Trump v. Rule of Law TRANSCRIPT: 2/19/20, The Beat w/Ari Melber

Guests: Gene Rossi, Mary McCord, Errin Haines, Michael Hirschorn

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

Good evening, Ari.

ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST:  Good evening, Chuck. Thank you very much.

We have a special show tonight, reporting on this crisis facing Attorney General Barr, amidst Donald Trump`s pardons for well-connected insiders.

Plus, my special report on a hidden force in this 2020 race.

and later this hour, how the lawyers on both sides of the Stormy Daniels case wound up in jail, the fall of Michael Avenatti.

But we begin tonight with the continuing crisis at Donald Trump`s Justice Department, the crisis matters growing out of blatant political meddling by the Trump administration.

And as a Trump era story, there are efforts to, of course, script and stage-manage what is still a crisis, efforts by Trump and Barr to try to stay in control.

So keep that in mind as you see this headline we`re about to show you, which is not about stopping the actual meddling or changing the actual sweetheart treatment for Trump adviser Roger Stone, but rather a vague report that maybe Attorney General Bill Barr would consider resigning, that he`s weighing that, and then quickly accompanied by an on-the-record denial from Barr`s own DOJ.

As of this hour, I can report for you that Barr is not quitting and his office says he`s not quitting. But it appears someone close to Barr wants the impression he might quit, which comes after Barr claimed to criticize Donald Trump`s tweets, only the tweets, about the Roger Stone case, all the while standing by Donald Trump`s demands to go easier on Stone.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE:  To have public statements and tweets made about the department and about judges before whom we have cases make it impossible for me to do my job.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  Barr is under pressure publicly from over 2,000 DOJ veterans who, of course, demanded he resign.

One can only imagine the private internal heat on him from DOJ staff or FBI agents and everyone who basically backs independent, nonpartisan justice, over Donald Trump`s demands to go into cases involving his friends.

All of this only further undermined by Donald Trump`s new use of his pardon power to benefit 11 people who pretty much have something in common, as "The Washington Post" documents in their front page today. They are just about all connected famous people convicted of abusing their power.

Now, this is vintage Trump. And this is a coda to his Senate trial, where his team spent weeks claiming, remember, he wanted to fight corruption in Ukraine. Remember that? And here he is literally releasing people from jail who are there for corruption, most infamously, Governor Rod Blagojevich.

He literally went to jail for trying to extort bribes in exchange for Obama`s Senate seat. And then, of course, he had that stint on "The Apprentice," because of course.

Now, that was the news yesterday. I could tell you today the news is here he was, a little lighter hair, a little different look, Donald Trump`s beneficiary, Blagojevich, freed from prison, back in Chicago recounting his journey, and, as Trump would demand, pledging his political allegiance.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROD BLAGOJEVICH (D), FORMER ILLINOIS GOVERNOR:  All right, been a long, long journey. I`m bruised and I`m battered and I`m bloody.

It`s been a long time since I have shaved with a normal razor. And it takes a little practice. I`m sorry about that. I got to keep dabbing the blood.

We want to express our most profound and everlasting gratitude to President Trump. I`m returning home today from a long exile, a freed political prisoner.

He`s got -- I`m a Trumpocrat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  A Trumpocrat, that`s right.

QUESTION:  Are you going to vote for him?

BLAGOJEVICH:  If I have the ability to vote, I`m going to vote for him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  Trumpocrat is not a thing.

Now, I will tell you straight up there is no joy to be had in Mr. Blagojevich`s hard time in prison, and one can argue there are too many harsh sentences in America.

But Donald Trump didn`t shorten sentences for the hundreds of thousands, hundreds of thousands of other anonymous unconnected people serving long and harsh sentences. He reached out to help this "Apprentice" contestant who brazenly schemed about selling Obama`s golden vacant seat.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

BLAGOJEVICH:  I have got this thing. And it`s a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) thing, golden. And I`m just not giving it up for (EXPLETIVE DELETED) nothing.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

MELBER:  To paraphrase Donald Trump`s impeachment lawyer, why are we here? A phone call?

Well, yes, today, America can see and is reminded that person you just heard and saw, that`s the kind of convicts that Donald Trump wants to specifically spare, just like America can see Donald Trump and his attorney general working towards the same goals, even after their public claims of disagreements over just the tweets.

We have to keep our eye on the ball even with all the other stuff going on. Right now, the Justice Department`s still pushing to cut Roger Stone`s prison term. A judge will literally rule on that as soon as tomorrow.

So, when you scrutinize the results, and not the spin, you find Mr. Barr is not resigning, not changing the results in that controversial case that keeps the DOJ in crisis, and continuing to do what Trump demands, while he, Mr. Barr, apparently prefers Trump just doesn`t say it out loud.

And that`s a basic point that was made by none other than Trump ally Laura Ingraham.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LAURA INGRAHAM, FOX NEWS:  All right, John, the media sees the sexy story of Trump vs. Barr, but they missed the fact that Barr was basically telling Trump, don`t worry, I got this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I got this.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  He`s got this.

And that brings us to another little detail we wanted to make sure you saw in new reporting from "The New York Times."

Their account says this normally vindictive president has actually expressed no anger towards Barr, officials noting Trump understood why Barr felt this need to complain about just the tweets.

Admitting the game in public obviously does complicate Barr`s life at the DOJ.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I do make his job harder. I do agree with that. I think that`s true. He`s a very straight shooter. We have a great attorney general, and he`s working very hard.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  Bill Barr isn`t standing up to Trump on substance, on results. He talks about tweets, but he`s not standing up on these pardons, which also, we should note, undercut some of the DOJ`s most respected nonpartisan prosecutors in tough cases that also requires standing up to power, including White House power, like the Scooter Libby case in the Bush White House, or this Bernie Kerik case, which involves the Giuliani administration, now the president`s lawyer.

All of this is important. And the news does move pretty fast these days, but it is worth applying lessons from just last week, if we can all remember that far, including the clear-eyed skepticism that greeted Mr. Barr`s performance. It existed on this program. It existed from many legal experts and in a piece nailing this all down very clearly right here on MSNBC by Rachel, how Bill Barr`s actions say much more, much louder than his words.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST, "THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW":  Let us not abandon our powers of reasoning and common sense.

I mean, here, plainly, despite the official lie that was rolled out today to try to alleviate this crisis, here, plainly, the attorney general intervened personally to do this most unusual once-in-a-lifetime thing for the president`s friend, because that guy was the president`s friend.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  I`m joined now by Mary McCord, acting assistant attorney general for national security in a previous Justice Department, former federal prosecutor Gene Rossi, and Jason Johnson from The Root.

Good to see all of you.

Gene, your view on what`s real and what is scripted here.

GENE ROSSI, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR:  I don`t know what is real, but I can tell you this.

I read that memo that was filed on February 11 by acting Attorney General John Crabb for the Criminal Division, basically the Barr memo that replaced those four prosecutors, who, to me, are heroes.

And what`s offensive about that memo is, in the opening page, they cite the famous United States vs. Berger case from 1935, Justice Sutherland, where it talks about how a prosecutor has a noble role and must strike fair, but hard blows when needed.

And it talks about impartiality and you should not consider who the defendant is in their position in life. Yet the memo itself was filed because of who Roger Stone is and his relationship to the president.

MELBER:  Sure.

What do you read as Mr. Barr or his allies` emphasis here in ginning up talk of him resigning?

ROSSI:  I think it`s a head-fake in basketball.

I really believe that the president of the United States has given Barr a little leash, not a big one, but a little leash to sort of say something negative about the president.

And I want to go back to Bill Barr`s interview on February 13. And you got it listen to it very carefully, just like his answers to Kamala Harris in May of last year. He said he never discussed the Stone case at the White House.

It could have been a Dunkin` Donuts. It could have been an Olive Garden. It could have been a 7/Eleven.

(CROSSTALK)

MELBER:  About a Cinnabon?

(LAUGHTER)

ROSSI:  Absolutely.

MELBER:  Also potentially a Cinnabon. OK.

(CROSSTALK)

ROSSI:  Yes.

The other thing is, Ari, is, he said that no one from the White House called him from the White House.

(CROSSTALK)

MELBER:  Right. Yes, a lot of parsing.

ROSSI:  Parsing, at best.

MELBER:  Well, let me bring in Jason Johnson on all this.

This matters. This is real people`s lives.

JASON JOHNSON, THE ROOT:  Right.

MELBER:  We cover a lot of these issues.

"The New York Times" put it -- this isn`t me. This isn`t you. Here`s how "The New York Times" described those faces we just saw on the front of "The Washington Post," these beneficiaries.

"Trump grants clemency to Blagojevich, Milken, Kerik, wiping clean the slates of rich, powerful, well-connected white men. And it came after years of sophisticated public relations campaigns aimed at persuading Mr. Trump."

JOHNSON:  Right.

These people wrote him from prison. These people had friends asking him questions. Many of these people were connected to the president financially. And it`s the general message that he has, which is this is a pay-to-play administration. If you kiss my butt, if you give me money, if you make me feel good about myself, if you praise me, if you come up with ridiculous names for yourself 15 minutes after you come out of prison, then I will do something for you.

And the scary part about this, again, it`s not just that it`s the destruction of how our justice system is supposed to operate. It is that everybody else out there who`s committing a crime right now knows, well, all I got to do, drop a couple coins in the bucket, and Donald Trump will take care of me.

Everybody out there right now who`s actually working on investigations to take down corrupt politicians is thinking, why am I going to do this work? This is like a bad `80s cop film where every single time you catch the bad guy, he`s got diplomatic immunity, he gets to run away.

That is what we`re facing right now. And William Barr was always in on this stuff. This humblebrag nonsense that we always hear from this administration, I can`t believe that Donald Trump is keeping me from doing my job, they always end up working with the president at the end of the day.

So no one should have believed that he was ever upset with what he was already in line with doing.

MELBER:  Yes.

And, Mary, I want to bring you in. And it was really a site seeing Governor Blagojevich out there today. It`s hard to imagine any other president making this choice. Mr. Blagojevich did serve as a Democrat, but was widely condemned by both parties on his way into prison.

And we showed last night a Republican leader in Illinois condemning the president`s use of pardon.

Mary, take a listen to how some of this adds up, because many have noted the overlap in the questions about abuse of power, which Donald Trump apparently wants to define deviancy down. Take a look at this comparison.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP:  Just so you know, the call was perfect. He`s been in jail for seven years over a phone call where nothing happens.

Perfect, I mean, perfect conversation.

I would think that there have been many politicians -- I`m not one of them, by the way, just in case -- but that have said a lot worse over telephones.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  Mary, the president has a unilateral power here in the pardon, commutation process.

But I`m wondering what you think of the message it sends. Are you concerned that these are self-interested, politicized pardons?

MARY MCCORD, FORMER ACTING U.S. ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL:  Well, they`re certainly self-interested.

And those comments you just played are particularly telling, because he was drawing a parallel, frankly, between himself and former Governor Blagojevich, and in a way that suggested -- again, it`s just a mouthpiece for Trump to say what happened to him was so wrong, was so corrupt, he was such a victim of a hoax. Look at how I`m helping out this other person that was also essentially the victim of a hoax.

And I feel like what I worry about is that this entire business between Trump and Barr and the appointment of different prosecutors to oversee the work of other prosecutors, the firing of people who testified or removal of people who testified in the impeachment hearings against him, the attacks on the judge, the attacks on a juror, that we`re all building up to is this -- what he and his attorney general would call a crackdown on corruption against him, as opposed to the corruption that exists out there.

MELBER:  Well, I mean, Jeffrey Toobin from "The New Yorker" and obviously a known legal comedy on television went so far as to say, this smacks of authoritarianism.

Does it concern you heading into a reelection where the president has beat Senate acquittal and is clearly on the warpath?

MCCORD:  Yes, it does, and because he`s shown ever since the acquittal and before that, but even more so since that, that he just feels himself above the law entirely, his declarations, I`m the chief law enforcement officer, et cetera.

Now, to be clear, it is not illegal for him to direct the attorney general, right? And I think you have said that before.

MELBER:  I have.

MCCORD:  But it has been well-understood and respected and part of internal DOJ policy and White House policy since Watergate to keep a separation to preserve that independence.

(CROSSTALK)

MELBER:  You`re reminding us of that, which is where some of the toughest stuff in the nature of federal power is not illegal.

Your work in national security, Mary, no one said it was a felony for the Bush administration to mislead the country into the war in Iraq. But many people said, if anyone -- and you can go through the list and decide who you believe, but if anyone, a Dick Cheney or a Paul Wolfowitz, or whomever, knowingly misled the country into war, right, that`s a terrible thing, potentially the kind of thing you don`t want someone in government doing that is worse than things that are felonies.

As we discussed in impeachment history, defacing a mailbox is a federal felony. Lying you into war may not be.

How do you, given your national security experience, look at that with -- we have talked about this, the president, on the Navy SEAL case, Bernard Kerik, who was already out of prison.

But the president seems to be sending a message. Every honest cop in New York, you don`t get a pat on the back, even though, as I have pointed out on this program, most officers are never accused of anything like what Mr. Kerik was convicted of.

But, boy, if you`re Giuliani`s friend and you`re Kerik, suddenly, it`s OK to be a corrupt police chief, Mary.

MCCORD:  Right.

Well, the message is loud and clear. And, also, I was a prosecutor in the D.C. U.S. attorney`s office for 20 years. So, before I even moved into the National Security Division. So the office where a lot of this is happening is an office where I spent most of my career.

And what`s so scary now is it appears that the president wants to use the Department of Justice to deliberately go after his enemies, right, and to get rid of any types of investigation into those who are his friends.

I mean, that is exactly putting yourself above the law. That`s what you said. That`s forget the work of investigators and prosecutors trying to pursue what they have reason to believe are criminal charges, because if -- once there`s a loss of faith and credibility in the department when it comes to anyone who has any political connections to the president, then you have really lost a lot of credibility going forward.

And that`s in front of judges in the courts and in the eyes of the American people. And that`s why I think what`s happening recently is so terribly damaging.

MELBER:  Yes, it`s really striking, and really helpful to have some experts on hand, Mary McCord, Gene Rossi, and Jason Johnson.

We are, of course, broadcasting on a big political night.

And coming up, I have a special report on money in this election, the hidden hand, and why buying support sometimes is fair game. Should it be? We`re going to get into all that, and later look at a cautionary tale in the resistance to Donald Trump.

Plus, what to expect from Mr. Michael Bloomberg`s first time out on this debate stage, in fact, his first time in over a decade.

All that and more as we prepare for the big MSNBC debate, Democrats squaring off. You can see a live shot right here in Nevada.

I`m Ari Melber. You`re watching THE BEAT on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MELBER:  Tonight`s presidential debate features the richest person to ever run for president in history, a development that voters can decide to view as a plus or a minus or even as irrelevant. It`s up to you.

But note the wider trend here. While a few billionaires have self-funded races before, like conservatives Ross Perot and Steve Forbes, Trump is the first person to sell-fund a primary and win. And the Democrats now have two billionaires running.

The reason for this broader -- is broader, really, I think, than any particular candidate, right? Apart from whether you like Steyer or Bloomberg or Perot or not, our democracy is literally now more expensive for candidates than it`s ever been.

Multimillion-dollar media buys are almost a requirement for getting close to the nomination. There`s more untraceable dark money. There`s new technology, which can be a platform for regular citizens, but is actually increasingly for sale.

Then you have courts cutting back laws that regulated campaign spending, which leaders in both parties have warned about.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  The shadow groups are already forming and building war chests of tens of millions of dollars to influence the fall elections.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA:  If they gave a million dollars, they could remain anonymous. Is that really what American politics are all about?

RUSS FEINGOLD (D), FORMER U.S. SENATOR:  It buys access.

When you started talking about $100,00, $500,000, million-dollar contributions, it was starting to cripple the political process.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  And that brings us to tonight`s special report, how money is shaping this race already, sometimes in subtle ways that can be hard to see, and why this goes beyond any single candidate, and is actually a deeper dilemma than even the entire cycle of 2020.

Now, what you`re about to see is all basically legal, the ways that campaigns can essentially buy votes without technically breaking any laws against buying votes.

Now, it begins with this little girl singing on the Internet, because every clip you`re about to see is actually from Internet content posted by people who`ve now been paid to support one of the Democrats running for president.

Let`s take a look and talk about it on the other side.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(SINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  No, no, no.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  Every one of those videos was posted by popular Instagram users or influencers who the Bloomberg campaign is now paying to post content that supports or advertises Bloomberg`s candidacy.

That girl who was lip-synching was singing from a song by the Canadian Drake from a lyric that actually applies to Mike Bloomberg`s approach. I got big stacks coming out the safe.

Yes, you do. But this isn`t a joke.

Daily Beast now reporting Bloomberg is paying these citizens to post about voting for him online, which is legal, while paying the same people to vote for him, of course, would not be legal. This report noting that, for a $150 fee, the campaign instructs people to post about why Bloomberg is the electable candidate who can rise above the fray.

And the campaign tells these freelancers to be honest, passionate, and be yourself, unless, of course, you don`t support Bloomberg yourself and you`re only doing it for 150 bucks.

Now, this could all be the next step in paid branding. The brand here is the candidate, and the accounts with the audiences in the millions here, some of them rivaling a radio or TV station, like GrapeJuiceBoys, they took the money and posted lighthearted content about a request to make Bloomberg look cool.

Another account, Tank.Sinatra, joked Bernie Sanders was asking again to make Bloomberg look cool, kind of an inside reference how often Sanders is again asking for donations.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  As the FEC fund- raising deadline for 2019 approaches, I am once again asking for your financial support.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  Sanders and Bloomberg may be two of the oldest candidates running, but younger people are engaging these themes online.

There`s a joke meme about college students pulling a Bernie-style move by once again asking for their parents` financial support.

These jokes tee off something that many Democrats take seriously right now, searching for the candidate who can run against Trump and deploy the financial firepower to compete.

Now, for Sanders` supporters, it`s all about the grassroots fund-raising, which does lead the field, and Sanders` folks argue it reflects hit the broader enthusiastic movement he`s building. The notion of a grassroots organizer rounding up small donations, something Barack Obama also touted.

Other Democrats are eying Bloomberg. And they say they liked the idea that he already has the money to compete. So there`s a contrast.

The point here is not to fixate on technology. There are plenty of questions about old-school pay-for-play politics offline too for several of the candidates.

Take this primary going into South Carolina. Sanders touting seven new endorsements from South Carolina lawmakers. Billionaire Tom Steyer announcing the support of a lawmaker who heads the state`s legislative Black Caucus.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  As we have in our midst this afternoon, the next president of the United States of America!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  When I first met the senator, one thing I realized, he had a heart full of grace.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I`m very excited about the candidate that I have chosen to support for president of the United States in terms of Tom Steyer. I like what he`s doing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  Now, both presidential candidates were featuring those as genuine endorsements, but there are they also involved paid politicking, according to "The New York Times," which reported Sanders` campaign paid $150,000 to two of the lawmakers, Wendell Gilliard and Terry Alexander, through their consulting companies.

Steyer`s campaign sent $40,000 to Representative Jerry Govan. And unlike some of those Internet ads I just showed you, which admit they are sponcon, or sponsored content, which is a requirement under federal rules, some of these campaign payments don`t have disclosures in real time for voters to even see.

I think it tells you something about how lax campaign finance laws are now that they are basically seeing more transparency rules for selling Flat Tummy Tea on Instagram than the rules for getting to the White House.

Now, on cue, as these campaigns like Bloomberg plow millions into Facebook, you see the rise right there, Facebook itself is diluting its transparency rules more. They say they will now let candidates deploy these sponsored posts, which they call working with creators to run content. And Facebook will let the campaigns hide the ball. They don`t have to verify identity or disclose how much they spend.

As for those offline payments, I should note journalists still report on all of this. Campaigns like Steyer`s emphasize that all of this stuff is technically legal, which is true.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  The Govan Agency was paid for community building services. The Steyer campaign said Govan is a senior adviser to the campaign and his salary is consistent with other team members in South Carolina.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The statement filed by the Steyer campaign simply stating that they paid a corporation owned by Jerry Govan $45,000. This payment is not illegal, nor unethical.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  And it is legal.

And I want to be very clear. We`re talking about the whole issue. The whole set of practices here are broader than any state, broader than Steyer or Bloomberg or Sanders.

In the run-up to the 2008 South Carolina primary, the Clinton campaign was spending $10,000 a month in a fee to a South Carolina lawmaker, which led to questions about the arrangement, Clinton defending the move, saying Senator Jackson was someone that they turned to for advice and counsel and they were proud to have him.

There are many problems with this legal pay-to-play politics in a lot of places. And the public examples in South Carolina are so common, they have actually become something of a political punchline, which even the show "Veep" got in on.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS, ACTRESS:  Stealing South Carolina is the bedrock of our political system. If you can`t figure out how to steal South Carolina, you have no business being president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  That`s a fictional comedy. Back here in the real world, this gusher of money is not about stealing something illegally. It`s increasingly about buying something legally, buying ads, buying the appearance of support, buying endorsements.

And if you buy enough things surrounding the votes, we have to ask a big question for democracy. And it`s not about any particular party or state. It`s, at what point are they basically, essentially buying the votes too?

We`re going to dig into these tougher questions and the clash in tonight`s debate with two very special guests when we`re back in 30 seconds.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MELBER:  We are back.

And you are looking at live pictures of the hall where these Democrats will step on the stage tonight joined by Mike Bloomberg for the first time. It is, of course, the NBC News/MSNBC debate in Nevada.

And a lot of eyes will be on it.

As mentioned, I am joined now by Jelani Cobb from "The New Yorker," and Errin Haines from The 19th, a political Web site.

Thanks to both of you for being here.

ERRIN HAINES, EDITOR AT LARGE, THE 19TH:  Thanks for having me.

JELANI COBB, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Thank you.

HAINES:  Super interesting stuff there.

MELBER:  Well, Jelani, Errin, I want both of your views on the way money is playing an even bigger role online and off.

COBB:  Sure.

I mean, this has metastasized, I think. Going each election cycle, you see this getting more and more involved. But there are a couple of downsides to this I think that people aren`t necessarily thinking about, that, if you are trying to get Instagram influencers or social media influencers to do things that make your campaign look cool, there`s not a one-to-one ratio between effort and result.

Like, everyone has done something on social media that craters and, oh, maybe I should not have tweeted that, maybe this wasn`t taken the way it was meant to be. And so it`s only a matter of time before someone has to explain something really indelicate that they have actually paid for.

MELBER:  Is it bad for democracy at this really grassroots level, 150 bucks here or there, that people are being paid not literally for their vote, but just to tell their friends, this is who they support?

HAINES:  Well, I was going to say, I think it`s a strategy, right?

I mean, I think that what we`re seeing, this election is largely being fought online. And I think that that`s been increasingly the case since I would say 2008. Bernie Sanders is actually pretty good at this. I mean, make fun of him if you want, but he`s been laughing all the way to the bank with his online pleas to his supporters, who have been giving him that grassroots support; $25 million alone in January says that his strategy may -- while it may look awkward, and while he`s maybe not necessarily paying influencers online, is something that`s paying off for him.

(CROSSTALK)

MELBER:  Let me press down on that, though.

There`s a big difference, many argue, between people supporting him in small increments and candidates, as we just showed, paying whoever, influencers, elected officials.

(CROSSTALK)

MELBER:  I mean, I think people, a lot of people, would wonder, if you`re a public official paid by the state government of any state, why should you also be taking money from a federal official who wants to be president?

HAINES:  Well, I mean, I think that people are trying different things with online strategies.

And like you said, I mean, it is legal. And that is not necessarily translating into votes for these candidates. I mean, voters are discerning. Young people are seeing them, saying, oh, that`s cool. And maybe I will give it a like, but that doesn`t necessarily mean that I`m going to give it a like at the ballot box.

COBB:  So, I think to Errin`s point, like, one, to answer your question, yes, it`s bad.

I think it`s an iteration of something that`s been bad for a long time. If you think about it, and we`re talking about not South Carolina, but lots of places where they refer to -- quote -- "walking around money," which is what you put out right before the election to make sure that people make it to the polls.

How that translates into people voting for you or how they get to the polls, that`s a whole other thing. It`s kind of like not wanting to know how the sausage is made.

And so there`s that. The other thing I think that`s significant to remember is that, in 2008, Hillary Clinton lost South Carolina. They spread lots of money around. And Anton Gunn, who was running the state program for Barack Obama then, did an end-run around all the elected officials.

They basically created an alternate system of getting votes, and they were entirely successful in doing that. So even though I think that it`s bad, generally speaking, I don`t think that it`s a guarantee that all these things wind up working the way that candidates may think that they will.

MELBER:  Well, and that goes to the question of where the free press meets the paid press.

Full disclosure, we have got three journalists here discussing this, right? If you talk to the campaigns, and I showed some of their defenses, they have their view of it. As journalists, we often believe, well, as long as all the facts get out there, people can make up their own minds.

And so, with Bloomberg, it`s especially interesting. He`s going to be on this debate stage tonight for the first time. He is trying to pay for what Donald Trump and, to your point earlier, perhaps Bernie Sanders were getting organically.

And the question is whether over the long run that is going to work or potentially backfire.

Take a look at Donald Trump touting social media in the White House, which did get him, and to put it in Bloomberg media terms, high return on investment.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP:  Some of you are extraordinary. The crap you think of is unbelievable.

(LAUGHTER)

TRUMP:  I asked somebody, what do you think I`d do without social media? Would I be here? Because I said, I think so. But they weren`t so sure.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  Errin, are Democrats better off saying, well, we will beat him at his own game with our own organic, excited army, or, no, if you can have a mercenary army, same diff?

HAINES:  Well, I mean, I think it is kind of a situation, unfortunately, of, don`t hate the player, hate the game, right? Like, they have to get in on this.

He is definitely beating them at this game. And Democrats need to figure out how they are also going to harness social media to get voters excited and engaged in this election.

(CROSSTALK)

MELBER:  What if the player is a hater?

(LAUGHTER)

COBB:  That`s not a question.

I mean, we have established that the player is a hater. We established that in November of 2015, when he announced his candidacy.

But the other thing I want to say just quickly about Bloomberg is that there are these kinds of things that are kind of paid, they`re not being really disclosed. It`s kind of cloaking, and almost -- I don`t think it`s too much to say that it`s deceptive to people who are on the other side of this.

HAINES:  Right.

COBB:  The other thing that I think is very much out in the open, but has a kind of hazy connection to things, is that even when Bloomberg was mayor, he had this really influential network with other mayors nationally, and certainly through his philanthropic ventures, he has put a lot of money and a lot of places, very well spent for important causes.

The Trace, which is an outlet that covers gun violence -- and I`m on the board for The Trace -- and that`s created in connection with Michael Bloomberg.

And so I think that in interest of full disclosure. But I think that it`s also important to say, that is not unrelated to the ways in which people have rolled out.

If you have seen in the last three days that battalion of people who`ve come out to kind of minimize stop and frisk, we`d be naive to think that this unconnected to the causes...

MELBER:  To the money.

HAINES:  ... that Bloomberg is supporting.

MELBER:  Right.

And buying up so much of the of the civil society and the nonprofit and public discussion, it`s so important you mentioned that.

Errin, I`d be remiss given your remarks earlier to not say that what wasn`t it Drake who said the game is sold separately?

(LAUGHTER)

HAINES:  Well, I think what Bloomberg...

(CROSSTALK)

MELBER:  No, I`m sorry. I`m sorry.

HAINES:  No, it`s totally fine.

MELBER:  It`s my bad.

HAINES:  We appreciate these references, as always, Ari.

But, I mean, like, Mike Bloomberg is really out here saying to Trump and the rest of this field, in the words of Lil Wayne, who I`m sure you can appreciate, what is a goon to a goblin, right?

I mean, like he really is using his money to drive a narrative in a way that...

MELBER:  Well, I didn`t know you were going to go there. But wasn`t it Jay Z who said, what`s a God to a king?

COBB:  I`m sorry. If this is going to devolve into freestyle rap...

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

HAINES:  We`re not going to do that.

MELBER:  No? You know why? You know why? Because I blame myself. You`re new to the program. We met you on the trail in New Hampshire. So you`re new.

But Jelani won`t do it. So it`s me and you without Jelani. So you`re going to be that backstop.

(CROSSTALK)

COBB:  I know.

HAINES:  He`s going to curb us.

(CROSSTALK)

MELBER:  I have got to get in a break, because we`re going into the debate. I`m shaking your hand because you`re open to it.

Thank you both. A really important discussion. We`re going to stay on it, Jelani Cobb, Errin Haines.

Again, tonight`s debate, do not miss it, 9:00 p.m. Eastern on MSNBC, plus the preshow.

When we come back, I have a very special guest on progressives` hunger for who can actually beat Trump at his own game. We`re going to show you something you may not have seen.

And then more on digging into the crates for what to expect and preview in tonight`s debate. That`s later on in the show.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MELBER:  This crisis at the Trump Justice Department putting the spotlight back on many convicted felons who work for Trump, from Roger Stone, famously arrested right there in the Mueller probe, to convicted Trump aides Michael Flynn allegedly getting softer treatment from Barr`s DOJ, like Stone and former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, currently incarcerated.

Cohen pled guilty to campaign violations from payments he arranged for Stormy Daniels on Trump`s behalf, a problem that drew far more attention when Daniels got a pugnacious new lawyer, Michael Avenatti, who baited Cohen and his claim Trump in a string of press conferences, articles, TV appearances, and earned a following among some in the Trump resistance.

Allegations, though, did pile up against him ranging from domestic violence and fraud to stealing money and hiding it from authorities.

Now, not all of those allegations have been resolved in court, but Avenatti was just convicted of a plot to extort Nike, a case brought by the same prosecutor`s office that indicted his former foe Michael Cohen.

Avenatti was jailed in New York in solitary confinement during this trial. He now faces up to potentially 20 years in prison.

All of this raising the prospect that he and Cohen, two TV lawyers who clashed over a Donald Trump case, will both be incarcerated as a liberated Trump campaigns for reelection, raising larger questions about the politics and law at play in Trump`s America.

And here is how fast Avenatti rose and fell.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  With the new lawsuit centering on a mysterious hundred $30,000 payment, Daniel`s lawyer says it`s hush money.

MICHAEL AVENATTI, FORMER ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS:  Michael Cohen was sentenced today. Donald Trump is next. Michael Cohen is neither a hero nor a patriot. He lied for months on end about his criminal conduct.

BILL MAHER, HOST, "REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER":  He`s not only the attorney who represents Stormy Daniels. He`s Donald Trump`s worst nightmare, Michael Avenatti.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

AVENATTI:  I`m here to listen to the great people of Iowa and explore the fair and figure out if it makes any sense to run for the presidency or not.

QUESTION:  Are you seriously looking to run for president of the United States?

AVENATTI:  I am. If I wasn`t serious, I wouldn`t be here.

What, you may be asking, is a porn star lawyer doing here tonight? What I fear for this Democratic Party that I love so much is that we have a tendency to bring nail clippers to a gunfight. When they go low, I say we hit harder.

STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT":  You may remember Avenatti as the man who used to represent Stormy Daniels in her suit against the president using the cunning legal strategy of spending 24 hours a day on cable news talking about himself.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  He`s been arrested and charged with a number of crimes, including trying to extort more than $20 million from Nike.

AVENATTI:  I am highly confident that when all of the evidence is laid bare that I will be fully exonerated.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Michael Avenatti has been found guilty on all counts in the case involving Nike and Avenatti`s extortion of the sports gear giant.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  Quite a story.

Joining me now, reality TV guru and innovator Michael Hirschorn. He actually created the concept of celebrity reality TV at VH-1, hits like "Flavor of Love," "Love the `80s," and, of course, "Celebrity Rehab." Hi-o.

He`s now president and CEO Ish Entertainment, also writes analysis for the magazine "The Atlantic."

We thought of you for this conversation because this seems, even beyond its details, like a very Trump era story, but also a story of grifting on a political movement.

MICHAEL HIRSCHORN, PRESIDENT AND CEO, ISH ENTERTAINMENT:  Right.

And I think what he tapped into was this feeling -- I spend a lot of time in resistance circles -- that we need our own savior, we need our own grifter. So he was the -- he was for a minute seriously thought of as the only guy who could really beat Trump at his own game.

And he had a fantastic jaw line. That`s the most important thing.

MELBER:  And that`s does that as a political matter reveal a blind spot?

HIRSCHORN:  Yes, I think resistance folks have a really complicated reality -- relationship with politics and are fundamentally anti-politics.

And if you look at the Sanders movement, it`s really all about purity and being precisely clear and righteous about the cause that you are in favor of. Ditto for, I think, large aspects of the woke community.

And I think Avenatti represents a very different path that we could have taken. And I think there`s some desire still to take that path, and I think that`s what explains Bloomberg.

MELBER:  Are you open to speaking about the meta-politics of television while on television? Is that something you could do with me?

(LAUGHTER)

HIRSCHORN:  I live for that. I woke up like this.

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

MELBER:  Let me read "The New York Times" on this very point, because they point out: "Inside Donald Trump`s hour-for-hour battle for self- preservation, he does see the world as a TV show. He makes others live that way. Trump telling aides think of each presidential day as an episode in a TV show where he vanquishes rivals," something you know a lot about.

Do Democrats have to play on that level? And we`re speaking here on a night where a media billionaire, who`s certainly good at media, if nothing else, is about to take the Democratic stage. And Mr. Avenatti represented a pugnacious version of that.

Is the view here that Democrats politically have to do that first and win TV before they ever get back to a different form of discourse?

HIRSCHORN:  Well, I think that`s the question that we`re only going to know the answer to in June and July and maybe in November.

One thing is true, which is that we don`t really know how to play that game, right? The thing that Avenatti did, when you sort of dissect his method, was attack, never defend, imply that you know things that you may not know, represent a certainty that you may not believe in, and constantly play kind of meta-narratives, constantly play the game that something amazing is about to come out.

MELBER:  Something amazing.

HIRSCHORN:  Stay tuned.

MELBER:  Oh, the precipitating thing is about to happen.

We have a little video here that went viral from his critics, but is real, which shows Michael Avenatti here at one of his famed press conferences, but when it wasn`t working as well, and you see. You will see he`s talking, it looks like a press conference, but as the video continues to play, you will notice with a wider camera, he`s speaking to an empty room.

HIRSCHORN:  That was amazing.

(CROSSTALK)

HIRSCHORN:  Yes.

No, I mean, it`s -- I think he was too smart for his own good. He understood how media is played now, but he wasn`t able to combine it with anything beyond his own self-interest. And so I think ultimately he played himself.

MELBER:  And you say too smart for his own good. According to the jury, also too criminal for his own good.

HIRSCHORN:  Well, criminal now is like incidental, right?

I mean, criminal just sort of makes you interesting. Without any criminality, you`re not even like playing the game these days.

MELBER:  Spoken like a recovering reality TV show producer who also writes for "The Atlantic."

Michael Hirschorn, you bring a lot of insight to this, as well as experience. Thank you very much. We wanted to really look at that.

Up ahead, we have a special preview of tonight`s debate, including some classics of Michael Bloomberg that may show you where he`s headed tonight. Big stakes.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MELBER:  We`re looking at more live pictures of a room that will fill up tonight for this big Democratic debate.

Michael Bloomberg will be returning the debate stage, not only for his first time in this cycle, but his first time in a decade, and facing rivals who obviously have a lot more debate experience, including recently.

"The New York Times" noting Bloomberg will be out there without much of a safety net, without his war chest, without the campaign operation we have been covering.

But we have gone back at the archives to look at how Bloomberg did in his earliest debates ever when he was transitioning from businessman to pol. Here he was in 2001.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION:  Mr. Bloomberg, you have admitted in the past that you switched to the Republican Party because you wanted to run for mayor and also because the Democratic field was pretty crowded when the race began. Is this being a political opportunist?

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Well, I was a Democrat up until about a year ago. It was obvious that I could not run for mayor in the Democratic Party when there were four candidates who`d spent their lifetime working in the Democratic Party.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  Bloomberg advocates may point to lines like that in his history for consistency to basically say, he was a Democrat, he`s always approached ballots pragmatically.

Meanwhile, the attacks leveled against Bloomberg, of course, have come up previously.

Here was a debate moderator pressing him on campaign spending, all this money talk. This was back in 2005.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION:  Four years ago, you warned against obscene spending. And how did you define obscene spending then? And how do you define it now?

BLOOMBERG:  Look, Dave, what I`m trying to do is to get my message out to everybody, every community, every single person, regardless of where they live.

I`m doing it by buying time on television and radio and in print.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER:  Bloomberg, no stranger to standing up and making the case that he will spend his own money to make his case.

And, remember, for all the people taking shots at Mr. Bloomberg, he certainly is looking like a bigger force in the Democratic primary. He will tonight likely lean on some of his other high-profile public appearances, including the last time he was in a setting like tonight, a big national Democratic gathering.

Of course, we`re discussing the 2016 DNC, when Mr. Bloomberg used his firepower then to go after Donald Trump.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLOOMBERG:  Trump says he wants to run the nation like he`s running his business? God help us.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MELBER:  It is quite a night as we ramp up for this debate.

I did want to tell you, on THE BEAT, we will be following a bunch of news tomorrow. A federal judge will rule on the sentencing of Trump associate Roger Stone, of course, the case sparking crisis at the DOJ. That is the judge Donald Trump`s been publicly attacking.

And we are also still on verdict watch in the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault and rape case. The jury has now wrapped up its second day of arguments.

And then lots of reaction to what we expect in 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," which starts now.

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