Trump cheers DOJ TRANSCRIPT: 2/12/20, Hardball w/ Chris Matthews

Guests: David Laufman, Betsy Woodruff Swan, David Frum, Eric Swalwell, Susan Page, Lily Adams, Gregory Meeks

ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST: I hope you`ll check it out at THE BEAT with Ari. I`ll see you tomorrow at 6:00 p.m. Eastern.

But right now, it`s "HARDBALL" with Chris Matthews.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  Trumping justice. Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews back in Washington.

The president`s campaign of revenge continues with major new developments at the Justice Department. President Trump is today praising Attorney General Bill Barr for intervening in the criminal case of his long-time friend and political adviser, Roger Stone.

In a stunning move yesterday, Barr`s Justice Department overruled its own prosecutors to recommend a more lenient sentence for Stone, asking for far less than the seven to nine years of incarceration the prosecutors had sought.

Stone was convicted by a jury in November on every charge brought by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller. That`s seven counts of lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstruction of justice.

And while the news came just after the president complained of Stone`s recommended punishment, a DOJ spokesperson says the Justice Department did not coordinate in Stone`s sentencing with the White House.

Among other things, Trump publicly declared, quote, cannot allow this miscarriage of justice, close quote. And now, the president is praising his attorney general for, quote, taking charge, close quote, on the case, saying, the Mueller scam was improperly brought and tainted. He argued without offering evidence that bob Mueller lied to Congress, without offering evidence.

Then he went off again today in front of the president of Ecuador.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT:  They treated Roger Stone very badly. They treated everybody very badly. And if you look at the Mueller investigation, it was a scam because it was illegally set up. It`s a disgrace. And, frankly, they ought to apologize to a lot of the people whose lives they ruined.

I want to thank the Justice Department for seeing this horrible thing. And I didn`t speak to them, by the way, just so you understand. They saw the horribleness of a nine-year sentence for doing nothing. You have murderers and drug addicts that don`t get nine years for doing something that nobody can even define what he did.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, the DOJ`s intervention to protect a Trump ally is, once again, raising questions about the Trump`s Justice Department`s independence and propriety. It`s prompted the entire team of four prosecutors to abruptly withdraw from the case, an apparent protest yesterday.

Trump is today attacking those prosecutors, as well as the judge who will soon decide the length of Stone`s sentence.

I`m joined right now by David Laufman, a former senior National Security official at the DOJ, Betsy Woodruff Swan, Politics Reporter with The Daily Beast, and David Frum, Senior Editor at The Atlantic and a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. David Laufman, thank you.

What does this say about the Justice Department, this whole entanglement between the president and Secretary Barr and letting out the word that this -- it looks like his buddy, Roger Stone, is going to get a lighter sentence.

DAVID LAUFMAN, FORMER SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY OFFICIAL, DOJ:  Well, it looks like the attorney general of the United States has now become a minion of the president and carrying out the president`s political grievances through bringing undue influence to bear on carrying out rule of law, day-to-day litigation decisions by career prosecutors at the Department of Justice, which is, to my knowledge, unheard of in the history of the department.

MATTHEWS:  Justice Department, especially the attorney general, was well aware of the president`s prejudice in this case, that he wanted a light sentence. If any, he wanted this guy sprung.

LAUFMAN:  That`s right. I mean, before yesterday, the president had tweeted multiple times about what he thought about the Roger Stone case and the notion that this particular tweet yesterday didn`t have a cause and effect on the decisions made to rescind the first filing and replace it with a watered-down version of that. This is ludicrous.

MATTHEWS:  How far could -- well, this is -- how far could a president go? That`s a stupid question to ask right now in this presidency. But, you know, this guy, Roger Stone, whatever he did, wasn`t out robbing gas stations. He was helping on  president`s -- well, on the president`s campaign. He was helping the president. A lot of what he does was to cover up for the president. Does that make it particularly wrong for the president -- this is so ridiculous that we`re talking about this. Is it particularly wrong for the president to intervene in the case that he was one of his henchman?

LAUFMAN:  I mean it makes the whole debacle shabbier, doesn`t it, that it`s clear, this is something the president is trying to protect and whether he gave a direct order to Attorney General Barr or the attorney general is just channeling his inner Donald Trump because he knows precisely what the president wants and how to accomplish it.

The outcome is the same. It has tarred the integrity of the Department of Justice. It has caused enormous distress upon the career officials at the department and it has undermined public confidence and the integrity and the independence of the Justice Department.

MATTHEWS:  And all that says to me, pardon the fact that Roger Stone, whatever you think of him, has clammed up in the interest of the president. He`s kept his secrets from the president, on behalf of the president.

This after, by the way, also comes after Attorney General Barr removed Jessie Liu, the U.S. Attorney supervising the Roger Stone case late last month. Yesterday, President Trump rescinded her nomination, she is her nomination to the Treasury Department, effectively firing her. NBC News reports, this is among several recent moves by Attorney General Barr to take control of legal matters, of personal interest to President Trump.

Quote, the Justice Department also intervened last month to help change the government sentencing recommendation for Trump`s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. He just keeps doing this.

LAUFMAN:  I mean, there is a pattern here, right? It`s not unusual that in these two cases that mean something particularly to this president, sentencing positions the government has carefully thought through are now softened by subsequent sitting decisions that water them down. And until a life tenured U.S. district court judge holds a hearing where he or she has the ability to ask pointed questions --

MATTHEWS:  And that`s coming.

LAUFMAN:  Well, it may come.

MATTHEWS:  Is it coming on Tuesday? What do you say?

LAUFMAN:  That may be the best forum we have to illuminate just what happened here, because I don`t expect the attorney general to illuminate that when he comes before Congress.

MATTHEWS:  So this is fascinating. The judge in this case, the trial judge, can call in the prosecutors and say, why did you change your guidelines of seven to nine years to, say, four or five or whatever it is?

LAUFMAN:  Right. There will be a sentencing hearing. But in this case, you`re going to be hearing, she calls before then to say, basically, what the hell happened here? What sentencing position is the position of the government? Why did that position change? And she could ask uncomfortable questions of the prosecutor who is haplessly standing there in front of her that day about what happened, who had input into that decision, what were the factors that led to the revised sentencing position?

MATTHEWS:  Well, can she ask was there any hanky-panky here, to the extent, was there any influence from above?

LAUFMAN:  Well, of course, the people who are going to be appearing before her then are not the people who experienced that firsthand. They`ve all withdrawn from the case, or in one case resigned from the Department of Justice all together.

MATTHEWS:  Betsy and then David, David Frum, it seems to me that Trump likes doing this in public. Even though maybe the actions had already been taken to lighten sentence or to begin to lighten the sentence, he wanted everybody to know that that`s what he wanted done.

BETSY WOODRUFF SWAN, POLITICS REPORTER, THE DAILY BEAST:  Trump is not big on subtly. And when he goes after people who he sees as enemies of his ability to exert power as president, he doesn`t do it -- he often doesn`t do it in underhanded or secretive ways.

What we`ve seen over the last six months and, actually, since he was first inaugurated, are effort after effort after effort very publicly to go after career civil servants who he sees as being trying to undermine him.

David made one point that I would like to highlight that I think is really important. You talk about the DOJ history and whether what happened with those prosecutors and with their recommendation being overturned has ever happened before.

Yesterday, a senior DOJ official spoke to defend the decision that DOJ made in this case. When that official spoke on background, I pressed them. I said, can you share any example of this happening before? Can you share any example of DOJ headquarters main justice overturning decisions of line prosecutors to reduce a sentence? And the official, even after I pressed them multiple times, wouldn`t name a single example.

DAVID FRUM, SENIOR EDITOR, THE ATLANTIC:  Look, Trump has done everyone here an enormous, enormous favor by acting so blatantly or by Bob Barr acting so blatantly, Bill Barr, or his henchman, Tim Shea, who is now the acting U.S. Attorney because there isn`t a Senate-confirmed one.

By doing this, which is so undeniable, they have cast a light on the cases where people are paying less attention to. Erik Prince the former head of Blackwater, he has got some sentencing decisions to make. There are question about whether they`ll proceed with the Rudy Giuliani matter. And as you said, there is this effort to go easy on Flynn.

Now, all of this could have passed under the radar. Suddenly, it`s a pattern. Suddenly, everybody knows. And we have this usual pattern where Trump people then say, well, the president had some semi normal, semi lawful reason and the president then goes on Twitter and says, sorry, just in case the videotape evidence was blurry, I`m going to put fingerprints all over the crime scene so you all know I did this thing. I did it.

MATTHEWS:  I, the president.

FRUM:  I, the president, in order to protect someone who knows a lot about my relationship with WikiLeaks and, therefore, the Russians, I, the president, am going to intervene in this case. And, by the way, that may remind you that I`m also intervening in some other cases that are getting less attention and may deserve it.

MATTHEWS:  This is the thing we always look for in developing countries, countries that come from colonial experiences to modern governments, do they have an independent judiciary, or is it something where somebody in political power can kill somebody, literally, kill somebody or have them executed or put away forever or just totally manhandle the legal system? Trump is acting like a third world dictator here.

SWAN:  The irony of this whole situation is that the dynamics we`re seeing play out with the Justice Department very much recall the situation in Ukraine. And we know that two senior Trump diplomats at one point spoke with senior Ukrainian officials and told them, hey, you guys shouldn`t open a criminal investigation of your boss` political rival and Ukrainian officials literally responded by saying, how do you have a moral leg to stand on when your own president is interfering with your --

MATTHEWS:  Well, here is what the president said today, excuse me, when asked about a pardon for Roger Stone.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPORTER:  Are you considering a pardon for Roger Stone?

TRUMP:  I don`t want to say that yet. But I`ll tell you what, people were hurt viciously and badly by these corrupt people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  So we`re going to see if he gets re-elected or if he doesn`t get re-elected, sort of a holiday period, late December, early January, when presidents get pretty frisky in this stuff, him especially. Is he going to just run down the list and let them all out?

FRUM:  It sure does look so. But it`s fascinating when he has not been so up in arms about Paul Manafort. And one of the questions I would ask is why is he so much more protective of Stone than of Manafort? And that`s just Stone knows things that Manafort does not know.

One other thing to say about this in a way, the comfort and the warning. The United States has still a very independent judicial system, a federal judge, although they`re increasingly biased and ideological and less competent than they were two years ago, it`s still an independent judiciary. But the prosecution service has always been vulnerable to politicization. That has been a fault in the American system dating back from the beginning.

MATTHEWS:  Well, because the executive branch -- they`re the executive.

FRUM:  There`s no other developed country on earth where prosecutors work for the political authorities, only in this one. But that has not too badly been abused in recent times but in the Trump era, it`s always been a weapon on the counter and that weapon has been picked up.

MATTHEWS:  Let`s talk about the judge in this case. How is she likely to react to everything we`re talking about here next week when she sentences?

SWAN:  She`s in a really tough spot. Because the argument that Roger Stone`s lawyers make involving one technical aspect of this sentencing memo, they argue that a threat that prosecutors say that Roger Stone made to Randy Credico wasn`t a serious threat, that it was basically these two guys kind of going back and forth and was not meant to be serious. That`s the argument they make.

MATTHEWS:  And Credico backs that up.

SWAN:  That`s an argument. And Credico has said that too. That`s an argument that serious people can make that the judge will take seriously. And before yesterday happened, it`s possible the judge would have sided with being more lenient and would have sided with that argue.

But now that Trump has tweeted about it, the whole ball game has changed, because if she takes the side of more leniency -- and this is something she knows. If she takes the side of more leniency, then she creates the perception that Trump can tweet at judges what to do and she knows that that will undermine public confidence in independent judiciary. So Trump and DOJ have put her between a rock and a hard place and it means that the sentencing hearing next week has the potential to be extremely interesting.

One other tidbit that I think is important, David will know this more than I do, when these attorneys moved, withdraw from the case, I believe the judge has the ability to reject that withdrawal effort, right?

LAUFMAN:  The judge has the discretion to inquire more specifically why they want to withdraw.

SWAN:  Exactly.

MATTHEWS:  Well, I`m waiting for that. That`s what we`re talking about. We`re hoping that that will happen next week.

SWAN:  So she has the ability to communicate with these guys and she has the authority and the power in a way that nobody else in the United States currently has to ask questions of those four prosecutors.

LAUFMAN:  That`s why I think that`s potentially the most fruitful venue to find out what happened in more greater granularity.

MATTHEWS:  This is Trump World, Trump and justice, a good start of the show, because that`s what`s going on. David Laufman, thank you for coming on, sir, Betsy Woodruff Swan, it`s great to have you on, David Frum, sir.

Up next, just one week after his impeachment acquittal, Trump is carrying out his revenge tour, if you will, in full view.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP:  The fact is that Roger Stone was treated horribly and so were many of the people. Their lives were destroyed. And it turns out you look at the FISA warrants and what just happened with FISA where they found out it was fixed, that it was a dirty, rotten deal.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  What can Congress do about all of this? U.S. Congressman Eric Swalwell joins us now.

Plus three tickets out of New Hampshire, just like in Iowa, Bernie and Buttigieg were again the two top winners in New Hampshire, but Amy Klobuchar this time not far behind in third place. So what are the big lessons from New Hampshire?

We`ve got a lot to get to tonight. Stick with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PETER ALEXANDER, MSNBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Republicans have said they hoped you would learn a lesson from impeachment. What lesson did you learn from impeachment?

TRUMP:  That the Democrats are crooked, they`ve got a lot of crooked things going, that they`re vicious, that they shouldn`t have brought impeachment and that my poll numbers are ten points higher.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Of course, that was President Trump earlier today telling NBC`s Peter Alexander that the lesson he learned from impeachment was that Democrats are crooked. From the removal of impeachment witness Alexander Vindman from the White House to firing European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland to openly praising his attorney general`s involvement in reducing Roger Stone`s sentence, the president appears to feels emboldened act with impunity now.

As The New York Times` Peter Baker puts it, in the days since he was acquitted in Senate trial, an aggrieve and unbound president has sought to even the scale as he sees it, with no need to worry about Congress. Mow that he has been acquitted of two articles of impeachment, the president showed a renewed willingness to act, even if it prompts fresh complaints, about violating traditional norms.

And as a senior administration official told The Daily Beast, he feels like the chains are off, the gloves are off and everything that used to be hush, hush are now just out in the open.

I`m joined right now by California Congressman Eric Swalwell, a member of both the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, and Robert Costa, National Political Reporter for The Washington Post.

Congressman, can he do anything he wants, because he`s acting like it?

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D-CA):  Nope. He sure can`t, Chris. We impeached him because he tried to do that the day he thought he was getting off the hook for the Mueller report and he`ll be impeached forever. And today, we had an emergency Judiciary Committee hearing called by Chairman Nadler, laying out what we`re going to do to hold the Department of Justice and the president accountable. So he can try. We will stop him. The voters may ultimately have the say in November.

MATTHEWS:  Well, you`re from California and I`m sure you`re familiar with back in 1970, a long time ago, but a president then, Richard Nixon, basically declared Charles Manson guilty while he was still in trial. It seems to me that`s the most infamous case of a president simply saying, I`ll tell everybody who is guilty and who is innocent. And now, he`s out there saying the guy who was his henchman and his adviser all these years, he simply declares he deserves a lighter sentence.

SWALWELL:  Now, what`s so troubling about that -- boy, we would be lucky if all we had was Richard Nixon and statements like that. That`s, you know, 10 exits ago for this president.

But what is concerning here is that the president could just pardon Roger Stone. That would be wrong. He could just pardon Michael Flynn. That would be wrong, too.

But what he`s chosen to do instead is to show that he can have others carry out his hits for him. And by doing that, he`s injecting a virus of corruption into the Department of Justice, which is supposed to be independent.

My hope, Chris, is that honorable prosecutors will step forward and say this is not right and stop that from happening.

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Robert on this, Robert Costa.

It seems to me the president is not a sneaky guy when it comes to this kind of stuff. He`s quite open. In fact, it`s not perfectly clear at all, in fact, clear at all, that he ordered this direction by the attorney general, Robert (sic) Barr, to say, give this guy a lighter sentence.

But he wanted it to make it look like that. Why would he want it to look like he was tampering with justice?

ROBERT COSTA, "THE WASHINGTON POST":  Based on my reporting -- just filed the story with Phil Rucker for tomorrow`s paper -- the president`s allies say, after the impeachment process is over, the acquittal in the Senate trial, he feels like he can consume the executive branch.

He does not feel bound by any kind of limit to executive power, and he`s testing those limits with how he`s handling the Department of Justice and the attorney general.

MATTHEWS:  Well, meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee announced today that Attorney General Barr has agreed to testify before the committee on March 31, not too far off.

In a letter addressed to Barr today, the committee wrote: "We wish to be candid about one set of concerns we plan to address at the hearing. In your tenure as attorney general, you have engaged in a pattern of conduct in legal matters relating to the president that raises significant concerns for this committee."

The letter notes that: "In the past week alone, you have taken steps that raise grave questions about your leadership," citing multiple concerns that include the removal of the prosecutor oversaw Roger Stone`s prosecution, the process by which Rudy Giuliani is able to feed the Department of Justice information about Trump`s political rivals, and the reduction of Roger Stone`s recommended sentence.

Congressman, what do you think you`re going to get? He has agreed to testify. These questions are serious. I just wonder how in the world he`s going to answer these questions without looking worse.

(LAUGHTER)

SWALWELL:  Well, he will be under oath for the first time before our committee. He has been held in contempt before for not working with our committee.

What we want to make sure is that the important pillar of independence of prosecution still stands at the Department of Justice. That`s why we`re calling him in.

But we`re not waiting until March to do our job on this. We are acting immediately to hold the department accountable. And in the coming days and weeks, I think you will see from the committee what we can do to make sure that this president is not using the department as his personal attorney, but that the department is acting as America`s attorney.

COSTA:  Not the same situation in the Senate, Chris.

Just got off the phone with Senator Susan Collins for Maine. She said she is not going to push for hearings. Other Senate Republicans I spoke to today said they will not push for hearings, so a different outlook in the Upper chamber.

MATTHEWS:  What do you think that`s about, the fact that this looks so, well, fishy that the president would be intervening himself in a case to help out one of his people, Roger Stone, a close aide to him, if not his henchman, and to be seen so publicly tampering with justice? Why would the Senate let that go?

COSTA:  In short talking, to a congressional aide on background tonight, they say that these kinds of episodes, this kind of behavior and conduct with Donald Trump is like -- quote -- "bad weather."

It happens all the time. They are not going to overreact this time or any other period. They`re now locked into this election campaign season, and he has all the politic capital in the world, in their view.

MATTHEWS:  Over the past 24 hours alone, the president has tweeted about Mueller -- that`s Robert Mueller -- multiple times, including the accusation that Mueller lied to Congress.

Congressman, what is that about? I have never heard anybody say something like that about Mueller.

SWALWELL:  You know what Bob Mueller did that Donald Trump has not done? He came to Congress. He testified under oath.

We can`t say that about Donald Trump and all the witnesses he has ordered not to come forward.

So, right now, raising your right hand and testifying beats doing nothing.

MATTHEWS:  Well, meanwhile, the president has made his campaign of retribution as public as possible.

"The New York Times" reported last week that Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland was already talking with senior officials about leaving, but Mr. Trump evidently was not interested in a quiet departure for him, choosing instead to make a point by forcing Mr. Sondland out forcibly.

Robert, this thing does sort of go back to his career on television in reality TV. You`re fired. It seems it`s almost a dramatic effect he wants.

COSTA:  You tie together the Roger Stone situation with the dismissal, the removal of Lieutenant Colonel Vindman and his brother from the National Security Council and the administration, repositioned to other posts in the administration, the president is unbound, based on my conversations today, with top Republicans.

They feel like he is not going to stop. And, at this point, they`re just trying to see, is it disruptive to the point of it leads to another House investigation? Does it prompt more hearings?

But, at this point, they feel like he`s within the bounds of executive power, and they`re trying to walk him back a little bit. But as we saw over the weekend, a few senators called the White House, and the president still proceeded in the way he wanted to.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Robert.

Let me ask the congressman one last question.

It`s a weird story, but Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on your committee, on Intelligence Committee, he`s also...

SWALWELL:  Always weird stories there.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  You will what?

SWALWELL:  I said there`s always -- that`s always a weird story.

MATTHEWS:  What was he doing in South Bend, Indiana? What was he doing in South Bend, Indiana, the home of one of the top candidates for president in the Democratic Party?

SWALWELL:  Yes, I hope he was not rifling through Mayor Pete`s high school yearbooks, although we have every reason to probably believe, knowing him, he was.

Again, we -- he`s irrelevant, so I don`t want to spend too much time on him.

I just want to say, to Robert`s last point, Chris, that, although Donald Trump was not removed from, office because Lieutenant Colonel Vindman and Dr. Fiona Hill stood up to him, we were actually able to get Ukraine the aid.

So, if prosecutors are willing to come forward, stand up, point out what`s going on at the Department of Justice, we may be able to stop the corruption that the president is injecting there.

MATTHEWS:  Are you going to try to impeach him again?

SWALWELL:  We`re not taking that off the table, but we don`t wake up every morning wanting to do it.

But if he`s going to torch this democracy, we`re going to bring a fire hose.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you so much, U.S. Congressman Eric Swalwell of California and Robert Costa of "The Washington Post."

Up next, a victory for Sanders up in New Hampshire, but Buttigieg is snapping at his heels, with Amy Klobuchar surging.

It`s still very early, but you have to wonder, are Biden and Warren still in the race?

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Let me say tonight that this victory here is the beginning of the end for Donald Trump.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Thanks to you, a campaign that some said shouldn`t be here at all has shown that we are here to stay.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Hello, America. I`m Amy Klobuchar, and I will beat Donald Trump.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Those were the top three finishers in New Hampshire`s primary last night, in order, actually, addressing their supporters last night.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders emerged as the narrow winner of an increasingly fractured Democratic field, in which three candidates earned what we call tickets out of New Hampshire, as the race pivots now to Nevada, and then South Carolina in the next two weeks.

Pete Buttigieg was right on Sanders` heels, of course, last night in the second place. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar scored a surprise and strong third-place finish, followed by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and then, followed by her, former Vice President Joe Biden in fifth place. That must have hurt.

As "The Washington Post" notes, with his win in New Hampshire, Sanders has control over the left wing of the party, clearly, having knocked down, if not knocked out, Warren.

But Buttigieg and Klobuchar and Biden split the moderate vote with their combined percentage overwhelming that of Sanders, who got 26 percent. That gave Sanders one of the smallest pluralities and the narrowest margin of victory in the history of the Democratic New Hampshire primary. It`s also less than half of the share of the votes that he won there in 2016.

And while Sanders leaves New Hampshire the front-runner in votes, he`s neck and neck with Buttigieg in the delegate count.

In an interview with my colleague Kristen Welker today, Senator Sanders said he was what it takes -- he has what it takes to win the nomination.

Here he goes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KRISTEN WELKER, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Do you feel like the front-runner?

SANDERS:  Look, we won the popular vote in Iowa. We won the popular vote in New Hampshire.

And here is a prediction. We`re going to do very well in Nevada, we`re going to do very well in South Carolina, and in California, and on Super Tuesday.

So we think we have put together the coalition that we need in order to win the Democratic nomination and defeat Donald Trump.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  For more, I`m joined by Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for "USA Today," and Lily Adams, former communications director for Kamala Harris` campaign for president.

Thank you, Lily, thank you, Susan, as always.

Is he the clear front-runner right now, Bernie Sanders?

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "USA TODAY":  He`s the front-runner. I mean, he`s not the overwhelming, oh my God, he`s the front-runner, but he`s -- I think he`s -- it`s fair -- he makes a fair point.

He won the popular vote in both the first two contests. He`s in good shape in Nevada. He should be a strong candidate in California. So he`s the front-runner. But with proportional representation in the Democratic contest, winning 25 percent or 30 percent of the vote does not get you to a majority of convention delegates.

MATTHEWS:  Well, let`s talk about this.

It seems to me Bernie -- I thought Elizabeth Warren was going to do this. I only can make my predictions based on what`s going on. She looked very strong last fall. I thought she could whiz right through this. She would win the first two, like Bernie has, in popular vote, and then go on to win the nomination.

I`m not so sure Bernie has that same breadth of appeal. It seemed to me Elizabeth was better in the center than Bernie is in the center.

Your thoughts?

LILY ADAMS, FORMER HARRIS CAMPAIGN COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR:  Well, I think Susan`s right. He is not the prohibitive front-runner, but he is a front- runner.

I think the only other advantage, I`d say, is that he`s done this before. He has an infrastructure across the country that will kick in on Super Tuesday. And he`s got a small base of donors that will continue to fund his campaign in good times and in bad that, honestly, nobody else right now can compete with.

But I think you`re right. You did see some signs of danger in that New Hampshire -- in the New Hampshire result for him, which, is there a ceiling for him? Is there only so high he can? And how does he expand...

MATTHEWS:  Like, Pat Buchanan got a higher percentage of the vote than he did. Pat Buchanan, running against Bob Dole, got 27.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  It`s not that it wasn`t -- he won, clearly. But he won not far beyond his basic core that he went in with. In fact, he went in with 60 percent. And he ended up with 26 or so.

ADAMS:  But I think if the question is -- if politics is about addition, where does Bernie Sanders find that addition?

And who are those sort of voters that he can pick up from other folks?

MATTHEWS:  OK, let`s talk about the new stars on the block, people we never really thought much about as presidential candidates before a few months ago.

That`s Buttigieg, who came in second. He would have won one it if he had put any juice into the Friday night debate. He laid back for -- why did he get hesitant? Why did he fall back on Friday night?

PAGE:  Lily made a good point about the value of experience, of having gone around the track once before for Bernie Sanders.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

PAGE:  Think about Pete Buttigieg.

As Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden keep pointing at, his highest office has been two terms as South Bend mayor.

MATTHEWS:  But, politically, why can`t he -- why didn`t he close the deal?

PAGE:  I think he probably felt he was doing pretty well and didn`t want to endanger it. And that is not the thing successful candidates do.

Successful candidates continue to push and push and push, the way you saw Amy Klobuchar do in that debate.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, but she was audacious. I mean, she jumped out. She said great stuff about Mitt Romney. Nobody else had the nerve to say the obvious. This guy was a hero for a while there.

She also said, is socialism a problem as a label? Said, of course it is. The other guys were sitting there.

She said on Saturday, I couldn`t believe why they didn`t say anything. They just sat there like little meek mice. There is something to be said about that issue.

Your thoughts?

ADAMS:  Well, we have seen Mayor Buttigieg be successful in debates.

I think it`s one of the reasons why he`s gotten as far as he has. And so I would expect that he will continue to find places to be aggressive. And maybe he`s learned lessons from that last debate.

There`s going to be another one this week, and then we will have Nevada, and then there will be another debate after that.

MATTHEWS:  Well, he`s so smart.

ADAMS:  So there`s -- so there`s plenty of opportunities. I think.

I think one of the things is, we`re so quick to want to narrow the field. And, honestly, less than 100 delegates have been awarded. We`re about to see 30 percent of the delegates get awarded in March, if not more, so there`s a long way to go.

MATTHEWS:  So you`re one of those people now?

ADAMS:  I am one of those people, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  OK. Let not make a joke. Like, Jack Germond, he always used to say, let`s not -- let`s not get excited here.

(CROSSTALK)

ADAMS:  You have got two diverse states that are coming up that are critical to the party.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I know. I think it`s -- who is going to win Nevada?

ADAMS:  I don`t know. I think it`s anybody`s guess.

MATTHEWS:  Anybody`s guess?

ADAMS:  Yes, I think that`s right.

PAGE:  My guess is Sanders.

ADAMS:  I think Sanders certainly has the best chance.

MATTHEWS:  I think so. I would bet on Sanders.

The unions. It depends how the unions go.

ADAMS:  The Culinary has been...

MATTHEWS:  They don`t like using their health insurance deals at all. They make for these -- they fight for these rights.

ADAMS:  The Culinary has been hitting him very hard today.

(CROSSTALK)

PAGE:  That`s true.

ADAMS:  The Culinary Union, which the most powerful political force in Nevada, besides Harry Reid or along with Harry Reid, has been extremely aggressive in hitting Sanders and criticizing his health care plan.

And so I think that`s a question. Will that manifest itself in a hit for him on the Strip?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  It`s hard to say you`re for the working man and woman when the working man and woman are against you.

By the way, one thing I like, besides other things about Vegas -- I don`t drink, I don`t gamble or do the other stuff they do out there.

But I got to tell you, it`s one state where you get to meet union members all the time. You`re always meeting union members, which is good for the labor movement.

ADAMS:  They`re all over. It`s good.

MATTHEWS:  Fifth-place finisher Joe Biden left New Hampshire before the polls even closed yesterday. I think he left in the daylight, daytime.

He told a crowd in Columbia, South Carolina, where he ended up, that the country needs to hear from diverse voters before counting him out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOSEPH BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  We just heard from the first two of 50 states, two of them, not all the nation, not half the nation, not a quarter of the nation, not 10 percent, two, two.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BIDEN:  Now, where I come from, that`s the opening bell, not the closing bell.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, Elizabeth Warren also sought to temper expectations last night. Here she goes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  We might be headed for another one of those long primary fights that lasts for months.

The question for us Democrats is whether it will be a long, bitter rehash of the same old divides in our party, or whether we can find another way.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, the first four early states -- there they are -- Iowa, New Hampshire behind us now, Nevada and South Carolina to come, together make up only 4 percent of the delegates toward the nomination.

On Super Tuesday, however -- that`s March 3, not too far off -- 14 states vote; 34 percent of delegates are to be awarded that -- but I got to stop with her for a second.

What happened to her? She was the hardest working. She had a plan for everything. She did everything you`re supposed to do. She was everywhere working really tremendous. She took a selfie with every human being that got near her.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And it didn`t work in a state right next to Massachusetts.

ADAMS:  You`re right. It didn`t work in a state like New Hampshire.

I think that`s why she has got to go all in on Nevada to try to just get a shot in the arm that can boost her up before Super Tuesday.

MATTHEWS:  Well, a lot of women workers out there.

ADAMS:  There are a lot of women workers out there. There are a lot of people on her campaign who have strong ties to Nevada who have worked for Harry Reid for a long time who know that state well.

So, look, that`s...

MATTHEWS:  Who is he for?

ADAMS:  That`s where you got...

MATTHEWS:  Who is Harry Reid for?

ADAMS:  Oh, man. I don`t know.

I think he`s -- I think he`s been staying out.

MATTHEWS:  Well, we`re going to find out. I think we`re going to find out.

Susan, what do you think?

PAGE:  Elizabeth Warren had the lowest showing for any New England candidate in the New Hampshire primary, except for Joe Lieberman.

If not in Massachusetts, where, I mean, I get your point -- she`s a hard worker. She`s got a lot of appeal.

We were surprised how strong she seemed. But it really looks like -- to me, like Sanders is consolidating kind of that side of the Democratic Party.

MATTHEWS:  I think that`s true.

Let me ask you about Biden.

PAGE:  So...

MATTHEWS:  Is he gone?

PAGE:  I think he -- I think he is on his way out the door.

Maybe he will do well in South Carolina.

MATTHEWS:  You have covered him three times.

PAGE:  I have covered him. This is the third presidential bid by Joe Biden I have covered.

All of them have been short. And I think it was a surprise to his backers that he ended up in fifth place and single digits in the New Hampshire primary.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think it was smart of him to skip every Sunday show for the entire year?

PAGE:  No.

MATTHEWS:  Why did he do that?

PAGE:  What -- Buttigieg, what does he did he? Talked to anybody who wanted to talk to him any time. That was a big source of strength.

MATTHEWS:  I agree.

Take the free media. Get out there. Show yourself. Take the risks, or get out of business.

Susan Page, thank you.

Lily Adams, I`m sure you`re going to find another horse. You will be back in this business, or else you will be on television.

Up next: waiting in the wings?

Michael Bloomberg looks well-positioned now to swoop in, if none of the other moderate candidates can gain traction. I`m watching this guy. Can his campaign overcome the concerns, like those presented about his issue of stop and frisk? That`s going to be a problem for him.

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Not every Democratic candidate was on the ballot in New Hampshire last night. Former New York Mayor Bloomberg opted to skip the first four contests and focus instead on Super Tuesday next month. Of course, you`ve probably seen him on your television.  He has spent $292 million of his enormous wealth on advertising so far.

The latest Quinnipiac poll, national poll, has him in third place already, behind Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. More importantly, among African- American voters, he has been seeing a surge of support, putting him in second behind the former vice president, Joe Biden.

There`s no way to tell yet if that support will take a hit, however, following the release of audio of Bloomberg back in 2015, defending the controversial stop and frisk policy during his time as New York mayor.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, THEN-NYC MAYOR:  Ninety-five percent of your murders -- murderers and murder victims -- fit one M.O. You can just take the description. Xerox it and pass it out to all the cops. They are male, minorities, 16 to 25. That`s true in New York, that`s true in virtually every city. And that`s where the real crime is. You`ve got to get the guns out of the hands of the people that are getting killed.

And the way you get the guns out to the kids` hands is to throw them up against the wall and frisk them.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  In response, Bloomberg released a statement, reading in part: I inherited the police practice of stop-and-frisk, and as part of our effort to stop gun violence, it was overused. By the time I left office, I cut it back 95 percent, but I should have done it faster and sooner. I regret that, I have apologized and I have taken responsibility for taking too long to understand the impact it had on black and Latino communities.

Well, that statement isn`t stopping rivals from calling out Bloomberg. And that includes, of all people, Donald Trump, who has in the past has endorsed and has done so publicly the policy of stop and frisk. Trump tweeted and then deleted a scurrilous attack on Bloomberg because I assume he thought he`d be caught, and he has been.  He was for it.

That`s coming up next.  You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I watched him pander at a church and practically beg for forgiveness. I wouldn`t have begged for forgiveness. I mean, he was doing his job at the time. And then he -- when he went up to the church, I thought it was disgraceful. I put something out and it was so -- it was pretty nasty and I thought I`m looking to bring the country together, not divide the country further.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Did you hear that? I mean, bring the country together.

Back to HARDBALL.

That was President Trump, yesterday, reacting to former mayor Michael Bloomberg`s apology for his past comments on New York City`s stop and frisk policy. Trump`s comments came just hours after the president tweeted that Michael Bloomberg is a total racist.

The president must have forgotten that he, too, supported this stop and frisk policy. Here he goes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP:  We have to bring back law and order. Now whether or not in a place like Chicago you do stop and frisk, which worked very well, Mayor Giuliani is here, worked very well in New York t brought the crime rate way down.

LESTER HOLT, DEBATE MODERATOR:  The argument is that it`s a form of racial profiling.

TRUMP:  No. The argument is that we have to take the guns away from these people and who are bad people that shouldn`t have them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  On response to the president`s now deleted tweet, Bloomberg`s campaign manager told NBC News, when you threaten Trump, you become a target. Mike was mayor for 12 years and fought for all New Yorkers, but he also knows you don`t back down from a bully and we`re in a war to remove him from office.

Just this morning, three members of the Congressional Black Caucus endorsed Bloomberg, including U.S. Congressman Gregory Meeks of New York, who`s on with me now.

Congressman, thank you.

REP. GREGORY MEEKS (D-NY):  Good to be with you.

MATTHEWS:  So, this is fresh news. We love news around here. Why don`t you -- there`s several candidates still running. Why do you pick the mayor?

MEEKS:  Well, because he is the best person to beat Donald Trump. He`s got a great plan and a great ability to communicate that plan, and I believe that he`s the person that can bring this country together. He knows how to conduct and run a huge corporation so he can do it with this country. He has the ability to talk about issues that are important to average, every day Americans. Because he`s won -- that, you know, he wasn`t given his money like Donald Trump was, he earned it the old fashioned way. He built it so he could relate and understand as a result to open doors for others so that they have that opportunity.

To me, personally, you start talking about wealth creation and closing that wealth gap for African-Americans, he`s the one that`s been talking about that. Great speech he had in Tulsa, talking about trying to make sure there`s another million or so a half African-Americans becoming homeowners, opening doors for business opportunities for African-Americans.

That is tremendously important. He`s the one candidate that had been talking about it and knows how to get it done. I think that`s extremely important.

MATTHEWS:  I just thought that the latest polling on stop-and-frisk, which police go to a tough neighborhood and see kids and basically throw them against the wall and see if they got any guns on them or they got marijuana or whatever. How is that going to work?  How is he going to get through that, past that?

MEEKS:  But, look, number one, Mayor Bloomberg has apologized for that already.  He says he realizes now it was the wrong policy, it was a bad policy. I was against that policy. I was marching with Reverend Sharpton on that policy.

But in my dialogue and conversations with him and others and watching the other things he`s done also in that community, you know, I`m sure he was trying to save the lives of innocent young men and young women -- you know, we`ve had in my district a young man playing basketball and he was shot by a stray bullet. So that`s hard. But the policy of stop and frisk was not and is not the right policy to stop that type of a crime. And we see crime down in New York and the mayor has gotten it.

So in his last term of office, he reduced stop-and-frisk in a great way. But he admits he takes full responsibility for it, that it took him too long to get there and so I think that others will look at it and they would look at the other work that he`s done in these communities to be helpful and make sure they uplift the people.

MATTHEWS: Well, that`s my question, and it`s stupid but we always ask if someone color comes on, we ask them speaking for the black community, which it tens of millions of people and a huge part of our country, but is your - - is it your sense that people will look to other aspects of this candidate -- candidacy and say, yes, I like it.

MEEKS:  Yes.  Well, no, I think that what people are going to be looking at who can beat Donald Trump.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

MEEKS:  That`s what they`re going to be looking at.  They`re going to want to know, who can beat Donald Trump, that`s the first thing. And then who has been right on, for example, health care, you know that Mayor Bloomberg has been out front for a long period of time, trying to make sure people are healthy. Who is going to be concerned about the economy and to make sure that it`s an economy that works? He is an individual that understands that.

Who -- about climate and climate change.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

MEEKS:  He`s been out front about that and still, who`s going to get the guns out the --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I like that ad he ran, the ad about guns.

MEEKS:  And he`s going to get the guns out.  That`s been his whole thing around the country.

MATTHEWS:  Well, the president is now -- Trump`s now deleted tweet is not the only one he, Trump, has sent regarding attacking Bloomberg. So far this month, the president has criticized Mike Bloomberg`s ads, his height.  He`s going after him for being not tall.  His golf game, whatever that`s about and his showing in New Hampshire where Bloomberg was not even on the ballot.

What do you make -- why is he going after Bloomberg? There`s a softball.  Why is he going after Bloomberg?

MEEKS:  Because that`s the one person he does not want to have to face in a presidential campaign. That`s the one person that he fears. He is scared of Mike Bloomberg.

But Mike Bloomberg is not scared of him.

MATTHEWS:  I`ve never seen Bloomberg scared of anything.  Thank you.

MEEKS:  That`s right. He will stand up to him.

MATTHEWS:  Well, you made your call, Gregory Meeks, New York congressman for Mike Bloomberg, former New York mayor.

Up next, three rules the candidates should keep in mind as they head towards Super Tuesday. You recognize them and you`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  If you ever hear of a stop X movement, Richard Nixon once advised Pat Buchanan, bet on X. There`s a lot of truth to that rule, because by the time someone has you scared, it`s usually too late to stop them.

There`s another old rule, you can`t beat someone with no one. Up in New Hampshire last night, Bernie Sanders knocked down Elizabeth Warren as the candidate of the Democratic left. He was in the mid-20s, she was down in the single digits.

Meanwhile, among the moderate candidates last night, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar came out the winners, way outperforming Joe Biden. But to use a Bidenism, here`s the deal, add up the moderate votes for Pete and Amy and they overwhelm the Bernie vote.

So, heading to Nevada and then South Carolina, how will the moderates find the candidate who can beat Bernie? Which leads to another political rule, politics makes strike bedfellows. Democratic moderates might soon, as soon as Super Tuesday on March 3rd find themselves voting not for their first choice but for former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg simply because they want the electoral equivalent of a designated driver, simply someone reliable enough, sober enough to get them home.

But right now and to his tribute, it`s Bernie Sanders and the progressives who are driving the car.

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

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.

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