Dems ditch WH meeting. TRANSCRIPT: 10/16/19, Hardball w/ Chris Matthews.

Guests: Charlie Sykes, Anne Gearan, Jackie Speier, Robert Costa, HakeemJeffries, Donna Edwards, Gabe Debenedetti

STEVE KORNACKI, MSNBC HOST:  The three amigos.  Let`s play HARDBALL.

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

We`ve got breaking news in the impeachment investigation plus a dramatic White House confrontation between Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi this afternoon.  Pelosi characterized it as a meltdown by the president.

This comes after days of testimony by administration officials describing widespread unease over how the Trump administration was carrying out its policy towards Ukraine.

Today, lawmakers heard behind closed doors from Michael McKinley, the former top aide to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.  McKinley abruptly resigned from that role last week.

And according to NPR, McKinley, during the closed door hearing, criticized, quote, what appears to be the utilization of our ambassadors overseas to advance domestic political objectives.  He also said, quote, I was disturbed by the implication that foreign governments were being approached to procure negative information on political opponents.

Additionally, NBC News reports that in his deposition yesterday, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent told lawmakers how career professionals were cut out of the loop.  He testified that in a meeting last May, quote, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney oversaw a meeting where he sidelined State Department officials and tapped three political appointees to oversee Ukraine policy.

That is according to Congressman Gerry Connolly, who says that, quote, Kent told congressional investigators that the trio called themselves the three amigos and elbowed all the other officials at state out of the way.

The self-described three amigos were identified as Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, U.S. Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland and Special Envoy Kurt Volker.  They were assigned to carry out Trump`s agenda in Ukraine which some have described a shadow policy just days after Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was ousted amid a smear campaign led by Giuliani and two of his associates.

According to NBC News, George Kent also said, quote, he was told to lay low by a superior when he raised concerns about Giuliani.

I am joined now by Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California, who serves on the House Intelligence Committee, and Robert Costa, National Political Reporter for The Washington Post.

Congresswoman, let me just start with you.  We keep hearing in the reports that are emerging from these similar themes, similar story lines, the idea of career professionals, the idea of professionals inside the State Department being side lined or being told to make way for Rudy Giuliani and his associates.  Is that the big picture that`s emerging here?

REP. JACKIE SPEIER (D-CA):  Well, I would say the brain trust of the State Department, those who have served for 37 years, 34 years, 27 years have been discarded at a rate that I find really alarming.

And while I`m not going to share what we`ve heard in the interviews right now, there will be transcripts in which the American people are going to have the opportunity to see how disturbing this activity is.

KORNACKI:  Those transcripts, would you know when those will be available?

SPEIER:  I don`t know when they`d be available, but it`s our intention to make all or most of them available, and only take any information off that would be classified in nature.

KORNACKI:  So, Robert Costa, again, it is very similar it seems every day what you`re hearing here in terms of what comes out.  What is it the picture to you that emerges in terms of specifically Rudy Giuliani and the role he was playing here?

ROBERT COSTA, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE WASINGTON POST:  Based on my reporting this is a portrait of an administration that has enabled a freelance foreign policy orchestrated by Mr. Giuliani, his business associates and those within the administration working at times against the foreign service officers, the national security apparatus with the blessing at times of the Trump White House.

And we`ve seen it in this new testimony from official after official, new implications about the chief of staff, the acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, and others within the White House.

KORNACKI:  We`re also learning from The New York Times that Fiona Hill, that`s Trump`s former top adviser on Russia, that she told Congress that she viewed Gordon Sondland, who was carrying out Trump`s agenda in Ukraine, quote, as a potential national security risk because he was so unprepared for his job.  According to Hill, that is in part because, quote, his actions made him vulnerable to foreign governments who could exploit his inexperience.

Now, Sondland is expected to testify tomorrow that he did not know if the president was truthful when he denied any quid pro quo.

Congresswoman, under the role of Gordon Sondland and the expectations, what is it you would like to hear from him specifically tomorrow?

SPEIER:  Well, I want to know from him what specifically what the president of the United States said to him in conversations that he had.  I want to know what he was directed to do relative to Ukraine as ambassador to the E.U.  He really has no jurisdiction or involvement with Ukraine.  So that makes everything even more peculiar.  Rick Perry was on Dancing with the Stars.

I mean when you look at the cadre of people that it would appear were being put in a position to do negotiations with Ukraine, we are not allowing the experts at the State Department who have really spent their lives steeped in understanding what the interests are internationally to do their job.  And they have really been, I think, put out of the loop.  And that should distress all of us because it does affect our national security.

KORNACKI:  Well, as witness reportedly also implicate Mick Mulvaney, The Wasington Post is reporting that, quote, current and former officials said Mulvaney contributed substantially to the unfolding political crisis.  They say Mulvaney met frequently with Sondland and the details of their discussions were kept from then National Security Adviser John Bolton.  And that Mulvaney also tolerated meetings between Trump and Giuliani even after it was well-known that Giuliani was pressing Ukraine for dirt that would help Trump politically.

Robert, you have the role of Mick Mulvaney in all this.  What do you make of it?  What`s your understanding of it?

COSTA:  Talking to top White House officials and congressional Republicans in recent days, they tell me Mr. Mulvaney is the opposite of a guardrail.  He`s not providing the president with any kind of real guidance about the lines that could be crossed in foreign policy and diplomacy by engaging with Mr. Giuliani in these sorts of discussions.  He is the acting chief of staff.

But he is really, in the eyes of his own associates and colleagues, the chief staffer, someone who`s there to enable the president`s wishes, to work with the president rather than contain the president and that caused alarm on the National Security Council, in particular with Ambassador Bolton, who was then serving in the administration.

KORNACKI:  Robert, it occurs to me when Kelly was Chief of Staff, you used to see all these stories out there about was he reining some of the president`s impulses, was he keeping the president at arm`s length from some folks he might concerned about.  Is that part of the story that is potentially emerging here, the difference between Mulvaney as chief of staff and what might have been there before in terms of the discipline maybe it imposed on Trump?

COSTA:  But all of those figures struggled to contain the president.  They tried to act as guardrails but their roles were eventually diminished by a president with an overwhelming personality and a firm grip on executive power, a president, two-and-a-half years, into office much more comfortable with the position than he was in January of 2017.

So for those survivors in this White House, those who continue to serve President Trump, they have found it difficult to push him in a more mainstream or centrist direction on policy because he is running this government, they say, on instinct, in his own world view.

KORNACKI:  All right.  Robert Costa and Congresswoman Jackie Speier, thank you both for joining us.

And meanwhile, NBC News is reporting that Defense Secretary Mark Esper will not comply with the subpoena from House Democrats related to their impeachment inquiry.  This is an about-face for Esper who said on Sunday that he would comply.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARGARET BRENNAN, CBS HOST:  Are you going to comply with the subpoena that the House provided you and provide documents to them regarding to military aid to Ukraine.

MARK ESPER, DEFENSE SECRETARY:  Yes.  We will do everything we can cooperate with Congress.  Just in the last week or two, my general counsel sent out a note, as we typically do, in these situations to ensure documents are retained.

BRENNAN:  Is that the a yes?

ESPER:  That`s a yes.

BRENNAN:  You will comply with the subpoena?

ESPER:  We will do everything we can to comply.

BRENNAN:  Okay.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  Esper is among numerous current and former officials as well as others implicated in the scandal who have refused to cooperate with investigators, that includes Rudy Giuliani and his two business partners who have now been indicted.

I want to bring in Democratic Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of New York.  He is the chair of the House Democratic Caucus.  Congressman, thanks for joining us.

What do you make of Esper`s about-face here, saying on Sunday he`ll comply, now he`s not going to?  Do you know what the explanation is there?

REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D-NY):  We`re not clear what the explanation is other than the fact that Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Bill Barr, Rick Perry, all of the president`s men continue to try and engage in a stonewalling effort to obstruct a constitutional inspired impeachment inquiry into the wrongdoing that is hiding in plain sight.

And so perhaps this is just consistent with that pattern.  But we know that the stonewalling of the president and the president`s men is beginning to fall apart as you have career diplomats and others stepping forward to tell the truth that will be presented to the American people about what has taken place in the context of the Trump-Ukraine scandal.

KORNACKI:  If Esper is refusing to comply with the subpoena, what do you do?  Is there going to be a reaction from House Democrats?  Are you going to take any steps?

JEFFRIES:  Chairman Schiff, Chairman Engel, Chairman Cummings have made clear that the refusal to comply with a congressionally authorized subpoena and request for information will lead to an adverse inference that worthy information requested to be provided to the Congress, it would reflect negatively on the president`s conduct.

And so that step will be taken consistent with what the chairs have communicated to the administration and the continued stonewalling will provide further evidence of a potential obstruction of Congress charge.

KORNACKI:  So that`s interesting just in terms of the strategy you`re outlining there.  Because in the past we`ve seen -- we saw this back with Republicans trying to get this from the Obama administration, we`ve certainly seen that with Democrats trying to get information through subpoenas from the Trump administration, if these things get kicked over to the courts, they take forever in the courts.  There really aren`t any teeth there.

What you`re basically saying though is the strategy for Democrats here is to say, hey, if you`re not going to comply, we`re going to assume it`s because there`s something negative you don`t want to tell us and we`re going to say you`re guilty of obstruction?  Is that the plan here?

JEFFRIES:  That has been outlined by Chairman Schiff.  And I think that to the extent we see continued obstruction from this administration, that`s a road that we will likely go down.

But we`re also going to keep our focus on following the facts, applying the law, being guided by the Constitution.  You have a situation where the president betrayed his oath of office.  He abused his power by pressuring a foreign government to target an American citizen for political gain.  He undermined our national security interests and the integrity of our elections.

No one is above the law, and that will continue to be the driving and focal point of our impeachment inquiry as we move forward.

KORNACKI:  Are there certain individuals who you feel though, even if they`re going to ignore the subpoenas and you`re going to say, well, okay, we`ll assume it`s -- are there certain individuals you feel you ultimately do need to hear from or do need to get documents from?  In particular I`m wondering about Rudy Giuliani, just given how central he is to so much that`s coming out right now?

JEFFRIES:  Well, the burden right now is on the president to basically explain both the July 25th phone call, where we have his own words, do us a favor though, where he`s pressuring the Ukrainian president to effectively interfere in the 2020 elections, thereby soliciting foreign interference in a future election.

In the context of withholding without any legitimate reason or explanation $391 million in congressionally authorized funding for Ukraine -- Ukraine`s a friend, Russia is a foe, Ukraine is a democracy, Russia is dictatorship.  Russia right now is backing separatists who have invaded the eastern portion of Ukraine.  That country is in a vulnerable situation and yet all of this was unfolding in that context.

The president used a high pressure tactic and we need to get information that he`s free to present to potentially explain away his behavior.  If not, it is very damning as it relates to the wrongdoing.

KORNACKI:  All right.  Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, thank you for joining us.  I appreciate it.

JEFFRIES:  Thank you.

KORNACKI:  All right.  And coming up, Democratic leaders walked out of a White House meeting just a short time ago after what Nancy Pelosi described as a presidential meltdown.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY):  He was insulting particularly to the speaker.  She kept her cool completely, but he called her a third-rate politician.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  Plus the disparaging remarks the president reportedly made about his former defense secretary, Jim Mattis, and facing widespread criticism for withdrawing U.S. troops in Syria.  The president today said the conflict there, quote, has nothing to do with us.

Meanwhile, Turkey today intensified its military campaign as even the U.S. calls for a ceasefire.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

There were fireworks at the White House today out of a meeting on Syria after they say the president insulted Democrats, that the president insulted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, calling her a third-rate politician to her face.

Pelosi portrayed the president`s behavior as a meltdown.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA):  Earlier today, the House of Representatives voted, what, 354-60 in opposition to the actions that he has take in Syria.

He was shaken up by it.

We have to pray for his health because this was a serious meltdown on the part of the president.

REP. STENY HOYER (D-MD):  The president came in, to my observation, angry and defensive.  And, frankly, it got worse from there.

SCHUMER:  He was insulting, particularly to the speaker.  She kept her cool completely.  But he called her a third-rate politician.

PELOSI:  What can I say, I wish you were a politician, Mr. President.

I think it`s a very sad commentary on the president of the United States.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  Now, NBC News reports that during the meeting, the president suggested there were communists in Syria and said the Democrats would like that.  He also went after his former defense secretary, Jim Mattis, for his comments that ISIS would resurge if the U.S. fails to keep pressure on it.  Trump called Mattis, quote, the world`s most overrated general.

The White House responded to the Democrats` portrayal of the meeting saying in a statement that, quote, the president was measured, factual and decisive in the meeting.

I`m joined now by Jonathan Lemire, White House Reporter for Associated Press, and Charlie Sykes, Editor at Large for The Bulwark.

Jonathan Lemire, let me start with you.  This meeting, let`s just sort of set the scene here, Pelosi, Schumer, Hoyer, we saw them, there were some other Democrats there meeting with the White House.  The subject here was Syria, was foreign policy and what happened?

JONATHAN LEMIRE, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, ASSOCIATED PRESS:  Well, we`ve now had a few rather eventful meetings between the president and Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schumer at the White House.  Some of it ended rather abruptly, like this one.  Yes, you`re right, the topic was Syria.  But as they got in there, the president started bitterly complaining about the impeachment proceedings.

And I think that is something that`s really come to light here in recent weeks.  We`ve seen the president`s rage on this topic as the impeachment inquiry has begun.

There`s a political calculation here being made by the White House and Republicans close to the president.  And they think impeachment could be a winner for him.  They think that the public doesn`t want this, although we are seeing, of course, polls trending in the other direction.

But they have a long belief, for months now, that the public didn`t want this, that the president could play the martyr card, that, if they push this into 2020, they could paint it as purely political and partisan. 

The -- however, the president himself was not into that idea.  He does understand the political calculus behind it, but he`s been very uncomfortable that he was being impeached.  He`s told people around him he fears, even if the Senate doesn`t remove him, that it would be the first line of his political obituary, that he was the third president to be impeached. 

And he just -- he feels anxious about the whole thing.  And we`re seeing that anger burst out in recent days.  And it did today, of course, with Speaker Pelosi.

And the White House now has even put out a photo of them gathered around the meeting with Pelosi standing up, sort of gesturing at the president.  And the president put it out, suggesting that it makes her perhaps look weak or rude to the commander in chief in the White House. 

But if you look at the picture more carefully, you will see that everyone around the president has their heads down and bowed, and that Pelosi perhaps look like a command -- position of strength.  And the Democrats walked out of the meeting soon thereafter. 

KORNACKI:  And, Charlie Sykes, we mentioned too there the president`s comments -- reportedly, the president`s comments about Jim Mattis.

And you can think back a couple years ago, obviously brought him into his Cabinet, Trump did.  Trump used to celebrate him at public events, talk about him as Mad Dog.  He seemed to love that nickname.

From that reverence to what he`s saying today, what do you make of it? 

CHARLIE SYKES, EDITOR IN CHIEF, THE BULWARK:  Well, first of all, it`s going to be a really long year, isn`t it? 

Look, this -- this president has been petty and petulant before.  But you really got the sense, as Jonathan described, that he`s also rattled by this.  This did not seem to be the performance of a confident man.

But, also, his willingness to insult men like General Mattis, I think it carries some risk for him, because one of his strongest constituencies has been the military, right?  He wants to bond himself to the military.

And you talk to anybody in the military or national security, and they have the utmost respect for Jim Mattis.  And Jim Mattis has been very restrained and very reluctant to speak out, until now. 

But, again, here`s a president who is acting out of glandular impulse, making decisions of life or death, while clearly ignoring and now insulting his own generals.  It`s got to be one of those -- it`s a moment where, again, perhaps we`re not learning anything new about who Donald Trump is, but it certainly underlines it in a very dramatic way. 

KORNACKI:  You mentioned, too, Jon, his -- Trump`s -- your sense of Trump`s frustration just at the presence of the impeachment inquiry.  That it was him vs. Pelosi in that meeting today, does that say anything?  Because I can remember, in sort of the first couple years of his presidency, it wasn`t that he was friendly with Pelosi, but he seemed to be less hostile to her, maybe, is that a fair way of saying it, than some other folks. 

LEMIRE:  Sure.

KORNACKI:  And that`s changed dramatically. 

LEMIRE:  He respected her.  He told people around her -- around him that he thought that she was a good politician, not a third-rate politician, that he did think that, when she assumed the speakership, that they`d be able to work out some things, they would be able to make some deals. 

That, of course, has not really come to pass, as they have had -- developed a very adversarial relationship, goaded on by some of the investigations this year, with the Democrats launching probe after probe, and the White House stonewalling them at every turn, and now, of course, the impeachment inquiry, which has really changed things. 

And I think the fact that this explosion happened at a Syria meeting is not a coincidence either, because it`s that topic is one of the very few where Republican senators have been very vocal about breaking with him, some -- including some of his staunchest allies, like Lindsey Graham.

And while still unlikely that enough Republican senators would defy the GOP rank and file, who find the president still very popular -- his polling with them, as you well know, is very high -- but if he is impeached, it will be the Republican senators who have his fate in their hands.

They`re the ones who would vote in a trial to remove him from office.  And I think there`s a sense as well that the Syria thing has really -- the president is just simply not used to taking criticism from all sides, including those Republicans in the Senate, who normally have stood by him.

KORNACKI:  Right.  And that`s another element here.  The House had just voted against his Syria policy, with a lot of Republicans crossing over right before that meeting. 

Also, Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, he was in the White House meeting as well.  He just told reporters -- quote -- "I didn`t have anything to say in the meeting.  And I don`t have anything to say about it now."

Yes, Charlie, what is your sense too?  Just -- Jonathan brings up how Republican senators are reading Trump right now, how they`re looking at him.  What`s your sense of what they`re seeing and how they`re processing it? 

SYKES:  Well, it can`t be enhancing their confidence in the commander in chief. 

And I think one of the things that is frustrating President Trump is, he`s used to be able to dictate events, right?  He`s used to being able to dictate the news cycle. 

And this is an incident in -- right now, what we`re seeing in Syria, where it`s clearly out of his control.  He does not actually control the messaging, the way that he would like.

And among the -- it`s not just Republicans in the Senate who are looking at this, and even members of the House who are willing to vote against him.  But there are some significant constituencies out there, including evangelical Christians, who have been very, very hostile.

I thought was very interesting that Lindsey Graham went on Pat Robertson`s show on CBN on "The 700 Club" and compared Donald Trump to Barack Obama, said he was pursuing an Elizabeth Warren foreign policy.

In the world of Republican conservative politics, this is firing real bullets, because this is the first time that I can remember that you have seen the president willing to alienate conservative Christian voters as part of his base. 

So he`s got -- he`s got more political problems than I think that he`s willing to admit at the moment. 

KORNACKI:  All right, Charlie is sticking around. 

Jonathan, thank you, though, for joining us.  Appreciate that. 

And up next: President Trump today vigorously defending that decision we were just talking about to pull U.S. troops out of Northern Syria, Trump saying what`s happening over there -- quote -- "has nothing to do with us." You`re watching HARDBALL.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

On the defensive from both Republicans and Democrats, President Trump is standing by his decision to pull back U.S. troops in Syria, clearing the way for a Turkish incursion.

During a bilateral meeting today with Italy`s president, Trump brushed off concerns about the volatile situation in the region, saying -- quote -- "It has nothing to do with us."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  The Kurds have been fighting for hundreds of years.  That whole mess, it`s been going along for a long time.

Syria may have some help with Russia.  And that`s fine.  It`s a lot of sand.  They`ve got a lot of sand over there.  So there`s a lot of sand that they can play with.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  Later, Trump presented a litany of claims to try to bolster his position. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP:  And President Erdogan`s decision didn`t surprise me, because he`s wanted to do that for a long time.  Semi-complicated.  Not too complicated if you`re smart, but it`s a semi-complicated problem. 

And I think it`s a problem that we have very nicely under control.  We`re not a police force.  We`re a fighting force.  We were the ones that got ISIS.  We`re the ones that took care of it, specifically me. 

I`m not going to get involved in a war between Turkey and Syria.  And that`s the way it is.  Whether it`s good or bad, that`s the way it is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  Today, the White House confirmed the accuracy of a letter that it says was sent to the Turkish president three days after Trump signed off on a small incursion. 

In it, President Trump writes: "History will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don`t happen.  Don`t be a tough guy.  Don`t be a fool."

Earlier today, 129 House Republicans joined the entire Democratic Caucus in approving a resolution opposing the president`s actions on Syria. 

Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are on their way to Turkey to demand a cease-fire.  It is unclear if the Turkish president is willing to do that.

Back with me is Charlie Sykes.  Joining me now is Anne Gearan, White House correspondent for "The Washington Post."

Anne, let me start with you. 

We mentioned Pompeo and Pence on their way there to try to get Turkey into some kind of a cease-fire.  The emergence of this letter today, which was dated a week ago, and the fact of all of the events that have happened since that letter was sent, apparently, does that say anything about the prospects of the U.S. having much influence with Turkey here and trying to force a cease-fire? 

ANNE GEARAN, "THE WASHINGTON POST":  Well, they sure haven`t had much influence, if you go back to the fact that that letter has presumably been sitting on President Erdogan`s desk for a week now, and he`s done absolutely the opposite of what President Trump is asking him to do in that letter. 

And then, on top of that, you add that with Mike Pence sitting there looking on today, the president undercut just about every argument the vice president would be making to President Erdogan about why he should even consider a cease-fire. 

They`re -- and starting with the fact that the president said that this entire situation has nothing to do with us. 

Well, if you`re -- if you`re Erdogan, you think, OK, great, so I had a phone call with the president, when I -- where I told him what I wanted to do.  And he said, oh, that`s a really bad idea, and then he sent me a letter saying, it`s a bad idea.  I did it anyway.  There`s been no cost to me. 

And now the vice president, who, by the way, is not the president of the United States, in Erdogan`s view, a lesser figure, is coming over and sitting across the desk from me and saying, can you really please pull back and be nicer, while his boss, the president of the United States, says, I want nothing to do with any of the above.

KORNACKI:  Charlie, we were getting into this a minute ago, but I want to ask you about the politics of -- the confluence of Ukraine and Syria, these two things happening at the same time...

SYKES:  Right.

KORNACKI:  ... and what the political significance among Republicans -- Republicans is going to be, because I hear two theories about this. 

One is that, hey, you look at that House vote today.  Two-thirds of Republicans broke with the administration.  You look at Lindsey Graham.  You listen to the volume of sort of confrontation toward the White House and Republicans you haven`t seen on anything, is that an indication that sort of the dam is breaking in general, and that could carry over to impeachment?

Or the other theory that I hear from some is, well, Syria gives Republicans an outlet to vent against the White House, to separate themselves politically on something, without having to do it on impeachment. 

Which one of those sounds more right to you? 

SYKES:  Yes, I think -- I think the second one is, because I think that the president in his mind will distinguish between policy, which he doesn`t care quite as much about, and existential threats.  So this gives them a little bit of an out.  And Republicans have shown the ability to compartmentalize.

But they are all watching what has happened in the last several days.  And that letter -- by the way, the letter, the universal reaction to that letter is, that cannot possibly be real.  It looks like it was written by a 9-year-old in crayon. 

But this is what irrelevance looks like.  This is what weakness looks like.  And it`s really an extraordinary scene.  And the way -- the day began with Erdogan saying that he might not even meet with Pence.  He`s clearly brushed off all the warnings from the president.  He`s brushed off calls for a cease-fire.

And you think about the diminished role of America in the world, and you wonder whether this is what Trump voters signed up for, and whether this is something that Republicans are going to be comfortable with going forward, because imagine where they`re sitting right now, arguing for five more years of this kind of behavior and this kind of decision-making. 

KORNACKI:  Well, we are also getting some more details about the president`s meeting on Syria, at least ostensibly on Syria, with congressional leaders. 

Three sources tell "The Washington Post" the president mentioned several times that he is not concerned about terrorists 7,000 miles away.

After Democrats left, Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney reminded the president the terrorists responsible for 9/11 -- quote -- "came from 7,000 miles away."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters that President Trump claimed that fewer than 100 ISIS prisoners escaped after his Turkey decision and they were -- quote -- "the weakest, least important ones."

According to Schumer, Defense Secretary Mark Esper confirmed that fewer than 100 escaped, but did not concede that part about them being the least dangerous.

Anne Gearan, the signals the president is sending, both in public and apparently inside this meeting today, vs. the signals his administration is sending, there are some differences there. 

(LAUGHTER)

GEARAN:  Yes, you might say.

On the question of the escaped ISIS fighters, this is really potentially a pretty big problem for the president going forward, on top of a number that he already has related to the Syria-Turkey debacle. 

And that is, namely, one of his chief national security claims to fame is that:  I`m the guy who stamped out the caliphate.  I have been tougher on terrorists than any of my predecessor -- I was -- predecessors.  I was willing to do things to be tough on terrorism that no one else has done. 

If, all of a sudden, he has a bunch of escaped ISIS fighters running around, and either making their way back into Europe or potentially making their -- trying to make their way to the United States or another allied country, and it can be traced back his decision to essentially abandon U.S. guardianship of those areas, that is a problem that is likely to far outlast this immediate question of whether he can leverage his way out of this with Turkey and kind of move on to the next crisis. 

That`s one that could come back. 

KORNACKI:  All right, Anne Gearan and Charlie Sykes, thank you both for joining us.  Appreciate it. 

SYKES:  Thank you. 

KORNACKI:  Up next, going to head over to the Big Board, show you some poll numbers. 

You have got national numbers saying one thing in the presidential race, but how about the first state that votes?  The picture looks a little bit different in Iowa.  We`re going to take a look at that.

You`re watching HARDBALL. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Look, the president has left the Congress with no choice and this is not just about holding the president accountable for not just the thinks emerging in investigates but the actions he`s confessed to on television.  It`s also about the presidency itself because the president ten years or 100 years from now will look back at this moment and draw the conclusion either that no one is above the law or that a president can get away with anything. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  All right.  Welcome back to HARDBALL, by the way.

Pete Buttigieg at that Democratic debate last night, one of the candidates getting a lot of attention, getting a burst of attention maybe after that debate last night.  He mixed it up with Elizabeth Warren, some of the other candidates, maybe got a little more time than usual.  So, a lot of talk now about, is Buttigieg going to have his moment or if his numbers going to pick up?  Some of the other candidates, too, Amy Klobuchar, people talking about as well. 

Well, if anybody does get a boost from this debate, if anybody surges into contention because of this debate or something else, one thing to keep in mind is we`re always looking at the national polls.  This is the national poll average right now.  We`re always seeing, you know, Biden is first right now in the average, Warren is pretty close, Sanders is in third.  Nobody else in double digits. 

It looks something like this for a long time right now, but this may not be the place to look, at least for the first time, if somebody is going to start surging into contention in this race who we haven`t been talking about.  The place to look is probably the first place that votes and that`s Iowa. 

The Iowa caucuses, we know how influential they can be.  You win that state, you get momentum.  You lose that state, you lose momentum, big implications for how Iowa goes, and the race in Iowa looks a little bit different right now than in national race. 

Notice we said nationally it`s been this way for a while three candidates in double digits, well, there are four candidates in double digits in Iowa.  Look at that, Pete Buttigieg, he`s in about 5 percent nationally.  In Iowa, he`s almost triple that.  He`s at 14 percent already.

Look at the leader, Biden and Warren and Sanders, it`s basically a three way tie.  Buttigieg right now eight points out of the lead in Iowa. 

So if he were to get a boost out of this debate last night, if he were to jump up just a couple of points, he`d be right there in the mix for first place in Iowa.  So, it`s a different picture in Iowa and, of course, obviously, between Warren, Sanders and Biden, each one of them only a few points away themselves from pulling away and being in first place.

So, Iowa I think is the place to look.  Obviously, it`s a caucus state.  You`ve got a lot of activists.  You`ve got a lot of people who are really engaged in the process. 

It`s a state with a really, you know, deep presidential and political tradition, candidates can camp out there, the retail can work.  They can get you traction in Iowa that you`re not necessarily getting nationally. 

The other thing to keep in mind with Iowa is it can change late and it can change dramatically. 

Think back the last Democratic race where the party was trying to come up with a nominee to unseat a Republican incumbent.  It was back in 2004.  George W. Bush was president.  The Iraq war had been launched.  Democrats badly wanted to get rid of him, and there was sort of a Democratic field that looked a lot like this.  It was crowded.  It wasn`t clear who the frontrunner was.

Let me show you -- Iowa around this time in 2003, this is what the polling looked like.  This was "The Des Moines Register".  Gephardt, remember him?  He was the leader.  Howard Dean, he was the story of 2003.  He was in second place.

Then you get to Kerry and nobody else even in double digits.  That`s what it looked like around this point in Iowa.

This is what it ended up looking like on caucus night.  Kerry won 38 percent, from 15 to 38.  But look at this one. 

Edwards, second place with 32 percent.  Look where he was at this point, he was only at 5 percent.  He surged dramatically and he surged late and he came in to second place.

And that was all John Kerry needed, by the way.  He won Iowa.  He rolled into New Hampshire a few days later and that was it, he was on his way to the nomination.  Iowa changed everything for Kerry.  Iowa has changed everything for other candidates including Barack Obama and Iowa itself can change late. 

So, keep an eye on those polls in Iowa.  They may be a lot more significant now than all those national polls I`m always showing you.

Anyway, still ahead, after a recent surge in the polls, Elizabeth Warren was taking fire from all sides at last night`s Democratic debate.  How did she handle it? 

That and more 2020 news, next on HARDBALL.

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(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I appreciate Elizabeth`s work, but again, the difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something you can actually get done. 

PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Your signature, Senator, is to have a plan for everything except this. 

REP. TULSI GABBARD (D-HI), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I`d like it to ask Senator Warren if she would join me in calling for an end to this regime change war in Syria finally. 

BETO O`ROURKE (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Sometimes I think that Senator Warren is more focused on being punitive or pitting some part of the country against the other. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

There were a lot of fireworks at last night`s Democratic presidential debate in Ohio.  As you just heard, a lot of it centered around Senator Elizabeth Warren.  With her rise in the polls, it appears the other candidates now see her as the front-runner. 

By NBC`s count, she was the candidate attacked the most last night.  Sixteen times in total compared to only two attacks against former Vice President Joe Biden. 

Warren took the most heat for her response in how she would pay for her Medicare for All plan.  Let`s watch this. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MODERATOR:  Will you raise taxes on the middle class to pay for it, yes or no? 

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Costs will go up for the wealthy and for big corporations.  And for hardworking middle class families, costs will go down. 

BUTTIGIEG:  A yes or no question that didn`t get a yes or no answer. 

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I do think it is appropriate to acknowledge that taxes will go up. 

KLOBUCHAR:  At least Bernie`s being honest here in saying how he`s going to pay for this. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  For more, I`m joined by Democratic Congresswoman Donna Edwards of Maryland, who`s a contributing columnist to "The Washington Post", and Gabe Debenedetti, national correspondent for "New York Magazine". 

Donna, let me start on that clip we just played from Warren, this has come up in every debate.  She`s asked, will the middle class have to pay more in taxes as part of your plan?  And her answer is, costs will go down.  And there`s a step in the middle where it looks like the taxes will go up but the argument, hey, your overall costs when you factor everything in would go down.  But she won`t admit or say the part about taxes going up. 

Can she -- is that tenable?  Can she keep doing that the rest of the campaign? 

DONNA EDWARDS (D-MD), FORMER U.S. CONGRESSWOMAN:  Well, I think we`re going to see.  I mean, I do think that it is a challenge for her to try to explain this to the American people who, you know, spend their out-of- pocket costs but also understand taxes.  And so, I think she`s going to have to come up a more solid answer.  For someone like me who spends $27,000 in out of pocket costs, you tell me you`re going to bring that down some, I`m with you on that. 

KORNACKI:  How do you think she held up last night?  We mentioned 2004 Howard Dean became the front runner and they started attacking him. 

What did it look like from her standpoint last night?

GABE DEBENEDETTI, NEW YORK MAGAZINE NATIONAL CORRESONDENT:  Yes.  Well, they clearly knew that they were going to get all these bows and arrows, I should say, coming in.  You know, if you talk to people in her world, including the senator, she said, you know, people are going to come after me.  She`s obviously the front-runner now, at least according to the other people on stage.

I don`t know if Joe Biden would necessarily agree with that, but that was what we saw here.  You know, there`s very little evidence that -- you know, what we saw yesterday is going to drag her down.  But we did see a lot of people do is trying to build themselves up.  That`s why you saw Amy Klobuchar going after her hard, Pete Buttigieg going after her hard.

But if you look at this question about middle class taxes on health care, Elizabeth Warren has been facing this question specifically in different variations of this question for weeks now.  It`s been the question that she gets asked the most.  As soon as she stepped up stage last night, she got six different versions of it then interview afterwards, and she`s very consistent. 

And I think it`s very important to think about the political gamesmanship here.  Listen, it`s obvious that she doesn`t want a clip out there, in case she becomes the nominee, saying I`m going to raise taxes on a the middle class no matter what the follow is.  But more than, if she were to suddenly say, OK, fine, I`m going to raise taxes to the middle class, she doesn`t want that narrative either. 

So, she does have to navigate this a little bit carefully, but she`s been extremely consistent when she says, listen, costs are going to go down and that`s what real Americans care about.  If you`re trying to play a game here and trying to say, well, taxes are going to go up and costs go down and that`s not really what matters, then you`re divorced from the reality that every day Americans are living.  That`s been very pretty compelling so far. 

KORNACKI:  What do you make of Bernie Sanders?  There were all sorts of questions coming in last night -- just had a heart attack, oldest candidate in the field.  The state of his campaign coming out of the debate, I`m curious based on his performance and also the news at the end of the debate that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is going to be endorsing it. 

EDWARDS:  Well, I mean, he looked really strong to me last night and I think that was really important because I think people were looking to see, well, you know, how does Bernie perform, is he old Bernie or is this a new Bernie?  And then he comes right out of that with these big endorsements. 

Now, I`d run for office and sometimes I`m not really sure endorsements matter but this one really could.  It could help to sway people.  It could also help to keep people in line after the nomination is over. 

If Bernie doesn`t get it, making sure all of those supporters come on board, too.  So I think that was a big moment for Bernie to prove himself, and he handled it. 

KORNACKI:  Yes, the timing.  I mean, there`s so much talk about is he fading out.  I do think certainly that narrative complicated at least by last night. 

Another memorable moment, Mayor Pete Buttigieg taking on Beto O`Rourke over his mandatory assault weapon buyback proposal. 

Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUTTIGIEG:  Look, Congressman, you just made it clear that you don`t know how this is actually going to take weapons off the streets.  If you can develop the plan further, I think we have a debate about it, but we can`t wait.  People are dying in the streets right now. 

O`ROURKE:  Listening to my fellow Americans, to those moms who demand action, to those students who march for our lives, who in fact came with up this extraordinary bold peace plan that calls for mandatory buybacks, let`s follow their inspiration and lead and not be limited by the polls and the consultants and the focus groups.

BUTTIGIEG:  The problem isn`t the polls.  The problem is the policy.  And I don`t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal.  Everyone on this stage is determined to get something done. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  Gabe, Pete Buttigieg in some ways, he`s exceeded the normal expectations that would exist for a mayor of a city of 100,000 getting in a presidential race.  What are the chances, though, he takes the next step and actually becomes a contender in Iowa and nationally? 

DEBENEDETTI:  Well, what are the chances is the questions that he`s been asking himself for the last few weeks and months now and raising all this money almost more than anyone else is really helping him think that it`s possible to step in to the very top of the top tier.

He`s making a specific bet right now and last night that going after not only Elizabeth warren but also Beto O`Rourke, also Tulsi Gabbard really playing a punchier role here and position himself in this moderate lane as a Biden alternative.  You see Biden stumbling over and over or at least according to someone like Buttigieg you do, and he is trying to say, listen, if you need someone who`s going to be able to step up and take this position, I`m there but it`s a risky bet, because it`s a risky bet, because every time we`ve seen other candidates trying to play this antagonist role in this debate, whether it`s Kamala Harris of Cory Booker or Julian Castro, all of which were against Joe Biden, it hasn`t necessarily backfired but it hasn`t really resulted in a long-term boost to their campaigns.

So, Buttigieg is now specifically making this wager as more candidates tune in and as he spends more in Iowa, that this is what people want to see. 

KORNACKI:  OK.  And again, last night at the CNN, next time, it`ll be the MSNBC debate.  So, a little shameless plug there.

Donna Edwards, Dave Debenedetti, thank you for being here.

Up next, an exciting announcement about something launching this Friday.  You`re not going to want to miss it. 

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI:  And some exciting news.  This Friday is the launch of my brand new podcast, we`re calling it "Article 2: Inside Impeachment."  There are new developments inside the impeachment inquiry every minute and it can seem impossible to keep up as each development raises new question. 

So, we`ve got you covered with new episodes every Monday, Wednesday, Friday to help you understand what really matters in this historic moment.  Look for "Article 2: Inside Impeachment" starting this Friday wherever you get your podcast. 

That`s HARDBALL for now. 

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now. 

  THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END