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President Trump visits the border wall. TRANSCRIPT: 9/19/19, Hardball w/ Chris Matthews.

Guests: Hakeem Jeffries, Denny Heck, Katrina Mulligan, Mieke Eoyang, EdwardMcMullin, Juanita Tolliver

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  Who`s that you`re talking to?  Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.

A troubling private conversation between President Trump and a foreign leader has rung such an alarm bell that the intelligence community`s internal watchdog calls it an urgent concern.

The Washington Post was the first to report that a whistleblower complaint filed over this summer involves President Trump`s communications with a foreign leader.  Their conversation included a promise that was regarded as so troubling that it prompted an official in the U.S. intelligence community to file a formal whistleblower complaint with the inspector general.

And now, the whistleblower`s complaint is the subject of a bitter public dispute between the Congress, which is entitled by law to see it, and the Director of National Intelligence, who`s withholding it.

And while the identity of the foreign leader is still unknown, NBC News today confirmed that the communication described in the complaint was a phone conversation.

NBC News is working a complete list of the president`s phone calls and has so far confirmed that he spoke with at least nine different world leaders during the relevant time period, including a call with Ukraine`s president on July 25th of this year and one with Vladimir Putin on the 31st.  The whistleblower complaint was filed on august 12th.

The inspector general of the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, deemed the whistleblower`s complaint credible and troubling enough to be considered a matter of urgent concern -- urgent concern is the phrase -- a legal threshold that requires notification of oversight committees on Capitol Hill.

However, acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire has refused to turn over the complaint to the appropriate congressional hearings.

After consoling with the Justice Department, Maguire`s office told Congress that the complaint involves confidential and potentially privileged communications.

And now, the chairman, Adam Schiff, of course, of the House Intelligence Committee, who issued a subpoena for the complaint on Friday, is crying foul.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA):  I believe that there is an effort to prevent this information getting to Congress.  And if the assertion is accurate that the Department of Justice has made and the DNI has affirmed that this involves a potentially privileged communication, then at one level or another, it likely involves either the president or people around him.


MATTHEWS:  Well, Schiff`s committee met today with Inspector Atkinson.  But while Atkinson wants to release the complaint to Congress, he is bound by orders of his superior not to.

I`m joined right now by U.S. Congressman Denny Heck of Washington State, who`s a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Ken Dilanian, Correspondent for NBC News, of course, and Katrina Mulligan has held senior positions in the DOJ, NSC and the Office of Director of National Intelligence itself.

Let me start with Ken, our guy.  This had to have reached a threshold, urgent concern.  What would that embody that would cause the inspector general`s office to get a hold of a complaint that reaches to the level of urgency and should, by law, be told to Congress immediately?

KEN DILANIAN, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  There`s actually a legal definition.  It`s supposed to involve intelligence activities and it`s extremely rare because there`s a lot of complaints that go into that office.  Very few of them are deemed urgent concerns.  And when he made that determination to the inspector general, that should have triggered a mandatory disclosure to Congress.  And he is saying this career DOJ person, that`s the inspector general, I wanted to turn this over and I was blocked in doing so by acting DNI Joe Maguire.

But what we learned tonight when some letters were released is that Maguire himself disagreed with the decision.  It was a DOJ ruling that said that there`s some privileged communications here.  And since we know it`s about the president, that`s understandable.  Their position, really, is that the president`s conversations with foreign leaders are not the business of Congress and particularly not the congressional intelligence committees.  And Adam Schiff is saying, how can that be the case?  If we have a whistleblower who is an intelligence officer who`s saying I saw something really inappropriate here, we`ve got to know about it.

And no one I`ve talked to has ever heard of this happening in the history of our country, a whistleblower filing complaint about the conduct of the president of the United States.

MATTHEWS:  Congressman, your reaction to this story because you`re being denied the actual fact of the complaint, but we know it`s in the hands of obviously of the whistleblower himself or herself.  We know it`s in the hands of the inspector general.  We know that the folks over at DOJ, William Barr, who is very loyal to the president, don`t want this out.  What do you guys in the Hill, you people?

REP. DENNY HECK (D-WA):  So Ken is right, no one has ever heard of this ever happening before because the simple truth of the matter, Chris, it has never happened before, not since adoption of the Whistleblower Protection Act.

Listen, we should remember that the intelligence community Whistleblower Protection Act is designed to keep America safer.  And if this president is allowed to stand, we will all be less safe.  It`s designed to ensure that a whistleblower can come forward when they discover credible evidence of an abuse, a serious or flagrant violation of the law with respect to intelligence activities and that they will not be retaliated against.

Now, of course, if the subject of this whistleblower complaint is allowed to quash it, that person is no longer incentivized to come forward with the truth.

And more over, frankly, it creates a perverse incentive perhaps for somebody, ala Edward Snowden, to bring forth through public channels and inappropriately information that may compromise methods and procedures.

America is less safer tonight if this president is allowed to stand, pure and simple.

MATTHEWS:  We`ll be back to you in a moment.

Katrina, let me ask you about this.  There`s talk of, according to our logs, the information we`ve been able to get at NBC News that he talked to Putin, he talked to President Zelensky of Ukraine.  Do we know whether this pardon involves partisan behavior by the president or what sort of intrigue is at work here?

KATRINA MULLIGAN, MANAGING DIRECTOR FOR NATIONAL SECURITY, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS:  So I think it`s important to remember that there`s a lot we still don`t know.

MATTHEWS:  We know there`s a promise involved here.

MULLIGAN:  We know there`s a promise involved but there`s a lot of information we don`t have and we should be cautious.  I mean, there are serious allegations here and they should be treated very seriously.

But there are a couple of things we know are not the case.  We know that this isn`t purely a difference of opinion pertaining to public policy because pursuant to the definition in the statute, that`s expressly excluded from being defined as an urgent concern.  So we know, as some have speculated, that the president has all the freedom in the world to make public policy, that cannot be what`s essentially at issue here.

MATTHEWS:  Well, the president today had an odd sort of would have, could have didn`t sort of attitude.  He didn`t deny it.  He actually said he wouldn`t have done it.  He would seem not to have done it.  It`s a strange kind of denial.  Trump today, he dismissed the whistleblower`s complaint, saying, it`s unthinkable that he would have been caught doing what the complaint describes.

Quote, catch this language, firstly, any time I speak on the phone to a foreign leader, I understand that there are may be many people listening from various U.S. agencies, not to mention those from the other country itself.  Knowing all this, is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while in such a potentially heavily populated call?  I would only do what is right anyway.

Okay, that`s fine.  That`s a weird kind of denial.  That`s not I didn`t do it, it`s I wouldn`t have done it.  And by the way, why if it`s not really dangerous, why is William Barr, who is a toadie of this president, why would he want to keep it secret?  Why does this president want to keep it secret?  Because a two-second call of William Barr would get this out and behind him.

DILANIAN:  He could declassify right now and we could all see it.

MATTHEWS:  It would be gone.  There would be no story here.

DILANIAN:  But we know that Donald Trump doesn`t necessarily know when he`s doing something inappropriate.  He gave away code word classified information to the Russian ambassador in the Oval Office that his aides later had to cleanup.  He`s been cavalier with intelligence right along.  So it`s completely credible that he would say something that he didn`t realize was improper and that a career official flagged.

And it`s not a disagreement.  It`s not even something the officials thought was stupid.  It`s something they thought compromises the national security of the United States.

MATTHEWS:  Congressman, that, I think, is the fact here -- two facts.  Actually, the fact that the whistleblower believed that this was a matter of urgent concern, number two, that the attorney general of the United States who serves this president rather well, I must say, in a negative way, he looks out for him and doesn`t want us to know about it.  That`s two levels of urgent concern, as far as I`m concerned.

HECK:  Well, in addition to that, Chris, he also said that there was credible evidence to establish this urgent concern.  So on every level, there is reason for concern, frankly.

MATTHEWS:  Well, in a letter sent to Chairman Schiff on Tuesday, Inspector General Michael Atkinson wrote, I have now determined that the acting Director of National Intelligence and I are at an impasse over this issue of releasing the complaint to Congress.  He emphasized that the subject matter involved in the complaint relates to one of the most significant and important of the DNI`s responsibilities to the American people, which of course would be national security.

Back to you, Ken.

DILANIAN:  That`s powerful language.  This is the inspector general who is appointed by Trump, confirmed by the Senate.  He`s a career Justice Department lawyer.  He`s totally neutral in this.  He`s one of the five people who knows what actually in this complaint.  And he`s saying it`s central to the mission of the top intelligence agency.  And the idea that Congress can`t have that information, a lot of people are going to have a problem with that.

MATTHEWS:  Well, I was thinking -- looking at this all day, this story popped in The Washington Post this morning, Katrina.  And I`m thinking top of the fold, that top of the fold, the very top of the newspaper today.  So a lot of editorial judgments in this too, but the best newspaper that covers the federal, which is The Washington Post.  They have -- they think this is huge.  The fact that the editors have decided to put it up there at the top, the fact that the inspector general thought it`s big enough to Congress, and he`s fighting his DNI, the head of the National Intelligence over this, the fact that William Barr is hiding this thing, there are a lot of alarm bells going off here.

MULLIGAN:  There are a lot of alarm bells going off here.  And I think it`s important to emphasize that the statute here doesn`t authorize the DNI or the acting DNI in this case to overturn the judgment of the ICIG, and that`s a serious concern.

The other thing I think is worth emphasizing here is that there hasn`t actually been a privilege claim asserted, to my knowledge.  There`s potential privilege claim.  But until it`s asserted, it`s not operative.  And I think, arguably, it puts the acting DNI in a pretty tough spot.

If I`m Joe Maguire tonight, I`m wondering if I can find a way out of this before testifying in open hearing next week.

MATTHEWS:  Congressman, what are you thinking about this?  Because I`m thinking Russia, I`m thinking Putin, I`m thinking the kind of conversation we all figure he has with Putin because he and Putin have a lot of history together, a lot of needs, a lot of -- what we all know, back and forth relationship, and the fact that it might involve a promise.

There`s also the Ukrainian president who might have information on who knows who, perhaps the Bidens.  Who knows?  I mean, we have lots of speculation today about this all around town that this may be a partisan move by the president uncovered by a career bureaucrat who said presidents shouldn`t be using intelligence, they shouldn`t be using communication with foreign leaders for partisan negative oppo.

HECK:  Three quick things, Chris.  First of all, who said what to whom matters, and it is important.  But I`m still going to maintain and assert that it is secondary to the willful (ph) violation of the intelligence community Whistleblower Protection Act, which keeps us all safe.

Secondly, we should not assume because we really do not know what this is.  We do not know what this is.  But we should not assume it was simply an act of the president sharing classified information with a foreign leader because he possesses the authority to declassify material.  Therefore, if it was him and we don`t know, it`s probably something else of a serious nature, of a flagrant nature.  That`s the law.

And thirdly, I think we just have to stop and pause here.  What Inspector General Michael Atkinson did is, frankly, a mini act befitting of inclusion in the profiles in courage.  It was very hard for him to stand up, write that letter and seek to uphold the law in the context of how this administration acts and it should be acknowledged as such.

Frankly, what I`m very, very worried about is that the character assassination is about to begin of this career public servant.

MATTHEWS:  It`s not going to start here, I can tell you, Congressman.

Thank you, U.S. Congressman Denny Heck of Washington State, a member of the Intelligence Committee of the House.  Ken Dilanian, as always we rely on you, sir.  And Katrina Mulligan, thank you for your expertise.

Coming up, the bombshell whistleblower report is the latest and perhaps the most serious potential example of Trump`s mishandling of sensitive national information.  So what can Congress or anyone else do about this mishandling?

Plus, Democrats are still waiting for Republicans to agree to anything, anything on gun control.  Despite the urgency of the situation, the president says he`s taking it slow until we forget about it, I guess.

Congressman Hakeem Jeffries is coming here.  He`s a member of the House Democratic Leadership.  He joins us soon tonight.

We`ve got much more to get to.  Stay with us.


MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

As the leader of the free world, President Trump has access, of course, to the country`s deepest and most guarded secrets.  And every morning, of course, he`s handed an intelligence briefing and updates him on various covert programs, surveillance, intelligence, current cyber attacks and new foreign secrets.  Well, the president is supposed to be the guardian of all that stuff, all those top secrets.

Traditionally, unauthorized disclosure of top secret information is seen as a serious breach of security causing exceptionally grave damage to our country.  It`s within that context, according to The Washington Post, that an individual once working in the staff of the White House National Security Council was so troubled by this president`s behavior that he or she felt compelled to blow the whistle on the leader of the free world.

President Trump brushed off those reports today by tweeting, is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say anything inappropriate with a foreign leader?  I think a lot of people would.  Trump`s handling of classified information has been a recurring source of concern to U.S. intelligence since the start of his administration.

In April of 2017, for example, Trump shared the location of two nuclear submarines to the president of the Philippines, a secret so guarded that it`s kept from Navy Command.  By the way, why do you think they`re submarines?  To keep them secret.

In May of 2017, The Washington Post reported that the president actually discussed classified information provided by a U.S. ally, I think it was Israel, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.  Oh, he tells them everything.

In July of 2017, The Washington Post reported that during a private meeting with Vladimir Putin, President Trump, quote, took the unusual step of confiscating and keeping his interpreter`s notes.  In other words, they were keeping notes of what he said and Putin said so he made sure to kill all that stuff.

In July 2019 -- actually, June, President Trump publicly opposed the CIA using informants against North Korea.

And just last month, the president tweeted a reportedly classified image of recent damage to an Iranian testing missile site.

For more I`m joined by Mieke Eoyang, Vice President for the National Security Program at Third Way, and Edward McMullin, a CIA operative and Executive Director of Stand Up Republic.

Mieke, what do you make about this?  We`ve been talking about it, but it seems to fit a pattern.  This president is not just sloppily but reckless with information, they could do damage to our forces overseas, could do damage to all kinds of our international relations.  He doesn`t seem to care about being careful.

MIEKE EOYANG, NATIONAL SECURITY PROGRAM VICE PRESIDENT, THIRD WAY:  Yes.  Not only does he not care, he doesn`t care if the people around him aren`t careful.  We went through this with the security clearances.  A number of people in his White House, they were recommended to not be suitable for holding classified information.

MATTHEWS:  Like Jared?

EOYANG:  Right.  And they got clearances anyway.  He just does not take the security of American information that is central for our national security seriously in the ways that we have come to expect presidents will do based on the entire history of America.

MATTHEWS:  Well, let`s talk about his use of foreign relationships.  What do you think about it?  I mean, Bibi Netanyahu has manipulated the hell out of this guy.  We all know Bibi maybe about to fall thanks to the democracy in Israel.  But the word is out that our people know that he`s been manipulated.  Tillerson, the former Secretary of State, wrote in his book that this president has been played by -- played is the term -- by Bibi.


Well, look, that`s one reason why I think whatever is happening here has got to be more than simply the president being a little loose with protecting national security secrets, intelligence secrets, because that`s been going on for some time. 

I think that`s sort of priced into the experience with President Trump, not only in the country broadly, but also inside the intelligence community.  That`s something they would try to manage internally. 

MATTHEWS:  Why is he closer to those guys?

He`s there with -- he`s there with Kislyak and Lavrov, chuckling like -- man, there`s nothing wrong with having fun, but he seems closer to them than he does with our intelligence community.

MCMULLIN:  Well, I think that`s exactly it, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  The Russians.

MCMULLIN:  There has to be with this, I think, some angle of personal interest. 

So some -- this intelligence whistle-blower, I think, had to see something in the president`s engagement with this -- with the foreign power or with foreign powers that was going beyond simply the president sharing too much. 

It had to be, I think, some action in which the president was acting to serve his own interests...

MATTHEWS:  Collusion.

MCMULLIN:  ... not the country.

Well, I would just say this, because you could imagine the president -- this whistle-blower apparently talked about a commitment or a promise to a foreign power. 

You could imagine an American president, for example, talking to Angela Merkel in Germany and saying, look, if you will -- if you will put in 2,000 more troops in Afghanistan, we will help you on this initiative at the U.N. or something like that.

Making a commitment or a promise like that, that`s normal.  It`s in the nation`s interests.  We might debate over the wisdom of that policy, but it`s within the realm of normal. 

What I think may be happening here is that the president has taken some action in which he was serving himself, rather than the country.

MATTHEWS:  His partisan interests.

MCMULLIN:  Or personal.

EOYANG:  Or his financial interests.

MCMULLIN:  It could be more...

MATTHEWS:  What do you think?  What do you think is on the plate here in terms of this -- because, for a whistle-blower, a -- we all know how -- the thing about working for the government your whole life is, you don`t make as much money as some other people, but you have a life career. 

And you don`t throw that out the window.  You don`t just quit at 53.

MCMULLIN:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  You try to work through to retirement.  You are trying to have a good life, you know, a secure existence.

To throw that up in the air and say, I`m going to risk all this because of somebody -- I just heard the president say.  I have got to act. 

EOYANG:  Right. 

So what you have to understand about the intelligence community is, they are very, very sensitive to the idea that anyone who handles classified information is being bought by a foreign power, personally enriched by an overseas interest. 

And they look out for that very carefully.  hat a lower level, people go to jail for that.  That`s called espionage, when you`re being paid off by a foreign power to do something or to provide information. 

So, if there`s a sense that the president was being personally enriched in these conversations, that`s the kind of thing that makes people very nervous. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

MCMULLIN:  It could be political.  That financial is certainly true.  It could be that.  Could be political.  It could be both. 

But I`m sorry to interrupt, but I just don`t agree with that, that it -- it has to be something more than just sharing of intelligence, yes. 

MATTHEWS:  And they would smell the difference immediately?



MCMULLIN:  Well, it would be alarming to them, because -- rMD-BO_Mieke and I come from the intelligence world in -- on one way or another. 

And I will tell you that, when you make a commitment or a promise in that world, that means something.  And if you`re doing it clearly in the interests of the country, that`s something a president does. 

But if it`s in your own interests, that`s a compromising act.  You have compromised yourself to make a promise or a commitment to a foreign power to serve yourself.  And that would send off all kinds of alarm bells.

MATTHEWS:  Trump says -- the president of the United States said today, rMD-BO_Mieke, I would never do that because I know people are listening. 


MATTHEWS:  I mean, it`s not a denial. 

EOYANG:  It`s not a denial. 

And, look, if that`s really true that he didn`t do anything wrong, then there`s nothing wrong with sharing this allegation, because what you will find out, in fact, is that it`s normal, right?  He was just doing the normal stuff.

MCMULLIN:  That`s a good point.

MATTHEWS:  My question.


MATTHEWS:  If that`s true, that he`s clean on this, why is the DNI, national intelligence, keeping it quiet?  Why is the inspector -- the attorney general, his guy, William Barr, blowing the whistle to keep it quiet?

Anyway, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy was asked about the reports that President Trump was somehow involved in this whistle-blower case.  Here`s what Kevin had to say:


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA):  This is not something I would ever see the president doing.  And I would, instead of jump to conclusions, actually get the facts first. 


MATTHEWS:  Well, that`s careful.  He`s not denying it. 

MCMULLIN:  Yes.  Well, absolutely.  I mean, people have learned their lessons, I think, with this president.

But, look, I will say, sure, let`s get the facts, absolutely.  But part of getting the facts would be the administration allowing the whistle-blower`s complaint to go to Congress, where the facts should be.

MATTHEWS:  OK, journalistic question to you spooks, you spies.


MATTHEWS:  I mean spooks in the best possible way. 

Yes, will this be bottom of the fold tomorrow or top of the fold?  Will this story have legs?  Is this going somewhere? 

EOYANG:  This story has legs.

When this is an urgent concern, and it is credible, the underlying matter is a big deal and a big story.

MATTHEWS:  I will go with that. 

Thank you, rMD-BO_Mieke Eoyang.  And thank you, Evan McMullin.

Up next:  Congressional Democrats and Republicans are still waiting for a response from President Trump to the Democratic leader`s office on background checks. 

They put a firm offer to him right on the table:  Do us background checks, we will be at the signing ceremony with you, with the flags flying and the "Hail to the Chief" playing.  He won`t respond.

Is Trump falling -- stalling for time, or could something actually be coming together behind closed doors?  I`m skeptical.  You should be too.

You`re watching HARDBALL. 



QUESTION:  Madam Speaker, on guns, I know you spoke with the president over the weekend.  I know I asked you on Tuesday night if you had heard anymore.

I guess, first of all, you haven`t heard anymore since then?

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA):  We have heard through staff that they`re still working on it, he`s going to call us when he`s ready.  But we haven`t heard directly from the president. 


MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

That was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, of course, this morning saying she`s still waiting for the president`s response to her offer that she and Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, gave to the president over the weekend. 

It was on Sunday that the two Democrats in Congress spoke to the president and said that, if he would support the universal background check legislation already passed by the House, they would join him in the Rose Garden for a signing ceremony.  They will be there for the lights and the applause and everything.

Well, that legislation would not bar anyone from buying a gun.  It`s not a gun control bill.  It simply says you have to pass a background check to buy one.  Trump hasn`t responded to the Democrats` pretty firm offer, but says he`s working on a proposal, as he put it, slowly.

Let`s watch. 


QUESTION:  Guns.  We`re told that your Justice Department a couple weeks ago gave you a package, legislative package.  You might move on it Thursday. 

What are you going to do? 

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  No, we`re not moving on anything

We`re going very slowly in one way, because we want to make sure it`s right.  We want to -- we`re doing a very careful job.  We`re working with the Democrats.  We`re working with Republicans. 


MATTHEWS:  Well, you heard it from the president`s own mouth there.  "We`re not moving on anything." 

That`s operative. 

For more, I`m joined by U.S. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of New York.  He is chair of the House Democratic Caucus. 

Congressman, it`s great to have you on tonight.  Thank you. 

Do you believe the president will produce anything on gun safety?  Anything? 

REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D-NY):  Yes, that`s not clear.  It`s a great question, Chris. 

It`s time for us to stop talking the talk, in terms of the president, and for him to start walking the walk.  Americans are dying, being massacred.  Mass shootings are taking place.  You have day-to-day violence occurring in parts of New York City and Chicago and Los Angeles, at all points in between.

The American people are demanding action.  The House acted by passing universal criminal background check legislation 204 days ago, in February, and the bill has been languishing in the Senate.  Mitch McConnell needs to do his job.  The president needs to do his job. 

The American people are overwhelmingly supportive of criminal background checks, including Republicans, independents and gun owners. 

MATTHEWS:  Who`s the boss, just in street terminology?  Who`s the boss, the president of the United States, or Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association?  Who`s the boss in that deal? 

JEFFRIES:  That`s a -- you know, it`s very interesting, because every time you have a tragedy that has occurred, and the president seems to suggest that he`s willing to do something on gun violence prevention, particularly as it relates to moving on legislation that is already ready-made to go on behalf of the American people, in the form of HR-8, our universal criminal background check bill, a few days later, he`s either visited or receives a call from Wayne LaPierre, and he backs up. 

And so there`s a question that the American people have to ask.  Is Donald Trump working for us or is he working for the NRA?  And only he can provide a definitive answer to that by deciding it`s time to move forward and get something done.

MATTHEWS:  Well, the president seems to even be pushing back now against his own attorney general, who has been circulating a gun reform proposal to members of the Congress. 

The proposal, obtained by NBC News, is similar to the failed Manchin-Toomey bill, which extends background checks to all commercial sales, including gun shows, but would not go as far as the House bill, which include private sales. 

No coincidence.  The NRA also opposes that proposal. 

I guess -- I have a sense -- you`re the politician, Congressman, and a good one.  I just got to ask you.  This president seems scared to death, that it`d be like something like the first George Bush when he came out for tax increases, and he got beaten because he broke his promise. 

He seems to be scared to death to lose his virginity on this question of:  I`m not for any gun control. 

I mean, I think he`s afraid of any gun control, because then those people applauding him in these pictures at these rallies won`t like him anymore.

What is your thinking?

JEFFRIES:  Yes, he`s clearly a very insecure man. 

And it`s strange, because he can engage in all manner of outrageous behavior, abnormal behavior, criminality, and these folks don`t leave him.  So, why would this president be concerned that, if he did something reasonable supported by more than 90 percent of the American people on background check legislation, they would all of a sudden, on this particular issue, decide to abandon him?

So that is going to fall squarely on him, if he decides to proceed with this inaction. 

More than 8,000 Americans have lost their lives as a result of gun violence since we passed HR-8 in February.  And so that is going to fall on Moscow Mitch and the Senate...


JEFFRIES:  ... the do-nothing Republican senators, and President Trump. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, while President Trump usually enjoys being in the spotlight, he`s been making the case that, if Democrats continue to investigate his business dealings, they should also look into the deals his predecessor has made since leaving office. 

Following up on the president`s claim, reporters asked Trump what he thinks a congressional investigation into President Obama`s deals with Netflix and his book publishing would find. 

And the president said: "Well, it was a very substantial deal.  Plus, the book was the highest book ever sold." 

"The highest book ever sold," whatever English that is.

"And there were many other things that he did.  So I think somebody should, if they`re going to be looking at me over nonsense, they should certainly be looking at that also."

I don`t know what he`s talking about. 

Michelle Obama, the former first lady, has had the most successful book in nonfiction history.  She sold 10 million copies that people wanted to read and paid for. 

The company made -- I have a rough estimate -- almost $200 million off her book.  The deal with both of the Obamas was 65. 

How can he claim there`s hanky-panky here, when the book publishing company has made a killing on this book from the Obamas, and the president, the former president, hasn`t even written his book yet? 

What`s the intrigue here?  I don`t get it.  Your thoughts, Congressman? 

JEFFRIES:  Yes, I mean, it`s very strange. 

And I think it is consistent with the envy...


JEFFRIES:  ... that he has repeatedly shown at Barack Obama`s successful presidency, the eloquence and majesty of the partnership between him and Michelle Obama, and the fact that they have had some success thereafter, because the American people recognize that they are authentically good individuals who care about and love this country.

They`re private citizens right now.  The president should stop the misdirection. 

MATTHEWS:  What`s that about?  You say envy, and I wonder, is it that -- simply he`s got a better rep than I do, he`s a better person than me, he`s going to go down in the history books pretty well, I`m not going to look so good?

What is it?  Where would you put it?  Political?  Moral?  What?  Manly?  Macho?

JEFFRIES:  I think...

MATTHEWS:  What is it we talking here? 

JEFFRIES:  You know, it may be all of the above.

  But I think, most importantly, President Obama was able to accomplish a variety of different important things for the American people, including historic health care reform. 

The only thing Donald Trump has gotten done is the GOP tax scam, where 83 percent of the benefits went to the wealthiest 1 percent.  He`s done nothing on infrastructure.  He`s done nothing to really improve meaningfully the wage stagnation problem that everyday Americans have in this country, done nothing on prescription drug pricing, even though we are willing to be partners in that regard and we have promised to try to drive down lower health care costs and try to find assistance in the Senate and the White House to do so. 

Meanwhile, President Obama is revered, will go down in history as one of the greatest presidents we have ever had.  President Trump can`t take that. 

MATTHEWS:  U.S. Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of the beautiful borough of Brooklyn, it`s an honor to have you on, sir.  You`re a great man.

JEFFRIES:  Always...

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, one of our best guests ever. 

JEFFRIES:  Thank you. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, sir. 

Well, Trump`s 2020 reelection strategy is coming into focus, with fresh attacks on blue state cities.  Notice how picks them out, Baltimore, places like that, L.A., the spotlight on his ballyhooed border wall?

There he is down at the border wall, Mr. Border Wall. 

You`re watching HARDBALL. 


MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

President Trump capped his two-day visit to California by polishing his re- election argument in typical Trump fashion, promoting his vaulted wanted border wall.  The wall was the backdrop for his only public appearance in California, even signed his name to one of the steel slats of his signature campaign promise.  There he is. 

In an interview with Fox News, he went onto brag about the quality. 


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  We had in a couple of cases championship mountain climbers and tested various walls.  You have to have the see through ability otherwise you don`t know who`s on the other side.  They were unable to get over this wall. 


MATTHEWS:  Well, the president`s effort to play up the wall is just one part of his argument for reelection, of course, and he`s been showcasing lately.  He continued his attack on San Francisco saying he`d issue an environmental notice to the city over his homeless problem.  He told reporters they`re in serious violation and they`d have to clean it up.  We can`t have our cities going to hell.

In that interview with Fox, however, he was asked if he was ready for his 2020 challenger. 


TRUMP:  Whoever it is, I`ll take `em on and we`ll do well.

REPORTER:  And you feel good about your standing and the economy? 

TRUMP:  I really think my standing is the best it`s been.  We had a poll today, 51 percent, and that`s despite all the fake news and all of the -- you know, I say the Democrats and the media really are like one.  They`re as if one.  But I think that we`re probably doing the best we`ve done. 


MATTHEWS:  What poll is that?  Fifty-one percent, a majority of the vote, we haven`t found that in any objective poll for the last three years. 

Anyway, but the numbers don`t tend to back up the president`s confidence, and real numbers, and that`s coming up next.  The real numbers, what you see.

You`re watching HARDBALL.


MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

President Trump says his standing is the best it`s been, looking ahead to 2020.  But a new poll from Fox News suggests otherwise.  The polls show Vice President Joe Biden widening his lead over President Trump in a hypothetical head to head by 14 points.  So, 52, a solid majority against 38 percent. 

Well, the prez also loses by eight points to Bernie Sanders and six points to Elizabeth Warren and also Harris, Kamala Harris beats him by a couple of points.  It`s all negative for him. 

In that same poll when asked if the president would be reelected, here`s the interesting conundrum here, you ask the same people who`s going to you`re going to be for him, they`re all against him.  You ask the same people, who`s going to win, look at this one, 46 percent, a big shift from December of last year say he`s going to win.  By the way, that`s what I keep hearing all the time. 

For more, I`m joined by a couple of experts, Juanita Tolliver, campaign director for the Center of American Progress, CAP Action Fund, Michael Steele, former RNC chair.

Michael, as a once and true forever Republican -- 


MATTHEWS:  -- what`s going on that people think your party candidate and he will be your party`s candidate is going to win no matter all the numbers against him? 

STEELE:  OK.  So, you know what this poll reminds of, it reminds me of my 2006 Senate race in which we had two questions back-to-back in the poll.  First question, would you vote for a black man for the United States Senate?  Seventy-four percent of the respondents said yes.  Would your neighbor vote for a black man for the U.S. Senate?  Forty-three percent said yes. 

MATTHEWS:  So, that`s -- well, that`s a filter that pollsters use to find out prejudice.

STEELE:  And what this poll shows and tells me is that people are lying, that more people are going to vote for Trump than they`re telling you they`re going to vote for these other candidates.  So when you start to look at the numbers, the only way you can begin to put them in context when they say I`m voting for him but the other guy is going to win, that gives you  --


MATTHEWS:  You have plenty of time here.  I want the Republican for one second.


MATTHEWS:  Articulate this, why would people -- I have a theory, but why would people say to a pollster something that`s not true? 

STEELE:  Well, as we`ve seen now for several cycles, what people have -- what a lot of folks out there have concluded is they do not want to be put in a position where they`re judged by someone else.  If I say I`m supporting President Trump then you will automatically presume I`m a white nationalist or racist. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, you`re a yahoo.

STEELE:  So if you ask me if Buttigieg beats Trump, yes, he beats Trump.  If the next question is, do you think Trump is going to win?  Yes, Trump`s going to win.  You know why Trump`s going to win?  Because I`m voting for him. 

So, this is how -- this is how this kind of thing kind of breaks down.  So, you`ve got to be careful, one, with national polls and how they`re questioned and how they work together.  And number two, look at the states. 


MATTHEWS:  Juanita, your thoughts?  Back to our conundrum question, why do people say they`re for a Democratic candidate for top four over Trump, but then you ask the same people who`s going to win, they say Trump? 

TOLLIVER:  I think yes, people lie, but I also think people have a healthy concern about our democratic process being interfered with.  Like we all know that our democratic process has been compromised since before 2016.  So when the polls in 2016 said this is clearly going to happen, like there was Russian interference. 


MATTHEWS:  Before `16, to help Obama win?

TOLLIVER:  I think people have -- people have that concern and it`s coming forward in this polling, and they`re expressing that because they`re like, OK, I know how I`m going to vote.  Whether or not I`m lying about supporting Trump or supporting a Democratic nominee, but I still am concerned that there are external factors --

STEELE:  But I don`t see how that concern manifests in those numbers.  I don`t see if I have a concern about Russia`s interfering in my poll, that`s going to affect how I answer that question.  You know, if who`s going to win the election, Trump or Buttigieg, Trump or Biden. 

So I think -- I see what you`re saying, but I think that to Chris` point in the broader question about how the voters are looking at this, I think the voters are -- yes, they`re not unconcerned about what Russia is saying -- 

TOLLIVER:  Yes, it`s a concern.

STEELE:  It is a concern, but I think there`s also a larger concern on the second point I was going to make is, those voters who are still not being captured by pollsters. 


STEELE:  There are a lot of voters out there.  Trump tapped into those folks in `16 in a way that no party -- 


STEELE:  -- Republican or Democrat has been able to do. 

The Democrats` challenge is going to be: can they find that alternative, that other voter who has been sitting on the sideline, who now has a progressive awakening to come out and support whomever the Democrats put out? 

MATTHEWS: Yes, I wonder, Juanita, your thoughts on this.  Could it be that Democrats who do follow -- read the newspaper, know what`s going on -- you know what I noticed last time at the very end, Trump came out of nowhere.

He started hitting those places, Pennsylvania, he knew where to go.  He had good advanced people.  He`s smarter that he seemed.  He may be awful but he knew where to go, and he picked up those three states. 

And also, he has this habit of destroying his opponent.  He destroyed all his Republican opponents last time.  He made fun of them so that they limped off the stage, like Mark Rubio, I mean, he looked like crazy. 


STEELE:  And they haven`t been -- 

MATTHEWS:  He took Jeb Bush.

They`re afraid, Democrats who have, they may worry about the Russians again, but they also wonder Trump`s coming to thumb the candidate. 

TOLLIVER: And it`s important that Democrats show that they can go toe to toe with Trump.  I think that`s the message we`ve heard from a lot of campaigns like Elizabeth Warren, Senator Harris have all been pointing out, I can stand up to him, I`m not afraid of him, I`m going to hold him to task and I`m not going to back down. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, here`s -- excuse me, here`s a Democrat holding another Democrat to task.  Pete Buttigieg took a shot at Senator Warren today.  In an interview with CNN, Buttigieg was asked if he thinks Warren was being up front about how she would pay for her Medicare-for-All proposal.  Let`s watch Pete.


PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Senator Warren is known for being straightforward and was extremely evasive when asked that question, and we`ve seen that repeatedly.  I think if you are proud of your plan and it`s the right plan, you should defend it in straightforward terms.  And I think it`s puzzling that when everybody knows the answer to that question of whether her plan and Senator Sanders` plan will raise middle class taxes, is yes.  Why wouldn`t you just say, though -- look, people are used to Washington politicians not giving straight answers to simple questions, but at a time like this, on an issue this important, that`s exactly what we need. 


STEELE:  That`s why I like Pete. 

MATTHEWS:  Bernie`s been direct.  Bernie says it will raise taxes.

STEELE:  But -- it`s the way he delivered that punch to me is -- I`ve known him a long time and watched him.  It was so clean, so effective, so above where a Trump would take that kind of an attack. 

TOLLIVER:  Exactly right.

STEELE:  And what it signals for this upcoming debate is that Elizabeth Warren better find the flak jacket because now in these numbers show that really, there`s a greater separation between where Pete and others are positioned, they`re now going to be shooting up at her.  And so, this is a warning.  Just as we`ve seen other warnings come against Biden --

MATTHEWS:  And this the debate between now and Iowa?  Because he`s gaining in Iowa.  He`s come from nowhere. 

TOLLIVER:  He`s gaining in Iowa, and he`s punching up, because he knows that`s the field he needs to play, and if he`s going to position himself to have nearly as much momentum like Elizabeth Warren has.  She`s got a bullet under her in every way right now.  And so, him going after her in this way seems like a natural progression for his campaign. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, I think in long-term, I watch this back-and-forth, Democrats win one election, Republican -- the only way to finance a middle class benefit program like Social Security and Medicare is in effect middle class pay for most. 

STEELE:  Middle class has paid for it.

MATTHEWS:  That`s the way it works, because in the end, the Senate (ph) will be Republican in two or three years, after a Democrat wins, and they flip it all back and you`re stuck with a tax bill.

STEELE:  She was asked that question four times.

MATTHEWS:  And the rich do not get stuck with it.  The rich never get stuck with those tax bills. 


MATTHEWS:  Juanita Tolliver, thank you.  Michael Steele.

TOLLIVER:  Thanks for having me.

MATTHEWS:  Up next, Senator Kamala Harris is betting it all on Iowa, and I think it`s a smart bet.  I love political calculation and I think she`s got a smart move here.  She`s saying, if I don`t win in Iowa, I`m not going to win, so I better damn well win in Iowa. 

So watch what she`s up to. 

You`re watching HARDBALL.


MATTHEWS:  Senator Kamala Harris has decided to place all her marbles on Iowa, doubling the size of her staff there. 

It`s a smart bet.  Democrats who have won the Iowa caucuses have tended to win the nomination itself.  This was true of jimmy carter in 1976 and in 1980 against challenger Ted Kennedy; of Mondale in 1984, Gore in 2000, Kerry in 2004, Obama in 2008, Hillary Clinton in 2016. 

The only two Democrats to win Iowa and not the Democratic nomination were Dick Gephardt from neighboring Missouri, and Tom Harkin from Iowa itself.  And all the other cases from the outset of the caucuses of 1976, to the most recent contest, the winner in Iowa ended up winning the Democratic nomination. 

And this explains why Kamala Harris, who has failed to rise in national polls has decided to put it all on Iowa.  Another reason is a new poll conducted by her pollster, taken among those voters most likely to attend the Iowa caucuses on February 3rd.  The poll shows Biden with a narrowing lead that`s dropped from 37 percent, down to 25 over just one year. 

Elizabeth Warren rising from 16 percent to up 23 percent in that span of time, putting her 2 points from Biden.  Another factor is the Iowa race in that race is Mayor Pete Buttigieg who has risen from nowhere to 12 -- 12 percent. 

Harris poll shows her own support in Iowa has been cut in half from 10 percent of likely caucus goers a year ago to 5 percent now.  But the polls spotted something else.  The utter volatility of Iowa`s Democratic caucusgoers. 

Harris` number in the poll just two months ago right after that first Democratic debate in which she tore into the former vice president was at the top of the field at 18 points, Biden with 17. 

Think about this.  I can only assume what the California senator is up now.  She`s looking to do to Biden in Iowa what she did to him in Miami in that first debate, toppling him and taking over the lead in the Democratic fight for the nomination. 

This is her bet.  This is her plan.  And as we have heard her just the other day, in fact, this morning, saying to a fellow Democratic senator -- yesterday actually, I`m moving to Iowa. 

And there she is moving out there.  This race is still wide open.  Buttigieg could win out there.  She could win out there.  Watch Iowa.  It`s only a few months away. 

And that`s HARDBALL for now. 

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.