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Shifting rationales for Soleimani strike. TRANSCRIPT: 1/10/20, Hardball w/ Chris Matthews.

Guests: Jonathan Lemire, Susan Rice, Martin Lewis, Yamiche Alcindor, NoahBookbinder, Jaime Harrison, Glenn Kirschner

ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST:  Yes. Look, I love it. That`s why we put it. I hope people check it out. I`ve got to get on HARDBALL.

It`s so good to have all of you together. Thank you very much. I hope you guys have a great weekend.

And go anywhere. HARDBALL starts right now.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  The assassination and the alibis. Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.

We have a big show tonight with some big stories. On Iran, President Trump has yet another explanation for taking the U.S. to the brink of war. On impeachment, Speaker Pelosi made a major decision about exactly when she`s going send the two articles over to the Senate. And in the presidential race, we`ve got brand-new polling tonight from Iowa, with the first in the country caucuses now just 24 days away. And the story that`s dominating all the tabloids this week, the shake up in the royal family, why Prince Harry and Meghan are charting a new course for themselves.

But, first, President Trump`s latest rationale for last week`s assassination of a top Iranian general, saying Soleimani was targeting multiple U.S. embassies, multiple embassies, as the administration struggles to get its story straight.

At a rally last night in Ohio, Trump expanded on a claim he had made earlier in the day that the general was targeting a single U.S. embassy.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Soleimani was actively planning new attacks and he was looking very seriously at our embassies and not just the embassy in Baghdad, but we stopped him and we stopped him quickly and we stopped him cold.


MATTHEWS:  Well, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly asserted the U.S. acted on a, quote, imminent threat. In an interview with Fox News last night, Pompeo couldn`t give a clear answer, however. But this morning, he backed up the president`s newest account.


MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE:  There is no doubt that there were a series of imminent attacks that were being plotted by Qasem Soleimani, and we don`t know precisely when, and we don`t know precisely where, but it was real.

We had specific information on an imminent threat and those threats included attacks on U.S. embassies, period, full stop.

We don`t know exactly which day it would have been executed, but it was very clear.


MATTHEWS:  Well, members of Congress have argued that the administration officials gave no evidence of embassies being targeted, even in that classified setting in a SCIF in the basement of the Capitol. But in an interview with Fox News, President Trump has even more specific information.


LAURA INGRAHAM, FOX NEWS HOST:  Don`t the American people have a right to know what specifically was targeted without revealing methods and sources?

TRUMP:  Well, I don`t think so, but we will tell you that probably it was going to be the embassy in Baghdad.

INGRAHAM:  Did they have large scale attacks planned for other embassies? And if those were planned, why can`t we reveal that to the American people? Wouldn`t that help your case?

TRUMP:  Well, I can reveal that I believe it would have been four embassies.


MATTHEWS:  We`re joined right now, but in a moment, by Susan Rice, national security adviser to President Obama. Well, let me start with Jonathan Lemire, White House Correspondent for the Associated Press.

Jonathan, this has become a desperate struggle to find a reason for something that was done. Why was -- do we know why Soleimani was killed, executed, assassinated, whatever the term? Because he was getting off a commercial plane at Baghdad Airport, he was commuting into Baghdad legally in a country he`s allowed to enter, a country where we have diplomatic relations and we used that as a shooting opportunity, when we could have done this any time before we wanted to do it, we did it now. And now we`re coming in with all of these explanations about why they assassinated the guy.

JONATHAN LEMIRE, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "ASSOCIATED PRESS":  Yes, it`s been a series of shifting explanations, and you make a good point there. Both of President Trump`s immediate predecessors had the ability and the opportunity to take out Soleimani, Bush and Obama, and neither did, for fear of the disruption that it would cause to the region.

MATTHEWS:  Why do we say take out now instead of kill?

LEMIRE:  They mean one in the same in this case.

MATTHEWS:  But why do we say take out. Why do you use that term? I`m serious. That`s fallen into our vocabulary, I don`t like it. Why don`t we just say it? We killed a guy.

LEMIRE:  To kill Soleimani. That`s fine. I`m comfortable saying that, Chris.

But I will say that those expectations have shifted from the moment the strike was launched and somebody was killed.

I was on Air Force One. I was with the president last week in Florida as he wrapped up his winter vacation. I was on Air Force One on the flight back. He called the press, the press pool with his cabinet upfront of the plane. He explained this is someone who he had kept his on for a long time. He felt it had loomed as a threat against the United States for months and years, but they needed to have some sort of immediate explanation as to the immediacy of why this was called in now.

And that`s the part that keeps tripping them up. They don`t seem to have a concrete answer. You just played the clip there, Secretary of State Pompeo has changed his story a few times, the president now has gone from one embassy to multiple embassies. Now, he`s put a number on it saying that four embassies were in danger, but he`s only named one, the one in Baghdad, the site of those protests the last week or so.

And members of Congress we`ve spoken to in the last few days as well as their aides who have received a series of briefings about this strike say that while, yes, there was credible intelligence that Soleimani was up to no good, that there was perhaps danger down the road, there was no sense that anything was right around the corner.

MATTHEWS:  What`s with the new Iraqi travel ban?

LEMIRE:  Well, so, thank you for bringing that up, Chris. My colleagues and I at the Associated Press broke that story today, that the White House is considering expanding the original travel ban, which you remember initially it was deemed a Muslim ban. There are seven countries on it. They are being considered to be added to this. The first one had certainly some issues in the courts, the Supreme Court ruled that it had to be far more narrow. It was allowed to stand in a limited fashion.

According to our reporting, a draft report has gone to the White House. The names of the nations have been blacked out. But according to our sources, some of those that are being considered are those that fell off the ban last time, which includes Chad, Sudan, and, yes, Iraq.

And let`s pause on that for a moment. This is a moment where our relationship with Iraq is very tenuous. The parliament took a vote in the last few days to expel the U.S. forces from the country. Now, granted that doesn`t have a lot of authority behind it yet, its fate still remains up for grabs.

Just today, the United States State Department said they wanted to keep its personnel, and Defense Department wanted to keep its troops in Iraq, but this would seem to add a lot of tension to that relationship if indeed this goes into law and therefore risking those countries being expelled and perhaps increase Iran`s influence in the region.

MATTHEWS:  It`s so ironic, we went to war with Iraq, we went in there to liberate it and now we`re being liberated. We`re told to leave. Thank you so much, great reporting, as always. The ironies are all over the place. Jonathan Lemire of the Associated Press.

I want to turn now to Susan Rice, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. former National Security Adviser to President Obama. She`s the author of Tough Love, My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For. Thank you so much, Ambassador.

Where are we on this? And, you know, I grew up learning that we had been involved with Patrice Lumumba to some extent, we supported the coup in Vietnam that ended up killing Z.M., our partner. Assassination has been a dirty, awful business historically. We`ve been too close to too much involved in it over the years. I thought after the church commission back in the `70s, we said, enough of that, we`re not going to assassinate anymore.

SUSAN RICE, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER:  Well, as you know, Soleimani was not a head of state and the church committee really mainly applied to head of states. But the important thing here, Chris, is the wisdom of this choice. And also the crazy shifting explanations, imminent, not imminent, four embassies, one embassy, no embassy, it truly strains credulity.

And whatever the intelligence indicates, I think we know from members of Congress who received the briefings that they really had no case for imminence. They may have had a collection of noise, chatter, intelligence reports. I think those of us who have been following Iran for a long time would assume that the Quds Force and therefore Soleimani are constantly surveilling our embassies, surveilling our personnel and having plots in their back pocket. Bringing them to fruition though is quite a different thing.

But to me, what I`m most worried about is the wisdom of this killing. The fact is that if you look at where we are since this happened, it`s been setback after setback to our strategic interest. The Iraqis want us out. They are now pushing to make that happen. The campaign against ISIS, the reason why we`re in Iraq in the first place, has been suspended. And the nuclear program, which had been incrementally restarting after we pulled out of the nuclear deal unilaterally is now full steam ahead, and so all of these very important concerns to our interests have been set back in a fundamental way.

So this was not a smart move. It was bad for our security, bad for our standing in the region, and, yes, I mean, many people, myself included, are glad to see a world without Soleimani. But I don`t think the benefits nearly outweighed the costs.

MATTHEWS:  Well, is that why because it`s ended up with all of these bad chain reactions going on? Now, it`s going to be, who lost Iraq now? We`ve got the people on the streets of Tehran, all crying and miserable, because a hero of theirs has been killed by us, assassinated by us. Where`s this going to take us?

RICE:  It`s going to take us, Chris to a continuing --

MATTHEWS:  Are we ever going to be not at this sort of cold war with Iran?

RICE:  Well, not for a while.

And what happened as a result of the retaliation, the Iranians, you know, retaliated in quite a calibrated way, a clearly designed --

MATTHEWS:  Sure, nobody got killed.

RICE:  -- to eliminate or minimize the risk of casualties.

But they`re not done. Anybody who knows Iran and knows the importance of Soleimani to Iran, as I do, as many do, would assume that the Iranians` next steps will unfold over time, in places we don`t expect, but they will involve proxy attacks on our personnel, perhaps our diplomatic facilities, as well as our military personnel, it`s going to involve cyber, and it could well involve terrorist attacks, as we`ve seen in the past, and not necessarily isolated to the Middle East.

MATTHEWS:  Well, that`s scary. Where could they hit us?

RICE:  The Iranians have capacity globally. We`ve seen them hit in Latin America. We know they tried to plot here in the United States, a failed plot that was foiled against the Saudi ambassador. We know they have capacities in Asia, through Hezbollah and others. So the Iranians have reach.

MATTHEWS:  That`s always amazed me, because you`ve got Hezbollah all over the world, Latin America, everywhere, you`ve got people in Africa, they`re all over there, and we have missionaries all around the world, we have businesspeople all around the world, we have tourists all around the world. What stops them from an all-out war? Just say, we`re going to hit you, everywhere you are in the world, we`re going to hit you tonight?

RICE:  Well, I mean, obviously, to the extent that we can attribute the attacks to Iran, and that`s the challenge, and they seem to be proceeding in a concerning way. They know that we have the capacity as well to strike back. And that`s when you get into this, again, as we were earlier in the week, an escalatory cycle that could well result in war.

And, Chris, with the  nuclear program now off, the brakes all off of that and they are in charge, the Iranians, of how fast or how slow they go, that too could be a very imminent flash point for conflict.

MATTHEWS:  Well, former Democratic Senator from Virginia and Navy Secretary Jim Webb questioned the use of assassination as a tactic in an op-ed today in today`s Washington Post. He warned, the assassination of the most well- known military commander of a country with which we are not formally at war during his visit to a third country that had not opposed his presence invites a lax moral justification for a plethora of retaliatory measures, and not only from Iran.

RICE:  Well, Chris, I mean, I think there`s some truth to that. You open a Pandora`s Box. There`s a reason why we`ve made a distinction historically between non-state actors, terrorist groups, individual terrorists like Osama Bin Laden or Baghdadi, and individuals who are part of a nation state government.

MATTHEWS:  Let`s talk about motive here, because this is a strange speech the president gave the other day. I know you`re an expert and you can probably see all this strange language. Some of it seems to be written by what we call neo-cons or hawks, the words regime. Some of the language says, okay, this is probably Mike Pence talking. Some of it seems like Pompeo, who talks and thinks the same way. Do you think there are people around the president, especially those two gentlemen, pushing for war or pushing close to war, something you might call brinkmanship? They want a really hot front against Iran going through this election?

RICE:  I`m not sure, Chris. I`m not close enough to it to make that kind of judgment. I do think that, you know, the president reached a fork in the road when the Iranians retaliated. He had a choice. He could have escalated. He could have hit back, yet again. He chose not to. I think that was a wise choice.

However, had there been people pushing him to do that, and I think in the past, there may have been those among him, around him that were, you know, I hope they`ve learned from this experience that it comes at great risk and great cost. This is -- war with Iran is no joke. And for those --

MATTHEWS:  Explain that, because I think people think, well, we beat Afghanistan, thanks to the northern alliance and the CIA and everybody rather quickly.

RICE:  But we`re still involved in that.

MATTHEWS:  I know we are. And we marched into the -- we marched into Iraq. War with Iran, what would it be like?

RICE:  Iran`s capabilities far exceed that of Saddam Hussein, for example, at his height. Iran`s capabilities are multi-faceted. They are experts in asymmetric attacks, they`ve recently demonstrated through their attacks on the Saudi oil facilities, a very sophisticated ballistic missile capability with real precision. So they can do real damage.

And when you look at how our personnel and forces are arrayed simply in the immediate region of Iran, should Iran decide to react, retaliate, attack, they have multiple vulnerable targets.

MATTHEWS:  And one of your successors, John Bolton, wants to go to war.

RICE:  I won`t speak for John Bolton.

MATTHEWS:  I think he wants to go to war. Thank you so much. It`s great to have you. It`s a privilege to have you here, Ambassador Susan Rice. Thank you for coming on.

RICE:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, Speaker Pelosi tells House Democrats to prepare to send the two articles of impeachment against President Trump to the Senate next week, so this thing is ending. It`s beginning, actually, too. The trial is coming. But that big question remains, will we hear from witnesses, especially, well, John Bolton says he`s willing to testify.

But today, Trump has said he might invoke, you hear it now, as you`ve heard it before, executive privilege to block Bolton from even talking. Here he goes.


TRUMP:  You can`t be in the White House as president in the future.  I`m talking about future, many future presidents, and have a security adviser, anybody having to do with security and legal and other things --

INGRAHAM:  You`re going to invoke executive privilege?

TRUMP:  Well, I think you have to for the sake of the office.


MATTHEWS:  Plus, the royal exit, Harry and Meghan are getting out of the royal family business, at least most of the time. If you`ve watched The Crown, you know the importance of royal duty over individual desires. But the prince and duchess say they want a progressive new role for themselves.

We`ve got more on that and get to that tonight. Stick with us.


MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is preparing to deliver those articles of impeachment to the Senate, allowing the president`s trial to move forward. In a letter to her Democratic colleagues today, Pelosi said, I have asked Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler to be prepared to bring to the floor next week a resolution to appoint managers and transmit articles of impeachment to the Senate.

Pelosi will consult with her caucus on Tuesday, coming up, which means, according to The New York Times, that the Senate`s proceedings could begin as soon as Wednesday.

Amid all of this, the debate continues over the fairness of the proceedings, namely, whether the Republican-led Senate will even hear from witnesses, or move to suppress new evidence, or just shut the whole thing down.

But in an encouraging sign today, somewhat encouraging, a key Republican senator opened the door to allowing witness testimony.

Senator Susan Collins of Maine told "The Bangor Daily News" up there that she`s working with a -- quote -- "small group" of Republican senators to ensure that witnesses can be called to trial.

I`m joined right now by Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the "PBS NewsHour."  Noah Bookbinder is executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, Glenn Kirschner, of course, former federal prosecutor.

Let`s go to Glenn.

Who blinked?

GLENN KIRSCHNER, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR:  Who blinked. Some might say Speaker Pelosi blinked, but, Chris, let`s look at where we are today.

MATTHEWS:  Well, then again, let me fight with you immediately. She made her point.

KIRSCHNER:  Go ahead. Bring it on.

MATTHEWS:  She never could do more than make her point. She never could do this for months. So it was always going to be a short string of days she had.

Did she push it to the limit, beyond the limit or what?

KIRSCHNER:  Well, where are we today that`s different from where we were the day the House voted on the articles?

One, we have Bolton saying, you know what, I will testify. Two, we have Senator Collins saying, I have consulted with a small group of senators, and I am hope...

MATTHEWS:  Four. We need four.

KIRSCHNER:  And I am hopeful that we will get to a point where -- I`m not saying it`s cause and effect, that the Pelosi delay necessarily led to that.

But let`s face it. We have been discussing the fairness of the trial. This delay has given us an opportunity to talk about how a trial without witnesses is like democracy without voting. It ain`t. So I think we`re in a better place now for the Pelosi delay.

MATTHEWS:  Yamiche, as he does often, Mitch McConnell tried to do some mansplaining.

And all the time, he didn`t say nagging. He said haggling. But he was basically saying, OK, lady, you know, get off -- get back in your lane.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR, "PBS NEWSHOUR":  What you just said is essentially the Democratic point of view, that they held onto these articles...

MATTHEWS:  Well, he didn`t start with that. He started by saying she blinked.

ALCINDOR:  Well, that is true, that is true.

The latter part of what you said is what the Democrats will say, is that they wanted to have this long conversation. But most Republicans and most Democrats that I have talked to say, Nancy Pelosi knew who she was dealing with, she knew she was dealing with Mitch McConnell, she knew that he wasn`t going to really give anything big to hold this back.

They really just wanted that national conversation. So, in some ways, this is still going on largely on the terms that Mitch McConnell wanted, but he did have to now answer to his fellow Republican senators who are now saying, wait, what does John Bolton have to say?

But, of course, Senator Collins -- and I would add in there Senator Romney. They`re both saying, it would be nice to hear from Bolton, but neither one of them are saying, I`m definitively not going to move forward with this trial if we don`t have witnesses, which is what Democrats want them to say. And they`re not doing that yet.

MATTHEWS:  I have said recently, not to quote myself, but it was pretty good.


MATTHEWS:  I said that Mitt Romney flirts with greatness. He flirts with it, but he doesn`t marry it.

To stand up and say to this president, I want witnesses, damn it, or I`m going to keep demanding them all two or three weeks of this trial until we get some witnesses -- he could do that. He`s a senator.

ALCINDOR:  He could do that. He could do that.

But what we have seen is Republican senators really walk up to the line on all sorts of issues, whether it`s Brett Kavanaugh, whether it`s the Senate trial. You have seen Republicans have kind of a sprinkling of standing up to the president, a sprinkling of standing up to Mitch McConnell, but then they always stop short.

Some people would say that`s politics, they`re worried about their base and getting reelected. Some people say that`s also Mitch McConnell saying that he has control of his caucus.

MATTHEWS:  He cracks the whip.

ALCINDOR:  Yes, that he cracks the whip, and they listen.

MATTHEWS:  Well, Democrats are eager to hear from former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who`s expressed his willingness to testify under subpoena.

However, in a Fox interview today, President Trump signaled he will try to prevent that from happening.


INGRAHAM:  Why not call Bolton? Why not allow him to testify? This thing is bogus. Why not have Bolton testify?

TRUMP:  I would have no problem, other than one thing. You can`t be in the White House as president -- future -- I`m talking about future, many future presidents -- and have a security adviser, anybody having to do with security, and legal, and other things, but especially...

INGRAHAM:  You`re going to invoke executive privilege?


TRUMP:  Well, I think you have to for the sake of the office.


MATTHEWS:  It`s amazing how he does this now, he acts like he really meant it, like he cares about the future of American governmental institutions. I don`t think so.

But here`s the question. Can you have, given the precedents, a trial without witnesses?


The Senate has 15 times in American history conducted an impeachment trial to completion. In every one of those cases, witness have testified, in many of them, witnesses who did not testify in front of the House. This would really be breaking new ground in a really unfortunate way.

MATTHEWS:  Well, legally, what happens if the president invokes executive privilege, or his lawyers do, and says, I don`t want my national security adviser talking about national security?

Then it goes to the courts. And they play for time. You can`t hold up the - - does anybody have any idea what you do? Can you hold up the trial until you get a court ruling on John Bolton`s testimony?

ALCINDOR:  It sounds like -- the way I feel -- the way that my sources tell me, it`s really kind of uncharted ground, but for the most part, the White House has had this dance that they think everything is privileged.

But you still had people like Lieutenant -- like Army Lieutenant Colonel Vindman walk in there and say, I don`t really care what the White House is saying, I`m going to go forward.

So I think John Bolton could be in a situation where if he really...


MATTHEWS:  Since he`s not working there anymore.

ALCINDOR:  Exactly.

If he hasn`t -- he can say, look, this is what I can tell you without being -- without breaking classification, without talking about privilege. I was really concerned about some of the things that I saw.

And, by the way, a lot of his deputies, a lot of the aides that he sent up to warn the White House lawyers, they have all kind of said, this is what John Bolton believes. So, in some ways, they can really just ask him, is what Fiona Hill saying, your aide in the National Security Council, was she correct when she said that you were really angry at this and that you didn`t want to be part of what you were calling a -- quote -- "drug deal"?

Those could be simple yes-or-no answers. They don`t have to get into any new ground.

MATTHEWS:  Well, let`s talk about human behavior.

Could it be -- I don`t know Bolton personally. I know his politics, his ideology.

But could it be that he says, I thought for a while I want to save some of the goodies, the gems here for my book, because people do that, people like to write the big story with the big news.

But he said, if history comes down that I sat on this stuff for a year while we had a -- didn`t have a real trial, I`m guilty of really withholding my citizenship here.

KIRSCHNER:  Exactly.

If he had blockbuster evidence, and he doesn`t testify, and then he puts in a book information that could have changed the course of a Senate impeachment trial, he will go down in history as a traitor and a villain.


Well, in December -- you said it well.


MATTHEWS:  He doesn`t like hearing that either.

Anyway, "The Washington Post" reports that Senate Republicans are seeking a short trial, possibly two weeks, before holding a vote on the president`s fate. Even if they begin the proceedings, by the way, at the earliest possible date next Wednesday, that would leave less than three weeks until the president delivers his State of the Union address.

Yet, today, Senator Mitch McConnell wouldn`t say whether his goal is to get the president acquitted before the State of the Union.


QUESTION:  Do you think it`s important to get it finished before the State of the Union and have him acquitted by the time he appears?

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY):  Oh, look, we`re just getting started. I`m glad we now have the opportunity to do it. And it`s been a long wait, and I`m glad it`s over.


MATTHEWS:  What do you make of this?

Because we all know what a State of the Union looks like. The speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, who`s leading the charge on impeachment, has gotten it through the House. The president is under trial in the United States Senate.

And we`re all going to watch the president come in with the usual one-half of the chamber cheering him, the other one sitting on their butts, right? It`s going to be worse than ever this time.

ALCINDOR:  It`s going to be interesting.

And I think that the White House really just wants this to be over as soon as possible.

All the sources that I talk to, even though they were saying for months and months and months that President Trump was going to welcome being impeached, he hates this part of this legacy, he wants this to be over.


ALCINDOR:  He wants to be able to take the victory lap to say, look, they tried to get me out of office. And, by the way, I`m not here.

He wants to almost maybe deliver that line at the State of the Union. Will he actually be able to do that? Who knows? But I think that`s definitely what the presidents want.


MATTHEWS:  Well, the mobsters always come out, Noah.

They come out on the courthouse steps. They have just won a case maybe on a technicality. They have squeaked through. And they come out, I`m exonerated. I`m innocent, not just I got off the hook here, but I am clean.

I can hear Trump doing that. I can hear that victory lap statement at the State of the Union.

BOOKBINDER:  Absolutely.

But -- and the problem here is that Mitch McConnell has already stated that he`s essentially in the bag for the president. And so it`s not going to be -- if that`s how it goes, it`s not going to be an exoneration that carries a lot of weight with the American people.

MATTHEWS:  But he will give that speech and the Republicans will jump up and down like they just won the Super Bowl, right?

ALCINDOR:  Yes. I think you can imagine that the Republicans are going to be cheering him on, saying, we beat -- you beat this case.

MATTHEWS:  You beat the rap.


MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Yamiche. I love it.

Yamiche Alcindor, NPR, Noah Bookbinder -- oh, no. I`m sorry. You`re from "NewsHour."


MATTHEWS:  But Noah Bookbinder, and PBS, and you actually appear on television. You`re not just on the radio.

Glenn Kirschner, who has his entire family back here tonight. That`s so great. You`re here. Thank you, Glenn.


MATTHEWS:  Up next:  One Democratic presidential candidate is throwing in the towel, while another candidate secures a highly coveted spot in the next debate.

You might say he paid for it.

Plus, a new poll out tonight from Iowa -- straight ahead on HARDBALL.


MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

We`re just three weeks now out from the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, just three weeks.

And, tonight, we`re getting our latest glimpse into the minds of the Iowa voters. A new "Des Moines Register"/CNN poll just released tonight has Senator Bernie Sanders leading, Bernie Sanders. He`s hanging in there at 20 points, not far ahead, but ahead. Senator Elizabeth Warren is at 17. Pretty close. Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who was leading in a November poll, has dropped the most, now at 16, a huge drop for him.

He took a battering in that last debate, and it matters.

And former Vice President Joe Biden comes up a close fourth. Fourth. He`s just at 15 percent. That is rough news for him. It`s also the final poll that determines who will make Tuesday`s Democratic debate stage next week in Des Moines.

Six candidates have qualified. Catch this, Tom Steyer making the cut, thanks to polls released Thursday in Nevada and South Carolina, where he spent tens of millions of dollars on TV ads to get his numbers up.

However, Steyer`s spending has been dwarfed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has already spent more than any of the other candidates combined. He`s spent over $160 million already, more than the total of everyone else.

Bloomberg`s also making news today with his commitment to pay 500 professional staffers through the November 2020 election itself to support the eventual nominee, whether it`s him or not. In other words, he`s paying a real team of independent campaigners to stay on, working full-time, right through November, even if he`s out of the game.

And that list of potential candidates shrunk, by the way, today by one, with Marianne Williamson announcing today that she`s suspending her campaign.

Also running for reelection this year is President Trump`s biggest booster, and we know who that is, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

A new report paints a picture of a man who will do almost anything to get reelected. That`s Lindsey.

Graham`s Democratic challenger joins us next.



SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC):  I have complete confidence in President Trump and his team to protect your family member and to protect our nation.

This is the first president in the last 40 years who really understands the Iranians.


MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was Senator Lindsey Graham earlier this week defending President Trump.

Graham has become one of the president`s most vocal champions, but that has always been not always the case. In recent years, Graham has flipped on a number of topics, not just on Trump.


GRAHAM:  Impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office.

I find the whole process to be a sham, and I`m not going to legitimatize it.

If Jeff Sessions is fired, there will be holy hell to pay.

Every president deserves an attorney general they have confidence in it and they can work with.

I`m not going to try to get into the mind of Donald Trump. I think he`s a kook. I think he`s crazy. I think he`s unfit for office.

What concerns me about the American press is this endless, endless attempt to label the guy as some kind of kook, not fit to be president.



MATTHEWS:  Did you see that? A complete 180. He said he`s a kook and not fit, and then he said, he`s not a kook and not unfit.

A former law partner of Graham shared with "Rolling Stone" what Graham told him about life in politics.

This is a quote, by the way, to always remember. He said -- this is Lindsey Graham being quoted -- "Eighty-five percent of the people in Washington, elected officials and bureaucrats, would sell their mothers to keep their jobs."

He said that was a direct quote from Lindsey Graham.

He added: "But Lindsey, in my opinion, has sold his mother to keep his job."

That`s from his law partner.

For more, I`m joined by Jaime Harrison, the person looking to take Graham`s job. He`s the top Democratic candidate now for the United States Senate in South Carolina.

Mr. Harrison, so I`m going to ask you...


MATTHEWS:  Happy new year to you, sir.

I just want to have you on now to answer a question. I always ask people, what don`t you see on television? What is about the room, the aroma, the feeling of that room?

What is it that you can tell us about Lindsey Graham that we haven`t seen in his jumping back and forth on both sides of every issues, whatever, the kiss-butt performance of him over the last several months with this president?

Is that as bad as it gets, which is pretty bad?

HARRISON:  Chris, I read that "Rolling Stone" article, and I just shook my head.

You know, I was one of those people who actually had a tremendous respect for Lindsey Graham, and I thought he was fighting for us. This is when John McCain was alive.

But I have quickly come to realize that Lindsey Graham epitomizes why people hate politics. He will say and he will do anything.

If you had to come up with a theme of that article, it is, you can`t trust Lindsey Graham. He has his own best interests at hand, and everybody else be damned.

And so, it`s just sad. It`s very sad. The people of South Carolina are hungry for somebody who will fight for them, who will put them up above themselves. And, right now, we don`t get that in Lindsey Graham.

And that`s why I`m going all across this great state, talking to people about the challenges that they are dealing with on a day-to-day basis, because, for me, it`s about being relevant in South Carolina, not being relevant in Washington, D.C., but being relevant in the households and in the minds of the people of this great state.

MATTHEWS:  You know, I like it, too. I certainly like going down to Charleston once in a while. I have got some in-laws down there.

But I want to ask you. It`s a conservative state. And it`s not only a conservative state. According to that article we both read in "Rolling Stone," it`s getting older. It`s getting more conservative, you might argue.

How does a Democrat like you win in a conservative state for the United States Senate?

HARRISON:  Let me give you a perfect example.

Chris, on Wednesday night, I went to Lancaster County, South Carolina. This is right on the border with North Carolina. This county went overwhelming for Trump. I walked into the door, Chris. There were -- it is a senior community, 200, jam-packed room, 200 seniors in that room.

I walk in the door, and they stand up and they give me a standing ovation. They are hungry for change as well. They are ready for somebody who`s going to bring hope back, somebody who understands that they have lived the American dream, but they want the American dream available for their kids and their grandkids also.

That`s why we have sparked this movement. That`s why the latest poll had me down by two points. That`s why I have just raised more money than anybody in the history of South Carolina, $3.5 million last quarter. We are building a movement. We are building a movement built on hope.

And that`s why I tell everybody, go to, because we`re going to send Lindsey Graham home.

MATTHEWS:  Jaime, Lindsey Graham has basically said he`s going to vote for the president in the impeachment trial. He`s already with him. He said he`s not even going to listen. He doesn`t even want to hear the transcripts -- read the transcripts of the witnesses. He doesn`t want to hear nothing.

He was a juror. He`s going in as a juror who has already decided the case. Have you?


MATTHEWS:  Would you vote for conviction of the president?

HARRISON:  Listen, if I was a United States senator about to take the oath that basically said that you were going to be an impartial juror, it`s about listening to both sides, letting the president make his case. Let`s hear from the House managers as well.

Let`s get witnesses there, so that you can make the case. Now, there are a lot of issues in this. And nobody is above the law.

But what Lindsey Graham has done is basically said that his word is not meant -- and his oath doesn`t mean anything. It`s about character. It`s about integrity. It`s about standing up for your word.

In my household, my grandfather always taught me that, Jaime, your word is your bond. But right now what we see with Lindsey Graham, his word doesn`t mean anything.

MATTHEWS:  Well, sir, you`re an impressive candidate. I wish you well. It looks like it is a close race.

HARRISON:  Thank you, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  That`s really striking that you`re that close already.

Jaime Harrison, likely Democratic candidate against Lindsey Graham. And you never know what you`re going to get from Lindsey Graham.

Up next: America is captivated right now by the spectacle of the British royal family experiencing a generational fracture. The reactions are all over the map.

You`re watching HARDBALL.


MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

President Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, the duke and duchess of Sussex, shocked the United Kingdom and the world this week with the declaration they will formally step back from their roles as senior members of the royal family.

In a statement posted on Instagram, the two said they would become financially independent, splitting their time between Britain and North America.

And last year, Prince Harry, who is sixth in line to the British throne, told ITV News that protecting his family was his top priority.


PRINCE HARRY, DUKE OF SUSSEX:  For me, and for my wife, you know, there`s - - of course, there`s a lot of stuff that hurts, especially when the majority of it is untrue.

I will not be bullied into playing a game that killed my mom.


MATTHEWS:  Well, the announcement which has been dubbed Megxit by the tabloids was a sensation in Britain. Look at those headlines.

Here at home, the editorial board of "The New York Times" celebrated the move. It was the lead editorial today, taking up most of the page in "The New York Times" editorial page.

The same can`t be said for Buckingham Palace, where the news received an icy reception from the queen of England.

For the latest, I`m joined by Keir Simmons, NBC News correspondent, who`s outside of Buckingham Palace.



Well, I don`t have a direct line to the queen, but you can imagine just as well as I how she must be feeling. She did emerge for the first time today since this crisis broke, looking steely, as well she might, because one friend of the royals saying that things actually, despite the negotiations, could get worse, rather than better, describing the atmosphere as toxic.

And perhaps that`s not surprising. We have learned today that Harry felt forced to make his announcement because of a leak to a tabloid newspaper, the kind of newspaper that he despises.

Now, Harry and Meghan know what they want. The question is, are they going to get it? And, crucially, who is going to pay for it?

Maybe Meghan could go back to her acting. Maybe she could play herself in the new season of "The Crown" -- Chris. 



MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Keir Simmons, over at Buckingham Palace.

I`m now joined by Martin Lewis, who has been a columnist for "TIME" magazine, "Salon" and The Huffington Post.

Well, here we go.

I guess there`s a lot of factors.

You`re in the midst of Brexit. They finally agreed on Brexit. They`re going to pull out of Europe. And here we have the royal family in turmoil.

How does it all connect? Does it?

MARTIN LEWIS, COMMENTATOR AND SATIRIST:  Well, you know, a lot of coverage has suggested that this is like another season of "The Crown."

But you know what? While the British royal family may be dysfunctional and can teach Aaron Spelling a thing or two about soap operas, this is not really about the royal family.

It is about the British family. And in the same way that here in America we have this transition from the optimism of Obama to the Tea Party, birtherism and the ugly stain of Trump, the same thing happened in Britain.

The British equivalent of Archie Bunker took us from the optimism of the Tony Blair era to this Brexit, a hard Conservative government. Brexit is just a form of xenophobia. "I don`t like them bloody foreigners."


LEWIS:  And, ultimately, we now have a British prime minister called Boris Johnson who describes Africans as pick ninnies and black people as having watermelon smiles.

Just imagine how a proud daughter of an African-American woman should feel about that.

MATTHEWS:  Well, what has been the -- well, let`s talk -- let`s talk turkey here.

Meghan Markle has a biracial background. And there she is, a part of the royal family now. Has that been too much for the Brits to absorb? Is that what that`s about or this is about?


MATTHEWS:  She gets a beating in the tabloids. Why does she get a beating all the time?

LEWIS:  Well, because underneath -- coming out -- slithering out of the rock is that bigotry that`s always been there.

And remember that fairy tale royal wedding, where we had that fantastic black choir singing "Stand By Me," a black preacher from Chicago. Everybody thought it was wonderful.

Not in Britain. Rupert Murdoch`s tabloid "The Sun" sneered at it.

And there`s been that general attitude about -- a BBC host looked at a picture of Meghan Markle`s baby and tweeted that it looked like a monkey.

That is the -- that`s the sad truth, that Britain has that racism still.

MATTHEWS:  Well, that`s pretty bad.

I don`t understand this.


MATTHEWS:  I mean, I have to tell you, you have to translate this for me, because it`s a glamorous couple, of course. It`s a prince. He served in the military. He`s found the woman of his dreams. He married her. That is it.

And that`s not OK. And why isn`t it OK?

LEWIS:  Well, you know what? It`s -- well, unfortunately -- I come from the `60s era, so we all have this thing of love and peace and all you need is love.

And Americans have this lovely dewy-eyed image of Brits. We think of James Corden and John Oliver, Helen Mirren and an even old fogy like me.

But the reality is a lot of the Brits are actually -- if you remember what Ricky Gervais was like on the Golden Globes.


LEWIS:  You have got that stream of vituperative, reactionary bile, hating on anything progressive, anything kind or thoughtful or tolerant.

And that is a daily diet in Britain in the tabloids and in social media. So, Meghan, I think they were a little bit naive and optimistic the way they went into it.


LEWIS:  But they`re getting that day in, day out. I think they`re fed up with it.

MATTHEWS:  You know, I was on a bus out at the airport in Britain one time many years ago, and the bus driver was a man of color. I don`t know what his background was.

He slammed the door because it was time to move. And this older British guy outside the bus started yelling, "This is why I left the U.K. 30 years ago."


MATTHEWS:  I think we found your guy.

Thank you.

LEWIS:  Well, that`s certainly it.

Thank you, indeed, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Martin Lewis, for coming on the program.

Up next:  Trump may not like the word assassination used in connection with Soleimani, but it`s what he approved.

You`re watching HARDBALL.


MATTHEWS:  I don`t want this week to end without dealing directly with the U.S.` assassination of that top Iranian general.

Not liking the history attached to that word assassination, President Trump and his leadership circle are out there carving up new descriptions of what we did.

But we now have to live with it. And we now have a people, the people of Iran, who see Americans as assassins.

We talked tonight about the British royal family, but the queen of the United Kingdom has no power to order the killing of someone. Political power was taken away from the British monarchy centuries ago.

And that power to kill someone, to execute them, to assassinate them was never given to an American president. Again, we`re going to have to pay for this assassination. And it`s not a method for ending belligerence with a foreign power. It`s a way to deepen that belligerence.

By ordering the killing of an Iranian general, we have unleashed something. It will not end with the Iranian firing of those ballistic missiles into the Al Assad military base this week. The Iranian people are going to remember it for years.

The hawks on our side, those seeking regime change in Iran, will see it as a deliberate, leading step toward their goal of toppling the ayatollah. It`s a step toward replacing the leaders Iran has with the ones we would allow them to have.

Again, everybody on both sides knows what we did, except perhaps the president.

I sometimes think, when President Trump is reading prepared lines, he doesn`t quite grasp what those around him like Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo have put into his mouth, words like regime when referring to the Iranian government.

This week, they put that word in his mouth. Last week, they put the blood on his hands.

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

"All In with Chris Hayes" starts right now.