70,000 took part in Nevada caucus early voting TRANSCRIPTS: 2/19/20, Hardball w/Chris Matthews

Guests: Michael Nutter, Nina Turner, Cedric Richmond, Annie Linskey, Aaron Ford

ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST: The jury has now wrapped up its second day of arguments. And then lots of reaction to what we expect tonight`s big Democratic debate beginning at 9:00 p.m. Eastern right here on MSNBC with all of our colleagues.

Don`t miss it and don`t miss "HARDBALL" that starts now.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  We`re in Vegas, so place your bets, and let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Las Vegas.

It`s debate night here in the L.A. strip, and that`s where we are right now. It`s just two hours now. We`re going to have six of the Democratic presidential candidates. They`re going to take the stage for the ninth, do you believe it, ninth debate of the campaign so far, and now this one, the last one before this Saturday`s Nevada caucuses.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders will take center stage, of course, tonight, right there in the middle, where he`ll square off with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who`s participating in his first presidential debate. Those two are surging in the polls. Bernie is way out in the lead but have surged in recent polls. But it`s Sanders who brings the hot hand right now after opening up a double-digit lead in several national polls. He`s double digits now above Biden.

The latest Washington Post/ABC poll out today shows Sanders leading with 32 percent. That`s 16 points ahead of Joe Biden, who`s at 16, Bloomberg third, Elizabeth Warren`s in third, 14, followed by -- no. I`m sorry. We`ve got to get these names, followed by Elizabeth -- who is that? Bloomberg. It`s Bloomberg. Mike Bloomberg`s at 14, followed by Senator Elizabeth Warren, who`s at 12. Pete Buttigieg down at 8, Klobuchar is down at 7. These are all national numbers.

The stage is set for a fight between the Democratic socialist and the billionaire businessman. Of course, tonight, they`re going to take most of the incoming fire. And they`re already fighting over their own medical records. The campaigns for the two 78 year olds traded barbs after Sanders, who suffered a heart attack in October, said he wouldn`t release full medical records. That`s an interesting point.

And this morning a Sanders spokeswoman said scrutiny of Sanders` health was unfair and then falsely claimed that Bloomberg has had multiple heart attacks. She later acknowledged that she`d, quote, misrepresented Bloomberg`s health.

Well, ahead of tonight`s debate a Bloombreg campaign official told NBC News the candidate will be ready for incoming fire, as he put it, which he`s likely to face from all sides, including Biden. Well, today the former vice president previewed his strategy for taking on the former Republican New York mayor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KRISTEN WELKER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  What`s your message to Bloomberg?

JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Become a Democrat.

WELKER:  Mr. Vice President, are you going to call him out on his relationship with former President Obama?

BIDEN:  Look, Let`s see what I do. You want me to lay out all the questions -- you know, I can`t do that now.

WELKER:  Give us a little bit of your strategy.

BIDEN:  My strategy is I`m going to go in and tell the truth.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  That`s an aggressive Kristen Welker right there trying to get his debate strategy right out of his mouth.

We`re going to hear, by the way, from surrogates for the Sanders and the Biden campaigns in just a minute.

First, I`m joined by former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, National Political Co-Chair for the Bloomberg campaign.

So your candidate hasn`t been in the debate chair now for, what, nine years. Is he ready?

MICHAEL NUTTER, POLITICAL CO-CHAIR, BLOOMBERG CAMPAIGN:  Absolutely. We`ve been getting ready. He`s been wanting to be on the Democratic debate stage. And we have finally been able to achieve that in accordance with the DNC rules.

MATTHEWS:  Speaking of health, let`s talk about this health issue. Both these guys are 78. Bernie Sanders had a heart attack last October but he won`t release the records, the medical records. Is that an issue?

NUTTER:  Well, apparently, it is. And, of course, as you already indicated, a false claim, just a complete lie, was spoken about Mike Bloomberg for, you know, he had a test and then a stent put in 20 years ago, which was fully disclosed. And so people might want to know what else happened last year. I mean, it is a fact that the senator kind of disappeared for some time, nothing was said for a while, and then subsequently some amount of information was put out. So we`ll see. But, again, that wasn`t something that we started.

MATTHEWS:  It`s a little bizarre. I`ve followed campaigns before, and I`ve never seen one where one of the candidate`s about to turn 80 in the first year in the White House and the other one is right on his heels. And one had a heart attack and the other one has a stent put in.

NUTTER:  20 years ago.

MATTHEWS:  Okay. So that tells us what?

NUTTER:  That`s just a factual piece of information. I mean, Mike is in excellent shape, has been. And certainly for all the 12 years that I`ve known him, he takes care of himself, he`s in good shape, he exercises on a regular basis, he`s good to go.

MATTHEWS:  Well, you were mayor of Philadelphia, a very good one, by the way.

NUTTER:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  And I think most people thought so. You`re two terms. You know the state decently well. Let`s talk about Bloomberg versus Bernie Sanders in Pennsylvania because in the end, those are the states you have to win. Everything else -- to pick up the marbles, you`ve got to get Michigan, Wisconsin --

NUTTER:  I mean, the road to the White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, certainly goes through Pennsylvania. Mike is going to do excellently in Pennsylvania.

We opened our first office in December in Philly. Pennsylvanians, of course, don`t vote until April 28th.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

NUTTER:  But we`ve been building an organization in Pennsylvania for some time, and it will continue to grow.

MATTHEWS:  Could a Democratic socialist, self-described, carry Pennsylvania?

NUTTER:  I think that will be very difficult. You know, look, we`re in an environment where Donald Trump is president of the United States, so, obviously, anything is possible. And, unfortunately, he did win Pennsylvania.

But I think when you look at places like Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Erie, up through Lancaster County and even the center of the state, some of the things the senator has talked about and promoted are going to be very, very difficult for Pennsylvanians to really kind of get their head around.

MATTHEWS:  What about the use of fracking in Western Pennsylvania? Does that kill you out there if you`re like Bernie Sanders, who`s come out against it?

NUTTER:  The folks out in Western Pennsylvania, I mean, obviously, that`s a significant issue. It`s really an issue about jobs for many of those folks, while at the same time there are significant health and environmental concerns. So I think the question there is are you just an absolutist on the issue or are you trying to make a transition to clean energy, renewable energy and the like while respecting and understanding that some people are actually working in that industry right now.

MATTHEWS:  Is Mike Nutter -- Mike Nutter, I know you are. Is Mike Bloomberg a Democrat?

NUTTER:  He is.

MATTHEWS:  When did that happen? When did it happen?

NUTTER:  Well, it first happened when he was 18. Mike has been a Democrat for almost all of his life. He then switched to Republican to run for mayor in New York. And then immediately became an independent. And then, of course --

MATTHEWS:  Was he a Democrat at the time he was mayor of New York? Was he really a Democrat all those years and just pretending to be Republican?

NUTTER:  I think he`s had Democratic values. He supported Democratic issues. Politics and the vagaries of New York politics are a little different for me, but that was his pathway to winning and then doing great things as the mayor of New York City.

As the former mayor of New York said, there generally is no Democrat or Republican way of sweeping the street.

MATTHEWS:  Why did he endorse George W. for president, George W. Bush?

NUTTER:  I`ve never talked to him about that, to be honest with you. I know he has supported some other Republicans who were particularly focused on issues that he cares about.

MATTHEWS:  Scott Brown.

NUTTER:  Well, the senator from Pennsylvania. That was about guns.

MATTHEWS:  Pat Toomey.

NUTTER:  That was about guns. And so Mike has made some of those efforts.

But one of the reasons that Democrats were able to take over the House is because of his support for 24 House --

MATTHEWS:  He gave a lot of money to Pat Toomey, the Republican candidate, for re-election to the Senate in Pennsylvania, and I think it was because of the guns issue.

NUTTER:  He was pushing the guns issue.

MATTHEWS:  They were together on that.

Thank you so much, Mr. Mayor. Thank you for joining us.

As I mentioned earlier, Bernie Sanders, who suffered a heart attack last year, was asked at a town hall yesterday if he`d release additional medical records, which he originally said he`d do by the end of 2019. Here it goes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  We received -- released two rather detailed letters from cardiologists and we received -- released a letter that came from the head of the U.S. Congress Medical Group, the physicians there. So I think we have released a detailed report. And I`m comfortable with what we have done.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR:  Just to be clear, you don`t plan to release any more records.

SANDERS:  I don`t. I don`t think we will, no.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, this morning, Sanders` press secretary, Briahna Gray, falsely said that Bloomberg had also had heart attacks, plural, heart attacks. Here it goes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR:  He had a heart attack in the fall. Do you think the American people deserve to know more about his health going forward?

BRIAHNA JOY GRAY, NATIONAL NATIONAL PRESS SECRETARY, BERNIE SANDERS CAMPAIGN:  It`s really telling given that none of the same concern is being demonstrated for Michael Bloomberg, who`s the same age as Bernie Sanders, who has suffered heart attacks in the past.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, after facing criticism for saying that, since Bloomberg has not suffered any heart attacks, Miss Gray clarified saying, quote, I misspoke when I said Bloomberg had a heart attack, rather he underwent the same stent procedure as Bernie. I`m not sure what that says except it`s technically true. But there`s a suggestion they had the same heart condition.

Here`s how Bloomberg`s campaign manager, however, responded in an interview with my colleague, Andrea Mitchell.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KEVIN SHEEKEY, MICHAEL BLOOMBERG CAMPAIGN MANAGER:  Bernie Sanders` national spokesman went on CNN this morning and said that Mike Bloomberg had had a heart attack. That`s a lie. In fact, Bernie Sanders had a heart attack in Las Vegas mere months ago. So they`re going to employ the sort of techniques that the Trump campaign has used to try to spread lies and innuendo that certainly aren`t true.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  I`m joined right now by Nina Turner. She`s been on many times before, the National Co-Chair of the Sanders Campaign for President. I didn`t expect to do a general hospital discussion here tonight, but I do think it`s going to come up. I think it really will come up tonight. What is this question about -- Sanders had a heart attack in October, right?

NINA TURNER, NATIONAL CO-CHAIR, BERNIE SANDERS CAMPAIGN:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  And, really, what are the records he isn`t showing? What is this issue about -- he says, I`m not going to release any more records. What is he holding back?

TURNER:  He`s released --

MATTHEWS:  No, what is he holding back? That`s the interesting stuff.

TURNER:  He is not holding back anything. He has released --

MATTHEWS:  He said he wouldn`t release any more records.

TURNER:  He`s released three letters. They contain his records. His cardiologist has been very clear that his heart is above average for somebody that is his age. There is no such thing as a centralized place for medical records. He has released the same amount of information that every other candidate has released.

MATTHEWS:  The clipboard at the end of the bed for a patient does not have a letter on it. It has medical information, data, facts, the health of your heart, percentage of it that has recovered, what`s been permanently damaged by a heart attack, all that stuff. He hasn`t released that.

TURNER:  Chris, his cardiologist said --

MATTHEWS:  He wrote him a letter.

TURNER:  -- that he is fine. What people know about Senator Bernie Sanders is that they can trust him and they believe in him. If Senator Sanders could not do this, he would not be doing this. And I dare any 20-year-old or a 50-year-old to get on the road with him.

MATTHEWS:  I`ll tell you, I know one thing about politics. If it`s better than it looks, they show you. If it`s better than it looks, they`d show you.

TURNER:  Well, no. He has released everything that needs to be released.

MATTHEWS:  Okay. While President Trump has attacked Michael Bloomberg multiple times this week, tweeting, the crooked DNC is working overtime to take the Democrat -- notice how they say that -- the Democratic nomination away from Bernie again and that he is spreading money all over the place, that`s Bloomberg, isn`t that called a payoff. Your thoughts. Is the president right?

TURNER:  Well, you know, my grandmother used to say a wrong clock is right twice a day. President Trump needs to stay on the Republican side and let us handle --

MATTHEWS:  Are there big payoffs made?

TURNER:  Listen, you and I had this conversation before. I mean, anytime somebody --

MATTHEWS:  Refresh me. Nina, refresh me.

TURNER:  The oligarchs, I`m sticking to it.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, you did say oligarchs.

TURNER:  I did say that.

MATTHEWS:  You can`t get much tougher than that.

TURNER:  Listen, he`s buying the election just flat out. What Senator Sanders is doing, Chris, is building a real grassroots movement, having conversations with people. What Mayor Bloomberg is doing is just spreading --

MATTHEWS:  You mean buying, using money to get votes? Is that what you`re saying? Are you saying using money to get votes?

TURNER:  $350 million worth of ads, his own money --

MATTHEWS:  Okay, just to know what your definition, is buying an election using money to get votes?

TURNER:  He is using --

MATTHEWS:  You know what I`m saying --

TURNER:  I know exactly what you`re saying. I`m not going down that road. What I am saying is that he`s not building a movement. He`s not talking to the people. He`s just throwing his money out there. But that`s not going to work.

MATTHEWS:  Okay. If I`m in college right now and I have student loans that got me through college, if somebody came along and said, I`m going to pay off all your student loans and what else, and if you`re going to public university, I`m paying all your tuition. Is that buying votes? It sounds like it.

TURNER:  We are implementing a policy in this country that says that -- just in the same way we have K through 12 education that`s publicly funded. In the 21st century, we need to paradigm shift pre-K to college. That is what we need. Chris, people don`t have disposable income. They`re walking across the stage with a degree in one hand and debt in the other.

MATTHEWS:  Okay. Let`s talk about the relationship. This has become a bit sort of jealousy competition. Who`s closest to Barack Obama? Maybe your candidate is a little different. I think he is a little different. The Atlantic Magazine is reporting, quote, Bernie Sanders got so close to running a primary challenge to President Barack Obama in 2012 that Senator Harry Reid had to intervene to stop him. Quote, Sanders didn`t end up running against Obama but the relationship didn`t improve in the years that followed.

To Obama, Sanders is a lot of what`s wrong with Democrats, unrelenting, unrealistic, so deep in his own fight that he doesn`t see how many people disagree with him or that he`s turning off people who should be his allies. To Sanders, it`s Obama who represents a lot of what`s wrong with Democrats, overly compromising and so obsessed with what isn`t possible that he`s lost all sense of what is. Is that a fair estimate of the relationship?

TURNER:  Senator Sanders and President Obama have had conversations over the course of this run. I don`t know why we`re re-litigating --

MATTHEWS:  The last election has only been years ago.

TURNER:  But President Obama ran his race and Senator Bernard Sanders is running his race.

MATTHEWS:  How do you --

TURNER:  Wait, wait, wait --

MATTHEWS:  You don`t like my questions.

TURNER:  No, no, President Obama called Senator Sanders fearless, but that`s what he said about him.

MATTHEWS:  So did he think of running against him in the primary last time?

TURNER:  No.

MATTHEWS:  In `12. He did? So The Atlantic article is wrong?

TURNER:  Saying that Senator Sanders thought about running against him?

MATTHEWS:  Against Obama in the primary. No? Is that a no or just a shake your head no?

TURNER:  I`ve never heard -- this is new, fresh to me.

MATTHEWS:  Well, it`s a great story. Maybe I jumped you with a new story, but you`re great. Please come back. Next time, we`ll talk about this primary fight that never happened.

TURNER:  Okay.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Senator, Senator Nina Turner.

As I mentioned earlier, Biden`s strategy against Bloomberg appears to go after him on not actually being -- about not being a real Democrat or a real supporter of President -- again, it`s about who`s closest to President Obama? Biden gave a preview of this line of attack against Bloomberg to my colleague, Chuck Todd, this Sunday. Let`s watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHUCK TODD, MSNBC HOST:  What kind ally would you have called Michael Bloomberg for the Obama administration?

BIDEN:  On several issues, like guns, he was a real ally. He was a real ally. But if you notice, he wouldn`t even endorse Barack in 2008. He wouldn`t endorse him. He endorsed Bush. He endorsed the Republican before that. All of a sudden he`s his best buddy. I mean -- and he would not endorse him.

If you take a look at the stop-and-frisk proposal, if you take a look at his ideas on redlining he`s talking about, if you take a look at what he`s done relative to the African-American community, I`m anxious to debate Michael on the issues.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  I`m joined right now by Democratic Congressman Cedric Richmond of New Orleans. He`s a co-chair of Biden`s campaign. Did I pronounce that right, New Orleans?

REP. CEDRIC RICHMOND (D-LA):  You did. Thanks for having me.

MATTHEWS:  All right, thank you. It`s great to have you on.

Tell us about Biden because it looks to me like he`s got to pull off a comeback at some point here. He didn`t do well in the first test. Here he is in a diverse state, a real state.

RICHMOND:  Absolutely. And I think that he is prepared to do well not only tonight but in the actual caucus. And, look, he`s fighting for what`s real in this country, and that`s American prosperity for too many working families. They get knocked down. And we didn`t do what we wanted to do in the first two states, but the good thing is you have Nevada and you have South Carolina coming back and we`re prepared to do well.

MATTHEWS:  It looks to me like we`re going to see an intramural fight tonight among -- I can`t predict history, but it looks like an intramural fight among all the moderates. I mean, Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar and all of them going at against Biden, Biden against Bloomberg. Meanwhile, Bernie just stands all alone on the hard left sweeping ahead of all of them. What happens if that happens?

RICHMOND:  There`s no secret that you have more moderates in this race than very progressives and that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are splitting probably 35 to 40 percent of the vote with Senator Sanders taking an overwhelming majority of that. However, you will see the moderate side start to winnow down as we get through Nevada and to South Carolina and you get to Super Tuesday.

So the point is to just, I think, talk about your accomplishments and your vision and let the moderates decide what they`re looking for.

MATTHEWS:  I`ve been watching these old pictures of Vice President Biden standing next to President Obama, and he did it dutifully. He always wanted to be there when there was a major announcement. Fair enough. They were always partners and he was a junior partner to the president.

Now, I see ads on television, I was watching this afternoon, right here in Nevada, pictures of former Mayor of New York Mike Bloomberg looking like he`s a partner of Barack Obama. Is that fair?

RICHMOND:  Actually, it`s not. And, look, I don`t know Mayor Bloomberg, but I do know this. When I was a state rep fighting like crazy to help Barack Obama become the first African-American president, become a Democratic president, Michael Bloomberg was on the sidelines. He didn`t support President Obama. And now, you know, history kind of changes, and now they`re really close friends if you believe the believe the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been poured on T.V.

But the truth is when Barack Obama needed him the most, he wasn`t there. And I think that there`s an old blues song that says if you`re going to tell it, tell it all. So it`s just amazing to me that you spend hundreds of millions of dollars talking about how close you all are when you don`t tell same people that you didn`t support Barack Obama for president.

MATTHEWS:  Now, the African-American community is the accepted base in the Democratic Party. They`re reliably Democratic, like 90 percent, something like that. For many years, it`s been like this, maybe since the `60s. Now, you have two guys, men, running for the Democratic nomination who aren`t even Democrats. One, a Democratic socialist, something different, who never really became a Democrat, and the other a guy who was a three-term Republican mayor of New York. Isn`t that weird?

RICHMOND:  It`s certainly bizarre, strange. But I`ll say this, and that`s part of why this nominating process is so important, because when you get to the general election, you`re going to have to be able to rely on a broad base of support, one. And, two, you`re going to still have to be able to go into Pennsylvania and Michigan and all those places and win --

MATTHEWS:  So Biden is a Democrat.

RICHMOND:  Biden is an absolute Democrat and always been one.

MATTHEWS:  I`m giving you fairly, softly. Thank you, U.S. Congressman Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, one of the top Biden people out there.

Coming up, the Bloomberg campaign faces its first major test tonight here in Las Vegas. How will the other candidates go after him? Well, they`re going to go after him. That`s for sure.

And what about Bernie Sanders? Will he get an off night because they`re all going after Bloomberg? He`s surging in the polls right now, getting big crowds, really big crowds, in Denver, for example. Can any of the other candidates catch him?

Plus, President Trump continues to tweet about Justice Department investigations and says Rod Blagojevich didn`t sell an Illinois Senate seat of Barack Obama. Trump believes if you get caught, it`s not a crime. Isn`t that nice?

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  What does it say about our politics today that somebody can skip a year of campaigning, put hundreds of millions of dollars of his own money into the campaign, and buy a place in the presidential election?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Anybody here worth $60 billion? You can run for president. And you can buy the airwaves. My friends, that is called oligarchy, not democracy.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I actually thought he should be on the debate stage, because I don`t think you should just be able to buy your way to the presidency.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Those are just a few of the sort of following-up head stories tonight.

The Democratic presidential candidates who will be on the stage tonight, you saw some of them there. Most will have their sights set on Mike Bloomberg, for some reason, who`s participating in his first presidential debate.

For some of the candidates, there is no better foil to illustrate many of their issues they have been talking about than going after this billionaire.

Senator Elizabeth Warren is describing tonight`s debate as a preview of the general election campaign against President Trump.

She tweeted: "It`s a shame Mike Bloomberg can buy his way into the debate, but at least now primary voters curious about how each candidate will take on Donald Trump can get a live demonstration of how we each take on an egomaniac billionaire."

I guess they`re both egomaniac billionaires, by her lights.

For more, I`m joined by Annie Linskey, national political reporter -- reporter -- for "The Washington Post."

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  John Heilemann, co-host of Showtime`s "The Circus."

I just saw you filming over here, an MSNBC national affairs analyst. And, Josh Lederman, thank you, who is national political reporter for NBC News.

Thank you all.

Let`s just do logical here first topic, Bloomberg.

Annie...

ANNIE LINSKEY, "THE WASHINGTON POST":  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  ... everything I hear, they`re going after him.

LINSKEY:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Is that going to help him or hurt him, being pelted by five other candidates?

LINSKEY:  There`s a real danger.

And I have talked to some strategists for some of the campaigns who have expressed this worry that, if there`s a giant pile on Mike Bloomberg, he`s going to come out of this looking sympathetic.

And, for them, that`s exactly the opposite of what they want to do. But that`s something that could happen. Bloomberg`s people also are really trying to downplay his performance tonight, because it might not be...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I have a theory. He`s going into tonight...

JOHN HEILEMANN, MSNBC NATIONAL AFFAIRS ANALYST:  You always have a theory.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  That`s why I`m here.

HEILEMANN:  They`re often good theories.

MATTHEWS:  You want to fight about it?

HEILEMANN:  No.

MATTHEWS:  Here we go.

Thirty-second ads. If he gets in a good back-and-forth between him and Bernie, that`s gold for him. He will turn that into an ad and run it everywhere.

HEILEMANN:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Your thoughts?

HEILEMANN:  I`m sure. Now, look, they`re turning everything into ads, and they`re doing it really fast, and they`re doing it pretty brilliantly.

They did this fantastic one today in which they had that testimonial of Joe Biden basically praising Mike Bloomberg, as a way of both doing a positive testimonial for Bloomberg and essentially telling Biden to shove it at the same time.

(CROSSTALK)

HEILEMANN:  I think, look, for Mike Bloomberg, you think of all these people out there in America who know Mike Bloomberg only through the ads and only as an idea.

They`re going to get to see him on stage tonight. And the question for him, to anyone who`s inclined to be for Bloomberg, the main reason they`re inclined to be for him is, he`s got all this money, he can go toe to toe with Donald Trump.

And what they want to see tonight is, is this guy OK?

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

HEILEMANN:  And if he gets -- forget about...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  What do you mean OK? Is he likable? Is he...

HEILEMANN:  Is he solid?

MATTHEWS:  Solid?

HEILEMANN:  Does he handle himself well?

I think it -- whether -- I`m not sure that he`s going to get sympathy from having people pile on him. But I think if he stands up there and takes it and shows he can take a punch, I think people will say, OK, like, that -- he crossed a bar.

JOSH LEDERMAN, NBC NEWS NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER:  Yes, the Bloomberg...

MATTHEWS:  You know, Charlie Guggenheim, the brilliant guy making TV ads years ago, said, you have to match your ads.

HEILEMANN:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  When they finally see the candidate, he or she better be as good as they looked in the ad.

LEDERMAN:  But this is a campaign that`s bought from the beginning into the notion that any press for them is good press. He wasn`t in the race three months ago. He`s not competing in any of these four states.

So, if we`re all sitting here having a conversation about Mike Bloomberg...

MATTHEWS:  Hey, by the way, Biden`s got a lot of attention in these debates. It hasn`t helped.

LEDERMAN:  Well...

LINSKEY:  Also, does he have to match the ads? He has so much money, he could just double his ad buys and just people would forget about it.

MATTHEWS:  But doesn`t -- OK, here`s an opportunity. Then I`m going to get off of it.

Annie, you first.

I think he has to not talk about all the NDAs. Playing defense ain`t going to help him tonight.

LINSKEY:  Right. Right.

MATTHEWS:  You can never win it on defense.

LINSKEY:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  But if he sits there and seems like a reasonable, thoughtful person about the challenges facing the country, and talks like he can talk turkey...

LINSKEY:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  ... and not all the social stuff Democrats love talking about, he might separate himself out as a practical person.

LINSKEY:  Right, as long as he doesn`t really mess up.

He has -- the way that he talks about race might not comport with how politicians do today. The way he talks about gender might not comport with what the expectations are for the Democratic Party today.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

LINSKEY:  And, today -- I mean, this has shifted in the last -- the last year.

MATTHEWS:  That`s been Biden`s problem.

(CROSSTALK)

LINSKEY:  And, again, it`s been Biden`s problem. And I think it`s also going to potentially be Bloomberg`s.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let`s talk about Elizabeth Warren, because...

(CROSSTALK)

HEILEMANN:  Just one last thing about this.

Like, as you know, I worked at Bloomberg for three years.

LINSKEY:  As did I, in fact.

HEILEMANN:  And Mike Bloomberg does not suffer fools gladly.

MATTHEWS:  For the business operation.

HEILEMANN:  He does not suffer fools gladly.

And I think one of the questions is going to be, speaking as a fool who occasionally was on the end of Mike Bloomberg`s wrath on occasion, will he be -- will he be able to contain that tonight, not just -- can he take a punch?

MATTHEWS:  Does he suffer fools?

HEILEMANN:  Can he take -- he does not normally. And I think he generally thinks that all the rest of these people on the stage are fools.

And so one of the questions is going to be, as they start to hit him, does he take that punch and come back, or does he get...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Did you ever throw it back at him? Did you, John Heilemann, ever throw it back at him?

HEILEMANN:  Yes, I did.

MATTHEWS:  Good for you.

LEDERMAN:  But his campaign also thinks that there`s an advantage here, because they think people are sick of the fact that the president will never apologize for anything, and that they actually can draw a contest here by him standing up here saying:  This was wrong. I`m sorry.

HEILEMANN:  Yes, I was wrong. Yes.

LINSKEY:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, but the list can get too long.

HEILEMANN:  Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  You can do the stop and frisk. Then you have to do the Iraq War.

After a disappointing fourth place in the New Hampshire primary, Senator Elizabeth Warren has been moving away from her message of unity to her earlier stance as a fighter.

Here she is talking about tonight`s debate and what she will be thinking about on that stage.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I`m thinking about, how can I best get out there and fight for the people that I got in this race to fight for?

QUESTION:  But do you feel you could be seen as too aggressive in doing that?

WARREN:  You know, this is what women face all the time. It`s always too much of this or too much of that.

But you put your head down, you do your job, and you keep on going, or, you might say, we persist.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  There is something strange about this election.

You and John will analyze it

LINSKEY:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  No African-Americans on the stage.

LINSKEY:  That`s right.

MATTHEWS:  No minorities now.

LINSKEY:  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  The women -- two women on the stage. Amy Klobuchar`s done well in her way.

LINSKEY:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Elizabeth Warren has fallen from where she was, in the front.

LINSKEY:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  What`s going on?

Because the Democratic Party`s mostly women...

LINSKEY:  It is.

MATTHEWS:  ... and hugely populated with about 30-something percent perhaps minorities, if you count everybody.

LINSKEY:  Yes.

No, I think it`s an enormous question. The highest, hardest glass ceiling that Hillary Clinton talked about, when she conceded to Trump, she said it hadn`t been broken, and, someday, it would.

MATTHEWS:  Who`s enforcing the ceiling, women or men?

LINSKEY:  I think both.

That`s what our -- when I talk to voters -- I have talked to female voters who worry about a woman to be -- being president. And it`s something that Elizabeth Warren has tried to take on.

MATTHEWS:  Are they anticipating male voters are thinking -- are they thinking, these guys will never vote for her, or how`s the...

(CROSSTALK)

LINSKEY:  I mean, that`s the -- it`s always a thing. It`s not, I`m not going to do it. It`s, my neighbor won`t. It`s, some mythical voter in Pennsylvania won`t do it.

And so that`s...

(CROSSTALK)

LEDERMAN:  Yes, it`s a parallel to what we have heard about Pete Buttigieg:  Oh, I have no problem voting for a gay person, but I don`t think anybody else will, and, therefore, I won`t support that person.

HEILEMANN:  But here`s the -- here`s one of the -- reality about Warren, right?

Sorry. Do you want to go on?

MATTHEWS:  I just have to do this.

HEILEMANN:  Go for it.

MATTHEWS:  Nevada has a far more diverse electorate than Iowa and New Hampshire did, of course, or does.

For candidates like Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, who are going here with momentum from the two early states, they have to show they can reach out to those voters.

And here`s Buttigieg from earlier today talking, I think, about diversity.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUTTIGIEG:  Well, that`s one of the reasons we`re so excited to be here, is, it`s the most racially diverse state yet out of the early states that we have competed in, and a chance to connect with black voters, with Latino voters, with AAPI voters, to talk about issues impacting them, from the economic empowerment of minorities, to making sure we deliver real change in immigration.

And the theme that I hear again and again, especially from voters of color, making sure we have the candidate who can defeat Donald Trump.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  This seems to be a huge challenge for he and Amy Klobuchar.

They have done well in the retail of those two small states. Now you have got to be like a tuba. You got to reach 14 or 15 states in two weeks.

HEILEMANN:  And -- yes.

And one of them has a lot of money, in Pete Buttigieg, and one has less money in Amy Klobuchar.

But what`s been fascinating coming out of the first two contests, partly because Iowa was a muddle, and New Hampshire, which Sanders won, is those two candidates, who had good nights different ways in those different places, they didn`t get the kind of elevation out of Iowa and New Hampshire.

You could argue that Buttigieg is the co-front-runner with Sanders. He came out of the first two states with the lead in delegates, and delegates is how we measure victory in the Democratic nominating process.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

HEILEMANN:  Pete Buttigieg right now has the most delegates.

But no one`s treating him like a front-runner. No one thinks he`s a front- runner. And you have seen their national polling rise a couple points, but it`s bumping up against the low double digits. They`re not soaring, the way that Sanders has soared and the way that Bloomberg has soared.

And so they have the challenge of appealing to the more diverse electorate. That`s true. But they also have the bigger challenge, which is just to make people in all these states take them seriously.

Right now, sitting at 10 percent or 11 percent in the polling is not a great place to be.

MATTHEWS:  And when you`re 80 years old...

HEILEMANN:  ... especially if you`re -- especially if you`re Pete Buttigieg, and you arguably are the front-runner right now on the delegate matchup.

MATTHEWS:  And, Pete, when he`s 80 years old, like John Kerry and other politicians, are going to say, what the hell happened in Iowa? What happened...

(LAUGHTER)

HEILEMANN:  Right.

MATTHEWS:  In the case of Kerry, what happened in Ohio? What happened to these screw -- technological screw-ups?

We`re the greatest democracy in the world. We can`t get it technically right. We have got to find a way to a uniform electoral system, with paper ballots, you can actually count them.

HEILEMANN:  Might want to give up on the caucuses too.

(CROSSTALK)

LEDERMAN:  But this is exactly why Bloomberg has a chance right now.

(CROSSTALK)

HEILEMANN:  Unnecessarily complicated.

MATTHEWS:  Incompetence.

LEDERMAN:  If our elections were working the way that you would have a clear delegate winner, and that person was the front-runner, there would be no opportunity for someone like Bloomberg to come in...

MATTHEWS:  Yes. By the way...

LEDERMAN:  ... spend a bunch of money, and suddenly project himself into the front tier of the race.

MATTHEWS:  And, by the way, you know what he calls himself? An engineer.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  And that`s what we need.

LINSKEY:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, Annie Linskey, thank you.

LINSKEY:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  John Heilemann, thank you.

We could go on all night.

Josh Lederman, thank you, sir.

HEILEMANN:  All night. All night.

MATTHEWS:  Up next:  Was Attorney General Bill Barr ready to resign, to quit, because Trump keeps interference -- keeps going in, messing with his marmalade?

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Despite repeatedly delivering on Trump`s political objectives, Attorney General Bill Barr faces a president now who still wants more control over federal law enforcement.

This morning, Trump retweeted numerous attacks on the Justice Department from a right-wing media figure, amplifying claims that he`s the victim of a DOJ conspiracy, and that Attorney General Barr must carry out a mass firing to clean out the place.

The tweets appear designed to undercut the attorney general, who last week asked the president to stop commenting on criminal cases.

It comes after "The Washington Post" reported that Barr has told people close to President Trump, people close to President Trump, both inside and outside the White House, that he is considering quitting over Trump`s tweets about Justice Department investigations.

This is serious stuff. And that`s according to three administration officials, who say the president has told those around him he`s not going to stop tweeting about the Justice Department, despite Barr`s wishes.

A spokesperson has denied that Barr considered leaving his job. However, the news that Barr considered resigning is weirdly consistent with the concern of over 2,000 former DOJ employees who are calling on him to do just that, quit.

While Trump attacks the U.S. Justice Department, he`s also using his power to let two former politicians off the hook for offenses like tax and wire fraud, attempted extortion, and lying to authorities.

And now reporting suggests it could be a step toward pardoning his convicted political adviser Roger Stone, who`s about to be sentenced tomorrow.

And when it comes to presidential pardons, an allegation out of Great Britain today could prove explosive to this administration. And that -- that one is coming up next.

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPORTER:  Aare you ruling out pardons for Stone, for your former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and for Michael Flynn, for example?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I`m not even thinking about that. There`s a process that people are going through.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  I`m not even thinking about pardoning people, right?

Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was the president saying he hasn`t even thought about pardoning his convicted associates like Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone.

However, "The New York Times" is contradicting Trump`s claim there, revealing that aides said the president had broached the idea of doing just that. Separately, "The Daily Beast" is reporting that people close to Roger Stone view Trump`s pardons yesterday as an encouraging sign that Stone might also receive a pardon.

I`m joined right now by Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for the "New York Times," and Paul Butler is a former federal prosecutor.

Peter, the dangling of these pardons right in the face of Roger Stone, is that to keep him quiet?

PETER BAKER, CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES:  Well, it`s certainly intended to send a signal that he thinks law enforcement has gone too far, which is the same signal he`s sending when he makes these tweets about the Roger Stone case, right? He has said the judge in the Roger Stone case should order a new trial, that the jury forewoman was biased, the prosecutors were excessive, and that`s in effect the same message he`s sending with the pardon.

So, it wouldn`t be surprising to see Roger Stone interpret that message that way. You know, the question may be not until the election, something like that. But if Roger Stone interprets that as being the president is on his side, he can wait it out perhaps until November.

MATTHEWS:  Is there any evidence, Paul, is there any evidence that President Trump, Donald Trump, Donald J. Trump, the person, actually believes in white-collar crime? Does he believe you can commit crime the way that these people did?

I don`t sense he has any sense of justice at all about it. Like yes, leave these guys alone, they`re like me.

PAUL BUTLER, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR:  Well, Donald Trump thinks that a crime is something that poor African-American and Latino people do. If you look at the folks he`s pardoned, they`re all rich white dudes who`ve got connections.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

BUTLER:  And when they`re not rich white dudes, they`re people who Kim Kardashian is championing. And so, he`s again abusing his office. He`s only looking out for himself and people who look and act like him.

MATTHEWS:  Let`s talk about the attorney general. What`s your sense, Paul? You`re first.

Do you think he`s serious when he talks to people about I`ve got to get out of here, this is embarrassing me? That seems like a human reaction to the way he`s been the target of shame really for looking like a toady.

BUTLER:  What Barr`s doing is a performance full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Maya Angelou said, when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.

And so, what we`ve seen from Barr is him lying about the Mueller report to protect Trump. We saw him use the power of the Justice Department to shield Trump from impeachment. We saw him reverse the prosecutors in the Roger Stone sentencing just because Roger Stone is Trump`s friend.

What we see from Barr is he`s an enthusiastic aider and abettor of Trump`s corruption. We should believe him.

MATTHEWS:  And he`s hooked his wagon to Trump all the way to the end, right? You don`t see him pulling out and saying I can`t take this humiliation anymore. You think he`s staying all the way, he sold out to him.

BUTLER:  Absolutely. I mean, look at what`s going on with Roger Stone. Roger Stone has the goods on Donald Trump. Roger Stone is on his way to jail for lying to protect Donald Trump. So I think we should fully expect that Roger Stone will be protected because Trump is concerned that when stone hears those clang-clang-clangs of the jailhouse door closing, he`s going to want to make a deal with prosecutors. Trump wants to send a clear message, don`t do that, Roger, I got you.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, looks like it anyway.

Another explosive out today, a big one, Julian Assange is making a bombshell new allegation about President Trump. As "The Associated Press" reports, Assange plans to claim during an extradition hearing, under oath I suppose, that the Trump administration offered him a pardon if he agreed to say Russia was not involved in leaking DNC e-mails during the 2016 election. That`s according to his lawyers, who say the offer was relayed by former Republican congressman from California Dana Rohrabacher three years ago.

The White House press secretary told the "A.P." this is absolutely and completely false, and former Congressman Rohrabacher says, at no time did I offer a deal made by the president nor did I say I was representing the president.

Peter Baker, you know how to read through a sentence. Is that a denial or not? I don`t know. Is there a denial in there somewhere? Your thoughts?

BAKER:  It`s not a complete denial. He`s saying that he wasn`t representing the president. That doesn`t mean he didn`t necessarily float the idea of it or suggest he could probably approach the president to make it work. We don`t know that the president knew anything about the story.

But in the White House necessarily we don`t know for sure obviously what happened. But there is enough smoke there to ask the right questions. And, of course, what matters is you know, Julian Assange`s relationship to Russia and the hacking that was done in 2016. He`s always denied having -- you know, that Russia was a sort of these e-mails. But that`s been the conclusion of American intelligence now going back several years.

To the president, of course, anything that would discredit the idea that Russia was interfering in the election on his behalf would go a long way toward discrediting, you know, the Mueller investigation and all the attacks on his legitimacy. So you could understand why he would want to hear something like that. Whether or not he had anything to do with that, whether the White House had any knowledge of that, we don`t know.

MATTHEWS:  OK. Thank you so much, Peter Baker, of "The New York Times" and Paul Butler of Georgetown.

Still ahead, the state of play in Nevada ahead of tonight`s debate. That`s where we are for the big debate tonight. What are the Democratic voters looking for out here? There are a lot of them actually and a lot are going to vote and a lot already are voting.

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL, live from Las Vegas.

We`re starting to get some numbers now on turnout for early voting here in Nevada. It looks huge right now.

According to the state Democratic Party, roughly 70,000 people in this state, in Nevada, have already voted in these caucuses coming up on Saturday. For comparison, in 2016, 84,000, altogether, turned up on caucus day. And they didn`t have the option to vote early. So, already, we`re way ahead of the curve here.

Turnout will be key in the fall as President Trump and his campaign target the state. The state, the Democrat could have a shot. It could be a daunting task however. In 2018, Democrats here won the Nevada state assembly and Senate, flipped the governorship and a U.S. Senate seat. They won it all here.

Also part of that sweep, Aaron Ford, who won a very close race to become the state`s first African-American attorney general. And he happens to be sitting right next to me.

Aaron, thank you, General.

AARON FORD (D), NEVADA ATTORNEY GENERAL:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  So you`re here in a nonpolitical capacity, right?

FORD:  OK.

MATTHEWS:  Are you? I think you don`t have a candidate, do you?

FORD:  Oh, no, no, I have not endorsed a candidate. I`ve early voted, but I have not endorsed a candidate.

MATTHEWS:  Tell me why there`s so much excitement in this race right now? Why such a turnout? Because we saw, you know, it wasn`t so great in Iowa. It was good in New Hampshire, wasn`t so great in Iowa.

FORD:  Yes, there are a lot of things -- obviously, Iowa and New Hampshire have a demographic that`s very important to the United States, but Nevada has a demographic that hadn`t been seen yet, and that`s a diverse demographic that we offer, not only as representation of what the Democratic Party looks like, but what the entire United States looks like.

And so, you see a lot of interest right now in issues that are pertinent to the diversity of our state. As you indicated, we did take the majority back --

MATTHEWS:  What is the attraction of Nevada to so many minorities? Is it just jobs? Are there a lot of decent jobs you can get here? What is it -- people move here, they don`t just happen here.

FORD:  I think one of the things that`s attractive is the opportunity for success, to be sure. My wife and I migrated, I like to say, at the turn of the century for employment opportunities and we have been able to accomplish those things. But, you know, beyond that, I think there`s an importance here and the understanding of the need of diversity. When you talk about what we did in 2018, we have a female majority legislature, we have a female majority Supreme Court. We did elect the first African- American attorney general in the history of our state.

And so, these are the types of things that demonstrate that we embrace the diversity of our state.

MATTHEWS:  That`s sort of like Arizona. A lot of women get elected in Arizona historically. I just wonder what that`s about, the Western Woman, some interesting culture there.

Let me ask you about this race here. Bernie Sanders, self-described Democratic socialist. Four moderates running against him. Shaping the field suggests that Bernie is going to win here Saturday night.

FORD:  Well, I think -- no one should bank their win on the polls here. Nevada is historically difficult to poll. I voted early yesterday, and I was in line with individuals who were making up their minds literally to the moment that they cast their ballot. An individual with me hadn`t voted in 40 years, he said, which again shows the interest that the people are having in this state.

MATTHEWS:  So you did something along those lines, former felons can vote?

FORD:  Absolutely. And that`s the second thing I was about to say. I got home late last night and had a message from an ex-offender who was thanking me and the legislature for passing the law. They allowed to have his right to vote restored. He was able to participate.

I went to the barbershop this morning and one of the bashers also was a I believe to participate.

MATTHEWS:  I love this. Tell me about how you did it? If you get out of prison -- say you`re in for five years for robbery or something. You`ve been out, you`ve been a felon, how you do get -- fully back into society as a voter. How`s that work?

FORD:  You register.

MATTHEWS:  That`s it?

FORD:  The moment you get out, you`re done, you`re registered to vote, and that`s something I`ve been advocating for from the state Senate side.

MATTHEWS:  I love this stuff. This is what makes politics great.

Anyway, President Trump has been shadowing the Democrats since the start of the political season, holding up rallies every time there`s a primary. He`s set to host a rally in Las Vegas Friday night.

According to "The New York Times," Trump, quote, agreed to the West Coast swing if he could stay at his hotel in Las Vegas, whatever that means. Trump faces stiff head winds over this state. In hypothetical head-to-head matchups here, the president is losing to Biden and Sanders, he also trails Warren and Buttigieg, but is within the margin of error.

What -- Trump can`t win out here, can he?

FORD:  Trump`s not going to win out here and his visits here are intended as diversions. But here we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We won`t be diverted or persuaded from participating. The 70,000 number that you saw I`m hoping is the type of the iceberg and on Saturday, you`re going to see a tremendous outpouring of interest in our caucus and we`re going to select --

MATTHEWS:  Do you want to be a senator some day?

FORD:  No --

MATTHEWS:  Yes, you are. I can see it coming. I wish you well, sir. I think you`ve got a career ahead of you, bigger one, Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford, it was nice to come here and isn`t pushing a candidate.

We`re back with a quick break, after a quick break, live from Las Vegas, where the candidates are preparing -- getting a little worried right now to take the stage for tonight`s Democratic debate, which will include the billionaire, Mike Bloomberg.

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  The main event is now a little more than an hour away here in Las Vegas, as six Democratic presidential candidates` debate before Saturday`s Nevada caucus. You can watch the debate, of course, here on MSNBC in one hour, at 9:00 Eastern.

Then stay tuned for post-debate analysis. I`ll be in the spin room talking to the candidates.

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

MSNBC`s coverage of tonight`s big debate continues right now with my colleague, Rachel Maddow.

Rachel?

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