Trump struggles to defend himself. TRANSCRIPT: 10/7/19, Hardball w/ Chris Matthews.

Guests: Elise Jordan, Paul Butler, Robert Costa, Mike Murphy, DavidPhillips

ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST:  What you saw there on Thursday is going to ricochet for a while.  That`s a final thought.

As always, thanks for joining me.  I`ll be back at 6:00 p.m. Eastern tomorrow night here on THE BEAT with Ari Melber.  But up next, it`s "HARDBALL".

STEVE KORNACKI, MSNBC HOST:  A second whistleblower.  Let`s play HARDBALL.

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

The president is struggling to defend his conduct and there are new signs that more evidence about wrongdoing may be on the way.  NBC News has confirmed that the legal team representing the first whistleblower now also represents another person who is coming forward.  According to NBC sources, that second whistleblower has, quote, firsthand knowledge of the facts surrounding Trump`s phone call with Ukrainian President Zelensky, which is at the center of the impeachment inquiry.

That news prompted another round of misleading criticism from the president who said, quote, the first so-called secondhand information whistleblower got my phone conversation almost completely wrong.  So now word is they are going to the bench and another whistleblower is coming in from the deep state.

Contrary to that tweet from the president, however, numerous revelations over the past two weeks have actually corroborated the whistleblower`s account, including some admissions from the president himself.

Meanwhile, House committees today issued subpoenas to the Pentagon and the Office of Management and Budget for documents about the president`s directive in mid July to freeze U.S. military support to Ukraine.  That is the aid that U.S. diplomats believed was being used as leverage to help re- election.  As U.S. Ambassador Bill Taylor wrote his colleagues last month, quote, I think it`s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.

Amid all of this late today, the president insisted his poll numbers are up.  He called the impeachment inquiry a hoax, and he suggested that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff should be investigated.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT:  Now, I just see a poll that just came out where I`m up massively with independent voters.  I don`t know if it`s this or because of the hoax, you know, that`s going on with Nancy Pelosi, and her friend, Adam Schiff.  He`s another beauty.

I`ll tell you what, they should really be looked at very strongly because what they did is unthinkable.  What they did to this country is unthinkable.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  We`ll have more in a little while about what the polls do and don`t say about Trump and impeachment.

But for now, I am joined by Yamiche Alcindor, White House Correspondent for the PBS NewsHour, Phillip Bump is a Political Reporter with The Washington Post, Paul Butler is a former federal prosecutor and Elise Jordan is a former Bush administration aide in the White House and the State Department.  Thanks to all of you for being with us.

Yamiche, let me start with you with that news that we lead the show with tonight, a second whistleblower emerging, our reporting here at NBC suggesting this is someone who says they have more information about that phone call, that July phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president.  What do you know about this and what the White House is preparing for here?

YAMICHE ALCINDOR, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, PBS NEWSHOUR:  Well, I`ve been emailing with the attorney for these now two whistleblowers and what we see here is the president, really, his push back on this first whistleblower really falling apart.  The president initially said that the whistleblower had the complete facts of the call wrong.  He then said that this person had secondhand knowledge and none of that what he was saying was true, none of what that whistleblower was saying is true.

Now, we have a second whistleblower coming forward saying, I actually have firsthand knowledge.  You now have Democrats trying to come up with a solution to try to figure out how to get this information into the hands of Congress with more detail.  I`m told that Democrats are even thinking about putting the whistleblower off campus and trying to have them actually of an audio-only testimony or even maybe having some sort of testimony where their face is going to be obscured.

So what you have really is an impeachment inquiry that`s forging ahead and a president who is making excuses and really trying to defend himself.  But most of the things that he`s trying to use to defend himself are simply falling apart unfortunately.

KORNACKI:  Within the last few minutes, the president was asked about the second whistleblower who we`re talking about right now.  Let`s watch what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPORTER:  Are you concerned with the second whistleblower may reveal about the --

TRUMP:  Not at all because the call was a perfect call.  You had stenographers.  You had people that took it down exactly.  It was a perfect call.  It`s just a scam.  This is a scam by the Democrats to try and win an election that they`re not going to win in 2020.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  So, Phillip Bump, talking about this first whistleblower, the one whose complaint we have read, and there`s the transcript of that phone conversation, the president not expressing any reservations about the contents and that he`s says it`s perfect.  So we can match up what is in that complaint from the whistleblower with what`s in this rough transcript that the president himself doesn`t seem to have much issue with.  He`s saying these two things are totally different.  What is your analysis of it?

PHILLIP BUMP, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST:  Well, I think what he`s saying and what his allies have said is that the presentation by the whistleblower of there having been pressure in the call is the thing that is inaccurate, right?  That by itself is a claim that can be assessed by observers.  Obviously, there is a power differential between the president of the United States and the president of Ukraine, which can influence the amount of pressure the president of Ukraine feels.  But that`s really the angle they`re taking is, was there pressure applied by Donald Trump.

And so a lot of his allies are saying, there wasn`t any pressure, the whistleblower is wrong.  And it think that`s where the second whistleblower becomes interesting.  This is someone with firsthand knowledge who can say what in the room or in the moment people thought Trump was trying to do with President Zelensky.  That can shift the public`s understanding of how much pressure was actually being applied.

KORNACKI:  And how much -- so there is some anticipation here whatever side you`re on, I think, on this, people want to know what the second whistleblower might be putting out there.  But when you have the transcript, when you have the public comments from the president, the president out there the other day saying Ukraine and China, I hope you look into Biden, when you have the fact of the suspended military aid, the actual complaint from the whistleblower, both of them, potentially, how significant is that just with all of this other information that`s now on the public record?

ELISE JORDAN, FORMER AIDE TO GEORGE BUSH WHITE HOUSE AND STATE DEPARTMENT:  Well, I think Yamiche nailed it.  It is basically destroying the president`s defense to have this second whistleblower come forward and just blow up that, oh, this wasn`t a firsthand recollection, oh, well, this is someone who actually has firsthand knowledge.  So I think It`s quite significant in that their defense is just swerving and veering all over the place because Donald Trump has been caught in a lie.

KORNACKI:  So this question of the whistleblower to the first whistleblower at least, and maybe potentially the second one, we will see what happens there.  But as Yamiche mentioned, Democrats are weighing new precautions to keep that individual`s identity secret.  According to The Washington Post here, House Democrats are, quote, considering testimony at a remote location and possibly obscuring the individual`s appearance and voice, extraordinary moves to prevent Trump`s congressional allies from revealing the identity.

Paul, let me first ask you -- there`s two parts to this.  But let me first ask you, in terms of the justification here, Democrats saying they are concerned that the president`s allies, maybe even potentially the president himself, would reveal this.  Is that a legitimate concern?

PAUL BUTLER, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR:  I think so.  When we`ve heard the president say he needs to talk to the whistleblower, he needs to cross- examine him and the president has alluded to the punishment for people who commit treason, which is execution.  so I think there are legitimate concerns about the whistleblower`s safety.

The concern is once the cat is out of the bag, once the whistleblower`s identification is revealed, then there`s nothing that could be done.  That person might be able to recover some kind of civil damages but his or her life could be in jeopardy.

KORNACKI:  Okay.  So you say there`s a justification there on the Democrat`s part, potentially to take these actions they`re outlining here.  Here`s the flipside.  This is what Lindsey Graham is out there saying now.  If this goes through, if there`s an impeachment in the House, there`s a trial in the Senate, he is saying, a fundamental tenant of due process here is you face your accuser.  He is saying if the whistleblower`s allegations are turned into an impeachment article, he says, it is imperative the whistleblower be interviewed in public, under oath and cross-examined.  What`s your reaction to that?

BUTLER:  Here is why Senator Graham is wrong.  The whistleblower is not a fact witness.  Admittedly, that person heard about what was going on from other high level people in the White House and the Intelligence Community who were very concerned that the president of the United States was trying to shake down the Ukrainian leader, holding up military aid that Ukraine desperately needed for its survival as a nation state in order for Trump to get help on his political campaign.

So the people who would be subject to being witnesses and cross-examined are people who have direct knowledge of what happened, including people who were on the telephone call.  But this whistleblower performed a public service by bringing this vital information to the American people.  We should be thanking his or her.  We should not be threatening his or her with exposure and, again, in Trump`s view, some kind of punishment.

KORNACKI:  There`s also some new reporting that far from welcoming the idea of impeachment, Trump says it will tarnish his legacy.  Axios reports that during a call of House Republicans on Friday, the president privately acknowledged that, quote, the impeachment is a bad thing to have on your resume.

And despite describing his call with the Ukrainian president as perfect, as you just heard a few minutes ago, it is clear that Trump now knows it was problematic.  That is because, according to Axios, the president is attempting to pin the blame on Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

Trump told House Republicans, again, this, according to Axios, that, quote, the only reason I made the call was because Rick asked me to.

Yamiche, I go to you on this.  You were mentioning there have been some conflicting messages that have come out of the White House.  On the one hand, the president, he calls this a perfect phone call, he has framed this as his duty to try to track down -- he says to try to track down corruption, also happens to involve his potential 2020 opponent.  But there is this reporting that he`s trying to brush this off to Republicans saying, I didn`t even want to make the phone call.

ALCINDOR:  Well, based on my reporting, this is a White House that`s trying desperately to come up with some sort of strategy to push back on impeachment, but they haven`t landed on anything.  So what you have now is the president first saying that the call was perfect, then saying, well, this whistleblower is wrong, then when the transcript comes out, they are faced with the fact that the president says, I need you to do me a favor though.

Now, the president is essentially doing what he has done in other case, which is look around him and say, well, who else can he blame for this.  In the case of Stormy Daniels and the hush money payments, Michael Cohen went to jail, the president continued to be the president and didn`t go to jail.

Paul Manafort, he is in jail, not for things that are related to President Trump, but this is someone who`s close to him, he also goes to jail.  People around the president had to face consequences but the president himself hasn`t had to do that.  So what you see here is him saying, hey, well, Rick Perry was really the reason why I was on this call.

It was the same thing that he did with Mike Pence when he said, well, you know what, someone should be talking to Mike Pence about the meeting that he had with the president of Ukraine.  And, of course, House Democrats have actually demanded documents from Mike Pence to show what were you talking about with the president of Ukraine.

But I think what Democrats are doing here is remaining still, laser-focused on President Trump, and that`s what`s making him nervous because he understands that Democrats have a really simple thing they can tell the American people, which is that the president was trying to pressure the president of Ukraine for his own political gain and the White House, based on my reporting, is still searching for a really definitive way to defend the president against that claim.

KORNACKI:  And, Phillip, it`s interesting, the idea there of the president telling Republicans, hey, I didn`t want to make this call.  Rick Perry was up to something.  He put me on the call with them.  There`s the call itself, and if you want to try to frame it from Trump`s standpoint, is maybe I said some clumsy things on this call I didn`t want to be on, but then simultaneously you have the fact of the suspended military aid and all of the mystery that accompanied that over the summer.  That would seem to complicate any attempt to make the phone call, just something I didn`t put much thought into.

BUMP:  Yes.  I mean, if one has to assume that the only reason that President Trump was on that phone call is because he`s getting strong-armed by Rick Perry, you have to ignore the fact that Rudy Giuliani had spent months agitating for this exact sort of investigation.  He threatened to go to Ukraine in May.  He had done numerous interviews in which he mentioned this.  Trump himself had mentioned some sort of Biden investigation earlier on in the process.  It may be the case that Rick Perry said, hey, I`m concerned about a relationship with Ukraine because of this particular energy issue, you should probably give him a call.  But it`s clearly not the case that Rick Perry did anything outside of what was already going on to try and get President Trump to do the exact request that he made in that call, which were to investigate this bizarre theory about 2016 hacking and to investigate the Bidens.

KORNACKI:  It may be that Perry and Giuliani both wanted the call but for different reasons.

Under the growing pressure of the impeachment, the president continued his ongoing Twitter outbursts this weekend.  Among other things, he attacked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last night, saying that she is, quote, guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors and even treason.  He adds that the speaker and other Democrats should be, quote, immediately impeached.  This was the second tweet over the weekend that appeared to show the president was not aware that members of Congress can`t be impeached or maybe he is aware of it, he just wants to circulate that term and that word anyway.

Elise, what do you make of what you`re seeing from the president on Twitter and I think a second part of that is Republicans watching this, what do they make of that?

JORDAN:  One, I would say, that this is classic Donald Trump, just throw spaghetti at the wall, and see what sticks and what you can get traction on no matter how ridiculous, and to the second point, I think that Republicans, even though they won`t say it publicly, are increasingly uncomfortable with the level of instability.

This is going -- you know, this is just not a great look for them to be -- you don`t want to be McCarthy on the Sunday show and just blatantly lying and looking like a fool, trying to defend the indefensible because Donald Trump is going to change his story in 30 minutes via Twitter or in front of the press.

So no one is in a strong position at all to defend Donald Trump.

KORNACKI:  We mentioned on the time, Paul, impeachment, this is a political process.  It`s not a legal process, but something political by definition would be the president tweeting, making all these accusations, putting all of it out there, does that intersect in any way with this impeachment process?

BUTLER:  You know, I think it will be up to the Republicans in the Senate who would be the deciding factor in terms of whether he is removed from office, assuming the House impeaches, that`s like being charged.  So if 20 Republican senators, that`s the number it would take to join with all of the Democrats to remove him from office, their calculus would be is this a high crime or misdemeanor. If they`re going by the Constitution, the answer is, absolutely, yes.  This is a breach of the president`s fiduciary duty.  We already have compelling evidence that he did this.

So some senators yesterday, Senator Kamala Harris said on MSNBC that she doesn`t need any more evidence.  She has enough evidence before her right now to vote to remove the president from office.

KORNACKI:  I`m just curious, again, it`s political.  So it`s all the sort of rules of normal legal procedure don`t really apply.  It`s a very unique process.  But from the standpoint of a senator like Harris, you mentioned, being a juror, essentially, that`s what you are in the Senate, should you be making that proclamation beforehand or should you take the posture of, hey, I am a juror, I have some notions going into this, but I want to hear what each side says before I come out with a guilty or not guilty.

BUTLER:  And so a question will be what`s the defense.  And we see the Trump folks flailing.  First, they said, I didn`t do it.  And then they say, well, maybe I did it, but it`s not a crime.  Today, they said, the energy secretary made me do it.  So we know the president has practically confessed twice now, once in that telephone call and once in his remarks about China.  So, yes, he doesn`t see a problem with asking foreign nationals to help him out politically.

The fact is that that is a crime.  It is a high crime and misdemeanor under the Constitution and it`s a crime in the federal criminal code.  It`s soliciting help for a campaign from a foreign national.

KORNACKI:  All right.  Paul Butler, Yamiche Alcindor, Phillip Bump and Elise Jordan, thanks to all of you.

And coming up, Senator Mitt Romney called the president`s outreach to Ukraine and China wrong and appalling.  President Trump responded by calling for the people of Utah to impeach Romney, a threat that of Trump`s ire may be one reason so few Republicans have spoken out and why most of those who do back him, like Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHUCK TODD, MSNBC HOST:  Senator, it`s pretty clear, we`re only dealing with the facts that we have not the facts that you wish them to be.

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R-WI):  That what I want to do (ph), and I can`t get the answers.  And I can`t get the answers.  The American people can`t get the answers.  Something pretty fishy happened during the 2016 campaign, and in the transition, the early part of the Trump presidency, and we still don`t know.

Robert Mueller --

TODD:  We do know the answers.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  Plus, we`re going to head over to the big board to look at the latest polling on impeachment.  There`s a big difference right now compared to what we saw with both Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon and some alarming trends for President Trump.

And Trump is facing criticism even from his own allies for his decision to withdraw U.S. military forces from the Turkish border with Northern Syria.

We have got much more to get to.  Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

President Trump spent part of his weekend unleashing attacks on one of his fellow Republicans, Utah Senator Mitt Romney.

As part of a slew of tweets, the president wrote -- quote -- "I`m hearing that the great people of Utah are considering their vote for their pompous Senator Mitt Romney to be a big mistake.  #impeachMittRomney."

On Friday, Romney criticized the president over his calls for Ukraine and China to be investigate -- to investigate his potential political rival, calling them -- quote -- "wrong and appalling."

Romney is one of the only elected Republicans to call out the president on this.  Others have dismissed Trump`s recent comments calling on China to get involved as a joke. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION:  Do you think it`s OK for President Trump to ask China to launch an investigation of Joe Biden and Hunter Biden?

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL):  I don`t know if that`s a real request or him just needling the press, knowing that you guys were going to get outraged by it. 

He plays it like a violin, and everybody falls right into it.  That`s not a real request.

REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH):  George, you really think he was serious about thinking that China is going to investigate the Biden family? 

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS:  Why can`t you answer yes or no do you think it`s appropriate? 

JORDAN:  I don`t -- because I don`t think that`s what he did. 

SEN. ROY BLUNT (R-MO):  Well, I doubt if the China comment was serious, to tell you the truth. 

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA):  You watched what the president said.  He`s not saying, China, investigate. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  While those lawmakers appeared confident that the president wasn`t serious, his own economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said today he`s not sure. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION:  Was the president joking or in any way not serious when he suggested that the Chinese should investigate the Bidens? 

LARRY KUDLOW, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL ECONOMIC COUNCIL:  I don`t honestly know.  I don`t honestly know. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  Meanwhile, "The Washington Post" reports the president`s possible impeachment has -- quote -- "triggered a reckoning in the Republican Party."

Quote: "Their collective strategy is simply to survive and not make any sudden moves."

According to one former senior administration official -- quote -- "Nobody wants to be the zebra that strays from the pack and gets gobbled up by the lion."

For more, I`m joined by one of "The Washington Post" reporters who wrote that piece we just quoted from, Robert Costa, and Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist and co-host of the "Hacks on Tap" podcast. 

Thanks to both of you for being with us. 

Well, Robert, let me just start with you. 

You -- this is a terrific piece.  You guys did some wonderful reporting here. 

Take us inside the Republican Party in Washington.  I think a lot of people have been noticing the last few weeks, one way that this feels different from some of these past controversies is, we just haven`t heard from a lot of Republicans, period.  A lot of them aren`t saying anything. 

So, what is being said behind the scenes among Republicans?

ROBERT COSTA, "THE WASHINGTON POST":  Based on reporting by me and my colleague Phil Rucker at "The Post," we find the Republican Party, generally speaking, now in bunker mode as they move toward the 2020 election. 

From moderates to conservatives, many Republicans do not want to be out there on the front lines defending President Trump`s conduct with regard to his interactions with foreign leaders and the president of Ukraine.

And, at the same time, they are fearful of his wrath, and they don`t want him challenging them in a primary race by supporting a different Republican.  And so they`re really being quiet and treading carefully, trying to either explain away his conduct or not say much at all. 

KORNACKI:  So, just a quick follow-up, though.  What is their sense on how long that can last?

Because if Democrats go ahead in the House and impeach the president, some form of trial has got to take place in the Senate.  They`re going to have to go on the record at some point.  How long do they think they can sort of, what`s the word, hold their powder -- keep their powder dry?  That`s the expression I`m looking for. 

COSTA:  So far, the skittishness is most apparent among suburban Republicans in the House in the suburbs of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, places where Republicans struggled in 2018.  And they are worrying about struggling again in 2020.

And retiring Senate Republicans like Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and those who are up in 2020, like Senator Ernst of Iowa, Senator Collins of Maine will really have a political test in front of them.  Do they want to stand by President Trump, as they face the political winds in their own tough races?

For now, these are the Republicans who are staying quiet, trying to talk about other issues.

When I went up to Senator Ernst in the hallway, she said, do you want to talk about corn and ethanol policy?  I said, Senator, the issue is the impeachment process.  And she didn`t want to engage much on that. 

KORNACKI:  Mike Murphy, let`s take Mitt Romney aside for a second, because I think he`s sort of a special case.  Utah is a state where Trump got 13 percent, I think it was, back in the Republican primaries.  A lot of issues there in terms of Republican voters very cool towards Trump. 

So, Romney may be immune from a lot of the sort of political calculations we`re talking about with other Republicans. 

But when you look at the other Republicans in the U.S. Senate, do you see any potential that, as this plays out, a critical number of them, any number of them, will end up turning on the president?  And, if so, where would you be looking? 

MIKE MURPHY, REPUBLICAN MEDIA STRATEGIST:  Well, you`re absolutely right.  It`s all about the primary politics.

You know, the new logo of the RNC is not just an elephant; it`s an elephant running for the tall grass to hide, because a lot of these politicians, in their heart, they know Trump is unfit.  Privately, they will talk about it, but they`re very afraid of their primary voters.

So, Mitt is his own man.  Mitt has a strong moral compass.  I think there are others.  Jeff Flake said that, if it was a secret ballot, it would be 35.  I would guess 30. 

So, when you look, you kind of come up with the same calculus that Bob did.  You have got the folks from vulnerable places, purple states like Colorado or lean-blue states like Maine, maybe even states that are declining for the GOP, like North Carolina, Arizona.

So you have several members who are up in tough races, where a defend-Trump vote by the time this thing hits the Senate, if it does, which I think is more likely than not, could be real political poison.

Then you have folks retiring, like my old friend Lamar.  And then you have people like Ben Sasse, who have been kind of on-and-off-again critics.

I think the one new factor today is the case that Trump should not be there, not the impeachment case, but the private opinion of Republican senators` case exploded today because of what Trump did, abandoning the Kurds and making a toddler level geopolitical mistake in Northern Syria. 

That`s why you`re seeing even Mitch McConnell out criticizing the move.  So the energy to do something about Trump because of the damage he is doing to the country, I think, is higher in the Senate caucus today than it was yesterday, significantly higher. 

KORNACKI:  Let me just ask -- let me ask you just sort of a basic question about your understanding of how politics works these days, because I think, before Trump, there used to be this assumption that, within each party, the elected officials, the senators, the governors, the folks who are on TV a lot, really were influential in sort of creating mass opinion within the party. 

You have got this situation where, privately, supposedly, all these Republicans have doubts about Trump.  But his approval rating with Republican voters sits at 90 percent.  And it keeps these other Republicans from speaking out publicly. 

If, let`s say, three, four, five Republican senators came out publicly and broke with Trump, do you think that would have effect -- an effect on public opinion among all Republicans?  Or would they just be immediately considered pariahs and outcasts?

MURPHY:  You know, I think they would be considered pariahs at first, but then people would watch and see what happens. 

This is all a perception-reality thing, which is important in politics.  Trump is perceived as invulnerable.  People look at the 90 percent numbers. 

But you can ask numbers in a primary, would you rather have another Republican?  And a third of those voters desert him. 

So, as long as they perceive Trump as all-powerful in the party, they will act like it.  If somebody punches a hole in it by acting bravely, or those numbers start to decline as these issues get worse, it would be a different ball game. 

KORNACKI:  In an interview on Friday, meanwhile, Republican Senator Ron Johnson told "The Wall Street Journal" that he had learned from an American diplomat over the summer that the release of military aid to Ukraine was contingent on Ukraine opening up investigations into U.S. elections that Trump wanted. 

Johnson told "The Journal" -- quote -- "At that suggestion, I winced.  My reaction was, oh, God, I don`t want to see those two things combined."

NBC`s Chuck Todd asked Senator Johnson about those comments yesterday, but things got heated.  Take a look. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R-WI):  You ought to ask Director Brennan, what did Peter Strzok mean when he texted Lisa Page on December 15, 2016 -- quote... 

(CROSSTALK)

CHUCK TODD, MODERATOR, "MEET THE PRESS":  Senator, can we -- Senator...

JOHNSON:  No, no, Chuck, let me finish.

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  Senator, what does this have to do with Ukraine?

(CROSSTALK)

TODD:  Senator Johnson -- Senator Johnson, please. 

JOHNSON:  Go ahead.

TODD:  Can we please answer the question that I asked you, instead of trying to make Donald Trump feel better here that you`re not criticizing him?

JOHNSON:  I`m not.  I`m not. 

(CROSSTALK)

JOHNSON:  I`m trying to lay the groundwork of your very biased opening.

TODD:  I`m just trying to ask you a simple question of what made you wince. 

JOHNSON:  When I asked the president about that, he completely denied it.  He adamantly denied it.  He vehemently, angrily denied it.  He said, I would never do that.

So, that`s the piece of the puzzle I`m here to report today. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  Robert Costa, a lot of things that could be said about that, but you hear there Senator Johnson trying to segue the conversation in part to something that the president likes to talk about.

And that is that investigation that the attorney general has launched into the 2016 campaign and the origins of the Russia investigation. 

How widely held among Republican senators is that as something they`re genuinely themselves interested in?  Is that something that animates Republicans in the Senate, or is that something that more they feel they need to humor the president on?

COSTA:  It`s not only something that`s widely believed within the Republican Party that I`m covering on Capitol Hill.  It`s also an active variable right now as the GOP makes its calculus, because many of these Republicans, when you confront them with facts about the impeachment inquiry, they start talking about the investigation of the investigation, the Department of Justice`s, both the I.G. investigation at DOJ, and also Attorney General Barr`s investigation.

And they say, however that I.G. report pans out, and then the attorney general`s report pans out on how the Russia investigation was conducted, that will be factor in how they decide to handle President Trump`s fate, should it come to an impeachment vote in the House and then a trial in the Senate, because they believe those things, those investigations could cloud and inform the public thinking. 

KORNACKI:  All right. 

Robert Costa and Mike Murphy, thanks to both of you for joining us. 

COSTA:  Thank you. 

MURPHY:  Thank you. 

KORNACKI:  And up next:  There are flashing warning signs for President Trump in recent polls about impeachment, especially when you compare it to two of the recent presidents who also faced the impeachment process. 

Over to the Big Board after this.

You`re watching HARDBALL. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Well, President Trump is the third modern president to be facing an impeachment inquiry, an impeachment push.  You had Richard Nixon, of course, back in the 1970s, Bill Clinton in the late 1990s.  And now Trump, about a generation later, is facing an impeachment inquiry that Democrats announced recently they had begun.

So, we thought we would take a look at the public opinion on this as Democrats launch the inquiry now.  How does Trump stack up politically, in terms of his strength, compared to Clinton, compared to Nixon at roughly this same point?

And I think what you`re going to see here, there are some ways where President Trump is probably in worse shape politically than both Clinton and Nixon.  But there may be one very important way he is in at least as good shape as Clinton was, maybe even a little bit better. 

Let me show you what I mean and stop talking about this. 

First of all, this is the most recent polling we have.  Now, keep in mind, the wording is very important when you see polling on impeachment these days.  This is polling specifically about the inquiry. 

Democrats say they`re going to do an inquiry.  That is not necessarily the same thing as actually holding a vote to impeach him, as the Senate actually convicting him and removing him from office. 

This is the polling that asks specifically about an inquiry.  And you see here three of the four polls that have come out, there is outright majority support for the inquiry.  In the other one, it`s at 49-43 in favor. 

So all the polling that`s come out has shown there is more support for an inquiry than opposition to an inquiry.  And, in fact, there`s majority support for it in most of the polls that have come out.  So the inquiry itself right now seems to be fairly popular, certainly not unpopular with voters. 

Now, it gets more complicated when you take it a step further, and you say, this is not just the inquiry.  We`re talking now about a vote to impeach him.  The wording on these varies, but, generally, the wording you will see in these polls is, should Congress impeach and remove Trump from office?  Should he be impeached and compelled to leave office, some variation of that.

And what you see here is -- remember, he was over 50 in terms of support for the inquiry.  Support for actual impeachment, that`s running basically in the mid-40s here.  By the way, that`s outpacing disapproval in most of the polls, in fact, all but one of the polls that you`re seeing here. 

So impeachment is more complicated politically than just the inquiry.  But these numbers for Trump, these numbers are significantly higher than they have been before any other point in his presidency. 

This Ukraine story has brought support for outright impeachment into the mid-40s.  It was not there before. 

Now, how does this compare to those two other presidents?  I`m going to show you here.  First of all, this was Richard Nixon.  This is polling from when the House began an impeachment inquiry against Nixon in February 1974.  And this is on the question of impeachment, not the inquiry.  Do you want Nixon impeached?  As the inquiry began, it was 38 percent who said they wanted that.

By the end, a few months later, all the hearings, more revelations, smoking gun tape, all this sort of thing, that approval number was in the 50s, really in the 60s by the time Nixon was compelled to leave office.  But it started at 38.  Remember, Trump in the mid-40s.

How about this?  Clinton, it started at 31 for him in October `98, when the impeachment inquiry begin.  Never really changed from there.  Trump was impeached -- excuse me -- Clinton was impeached by the House.  He was acquitted by the Senate. 

It was always very unpopular.  Here, though, is one area where Trump is different than Nixon.  It`s this.  This is the approval rating of the president when the impeachment inquiry began.  Look at this.  Nixon was at 25 percent when the inquiry begin with his own party.  Republicans, Nixon`s approval rating was just 55 percent when the inquiry began.

It only got worse for him from there.  Clinton, the complete opposite.  He was very popular overall when the inquiry began.  He was very popular with his own party.  He was politically strong going into impeachment.  Nixon was politically weak.

Where is Trump?  Kind of a mixed bag, 40 percent approval rating.  That certainly is higher than Nixon, much lower than Clinton.  But it`s that number we were talking about in the last segment, that support from his own party, it rivals Clinton.  He`s 25 points less than Clinton in overall approval rating, but with his own party -- and, remember, if Republicans hold ranks here, he can`t be removed from office -- with his own party, same as Clinton. 

So that`s a significant number politically.  We will see what happens.

Up next:  Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell and even the president`s former Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley are lining up against the president`s abrupt decision to withdraw American troops from Syria.  And one of our key allies in the region is calling it a betrayal.

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(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Yesterday, in a decision that seemed to catch many within his own administration off guard, President Trump announced a withdrawal of American troops from Syria`s border with Turkey.  That paves the way for a Turkish attack on Syrian Kurdish forces. 

The decision came shortly after a call with the Turkish president. 

One person familiar with the government`s policy deliberations told "Politico" that the president, quote, is operating against the advice of his national security leaders and that he went rogue. 

The announcement was met with widespread condemnation. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Is that a wise move?  Is this a policy you can support? 

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC) (via telephone):  Oh, absolutely not.  If I didn`t see Donald Trump`s name on the tweet, I`d thought it was -- it would be Obama`s rational for getting out of Iraq.  This is going to lead to the reemergence of ISIS. 

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA):  I want to know the facts of why it is.  I know the president wants to remove people from the Middle East.  I want to make sure we keep our word for those who fight with us and help us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Are you kidding me?  Again, we`re abandoning our most loyal allies who did our fighting?  All we did is arm them, and they did all the work, and now we say, good luck, good luck, surviving. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  Congresswoman Liz Cheney called the decision, quote, a catastrophic mistake, and Nikki Haley, President Trump`s former ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted: We must always have the backs of our ally, if we expect them to have our back.  Leaving them to die is a big mistake. 

But today, President Trump defended his decision and warned, quote, if Turkey does anything that I and my great unmatched wisdom consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey. 

NBC`s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel spoke to a Syrian Kurdish official who slammed the decision, telling Engel, quote: The Americans are traitors.  They have abandoned us to a Turkish massacre. 

Richard Engel will join me live from Turkey after the break, along with a former State Department official who calls the president`s decision morally repugnant. 

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(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Late this afternoon, President Trump defended his decision to pull troops out of northern Syria despite a looming Turkish attack on Syrian-Kurdish forces. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I told President Erdogan, it`s going to be your responsibility.  Now, really, who`s responsibility?  It`s really Russia, it`s Turkey, it`s Iran, it`s Iraq, and it`s Syria and anybody else in the neighborhood. 

We did a great service to the world.  Right now, we`re at a position where if Turkey does anything out of what they should be doing, we will hit them so hard in the economy.  Let them take care of it. 

We`re policing.  We`re not fighting.  We`re policing.  We`re not a police force. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  According to "The New York Times," quote: If Turkey moves against the Kurds, the Syrian Democratic forces could abandon camps to fight the Turks, potentially allowing some 10,000 captured Islamic State fighters to escape. 

For more, I`m joined by Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent.  He is live in Turkey, and David Phillips, senior adviser at the State Department. 

Thanks to both of you. 

Richard, let me start with you on the ground, we were playing just before you joined us here, dire predictions of what is now to come for the Kurds. Just set the scene on the ground in the region in terms of what the expectations are now, and what is happening right now that this has been announced and begun. 

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT:  Well, I would just ask you to play that clip that we just heard from President Trump again because that kind of encapsulates everything.  I don`t understand a word he was saying and I`ve been working in the Middle East for over 20 years.  We`re policing, Russia, we have done a great service, Iran. 

I have no idea what he`s talking about.  What kind of policy he`s advocating.  Is that a green light to Turkey to go in and clear out the Kurds?

Last night, President Trump had a conversation with the Turkish President Erdogan.  After the conversation, the White House issued a statement that strongly suggested that if Turkish troops move in to northern Syria against the Kurds there, against U.S. allies, U.S. allies who have lost more than 10,000 people, men and women fighting alongside U.S. special operations forces, that the U.S. would have no problem that, that it would stand aside and allow that offensive to take place.  A green light. 

All day today, we were on kind of a war footing, even Turkey thought it was about to begin.  And then president Trump is walking it back, there have been private briefings saying, well, if Turkey goes too far, I`ll destroy their economy.  So, it went from a guilty to an amber light, all encapsulated in that impossible-to-understand statement of policy that you just played at the beginning. 

People here have no idea what the U.S. position is.  No idea if there are any red lines, if there are any green lights, or what to do.  And if you are a U.S. ally like the Kurds whose lives depend on American friendship for your survival, I think right now you`re very, very nervous. 

And I can tell you, we`ve been speaking to them right now.  They`re nervous.  They`re worried they`re going to be betrayed.  They`re not sure who is in charge and what President Trump says when he sits down, picks up the phone, and speaks to other world leaders. 

KORNACKI:  David, in terms of the politics that sort of shape this here domestically, I see two things kind of happening here.  I think Americans are absorbing the sorts of comments from across the political spectrum today about how loyal the Kurds have been to the United States, the idea of you do not want to betray them.  What would happen if they were given up right now? 

When the president used the word police force, I do note, typically when you look at polling and sort of military involvement overseas, there does tend to be an aversion to sending American troops into a lot of situations overseas, frankly.  Is there a way to get an American presence out of Syria that does not give up the Kurds? 

DAVID PHILLIPS, FORMER SENIOR ADVISOR, STATE DEPARTMENT:  So, there`s a Kurdish adage that says Kurds have no friend but the mountains.  And Syria and the U.S. has no friend but the Kurds -- 11,000 Kurds before killed, 22,000 injured fight at our behest against ISIS.  ISIS would not have been defeated without Kurdish participation. 

So, this sends a message in Syria in the region, but also worldwide.  Who is going to go to war with the United States the next time we need a friend and ally when we treat your allies in Syria, the Kurds, the way we have? 

KORNACKI:  So, what would you say to somebody who says, that`s a very good point.  And the United States -- if that is going to be the consequence of this, the United States shouldn`t do this.  But the United States still needs to get out of Syria.  Is there a way to reconcile those two impulses?

PHILLIPS:  So, Syrian Kurds need a train and equip program so that they can defend themselves.  Left to a fair fight, the Kurds would defeat Turkey.  But Turkey has heavy armor, they had air power.  In December of last year, the Kurds attacked a town called Afrin (ph). 

The Kurds tried to defend themselves against Turkeys they were unable to.  Hundreds were killed.  They fled east of the Euphrates River.  The U.S. needs to have an exit strategy for Syria.  That means a political solution that decentralizes power, gives local control to the Kurds over their government, their economy. 

If we don`t do that, it`s just a formula for further instability and conflict in Syria and the Kurds will be left out in the cold and so will our interests.

KORNACKI:  Richard, quickly, we showed all those Republicans who are typically loyal to the president speaking out so forcefully on this today.  That political reality of potentially there being a veto-proof majority in Congress to take action here, is that going to have an effect? 

ENGEL:  Well, the one thing that president Trump has made clear in what is a totally chaotic and apparently improvised strategy that he`s not communicated clearly because people here -- both the Turks and the Kurds do not know what is going to happen next.  The Turks don`t know, do they have this green light to go carry out an offensive?  Do the Kurds know they have just been betrayed and about to be massacred?  Do they start needing to dig foxholes right now?

The one thing that is clear is that President Trump wants out of this and is happy to abandon the people who lost over 10,000 fighters fighting against ISIS.  There are many Americans who do not want to see that happen.  I think it`s bad for the U.S. image.  So, I think that`s why he`s walking it back and maybe some -- I know the Kurds hoping he`ll get distracted again, move on to another subject, and that this will pass. 

KORNACKI:  All right.  Richard Engel in Turkey, David Phillips, thank you to both of you. 

And up next, the incredible uncertainty in the Democratic field. 

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(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORANCKI:  Look at the polls and there`s some order to the Democratic presidential race.  Joe Biden is still in first place, but now only barely.  "The Real Clear Politics" poll average puts him at 0.3 of a point ahead of Elizabeth Warren.  So, you can call the two of them the co-leaders. 

And then after them, only other one -- only one other candidate is in double digits, that`s Bernie Sanders.  He`s back around 14 percent. 

So, it is a giant field, yet only three candidates are really standing out.  So, why does it feel this race might be more unstable than it looks?

Well, let`s look at those top three candidates again. 

There is Biden.  He started as the clear front-runner but his performance on the campaign trail, in particular, in debates, has unnerved some Democrats.  He has found himself in the middle of the Trump Ukraine drama.  And "The New York Times" paints picture of an indecisive candidate unsure how to respond. 

The good news for Biden, he still does better than any other Democrat in a head to head matchups against Donald Trump and he still has strong support from a major Democratic constituency, black voters. 

And there`s Warren.  She is surging, yes, but her coalition is still narrow.  A lot of support from the highly educated, from the very liberal, from white voters. 

But she is far behind with black voters.  Can she expand her coalition?  Will questions about her electability keep her from doing so?

And what about the other candidate in double digits?  Bernie Sanders is 78 years old, the oldest candidate in the field and he just had a heart attack.  He says he`s pressing ahead, but even before this, there were already doubts about his path to the nomination. 

Fortunes change fast in politics.  This race seems stable right now, but for all we know, it looked be on the cusp of a major shakeup. 

That is HARDBALL for now. 

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now. 

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