Trump uses pardon power TRANSCRIPT: 2/18/20, The Beat w/A. Melber

Guests: Brittney Cooper, Richard Blumenthal, Desiree Barnes, Neal Katyal, Glenn Kirschner, Melissa Murray, James Clyburn

CHUCK TODD, MSNBC HOST:  "THE BEAT WITH ARI MELBER" starts right now.

Good evening, Ari.

ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST:  Good evening, Chuck.

And we begin with breaking news adding to the firestorm over President Trump allegedly corrupting the Justice Department.

President Trump using his pardon power today for 11 convicted individuals, including top Republicans, a public official convicted of abusing his power, and a billionaire convicted of 98 counts of racketeering and fraud.

Legal experts say the pardons are audacious in their blatant favoritism and political posturing. These are Trump pardons for the powerful, for the rich, for corrupt politicians, a use of the pardon power benefiting people who were literally convicted of these same offenses that Trump and his advisers have been accused of.

And reporting tonight shows, that`s the point, to send a message, because, as Trump prepared these pardons, he also discussed using his pardon power to commute the sentence of Roger Stone, which would keep his longtime adviser out of jail, despite being convicted in the Mueller probe.

That`s according to "The New York Times" tonight.

So as Trump`s Justice Department faces one of its greatest controversies over cutting the recommended prison time for, of course, Mr. Stone, thousands of DOJ veterans calling on Barr to resign over it, Barr claiming that he basically objects only to Trump tweeting about that case, as all of that`s happening, Donald Trump today makes this move, blatantly helping a politician convicted of bribery, the former "Apprentice" contestant Rod Blagojevich, who was impeached and removed as governor and then convicted and jailed for corruption and bribery.

That`s important to keep in mind.

Trump also now pardoning billionaire Michael Milken and a lobbyist convicted of obstruction and lying to authorities who is tied to powerhouse Republican Jack Abramoff.

And if all of that we`re not clear enough, right here, right now, with this breaking story, President Trump also made a point of using this power for someone who`s not even in prison anymore, but who is tied to Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who is, of course, currently under investigation by the same Justice Department facing all this political pressure.

This is the man Giuliani installed as the chief of the New York Police Department, Bernard Kerik, who went on to be Giuliani`s business partner at a firm called Giuliani-Kerik, all of that before a spectacular fall, where he was convicted of tax fraud. And the charges against him are serious.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Rudolph Giuliani his former right-hand man was formerly arraigned Friday on corruption charges. He accepted $255,000 in renovations to his home from a contractor, then tried to convince city regulators that the contractor was not connected to the mob and should be hired for city contracts.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Conspiracy wire fraud, mail fraud, evading taxes on half-a-million dollars, lying to the IRS, lying on a loan application.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Bernard Kerik could be facing prison time after pleading guilty to eight felonies. The former New York City police commissioner admitted Thursday he lied to the White House. He also admitted to lying about hiding income from the IRS and faking a charitable contribution.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  We`re showing you all of that news coverage from that time because this is very important.

Under the law, those kind of charges, which, as you just heard, he ultimately pleaded guilty to many of them, they`re considered especially serious when committed by the very people who are entrusted in our government to carry out the law, like a police chief or a governor or, yes, a president.

In fact, as we were reporting last year on this case, the Blagojevich matter had evidence that matched the evidence against Trump, abusing office to extort a benefit, which is a crime even when the plot is unsuccessful.

We reported that Trump was actually musing about the Blagojevich pardon of the governor there before the Ukraine plot was even exposed, raising the question of whether this is Trump trying to literally gut the impact of our anti-corruption federal laws before your very eyes, to claim that it`s all maybe OK now, and that elected officials should just have unchecked power.

That is how many experts viewed Donald Trump`s pardon for Bush White House aide Scooter Libby. Remember that? That was now nearly two years ago, a case that mirrored Trump`s own, because Libby considered himself the target of an unfair prosecution, as "The New York Times" reported at the time.

Other presidents have certainly faced criticism for wielding their pardon power, including Bill Clinton`s pardon for fugitive financier Marc Rich, a pardon ultimately investigated by a DOJ official named James Comey.

And, of course, those Republican pardons of Iran-Contra figures also controversial.

But what you`re seeing here is President Trump breaking records and hitting a new low for the breakdown of justice in the pardon process. These are blatantly political and messaging pardons. They favor the rich and famous, very obviously so, and the president also succumbing to his well-known obsession on this weighty issue with celebrities, with television.

And that brings me to another point here that I want you to know tonight. Giuliani ally Bernie Kerik was on FOX last night, as was Blagojevich`s family, who`s also made the case on FOX for a pardon looking right through the camera.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I just pardoned Bernie Kerik, a man who had many recommendations from a lot of good people.

TUCKER CARLSON, FOX NEWS:  Bernie Kerik is a former New York police commissioner.

BERNARD KERIK, FORMER NEW YORK CITY POLICE COMMISSIONER:  People elected Rudy Giuliani because crime was at its highest.

TRUMP:  I really rely on the recommendations of people that know them.

We have commuted the sentence of Rod Blagojevich. I watched his wife on television.

CARLSON:  What would be your pitch to pardoning your husband?

PATRICIA BLAGOJEVICH, WIFE OF ROD BLAGOJEVICH:  It allows the FBI and power-hungry, overzealous prosecutors like Patrick Fitzgerald, who prosecuted both my husband and Scooter Libby, to go after anyone that they don`t like.

TRUMP:  It was a prosecution by the same people, Comey, Fitzpatrick, the same group.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  In this long-running debate in America right now over whether this president is totally clueless or brilliantly strategic or somewhere in between, the actions that impact his own interests, his own well-being, his own legal liability, can often be the most telling.

As we have reported, this novice to government who has seemed so uninterested in filling so many federal positions, he has been laser- focused on the two prosecution offices with jurisdiction over him and his businesses, New York and Washington, personally meeting with candidates for those offices, including Preet Bharara during the transition.

And it`s the Washington office where the DOJ removed one prosecutor and then saw four more resign over this treatment of, yes, Mr. Stone. It all comes back to him.

And Donald Trump now says Mr. Stone is a candidate for a pardon. And a newly emboldened Mr. Trump claims he also wants to sue those four prosecutors involved in the Stone case.

But this is what I mean about how you analyze which president we`re seeing. Is Donald Trump just reacting to what`s on television and who he remembers from those simpler days of "Celebrity Apprentice"?

Or is he spending years building up towards pardoning his own people, the most controversial act even for Republicans, to normalize that with these pardons for political figures, from Sheriff Joe, his first pardon, to Bush aide Scooter Libby, to now Democratic Governor Blagojevich, other pardons for other Giuliani associates in cases that he ultimately needs as he gets closer and closer to potentially, if he needs to, pardon someone like Giuliani or convicts from the Mueller probe?

This is serious as a heart attack. This is what Donald Trump ran on, turning the power and, yes, potential intimidation of law, of investigation, of prison into a political weapon against rivals.

It is, of course, what he was also impeached over. And it`s the same fact pattern that he was recently acquitted of by the Republican Senate.

Now, for all of that cheery political talk about not taking Donald Trump literally, tonight is one of those nights where it`s worth sitting up, paying attention, and listening very closely.

You can see it in the open. You can judge it by the actions. The failure right now to take this president literally could be the largest mistake of all.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP:  Crooked Hillary Clinton. Oh, she`s crooked, folks. She`s crooked as a $3 bill.

(BOOING)

TRUMP:  Lock her up is right.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE:  It`s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.

TRUMP:  Because you would be in jail.

PETER ALEXANDER, NBC NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Who specifically are you accusing of treason?

TRUMP:  If you look at Comey, if you look at McCabe, if you look at probably people -- people higher than that.

If they were honest about it, they would start a major investigation into the Bidens.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  We`re joined tonight by Melissa Murray, a law professor at NYU, and former federal prosecutor Glenn Kirschner, who was also inside the Roger Stone courtroom today.

Thanks to both of you for joining me tonight.

MELISSA MURRAY, NYU SCHOOL OF LAW:  Nice to be here.

GLENN KIRSCHNER, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR:  Thank you, Ari.

MELBER:  Glenn, when you view these pardons, do you view them as potentially corrupt or an abuse of power, or do you see them as the president`s lawful and proper discretion?

KIRSCHNER:  He has the right to issue these pardons, but it is clearly, in my opinion, an abuse of power, Ari.

We can call today pardon-palooza, but it just reinforces that the president really believes that he has the right to weaponize the powers of his office to punish his enemies and to sort of bestow benefits on his friends.

And if you let the president talk long enough, he`s going to tell you what he`s really thinking, what`s really motivating, because I heard him talking about the Blagojevich pardon. And he ultimately got around to saying, well, you know the prosecutors were in that case?

It was Patrick Fitzgerald. And you know what? He`s friends with Comey. He`s telling you right there that what he was doing was weaponizing that pardon as a way, misguided way, to punish his enemy Comey and, by extension, Comey`s friend Patrick Fitzgerald.

And it reminded me of when he fired Lieutenant Colonel Vindman for speaking the truth about him, and then gratuitously punished his brother. I mean, if that`s not Trump sending the signal that, I will punish you, I will punish your friends, I will punish your family in any way that I have at my disposal, including the pardon power, I don`t know what is.

MELBER:  Melissa?

MURRAY:  Well, let`s be clear. Presidents use executive clemency for lots of different reasons, often to send a policy message.

President Barack Obama exhibited clemency 2,000 times, just a little bit under 2,000 times, during his presidency, but all to make the point that he thought that low-level, nonviolent drug offenses were a problem.

And so most of the people who benefited from his clemency were people who had been convicted of these drug charges. The president today is also sending a message. But this is a very different message than one about legislative policy on drug charges.

This is a broader question about weaponizing all of the powers vested in the president in Article 2 for his own political gain.

MELBER:  Yes. I mean, when you put it like that, it almost sounds like you`re minimizing it, because I don`t think there is a policy here. It`s all personal, right?

MURRAY:  Well, I don`t think -- I mean, the personal can be political. And I don`t think I`m minimizing it at all.

This is awesome power. It is constitutional power vested in the office of the president by Article 2, and presidents have the option to wield it as they choose.

Some have chosen to use it to make a stand about legislative action that they would like to see Congress do, but Congress hasn`t overtaken it, and others are using it for other reasons. Like, we saw Gerald Ford pardon Richard Nixon before he was even convicted in order to make a stand about national unity.

And we`re seeing the president today using that power to make a stand about preserving his own skin.

MELBER:  Do you think these are good ideas pardons?

MURRAY:  Well, they`re not my pardons to issue, but I will say, it is surprising.

And if you look at the individuals who were pardoned today, largely men. I think he`s actually only part in one woman in his entire term as president, lots of commutations, but mostly individuals who have been convicted of serious offenses against the public trust.

That`s concerning.

MELBER:  Yes.

You mentioned the public trust.

I mean, Glenn, that`s what really jumps out. I think that, interesting, Blagojevich, who was also, in our wild world, a "Celebrity Apprentice" contestant, is someone who the president was musing about in the middle of the Ukraine plot as well public officials should be able to do whatever they want.

And so, in that context of whatever -- as Melissa says, it may be driving a message to the country. What is the message that public officials should get away with? What accountability, if any, should there be for them?

Take a look at what we learned about quid pro quo bribery in the initial Blagojevich case here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The governor of the state of Illinois was engaged in behavior in an attempt, quid pro quo, to trade a U.S. Senate seat for something of value.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  He didn`t do anything.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Do you disagree with Mr. Lang`s contention that offering something of value...

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Except there`s no evidence. No, of course I don`t disagree with Mr. Lang`s contention. Offering is a crime. Where does it say he offered anything?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  There was a pretty clear offer for a Senate seat, certain considerations.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  This comes, Glenn, with the question of whether Donald Trump wants to rewrite history.

That was a case where there was bipartisan condemnation of the convicted corruption, bribery, abuse of power. Is this a way of saying, well, maybe that was never a bad thing in the first place?

KIRSCHNER:  You know, that may be part of what`s motivating him, but I really see this as a softening of the ground to prepare the American people for, I don`t want to say the more consequential pardons to come, but the ones that more directly aid the president himself, because, if he pardons or commutes the sentences of Roger Stone, of Michael Flynn, of Paul Manafort, that is nothing but a presidential cover-up, plain and simple.

And what I will say is, prosecutors kind of famously are anti-pardon, because we do pour a lot of time and energy and we pour our hearts into public corruption prosecutions in particular, because it`s our job to hold government officials accountable when they violate the public trust.

Heck, we`re protecting the American people. But it`s not just the prosecutors who he apparently is seeking to punish in some instances. You have FBI agents who pour their hearts and souls into these cases, witnesses, victims, paralegals, judges, jurors.

The whole system sort of pulls together to hold governmental wrongdoers accountable. And Trump just with a wave of his regal hand does away with all of that, which is a slap in the face to really all law-abiding Americans.

MELBER:  Former prosecutor Glenn Kirschner, thank you so much.

Melissa stays.

I want to bring in U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, who sits on the Judiciary Committee and is a former prosecutor.

Plenty of expertise here.

Take a listen to the way these cases have overlapped, Blagojevich and Trump, and the notion of whether this is a nation, in 2020, where abuse of power is something that, at the highest levels of government, is basically deterred and punished, or whether that`s now being embraced.

Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The case is a fairy tale. The process is a witch-hunt.

TRUMP:  You are talking about the witch-hunt? Is that what you mean? Is that what you`re talking about? I hear it`s a joke.

ROD BLAGOJEVICH (D), FORMER ILLINOIS GOVERNOR:  I`m not going to quit a job that people hired me to do because of false accusations and a political lynch mob.

TODD:  He said he was a victim of a -- quote -- "lynching."

TRUMP:  Well, it`s a word that many Democrats have used. It`s a word that many people have used over the years.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The fact that he might say, he being Rod Blagojevich, say things that offend people doesn`t make them impeachable.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I believe it was inappropriate. I do not believe it was impeachable.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  What do you see here? And, as a member of the Senate, do you think Donald Trump beating the Senate trial on impeachment emboldens him here?

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT):  What really has emboldened him is not only his acquittal in the Senate trial, but the silence of my Republican colleagues afterward.

That, to me, is as striking. They`re becoming active participants, aiders and abetters, in unleashing him in this way. And you said that it is a heart attack moment. I couldn`t agree more.

On my walls in my office, Ari, I have lots of pictures with famous people, but I also have the seal of the Department of Justice, because I served as United States attorney. And what that seal means to me is justice and the Department of Justice have to be independent and impartial.

And I look at that seal these days, and I`m proud, but I`m also sad, and I am angry. That`s the reason why close to 2,000 prosecutors have written a letter denouncing the corruption of justice in the Department of Justice by this attorney general, who is acting as Trump`s henchman, and by the president himself, who is corrupting it, because he has nothing but contempt for the rule of law, but also a morally spineless Republican majority that is enabling him as an active participant.

MELBER:  And Giuliani, as mentioned, was at the center of the Ukraine plot, is allegedly feeding information to the Justice Department, where he`s also at least a person of interest, if not a subject, of investigation in New York by the office he used to run.

So it is quite striking that Mr. Kerik, who was literally, as I pointed out, in business with Giuliani, Giuliani, Kerik partners, was not in prison anymore. So there isn`t even an allegedly humanitarian reason to reopen this discussion, but who many New Yorkers -- I mean, I cover this.

Many members of the NYPD were very upset with him, because most officers do not act that way. Most officers are not obviously accused, let alone convicted of that. And he was at the top acting that way.

And the president comes in and does this while Giuliani`s under investigation.

I want to play what Mr. Giuliani said about this, he also admitting that it was all a mistake to ever get involved with Kerik. Take a look at that from the archive.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDY GIULIANI, ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:  I think that voters should look at it.

And what they should say is, in that particular case, I pointed out that I made a mistake. I made a mistake in not clearly him effectively enough. I take the responsibility for that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  Do you view this as trying to send an improper message to the open probe that involves Giuliani?

BLUMENTHAL:  I think it sends a lot of messages to a lot of places.

But it all boils down to the message that Donald Trump can do anything he wants. And it is part of a pattern, beginning with Bill Barr`s confirmation, where he said, in effect, there`s a unitary executive, the president can commit obstruction if he wants, because he`s in charge of the Department of Justice.

The president repeating this fallacious and very dangerous myth, the idea that he has an imperial presidency. And the message is, I can pardon. I can interfere. I can denounce judges.

And that`s why you have, very significantly, an emergency meeting of the judges association to, in effect, try to exercise some oversight here.

And I think that when the history of this dark era is written, the heroes will be the independent judiciary and, frankly, the free press, which is uncovering a lot of it.

MELBER:  Well, Senator, you talk about searching for heroes.

And that brings me to Professor.

I come to you with the hardest question at the end, because we often learn from you about the big picture of whatever you tell your students.

My question for you is, for people watching this who say, wow, if this evidence lines up this way, this looks like it`s bad and getting worse, what do you say to them?

MURRAY:  So, I am teaching constitutional law right now at NYU.

And the other day, my students and I talked about a case, Nixon vs. Fitzgerald, which is about the president`s immunity from civil suits. And one of the things the court says there is that, in immunizing the president from liability for civil suits, you don`t make him a king. He`s still subject to these other checks, the impeachment process, the free press, the prospect of his legacy.

When I said all of these things in class, my students laughed.

And I don`t think I have ever been more disheartened as a lawyer and a teacher to be in front of 112 new lawyers, people who are learning to be lawyers, who are so jaded and cynical about the prospect of justice and the powers of the president being vested in someone who does not use them for the public trust, but clearly uses them for his own gains.

And it`s sad.

MELBER:  It`s a -- that`s a profound story you just shared, as we think about the next generation of people, be they potentially lawyers, public servants, all the people who go in and work in government. Some people risk their lives.

And what are they standing for? What do they believe is possible? That`s sobering.

I`m going to fit in a break, because we went, well, 21 minutes. We went longer than usual.

My thanks to U.S. Senator Blumenthal. My thanks to Professor Murray.

We have a lot more in the show. In fact, Neal Katyal is coming up. You see him right here. We`re going to discuss the rule of law and what advice he has for young people today, if they`re not laughing him out of the lecture hall for saying what we want to believe in. It`s something else.

Also, later tonight, we are going to show you new evidence in Democratic race and why Mike Bloomberg will be on tonight`s debate -- tomorrow night`s debate stage for the first time.

And, later, the Justice Department now justifying why it`s taking Ukraine conspiracy theories from Giuliani, and they say they`re open for business for everyone, including you.

I have got a lot more on the show. I`m Ari Melber.

You`re watching THE BEAT on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MELBER:  On this breaking story of pardons by Donald Trump, we are back with a special guest and our headliner in our recurring Opening Arguments series.

It is, of course, former Solicitor General Neal Katyal. He`s argued dozens of cases before the Supreme Court and is an analyst with us at MSNBC.

Good evening, sir.

NEAL KATYAL, MSNBC ANALYST:  Good evening.

MELBER:  Neal, I know you heard part of the conversation we just had in the earlier block. It was one of those times where I was a little bit of a loss for words.

Before I get into any of my prepared questions for you -- I have some -- your thoughts on all this, this story?

KATYAL:  Yes, so I heard Professor Murray talk about how her students were so disheartened. They don`t believe in impeachment or the press or the courts. And Trump seems to get away with everything. And I totally understand that sentiment.

I really want to push back against it, Ari, though. I think this country has a robust tradition of law. And, yes, the president`s gotten away with so much, but I have news for him. The law is going to come after him. What he`s doing is lawless. It`s unprecedented. It breaks every rule in our constitutional democracy.

And the law will find a way to catch up with him. He can pardon his Mar-a- Lago friends and pardon his campaign contributors and this or that, but one way or another, our system is robust enough, between the press and the courts, to bring him and his ilk to justice. And it`s going to happen.

I do not -- I really don`t want people -- I get what Professor Murray is saying, but I really want people to understand that there`s still a lot out there and a lot of work to be done. But we shouldn`t give up, because the American experiment at its base is all about a system of laws.

We`re a government of laws, not of men, to use the phrase from the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.

MELBER:  Well, it`s striking to hear you say that. And that was the conversation that was pouring over in the earlier part of the show, more than one view about what this means, and what does it mean to say the president can technically do something, and then the larger question of whether it, especially in concert with another pattern, is a potential abuse of power in and of itself.

What message does it send? What other meddling is going on? And how will that all be investigated by the co-equal branch, whether or not the impeachment trial is over?

Mr. Barr, as we have reported, will be headed into face Congress under oath. He clearly was moved, to some degree, by the public criticism of experts and DOJ veterans like yourself.

And in a time when we offer on the Washington part of the story, I want to play reaction from a Republican in Illinois, where, of course, Mr. Blagojevich was governor, until he was impeached, removed, and convicted, to this pardon today. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIM DURKIN (R), ILLINOIS STATE REPRESENTATIVE:  I saw a governor who was rogue on steroids. He was a person that was not -- didn`t care about the state of Illinois. He cared about his own ambition.

It`s just because the celebrity of Rod Blagojevich, in which he`s getting this -- this type of relief. And I think it`s wrong and it sends a bad message to people in this country that, you know what, you don`t exactly have to pay your debt to society.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  That is one of the Republican leaders of the Illinois House, Jim Durkin. Credit to him for speaking his mind here against the president.

Your reaction?

KATYAL:  Exactly. That`s the kind of beautiful sentiment that I think Americans across the country have.

It`s just a simple idea, Ari, that justice is blind. I mean, literally, Lady Justice is a blindfolded individual in the statues. And you shouldn`t get out jail because you`re the president`s friends -- friend, or you met him at the country club, where you gave him a campaign contribution.

And, conversely, you shouldn`t people in jail and throw the book at them, as the president`s tried to do, simply, or call for prosecution simply because they have different politics than you. He`s supposed to be the president of the entire country. And so I want to commend that Republican and millions of others like him, because this is now a war for the heart and soul of what America is about.

Do we -- do we believe we`re a system of laws? Or do we believe that this president can just do what he wants because he happens to be good for the stock market or whatever?

MELBER:  Or whatever, indeed.

Neal Katyal, always benefit from having you on the program.

And let me remind everyone, you can go to MSNBC.com/openingarguments. You can see this and our other legal breakdowns with Mr. Katyal.

I want to tell you, when we are back in just 30 seconds, we`re going to show you why Mike Bloomberg will make the debate stage and what`s going on with Bernie Sanders.

Back in 30.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MELBER:  Major developments, meanwhile, in the 2020 race tonight.

And I want to begin with the context. When we cover this race, I have told you we`re going to always show you the evidence first.

Former Republican Mayor Mike Bloomberg has been plowing record-breaking spending into the race. And now he`s rising in several ways.

Let me show you the money. Mayor Bloomberg spending more than $124 million on ads targeting those key Super Tuesday states. That`s, remarkably, 10 times more than his rivals.

And Bloomberg, who`s been in the race for less time than any of those other Democrats, is finding a big boost in one of those Super Tuesday states. Take a look at Virginia polling showing Bloomberg and Sanders now tied for first place in the state at 22 percent.

Meanwhile, a story we have been bringing you here, the DNC has changed its rules for how to qualify for its debate stage. And the results are basically now in for who that new rule change helps. It`s one candidate, Mike Bloomberg, who, under the new rules, has qualified for tomorrow`s debate stage for the first time ever.

That`s thanks to two new national polls that show him in double digits. Bloomberg on the scene here, and Sanders still holding a very strong position, which helps explain the shape of the race right now.

We`re seeing -- we`re seeing Senator Sanders sharpening his attacks.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Now, Mr. Bloomberg, like anybody else, has a right to run for president. He does not have a right to buy the presidency.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SANDERS:  And we say -- we say to Mr. Bloomberg, you are certainly not going to win, when you have a record in New York City that included racist policies like stop and frisk.

(BOOING)

SANDERS:  We are a democracy, not an oligarchy. You`re not going to buy this election.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  Listen to what you`re hearing and think about the wider race. It`s really striking, when you think about it.

As this Democratic Party has moved to the economic left, with two candidates running explicitly against billionaires and the billionaire class, now, all of a sudden, a billionaire and former Republican jumps into this race.

The other candidate, of course, is Senator Elizabeth Warren. She had a strong finish in Iowa and is now calling Bloomberg a -- quote -- "egomaniacal billionaire trying to buy the election."

She`s also blasted his -- quote -- "racist justifications" for stop and frisk policing.

Tomorrow, we`re going to see a all of these type of debates in person for the first time with Mike Bloomberg on the stage in Vegas. And note that, while he will fly there for the debate, he is not even technically on the ballot for this Nevada caucus.

And that appears to be part of the way he`s managing media expectations, something that candidates have to be good at these days. But he`s trying to say that he`s not really competing, as he does compete in one way, in Nevada.

Let`s get right into this.

We have got Rutgers University Professor Brittney Cooper, and Desiree Barnes, a former adviser to President Obama`s press secretary shop, and now with Vote.org.

Nice to see you both.

DESIREE BARNES, FORMER OBAMA WHITE HOUSE AIDE:  Thank you for having us.

BRITTNEY COOPER, RUTGERS UNIVERSITY:  Good to be here.

MELBER:  This is something else.

COOPER:  This is a mess.

(LAUGHTER)

MELBER:  And if it were a movie, if it were a movie, and you said, oh, Democratic socialist, et cetera, Senator Warren, as I mentioned, and then a billionaire jumps in, you would say, oh, that`s kind of trying to make it too much of a character.

COOPER:  Yes.

MELBER:  On the other hand, we are hearing from some Democrats who say, it matters who has the money and the experience and the media fortitude to deal with this particular incumbent.

Where do you see this going?

COOPER:  I want to strongly disagree with anyone who claims that what we need is a Trump to beat a Trump, right, that we need another Manhattan racist who has really terrorized African-Americans for the better part of a couple of decades with a series of racist policies in order to stand up against the person in the White House who`s already doing that.

But what I also want to think about is that, we do see his numbers, Bloomberg`s popularity, increasing among African-Americans. And there`s a lot of concern about why that`s happening.

But I think that his rising in the poll reflects a lack of faith in American institutions, and this idea that they have already been given over to money.

MELBER:  Maybe that`s the theme of tonight`s show.

COOPER:  That`s right.

MELBER:  We didn`t plan it that way.

BARNES:  Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER:  But there are too -- that if you`re going to beat somebody who`s already rolling in the mud, you got to get out in the mud and get dirty with them.

And, for me, that the challenge of that is that, in that kind of logic, it`s really -- it sounds like pie in the sky to then say to people, no, take a risk, vote for a progressive candidate, whoever your progressive candidate of choice may be.

But the challenge of that is, African-Americans actually cannot afford another center-left Democrat in the presidency. We can`t afford anyone who has these terrible policies on crime, terrible policies on housing, and a general disregard for people of color.

That`s all that we`re seeing in the...

MELBER:  Well, let me let me bring in Desiree.

COOPER:  Sure.

MELBER:  That hangs over all of this...

BARNES:  Yes.

MELBER:  ... because the ads that are blanketing the airwaves, people may have seen them. A lot of them show Mike Bloomberg was Barack Obama. You worked in that press office.

COOPER:  Oh, my goodness.

BARNES:  Well, for one, I will say I hear every candidate trying to make their case as to why they need to be commander in chief.

But the one thing I don`t hear a lot of people making the case for is that, what does democracy look like when we have fair and equal representation? I don`t see as much emphasis on GOTV.

If I was a candidate, whether you`re the top-polling candidate, the numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire for voter turnout, I mean, historic lows. I think people should be concerned that, going into the Democratic Convention, I say it`s going to look like season one of a "Real Housewives" reunion.

I do think right now the plot line of the election, it feels like a Tyler Perry movie. There`s a little bit of everything. You have got a millionaire. You have got someone who pulled them up by the bootstraps. Formerly, you had someone who worked in the tech space. You just kind of had a smorgasbord of everything.

MELBER:  Well, if it`s a Tyler Perry movie, I think the question is, is Mike Bloomberg putting on a wig? And does he not really fill the role out?

(CROSSTALK)

BARNES:  If it was a Tyler Perry movie, you would have a happy ending.

But...

MELBER:  Well, let me ask you this. Do you think he is a rightful heir to the Obama legacy, which is what he`s running on?

BARNES:  I mean, to be honest with you, the Obama legacy is shared.

The rightful heirs of the Obama legacy are the exact people who put him there, who gave small-dollar donations, who came out to vote for the first time.

MELBER:  I`m going to push you like I push everyone.

BARNES:  Yes.

MELBER:  Is that a yes or a no?

BARNES:  Do I think he`s the rightful heir?

I don`t think anyone, any candidate can say that they are the rightful heir, because it is a shared legacy. And that is what President Obama ran on.

MELBER:  I hear you on that. I will push further and say, for the conversation, I guess you could argue that it is some spectrum.

But what we`re hearing from some Democratic groups is, well, wait a minute. People like Warren, Sanders, and obviously Joe Biden have more of a claim to Obama-style politics than this former Republican mayor.

But people, including one of your former colleagues, David Plouffe, Obama`s campaign manager, said someone walked up to him and asked -- did you hear this?

COOPER:  No.

MELBER:  They said, of all the people -- and, again, disclosure to the audience, I`m about to say something that is not technically true for the point -- he said, someone asked him, of all the people, why is Obama backing Bloomberg...

COOPER:  Right.

MELBER:  ... when he could have chosen everyone? Because the ads are omnipresent.

For that point, let me show you some facts. I want to get your analysis.

When you look at the 2020 ad spending, this is where the race is won once you get out of the early states, where you can do grassroots, what you were talking about.

BARNES:  Yes.

MELBER:  Take a look at -- these are candidates who have spent $5 million or more, Warren, Buttigieg, Sanders, between $5 million andrMDIT_ rMDNM_$20 million.

Now, take a look at Mr. Steyer, who`s got over 100 M`s, OK, commas. And now take a look at Mr. Bloomberg, already $318 million.

COOPER:  Look, big money does not belong in politics. That`s a thing we know.

But this is not a conversation about Obama`s legacy.

BARNES:  Exactly.

COOPER:  None of these people is an heir to Obama`s legacy.

And, look, I have great respect for President Obama, but the idea that he was really a boon for African-Americans, who are the people I care most about, certainly, I don`t know that we can make that kind of argument.

Part of what I think is that Bloomberg is playing on African-American fear. And it`s really interesting.

MELBER:  By saying, I`m the guy who can handle it.

COOPER:  By -- no, he`s playing on African-American fear by saying, one, Obama endorsed me in a different set of political conditions than this one, and then making it seem like people can`t see in those ads that all the endorsements are from `08, 2011, 2012.

MELBER:  All right, I get one more thing in, because I got to.

COOPER:  Yes. Yes.

MELBER:  The man will step on the stage tomorrow, because the Democratic Party, as we have reported, said, we won`t change the rules to let in people. They wouldn`t change the rules when Cory Booker said it wasn`t fair.

COOPER:  Right.

MELBER:  Here was what Tom Perez said about why they couldn`t change the rules then. This was last month. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM PEREZ, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN:  We made the rules. They were very transparent. They`re very inclusive, and we can`t change the rules midstream because there`s a candidate that I wish were on, but didn`t make the debate stage.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  Is it fair that the DNC has now changed the rules?

COOPER:  It`s absolutely unfair. It`s outrageous.

But -- and, look, what we have now is three white men dominating the race , and the Democratic Party knows that that`s not their base. But here is the silver lining.

Bloomberg needs to be tested. He needs to stand up against these candidates, and he needs to be debated. He needs to be confronted about his terrible political legacies.

MELBER:  Well, you`re saying something very savvy.

So you`re saying, not fair, but you`re glad he`s on the stage?

COOPER:  Yes, absolutely.

Look, if he is running at this level, then he needs to be vetted. And my argument is, the only reason he`s even gotten this far is because people haven`t had to see him up against more progressive and better-tested candidates in this race.

So it`s going to work out for us in the end, I think, to have him on that stage. But the DNC deserves to be called out for their brazen disregard of their own rules.

MELBER:  Really fascinating.

I`m out of time, because we have been running such a long show.

BARNES:  Yes.

MELBER:  Brittney, always great to see you.

Desiree, your first time on THE BEAT.

BARNES:  Yes.

MELBER:  Thanks for being here.

BARNES:  I`m so excited to be here.

MELBER:  Love to have you again.

BARNES:  I do you want to say that the campaign that President Obama ran in 2008, I would just ask your viewers, would that be the campaign that could deliver today?

I don`t know. You can`t run on the same tactics. You can`t use the same methods.

MELBER:  Right. And you have to evolve. And that`s -- politics is often about that.

(CROSSTALK)

MELBER:  My thanks to both you.

I should mention, of course, programming note, tomorrow night`s debate will air right here on MSNBC. Look at all of our colleagues and more. That will be 9:00 p.m. Eastern, plus pre-debate coverage.

Up ahead:  The so-called South Carolina kingmaker will join us live on this pivotal primary that`s coming up in that state. Very excited.

But, first, I have an update on that controversy surrounding the DOJ saying they have an intake process for Rudy Giuliani. We will give you the new reporting coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MELBER:  Now to a story that relates to a lot of what we have been covering tonight, the problems facing President Trump`s lawyers.

If you`re keeping track, his longtime lawyer Michael Cohen is now in prison, his current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, is under investigation, and his Ukraine business associates were indicted. They`re awaiting trial, while Giuliani`s last business partner, Bernard Kerik, convicted, today found himself pardoned by Giuliani`s current client, Donald Trump.

It`s a lot. And this is not normal. It`s a lot of crimes swirling around the president, which is why it was so suspicious that Trump`s own Justice Department said it was taking special Ukraine information from Giuliani, which too many sounded like special treatment from someone who`s actually under investigation.

But, as we have been discussing tonight, facts do matter. And now the Trump DOJ is responding to all the blowback by trying to downplay this intake process for Giuliani. They`re telling Congress there`s no unique access for any individual. In fact, they say the pipeline is available to any member of the public to submit, I guess, Ukraine conspiracy theories.

You don`t need to be a legal expert to know this intake process for this type of Ukraine material isn`t of interest to most members of the public. And you can know that even by just using your remote control.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GIULIANI:  Biden has been able to get away with millions and millions of dollars in bribery, oh, gosh, at least since the `90s.

Crooked, Crooked family. It`s the -- it`s a RICO case. It`s more money than a lot of organized crime families made.

And it`s not just Biden. A bunch of Democrats. And that`s why they are so - - they`re so crazy on the subject of Ukraine and why they want to literally kill me.

This is what you call a smoking gun money-laundering case.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  Now, as far as spin goes, these new claims here from the DOJ are really poorly timed for Bill Barr, because it comes at the very moment Trump is pardoning Giuliani`s right-hand man, which raises all this new criticism about special treatment.

And remember last week, when Bill Barr said he agreed with Trump about helping Roger Stone, but he didn`t like the tweets. Well, today, President Trump has clearly boxed Barr in again, revealing the game at a time that Barr is still claiming there`s nothing to see here.

Will this make Attorney General Barr`s job even harder as he fights to save it?

We will keep reporting on this crisis for the rule of law at the Justice Department.

Now, when we come back, we`re going to speak with a very special guest about tomorrow night`s debate and what really matters in some of these key states.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MELBER:  We are back with a very special guest, Congressman Jim Clyburn, the Democrat from South Carolina, House majority whip.

He`s one of the most sought-after endorsements in the race.

Not to make you blush.

He`s also the host of the famous Clyburn Fish Fry, which is considered a must-stop every cycle for candidates in these presidential primaries.

I`m really glad to have you. Thanks for being here tonight.

REP. JAMES CLYBURN (D-SC):  Thank you very much for having me.

MELBER:  Yes, sir.

We have to start with the big question. Whether or not you`re ever going to tell everyone in public, because you have been carefully neutral in the past, do you have a candidate among these Democrats right now that you prefer, that you think is up to the job of being president?

(LAUGHTER)

CLYBURN:  Well, I plan to vote. I can only vote for one. And I think I know who that will be.

But we will wait and see whether or not there is any public endorsements to be made. I don`t want to get out in front of our debate.

We`re going to have a debate on the 25th. And I have promised the debate sponsors that I will not be public with anything that`s partisan until after that debate.

MELBER:  And, in the past, we all remember, particularly around South Carolina, how heated the Obama-Clinton primary got.

We have reported on this show about complaints in 2016 from people concerned about the role of the leadership of the Democratic Party, whether the DNC and other parts of the party were fair enough.

You`re obviously emphasizing fairness leading up to your debate. What about these concerns from -- we`re hearing from some Democrats, who say, well, there are people now running for this nomination who haven`t really been long-term committed to the Democratic Party?

We hear it about -- from some critics about Senator Sanders. And we also now hear it about Mayor Bloomberg.

Do you think that`s valid? Or do you think both of them are perfectly legitimate choices because they say now they want to be the Democratic nominee?

CLYBURN:  Well, here in South Carolina, we have never registered by party, and we only go by people`s actions, where they -- which primary they choose to vote in. So I have never been all that concerned about these kinds of declarations.

But I am concerned about people`s policies and their practices when it comes to legislation and other things that cause concern.

So, when we start looking at what I would like to call Democratic policies vs. Republican policies, I would like to see where you stand on those things.

And if you`re OK with our policies, I`m OK with you.

(LAUGHTER)

MELBER:  Very straightforward.

When you look at your constituents -- you have been a leader there for a long time -- what do you see as the key issues right now, this cycle, in South Carolina, where everyone`s going to be headed after Nevada? Jobs, health care, other issues? What do you see as important?

CLYBURN:  Well, the number one issue in South Carolina, like everywhere else in the country, is health care.

People know, as my dad used to say, you cannot do much of anything without good health. And people like to know that they can rely on the government as a backstop when they have problems with health care.

And that`s what the Affordable Care Act was all about. But that`s not the only problem here.

Here in South Carolina, we are concerned about housing. We are concerned about infrastructure. And we are concerned about educational policy. And we are looking at these candidates and wanting to know, what are you going to do to make sure that my -- the greatness of this country is accessible and affordable for all of us?

If it`s health care, is it accessible, is it affordable? Housing, education, infrastructure, broadband deployment, these things, we would like to know what you`re going to do to make them accessible and affordable for all South Carolinians and all Americans.

That, to me, in a nutshell, is what people are concerned about.

MELBER:  No, makes a lot of sense. And this is a race that we have known, in past cycles, things can change.

And it`s a state that has a lot of power, along with a delegation leader who has a fair bit of power.

(LAUGHTER)

MELBER:  Congressman Clyburn, I appreciate you coming on THE BEAT. I hope you will come back.

CLYBURN:  Well, thank you so much for having me.

MELBER:  Yes sir.

And we will be right back tonight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MELBER:  Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein`s jury has sat for more than two weeks of testimony. They have heard from 35 witnesses in this high- profile rape and sexual assault case.

And now verdict watch begins. We wanted to tell you jurors have begun deliberating today. They spent five hours. They will be back tomorrow. Weinstein faces up to possibly life in prison if convicted.

And we will keep an eye on that verdict and bring it to you on MSNBC when it breaks.

That`s our show.

"HARDBALL" starts now.

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