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Senator Amy Klobuchar plays Hardball. TRANSCRIPT: 1/6/20, Hardball w/ Chris Matthews.

Guests: Michael Schmidt, Ben Rhodes, Amy Klobuchar, Susan Page, MicheleFlournoy, David Frum

ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST:  And she gets tonight`s last word.  "HARDBALL" starts now.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  Bolton ready to talk.  Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I`m Chris Matthews back in Washington, a city exploding with the news now that Donald Trump`s ex-national security adviser is ready to testify in the Senate impeachment trial.

And what about the President Trump`s ordering of the assassination of that top Iranian general?  Well, Trump`s ordering of the killing of Soleimani edged the United States to regime change in Tehran?  Well, the shocking about-face for Bolton comes days after he tweeted his enthusiastic support of President Trump`s strike on Soleimani.

In a statement today, however, Bolton wrote, since my testimony is once again at issue, I have had to resolve the serious competing issues as best I could.  Based on careful consideration and study, I have concluded that if the Senate issues a subpoena for my testimony, I am prepared to testify.

Well, former White House officials and people close to Ambassador Bolton tell The New York Times that his testimony would likely be damning to Mr. Trump and put additional pressure on moderate Republicans to consider convicting him.

Well, both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer used the news to ratchet up pressure on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Senate to allow witness testimony.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY):  Given that Mr. Bolton`s lawyers have stated he has new and relevant information to share, if any Senate Republican opposes issuing subpoenas to the four witnesses and documents we have requested, they would make it absolutely clear they are participating in a cover-up.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, Bolton was at the center of the House impeachment proceedings with several witnesses describing how he was, quote, disturbed, unquote, by the shadow campaign to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.  Bolton`s top aide, Fiona Hill, for example, testified that Bolton was so disturbed by the president`s behavior that he called it a drug deal and directed Hale, Fiona Hill`s deputy, to report it to their lawyers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. FIONA HILL, FORMER SENIOR DIRECTOR FOR EUROPE AND RUSSIA, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL:  The specific instruction was that I had to go to the lawyers, to John Eisenberg, I was senior counsel for the National Security Council, to basically say, you tell Eisenberg Ambassador Bolton told me that I am not part of this whatever drug deal that Mulvaney and Sondland are cooking up.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  At that time, Bolton refused to appear voluntarily.  But his lawyer, in a letter his lawmakers, teased that Bolton, quote, was personally involved in many of the events, meetings and conversations as well as many relevant meetings and conversations that have not yet been discussed in the testimonies thus far.  So his lawyer is teasing about how great his testimony would be against the president.

For weeks, McConnell and fellow Senate Republicans, however, balked at calling any witnesses, instead expressing their support for a quick trial that acquits the president.  Speaker Pelosi has been holding on to the articles of impeachment, of course, until she said she receives assurances the Senate trial is going to be a fair one.

For more, I`m joined by Michael Schmidt, The New York Times Washington Correspondent, Ben Rhodes, former Deputy National Security Adviser in the Obama administration.  Let me start with you two gentlemen.

Michael, what do you make of the Bolton decision?  He had a lawyer with the explanation about how things have developed in another trial that he was using as a model, blah, blah, blah.  But here`s a guy that everybody thought might be hoarding the great stuff for a book a year from now.  And now, he`s saying, I`m willing if they subpoena me, I`m talking.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES:  I think two things.  The first is that he needed the legal and political cover to do this.  He did not want to be seen as someone that was running up there to rat on the president.  I think that he has a desire to have a long future in the Republican Party.

MATTHEWS:  I`m so with you on that.

SCHMIDT:  And I think that in order to maintain that, he has to do that under the legal and political cover that his lawyer, Chuck Cooper, ash --

MATTHEWS:  That was a good way to explain, they gave him a way not to testify.  But here he is agreeing to testify.  What changed?

SCHMIDT:  I think history.  I think that he doesn`t want to be in a place in history where he had information at a crucial juncture in American time and sat back and didn`t say anything.  Because my guess is that some day we will know what John Bolton knows.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

SCHMIDT:  And maybe we`ll know it in a few weeks or a few months, or maybe we`ll know it in a few years.

MATTHEWS:  Ben, I want to get to the real personal calculation.  I`m no fan of John Bolton, not personally, but I don`t like his politics.  He`s a real hawk, a real neo-con.  But his calculation a couple of weeks ago was I`ve got to hold this gold, my jewels, my crown jewels of information for a book at some point.  That`s the speculation maybe cynically, but that`s what people think.  But maybe he calculated, as Michael just said, you know what, if a year from now I blow some great news that`s so relevant because this guy, the president, skated through this whole trial because I kept my secrets, I`m not going to look good and nobody will want to read my book.

BEN RHODES, :  That`s right, Chris.  And the reality is, having been in the White House, everything runs through the national security adviser`s office.  So if there is any paper trail about efforts to withhold aid from Ukraine, if there is any paper trail about trying to remove the sitting ambassador in Ukraine because she wouldn`t go along with this scheme, that will have John Bolton at least copied on emails and memos and other documents.

So he knows, as Mike said, that this information is going to get out.  And I think the question is quite simple.  The two officials in the U.S. government who clearly would be in a position to know anything and everything about what happened are Mick Mulvaney, who is not just the chief of staff, but the head of OMB, which was putting the hold on the aid to Ukraine, and John Bolton.

And they have to make a decision about whether they`re going to fall on the sword and go along with this cover-up and whether Senate Republicans frankly let them do that by assuring that this is not a fair trial, or whether they`re going to come forward with their information that`s notable that Bolton, the guy who was not currently in the administration, is the one putting himself forward while Mulvaney, who is still sitting down the hall from Trump is not.

MATTHEWS:  Well, here`s the question.  Will Mitch McConnell agree to this?  Late today he stood in the Senate floor and said, I`m not going to do it.   I`m only going to decide on witnesses somewhere during the trial.  I`m not committing to let even this star witness, this John Dean power witness, to testify.  How does that happen?

I still wonder if McConnell has 90 percent of Republicans backing every senator who says no to any kind of real trial.  Isn`t he still got the cards here?  I hate to say it.

SCHMIDT:  I think we have to look to what happened during the Kavanaugh nomination.  In that case, it was the moderate Republicans who went to McConnell and said, look, you kind of got to buy us some cover here.  We need you to go back and do another week-long investigation and then take the vote.  If those same people, the Murkowskis, the Collinses are saying to McConnell, hey, as part of my politics, I need to show that we saw all the evidence and heard all the witnesses.  I really need you to do this.  If they can put that pressure on McConnell, they can do it.

But as we`ve seen with McConnell, he`s willing to take on a lot.

MATTHEWS:  Let me tell you why I don`t think he`ll give.  He doesn`t want them to land on the beach and fight him on the beach.  He wants to keep them off the beach, to use a German reference from World War II, Normandy.  He doesn`t be want to go to the beach.  Because one half hour of Bolton testimony, if handled right by Adam Schiff, the House Manager, I assume he`s going to be the manager, blows the whole wall.

SCHMIDT:  He does?

MATTHEWS:  Well, because he has the president making the deal.  He called it a drug deal.  What did you mean by drug deal right off the bat?

SCHMIDT:  You don`t have that in the transcript?  You don`t have that in the witnesses that you -- I mean, so what you`re saying is that Bolton`s politics, his standing is so great --

MATTHEWS:  As the super hawk and beloved for that reason by many on the right.  He walks in that room -- I hate to say this implicitly, but the president of the United States is a snake.  He used our national security interests to buy him some cheap political dirt.

SCHMIDT:  So you still think there`s something that can move public opinion on the president and --

MATTHEWS:  I`m proposing that because that`s the only way to get the truth out.

Two Senate Republicans, you have reasonable skepticism, have expressed concerns about McConnell`s resistance to an impartial trial.  Lisa Murkowski, looks like the possible hero here, of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine join a handful of wild card Republican senators, view it as potential defectors from the president.

Utah Senator Mitt Romney, of course, is one.  He flirts with greatness all the time.  He told reporters that he would like to hear from Bolton, but left it up to the leaders of both parties to negotiate when and if that will happen.  Here he goes, Mitch McConnell -- I mean, Mitt Romney.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-UT):  I`d love to hear what he has to say.  He has firsthand information.  And assuming that articles of impeachment do reach the Senate, I`d like to hear what he knows.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Ben, he`s a quandary to me.  He`s a guy that many ways has presidential stature through his life, as governor of Massachusetts and just his family and everything, and yet he pulls back.  There is a hedge.  He says, I want to hear the two party leaders agree.

Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer aren`t agreeing on anything.  We know that.

RHODES:  Yes.  I mean, to me, saying that is a way of, frankly, dodging this.  Susan Collins and Mitt Romney have been a bit like Lucy with the football with Charlie Brown.  They indicate that they`re going to be for what`s right and then they pull back at the last moment.

It`s a pretty simple equation, Chris.  We`ve seen throughout this impeachment process that whenever new information, documents or witnesses come to light, it is always incriminating for Trump.  There was never been a new piece of information that was exonerating, and it`s a black or white issue.  Either you think that there should be witnesses and documents that can shed more light on the situation for the Senate`s consideration, or you don`t.

And it seems like these senators are trying to have it both ways, indicating they`d like this to be a fair trial, but they`re deferring the decision to other people.  They have a vote.  They can force the issue.  If you get four Republican senators who want this to be a fair trial, it will be.  Either we`ll have the witnesses and the documents necessary and all evidence to this point suggests that any additional information or voices would be incriminating for Trump, or you don`t think that should happen and you`re running a cover-up for the president of the United States.  It`s pretty simple -- pretty black and white situation, which is not always the case in politics.

MATTHEWS:  Thanks so much.  I agree with you completely.  I also agree with Michael Schmidt`s skepticism about anything turning the minds of those 90 percent Republican constituencies.  Anyway, thank you, Michael Schmidt of The New York Times.  Thank you, Ben Rhodes.

And a sign of just how challenging it will be to get Republicans to back up motion to support witnesses in the Senate trial, ten Republicans signed onto a new Senate resolution today introduced by Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri that would dismiss the House articles of impeachment altogether.

For more, I`m joined right now by Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota who is running for president, of course.  Senator, it`s great to have you on, as always, and I wish you so well.  You are moving up there in those numbers in Iowa.  And I just want to ask you this.

Mitch McConnell stands at the door, holding the door close so no truth will get to the American people.  He sees now that John Bolton is ready to answer to a subpoena.  Is he going to get away with keeping the big truth from the American people about the president?

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  It is not going to just be about him, as your guest just pointed out, Chris.  This is going to be about every single Republican in that chamber.  And I was heartened when I heard that Mitt Romney said he wanted to hear from Bolton.

And I want to add two things to what your guests said.  Number one, we don`t really know what happened in the rooms between John Bolton and the president unless we hear from Bolton.  They had private meetings at times.  Number two, we know, and this hasn`t been discussed much in the testimony, I looked it over, of Morrison, who was an aide to John Bolton.  He reported that in August after the president had made that call and the aid had been withheld, and we know Mulvaney and Duffey`s involvement.  After that, Bolton went in on a mission to try to convince the president to lift it.  Guess what?  That didn`t happen.

So the question is this.  What happened in that meeting?  What happened in so many other meetings?  And I think he`s a key witness, along, of course, with Mick Mulvaney and Duffey, who sent all those emails, as well as Blair.  This is only four witnesses, Chris.  This is not a fishing expedition.  This is basically a mission to get to the truth.  And if Richard Nixon, as you have pointed out, let all the men testify, all the president`s men, what is Donald Trump so afraid of?

MATTHEWS:  That`s the question, of course.  I want to ask you about this confluence of reality here.  I`ve never seen so much news buffeting us in one couple of days.  I mean, I was over in Vietnam for the last week-and-a- half and I was working with the University over there.  And I have to tell you that it all looks like it`s happening again.  You know, Z.M. was assassinated.  We took over the war in Vietnam.  We lost all those men and women.  And we all did it because we basically knocked off a leader.  We had a hand in that.  The generals did it, but we had a hand in it.

And here we are in the assassination business again.  I`m sorry, this is a top general.  We didn`t need (INAUDIBLE).  He wasn`t operational.  He was a leader.  We killed this guy.  A president of the United States, they used to hide from assassination responsibility.  This president is bragging about it.  Pompeo is bragging about it.  Is there a new deviancy in the American culture that we now support murder or killing of political leaders?  Is this what we do now?  It shocks me.

KLOBUCHAR:  Well, I think we know that this is all outrageous.  And let`s add to this, the targeting of cultural sites, things that ISIS has done.  And so that`s why I have demanded a briefing, as have many other people.  We`re getting this briefing this week, and these are the questions that must be asked.

But one other thing on this is that if you remember back to that original - - the very first debate on the presidential stage when there were tons of candidates, now we`re down to five in this next debate, and we were asked what did we most -- right, I`m one of them.  Yes, there we go.  We were asked what are the biggest threats out there, internationally.  I said China for the economy, but I was the only one on the stage that said Iran, and I would never have said that when Barack Obama was president and made the agreement and the nuclear agreement.  I said it, as I pointed out, because I was afraid of the escalation of Donald Trump.

You trace this back when he got us out of that international agreement, all of this, I`m sad to say, was pretty predictable.  We see escalation.  We see a fraying with our allies.  And now without an authorization of military force, he`s sending troops over.  And so, of course, I support authorization of military force if he`s actually serious about us getting into an escalated conflict.

MATTHEWS:  Let`s talk about something you mentioned a minute, which I thought was -- it just jumped at me, and that`s this cultural thing.

KLOBUCHAR:  And, by the way, I want to clear, I support a vote on that.  I`m not saying I support it, is that we must have a vote and we must have a decision made by Congress.

What were you asking, Chris?  I`m sorry.

MATTHEWS:  I want to ask you about this whole thing about cultural.  It`s like Trump trolls the Democrats.  He trolls the Iranians.  He goes, you know what will really tick off the liberals, the moderates out there, the reasonable people?  I`m going after cultural sites because this is Persia, a real ancient culture, a real country, not something created by Churchill in a Cairo conference.  This exists like China.  Do you think he`s trolling?  Do you think what he`s trying to do is get the liberals all mad, to get the Iranians really upset, because he`s trying to play wag the dog here?

What he really wants to do is create an explosion of media focus, and even a war -- even a war, a bite-sized war, he thinks, to distract from his impeachment threat?  Is he up to this?

KLOBUCHAR: I hope not for our country`s sake that he would put thousands of men and women`s lives at risk because of that.  But you look at the pattern here where he has continually done this, a tweet saying he`s invited the Taliban to Camp David when there was no agreement on Afghanistan.  The summit he hastily called with Kim Jong-Un when actually there was no result, and they`re still launching missiles.  You look at all of his patterns, so often he does things to distract.

I just hope it`s not true.  But regardless of what the truth is, we must prevent an escalation of the conflict.  And as commander-in-chief, I wouldn`t have gotten us there.  I will bring us back into that Iranian agreement.  But for right now, we must work with our allies to de-escalate this.  We must keep Americans safe that are over in Iraq, and we must work with our allies to try to stop him from bringing us to the brink of war.

MATTHEWS:  I don`t think you`re an assassin.  Anyway, thank you so much.  This president is.  Anyway, thank you, Senator Amy Klobuchar.

Coming up, Trump the tough.  This is the moment his opponents were afraid of, having an unstable, impulsive president threatening to launch a major conflict.

Plus, Congress returns to a phase of double jeopardy now, Iran and impeachment.  Does the unfolding of the Iran crisis upstage the president`s upcoming trial?  Is that what he`s up to?

And should the U.S. government be in the assassination business?  I say no.  I just got back from Vietnam, where history shows assassinations don`t prevent wars, they start them.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

By killing Iran`s General Soleimani, President Trump has raised serious questions about his own motive and the possible consequence of what he`s been doing here.  Rather than cool tensions in the wake of that strike, it appears Trump is lurching toward catastrophe, threatening on Saturday to hit Iran`s cultural sites if they retaliate. 

Well, the outpouring of support for the regime at Soleimani`s funeral today indicates that they view the strike as an attack on the Iranian people. 

Trump`s action also risks destabilizing the region, as the government of Iraq -- Iraq -- takes steps towards expelling us, U.S. troops, from their country. 

And after all that war, all the bloodshed, all the courage of our troops, and they`re telling us to leave because of what Trump did on Thursday. 

In response, the president threatened Iraq, too, saying: "If they do ask us to leave, we will charge them sanctions like they have never seen before."

Well, as Peter Baker writes in "The New York Times," Trump`s critics have warned that a commander in chief known for impulsive action might overreach with dangerous consequences.  Well, now Trump confronts a decisive moment that will test whether those critics were right. 

I`m joined by Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense under President Obama, and Robert Costa, national political reporter with "The Washington Post."

Robert, you are a Trump watcher nonpareil.  Here`s the question.  Is this a march toward war, a la John Bolton?  In other words, I don`t care, we will assassinate people, we will go to regime change, I don`t care, if they want to fight, I`m ready to fight? 

Or is it stepping back from that, a brinksmanship -- a brinkmanship strategy, where you push them, push them hard, thinking that they will buckle?  Or is it all P.R.?  What`s Trump up to? 

ROBERT COSTA, "THE WASHINGTON POST":  Chris, based on my calls today around the president`s inner circle, the White House and Capitol Hill, it`s clear that President Trump is telling his confidants that he doesn`t want to put boots on the ground in Iraq or in Iran. 

At the same time, he wants to be seen as very tough on foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, as he heads toward his 2020 reelection campaign this year.  So he`s trying to balance being a non-interventionist, but also being very militaristic. 

But that`s a tough play politically and on policy.  And Democrats and Republicans today say the fallout of all of this is very unpredictable, as much as the president wants to control it in his way. 

MATTHEWS:  Here`s the question. 

You know, we have seen through all, growing up, things like the Cuban Missile Crisis, things like that, where one leader has to talk to another leader through his actions.  And it`s done very cleverly in some cases. 

What message is Trump sending to the ayatollahs?  What is he saying to them?  Is he saying, get out of my -- I`m taking over your country, I call the shots over there, you don`t?

MICHELE FLOURNOY, FORMER U.S. UNDERSECRETARY OF DEFENSE:  I think he`s sending a very dangerous message. 

What he was trying to do was retaliate for the loss of the life of the American contractor from the attacks. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

FLOURNOY:  But he should have been doing something with an eye to restore deterrence, which completely had broken down after a series of Iranian provocations. 

Instead, he`s poured fuel on the fire.  He has introduced escalation. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

FLOURNOY:  He has put Iran and their leadership in a position where they have to retaliate.  They have to do something stupendous. 

MATTHEWS:  That`s what I think.

FLOURNOY:  And so every single proxy group across the region that Iran supports is now looking for, what is that next attack?

MATTHEWS:  What do you smell out there?  What -- when you visualized it, because you have been in the business, national defense, is it something like, we`re going to go knock somebody off?  We`re going to assassinate somebody?

FLOURNOY:  Oh, we don`t know.

MATTHEWS:  We`re like Lord Mountbatten.  The IRA did it. 

FLOURNOY:  It could be any embassy.

MATTHEWS:  Just go kill somebody really big with lots of badges on them. 

FLOURNOY:  It could be that, any embassy where there`s vulnerability, any U.S. bases, any forces or civilians who are transiting who are vulnerable.

And now, having assassinated Soleimani, any American official security official who shows up in the region, why -- it`s -- the Pandora`s box is now open.  Why wouldn`t Iran feel licensed to assassinate that person? 

So they`re going to be looking for lots of opportunities.  They`re going to take their time and pick -- pick the targets of their choosing.

But this is going to escalate.  And given this president, then what is he going to do?  And so the risk of stumbling into a conflict that neither side actually wants is now very, very real because of the option the president took. 

MATTHEWS:  Robert, when he does things like saying people`s families shouldn`t be off-limits, they should be fair game, when he says things like, we`re going after their cultural treasures, religious treasures, of course, as well, does he know that he`s poking them, that he`s getting them to not give in, but to fight? 

COSTA:  I asked a White House adviser today about that, one of the president`s top political aides.  I said, does he get it? 

And they compared his comment about Iran to how he handled North Korea early on in his administration, using the phrase fire and fury, threatening action there.  They said it was bellicose language. 

But what`s different now, foreign policy experts say, is that you have thousands, if not more than -- many tens of thousands of people marching on the streets of Tehran and elsewhere in Iran furious about the president`s action, calling it an assassination. 

And it`s not an isolated hermit kingdom like North Korea. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

COSTA:  You have a major Middle Eastern power that`s now thinking through its own reaction and taking this language very seriously. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the people in the White House, this crowd, including Pompeo, they get the fact that Iran is a real country? 

It may well be at some point in the future the most powerful country beyond even Israel in terms of its economic power in that region.  It`s -- we know from the Iranians living in this country, the emigres, how serious and impressive a people they are. 

Did he understand it was a nationalism thing that he sparked, that they took this as an attack on their people, not just on their government and military, this assassination, as you -- as they call it? 

COSTA:  Pompeo, the secretary of state, wants to be out front on this, according to his associates.  He wants to be the face. 

He also is working closely with Vice President Pence, these two hawks on the president`s shoulder advising him to move ahead. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

COSTA:  And their advice to him, I`m told, is that targeting Iran in this way reassures U.S. allies in the region. 

And that`s part of the whole strategy here, is moving the president away from withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, trying to reassure U.S. allies that the U.S. is not going to be moving away from the Middle East. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, it seems to be frightening to me. 

I mean, I -- it is frightening because I think there`s kind of a religious attitude that Mike -- that Mike Pence is involved with, and throwing it in with the political ambitions of Pompeo, my God, this is a fire coming. 

Anyway, Michele Flournoy, thank you so much.  Thank you, Robert Costa.

Up next:  Will the Soleimani strike, the killing of this guy, the assassination, change the political calculus on impeachment and also the coming election?  This stuff is all coming together, one big Niagara Falls of news.

Would a retaliatory strike, by the way, by Iran change it even more?  Who knows where they`re going to hit us?

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Congress returns this week to a political landscape upended by President Trump`s decision to authorize the killing of Iran`s General Soleimani, as the status of a Senate impeachment trial remains, let`s say, unclear.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi continues to hold onto those two articles of impeachment passed by the House, until, she says, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell provides details of how the Senate will try the president. 

Axios reports -- or quotes a leadership aide saying no decision has been made about when to send the articles of impeachment.  That`s someone speaking for Pelosi. 

As for Iran, Speaker Pelosi announced the House will vote this week on a war powers resolution limiting the president`s military actions over there.  Pelosi argued that last week`s strike, the assassination, was done without consultation with Congress. 

But President Trump wrote on Twitter: "These media posts will serve as notification to the United States Congress that, should Iran strike any U.S. person or target, the United States will quickly and fully strike back, and perhaps in a disproportion -- disproportionate manner."

In other words, he`s tweeting Congress` -- that`s how he`s notifying them. 

Well, today, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell argued that both Iran and impeachment demand serious treatment from Congress. 

Here he goes. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY):  The House may have been content to scrap their own norms to hurt President Trump, but that is not the Senate. 

Even with a process this constitutionally serious, even with tensions rising in the Middle East, House Democrats are treating impeachment like a political toy, like a political toy, treating their own effort to remove our commander in chief like some frivolous game. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, Senator McConnell went on to call House Democrats` impeachment efforts a bizarre stunt, while Senator Lindsey Graham tells the Senate to get rolling on the trial, and not even wait for Pelosi to send over the articles.  He says, just go ahead and do it, hold the trial. 

Well, that`s all next. 

You`re watching HARDBALL. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

As escalating tensions with Iran threaten to change the political calculus -- well, calculations surrounding impeachment, a top Republican says he wants the Senate to take matters into its own hands. 

Here he goes.  Lindsey Graham told FOX News that senators should just change the rules to bypass Speaker Pelosi and start a trial without those articles in hand and just read them in the paper, I guess, and move on.

Here he goes. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC):  The founders never envisioned you would have a speaker do something like this, withhold the articles, demanding the Senate bend to her will. 

It`s not going to happen.  So I hope she sends them over soon, so we can get on with the trial.  If she doesn`t, I would urge Senator McConnell, with my colleagues, to change the rules of the Senate, so that we could proceed with the -- proceed to the trial without Nancy Pelosi being involved. 

My goal is to start this trial in the next coming days, not let Nancy Pelosi take over the Senate. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, a White House official told NBC News that the president`s team is holding off on making any strategic moves until the Senate receives the articles from the speaker. 

For more, I`m joined by Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for "USA Today," of course, and David Frum, senator editor at "The Atlantic" and a former George W. Bush speechwriter. 

Let`s talk about something big here. 

You put these two big stories aside with each other, assassination or killing of a top general, an act of war, of course, against a country that we have got problems with, belligerence from.  And against that, we have an impeachment trial that is supposed to begin like today or tomorrow.  It`s supposed to begin now. 

Does what`s going on in Iran and possible, here`s -- who lost Iraq has got to be a story pretty soon, because it looks like we`re going to get kicked out of there. 

Does that help the push for impeachment and conviction of this president?

DAVID FRUM, FORMER SPEECHWRITER FOR FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH:  It intensifies the emotions. 

It gives Senate Republicans a rally-around-the-flag argument.  I think...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Against him? 

FRUM:  That we have to get -- because the president of the United States can`t be fettered by these petty considerations. 

But I think the deadline everyone is really working to, the real date, is February 4, State of the Union.  The Republicans want this over before September -- February 4.  The Democrats want it to go past February 4, because everybody knows that, if Trump is still under impeachment on February 4, he will deliver a State of the Union of such blithering insanity, the world will never forget it. 

(LAUGHTER)

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "USA TODAY":  You know what he could do?

MATTHEWS:  Whoa.  I never thought of that one.

In other words, they`re trying to protect us again from him. 

FRUM:  They`re trying to protect themselves, because they have to sit there. 

They have to...

(APPLAUSE)

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, Pelosi -- by the way, the speaker set that date.  So, she set it fairly early. 

PAGE: Well, it`s been in negotiations with the White House.  But, you know, I think the alternative is if -- if we`ve had the impeachment trial in the Senate at the point of the State of the Union on February 4th, the president will make the case that he`s been vindicated -- 

DAVID FRUM, THE ATLANTIC:  Right.

PAGE:  -- and that the impeachment --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Acquittal. 

PAGE:  Yes, he`s been acquitted.  He`s been vindicated, it was ridiculous.  He`ll try to do something to --

FRUM:  So that`s why Republicans want it over by February 4th.  Democrats want it not over by February 4th.

PAGE:  Right.

Also, you know, Democrats understand they have a weak hand to play here in terms of controlling or affecting the rules of the Senate.  They have to delay -- it`s put a spotlight on questions about the fairness of the Senate trial and the likely rules.  And you`ve had things happen like Bolton happening.  I mean, that does put pressure on Republicans. 

Why don`t they want to hear from John Bolton?  Won`t he have something that will be worth hearing? 

MATTHEWS:  So, President Trump repeated his threat today to attack Iranian cultural sites.  He returned from his holiday in Florida at Mar-a-Lago.  And when he was asked by reporters aboard Air Force One about fears of Iranian retaliation for that, the president said, if it happens, it happens.  If they do anything, there will be a major retaliation. 

So, he`s very calm.  Maybe because he doesn`t know what he`s doing -- but he`s very calm in this setting.  You have a real country over there, Iran - -

FRUM:  Do you think he`s calm?  I think he sounds nuts. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, speak to that. 

FRUM:  Trump exists in the moment.  I mean, one of the questions, what is the president thinking about.  The answer is he`s got -- Pekingese dogs have longer attention span.  So, as he himself has said, I never plan anything, I just do it. 

So, he exists in a moment.  He says whatever he says.  He doesn`t remember what he said in the past.  He doesn`t feel bound by the future. 

There is no plan.  There`s just a series of impulsive statements designed to make him look good in his own mental mirror. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, as a private citizen, Trump repeatedly criticized President Obama`s Iran policy.  In 2011, he argued President Obama would start a war with Iran to help him win reelection in 2012.  Here he goes. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, THEN-BUSINESSMAN:  Our president will start a war with Iran because he has absolutely no ability to negotiate.  He`s weak and he`s ineffective.  So, the only way he figures that he`s going to get reelected and as sure as you`re sitting there is start a war with Iran. 

Unfortunately, we have a president that doesn`t know the first thing about negotiation.  We have a real problem in the White House.  So I believe that he will attack Iran sometime prior to the election because he thinks that`s the only way he can get elected.  Isn`t it pathetic? 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  It`s also not true, of course.  Susan has he got an obsession with Obama? 

PAGE:  Well, he does have an obsession with President Obama.  We see that on policies ranging --

MATTHEWS:  Is he trying to out macho him in this whole thing? 

PAGE:  You know, for some reason, you know, he wants to undo anything Obama did.  He wants to do the reverse of anything that President Obama did on Iran or health care or anything else. 

But here`s my question, does starting a war with Iran, in fact, to your political benefit if you`re a president running for reelection?  You know, especially a president like Donald Trump who campaigned last time around on getting us out of these endless wars.  Does it help Trump if, he, in fact, starts another military conflict in the Middle East?

MATTHEWS:  Well, people will die. 

PAGE:  People will die.

MATTHEWS:  Wars are costly and PR is cheap.  Wars are not. 

We have learned a lot of lessons in the last 50 or 60 years.  Vietnam, Iraq, we`ve all learned the lessons together in different ways.  Trump hasn`t if he takes us to war. 

Thank you, Susan Page.  Thank you, David Frum. 

Up next, in 2012, President Trump predicted that President Obama would start a war with Iran as we just heard to get reelected.  So, how are Trump`s own actions playing with voters out there?  And which Democratic candidate is best position in this major camp (ph) to use as an issue? 

I think Bernie can use it.  I`ll get to that right now.  I think Bernie can reuse it as an anti-war candidate because he`s one guy sharply against this thing.  And Biden can use the prestige thing.  And Buttigieg can say, at least, I`ve been in uniform. 

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  No president has the right to take a nation to war without the informed consent and authority coming from the United States congress. 

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  We are not safer because Donald Trump had Soleimani killed.  We are much closer to the edge of war. 

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  The strength of the United States is to bring people together to resolve their differences without killing each other. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was just a few of the Democratic presidential candidates.  There`s only a few left really right now, reacting to President Trump`s handling of Iran. 

With exactly four weeks to go before until the Iowa caucuses, foreign policy is now front and center, boy, it came out of nowhere, there it is.  The question is, could that change how voters look at the field of candidates? 

A new CBS/YouGov poll of registered Iowa Democrats, these polls are getting good now.  They`re beginning to matter.  Look at the tie -- have you seen that, three guys 23 percent.  Bernie, Buttigieg, Biden, all three at 23 on the nail. 

And then you got Elizabeth Warren still there in contention clearly at 18 or 16, is it?  And as I said earlier in the show, we have Klobuchar hanging in there at 7.  In fact, she`s growing.  No other candidate receives more than two points in that poll. 

For more, I`m joined by Jason Johnson, politics editor of TheRoot.com, and Howard Fineman, MSNBC contributor. 

Jason, I want to ask you, and ask Howard the same question.  You can follow each other seriatim here. 

The question is, who wins?  In these four weeks, who is going to pop?  Because they`re one of the Democratic caucuses want as a voice now? 

JASON JOHNSON, POLITICS EDITOR, THEROOT.COM:  It`s all about organization in Iowa.  And if you look at organization, the person who does that best is Bernie Sanders.  He has the most enthusiasm on the ground and, he`s always been a really -- 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  He got the half votes last time. 

JOHNSON:  Exactly.  So, he goes in with an advantage.  But if you`re talking about somebody who could pop at the last minute, it`s probably Mayor Pete.  If there is a feeling at the end, if let`s say this conversation --

MATTHEWS:  Are you hedging your bets? 

JOHNSON:  Oh, I`m not hedging my bets.  I honestly think that it`s probably going to be one of those two.  I don`t think Joe Biden is going to win in Iowa.  I don`t think Elizabeth Warren is going to win in Iowa.  I think it`s going to come down to Bernie Sanders or Mayor Pete. 

If it looks this war is going to go from Twitter to the real thing, I think that ends up being something that Mayor Pete can talk about.  He`s a millennial.  His whole life -- we`ve pretty much been at war.  And he can talk about what his accomplishments (ph) --

(CROSSTALK)

JOHNSON:  What`s his position on whether we should be hawkish or dovish?  I don`t know what Pete Buttigieg`s position.  I know where Bernie is. 

HOWARD FINEMAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, he`s -- he`s the younger technocratic answer. 

MATTHEWS:  But is there a technocrat -- 

FINEMAN:  I don`t know if there is.  I`m thinking gymnasiums and the schools and caucus sites that I`ve covered since 19 --

MATTHEWS:  Seventy-two. 

FINEMAN:  Eighty-four.

MATTHEWS:  OK.

FINEMAN:  And the last minute emotion as you`re causing, who you pull over, remember the Jacob Soboroff thing that he did on our network?

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

FINEMAN:  I`ve seen that up close for years.  So, you want to pull -- 

MATTHEWS:  Well, what about those a week before --

FINEMAN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, right now, they`re going out there every weekend and they`re hitting the gyms and the high school field -- field houses and they`re getting like 200 people, 300 people.  In those rooms, who is exploding now? 

FINEMAN:  Well, what I was about to say is to agree with you, which is that Bernie, I think because of the war -- I -- Chris, in an odd and eerie way, I`ve been through this movie before starting out in journalism school. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, who is Bernie? 

FINEMAN:  Trump is Nixon and Bernie is McGovern.

MATTHEWS:  That`s what I think. 

JOHNSON:  I don`t -- I don`t -- 

FINEMAN:  For historical reference. 

JOHNSON:  Yes, historical reference, perhaps, perhaps. 

MATTHEWS:  Because he`s -- it helps sometimes -- 

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN:  It`s an antiwar vote.  That`s the emotion.  That`s where the emotion is.

MATTHEWS:  You know, being a lefty in the Democratic Party can always be helpful, a real lefty.  It always helps during a war. 

JOHNSON:  Here`s the catch, though.  If you look -- if you look further down in that YouGov poll, it`s -- when they asked the Democratic voters in Iowa who do you think has the best chance of actually beating Trump, it`s still Joe Biden.  Joe Biden beats everybody else.  He beats Bernie, he beats Buttigieg, and he beats Warren by like 10 to 12 points amongst voters on who you think can beat Trump. 

So, if it`s down to, I want Trump to be out of office, Joe Biden may not win Iowa but he still may leave --

MATTHEWS:  When is the last time voters voted like that strategically? 

JOHNSON:  Strategically, African-Americans almost always vote that way.  If you are facing an unprecedented right wing revolutionary president like the one we have now --

MATTHEWS:  All right.

JOHNSON:  -- that may happen.

FINEMAN:  Iowa, Iowa is a place that has almost no military installations whatsoever.  It`s a pacific in that sense state. 

Young people matter as organization tools, as Bernie knows.  If the war talk is big, this mobilizes, I think gives more emotion even to younger voters who already are for Bernie, and that`s going to make sure that they turn out and they organize to a fairly well and drag people who don`t get - - candidates who don`t get 15 percent, they`re out in the caucuses.  Those people are going to get dragged to the Bernie camp if the war talk is big. 

JOHNSON:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  Let`s look at this, CBS/YouGov poll also found that Bernie`s backers in Iowa are the most enthusiastic for their candidate.  Sixty-seven percent of his supporters say they are enthusiastically supporting Sanders.  I don`t know how this works. 

That compared to 49 percent -- I`m for Biden, but not enthusiastically.  What a statement that would be? 

Anyway, the former vice-president leads with Iowa voters on another key question: 53 percent call Biden safe.  In other words, he`s going to win in the general.  That`s about 30 points higher than any other candidate. 

To make your point, he`s the best bet right now against Trump. 

JOHNSON:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  But in terms of enthusiastic human emotion, there (INAUDIBLE).

FINEMAN:  Iowa isn`t always predictive, by the way --

JOHNSON:  Exactly. 

FINEMAN:  It isn`t always predictive --

MATTHEWS:  For the Democrats, it is.

FINEMAN:  Well, not always.

MATTHEWS:  Where not?  What, Harkin and Gephardt?  They`re the only two exemptions.

FINEMAN:  All right.  Well, but -- 

MATTHEWS:  And they`re neighborhood guys. 

FINEMAN:  Yes, but the day -- the thing is that Bernie is probably going to be just as strong in New Hampshire the week following. 

MATTHEWS:  I agree, I agree. 

JOHNSON:  And then if he pulls out of water in Nevada and South Carolina.

FINEMAN:  Yes, and I agree with you about Pete.  And what they`re going to go after Biden on, yes, he`s got the experience and so forth.  But he also has a lot in history --

MATTHEWS:  He voted for the Iraq war.  He voted for the Iraq war.

FINEMAN:  -- and voted for the Iraq war, and that`s an easy line for the Bernie bros to use in Iowa at the caucuses. 

MATTHEWS:  If you`re Biden, what do you do to get some excitement about you? 

JOHNSON:  Basically, you say, you want this guy out of office?  You go after me.  You want to see the person that`s going to make him sweat?  You go after me.  You want the guy who`s going to fight?  You go after me.  That`s been Joe Biden`s argument the whole time. 

MATTHEWS:  You know what I say to women and men? 

JOHNSON:  What do you say?

MATTHEWS:  Woke men. 

If Trump wins again, get ready for a 7/2 Supreme Court for the rest of your life. 

JOHNSON:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Give it up on those human rights. 

JOHNSON:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, thank you, Jason Johnson.  Thank you, Howard Fineman. 

Up next, assassination is not historically the best way to prevent a war. 

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Ever since Christmas, I`ve been over in Vietnam.  It brought back to me the horror and irony of what they over there call the American war.  The horror is the loss of 58,000 American lives.  The irony is how that horror could have been averted. 

In the fall of 1963, South Vietnam President Diem was believed to be plotting a way to end that war that was dividing his country to reach some form of agreement with the rebellious Viet Cong. 

Fearing that we were in the verge of being told to leave the country, the Kennedy administration okayed a military coup against President Diem, and that coup led to Diem`s assassination and with it, a terrifying consequence.  It was now our war.  By getting rid of Diem, we have made ourselves the deciders of South Vietnam`s future. 

The decision to assassinate General Soleimani last week has given hope to President Trump`s recent national security director, John Bolton, that Trump will now push for regime change over in Tehran.  The assassination has already triggered the Iraqi parliament`s vote to oust us from that country.  It has triggered Iran`s decision to move forward with this nuclear program and has already succeeded, you can see there in the crowd, in uniting the Iranian people against us. 

So it`s all happening again, the way in which assassination drives us toward war and its consequence. 

Again, back to Vietnam.  Today, the courtyard of the Continental Hotel over there where U.S. generals had their first quenched orange juice during the war remains.  So does the rooftop of the Rex Hotel where the public affairs office gave their late afternoon briefing and body counts of the notorious 5:00 follies. 

Many here still call in that country, still call Ho Chi Minh City "Saigon", just as the 30 or so Starbucks in that city, the many high-rise buildings and bustling economy make you wonder what the war was about.  The war we fought with such courage and took so many American lives after taking it over from the South Vietnam president we had dumped and left to be killed. 

Assassination is a nasty word because it`s a nasty business.  It is not a means to avoid war.  It is a trigger to war.  A step toward regime change on which the neocons like John Bolton have set their hearts. 

For them the lesson of Vietnam is how to do it all over again.  That`s what they`re after in Iran. 

And that`s HARDBALL for now.  Thanks for being with us. 

"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