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MLK Jr. Day TRANSCRIPT: 1/20/20, Hardball w/ Chris Matthews

Guests: Raja Krishnamoorthi, Barbara Boxer, Jon Meacham, Eli Stokols, Noah Feldman, Gabe Debenedetti, Tara Dowdell

ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST: They`re also in our podcast, which you can get wherever you get your podcast.

That does it for this show tonight. Our special coverage of Trump`s impeachment, again, will begin tomorrow at 9:00 a.m. with Chuck Todd. I`ll be anchoring at 10:00 a.m. Brian Williams and Nicole will pick it up at 11:00.

"HARDBALL" starts now.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  Rules of engagement. Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews up in New York.

Tonight, on the eve of the president`s impeachment trial, the country is bracing for impact. Just in the last hour, lawmakers received the proposed rules for the trial from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. This one key take away here, McConnell plans to rush this trial. You bet it.

According to the resolution, McConnell intends to cram 24 hours of arguments into two days. That`s 12 hours a day per side here, rather than three days as was done during Bill Clinton`s impeachment. And while the timing is still fluid, opening arguments could conclude as early as this Saturday, which means that the vote on having witnesses testify under McConnell`s rules would come in the middle of next week.

In another break with precedent, the rules provided the evidence collected by the House won`t be entered into the record until after that vote, in other words, until they do have a vote on whether to bring witnesses in. In a sharp rebuke to that idea by McConnell, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement, Senator McConnell`s resolution is nothing short of a national disgrace. McConnell is saying he doesn`t want to hear any of the existing evidence and he doesn`t want to hear any new evidence.

Schumer is also promising to force earlier votes right up front on whether we have witnesses or not using motions to amend tomorrow`s resolution on the rules. And all this -- amid all this, Trump`s legal team today submitted a brief coin on the Senate to speedily reject the charges and acquit the president.

Well, it seems like the president and the Republicans in the Senate are racing who can be the fastest to get this over with. They claim that the president did absolutely nothing wrong, the White House says, and argued that Trump`s actions are not impeachable. Quote, the House Democrats` newly invented abuse of power theory collapses because it fails to allege any violation of the law whatsoever. Well, the House impeachment managers today called that an unconvincing and implausible defense.

In their response they write that the president maintains that the Senate cannot remove him even if the House proves every claim in the articles of impeachment. That`s a showing assertion. It`s also dead wrong.

I`m joined right now by Democratic Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, former Senator Barbara Boxer, host of the Boxer podcast, and Geoff Bennett, NBC News White House Correspondent.

Geoff, I want you to start here. What do we make of these proposed rules by Mitch McConnell right off the bat?

GEOFF BENNETT, MSNBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Well, the Senate majority leader, Chris, has envisioned a trial here that meets the needs of his key constituencies. You`ve got the Republican in the White House behind me and, of course, those Republicans in Mitch McConnell`s Senate conference, the majority of which he needs to keep. That is his core goal here.

So he has devised this schedule that will lead to a fast and forgettable Senate trial, right? That certainly is the thing that President Trump has now signaled that he wants, even though President Trump initially said he wanted a spectacle with Hunter Biden and the whistleblower and all these different kind of folks there on the Senate floor telling what they know.

I think what`s interesting here is that in this resolution, there is a mechanism to bring witnesses forward for testimony after both sides present the opening argument. So the House managers go first, the White House presents a rebuttal. After that, after a period by which the senators themselves submit questions, that is when you get this vote on the witnesses.

There is also not in this resolution a motion to dismiss. That is one of the key concerns that Democrats had. That`s one of the reasons why I`m told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delayed the transmission of these articles of impeachment, because there was a lot of handwringing about this motion to dismiss, which is not in this resolution.

One of the reasons why in that calendar you laid out, why the White House, according to this schedule, would wrap up their opening argument by Saturday, we have some new reporting on that. Our colleague, Heidi Przybyla says it`s because Republicans want to have the White House give their version of events in time for the Sunday shows. So, certainly, all of the political calculus here in this 2020 election year is certainly playing into this organizing resolution, these rules of the road for the Senate trial, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Well, Geoff, what about this idea that the record will not be closed, even though existing evidence they`ve been collecting and they presented in the House impeachment hearings themselves, all the evidence that have led to these two articles of impeachment, that that`s not going to go into the record if they decide not to call witnesses. I`m going to what Schumer is going at. Chuck Schumer is saying they won`t even accept the old evidence, let alone not allow new witnesses to bring in new evidence.

BENNETT:  This is an interesting detail, and the president`s legal team was on the Hill today. And our Capitol Hill team was able to ask them about this. The rules make clear that after the House impeachment managers present their case, all of the evidence that they want senators to weigh as they make their determinations has to be allowed into the record by way of a vote, piece by piece.

Now, you can see how this really privileges the White House because, of course, House Democrats have way more evidence that they have amassed over the last two to three months versus the White House that still, even in the legal brief that they released today, they`re still making, for the most part, a process argument about why they say the articles of impeachment are based on flimsy evidence.

To this point, I cannot put my finger on a piece of evidence, exculpatory evidence in black and white, that the White House or president`s legal team has introduced to say that this pressure campaign, the Democrats alleged, started in the spring of 2019 and ended this past September, Democrats say, when the president and the White House got caught red-handed and ultimately released that aide. There is not a single shred of evidence that the White House has introduced to say that is not, in fact, the case, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Last question. How fast can Chuck Schumer get to the fight? How far -- how fast starting tomorrow can he bring up the question of witnesses, push it?

BENNETT:  Fairly early. The question is does he have the votes on his side. The answer to that, I suspect, is no, or else Mitch McConnell would not have released this resolution to us publicly and to the press a day before they are set to vote on it. We expected to get this tomorrow in advance of the vote. So the fact that we`re getting this the night before, Democrats, of course, say that the fact that this is coming so late into the process isn`t at all helpful. But the fact that we have it in black and white suggests to me that McConnell knows that he has all the votes he needs to get the kind of trial that he envisions, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Hang in there, Geoff. This is high news you`re giving us. Thank you.

Let me go to Congressman Krishnamoorthi. It seems to me that one thing I learned and gleaned from the House hearings that led to the impeachment vote in the House and has led now to the trial this week is that Republicans are uncomfortable and unwilling, in fact, to defend this president`s character, in fact, to defend his actual innocence. Their whole focus is on process.

It does remind me of the O.J. trial, which I covered for a whole year every day, focused on the police that brought him into custody, focused on the prosecution. Don`t focus on the actual innocence of the defendant. They do not feel comfortable -- your Republican colleagues -- to defend the man walking across the White House lawn there right through today as they present their case. They don`t say he`s a good guy of good character. They didn`t say he didn`t do what he accused of, they attack the Democrats.

REP. RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI (D-IL):  I think that`s exactly right. And I think that the fact that they want to have these opening arguments unfold in two days, 24 hours of opening arguments unfolding in two days starting at 1:00 P.M., by the way, shows you that they really don`t want the American people to be watching any of this, especially the substance, you know, late into the night.

And so I think you`re correct that they do want to focus on anything other than the president himself and I think they want to create a spectacle and at the end of the day have their senators vote by party line.

MATTHEWS:  Barbara -- Senator Boxer, what do you think of this? It looks to me like it`s in broad daylight, they`re just saying, we`re going to primetime, we`re going to late at night, we`re going to rush this babe and get it over with. But the whole country, Republican, Democrat and independent is watching this. They`re doing this in broad daylight, this scam, if you want to move this thing so fast, people can`t see it go by.

FMR. SEN. BARBARA BOXER (D-CA):  This is one ugly mess. I spent 24 years in the United States Senate. I spent ten years in the House. I have never seen anything as ugly as this. And I know Mitch McConnell very well. We fought a lot. We worked together on a couple of things. And I know his mindset. He is furious that he can`t just dismiss this out of hand because the moderates, the few that there are over there, wouldn`t go -- that was a bridge too far for them.

So now he`s figuring out how am I going to get this over with and make people furious and make them exhausted and all the rest. This was -- when I was a kid, the Senate was known as the greatest deliberative body in the world. Mitch McConnell is one angry man. Just look at his face. He`s furious about all this, and he`s going to make senators pay the price.

And, by the way, I agree. he`s got the votes right now. And you know, there used to be a saying on my side of the aisle, the Democratic side of the aisle when we were so close to getting moderates, we always said, when you need them -- we always said, they`re always there when you don`t need them. Well, right now, we need them and they need to come out of the shadows and save this country.

This Constitution is on trial and all this Dershowitz, who is known for defending murderers and pornographers and pedophiles, he`s the one who is leading the charge to speak about the Constitution. This is a disgrace.

MATTHEWS:  Well, The Washington Post reports today, in fact, this evening that President Trump`s legal defense team and Senate GOP allies are quietly gaming out contingency plans should Democrats win enough votes to force witnesses to testify in the impeachment trial, including an effort to keep former National Security Adviser John Bolton from the spotlight. One option being discussed would be to move Bolton`s testimony into a classified setting because of national security concerns, ensuring that he`s not public. According to Post, that proposal is seen as a final tool against Bolton becoming an explosive figure during the trial. First would come a fierce battle in the courts, of course.

Congressman, this has always been my question. I`ve always wondered why John Bolton said, okay, I`ll giveaway my story even though I could save it for my book. And my first answer was, he`ll look like a cad or worse. He`ll look unpatriotic if he hides the good stuff from the public when it matters. But then I thought, no, he`s probably safe because McConnell will make sure he doesn`t get called. And if that us doesn`t work, the president will protect him with executive privilege and he won`t have to giveaway his little goodies he`s saving for his book.

KRISHNAMOORTHI:  Yes, sometimes you wonder if John Bolton wants to be -- attempting to give his testimony and then he doesn`t actually have to do it. But, you know, in this particular case, what`s very interesting to me, Chris, is that Lieutenant Colonel Vindman as well as Fiona Hill both gave explosive testimony. I`m pretty sure that they -- I would think that they would have checked with John Bolton before they did it. And as you know, John Bolton didn`t make any noises, whatsoever disputing even a scintilla of their testimony.

So the question is whether he would come out and corroborate and then expand on what they said. As you know, he said that, you know, the deal, withholding military assistance in return for these public investigations or announcement of these public investigations was an illicit drug deal and that Rudy Giuliani was a hand grenade that would explode everybody around him.

I think that those types of statements, if he were to come out and say it, would be very seriously damaging to the president. I don`t know how you move this into a classified setting given that all the information is already out there at this point and he would only be examined on this type of information that`s already public.

So I`m not sure how that gambit would work, but it would be very interesting to see if these four senators or five senators who are in the middle who appear to be wanting witnesses would actually want Bolton to come forward. My hunch is, yes, but let`s see how it plays out.

MATTHEWS:  Well, a handful of Republican senators, as we`ve discussed, will play a pivotal role in determining whether witnesses are allowed at the trial -- even allowed. The New York Times reported this weekend Susan Collins of Maine, quote, convened several meetings in her office with the Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee to cobble together a provision ensuring a vote on the matter, of course, a vote on having witnesses.

As the story points out, if the four hang together on the issue, their votes would be enough along with the 47 Democrats that control and that would be to demand information to come out in the trial.

Senator Boxer, what do you make -- you know all these personalities, Collins and Alexander. And I`ve always liked Murkowski. She`s gutsy as hell and she beat her own party when they took away the nomination. And, of course, Lamar Alexander, who seems like a trustworthy guy. You think that`s the four that`s going to really change the situation and give us witnesses?

BOXER:  I can only hope so, because what we`re looking at is very serious, and all these kind of dismissive words about what`s abusive power. It was one of the main articles against Richard Nixon. And when Richard Nixon looked at that, he just plain quit. So it`s very, very serious.

And there has been such obstruction of Congress. As the House has pointed out, we can`t get the witnesses. We couldn`t get them. We couldn`t get so much documentation. We have a lot of information, But not enough. So I think the burden on all the Republicans, not just these four -- my goodness, this is America. We`re supposed to not be afraid to tell the truth and find the truth.

MATTHEWS:  Well, you have to wonder how the president gets away with just saying -- and he lies when he says this -- that the House didn`t want to hear from these witnesses when, in fact, he was keeping all them from testifying. He personally was doing it. And then he comes out and personally says the House didn`t want to hear from these people, a direct lie that he knows all about. And the Republicans just lay down and accept it. They just accept the lying in their face.

Thank you, U.S. Congressman Raja Krishnamorrthi, so much, from Illinois, former Senator Barbara Boxer and Geoff Bennett. Great reporting, Geoff, we need you so much right now. Thank you.

Coming up, the president`s lawyers reveal his defense, calling the impeachment a dangerous perversion of the Constitution. Important question, is abuse of power an impeachable offense? You bet, as Richard Nixon, as Barbara Boxer has just said.

Plus, two weeks in Iowa and the candidates are throwing harder punches two weeks from today. Bidens are warning Democrats that Sanders and Warren will bring the party down, kill all the people running on the lower ballot positions, like congressmen, like senator, like representatives in the state level. They`re all going to lose, Biden says, if you run the two guys on the left. Anyway, they accuse Biden of flip-flopping on social security. It`s getting testy.


JOE BIDEN (D), FORMER U.S VICE PRESIDENT, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  So I think it`s just a desperation on the part of some of the candidates who are now, going back 35 years and trying to pick a sentence that was said or wasn`t said.


MATTHEWS:  Well, on the national holiday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, my thoughts on why iconic speeches, like Dr. King`s I have a dream speech are important as America`s most cherished documents.

We`ve got much more tonight to get to, ending with that great man there. Stick with us.


MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

The president`s lawyers have put out the first detailed look at how they plan to defend the president against the two articles of impeachment. In the legal brief filed today, Trump`s legal team argued, quote, the articles themselves and the rigged -- that`s a great word -- the rigged process that brought them here are brazenly political act by House Democrats that must be rejected.

The Trump legal team goes on to add, all this is a dangerous perversion of the Constitution that the Senate should swiftly and roundly condemn, close quote.

Well, with respect to the charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, the Trump team calls them "two flimsy articles of impeachment that allege no crime or violation of law whatsoever, much less high crimes and misdemeanors, as required by the Constitution. They do not remotely approach to constitutional threshold for removing a president from office."

Well, that`s the president`s argument.

One member of the president`s team, Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, put out a preview of the president`s defense this morning.


ALAN DERSHOWITZ, TRUMP IMPEACHMENT DEFENSE TEAM MEMBER:  My conclusion, which I will present in a systematic way, is that the framers of the Constitution did not permit impeachment on grounds like abuse of power or obstruction of Congress.

They rejected open-ended, vague criteria that could be weaponized for partisan political purposes. And they introduced instead fairly specific criteria, treason, bribery or the high crimes and misdemeanors. And the other high crimes and misdemeanors have to be crimes akin to treason and burglary.


MATTHEWS:  Well, before he got his home broadcasting booth, Professor Dershowitz seemed to have a different perspective on what constitutes an impeachable offense, for example, back in 1998 in the lead-up to President Clinton`s impeachment.


DERSHOWITZ:  So, it certainly doesn`t have to be a crime. If you have somebody who completely corrupts the office of president and who abuses trust and who poses great danger to our liberty, you don`t need a technical crime.


MATTHEWS:  Well, I`m joined right now by Barbara McQuade, former federal prosecutor, and Noah Feldman, professor at Harvard Law School. He was one of the four witnesses, historic witnesses, to testify in front of the House Judiciary Committee last month about the legal and constitutional arguments on impeachment.

There seemed to be a conflict there between...


MATTHEWS:  It`s so hideous that he doesn`t know there is tape available. He does his little Skype from his house there, thinking that`s the last word.

Well, no, it isn`t the last word, but it`s just the most recent word, because, before, when he was talking about Clinton`s impeachment, he said you don`t need a crime.

NOAH FELDMAN, HARVARD UNIVERSITY:  Well, the only nice thing I can say is that he was correct in 1998. It`s not true now.

MATTHEWS:  Why is he faltering?

FELDMAN:  I mean, when you`re a criminal defense attorney, you can try different defenses in different cases.

When you`re trying to talk about the Constitution, it`s a good idea to be consistent.

MATTHEWS:  Well, what`s your view now, Professor? The Yale -- what is the - - OK, is it a subset of laws that can be impeachable or is it a subset of impeachable acts that could be legal? Where do they -- what is the overlay?

FELDMAN:  It`s really simple.

An impeachment can be there for anything that`s an abuse of power. Now, you can abuse your power, like Richard Nixon did, by a crime, you know, by covering up a break-in. That`s a crime and it`s also impeachable.

There`s lots of impeachable actions that don`t have to be crimes on the statute books. And that`s always been the case. It was true in England. It was true in the United States. It`s always been true.

And to give you an example, imagine that the president of the United States, with no authorization from Congress, starts a war tomorrow...


FELDMAN:  ... maybe invades Canada.

MATTHEWS:  You would have to stop him.

FELDMAN:  You would have to say that he violated the Constitution in an obvious way, but there`s no statute on the books that says, don`t invade Canada.

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Barbara on that.

That seems to me so obvious that you don`t have to go to Harvard Law to do that, much less be a professor there, that there are things a president can do that would be an abuse of his power as president, but he was constitutionally advised -- allowed to do in what he was doing, like cut a deal with a foreign president to get some political dirt on his opponent.


And we -- Noah gives the sort of logical explanation, but there`s also historical basis for that. And it wasn`t just Noah, but all four of those constitutional scholars who testified before Congress, even the one that was brought by the Republicans, Jonathan Turley, agreed that it need not be a crime to be an impeachable offense.

He thought simply that they needed more evidence about this conduct, but even this conduct was sufficient to be impeachable.

And, as Noah says, the converse of that would simply be illogical. You can imagine all kinds of things that a president could do that are not technically violations of statutes.

MATTHEWS:  Give me some examples beyond the one on the table right now, beyond the one he`s been impeached for.

MCQUADE:  Well, imagine if he decided he didn`t want to do his job and sat around watching television all day.

Imagine if he only appointed family members to the Supreme Court, all kinds of things that aren`t crimes, but would be abuse of his power as president.

And, certainly, the framers wanted to stop in his tracks a president who did those kinds of things that were against the interests of the country.

And, moreover, Chris, at the time the Constitution was passed, we didn`t have federal statutes on things like bribery. And so the idea that, to be impeached, you had to be in violation of a statute is just nonsense.

MATTHEWS:  And were very aware, the founding fathers at the time, weren`t they, about the possibility of unholy alliances with the French or the British or all kinds of things a president might choose to do that would not be considered constitutional?

FELDMAN:  Yes, they were obsessed with it. They were obsessed with the idea that a foreign government would somehow affect our elections or affect the presidency.

And although the only big change is, in those days, we were a weak country. Now the worry is that we would go outside and get help from a foreign government.

So, you asked for things that might not be crimes. How about going to the head of a foreign government and asking for help to bring down your opponent in an election? That may not be a statutory crime, but that`s impeachable.

MATTHEWS:  Especially since we managed to get our independence thanks to the French.


MATTHEWS:  We know all about that.

FELDMAN:  We do.

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, Dershowitz -- Alan Dershowitz`s words about that in 1998, what he said back then, we have on tape, we just showed you, also contradict what he said in an interview with ABC arguing that the House charges against the president right now don`t merit removing him from office.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS:  As you know, the House materials have cited crimes that were -- crimes that were committed as well.

DERSHOWITZ:  But they weren`t elements -- they are not articles of impeachment.

The articles of impeachment are two non-criminal actions, namely, obstruction of Congress and abuse of power. And those are -- would have to be voted on by the Senate.


STEPHANOPOULOS:  Let me press that, though.

Is it your position that President Trump should not be impeached even if all the evidence and arguments laid out by the House are accepted as fact?

DERSHOWITZ:  That`s right.



MATTHEWS:  OK. In other words, it`s not about facts. It`s about his argument that Dershowitz happens to have this year.

Anyway, Dershowitz later tweeted: "There`s no inconsistency between what I said during the Clinton impeachment and what I am saying now. I said then that there isn`t -- there doesn`t have to be a technical crime. I have said now there must be a criminal-like conduct or conduct akin to treason and bribery."

What`s that distinction?

FELDMAN:  That`s not a meaningful distinction in any way. I mean, a technical crime is a crime that`s on the books, and that`s what they convict you for and send you to prison for.

So, there`s no difference there. And on top of that, you have to say what the president did...

MATTHEWS:  I technically killed somebody.

FELDMAN:  ... is akin to bribery.

MATTHEWS:  I technically killed somebody.

FELDMAN:  Yes, you technically killed somebody.

It is akin to bribery also. The president solicited a favor from the president of Ukraine that would effectively have been a bribe from him. He solicited a bribe. So if you want to go down that line, that is exactly the conduct that`s alleged here.

MATTHEWS:  I have a question, but I won`t raise it, but put it in your heads everybody. Why is Dershowitz doing this?

Anyway, Barbara McQuade, thank you.

Unless you have an answer. Shout it out.


MATTHEWS:  Noah Feldman. Thank you both.

Up next:  Trump`s allies in Congress are maintaining a laser-like focus on criticizing impeachment procedures, so they don`t have to defend Trump`s action. I said this before tonight, and I said it last week.

Republicans are not interested in defending this guy, his character, his goodness, or anything about his behavior. They skip all that and just go on attack. Will that narrow focus be enough to carry them through this trial, just going after the Democrats` process?

Well, that seems to be the game plan for Mitch McConnell.

You`re watching HARDBALL.



KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER:  I can tell you that the president is preparing for Davos and agrees with many of the things that Dr. Martin Luther King stood for and agreed with for many years, including unity and equality.

I don`t think it was within Dr. King`s vision to have Americans dragged through a process where the president is going -- not going to be removed from office.


MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was White House counselor Kellyanne Conway suggesting that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on the day that he`s honored, would be against Trump`s impeachment. That`s an interesting projection. I wonder how she figured that one out.

As she said, President Trump spent most of today`s holiday preparing for a trip to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum, where he`s expected to rub shoulders with various world leaders and particularly look good, I think. That`s the idea of it.

The president is set to address the forum out in Davos tomorrow, the same day his impeachment trial begins here in the United States.

Well, earlier today, his lawyers claimed -- quote -- "The president nothing wrong."

It`s an argument they`re hoping Senate Republicans will echo, of course.

According to "The Washington Post," President Trump urged Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the top Republican, to use his power to end the trial before it began. That was the story they got. That was the plan, no trial at all, dismissed immediately.

But two people with knowledge of the exchange tell "The Post," "The Washington Post," that McConnell dismissed that idea, saying it would split Senate Republicans, and that it`s better to be unified than divided.

Well, that`s probably savvy.

Ultimately, McConnell did not include a motion to dismiss in the resolution that came out today, so he doesn`t plan to go for a quick dismissal, because that would divide Republicans.

Anyway, that unity will be put to the test, however, in less than 24 hours.

For more, I`m joined by Jon Meacham, presidential historian, Eli Stokols, "Los Angeles Times" White House reporter.

Thank you both, gentlemen.

Well, I`m not going to ask you about Kellyanne Conway, because I don`t think Dr. Martin Luther King would be much interested in the positive case being put out by the White House for the president.

But the idea that the president did nothing wrong, Jon, what do you make of that? Because I have been harping on this thing for weeks now, that this Republican defense does not include a defense of Trump`s character, his personal behavior, anything about him, including his behavior and the conduct with regard to the president of the Ukraine, even about the matter involving -- and facts involving the case itself.

They simply say, they don`t like the Democrats, and they don`t like that Democrats are impeaching him. It is like the O.J. case. They don`t defend the guy. They just defend their right to fight with the people going after him. That seems to be the whole game here.

Your thoughts?


It`s a defense made for a reflexively partisan era. I have been struck by the extent to which they have conceded the basic facts of the case.


MEACHAM:  They don`t seem to really be arguing with what happened there. They`re simply saying, it doesn`t matter, or they`re sort of gliding over the whistle-blower part and the fact that this would be arguably a crime still unfolding, if the whistle-blower had not stood up and said that this quid pro quo has been going on.

In many ways, what`s on the ballot, so to speak, in the Senate trial is, do you care about the constitutional order? Or do you only selectively want to apply the standards that have served us pretty well for 240 years or so?

Right now, it looks as though they`re willing to -- almost like kids in a scary movie, they`re willing to cover their ears and close their eyes and just hope it passes. And Trump`s the scary movie. The problem is, it`s real and we`re all living in it.

MATTHEWS:  Eli, back in the day of the Nixon impeachment, it never got to the Senate.

But you could tell by the way that House broke out, with six Republicans, a half-dozen Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee voting to vote those articles of impeachment, including one being abuse of power, they seemed to be actually having battles with their conscience in those days, people like Barry Goldwater, Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania.

They actually -- in public, you could see them wringing their heads, trying to figure out, what`s the right thing to do, party loyalty or loyalty to the truth and the country and the Constitution?

This time around, they all seem to be taking a bye on that in the Senate, most of them.


And Jon -- Jon makes a great point. This is a reflexively partisan era we`re in, with partisan news outlets. And it`s easier for lawmakers to just stay in their hermetically sealed partisan world and not cross over.

Nancy Pelosi didn`t succeed in getting a single Republican vote for the articles of impeachment in the House. And in the Senate, over the last couple of weeks, as there`s been pressure put on the Senate to call witnesses, to have a fair trial, you have seen a handful of Republican senators, some of the moderates, Susan Collins and others, say, yes, we want some witnesses, but we`re going to -- we`re going to see what happens. We may vote for some of those things.

But in laying out these rules now, what Majority Leader McConnell is doing by making it so that senators have to vote not just on witnesses, but to admit every single piece of evidence from the House individually, piecemeal, he`s going to be making all these senators take a vote over and over and over again, and see how many times Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney actually want to go against the Republican Conference and vote over and over again with Democrats.

This is a really -- an endurance test that he`s setting up, not just for Democrats, but for the Republican senators as well.

MATTHEWS:  Let`s take a look at Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama.

He was asked by George Stephanopoulos at ABC if it was appropriate for a president to solicit foreign interference in elections.

And here`s what Senator Shelby said:


STEPHANOPOULOS:  I asked if it was OK to solicit.

We`ve seen the president in public ask the Ukrainians to get involved, ask the Chinese to get involved.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R-AL):  Well, those are just statements, political. They make them all the time.


SHELBY:  I didn`t say it was OK. I said people make them. People do things. Things happen.


MATTHEWS:  Well, that`s a classic example, Jon Meacham.

I mean, I think of people that are respectable senators, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. He`s no right-wing crazy man. Rob Portman of Ohio. They`re not crazy people. They`re moderate -- well, not moderate, but regular conservative Republicans, people of honor.

They`re all shut up.


MATTHEWS:  They just -- they`re just going along with the lemmings.


They have made a calculation that their preservation in this particular Republican electorate is something that outweighs what I would think of as an honest assessment of the facts and their implications.

And all you can say to that is, A, you hope they don`t do it, but, B, if they do it this time, and, as we suspect, they get away with it, the shoe inevitably will be on the other foot. That`s another thing, with all respect to Senator Shelby, that happens.

This will unfold again in some way. And, suddenly, it`s going to be -- the tape from this era is going to be fascinating, as Republicans against a Democrat going forward.

If you continue to raise the bar on what`s genuinely impeachable, you lower the bar way into the dirt about behavior that will ultimately be acceptable.

MATTHEWS:  Speaking of behavior, these guys are supporting a president they would not invite to their daughter`s wedding. That`s a fact.

MEACHAM:  That`s right.

MATTHEWS:  They don`t want to be near him.

MEACHAM:  That`s right.

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, thank you, Jon Meacham. Thank you, Eli Stokols.

Up next:  With two weeks to go, a large number of Iowa voters are still -- 60 percent are undecided out there. Isn`t that something?

Even "The New York Times" couldn`t pick just one candidate to endorse. Could Joe Biden`s new down-ticket argument help him with voters?

You`re watching HARDBALL.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

We`re now two weeks away, just two weeks away this -- well, tonight from the Iowa caucuses, the first contest of the 2020 presidential campaign. With four of the Democratic candidates about to be sidelined by the president`s impeachment trial in the Senate, some of the candidates were barn-storming Iowa over the weekend and for good reason.

In a recent "Des Moines Register"/CNN poll, 3/5, 60 percent of Iowa voters said they may change their minds between now and the caucuses. It`s not just those Iowa voters who can`t settle on one candidate.

"The New York Times" editorial board not wanting to tell its readers which one candidate to support, instead announced it`s backing two candidates, moderate Senator Amy Klobuchar and progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren. "The Times" describes the Democratic Party as caught, caught between two visions for the country`s future. Quote, some of the party view President Trump as an aberration and believe that a return to a more sensible America is possible. Then there are those who believe that President Trump was the product of political and economic systems so rotten that they must be replaced.

That was well said. In a choose-your-own adventure style, "The Times" said Warren and Klobuchar are the best options for whichever path Democratic voters in Iowa wants to follow, the Democratic left, if you will, or the Democratic center. Just don`t ask "The New York Times" which path is the right one.

As to why the editorial board at "The New York Times" overlooked the national front runner Joe Biden, they didn`t. The board writes that his message of merely restoring the status quo will not get America where it needs to go as a society. What`s more, Mr. Biden is 77. It is time for him to pass the torch to a new generation of political leaders, so say the people of "The New York Times" editorial board.

Well, the former vice president is ignoring that sleight from "The Times", but he did issue a strong warning to his party of what it would mean for down ballot Democrats if someone like Warren or Sanders got the nomination. And that`s coming up next.

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JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  The top of the ticket matters as you all know in South Carolina. I`m just asking a rhetorical question. Bernie is at the top of the ticket in South Carolina or Warren is the top of the ticket. How many Democrats down the line do you think are going to win?


MATTHEWS:  You know, Joe Biden, not to make a case for him, but he`s so much better when he`s not in a debate. When he`s talking one on one, he`s quite fluent, quite good at it.

Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was former Vice President Joe Biden, of course, in this case, down in South Carolina over the weekend making the case the Democratic voters need to consider how their presidential nominee will affect every other Democratic candidate on the ballot in 2020, with only 20 weeks left until the Iowa caucus, the presidential candidates are showing their willingness to take the gloves off as they jockey for position in the final stretch for February 3rd.

And in the ongoing confrontation between Senator Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren over gender and electability, Sanders had this to say.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Do you think that gender is still an obstacle for female politicians?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Look, I -- the answer is yes, but I think everybody has their own sets of problems. I`m 78 years of age. That`s a problem. If you`re looking at Buttigieg, he`s young guy, and people will say, well, he`s too young to be president. Look at this one, she`s a woman. So, everybody brings some negatives, if you like.


MATTHEWS:  For more, I`m joined now by Gabe Debenedetti, national correspondent for "New York Magazine" whose cover story in the magazine is about the race in Iowa. There it is, great work.

Tara Dowdell is a Democratic strategist.

So, when I heard Bernie double down on the gender thing after denying he said it to her two years ago in the back room, I thought how did he get away with saying it`s a negative? Because Hillary won by 3 million to 4 million people. She lost the Electoral College because of three states, but we know when she did. It was not like she was out of the money.

Your thoughts?

TARA DOWDELL, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  Well, first of all, it`s not that Hillary won by 3 million votes. But in addition to that, 2018 was a record breaking year for women in politics. So much of the energy, the activism, the enthusiasm, the organizing and the leadership that got people elected, that got Nancy Pelosi her majority, that was all led by women.

In addition to that, many of the candidates were women, and not just throughout Congress, but down ballot, too. I`m from New Jersey, but I`m also -- I went to school in Virginia, University of Virginia. And those races, many of those races that helped Virginia have Democratic control of the House and the Senate there were women.

So I think that the fact that he`s saying this is an obstacle -- let me parse this. It is -- women do face barriers in getting elected. But the fact that he`s saying it`s a negative, that choice of words in the context is problematic.


MATTHEWS:  Let`s talk about this. Sixty percent haven`t made up their minds.


MATTHEWS:  And there`s an old joke about Iowa voters. I haven`t met them 20 times, you know, I want to see the candidates a little more. I think Jay Leno used to make fun of this.


MATTHEWS:  I want more information.

How much more information do you want, how many meetings do you want to make up your mind?

DEBENEDETTI:  Yes, you know, every time I go to Iowa, especially recently, even the last few days, these people, even if they go to the same candidate`s events over and over, even if they seem to be fully committed, almost all of them say, but I could vote for someone else. They have their top three.

Honestly, the first and last question for a lot of them -- this isn`t everyone, but a lot of them, can this person beat Trump. And, of course, there`s no one answer to that question.

MATTHEWS:  OK, OK, OK. Has anybody admitted -- I remember as a kid rooting for Bobby Kennedy to win the California primary the night before he was shot because even though I liked Gene McCarthy a lot, I have rooted for Bobby because he`s the guy that could actually beat Humphrey and could end up the war, OK?

DOWDELL:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  But how many voters actually make that distinction between their heart and what they think is -- what`s going to work, how many people do that?

DOWDELL:  Well, I think -- I think -- I think that most voters are very practical in this election just because --

MATTHEWS:  Really?

DOWDELL:  Yes, I think most Democratic voters are practical in this election just because of the nature of this wrath (ph) that Democratic voters feel that we face. And so, I think that while there are people who are certainly voting with their heart, I think it`s probably more of a hybrid.

I think people are looking at the candidate they like -- 

MATTHEWS:  So, do you hear it?

DEBENEDETTI:  Yes, absolutely.

DOWDELL:  -- but they`re looking at the candidate they like that they think can beat Trump.

MATTHEWS:  You hear that. You hear people go into that schizoid thing. I`m a lefty, but I`ve got to vote a little more moderate this time, or I think Bernie can win no matter what anybody says.

DEBENEDETTI:  Absolutely. In fact, the way that I think a lot of reporters have been thinking about this when we talk to each other, you know, on the side lines of these rallies, voters sound more and more like pundits, they sound like we sounded in some ways, because what they`re saying is, I really like this plan and this plan, but I`m not sure that that plan can carry Michigan, and I`m not sure that this talking point appeals to the working class voter in a diner in Ohio.

And it runs the risk, of course, of this sort of easily caricatured and you have -- that`s one of the reasons that you have someone like Joe Biden essentially saying, look at the polls here.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. I think Bernie is going to win Iowa. You know why? I`m not siding with him, I think he`s going to win, because I think of the rock solid support he has from the people who had denied -- well, maybe, maybe, maybe -- they`ve decided.

DOWDELL:  Oh, yes, they`ve been decided since 2016, his supporters.


DEBENEDETTI:  Yes, and I think this is the one exception to what I was saying. Obviously, a lot of Bernie Sanders` supporters are absolutely positive that he will be the candidate to beat Donald Trump and he`s in the best position to do so. But they`re not the ones who say, I`m voting based on electability. They`re saying, I`m voting for Bernie Sanders because he`s the right candidate, more so than you hear from other bases.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. Well, Joe Biden is firing back at Sanders for his recent attacks on him on Social Security. Sanders campaign retweeted, by the way, a 2018 video that took Biden`s comments out of context, it must be said, make it seem as though he did -- he agreed with former House Speaker Paul Ryan`s land to dismantle the entitlement program, Social Security itself.

Biden has called Sanders` accusation a lie. Here he goes.


BIDEN:  So, I think it`s just a desperation on the part of some of the candidates who are now going back 35 years and trying to pick a sentence that was said or wasn`t said. And, but, you know, and on Social Security, I`m a strong supporter of Social Security.


MATTHEWS:  Well, Biden has spoken out in the past ways, he has, about ways to change Social Security in order to keep it alive.

DEBENEDETTI:  Yes. Well, one of the important -- 

MATTHEWS:  That`s why people do these things, to keep the program.

DEBENEDETTI:  One of the important things to note here, is that these two, while it might not seem there is a ton of overlap in their voters, they are actually battling for some voters particularly in these Obama/Trump counties, and particularly older voters. There`s a reason they`re talking about Social Security right now. These are the people for whom persons this is the most important --

MATTHEWS:  But any candidate can come along and say, I`m going to double your Social Security. I don`t care about money. Why not? It`s free, it`s government.

Anyway, Gabe Debenedetti, thank you.

DEBENEDETTI:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  Tara Dowdell, thank you. It`s great to have you on.

Up next, I`m going to quote from two of the greatest speeches ever I think to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

You`re watching HARDBALL.


MATTHEWS:  I want to quote now from one of the two greatest speeches in our country`s history, the other one being that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Abraham Lincoln was speaking here of the ongoing horror of the civil war, but also about one of its moral conflicts.

Quote: Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes his aid against the other, he said in the second inaugural address days before he was killed. It may seem strange that any man would dare to ask a just God`s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of another man`s faces, but let us judge not that we be judged.

Yet, if God wills that it, the civil war, continue until all the wealth piled up by the bondsman`s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with a lash shall be paid with another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

I quote Lincoln`s words today on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day today because they are true and need to be said on this particular day. President Lincoln was not asking for us to hate Northerners, us Northerners to hate the Southerner. He was speaking about slavery and the heart of the civil war it brought upon us, even perhaps by the hand of the just God himself. He was saying that there exists no moral equivalence in the war to end slavery and the fight to defend it.

Today, we can say the same about the continuing fight to support Voting Rights Acts for all Americans, nose out to deny people those rights. The moral conflict, Abraham Lincoln addressed in his last days applies today, but read the same Bible and pray to the same God, but one side is pushing for equality and liberty, the other side for denying it. Can we agree on this Martin Luther King Day that one side of this voting rights fight is right and the other isn`t?


MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER:  When we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to see that day when all of God`s children, black men and white men, Jews, and gentiles, protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.


MATTHEWS:  One of the greatest speeches ever.

That`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us.

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.