Michael Cohen to testify before Congress. TRANSCRIPT: 02/25/2019, Hardball w. Chris Matthews.

Guests: Mimi Rocah; Frank Figluizzi; Philip Bump; Charlie Sykes, Julian Castro, Karine Jean-Pierre, John Podhoretz

Show: HARDBALL Date: February 25, 2019 Guest: Mimi Rocah; Frank Figluizzi; Philip Bump; Charlie Sykes, Julian Castro, Karine Jean-Pierre, John Podhoretz

ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST: We are about out of time, Kristen.

KRISTEN WELKER, NBC NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

MELBER: But we will keep an eye on the story. We did want to fit it in. Thank you for the reporting from the White House.

WELKER: Thank you.

MELBER: I can`t steal from HARDBALL. THE BEAT is over.

HARDBALL is up next.

STEVE KORNACKI, MSNBC HOST: Mr. Cohen goes to Washington. Let`s play HARDBALL.

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

The President`s former lawyer Michael Cohen is set to testify before Congress in a marathon series of three separate hearings this week. Those include closed door appearances before the House and Senate intelligence committees. Plus, that highly-anticipated public testimony before the House oversight committee. That is going to be on Wednesday.

As a close Trump confidant for over a decade, Cohen is promising according to his lawyer to expose chilling new details about the President. Cohen has already revealed the true duration and scope of the President`s efforts to build a Trump tower in Moscow which he tried to cover up to false statements to Congress.

In pleading guilty to those lies, Cohen said quote "I made these misstatement to be consistent with Trump`s political messaging."

Cohen then implicated the President in what could be a felony admitting he quote "acted in coordination with and at the direction of Trump and carrying out a scheme to break campaign finance laws to two women not speaking about alleged extramarital liaisons."

At a sentencing, Cohen blamed his quote "blind loyalty" to Donald Trump saying that time and time again I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds. But while Cohen is set to start a three-year prison sentence in May, the investigation by the southern district of New York continues and among other things prosecutors are scrutinizing the Trump organization, the Trump family and the Trump inaugural committee for potential campaign finance violations and other irregularities, this according to "The New York Times."

For more I`m joined now by Frank Figluizzi, a former assistant director for counterintelligence at the FBI, Mimi Rocah is a former federal prosecutor, Charlie Sykes, the editor in-chief at the "Bull Wart" and Philip Bump is a political reporter with "the Washington Post."

Thanks to all of you for being with us.

Well, Frank, let me start with you. Three separate hearings, two of them behind closed doors but one that the whole world is going to get to watch this week. Michael Cohen testifying in front of Congress. I know the questions are probably going to be very far-ranging here from the members of Congress. Realistically, though, set the bar. Where are the areas where the public has the most opportunity you think to learn something new this week?

FRANK FIGLIUZZI, FORMER ASSISTANT FBI DIRECTOR FOR COUNTERINTELLIGENCE: Sure, Steve.

So in addition to the possibility that we could hear about crimes we don`t already know about related to Trump, his family, the Trump organization or Trump foundation, we should be focused on listening for three things.

First, the big question, what precisely did Cohen lie about and why? Number two, who, if anyone, directed him or -- to lie or knew about the lies and at what level, did that go all the way to the oval office. And number three, is did Trump or someone on behalf of Trump attempt to intimidate or threaten Cohen about lying to Congress that might constitute witness tampering?

I will be focused like a laser on those three things and I think Congress will do.

KORNACKI: Well, Mimi, I think the other question here is the question of what does he say? I guess the other question to back up a bit is, what can he say?

You know, the Mueller probe is still ongoing, you know. But Cohen has basically said he will talk about that aspect of it when that is over. This southern district investigation is still ongoing. We have had reporting in the last couple of days about potentially looking at the Trump inaugural committee there.

If you have federal investigators still taking a look at all of that stuff, if you have the Mueller probe still going on, does that place limits on what Michael Cohen could be talking about in public here?

MIMI ROCAH, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY: Well, Steve, I think it depends who you are asking. From the prosecutor`s point of view in the southern district of New York, my guess is they probably do want to play some limits on it because prosecutors never want information about ongoing investigations to get out into the public sphere, particularly in this kind of a setting that is, you know, by all - I mean, it really is political as opposed to what the southern district is doing. And when I say political, I mean it is in the political arena. That it is Congress. It is literally a political place as opposed to the prosecutors in a U.S. attorney`s office. They are just different sort of missions.

So I think that probably the prosecutors want to put limits on it. I don`t know what arrangements they have had. But my guess is that, you know, there has been some coordination and that there at least have been discussions about it, whether or not they have agreed on everything.

But you know, there is -- there is certainly things that Michael Cohen has already testified about, even in the southern district under oath, not testified but given statements under oath that I think would be fair game because we already know about them but it is a question of further details.

Like if he says Trump directed and coordinated these payments, what does that mean? Were there conversations? Was he explicit? Was it a wink and nod? Who is executive one and executive two? I mean, these are things that, you know, -- which was something named -- people named in the papers that Cohen pled guilty to.

So I think there is things that he should be able to go into without harming the southern district investigation.

KORNACKI: Just to understand the process, too, a little bit more, Mimi, just in terms of his incentives here, we know he is schedule to begin this prison sentence in May. You know, we have gone through the sentencing phase and everything. Is there still something -- can he gain something, just from the criminal justice standpoint in terms of his sentence, in terms of what he is facing legally? Is there still something he actually gain from prosecutors, from the southern district by adhering to whatever it is they would like him to adhere to?

ROCAH: Absolutely. You know, he has been sentenced to three years in prison. In part because he did not have a cooperation agreement and get a recommendation basically for more lenient sentence from the southern district of New York. But post-sentencing, there are provisions in the federal rules that allow for the government to go back and say, OK, now we think he should get some credit.

So I think that is an incentive for him to stick by whatever agreement he may or may not have with the southern district about certain areas. And it is also an incentive for him to tell the truth. I mean, I hope people keep that in mind. Because whatever he testifies about within the realm of the southern district investigation, they are going to know whether he is telling the truth or not and if he lies he is just going to be in much bigger trouble than he would have if he had never gone down this road.

KORNACKI: And Philip, I guess that is the other question here for people to be keeping an eye and as he testified in public, the question of his credibility. Somebody who lied to Congress before and going back in front of Congress. You had the other piece of it. Lanny Davis is kind of playing. He was his lawyer now. I guess he his legal adviser. Lanny Davis is a political player, too. He has a political ax to grind here that is pretty obvious.

In terms of the credibility, is there an added threshold here that Cohen has to -- if he is going to have chilling revelations here, as Lanny Davis is saying, is there an added threshold he has to meet to sort of establish and what would that be?

PHILIP BUMP, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: I think it is going to be hard for them in real-time to be able to evaluate the veracity of what he is saying, right. It was only after the fact that they realized that what he had represented to Congress about when they stopped talking about those Moscow Trump tower deal was actually inaccurate. That Mueller actually surfaced. So I think it is going to be hard for them to be able to do that.

Essentially, they are just going to have to take what he says and work from it, right. I mean, one of the things to remember, the big change between now and the last time Michael Cohen was on Capitol Hill, is that the Democrat run the House, right.

Democrats can now launch investigations based on what Michael Cohen is saying. So they don`t have to take him at face value. They could hear what he says and then spin things off. And I think it is important to remember, we focus so much on the Mueller investigation. But I do think it is important for us to remember about the scope of the time that he spent at the Trump organization.

You played that clip at the top where he said, time and time again he had to hold his nose and cover up for Donald Trump. What were all of the times? We are talking about a decade where he was sitting there covering - - what were the things he was covering up?

All of those are potential avenues for exploration by the Democrats who run House committees at this point in time. And I think that regardless of what he says, that is what we are going to see spin out.

KORNACKI: Well, and the issue of the potentially the southern district of New York federal prosecutors there reports have indicated that the President`s allies view those New York investigations as an even greater threat than the Mueller probe. And now there are new signs the President may feel the same way.

"The Daily Beast" reporting today that quote "beginning late last year the President made clear to his outside legal team that he didn`t want his lawyers going anywhere, even after the Mueller probe ends."

Quote, "conversations served as a private admission that federal investigations be devilling his first term in office will be haunting him for possibly years to come."

Here is how the President`s son Donald Trump Jr. spoke about those ongoing investigations in the southern district of New York today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP JR., PRESIDENT TRUMP`S SON: If this is -- as political as it gets. Their dream in life is to try to find something to get Trump. I mean, it is that old Stalin-ist tactic, you know. Show me the man and I`ll show you the crime. We just have to find it and then we can massage things enough. So, you know, there is no doubt that they will try. But again, I know how we function as a company. I know how we function as individuals. And that is why despite all of this for two years we don`t appear all that worried because we know there is nothing there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: Well, Charlie Sykes, I mean, it is - we are, you know, more than half way through Donald Trump`s first term as President. The possibility here of the Mueller probe maybe wrapping up in the near future but then the sort of shift to everything that is going on in the southern district of New York. The possibility that this is just sort of the permanent back drop of his entire first term as President. If there will be a second term or not, it would then cover a lot of that. But this the idea of this legal cloud just being there.

CHARLIE SYKES, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Well, and the legal threat that is there. I mean, the White House I think is absolutely right to be worried about the southern district of New York because it crosses the red line that Donald Trump once imagined that he could draw protecting his family business.

Look. I mean, Michael Cohen may not know everything that the Trump organization was doing but he knows an awful lot. And how could someone like Donald Trump not be extraordinarily nervous when someone who knows that much information and could potentially tie him directly to the commission of crimes is going to be testifying in front of Congress and testifying publicly.

I mean, the one bombshell out there potentially is if Michael Cohen does testify that he had coordinated or been directed or discussed his plans to lie to the Senate about the Moscow project. I mean, those are the kind of things that take this to a whole level.

But I would suggest also that we may be lowering expectations a little bit because Michael Cohen is not going to be the most sympathetic witness. And Republicans will of course have a lot of material to work with to try to impeach his credibility.

KORNACKI: Frank, does that tell us anything, though, to the extent there is now conversation about the southern district of New York potentially being a greater threat to Donald Trump, the President himself potentially, according to the reporting, believing that. Does that tell us anything about where expectations sit for what will or won`t be revealed when it comes to the special counsel Russia investigation?

Because, you know, originally of course there, the mandate is, you know, to look for evidence of coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government in the 2016 election. I got to imagine whatever could possibly be emerged from a southern district investigation if you had direct links indictments coming connecting the Trump campaign to high level figures in the Russian government, that would be sort of the number one thing going on.

FIGLUIZZI: Steve, let`s all remember that the start for the whole special counsel investigation was an FBI Russian counterintelligence investigation. And that Seminole question still needs to be answered. And here is my concern.

If we apply criminal metrics and standards to what gets into the Mueller report, right, and only report that which meets the standard of a crime, then we are going to miss, perhaps, that key question. Because the counterintelligence question, is our President compromised or controlled by a foreign power may not rise to the level of a crime. Yet if that question is not answered in the report, we are going to see screams from the hill and from the American public about the answer to that question. And I would assert that question must be in the report.

KORNACKI: Well, right. On those lines then, without referring specifically to the Mueller probe, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein today warned that the danger of being what he called overly transparent with information gathered in investigation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROD ROSENSTEIN, DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: It could be really misleading if you are overly transparent about information that the government collects. So I think we do need to be really cautious about that. The guidance I was gave my prosecutors and the agents that I worked with during my tenure on the front lines of law enforcement were if we aren`t prepared to prove our case beyond a reasonable doubt in court, then we have no business making allegations against American citizens.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: Mimi Rocah, I wonder if could you take us through the process here, if and when Mueller completes this investigation. And I know a lot of people think back to Ken Starr, Bill Clinton 20 years ago. That was a report that went straight to Congress. Congress then could simply vote to release the report. That went up on the internet. Everybody read all those salacious details online. This is a report that goes into the justice department. And then there is a whole issue of what the public could see and whether Congress would try to subpoena it.

In terms of getting whatever is put into this report into full public view, what are the prospects of that?

ROCAH: Well, we certainly like don`t have the same process that we did with Ken Starr report because now there is this medium in between. There is sort of a safety guard, if you will, of the attorney general. He gets to see the report first. And he basically gets to decide what goes to Congress and what becomes public in the first instance.

You know, I think there is a lot of debate. It seems to me that he has a lot of discretion. These are all rules that he is in control of. And so, it will be largely up to him in the first instance how much of it comes out. And if Congress isn`t happy with it, I`m sure they will try to subpoena it as they should.

And you know, I think that what is so unusual about this, and you know, I did listen to a fuller clip of what Rosenstein said today in those remarks, and he also talked about their being exceptions to the policy. The general department of justice policy is you don`t talk about people who you have not just feel that you can indict because you don`t have that level of proof. OK.

But President Trump is in a very different situation. He can`t be indicted per the policy now. Not because necessarily a standard of proof. So it is just a whole separate situation that, you know, we haven`t dealt with before. And I`m hoping that, you know, that they have worked it out in a way that we do get answers and that it isn`t just a fall back on a policy made for different situations.

KORNACKI: Well, it raises some interesting questions there and possibilities, Philip. If what is actually prepared by Mueller ends up being just in terms of length relatively short and just here is the people I have indicted. We sort of know who that is already. And if that list doesn`t have any additions and that sort of it. Or if this something that ends up resembling more. You think back to the December of 2016 when they decided that the FBI - when the FBI director at that time James Comey came out and said, well, we are not going to have a charges pressed against Hillary Clinton. But now let me tell you all of the things she did wrong. And then that sort of kicked it into the political sphere if that is the kind of situation that could merge from this.

BUMP: Right. I think it is important to remember that Rosenstein is being consistent here. He was almost held in contempt of Congress when the Republicans held the House because he didn`t want to turn over information that they sought.

There was the big fight last year about whether or not this memo that had been prepared by Devin Nunes` staff should be released publicly. So there are also precedents under Trump where the FBI is giving out more information than Rosenstein would have liked at the time.

To your point, if this ends up being a court case, this is problematic potentially for the department of justice. If Democrats subpoena this probe -- subpoena more information from Mueller, if the department of justice pushes back, this ends up in court, it is going to be hard potentially for the department of justice to make the case that in this case with these stipulation that Mimi just pointed out about how Trump can`t be indicted any way, in this case, why they should be able to hold this information back when they have already put forward information in 2016 and 2018.

KORNACKI: And Charlie, quickly, I mean, is there a situation or a case there, I guess, for the White House for Trump potentially if this is a situation that lands kind of in the middle, there are no new indictments from Mueller, there is no indictments that say, hey, the campaign coordinated with the Russian government specifically here to effect the election, but there are all sorts of, I don`t know, aspersions cast in the report.

Would there be a political case for Trump to call for having that released because he could say ultimately no collusion and let everybody else argue over the other findings.

SYKES: Yes, that would be the smart play. There is no guarantee that he will do that. But look, if in fact they try to withhold this report, you know, not only this sets up a fight with Congress, not only this is set up a court battle, but in the court of public opinion it don`t think it will play well.

Every poll that I have seen shows that a strong majority of voters want to see what is in that report. And if the White House and the justice department want to sit on that report, whenever their justifications for it, it will appear to be part of a cover-up. It will look like Donald Trump put somebody in place who is, you know, keeping this information from the public and keeping this information from Congress.

And Frank, by the way, and frank and Mimi are exactly right about this, you know. The standard cannot just simply be because it is the President, you know, whether he violated certain statutes because that is what Congress has to decide the definition of, high crimes and misdemeanors, they need that information.

KORNACKI: All right. Charlie Sykes, Philip Bump, Frank Figluizzi and Mimi Rocah, thank you all for joining us.

And coming up, Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro plays HARDBALL. We will talk about the border battle with House vote set for tomorrow and with President standing by his emergency declaration.

Plus, I`m going to head over to the big board. We have new numbers on Donald Trump, his approval rating, where he stands heading in the 2020, where his predecessors have stood at this point heading into their reelection efforts.

And the President`s latest tweets target of Spike Lee and Harry Reid. But it was Trump`s tweet about a Fourth of July celebration that got the most attention.

Much more ahead. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

The House will vote tomorrow on a resolution to terminate President Trump`s national emergency declaration at the southern border. If it passes, the Senate has 18 days to bring it up for a vote. And four Republican senators would need to side with Democrats to send the measure to Trump`s desk.

And, today, the president had a warning for Republicans considering voting to support the resolution.

He wrote: "I hope our great Republican senators don`t get led down the path of weak and ineffective border security." He added: "Don`t fall into the Democrats` trap of open borders and crime."

Late today, Republican Senator Thom Tillis from North Carolina said he would support the resolution to oppose the national emergency, joining Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, who said this weekend she is likely to support that resolution. Another Republican, Missouri`s Roy Blunt, called the emergency declaration an unfortunate decision.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "FACE THE NATION")

SEN. ROY BLUNT (R), MISSOURI: I think we`re going to have to evaluate whether this is really the intention of an emergency. Is it really an emergency if, again, the president asked the Congress to do it, and they failed to? That`s different than the way this law has been used in the past.

MARGARET BRENNAN, HOST, "FACE THE NATION": So you could vote to try to block the president from moving forward with this emergency? You just haven`t decided yet? Is that fair?

BLUNT: I think that`s fair.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of 58 former national security officials issued a joint statement rebuking the president`s declaration, writing -- quote -- "Under no plausible assessment of the evidence is there a national emergency today."

I`m joined now by Julian Castro, former secretary of housing and urban development under President Obama and a candidate for president in 2020.

Thank you for joining us, sir.

Let me start on this. we have all talked about the polling on this, where the president`s border policies in the last couple of months, his policy when it came to that shutdown, where they poll. Not very well.

I guess the question I would ask you is, is there any risk do you see -- you`re out there talking to people. You`re out there taking the pulse of the public. Is there any risk that, when we look at these individual questions, we are missing something where the president is connecting with folks just on the idea that he is tougher on the issue of the border, tougher on the issue of illegal immigration than anybody else?

Is there any element to this that we`re missing in public polling, do you think?

JULIAN CASTRO (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I have no doubt that this political ploy, using the border issue in this way, resonates with some folks.

But here is the thing, Steve. As you know, as we have seen over the last two years, this is a president that is bound and determined to be a president for his 37 percent base.

I`m running for president because I want to be a president for all Americans. And so what we have on the table is a fake emergency. You had those 58 officials, conservative, progressive, Republicans, Democrats, that came forward today and said, this is not necessary. This is setting a bad precedent. In fact, this could make us weaker in the future, because people will take the declaration of a national emergency less seriously both here and abroad. And yet, for political reasons, the president goes forward.

To answer your question about whether I think this will help him gain traction, I actually don`t. I think that people can see through this. And that is why you have even Republicans considering voting for this resolution, legislation against his national emergency.

By the way, I have to say that I`m glad to see that my brother Joaquin is being productive there in the Congress, too.

KORNACKI: Well, let me ask you, too. You`re running for president. You`re talking about the idea of this being a precedent potentially.

So if this is not taken -- if this resolution does not actually get enacted, Trump says he vetoes it, it would then take a two-thirds supermajority to override him. That still seems unlikely at this point.

It`s going to work its way through the courts. Let`s say it gets to the Supreme Court. Let`s say the Supreme Court upholds it.

If this action on the president`s part is upheld, and then you succeed, and you become president of the United States, would that change the way you view emergency -- the emergency powers of the president? Would that change the way you potentially think about using those powers as president?

CASTRO: I will just say that, if I take office on January 20, 2021, that I will come into office with a strong belief that climate change is a national emergency, that the fact that so many people in this country die because of gun violence, that`s a national emergency.

The folks that -- the fact that so many folks still sleep on the streets in our country because they can`t find a place to live that`s affordable is a national emergency.

So, I think this president is setting a bad precedent. What he should do is negotiate with Congress, if he`s determined to get funding for the wall. He hasn`t been able to do that.

And this is a symptom of his failure, because I really do believe that it`s going to set a bad precedent, and that there are more pressing things that we need to do if we`re considering what`s a national emergency.

I hope that it doesn`t go in that direction, frankly, because I think that Congress should play its role, whether it`s authorizing the use of military force or budgetary decisions. That`s not something that the president should abuse.

KORNACKI: It`s interesting, though, what you just said, though, climate change, gun violence.

Again, if the power is upheld, if it is upheld through the courts that Trump can declare this emergency, can move this money around, are there specific actions that you might then take as president when it comes to guns, when it comes to climate change, by invoking the same power?

CASTRO: Well, my hope would be that we can work together in January of 2021 and beyond.

First of all, I believe that, at 12:01 p.m. on January 20, 2021, we`re going to have a Democratic president, a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate.

And so I`m going to work with Congress to try and achieve legislation on climate change, on commonsense gun reform, on investing in things like universal pre-K and affordable housing.

However, if the president`s action in this case is upheld by the Supreme Court, then it does open up new avenues for future presidents to take action. And that`s why I think that you see both conservatives and progressives who have taken a step back and said, look, this might not be in the best interest, it`s not in the best interest for this president to go forward in this way.

It`s unfortunate that we have a president that can`t see past his own political base and is only concerned about getting reelected. He said that he wanted a wall, that he was going to get a wall. He hasn`t been able to do that with Congress. And so he`s going to pull out all the stops, whether they`re legal or not, to try and get that wall.

That`s not how the presidency or a democracy should work.

KORNACKI: I want to ask you, too.

We talk about, on this issue of immigration, the attack you`re hearing from Trump and Republicans is to say the Democratic position on this is extreme, it`s moved to the left, it`s a move toward an open borders direction.

It`s a broader line of attack I think you`re hearing from Trump, from his supporters, that I think you`re probably going to hear in 2020, the idea the Democratic Party is moving quickly the left, is moving out of the mainstream.

There`s one position you took in the last couple of days that is getting some conversation, some of the other candidates as well have taken, that I was interested in. It was on this question of reparations, reparations, payments, to black Americans with a family legacy that can be traced back to slavery.

You said the country would be better off if it found a way to do that. And that`s one of those -- it`s not an issue that really has gotten a lot of sort of mainstream discussion. The most recent poll I could find on it, I think, was about two or three years -- two or three years old. It showed two-thirds of Americans oppose that idea.

There, we can put it up on the screen; 68 percent were against reparations payments.

I wonder if you could just talk a little bit more about what it is you would do as president when it came to that, and if you are worried that that sends a message to that 68 percent of Americans who say they`re against it, that maybe you are out of the mainstream a little.

CASTRO: Well, you know, this is not something that I think of through a political lens.

It -- I have long believed that this country should resolve its original sin of slavery, and that one of the ways we should consider doing that is through reparations for people who are the descendants of slaves.

It is interesting to me that, under our Constitution and otherwise, that we compensate people if we take their property. Shouldn`t we compensate people if they were property, sanctioned by the state?

So I believe that that is a conversation that`s worth having. And I see that as right and wrong. I don`t see that as political or nonpolitical. So, if I`m president, what I said was that I would establish a task force to look at how that might be done.

I know that there`s a lot of disagreement, both about whether it should be done and, if it were done, how it would be done. And I`m not naive about that. But I do think that that dark clouds still hangs over our country.

I believe that we ought to move forward in the 21st century as one nation with one destiny, and that, until that issue is resolved, until that original sin is addressed, we may think that we`re moving forward as one nation, and I don`t think that we ever really will.

KORNACKI: All right, Julian Castro, Democratic candidate for president, thanks for taking a few minutes.

CASTRO: Thank you, Steve.

KORNACKI: All right.

And up next, I`m going to head over to the Big Board, taking a look at President Trump`s approval rating as he gears up to run for reelection. There`s been a little bit of movement there. We will tell you about that after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KORNACKI: All right, welcome back to HARDBALL.

Well, we`re talking -- we just talked to one of the Democratic candidates for president. All sorts of different Democrats out there trying to get that nomination.

One of the reasons there are so many Democrats running for president is that Donald Trump has certainly looked politically vulnerable pretty much since the moment he won election, very narrowly won election, a little more than two years ago.

So how, as this Democratic race starts to take shape, how is the president looking politically as he gears up to face one of those Democrats? We can show you, it`s interesting -- interesting here.

RealClearPolitics, they`re one of those folks, they do -- they average all the polls that are out there together, give you a kind of a running polling average. Donald Trump`s approval rating, his average approval rating, this is actually up a few ticks, up a few points since the government shutdown.

He sitting at 44.1 percent now today in RealClearPolitics` average. Now, that is not a great number. But you can see this little bottoming out point here recently, this was the government shutdown. You heard all the stories about Trump`s numbers suddenly falling, collapsing. He ends up then sort of caving on the government shutdown.

And you see it`s kind of returned now to 44 percent. Now, 44 percent, by any historical standard, is not that great. But this is the pattern we have been seeing with Donald Trump. It seems like he has all these different crisis points in his presidency, all these moments when the numbers drop down into the 30s. Things seem to move on, quiet down a little bit, and then he bounces back into the low to mid-40s.

Look at this. His high point as president was 46 percent. That was basically his first week in office. His low point was about 37 percent. He hit that a couple times. His entire presidency, his approval rating has been in this very, very narrow band, high 30s, low to mid-40s. It`s back into the mid-40s right now.

Compare where he stands right now with his predecessors at this same point, you can see, there were two who were lower, Reagan and Carter. Reagan actually won reelection. The Trump people would like to think of that as a model.

The two Bushes, of course, there were wars going on pretty much at this point in their presidency. But here`s the big difference between Trump and all of these predecessors, all of these modern predecessors.

Carter, Reagan, Obama, Clinton, Bush, both Bushes, all of them at some point by now had been here or higher in their approval rating, even briefly. They had shown the ability at some point as president to reach across that divide and get well over a majority of the country to be behind them. It was brief in some cases, but they all did it at some point. Trump has never done it.

What it tells me is, you look at all these past presidents, you look at the different paths they took, some of them to reelection, some of them to losing, Trump is still operating in the same political atmosphere he`s been since he became a candidate for president.

Those numbers -- you saw his approval rating. That`s what his numbers looked like throughout the campaign in 2016. If he`s going to win reelection in 2020, he`s not reinventing the wheel here. He would have to do pretty much, it looks like, exactly what he did in 2016, very, very narrow margin, just the right states, all of that winning with historically pretty low numbers.

He did it once. Looks like he`s going to have to do it twice, if he`s going to get reelected, and not join one of those Bushes and Jimmy Carter as one-termers.

Up next: International diplomacy is a complicated business. So, how was President Trump preparing for that second meeting with North Korea`s leader? Lashing out at Spike Lee.

That`s coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

President Trump is currently on a 21-hour flight to Vietnam, but before he left Washington this morning, he gave his Twitter followers a preview of what`s on his mind ahead of that big summit with Kim Jong-un. President Trump tweeting out, former Senator Harry Reid, he got thrown out, is working hard to put a good spin on his failed career. He led through lies and deception only to be replaced by another beauty, Cryin` Chuck Schumer. Some things just never change.

That tweet came minutes after CNN aired an interview with the now retired Nevada Democrat in that interview Reid tells the network he has trouble accepting Trump as a person and that is not all he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HARRY REID (D-NV), FORMER U.S. SENATOR: In hindsight, I wish every day for a George Bush again. I think that he and I had our differences, but no one questioned his patriotism.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: And Reid isn`t the only person to rub the president the wrong way this morning. The president also lashing out at film director Spike Lee. Tweeting this: Be nice if Spike Lee could read his notes or better yet not have to use notes at all when doing his racist hit on your president who has done for more African-Americans, criminal justice reform, lowest unemployment numbers in history, tax cuts, et cetera, than almost any other president.

President Trump seemed to be reacting to Spike Lee`s acceptance speech during last night`s Oscars, a speech that made no direct mention of the president. So what did Spike Lee say that got under Trump`s skin? That`s coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

President Trump today accused film director Spike Lee of a racist hit. So what prompted that charge?

Well, last night, Lee won his first competitive Oscar for the screenplay of his film "BlacKkKlansman". It was his acceptance speech and apparently call to action that seemed to irk the president. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SPIKE LEE, FILM DIRECTOR: Before the world tonight, I give praise to ancestors who helped build this country into what it was today, along with the genocide of its native people. We all connect with our ancestors, we will have love and wisdom, regain -- we will regain our humanity. It will be a powerful moment. The 2020 presidential election is around the corner.

(APPLAUSE)

Let`s all mobilize. Let`s all be on the right side of history. Make the moral choice between love versus hate. Let`s do the right thing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: And that is what seemed to set the president off.

For more, I`m joined by Karine Jean-Pierre, senior adviser with MoveOn.org, and John Podhoretz, editor at "Commentary Magazine".

And what I try to figure out, Karine, with Trump and this situations is, is he just in a moment of frustration or whatever you want to call it, lashing out, or is there some calculation or strategy behind the decision to go after Spike Lee the way he did today?

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, MOVEON.ORG SENIOR ADVISOR: Yes, my theory is the chaos, right? Donald Trump likes to lead by chaos. And I think with him he uses his Twitter feed for two things, to distract us, to make sure that we`re not talking about the things that he doesn`t want -- he doesn`t want us to be talking about, and also just to feed the red meat to his base. Those are the two ways he uses Twitter and he`s actually very effective with it, right? We`re talking about it right now.

Now, I`m not saying we should ignore what he says because some of it he does tweet policy by tweet and we see that with the transgender band and troops now dealing with what Trump did via tweet and changing that policy.

But Donald Trump -- we have to remember he just left. He`s going to go do the summit. He wants a good headline. He wants a win, so he is distracting us.

What are we going to talk about this week? We`re going to talk about Cohen. We`re going to talk about Mueller. We`re going to talk about his fake national emergency that the House is going to rebuke.

There`s a long list of things that he`s going to be away from the country that he does not want us to talk about. So I do think -- I mean, we have Harry Reid. You have Spike Lee, a lot of it is all connected. It is a distraction he does not want us to talk about because he`s so worried.

KORNACKI: What did you make of it? I mean, in isolation, the president of the United States going on Twitter and saying this would be shocking but it is par for the course.

JOHN PODHORETZ, EDITOR, COMMENTARY MAGAZINE: I mean, it`s baffling to me because for him, for him Spike Lee was astonishingly restrained in fact. Did not mention Trump by name. Most of his tweets was as about sort of 400 years of oppression, and had very -- and then he said, vote in 2020, let`s mobilize. It wasn`t racist. He didn`t say anything racist about white people or Trump or anything like that.

So I think it was actually like a failed hit. If I were he, I would have gone, you know, being him, I would have gone after the repeated mentions of, you know, Mexico and the wall and how Mexico was better than everybody else and all of that. That would have been the red meat I would have thought he would have thrown, but maybe he wasn`t that much of the show.

Talking in Spanish and, you know, Mexicans are winning all the awards. I mean, I don`t know. It struck me as weird and as a failure, a rare failure because I think a lot of the base will scratch their heads and say, what, what? I don`t know.

KORNACKI: It seems too just talking in the last segment, the approval rating is stuck between 37 and 46, which was his honeymoon. That was his first week as president, really, 37 and about 44, at about the limit of it and this does seem like the kind of behavior that we see all the other past presidents at some point have got to 55, 60 percent at least.

When you`re doing this, you`re not going to get to 60 percent in the polls.

JEAN-PIERRE: Right. And the thing about him is, first of all, all those numbers are historically low for any president which is astonishing on its own.

But we have to remember, Spike Lee is from Hollywood. Donald Trump sees himself from that world as a TV reality star. You have people like Spike Lee, you know, basically saying, hey, don`t forget to go out and vote. Use your moral authority. It`s really important.

And he took that -- Donald Trump took that personally because it plays into his ego, into that reality TV star, that Hollywood that he thinks he belongs to. So I think it was also probably a personal -- he felt it as a personal dig and, you know, it wasn`t just Spike Lee. No one mentioned him but there was digs there last night about what`s going on at 1600 Pennsylvania.

KORNACKI: The other -- we mentioned too in the last segment, the other person Trump lashing out at, Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader. Harry Reid is now out of politics. Harry Reid facing some health challenges. Harry Reid is speaking very bluntly about Donald Trump.

What did you make of the president deciding to go in that direction?

PODHORETZ: Again, it struck me as weird. Harry Reid is out of politics. He gives one interview. He hasn`t been in politics since 2016. He`s very sick.

So he says he doesn`t like Trump. Every Democrat says he doesn`t like Trump. I don`t understand why he wants to pick a fight with a sick old guy with no power.

So, it doesn`t -- even if he gets -- just they watched it and annoyed him so he tweets and I think actually that given what he wants to do if he wants to sow chasms and all that, not to give him advice, but he needs to be a little more strategic about this like plan -- time your hits. Do them in the right way. This is, as I think you said, going to be a pretty bad week unless something miraculous comes out of the summit in Vietnam, it`s not going to be a good week for him.

He would be better -- and, by the way, the last couple of weeks, one reason his polls have gone up, he`s been relatively quiet and most of the news --

KORNACKI: That`s when -- yes.

PODHORETZ: -- focused on Democrats getting into the race and I think making some mistakes.

KORNACKI: That`s one of those elements too. Things quiet down a little bit.

JEAN-PIERRE: And the government opened up again. I think that`s part of it too. And, look, he has Cohen on his mind. I mean, Cohen is going to be talking about his business -- the thing that he had said was a red line for Mueller.

Now, Cohen is going to be in public talking about --

KORNACKI: On Wednesday. So, we will see too how Trump -- whatever he said there. Karine Jean-Pierre and John Podhoretz, thank you for joining us.

Up next, we could be looking at a showdown between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in New Hampshire. An elimination contest? We`re back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: Welcome back.

When it comes to races for president, the role of the first primary states is basically to winnow the field. History says you don`t have to win Iowa or New Hampshire to get the nomination, but you at least have to show something. In 2020, Democrats are going to have a very crowded field and so there`s going to be a lot of winnowing for those early primary voters to do.

In particular, I`m already thinking ahead to New Hampshire and to what could be a critical test there. There are two Democratic candidates right now from states that border New Hampshire. Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders from Vermont, and candidates from neighboring states have a very good track record in New Hampshire primaries. Basically, they usually win and they almost always finish no worse than second.

In other words, both Sanders and Warren will have a hard time coming up with a good excuse if they fall flat in the Granite State. And now, there is a new poll from New Hampshire, from Emerson, this weekend, just after Sanders joined Warren in saying he`s running.

It has Sanders in first with 27 percent. Remember, he won New Hampshire big in 2016. He`s followed in this poll by Joe Biden, then Kamala Harris, then in fourth with 9 percent, Warren. It`s also not the first New Hampshire poll to show a result like this. UMass poll two weeks also had Warren at 9 percent.

Think of the overlap between Sanders` message and Warren, now add in that geographic overlap, both neighboring state senators already very well known in New Hampshire, and factor in the winnowing effect of New Hampshire. This could be what amounts to an elimination contest between the two. The pressure will be extra high on both of them.

Sanders is starting out with a pretty big leg up. We will see if Warren can reverse that are or if she will end up ruing the day that Bernie Sanders decided to run again.

That`s HARDBALL for now.

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.

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