ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST: Happy birthday. That`s a nice way to end the week. Eleanor (ph) and Pete Rock, thank you both.
That does it for us. You can catch us Sunday night. I`m doing a live special, 9:00 P.M. Eastern through 11:00 on the democratic debates. The road to Miami with a lot of special guest, that`s this Sunday 9:00 P.M. Eastern live. So I hope you`ll join us.
But don`t go anywhere right now because "HARDBALL" is up next.
STEVE KORNACKI, MSNBC HOST: Hold your fire. Let`s play HARDBALL.
Good evening. I`m Steve Kornacki in for Chris Matthews. We are learning more tonight about those tense moments that could have escalated tensions with Iran even further with the President toggling between fiery rhetoric and the language of restraint.
This morning, President Trump Tweeted that the United States had, last night, been cocked and loaded for a strike against three targets in Iran. This in retaliation for Iran`s downing of a U.S. drone, but that he called it off just ten minutes before the scheduled attack after being told that 150 Iranians would be killed.
In an exclusive interview with NBC`s Chuck Todd, the President discussed his decision to call off the strike. Let`s watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHUCK TODD, MSNBC HOST: Were planes in the air?
DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT: They were about ready to go. No, but they would have been pretty soon. And things would have happened to a point where you wouldn`t turn back or couldn`t turn back.
So they came and they said, sir, we`re ready to go. We`d like a decision. I said I want to know something before you go. How many people will be killed? In this case, Iranians. I said how many people are going to be killed. Sir, I`d like get back to you on that. Great people, these generals. They said -- came back and said, sir, approximately 150.
And I thought about it for a second and I said, you know what, they shot down an unmanned drone, plane, whatever you want to call it, and here we are sitting with 150 dead people that would have taken place probably within a half-an-hour after I said go ahead. And I didn`t like it. I didn`t think it was -- I didn`t think it was proportionate.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KORNACKI: Now, it`s not clear why the President would receive details about the potential casualties with just ten minutes to spare. According to The New York Times, the President`s advisers were split with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton and CIA Director Gina Haspel in favor of the attack, while Pentagon officials, quote, cautioned that such an action could result in a spiraling escalation with risks for American forces in the region.
The New York Times also reported that the President was pleased with his decision to pull back because he liked the command of approving the strike but also the decisiveness of calling it off. Some of his conservative allies were not as pleased.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So at some point in the Middle East, no action looks like weakness. And weakness begets more attacks.
REP. LIZ CHENEY (R-WY): The failure to respond to this kind of direct provocation that we`ve seen now from the Iranians in particular over the last several weeks could, in fact, be a very serious mistake.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KORNACKI: And for more I`m joined by Jonathan Lemire, Associated Press White House Reporter, Hagar Chemali, former spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the U.N., Bret Stephens, New York Times Op-Ed Columnist, and Robert Malley, Senior Advisor to the White House for Iran Deal Negotiations.
Jon, let me start with you. The idea that the President`s concern in this in the end was the casualty count, and he finds out that number ten minutes before calling this thing off. Does that make sense that he would only be hearing about that number then?
JONATHAN LEMIRE, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, ASSOCIATED PRESS: No, that defies credibility. In fact, we -- in our reporting, you know, he was given hours earlier with a number of options. He was given like a rough estimate as to what the casualty count could be.
But it`s also not unexpected. It`s not unprecedented for any president, not just this one, to, right before giving the order, sort of ask again, to kind of double check to see if the situation had changed in the ground. Ad at that moment, he was told at about 150, and that was enough to give him pause.
This is a moment where for a president who has very little in the way of fixed ideology, this is something he`s been fairly consistent on. He seems very reluctant to use military force. Since he`s taken office, there`s a couple of air strikes in Syria, that had been about the extent of it. He was leery.
He`s been, in the recent weeks, has felt pushed a little bit into this conflict by National Security Advisor Bolton, in particular, to the point where, according to our reporting, he`s tuning him out a little bit. He`s tired of being sort of pushed into a corner by Bolton on Iran.
He did indeed, as The Times first reported, you know, sort of liked this idea of being decisive and sort of making the decision but then feeling like he made the right call to pull back. He doesn`t want to escalate tensions further, at least for now.
Although, let`s be clear, they didn`t order the strike last night. It`s not taken off the table. There`s something like this certainly could happen in the days or weeks ahead if tensions with Iran continue to rise.
KORNACKI: Yes. And, Bret, what does this tell you about the voices around the President, the influencers around the President? You talk about Bolton, for instance, you know, being an advocate, other folks cautioning him. Do you read this as the triumph of one group over another in terms of sort of getting to him with their perspective on this or was this more what Jon is alluding to here, this longer standing hesitation of the President maybe to be sucked into some sort of confrontation overseas?
BRET STEPHENS, COLUMNIST, THE NEW YORK TIMES, : I think what you`re seeing is an indecisive president who likes to speak loudly and carry a small stick. Look, the President had two perfectly credible options before him. One of them would have been a short, punitive strike to take out the kind of anti- -- the SAM batteries, the anti -- the missile batteries that took out our planes in a clear signal to the Iranians, we are not going to tolerate having our assets knocked out from the skies over international waters. That`s unacceptable. Other option also equally credible is do nothing, we`ll continue to apply economic sanctions. We`re not going to be lured into a cycle of confrontation that the Iranians may want.
What he`s now essentially done is advertise to the Iranians that he`s a Twitter tiger, that he likes to make loud threats but that he`s not going to carry through on them. So it`s an invitation to an Iranian leadership that is a very good student of the weakness of its enemies, how far they can push. And I think they`re going to continue to push farther.
KORNACKI: Does that sound right to you, Hagar? Do you think the leaders in Iran that that`s how they interpret this? And if so, what does that mean in terms of what they do now?
HAGAR CHEMALI, FORMER SPOKESPERSON FOR U.S. MISSION TO THE U.N.: Well, absolutely. Bret and I were talking about this earlier actually that in face of an adversary like Iran, they`re listening very carefully. And they understand most importantly the language of force. And that`s the case, by the way, for a lot of leaders in the region.
So he ended up, President Trump, with the worst of both worlds, because if he had just responded with sanctions, it may have been too weak. If he had issued an air strike, it`s risky business, right? I mean, Iran has a strong presence across the region, they fund armed trained militias and terrorist organizations in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, next to where we have U.S. assets, U.S. troops. I mean, it`s a very risky business. Where we ended up was the worst of both worlds.
So now, we`ve ended in this situation where everyone is wondering the next steps. The United States has called for a Security Council meeting on Monday, which probably means they`re calling for greater attention to the issue. Maybe they`ll try and follow up with a resolution. But my guess right now is that they`re trying to rally the troops.
KORNACKI: Yes. But if Iran -- is Iran emboldened in a situation like this? If they are, what would that mean? What would that look like to us?
CHEMALI: It`s both. Listen, they may be emboldened on the fact that they are thinking that President Trump is bluffing, that if he ever says again, oh, I`m going to use military force, they may not believe it.
On the other hand, the economic sanctions are really having a significant effect, even without Europe on board. And that`s because nobody, no international business wants to get in the crosshairs of U.S. sanctions. And so that will likely bring Iran to its knees again. It feels like 2011 all over again.
KORNACKI: All right. Well, Robert, you were quoted in The New York Times saying, quote, in some ways, President Trump is on a collision course with himself. He says he`s in favor of maximum pressure and he`s against military confrontation when it comes to Iran, but both of those things can`t be true because one of those things can lead to the other. So what should he do now?
ROBERT MALLEY, FORMER SENIOR OBAMA ADVISOR FOR IRAN DEAL NEGOTIATIONS: Well, first, I mean, I think we`re missing a bit the broader context here. What happened yesterday was just the result of the policies that the Trump administration has been pursuing since he was -- since he`s been in office, which is this policy of maximum pressure, violating the Iran nuclear deal, trying to bring Iran to its knees, that has succeeded to bring Iran to its knees but has not succeeded in the goals that the administration has said it was pursuing, which is to get a better nuclear deal and to restrain Iran`s policies. In fact, it`s produced the exact opposite.
And when I say that the Trump -- President Trump is on a collision course with himself is because I`m convinced he doesn`t want to war, but the policies he has been pursuing are leading there because Iran will react if it`s under pressure and it`s reacting exactly in the way that people had predicted by upping the pressure in the region and by taking steps now to walk away from the nuclear deal.
What`s needed is a change of course. A change of course, meaning getting back to diplomacy and offering Iran a realistic way out as opposed to what has been taking place so far, which is pressure, telling them to surrender, and when they react, then President Trump is confronted with this difficult dilemma. Does he strike, which goes against his instincts, or does he take a step back, which obviously some people are upset about, but which in the end, I would say, was the better of the two decisions.
KORNACKI: But just given I know you helped put the Iran deal together. You don`t think the administration has made a good decision there. We are where we are. When you have this downed drone, you`re saying it`s better not to do the attack. What should, short of getting back in the Iran deal, which it seems like this administration is not inclined to do, again, whether you like that or not, what should the course be then?
MALLEY: Well, so -- I mean, we are where we are. We shouldn`t be here and we`re here in time. This is a completely manufactured crisis because of the Trump administration`s policies. But if we are where we are now, what needs to be done is a diplomatic track where the administration says we`re prepared to talk to Iran but not on the basis of the 12 demands that Secretary Pompeo made, which basically amount to capitulation, but a fair negotiation or a fair diplomatic engagement where the U.S. is prepared to step back some of its pressure and Iran would have to take some reciprocal steps of its own.
I`m not sure if I expect that from the administration either but it would be a far wiser course than upping the ante, putting more sanctions, pressuring Iran more, and then when Iran reacts, being faced with the kind of dilemma that President Trump was faced with last night.
KORNACKI: Jon, do you have any sense that folks in the administration, how they are processing this? Was this -- did this catch people flat-footed? Response from, you know, folks who were advocating for it, potentially, were they surprised and how are they handling it today? How are they reacting to it?
LEMIRE: I mean, I think they were speaking at least to reporters publicly with one voice, saying that they presented the options to the President, they support his decision. But there was a split in the administration. And as outlined before, Bolton was certainly the strongest voice for the attack. Pompeo was advocating it too but a little more circumspect. Vice President Pence sort of suggested he would go along with whatever President Trump wanted. And Department of Defense officials had said, cautionary what could happen next.
I think it will be interesting to see what happens now in terms, particularly, with Bolton`s influence. As I was saying earlier, it is not just about Iran, it was previously Venezuela as well, where the President has felt like Bolton has steered him with some bad advice.
And I think there is some frustration growing on Bolton`s team that he is not being listened to and I think the President is sort of tired of some of Bolton`s advocacy for more -- the military options. And, in fact, as we`ve reported this week, Trump, he didn`t just limit his circle of calls looking for advice from Bolton and Pompeo and Pence, he spoke to Tucker Carlson, the Fox News Host, who has been very much against sort of waging any sort of strike with Iran.
So I think Bolton`s fate here in the wake of this, particularly if there isn`t any sort of action here in the coming days, will be very interesting for the next stage of the Trump presidency and his foreign policy.
KORNACKI: It is interesting too, Bret, when you look at what Trump campaigned on. Jon mentions Tucker Carlson. One of Tucker Carlson`s signature issues on foreign policy is that non-interventionism in a lot of ways. You had Trump break with a decade of republican orthodoxy, say the Iraq War was a mistake, he said it was a stupid decision. Outside Iran poll (ph), you didn`t have republicans before Trump say that. It seems like you`ve got this impulse on one side to be that president with this impulse to be -- and remember, it was bomb the hell out of ISIS too, to be that president as well.
STEPHENS: Look, but there`s a way of achieving a kind of policy coherence there and what you have instead is a kind of narcissistic schizophrenia. Ronald Reagan was reluctant to use military force. But when he did use it, whether it was over the Gulf of Sidra in 1981, in Grenada in 1983, or against the Iranians in 1988, it tended to be -- he made a few mistakes but intended to be short-lived but decisive. It had an effect.
This is almost like a parody of what republicans would accuse, say, Jimmy Carter, of doing, like going right up until the edge and then pulling back in a show of weakness. You know, what we should be doing is having a campaign of steady pressure against Iran. I don`t think it necessarily required military steps but it could require changing the rules of engagement, signaling to the Iranians that they were pushing forward for the sake of a new nuclear negotiation that would have yielded a better result for us and for the rest of the world than the last one did. Most people agree the last nuclear deal had real flaws, including the Sunset provisions.
What he`s basically told the Iranians is that he`s going to play the same game he played with North Korea talking about fire and fury and the next thing is sort of meeting with Kim Jong-un and kissing up to him. I think that`s the play they Iranians are looking for.
KORNACKI: All right. Bret Stephens, Jon Lemire, Hagar Chemali, Robert Malley, thank you all for joining us.
And coming up, democrats promised tom quote, bring the Mueller report to life. Yet, once again, a key witness today failed to appear, this after promising he would answer every question without exception. Those were his words.
Plus, why House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler says the very limited testimony from Hope Hicks played right into our hands, he says.
And it is a big weekend for democratic presidential candidates as they descend on South Carolina, this just days ahead of their first major debate. Will Joe Biden`s remarks about segregationist senators be a problem for him in that critical early primary state? Much more ahead, stay with us.
KORNACKI: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
Another witness in the congressional investigations of the President failed to appear for a closed door session with the House Intelligence Committee today. Felix Sater, a Russian-born Trump business associate, stood up the committee after agreeing voluntarily to be interviewed. His absence was surprising since The Washington Post reported yesterday that Sater said he would, quote, answer every question without exception.
Now, the committee says it intends to subpoena him to compel his testimony. In a statement, Sater`s lawyer says, quote, due to unexpected health reasons, Mr. Sater was unable to voluntary appear, but added that, quote, today`s decision to issue a subpoena was entirely unnecessary.
According to Politico, quote, Sater said he feeling ill and slept through his alarm on Friday morning causing him to miss his scheduled. Sater is best known for his role in the so-called Moscow project, working alongside Michael Cohen to develop a Trump Tower in Russia on behalf of Trump during the 2016 campaign.
According to the Mueller report, the terms of that proposed deal were highly lucrative for the Trump organization.
I`m joined now by Elliot Williams, a former Deputy Assistant Attorney General, and Betsy Woodruff, Politics Reporter at The Daily Beast.
Betsy, let me start with you. Sater is interesting here because there`s the promise to appear voluntarily to answer any question, there`s the fact that he`s been cooperative in the past. So you don`t look at this on the surface and say there`s a reason for him to suddenly stand this committee up. But the excuse there, I slept through my alarm clock, I think, strikes a lot of people as a little fishy.
BETSY WOODRUFF, POLITICS REPORTER, THE DAILY BEAST: Fishy, but also perhaps a bit relatable as a member of the every once in a while sleeping through their alarm clock community. At the same time, of course, this would have been a really important moment for the House Intelligence Committee`s reborn investigation of potential interaction between Russian nationals and the Trump campaign during 2016.
And the fact that they decided to subpoena Sater is evidence of a deep level of frustration among the committee members that for whatever reason he didn`t end up showing up. Remember, Sater has already testified to multiple congressional committees. Unlike many denizens of Trump world, he`s been pretty open thus far about talking about the work that he did to try to organize this real estate project for Trump in Moscow during the campaign.
The fact that that cooperation didn`t work out this morning the way that the members of the House Intel had hoped it did is clearly something that deeply frustrates them. At the same time, another weird little hiccup here is the fact that, initially, there were -- the committee indicated that Sater would testify publicly, which would have been a huge deal.
But now it got walked back behind closed doors, and even that testimony didn`t happen. It`s a very quirky situation.
KORNACKI: So, Elliot, if this does get worked out -- again, whether it`s through the subpoena, or, again, his lawyer insisting there`s nothing for the committee to worry about, he still intends to cooperate here -- if the committee does get to hear from him, what could they learn?
ELLIOT WILLIAMS, FORMER DEPUTY U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, a few things.
First, there was the interactions he had with the Soviet general regarding the Trump Tower Moscow deal that does not appear in the Mueller report. So much appears in the Mueller report both publicly -- and I can see that there`s a lot that we haven`t seen that`s redacted.
But something like this is a valuable nugget that might come out. In addition, there were interactions between him and Michael Cohen that I don`t believe appeared in the Mueller report, and he can provide more color on that.
So there`s more to be gotten from him. The problem is that simply by blowing off the meeting as if it were a meeting at the DMV, he hasn`t endeared himself to the folks who are investigating him -- or the folks that would be interviewing him.
And so, yes, we could get closer to a public hearing. He loses his leverage to call for or request a private meeting with staff. And maybe this turns into a public hearing. Or -- and, if not, at least people who are going to be more skeptical of the things that he has to say because he`s sort of -- he`s clearly, for lack of a better term, blown off a meeting in front of Congress, which, again, is an odd thing to happen.
You don`t really see that kind of conduct, frankly, in white-collar cases, which is what this is. Having been a prosecutor before, maybe -- when you deal with drug dealers and so on, yes, they`re out partying the night before, and they sleep through their alarm, and you`re sitting there at the police house waiting for them.
But this was a little bit odd, given the nature and the severity and the seriousness of it. And, to some extent, it speaks to how seriously folks take Congress and are willing to blow Congress off. And we`re seeing it across the administration and its friends` reactions to the Mueller report and investigations into it.
No, and, again, I mean, it certainly can happen. I have slept through alarm clocks before. And, as we said, he has been cooperative before. So I don`t mean to sound like a conspiracy theorist here, but I`m just trying to convey I think a lot of people`s initial reaction to that is, really, on this day of all days, that`s the day that happens?
KORNACKI: So, OK, be that as it may, the House Judiciary Committee revealed yesterday that, during Hope Hicks` testimony, Trump administration lawyers intervened over 150 times to stop her from answering questions, citing immunity.
Seeking to challenge that claim in a lawsuit, Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler told Politico the administration`s objections -- quote -- "very much played into our hands" and that -- quote -- "The Hicks interview was very useful to give us the record that we can show the judge how extreme it really is."
And, Elliot, let me just stay on you with this one. Nadler is saying that he got something significant from this Hicks testimony yesterday. Is he overselling? Or is that -- is that actually the case here?
WILLIAMS: He got something significant as a matter of litigation strategy. I don`t think he got something significant in terms of selling all of this to the public, because nobody sees it and nobody saw it.
As a matter of litigation strategy, the argument that the House will be making in the courts is that the president and the administration are stymieing and blocking and, frankly, stonewalling any attempts to investigate.
So, for instance, of the 155 things that Hope Hicks didn`t answer, one question was, where is your desk in the White House? And she was only left to answer questions about like what the weather was on her first day. She really didn`t provide much and sort of blocked answers to even basic questions.
If the argument from the House Judiciary Committee is, across the administration`s relationship with Congress and with this committee, they simply are not respecting us as an investigative, as a co-equal branch of government, this does strengthen that.
But, again, Steve, this is an exercise in selling the public, as much as it`s winning in court. You have to get the public behind what you`re doing either for oversight or an impeachment proceeding. And it just doesn`t -- this is all happening in secret. And I think, to that extent, Nadler doesn`t win.
And, Betsy, I think you were alluding to this before, though. The Democrats have been talking for the last month. We said there at the top of the segment here this idea of bringing the Mueller report to life, using these -- these hearings to break through to a public that so far seems -- a pretty strong partisan divide on these things.
Is there -- is there mounting frustration there among Democrats that they maybe feel they`re not succeeding in that goal right now?
WOODRUFF: Oh, there`s acute frustration, which has been the case for months now.
One of the challenges that Democrats face is that part of the reason they were able to flip the House in 2018 is because they argued they would be able to do robust oversight of the Trump administration.
But, thus far, the House Democratic Caucus, speaking quite broadly, is logged on effort, but pretty short on deliverables, with the exception of Chairman Elijah Cummings ` investigation into efforts to share civil nuclear technology with the government of Saudi Arabia.
There`s not a lot of brand-new information out of the Trump administration that we, the American public, have, because of the way that congressional Democrats have done oversight. And some of that, without question, is because of the obstruction efforts the Trump administration has engaged in.
Trump himself, of course, said, we`re going to stiff-arm every single congressional subpoena and document request. And that`s something that drives Democrats nuts. They feel they have a constitutional obligation to get information out of this administration.
Part of the reason that the Hope Hicks testimony is legally important is that it gives Nadler standing in court. He can now challenge this idea that presidents of different parties have argued called immunity, the notion that the president`s close advisers don`t have to tell anything about their work for the president to Congress.
Nadler can now say, the House of Representatives has been wronged by the executive branch, making this argument. And he now is able to try to force or demand a judge to make a call on the field. Can the executive branch argue that executive -- that senior White House officials are immune from congressional scrutiny?
That`s important, not just for understanding the Trump administration, but for understanding the way the American government works, and it`s going to be absolutely fascinating.
KORNACKI: All right, Betsy Woodruff, Elliot Williams, thank you both for taking a few minutes. Appreciate that.
And up next, we know Joe Biden`s running in first place nationally right now. There are two groups, there are two groups of voters that have a lot to do with the lead he has in the Democratic race. I`m going to take you through who they are at the Big Board. That`s after this.
And, also, his -- the controversy this week, will it dent his support?
HARDBALL back after this.
KORNACKI: All right, well, all eyes are on South Carolina for the 2020 presidential race, starting tonight, going through the weekend. Just about every Democratic candidate is going to be there.
And, of course, why South Carolina? Why so much attention? Well, it`s one of the early primary states, one of those stand-alone early contests. You got to do well there, win it, at least do well enough to keep going. Otherwise, you`re going to get winnowed out.
So we know why South Carolina is important in terms of the calendar. But it`s also important because of demographics. This is one of the reasons it`s an early and important state.
Look at the demographics of these early states. Iowa. This is from the 2016 exit polls. In the Democratic primary, a caucus in 2016, 91 percent of the Iowa electorate was white. Then they go to New Hampshire; 93 percent in New Hampshire is white. They went on to Nevada caucuses out there. You see 27 percent other. That`s largely Hispanic.
And then you get to South Carolina. And look at that, in 2016, more than 60 percent of the Democratic primary electorate there in South Carolina was African-American, black voters critical in South Carolina, black voters critical to this early test for presidential candidates.
And that takes us to one of the reasons that Joe Biden`s the Democratic front-runner right now. Let`s show you this. This is South Carolina. Joe Biden leads that state right now overwhelmingly. It is his strongest early state. And that has a lot to do with the strong black support he is getting so far.
Here`s a breakdown from a national poll here. Among white voters, Biden is in first place. This is the Morning Consult national poll. Biden is in first place among white voters in this poll. But, look, he`s doing almost 10 points better among black voters than he is among white voters.
And we have been seeing this in poll after poll. So, Biden has come into this race. Let`s see if this lasts. That`s the key question, especially in light of the controversy we have been talking about this week. But can Biden maintain that support or something approximating that throughout this campaign? Can black voters be a big source of strength for the former vice president?
Then there`s this: age. We have been talking about how, overall, Biden`s been doing better with voters over 45 than under 45. And this is very true among black voters as well. Look at this. Black voters under 30 years old, Biden is sitting there at 30 percent right now. Sanders is right behind him at 27 percent in this poll.
So he`s 30 percent with the youngest group of black voters. Then you move 30 to 44. His support ticks up to 35 percent. Let`s go to the next group, 45 to 54. There`s a big jump. That 45-year-old cutoff line, 50 percent support for the former vice president.
Let`s go 55 to 64. Now he`s up to 60 percent. And now let`s go to the oldest group in the electorate, 65-plus. African-American Democratic voters over 65 years old, Joe Biden sitting there at 64 percent right now.
So, African-American voters, older voters, older African-American voters, major source of strength for Joe Biden in the early going.
He`s in some controversy right now this week. It involves certainly his relationship with black voters. Interesting to keep in -- these numbers in mind as that plays out.
And up next, as we say, this weekend, the unofficial kickoff of the South Carolina primary season, Congressman Jim Clyburn`s World Famous Fish Fry. The Democratic candidates are being reeled in ahead of their first debate next week.
We`re going to talk about all of it and that Biden controversy next.
KORNACKI: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
We are just five days away from the first Democratic debate right here on MSNBC, NBC News, and Telemundo.
And, tonight, 22 Democratic presidential candidates are in the critical early primary state of South Carolina. They are there for Congressman Jim Clyburn`s World Famous Fish Fry.
Now, two candidates are going to be missing the event tonight, one, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, the other, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend. Buttigieg is skipping the event to attend a march in South Bend related to the fatal shooting of a black man by a white police officer last weekend.
Tonight is also the first time...
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Part of my job is to promote healing and to make sure that members of the community, especially the black community, who are concerned with whether they can trust the police, even as details are still coming out about the specific issue, making sure we demonstrate our commitment to transparency, to fairness, to justice, and to healing.
So, this evening is one of those moments when a city just needs its mayor. But I`m looking forward to returning to the campaign trail in South Carolina tomorrow.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KORNACKI: And tonight is also the first time former Vice President Joe Biden will attend a gathering with a large number of his rivals, including New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who sharply criticized Biden`s remarks touting his past working relationship with Southern segregationists in the Senate.
Biden called Booker on Wednesday night in an attempt to smooth things over. Booker discussed the call last night on "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, HOST, "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL": Did you feel better understood by him at the end of the conversation?
SEN. CORY BOOKER (D-NJ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Absolutely.
O`DONNELL: And did you come to a better understanding of his side of this experience?
BOOKER: I think I understood very well even before that conversation.
I understood where his intentions were. I understood where his heart was.
The fact is, though, it`s not about me or him. He said things that are hurtful and are harmful. I believe he should be apologizing to the American people and having this discussion with all of us.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KORNACKI: And, for more, I`m joined by NBC News political reporter Ali Vitali -- she`s in Columbia, South Carolina -- John Podhoretz, editor of "Commentary" magazine, and Mara Gay, "New York Times" editorial board member.
Ali, let me just start with you on the ground there.
Obviously, just about every Democratic candidate is going to be where you are. But all of the attention, I think, suddenly -- we just talked about the importance of black voters in particular in the South Carolina primary, a controversy on racial issues now coming right into this event, maybe an attempt there by Joe Biden to cool temperatures a bit last night.
But what are expectations there, in particular for Biden and for Booker and this controversy over the weekend?
ALI VITALI, NBC NEWS POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes, Steve, I mean, you can`t come to Jim Clyburn`s World Famous Fish Fry and not look at what Jim Clyburn himself is saying, because a lot of the voters who are showing up here are politically engaged Democrats, many of them part of that majority black electorate that we saw in 2016 pushing Democrats and energizing that Democratic base.
And when I caught up with Clyburn in D.C. a few days before coming down here, there were two points that he made that really stood out to me. First was that he talks about Joe Biden having deep roots in the state. And that`s how he explains that Joe Biden is sitting so nicely atop these polls.
And then, when I asked him why people like Kamala Harris and Cory Booker weren`t doing as well, what he told me there was, he gave an explanation for each of them, first that he feels that Booker is suffering from the shadow of Barack Obama, and then, on Kamala Harris` front, that she has what he called a tremendous vision, but that she hasn`t filled in the specifics.
He actually said to me at one point that he just assumed that Kamala Harris would be a solid candidate here because he thought that it was the year of the black woman.
And so Jim Clyburn, again, one of those figures who is so powerful in this state, that he has said he won`t endorse in this primary because of the impact that it could have. But, still, an event like this, when you have 20-plus candidates coming, they`re all coming to hear what he says, how he acts around these candidates. When he talks, people listen.
KORNACKI: Yes, interesting, too, there was an accusation this week from I think it was Bakari Sellers, who came out and said he thought that Jim Clyburn was actually secretly supporting -- or not so secretly -- Joe Biden in this thing, but, yes, Clyburn officially neutral.
But, Mara, I`m curious how you think -- I guess there`s a question of, do you think -- we just went through the numbers there, the support Biden`s getting in particular from black voters.
MARA GAY, EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Sure.
KORNACKI: And I`m trying to Cory Booker says, this is hurtful, he needs to apologize.
I saw John Lewis today, civil rights hero, congressman, says Biden doesn`t have to apologize.
KORNACKI: He completely understands.
How is this landing?
GAY: So, here`s what I think is going on.
Black voters, who I think we haven`t paid nearly enough attention to Black Americans in general, let alone what their voting patterns are -- in my experience, especially in New York, black voters are fairly conservative, not necessarily politically, but in terms of their trust in the political system.
They have been burned many times, for hundreds of years. So, for them, it`s a lot about who they know, who they trust, and not necessarily -- new candidates, like Cory Booker, who`s new to them, are not necessarily going to have as easy of a time breaking through as someone like Joe Biden.
Joe Biden is somebody who they associate with Barack Obama, who has a long history, obviously, with the black community at this point in the United States and the rest of the country.
I think Cory Booker and Kamala Harris have an issue where black voters don`t know them. And, until they get to know them, they may not trust them.
Let`s remember that it was the same issue for Barack Obama in 2008 in Iowa and elsewhere. I mean, black voters, when you initially polled them, they weren`t really sure about it. They were kind of leaning towards Clinton for a long time.
And so I think that the question for Kamala Harris and for Cory Booker is, do they have the time, do they have the money to actually get their message across and connect with black voters?
And I think the separate issue of whether Joe Biden`s comments were offensive, I mean, they were. They`re historically ignorant. I do think that his heart is in the right place. But that doesn`t mean that he doesn`t owe Americans an apology.
KORNACKI: I guess this gets to a bigger question too, just politically, John, in terms of, Biden has been telling Democrats he`s the most electable candidate.
Part of it, too, I think the message it sounds like he was maybe trying to deliver in this -- in this fund-raiser was maybe tied to that a little bit, this idea he can work with -- they weren`t Republicans, these segregationists, but work with folks he disagrees with.
It seems to be part of that message. But is that -- is that where -- is that the takeaway people are going to get from this?
JOHN PODHORETZ, EDITOR, "COMMENTARY": Well, we don`t know.
I mean, one of the interesting things is, we have now been through a half- a-year with Democrats, where Ralph Northam was photographed wearing a Klan outfit, and he`s still governor of Virginia. Would anybody have bet that that was going to happen?
Elizabeth Warren survived and apparently is now thriving after the disastrous launch with the 23andMe Native American DNA count problem. And Donald Trump shows there`s a whole theory here that what you do is, you put your head down, you don`t apologize, you don`t be -- you`re not contrite. You don`t act as though the world has caved, fallen in around your head and you`re just begging people for scraps.
You just barrel forward. And we will see. Like, next week, there will be polling that will show whether or not this incident had any effect on him. And I think there`s every reason to believe that it won`t.
KORNACKI: It`s interesting.
Booker is, I believe, not on the same stage as Biden. He`s in the first night next week.
KORNACKI: So there won`t be a direct confrontation between them.
But what John saying is interesting too. The -- we saw, when Biden got into -- sensed, I think, that he was in some political trouble with his own party on that Hyde Amendment question, the position changed literally overnight.
On this one, no -- almost a defiant, no, there won`t be an apology.
GAY: My theory about that is that you have folks like Clyburn covering for him.
And, listen, Biden is part of the Democratic establishment. So is Clyburn. And they have a long history. And I understand that. I mean, these are human beings. They`re not -- people don`t think about politicians as human beings, but they are.
And so, when you have folks like Clyburn and others telling Joe Biden that he`s in the clear, then that kind of makes sense.
Whether he will pay a political price for it or not, I`m not sure. I tend to agree with you about this, John. But I do think that there`s a larger principle at stake here.
And for many Democratic voters and many voters in general, I think they`re going to feel that way, too, which is that it`s OK to make mistakes. It`s OK to do things that we regret. The question for Joe Biden, and for everyone really is, can you learn from those mistakes?
And I think, unfortunately, in this -- in the past several days, Joe Biden hasn`t shown any real understanding or awareness of why his comments were historically inaccurate and offensive.
PODHORETZ: Can I just disagree?
I don`t think that it is good for a politician to look like he thinks he made a mistake and he can learn from it now. Joe Biden is 76 years old. He`s too old to learn anything or learn from his mistakes.
GAY: Well, maybe that`s a problem.
PODHORETZ: The only way that we will -- but, no -- well, it may well be.
But it may well -- the way you will know is if he doesn`t make a lot more mistakes like this. And that`s the ultimate question about Biden, which is, is what we have seen here the beginning of the logorrheic, garrulous, says too much, gets -- his tongue gets him into trouble Biden, who will be making blunders every three days and will prick holes in his support balloon, and the air will start to come out of it, or will he stop?
Now, you might -- that`s not to say that he will come out and say, I have learned, I know, I understand, I was insensitive.
But it will suggest political survival and a tightening of his own personal discipline. But I think his impulse, honest, really, not to...
KORNACKI: Well, that...
PODHORETZ: And he didn`t apologize about the Hyde Amendment. What he said was, he -- he figured out he had to flip.
And then he said, due to the extraordinary circumstances of the present moment, I have to change my position, because we`re all pro-choice, and we have to do everything we can to defend abortion rights against this Republican onslaught.
KORNACKI: Well, it`s...
PODHORETZ: No apologies.
KORNACKI: And interesting, too, I think, is, there was -- the last time Biden ran for president, which was 2008, he began his campaign by stepping into racial controversies, when he referred to Barack Obama as clean and articulate.
One effect I think that had indirectly was, it lowered the bar for his public performance from that point forward.
KORNACKI: And, if you remember, in 2007-2008, he ended up getting great reviews for his debate performances, enough that it rehabilitated his image during the campaign, and Obama ends up making him his running mate.
But Ali Vitali is there on the ground again in South Carolina.
Let me -- I`m just curious, Ali, too, just talking to folks down there, how are they processing this Biden thing?
VITALI: Look, I think that, again, you have a tuned-in group of voters who are looking at how this race is shaping up. And so they`re aware of Biden`s comments.
But when you hear that he has deep roots in this state -- and I think that your panel is absolutely right that they -- that they do see him through the lens of Barack Obama -- I think that there`s a little bit of forgiveness there.
Now, whether or not that lasts through an entire field of 19 other candidates who are going to consistently be going at him because he`s the front-runner, it`s always going to be easy for a lot of these candidates to throw shots at Joe Biden, because that`s what you do when you`re running behind someone.
And so, as we look towards the debates, it`s going to be interesting to see how many of these voters tune in and how many of them recognize that the field is really looking to chip some holes in the Joe Biden electability argument, this idea that there`s -- and I have heard this from several voters across several states now -- that there might be this inevitability of Joe Biden.
I think that every other candidate in this race is going to work really hard to not just erode that concept in the mind of voters, but to also publicly show why it`s wrong.
And I think that, as he keeps having these missteps, it only gives these candidates a more obvious opening for that.
PODHORETZ: But they`re not taking it.
I mean, this is striking.
KORNACKI: Well, let`s see what happens on that stage on Thursday, though.
But only Bill de Blasio has been going at Biden and saying: What is he doing? Why isn`t he apologizing? This is terrible.
Even Booker -- even the language that Booker and Harris and others have used is incredibly tentative...
PODHORETZ: ... about, oh, we don`t -- his heart isn`t ever...
KORNACKI: The question...
PODHORETZ: They`re not going for his jugular at all.
KORNACKI: The question, though, is if this debate becomes a turning point...
KORNACKI: ... the folks on stage with him, if they take direct shots.
And then the Biden campaign`s been sending out the message that, hey, they`re going to get more serious about getting him out there more frequently after the debate.
So, let`s see if that dynamic changes things too.
John Podhoretz, Mara Gay, Ali Vitali down there in Columbia, South Carolina, thanks to all of you.
And HARDBALL back after this.
KORNACKI: Tonight, the Democratic presidential candidates are in South Carolina.
They`re there, as we have been telling you, for Congressman Jim Clyburn`s big fish fry. Tomorrow, almost all of them are going to be speaking at the South Carolina Democratic Party Convention.
You can stay with MSNBC tomorrow for complete coverage of that event throughout the day. Senator Kamala Harris is going to join Joy Reid live on "AM JOY" at 10:00 Eastern.
And former Vice President Joe Biden joins Reverend Al Sharpton live on "POLITICS NATION" at 5:00 p.m. Eastern tomorrow right here on MSNBC.
And then, next week, the main event. We have been counting down to this one, the first Democratic debate. It takes place on Wednesday and Thursday night. Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Congressman Beto O`Rourke among the candidates debating that first night, Cory Booker as well.
And then, on Thursday, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg all on stage together.
You can watch the debates right here on MSNBC, NBC and Telemundo.
And up next: the two Joe Bidens, and one big dilemma for his campaign.
You`re watching HARDBALL.
KORNACKI: Well, don`t say he wasn`t warned.
The controversy Joe Biden brought on himself this week by reminiscing warmly about his work in the Senate decades ago with segregationists was something that Biden`s team saw coming and tried to stop.
According to NBC News -- quote -- "Biden`s team has long advised him not to discuss his relationships with former senators, including the segregationists, according to advisers."
But, as we saw this week, for all of those warnings, sometimes, the former vice president just can`t help himself. And this is the dilemma for Biden and for his campaign.
After next week`s debate, he`s going to be stepping out onto the campaign trail a lot more frequently. He`s going to be much more visible, and in many more situations where he could say something that sets off one of these controversies.
So if you`re the Biden campaign, what do you do? Well, the obvious answer is, you try to rein him in. You give him a script. You plead with him to stick to it. You try to minimize the risk for any unforced error. You can call that the prevent defense approach.
But there is a downside to that approach. And we have seen it. The Joe Biden who stands behind the podium, looks down at his speech and reads from it, that is a different Joe Biden. There is a notable lack of energy in his delivery. There`s no passion. There`s no punch.
He is 76 years old, and when he sticks to the script like that, he seems 76 years old.
And there`s a risk in that too.
The alternative, then, is to let Biden be Biden, the Biden who tosses the script aside, who walks away from the podium, who speaks his mind unfiltered. That`s the Joe Biden who got himself in trouble this week, but it`s also the Joe Biden that some people like.
He brims with energy. He stirs the crowd`s passion. He can be a very effective communicator.
And that has always been the reality with Joe Biden. He makes his share of gaffes, but he also makes his share of command performances. He went nowhere back in the 2008 primaries as a candidate, but, if you remember this, at debate after debate, he did steal the show.
Remember his line back then about Rudy Giuliani, a noun, a verb and 9/11? It was those debate performances that helped him land on Barack Obama`s ticket as the V.P.
That Joe Biden, the strong and effective communicator, is inextricably linked to the Joe Biden who talks his way into trouble. And, for his campaign, that`s a tough choice, because you can`t give up one without giving up the other.
That`s HARDBALL for now.
"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.
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