extent he has, the decisions effectively made for him?

MEMOLI: Biden`s been saying publicly it`s way too early to have to make a decision. Listen, you know, as one advisor put it, we`re just a few weeks from the last Super Bowl. There will be another Super Bowl before the next Iowa caucus.

The risk, of course, every time you wait is, you know, his advantage is name I.D., and as the field is continuing to grow and as people get comfortable with some of the options there, perhaps his numbers as you just laid out begin to slip. The other factor is, you know, I think as he sees -- one of his arguments is he thinks he`s the best Democrat to win. He`s eyeing this race -- one of the reporting I have is he`s actually calling the other candidates wishing them well, congratulating them.

He`s looking at what they`re doing closely and if one of them can demonstrate they`re strong enough to win, maybe that can effect his decision as well.

KORNACKI: It`s interesting.

Heidi, it`s also fascinating too that idea that Biden may have in his head that he`s the most electable, I think a lot of Democrats have that instinctively, because they just look at the electoral map. Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, combined Trump margin, 77,000 votes, flip those states back, and keep everything else Democrat to win the election.

The interesting thing about Biden, though, is when you look back a couple of years ago, before he sat out of the 2016 race, his poll numbers were not that good. It`s one of the reasons Democrats didn`t want him to run in 2016. They didn`t think he could win.

HEIDI PRZYBYLA, NBC NEWS NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: It`s totally different once a candidate is actually a candidate, as we saw, for instance, with Hillary Clinton in 2016, when before she was candidate and she was Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, her number, her personal approval numbers were sky high.

Right now, like you said, there`s a little bit of a disparity in those numbers right when you just have like a blank question asking people who they support versus throwing Joe Biden at them. And the risk here is also, if Joe Biden is waiting to see who else gets into the races, that yes, there will be many other people who demonstrate they can also be electable.

And then there`s the question of if he did get into the race, how are the Democratic base going to respond to that? Because right now, his main argument is -- you know, he has to get in because he`s the only one who can win. But once you`re in, it`s all about who`s going to excite the base? Who`s go having to the best ideas?

And you see all these other Democrats really running to the left on issues like Medicare-for-All. And Joe Biden is going to have to at some point be something other than I`m the guy that can beat Trump.

KORNACKI: Well, also, in your reporting, Mike, you say that when he passed -- when Biden passed on the 2016 race, he did so understanding it might be the last chance to seek the presidency. But Hillary Clinton`s shocking defeat to Trump affords Biden, at 76, a final, unexpected opportunity, the time when he feels his skills and experience are needed perhaps more than ever.

Look at age factor. I know we`ve got to have more than ever before 70-plus year olds running for president. I think there`s five of them out there. So age doesn`t mean what it used to yet. He`ll be 78 on inauguration day. That`s going to be in people`s mind.

Isn`t it in his mind? Is there any talk of if you run, you put something throughout about one term?

MEMOLI: There are conversations much earlier on when I would speak to his staff about this, about potentially putting that out there. There are a lot of risks. I mean, there are downsides of immediately making yourself a lame duck, the potential maybe of an early announcement of a running mate as well is something that`s on the table.

But listen, one of the things that I`ve heard the vice president say publicly often, he`s reminding people how many campaign events he did last cycle, how many states he went to, how many candidates he was there for. He`s making the point, listen, I`ve been out there, as he said recently. I`ve campaigned for more Democrats than anybody else. I`d put my numbers up against anyone.

So, he`s showing -- I still have the stamina. I can still get out there and do it.

KORNACKI: He wants to tell you. He`s still got the energy to do it.

MEMOLI: That`s right.

KORNACKI: I mean, could you see this idea of him making an endorsement? Is there anybody out there that he`d be a natural kind of fit with in terms of trying to designate a V.P. or something?

PRZYBYLA: You mean if he doesn`t run, being a king maker? Endorsing someone else?

KORNACKI: King maker or to pick as a V.P.

PRZYBYLA: OK. Here`s some of the concern, right? There`s some early reporting here that he`s already reached out to Beto O`Rourke as a potential running mate and to me that says that he hasn`t possibly fully learned the lessons of the past election cycle in 2018, where women and minorities really were the groundswell behind this party.

And I`m not saying you need to pick a woman or you need to pick a minority. But my gosh, they are the majority of the candidates who are now raising their hands. So if that reporting is true --

KORNACKI: He`s flatly denied --

MEMOLI: Right.

PRZYBYLA: I think that is problematic. But, yes, he could be king maker. Hickenlooper gets into the race or Mitch Landrieu and he decides, OK, we`re safe. Yes, this is my guy.

KORNACKI: Yes, but the race, too, is if Hickenlooper or Landrieu, or whoever it is, they have 2 percent or something, maybe you`re not king maker.

Anyway, Heidi Przybyla and Mike Memoli, thank you for being with us. Great reporting, Mike, really.

Up next, the other legal drama that unfolded in front of cameras in Chicago today.


KORNACKI: The legal drama today didn`t all involve Roger Stone. There was also the matter of actor, Jussie Smollett, who was arrested and appeared in a Chicago courtroom today. Authorities now believe he masterminded a hoax, staging a hate crime by paying two men to accost him and telling the police and the whole world that they shouted racial and homophobic insults while trying to tie a noose around his neck and douse him with bleach.

Smollett connected the supposed attack directly to politics. He said his attackers told him he was in MAGA country and suggested he was victimized because I come really hard at 45, meaning presumably the 45th president.

From the get-go, there were some glaring reasons to approach Smollett`s claim with caution. The incident he said took place in a Chicago street in the overnight hours of a bitterly freezing cold night with the polar vortex in full force. Two racist goons were out walking around, were able to recognize Smollett and were ready to go after him with rope and bleach. There were reasons to have some caution here.

But not everyone was willing to wait for the police to do their work and to piece together what did or didn`t happen. Plenty of politicians dove right in and turned up the heat. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted that the racist and homophobic attack on Jussie Smollett is an affront to our humanity. Few days later, as Smollett`s story was falling apart, she deleted the tweet.

Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, presidential candidates both, called it a modern day lynching. Harris said we must confront this hate. Both Booker and Harris were pressed by reporters when it was becoming clear that Smollett was turning into the target of the police investigation. This time, Harris says as the story was falling apart, said, I think the facts are still unfolding and there should be an investigation. Late today, she put out a more thorough statement. Booker said he would withhold judgment until all the information actually comes out and I`m sure he wishes he said that originally, and it`s probably good advice for all of us.

The world moves very fast these days, news especially. And there are so many incentives for everyone, politicians, activists, pundits to speak out quickly and emphatically on everything. But it should never be bad form for anyone to say, I want to wait for all the facts before I react.

And if we created an environment where it is, that is a problem we all ought to address.

That`s HARDBALL for now.

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.