Questions about election security. TRANSCRIPT: 12/27/19, Hardball w/ Chris Matthews.

Guests: Irvin McCullough, Jennifer Horn, Cynthia Alksne, Evan McMullin,Desiree Barnes, Noah Rothman

AYMAN MOHYELDIN, MSNBC HOST:  All right, that does it for me.  I`m going to see you here tonight at 10:00 p.m. Eastern filling in for Lawrence O`Donnell on THE LASTWORD.  HARDBALL is next.

STEVE KORNACKI, MSNBC HOST:  Trump outs the whistleblower?  Let`s play HARDBALL.

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

President Trump capped his holiday week with a barrage of Twitter attacks on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.  He has tweeted or re-tweeted several dozen times since Thursday, taking swipes at Speaker Pelosi and her district and blasting House Democrats over impeachment.  But last night, Trump also re- tweeted a post by his re-election campaigns, quote, war room linking an article that named the alleged whistleblower whose complaint ultimately led to impeachment.

It has been nine days now since he House of Representatives voted to pass articles of impeachment.  Speaker Pelosi continues to hold onto those articles until Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell negotiates the terms of a Senate trial.  But pressure is already mounting on Republican senators who are undecided on impeachment and procedural questions, in particular Maine Senator Susan Collins, who`s being targeted by Republican groups critical of President Trump, including the Lincoln Project, that`s a Super PAC funded by Republican critics of the president.

President Trump did his part to try to curry favor with Collins with an endorsement of her 2020 re-election earlier this week.  In a statement, Senator Collins told a Portland newspaper, quote, I take seriously the oath I will swear to render impartial justice in the impeachment trial.  Threats from both the left and right will have zero influence on my decisions.

For more, I`m joined by Shannon Pettypiece, NBC News Senior Digital White House Reporter, Irvin McCoullough, a National Security Analyst for the Government Accountability Project, and Jennifer Horn, co-Founder of the Lincoln Project and former Chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party.  Thanks to all of you for being with us.

Shannon, let me start with you.  We mentioned the president`s Twitter activity, quite a bit of it in the past couple of days, very aggressive here particularly when it comes to his posture towards Nancy Pelosi.  In terms of the White House`s strategy towards impeachment and that stalemate between the House and the Senate right now, what is the president trying to achieve here?

SHANNON PETTYPIECE, MSNBC SENIOR DIGITAL WHITE HOUSE REPORTER:  Well, he`s certainly trying to make a villain out of Pelosi and to make her the villain in this narrative.  The president is usually strongest when he has a strong adversary on the other side.  So when you look at 2016 having Hillary Clinton a very unfavorable candidate, according to all the polls, on the opposite ticket really helped drive out a lot of voters for him.  Not so much a vote for him but a vote against Clinton.

When you look at the Democrats right now, they don`t really have anyone with that sort of that un-favorability rating, as you saw with Clinton.  So he is trying to paint the Democratic Party as a whole and find the sort of villains, quote, unquote, that he can pick out, whether it`s Nancy Pelosi or AOC or the squad, and take them and use them as a sort of caricature or a portrait that he wants to paint as the Democratic Party as a whole going into 2020.

So he wants -- when voters go to the ballot, if they`re not going to cast a vote for him because they don`t like him or they don`t like his behavior as president, they`re going to show up because they want to cast a vote against Nancy Pelosi or the squad or whatever progressive elements of the Democratic Party he finds.  So I think that is really why he`s single out Pelosi.

I don`t know if that has become effective yet because it seems it`s only making her stronger.

KORNACKI:  Irvin, we mentioned this re-tweet the president did last night as sort of part of this barrage, something that included allegedly the whistleblower`s name.  I know you do quite a bit of work there involving whistleblowers.  What is your reaction to that re-tweet from the president?

IRVIN MCCULLOUGH, NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST, GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY PROJECT:  Bluntly, I think that that re-tweet is wholly irresponsible.  This is reportedly a CIA employee who has blown the whistle on the president of the United States who is currently suffering death threats.  And when people hear the word threats, their eye is rolled back into their heads, but, really, this person`s life can be in danger.  This person has received death threats.  They are under federal protection right now.

And once again, Donald Trump does not know for certain the identity of the whistleblower.  The whistleblower`s legal counsel have come out and said that this person that the Trump tweet mentioned may or may not be the actual whistleblower, but anyone is the whistleblower, especially when they`re fearing for their live said is wholly irresponsible and reckless.

KORNACKI:  Jennifer Horn, we mentioned this standoff between the House and Senate, perhaps within the Senate as well.  You represent the group of, the term is always out there, never-Trump Republicans.  I don`t know if you think that`s a fair label, but trying to exert pressure on Republicans to make moves against the president.

When it comes to this debate, there seems to be two different debates in the Senate here, one is over the question of acquittal -- a conviction or acquittal of the president, but the other is more immediate and it`s about the rules.  Tell me your group, the Lincoln Project, who are you looking at in particular among Republicans and what are you trying to tell them right now?

JENNIFER HORN, CO-FOUNDER, THE LINCOLN PROJECT:  Sure.  Thanks for the opportunity to be here tonight, Steve.  The Lincoln Project is about defeating Donald Trump and Trumpism at the ballot box.  So we`re looking at every single Republican in Congress and their behavior over the last three years in protecting and defending this president.

At the moment, of course, all eyes are on impeachment and the Republicans in the Senate.  So folks like Senator Collins, Martha McSally, Cory Gardner and a lot of other ones, frankly, you know, Mitch McConnell, their behavior in this moment is going to be remembered by history certainly, but more immediately it`s going to be remembered by us on election day.

I`m very happy to hear what Senator Collins has to say about trying to maintain her neutrality in taking her oath seriously.  But we see from Senator McConnell that, really, the behind the scenes effort in the Senate right now is to create a circumstance that will just simply, quickly exonerate the president, somehow find him not guilty.

There is so much evidence publicly available of the president`s guilt for abuse of power that it`s an argument -- it`s a debate that we shouldn`t even be having right now.  We need to have an open Senate trial.  We need to bring forward all of those witnesses that we know have direct knowledge that the president, remember, was calling to have witnesses in the House.  And we`re looking for folks like Senator Collins to stand up and be a voice for what`s right and for the people of this country.

KORNACKI:  So if they don`t do that, if Susan Collins, if Cory Gardner, if Martha McSally, if Thom Tillis, if these Republican senators who are facing re-election in 2020 don`t do what you`re talking about, are you prepared to oppose them for re-election?  Would you rather have a --

HORN:  Absolutely, yes.

KORNACKI:  I guess that`s an interesting question then from an ostensibly Republican group is your position a Susan Collins who does not vote for the kind of trial you have in mind, you`d rather than have a Democratic senator than her?

HORN:  What I`d rather are senators who honor the Constitution.  This isn`t about having a trial that I would rather have.  This is about having a trial that meets the constitutional standard.  And, frankly, Steve, it`s about having the kind of trial that these same Republicans would be demanding if we were talking about a democratic president.  I am old enough to remember very well what unfolded when President Clinton was in the same situation that Donald Trump is in right now.

And, frankly, I find it grossly hypocritical that the same people who back then said it doesn`t matter that the lie was about an affair, what matters is that the lie took place by the president of the United States under oath.  You cannot possibly look at what happened then and think that somehow what`s happening now is not much, much worse.

When we look at the abuse of power by this president trying to bring foreign influence into our presidential elections so, you know, we are just simply asking what we think is constitutionally sound, that these Republican senators stand up and defend the Constitution of the United States, and, frankly, that they are a voice for the American people, not just a voice for the president`s most ardent supporters.

KORNACKI:  All right, we should point out Susan Collins was in the Senate back in the Clinton trial you`re describing.  She actually did vote to acquit Bill Clinton.  So she was not among those making the case you`re saying there.

Another senator who could potentially break with Republicans on impeachment, that`s Alaska`s Lisa Murkowski.  She says she is disturbed by Mitch McConnell and his plans to hold the impeachment trial in his words here, in total coordination with the White House.  On Thursday, Louisiana Senator John Kennedy, an impeachment critic, responded to Murkowski`s comments.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R-LA):  The senator is entitled to her opinion, and Senator McConnell is entitled to his.  Nine out of ten senators secretly don`t want to hear this case and the tenth is lying.  Now, there are many of them not going to say that publicly, but that`s how they feel.  Speaker Pelosi knows that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  Kennedy also weighed in on the impasse between McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer over Schumer`s request for testimony from four witnesses, including former National Security Adviser John Bolton and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KENNEDY:  He better be careful what he asks for.  Because if he gets his witnesses, I`m sure that the president is going to want his witnesses, and the president`s witnesses won`t be subject to a claim of executive privilege, but Chuck`s might.  And I`m not saying he will but you could end up with a situation where the president gets his witnesses and Chuck doesn`t get his.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  Well, Shannon, I`m curious.  It seems at least for right now, the president and the White House are placing their faith and their confidence strategically in Mitch McConnell and Mitch McConnell`s ability to hold the line against the kind of pressure that one of our guests here, Jennifer Horn, is describing.  What is their confidence level that McConnell will be able to do that for them in the end?

PETTYPIECE:  Well, they`re certainly placing confidence in McConnell, but they are well aware that these moderate senators or Republican Moderate senators, at least, that you`re talking about, Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, I`ll throw Mitt Romney in there, we haven`t mentioned him yet, that they wield an enormous amount of power too and potentially more than Mitch McConnell.  Because the Senate majority leader does not get to set the rules here, the Senate does.  And so, inevitably, the procedure, the rules how this is all going to play out will all come up to a vote in the Senate where there has to be 51 votes.

Now, Republicans can lose two of those sort of moderate-leaning senators but they can`t lose all three of them, McConnell, Murkowski and Romney.  And Romney and Murkowski, of course, aren`t up for re-election.  Now, Collins has a tough re-election bid, so the two of them have a little bit more breathing room.  So the White House is also aware of that, also aware that things can only be pushed so far without those more to the center members stepping in and trying to push things back.

But it`s an interesting dynamic we`re seeing this time because Trump`s approval ratings are so much lower than Clinton`s were at this time, yet he still wields so much more power and control over his party than Clinton does, which so I think that that`s sort of what we`re seeing now is the control the president has over his power is really offsetting his consistently low approval ratings and helping give the White House a level of comfort here that even if one or two break off that because the Republican support is still so strong behind the president, you`re not going to see a mutiny among Republican senators.

KORNACKI:  Irvin, talking about here potential witnesses might be called in a Senate trial, if you`ve got a full-fledged trial if it does indeed end up that way.  From that standpoint, there were certainly Republicans, we heard, in the House, as this was progressing as this debate was talking about maybe having the whistleblower called for a Senate trial.  What do you make of that?

MCCULLOUGH:  Well, the whistleblower should not be called because our elected officials created this system through which Intelligence Community employees could pull the fire alarm.  They could alert their elected officials to dangers inside the Intelligence Community.  And inside this system, they are entitled to anonymity.  It is implicit throughout the statute that they are entitled to confidentiality whenever they make that disclosure.

There is no realistic way the Senate could call before them this whistleblower without this whistleblower`s confidentiality being breached.  The only way I could foresee this happening could be through written questions that members could write to the whistleblower, the whistleblower could then answer under penalty of perjury.  I know that the whistleblower`s attorneys have even recommended that that is an option that they and their client are open to.

I will say, however, that I`m a bit perplexed as to why the president even wants this whistleblower to testify.  If this whistle-blower can write, can speak as well as he can write, then his testimony will be credible, calm and calamitous for the president.

KORNACKI:  Jennifer, I just want to ask you one more about the politics of the Senate and what you`re trying to achieve here.  I wonder does what happened in the House on both the vote to launch the inquiry in the House, there were no Republicans who were against that, and then the final vote on impeachment, both articles, no Republican votes against that.  No Republicans, excuse me, for the articles of impeachment either.  Does that tell you where this is likely to end up in the Senate at all?

HORN:  Well, it certainly gives us grave concern about where this is likely to end up in the Senate, yes.  You know, this whole thing, it isn`t just about this moment for impeachment.  The Lincoln Project is about a review of the last three years, the abuse of power by this president, and on the flipside, the willingness of so many elected Republicans to either assist the president or just look the other way.

This is a moment in history that is going to be remembered well, and it`s not -- and legacies are not going to be built by protecting a corrupt president.  Folks like Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins and the whole list, Martha McSally, you know, Cory Gardner, they have an opportunity in this moment to be remembered for the infinity, the history of our country as the people who stood up, spoke up and did what`s right.  That`s what we`re hoping for.

KORNACKI:  All right, Jennifer Horn, Irvin McCullough, Shannon Pettypiece, thank you all for being with us.

And coming up, Prosecutor John Durham`s probe into the origins of the Russia investigation is setting up a potentially toxic confrontation between the Justice Department and the Intelligence Community.  CIA Director Gina Haspel is right in the eye of it brewing storm.

Plus, who`s winning the Democratic race for president?  Well, usually, you just check out the polls.  But what if there aren`t any?  There`s a real problem for prognosticators right now.  I`m going to take you through that and irregularities in new voting machines in Eastern Pennsylvania.  They have officials there worried about election security and voter confidence in those machines as we enter 2020.  We have an exclusive report on that coming up.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

President Trump`s attorney general and CIA director appear to be on a collision course as the Justice Department continues its investigation into the origins of the Russia probe.  Politico today is reporting that the U.S. attorney overseeing that investigation, John Durham, quote, is focusing much of his attention on the CIA placing the agency`s director, Gina Haspel, at the center of a politically toxic tug-of-war between the Justice Department and the Intelligence Community.

In her 19 months on the job, Haspel has kept a relatively low profile and has so far managed to avoid the president`s ire.  But according to Politico, quote, Intelligence Community veterans say the Durham probe could force Haspel to choose between protecting her agency from Trump`s wrath and bowing to Barr`s wishes.

The New York Times reports Durham has asked the CIA to turn over communications from its former director, John Brennan, and he`s scrutinizing the Intelligence Community`s 2017 assessment that Russia interfered specifically to help the Trump campaign. 

As Politico notes, Attorney General Barr has been skeptical of the agency`s conclusions about Putin`s motivations.  Investigations by both special counsel Robert Mueller and the Senate Intelligence Committee, of course, reached the same -- reached the conclusion that Russia intervened to benefit the Trump campaign. 

I`m joined now by Cynthia Alksne, a former federal prosecutor, and Evan McMullin, a former CIA operative. 

Thanks to both of you for being with us.

Evan, let me start with you, because this looks like, as we set it up there, there are the makings here, at least potentially, for a collision here between the CIA and the Department of Justice. 

How do you peg the odds of that actually happening?  And, if it does, what would happen? 

EVAN MCMULLIN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Well, I think the odds are pretty decent.  And if it doesn`t happen, it`ll be because Director Haspel was somehow able to deftly manage this situation. 

I think she will probably try to rely on her -- what has been a positive relationship with the president.  She will probably try to strengthen that, try to stay close to him during this for a little bit of internal political cover. 

I would imagine that she will also try to cooperate with the investigation as far as she can, give them something, while protecting things that really matter. 

And I don`t think she will need to protect anything, any wrongdoing or anything like that.  I think it`s more a matter of protecting the agency`s ability to do its work, and directors like herself and directors in the future, their ability to lead the organization. 

I mean, it`s incredible to me that Durham is asking for former CIA Director John Brennan`s internal communications and call logs. 

I mean, it`s just unimaginable that we have a DOJ empowered by the president in a way that I don`t think has ever been done before and in a way that seems completely inappropriate and political, to go after the agency, and not only the agency, but the former director of the agency, for simply doing his job, in pursuit of and in amplification of and justification of a conspiracy theory that the president continues to push, which is that Russia wasn`t actually responsible for 2016. 

And that`s what this is all about, if you ask me. 

KORNACKI:  Well, so, Cynthia, Evan gets it to there, the idea that Haspel might end up trying to draw some kind of line here, might end up feeling forced to draw some kind of line.

Maybe it`s over Brennan`s communications.  Maybe it`s over some other requests.

But when it comes to DOJ vs. CIA, and the CIA director trying to draw some kind of a line, what kind of latitude does she have to do that? 

CYNTHIA ALKSNE, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR:  Well, she`s got a lot of latitude, until it comes down to a grand jury subpoena.

That`s why this investigation, once it was raised to the level of a criminal investigation, and that -- and Durham had grand jury subpoena power and the other powers that come with the grand jury, it became very dangerous. 

I mean, just recognize the situation.  This is an investigation, if it`s really looking at John Brennan, which is, A, politically motivated by the president -- he`s attacked Brennan, repeatedly called him a liar and every name under the book in his Twitter feed. 

Barr is willing -- we have also established that Barr is willing to lie and corrupt the truth and twist the truth for the president.  And he`s actually gotten Durham to do some things that are not good. 

I mean, after the Horowitz report came out, he did something, in my opinion, which is unconscionable, which is comment on an investigation. 

So you`re sitting in this messy situation, where you have a politically motivated investigation, where the president United States is weighing in.  And she has to make some decisions about whether or not she`s going to protect the organization, recognizing, too, that she`s run into Durham before. 

And what we don`t know is, what really are his opinions of her?  And that will make a big difference.  He investigated her when it had to do with the destruction of the tapes in the torture investigations over a decade ago.

And that may turn out to play a factor in it.  But she has some flexibility.  But when that grand jury subpoena hits the table, she has to turn it over. 

KORNACKI:  Evan, you got to this a second ago, but there is that question then. 

Brennan, John Brennan, specifically, why the interest there?  Is it to do with -- as you`re saying, do you think it is to do with the question of Russia`s motivation in interfering in the 2016 election?  Does it have to do with -- you keep seeing these reports about this guy Mifsud and then who exactly he was.  Is it trying to chase that down?

Where do you think that comes from? 

MCMULLIN:  Look, I think this is all about the president`s reelection prospects. 

He, of course, would like to win again in 2020.  He understands that the substantiated reports and proven case of Russian interference on his behalf in the 2016 campaign is a vulnerable for -- a vulnerability for him leading into 2020. 

And so he wants to mitigate that as much as possible.  And what he`s trying to do here is say simply, look ,there were investigations into me and Russia, and, yes, they turned up some results, and they`re not favorable to me, but, look, maybe there was -- maybe those investigations weren`t quite right, and they were biased, and politically motivated, and there are investigations into those investigations.

And so, look, the American people and my supporters, speaking of -- for Trump, you can`t really know the truth here.  The truth is hard to determine. 

And I don`t think Trump has to convince his supporters that there was actual wrongdoing necessarily in these investigations.  He just has to have them believing that possibly there may have been and that maybe Russia didn`t intervene on his behalf.  And that allows him to keep together a relatively strong plurality, not majority, but plurality, that could potentially enable him to win again in 2020. 

KORNACKI:  All right, Evan McMullin and Cynthia Alksne, thank you both for joining us. 

Up next, I`m going to head over to the Big Board.  We`re going to look at the lack of polling in early states.  We talk all the time who`s winning Iowa, who`s winning New Hampshire, who`s winning South Carolina?  A little tougher to tell right now than we`re used to. 

You`re watching HARDBALL. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI:  All right, welcome back to HARDBALL. 

The countdown is on.  Look at that, 38 days to go now, 38 days and counting, until the lead-off Iowa caucuses.  And once you have Iowa, they start coming fast and furious. 

Let`s take a look at the leader board.  The average of all the polls in Iowa right now, Buttigieg narrowly leads, then Sanders, then Biden, then Warren, very close race. 

How about New Hampshire?  That comes a little more than a week later?  Talk about a tight race, Sanders, Buttigieg, Biden, Warren all within about six points of each other. 

You go out to Nevada, Biden`s got the lead.  He`s not exactly running away with it, though.  And, of course, then South Carolina, that`s where Biden has the big lead.  He`s calling that his firewall. 

You are familiar with these numbers.  We have been talking about these numbers.  They set expectations. 

Here`s the only problem.  How many polls are we actually talking about here?  Iowa, month of December, there have only been two polls, two polls taken in the state of Iowa.  And, by the way, see this here, qualifying polls?

Remember, the DNC has the -- it`s a pretty long list.  The DNC has a pretty long list of officially designated polls that they use for inclusion in the debates.  They tend to be the more gold standard polls, the bigger name organizations.

There been zero of those in Iowa this month.  So, two polls, neither of them is a DNC debate-qualifying poll.  That`s all we`re going on in Iowa when we tell you who`s winning, who`s losing out there right now.

New Hampshire, there`s been one.  There`s been one poll in the entire state of New Hampshire this month.  That poll was not a DNC-sanctioned debate- qualifying poll. 

How about Nevada?  Zero.  No polls at all of any kind in Nevada in December.  One in South Carolina, and, again, that poll in South Carolina not a DNC-sanctioned poll.

And so the four key leadoff states, four crucial states, these are the states that are going to winnow the field, they`re probably going to create a front-runner, maybe a clear, maybe an overwhelming front-runner.  To figure out what`s going on there, in terms of polling, this is all you got.

You got four for the entire month that`s finishing up right now.  None of them are the sort of brand-name, DNC-qualifying polls.  At this point last time around, end of December 2015, in these four states, we were looking at 14 different polls.  Right now, we`re only looking at four. 

Why are there far fewer this time around?  Money.  Money`s a big reason.  Polls are getting more expensive, especially at the state level, because it`s harder and harder to reach voters.  It`s harder and harder to get people to pick up the phone.

The last time you got a cell phone call, started buzzing, maybe your landline, you didn`t recognize the number, when`s the last time you just picked up the phone?  It`s one of the problems pollsters have right now. 

So, far fewer polls.  Good news is this.  We`re in a slow period right now, the week between Christmas and new year.  Not going to expect to see many right now.  I think, maybe in that first week or two of the new year, there might be a batch of new polls coming up.  Boy, do we need them to find out what is happening in these states. 

But, again, 14 polls at this point four years ago really gave us a good sense of what was going on in these states, right now, only four.  So it`s very limited.  You look out there, there`s evidence that Buttigieg has surged in Iowa.  There`s evidence that Biden`s running from a -- behind maybe, slightly behind out there. 

But let`s see.  Let`s see when we get a big brand-name poll there, probably, hopefully early in January.  And I think then we will get a much clearer look.  Right now, a little different than we`re used to.

Up next, electability, it`s that word, a key concern for many primary voters, many caucus-goers.  What exactly does it mean when it comes to the Electoral College? 

We just talked about the polls we don`t have.  Next, we`re going to take a look some of the polling we do have nationally, what it tells us about potential matchups. 

You`re watching HARDBALL. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I thought I knocked off Pocahontas.  I did it a year too early.  She`s gasping for air. 

Who wants to watch Buttigieg?  Buttigieg.  They call him Mayor Pete because nobody can pronounce his last time. 

Hey, do you ever notice where Biden keeps saying he is in the wrong state?  Like, if he`s Ohio, it`s great to be in Iowa tonight.  What is wrong with this guy? 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

That was President Trump this month going on the attack against some of his potential 2020 rivals. 

The president will be entering next year`s election is the first impeached president running for a second term.  And as this year comes to an end, there are still 15 Democratic contenders vying to take on the president. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  We have a president who is a pathological liar, who is corrupt, who is a racist, a sexist. 

JOSEPH BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  He is a complete failure, a complete failure as commander in chief, and is the most reckless and incompetent commander in chief we have ever had. 

PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  He doesn`t respect his own presidency.  And, frankly, at a deeper level, I don`t think he respects himself.  I think he has created a sort of cartoon character. 

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Donald Trump has put us in a much worse position than we were in before he became president. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI:  And, for more, I`m joined by Desiree Barnes, former aide to the Obama White House, and Noah Rothman, associate editor for "Commentary" magazine. 

So, taking sort of a big picture look, taking stock at the end of the year, who achieved what politically this year, what we can look to in 2020.

Desiree, I will start with you. 

Fifteen -- I`m glad we put the number there.  I was trying to count out myself. 

DESIREE BARNES, FORMER OBAMA WHITE HOUSE AIDE:  Yes.  I can`t keep up.

KORNACKI:  There are 15 Democratic candidates technically still in the race, believe it or not.

BARNES:  Yes. 

KORNACKI:  That`s a big reduction from where it was. 

Of those 15, which one had the best 2019? 

BARNES:  I don`t think I can just pick one. 

I would say that there are two that stand out.  I would say Mayor Buttigieg.  He was the mayor of South Bend.  We didn`t know much about him.  And now he is performing in fund-raising numbers as well as Vice President Biden, in fact, better, as well as beating out Senator Warren sometimes in some quarters, as well as Sanders. 

And then I would say Senator Warren.  I think, because of the demographic that she occupies, I think a lot of people counted her out, and would think she would be an unlikely candidate.  And she really has kind of populist appeal. 

KORNACKI:  All right, Noah, I will give you the same question.

Of those 15 Democratic candidates, who do you think did the most, achieved the most in 2019? 

NOAH ROTHMAN, "COMMENTARY":  I certainly agree with Pete Buttigieg.  he is a natural political talent. 

And we knew that when he ran for DNC chair.  But he really had an opportunity to shine in major mainstream media venues.  And the nation got a look at him.  He`s going to be somebody who`s going to be with us in our politics, I think, for quite some time. 

I also probably think Joe Biden had a better year than was forecast to have.  And for that reason, and that reason alone, he gets...

KORNACKI:  He is still standing.  He`s still the front-runner right now.

(CROSSTALK)

ROTHMAN:  And he was -- he was -- his -- the predictions of his demise have not ebbed...

KORNACKI:  Right.

ROTHMAN:  ... even though he continues to maintain this position at the top of the polls.  So he`s had a better year than he`s gotten credit for.  And, therefore, he`s had a good year. 

KORNACKI:  I`m curious.

How do you look at Biden right now?  Because there is -- there`s the case that, hey, started the front-runner, took the heat, ends the year the front-runner.  Nobody`s toppled him yet. 

You still talk to some Democrats who talk like he is on the verge of a fall. 

BARNES:  Right.

KORNACKI:  How do you look at it? 

BARNES:  You know, when it comes to the vice president -- or former vice president, he really is his own person.  He can take these punches better than anyone.  He can pull out a Hail Mary pass, if needed. 

But the great part about the Democratic primary process is, we have a field that is flooded with overqualified candidates. 

And I don`t know.  I don`t really count anyone out.  I mean, we still have Marianne Williamson in the race.  We still have Andrew Yang.

KORNACKI:  Is she was one of the -- OK.

(LAUGHTER)

BARNES:  So, for me to play Ouija board and fortuneteller on this, I just wouldn`t.

KORNACKI:  Well, so let`s -- let`s take a look.  We have got 38 days until Iowa.  There will be a Democratic nominee that emerges. 

Let`s talk about the shape politically that Donald Trump is in entering 2020. 

Noah, we put the numbers up earlier this week.  His approval rating, it`s about 44.5 percent on average in the RealClear average.  That`s actually up two points from when the Democrats opened the impeachment trial.  It`s still 44.5 percent.  It`s a couple points below Obama at this point when he got reelected.  The disapproval is still over 50. 

His approval rating overall is certainly not matching attitudes towards the economy.  Do you look at that 44.5 as, wow, Trump is positioned to pull off what he did in `16 again, or, oh, he`s positioned to take a big -- a big hit in 2020?

ROTHMAN:  I mean, both of those answers are right. 

I mean, if you smooth out the data, he`s got a remarkably consistent approval-disapproval rating that is completely untethered to events.  It`s not as though people are judging and evaluating this presidency based on his performance in office. 

He`s representative of a variety of other things, many intangibles, tangibles, what have you, but it`s not the day-to-day news cycle that`s moving the needle.

This year, what really moved the needle -- and it was only temporary -- was the government shutdown.  When people stopped receiving services that they relied on, when people saw people getting -- being out of work, that`s when the -- and Donald Trump`s strategy to compel the Democratic Congress to give him wall funding, which was never going to happen, was obviously poorly -- reflected poorly on him. 

And that changed his political standing, but only very briefly.  Otherwise, I don`t think that political events are going to change how people view this president.  It`s about how you feel about him. 

KORNACKI:  Yes.   

Desiree, I`m curious just how you look at it.  As a Democrat looking at Trump, do you see those numbers, and you say, ooh, we`re going to take him out in 2020, this is a very beatable guy?  Or are you haunted by 2016 and you say, I have -- it`s the same setup?

BARNES:  Oh, well, I don`t want to be the Grim Reaper here, but I would say that I don`t look at any polling numbers when it comes to any candidate and making a conclusion on that race. 

I do think it is a fair fight.  I don`t think that, as much as people think that he can be nailed to the wall with this process, I think you would be surprised.

I think who`s having a horrible year is Senator McConnell.  Honestly, the Republican Party, Senator Lindsey Graham, I would be more worried about those seats than I would be worried about whether President Trump will occupy office, because I think those are going to be heavily contested spaces, because they`re the ones who know better. 

They know how...

(CROSSTALK)

KORNACKI:  Well, I got to say, if McConnell and Graham are in deep trouble in the fall of 2020, that`s got to be a good sign for Democrats nationally that something is going their way if it ends up there. 

We have already seen the first major engagement between -- between the president and one of his potential rivals, Joe Biden, and that is over Ukraine. 

"The Washington Post" writes -- quote -- "From the point of view of the Biden camp, the former vice president has shown his ability to stand toe to toe with Trump, eventually finding his footing and showing he could withstand sustained Republican attacks.  But Trump`s defenders say Biden has been badly damaged by the questions they have raised about his involvement in Ukraine, arguing he has been redefined as a compromised politician, rather than the partner of a popular former president."

Noah, you were just talking about Biden`s strength in the Democratic race in the polls.  It`s been consistent.  So has his lead over Donald Trump in head-to-head matchups.  Biden continues to lead Trump by more than the other Democratic candidates too.

ROTHMAN:  Nationally.  When you get down to the battleground states, it becomes a much tighter ball game.  And certainly in places like Wisconsin, it`s not entirely clear that Joe Biden is -- is -- can deliver the Obama coalition, as basically his electability argument contends.

He`s handled the Hunter Biden issue poorly.  I don`t think anybody would say he`s handled it well.  He was very tentative coming out about it, reflective, I think, of people around him who believed that a Hunter Biden news cycle is bad for this candidacy. 

Hunter Biden comes out and said, I`m sorry for whatever I did.  And then he says he did nothing wrong.  It`s a very confused message.  It`s not a convincing message. 

However, there`s nothing to substantiate the claim.  And it is basically insinuation from the Trump that -- from the Trump campaign that anything beyond sordid nepotism occurred here. 

Now, if that comes out in 2020, it`s a whole new ball game.  But what the Trump administration is saying now is that this candidate is tainted by these insinuations.  That`s basically giving away the game, right?  That was the intent all along.  And the fact that it hasn`t registered suggests that Joe Biden is not going to be susceptible to the crooked narrative that he wanted to impose on him, like he managed to successfully leverage against Hillary Clinton.

KORNACKI:  And we know, certainly, Democratic voters have been watching how that plays out closely, because that is one thing we see in the national polls, that question of electability. 

However anybody wants to define it, Democratic voters say they are asking themselves, which one of these can beat Trump?

Desiree Barnes, Noah Rothman, thank you both for joining us. 

Up next, my colleague Trymaine Lee talks to voters and party officials in the key swing state of Pennsylvania.  They`re worried that some of the state`s new electronic voting machines may not be quite ready for prime time.  And there might be good reason for that worry. 

You`re watching HARDBALL. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Election security and interference in our elections have been big stories this year.  And with a presidential election coming up in 2020, problems at the voting booth could heighten people`s concerns about the integrity of their vote. 

This will be even more crucial in swing states, like Pennsylvania, a state that went for Barack Obama twice and then for Donald Trump in 2016.  This November, the state rolled out new rules about voting machines.

And several polling stations in Eastern Pennsylvania in Northampton County had problems with machines they were using for the first time. 

MSNBC correspondent Trymaine Lee went to Northampton to find out what happened. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TRYMAINE LEE, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  New voting machines and parts of Pennsylvania were supposed to make elections more secure, except a lot went wrong this November in Northampton County in Eastern Pennsylvania. 

In some cases, voters cast their ballots on touch screens that registered the wrong candidates.  In others, it was for the wrong party or no vote at all. 

LEE SNOVER, NORTHAMPTON COUNTY REPUBLICAN CHAIR:  There were so many voters disenfranchised here in one county in Pennsylvania.  And I just -- I feel that that`s extremely unbelievable. 

LEE:  County officials scrambled to hold a recount with the backup paper ballots made by the machines.  By the next morning, they announced the official winners, but the damage was done.

In the immediate aftermath, two unlikely allies came together, Matt Munsey, Northampton`s Democratic Party chair, and Lee Snover, the Republican chair.

(on camera):  And this isn`t a partisan issue, though, right?  This is a matter of just fairness in elections, right?

SNOVER:  Right.  Mm-hmm. 

MATTHEW MUNSEY, NORTHAMPTON COUNTY DEMOCRATIC CHAIR:  Yes, not at all.  It`s a -- I had never talked to Lee before a couple of weeks ago. 

But after the election, we were unified, in that we have to have complete trust in the voting system.

LEE:  What was the fallout like?  I mean, the machines aren`t working.  There`s concern across the county.  What was the ripple effect?  What happened? 

MUNSEY:  After polls closed, I got a text not too long after with a picture of the printout from one of the machines.  And it had a zero for the county judge race at the top for a candidate.  And I was like, there`s something wrong there. 

SNOVER:  I went down to the courthouse with a couple other witnesses with me that night, and they have never used these machines either.  So it was kind of chaos with the county workers.

So they`re bringing in these bags and bags of ballots.  And they`re all over the place.  They had never done this before, and they weren`t ready.  And I don`t think they had a plan in place for this to happen. 

LAMONT MCCLURE, NORTHAMPTON COUNTY EXECUTIVE:  To cast your ballot as printed, touch cast.  To quit voting and request a new ballot, touch quit.  Your ballot will not be cast.  So that`s important, right?

LEE (voice-over):  Lamont McClure oversees elections as Northampton`s county executive.  He led the push to buy 320 machines at a price tag of $2.8 million.  And he`s leading the defense of the machines going forward.

At a public hearing in mid-December, the manufacturer said its employees programmed the machines incorrectly at the warehouse.  They attribute it to human error they can easily fix.  And they see that, ultimately, the machines did what they were supposed to do. 

MCCLURE:  On Election Day, we had a fair, legal and accurate election.  And the reason we did is, because the paper ballot backup worked. 

LEE (on camera):  Why are you standing by these machines, when so many other folks don`t have the confidence that you have?

MCCLURE:  Although we didn`t want it to happen, because we had the problems that we had an Election Day, I know, in November 2020, I`m confident that we will know who won Northampton County, and there will be no question. 

LEE (voice-over):  Questions remain, though. 

Inaccurate results could have a big impact on a swing state like Pennsylvania in the 2020 presidential election.  Northampton, as well Philadelphia, the state`s most populous county, are using these new machines. 

That`s about 20 percent of Pennsylvania`s voters. 

ELIZABETH SLEVIN, NORTHAMPTON COUNTY VOTER:  I will probably use an absentee ballot the next time, or especially for the next one coming up in April, the primary.

BEV HERNANDEZ, NORTHAMPTON COUNTY VOTER:  I have doubts.  I have grave doubts about the way Northampton County and Pennsylvania is managing counting their votes. 

TONY BRUNO, NORTHAMPTON COUNTY VOTER:  I think they should take them back and go to a full paper ballot, where you hand-write, hand -- you know, fill in the dots with your hand -- by hand. 

LEE:  Election security advocates are also concerned, saying the machines have security flaws and don`t follow election codes. 

They have joined registered voters in a lawsuit against the state to decertify the machines.  Pennsylvania only rolled out the machines this year, as part of the settlement with former presidential candidate Jill Stein, who sued after her 2016 campaign. 

(on camera):  Some people say, the system actually worked.  So there`s a paper ballot.  So, even if the voting machine malfunctions, there you go.  You have a ballot to count. 

Is this the system working, or is this a deep, deep failure? 

SNOVER:  I don`t really have confidence in that paper backup from the electronic computer voting, because there was difficulty reading it.  There were some people who said -- we have sworn affidavits that theirs was blank, and it cast it.

So I`m not confident in the paper backup.

MUNSEY:  This clearly is not the way things are supposed to work.  And it`s undermined trust in the system.  And that`s -- that`s a serious problem. 

It`s called a voter-verified -- or voter-verifiable paper ballot.  It doesn`t work if people don`t read it or have difficulty doing so, which a lot of people did have trouble doing that. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KORNACKI:  Up next:  Can the presidency be bought?  A couple of billionaires are trying.

You`re watching HARDBALL. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI:  They say money can`t buy you love, but can it buy you the presidency? 

Two candidates are trying to find out right now, and the numbers are staggering.  The calendar still hasn`t flipped to 2020, and already Politico reports that Michael Bloomberg has spent more than $120 million, and Tom Steyer another $80 million.  Together, that`s more than $200 million spent by just two candidates. 

And what has it gotten them?  Well, it`s gotten Tom Steyer on to the debate stage.  He was there last week, which is more than some other candidates, including Cory Booker and Julian Castro can say.

But being on that debate stage hasn`t exactly made Steyer a contender for the nomination.  He`s running at barely 1 percent nationally.

But, hey, Steyer is the stingy one when it comes to the two free-spending billionaires in this race.  That $80 million he has spent covers months of campaigning.

Bloomberg, by contrast, has blown through his $120 million in just a few weeks.  And, so far, it`s gotten him to 5 percent nationally.  That`s far off the lead.  But it`s also better than a bunch of candidates who`ve been running longer than Bloomberg has, and, of course, who have a lot less money to spend. 

So, Bloomberg has bought himself a quick 5 percent in the polls.  The question then becomes, will it be just as easy to buy another 5 percent, and then another 5 after that, and on and on, until he`s actually contending for the lead?

Or is there a ceiling for a candidate like Bloomberg, who has all the money in the world, but who also isn`t running in Iowa, New Hampshire and all the other early states?  Bloomberg is trying to bypass those states.

And history says, that`s a losing strategy, that, when his name is missing from all those leaderboards in February, everyone is going to just forget about him.  Then again, no one has ever tried this kind of strategy with this kind of money before. 

So, in a way, the Bloomberg campaign may be the world`s most expensive political science experiment.  We will all see how it turns out.

That`s HARDBALL for now.  Thank you for being with us.

And "ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.

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