Trump visits Ohio to tout economy. TRANSCRIPT: 3/20/19, The Last Word w/ Lawrence O'Donnell.

Guests: David Leonhardt, Neal Katyal, Julian Castro, Bill Buzbee

ALI VELSHI, MSNBC HOST:  They don`t just get upset about it.  Do you remember when this was a week long scandal when Barack Obama wore a tan suit?  Remember the days when that was a scandal?

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST:  Well, the thing is that because of that, because we have all lived through that, you can`t help but think any time somebody wears a tan suit -- 

VELSHI:  Right.

MADDOW:  -- that it is a signal. 

VELSHI:  They are just looking for trouble. 

MADDOW:  Yes.

VELSHI:  Rachel, have yourself a great evening.  Thank you.

MADDOW:  Thanks, Ali.

VELSHI:  All right.  I`m Ali Velshi, in for Lawrence O`Donnell.

Tonight, as we await the Mueller report, one of the people who wrote the rules for special counsel, Neal Katyal, will join me to discuss why those rules exist and why Donald Trump, as hard as he tries, can`t talk or squirm his way out of the man. 

We have a Democratic presidential candidate tonight.  I`ll talk policy and politics with former HUD secretary and mayor of San Antonio, Julian Castro. 

Plus, a look at why so many of President Trump`s policies are going down to defeat in the nation`s courts. 

But we begin tonight with an increasingly unfocused president picking fights while failing to keep his promises.  We saw that in Ohio today. 

The president flew in to Ohio for what was in many ways an unofficial 2020 campaign event.  The president, of course, won Ohio after promising to bring back manufacturing jobs. 

Today, he spoke at the country`s last factory that makes tanks for the Army in Lima, Ohio.  The factory had been on the decline, but it is now growing as a result of the Trump`s administration increase in the military budget. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Well, you better love me.  I kept that place open.  That I can tell you.

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

They said we`re closing it.  And I said, no, we`re not. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  But it only took a few minutes for the president to go off the rails and distract from his own message by launching an unprompted attack on a deceased war hero. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP:  They ask me about a man named John McCain, and if you want me to tell you about it.  Should I or not? 

So, I have to be honest, I have never liked him much.  Hasn`t been for me.  I`ve really probably never will. 

I gave him the kind of funeral that he wanted, which as president I had to approve.  I don`t care about this.  I didn`t get thank you.  That`s OK.  We sent him on the way, but I wasn`t a fan of John McCain. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  I didn`t get thank you, but that`s OK. 

The president dedicated almost five minutes of his speech to attacking John McCain.  It was the president`s feuds that seemed to be on his mind the most today, not his economic promises.  He did manage to squeak out a few lines about the economy. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP:  It is all about manufacturing, and we`re bringing it back in record numbers.  We made some progress.  That`s why you see these numbers. 

Look at that chart.  Look at it.  You don`t have to know what`s on it.  What difference. 

You don`t have to know what the hell is on it.  All you know is that`s a good line. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  Wow.  I`d like to know what that`s about because we`re not bringing manufacturing back in record numbers.  Manufacturing jobs have increased slightly, not necessarily due to Trump`s policies but voters in Ohio may not be feeling like the president kept his promise. 

A poll from "Morning Consul" shows that Donald Trump`s net approval rating in Ohio has fallen by 19 points since he took office in January 2017.  That might be due to the fact that some manufacturing jobs are still leaving Ohio.  In Lordstown, just 200 miles away from where the president spoke, a General Motors plant is shutting down this month, leaving about 1,600 workers without jobs and the future of the plant uncertain.

G.M. CEO cited the Trump tariffs which cost the company about a billion dollars as a reason for the closure.  The president seemed to recognize that closing as a threat to his core support.  He spent the week tweeting demands for the plant to reopen.  Today, he said this about why he wanted that plant to reopen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP:  Get the discussions going.  Get it open.  Lordstown is a great area.  I guess I like it because I won so big there. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  Meanwhile in Washington, the Federal Reserve chairman gave an economic forecast that was less optimistic than what the president was saying and what the White House said yesterday. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEROME POWELL, FEDERAL RESERVE CHAIRMAN:  Data since September suggests that growth is slowing somewhat more than expected.  Financial conditions tightened considerably over the fourth quarter.  While conditions have eased since then, they remain less supportive of growth than during most of 2018. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  But the president`s focus seemed elsewhere.  Donald Trump began his way with a tweet attacking George Conway, the husband of his adviser Kellyanne Conway, and he kept that up when he said this about George Conway to reporters. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP:  He is a whack job, there is no question about it.  But I really don`t know him.  He -- I think he`s doing a tremendous disservice to a wonderful wife.  Kellyanne is a wonderful woman.  And I call him Mr. Kellyanne.  The fact is that he`s doing a tremendous disservice to a wife and family. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  All right.  Joining us now, John Harwood, the editor at large for CNBC.  And David Leonhardt, an op-ed columnist for "The New York Times".

John, I have to -- I don`t know what Donald Trump gets from attacking John McCain.  It`s mysterious.  He`s been going at this for a few days.  It`s unprompted. 

Today, it was entirely unprompted.  He likes to start with today they asked me about John McCain, but in fact, today, nobody asked him about John McCain. 

JOHN HARWOOD, EDITOR-AT-LARGE, CNBC:  Ali, everything the president was saying in the clips that you showed underscored the point that George Conway, Kellyanne Conway`s husband has been making the last couple of days, that this is a president who`s completely absorbed within himself.  You saw him say, you better love me, I saved these jobs here.  Maybe I like this area because they voted for me so much. 

It was not about others.  It was about him. 

The same is true of his obsession with John McCain, who he is fixated on for having voted against the repeal of Obamacare and maybe other things.  Maybe John McCain`s heroism in Vietnam, who knows?  But it is a bizarre fixation for the president at a time that even though the economy is slowing, as Jay Powell indicated and it is not posed to deliver the kind of growth the White House says it will, it still is growing. 

Among all the things the president could be talking about, that would probably be the most constructive for him. 

VELSHI:  You know, David, earlier today, that stakeout before the president got on the helicopter to leave for Ohio, he made another comment, and he was talking about the Mueller investigation, in which he said I don`t get it and my voters don`t get it. 

So, more than two years in, the president seems concerned with himself, his base and his voters, not the country. 

DAVID LEONHARDT, OP-ED COLUMNIST, THE NEW YORK TIMES:  Yes.  That`s right.  And, I mean, at this point, what`s so difficult with all these statements is there is no reason to believe anything he says, right?  So he says let`s release the Mueller report.  Let people see it. 

But there is no reason -- he is sufficiently disconnected from reality that he basically says whatever he thinks will be best for him in the moment.  And this creates a big challenge for journalists because he`s the president of the United States.  And I know some people say just ignore him and ignore his tweets, but he is the president of the United States.  It`s not so easy to ignore him. 

And yet, it`s also not clear that what he`s saying has any particular meaning.  As John was saying, it is just this continual need to talk about himself all the time. 

And, look, I`m a New Yorker.  I grew up in New York in the 1980s.  Donald Trump was a tabloid character back then.  He is unchanged.  This is the way he was back then.  The problem is now he`s the president of the United States. 

VELSHI:  John, what does it mean to you?  The president on a 50 tweet tirade this weekend, 30 tweets since the weekend.  You make an interesting point. 

The president -- it may not have been the strongest economy around, but it`s strong enough that he could be touting it.  Wages are up.  GDP is up.  They put out a big report today.

Why does he so easily get distracted from something that was so central to his campaign?  The folks in rural Ohio might have voted for him because of the fact that he was promising to bring back jobs and to increase manufacturing output.  Why does he not stick on that message?  What`s on his mind that he`s getting so off focus this week? 

HARWOOD:  Ali, I don`t think he can help it.  The president -- first of all, the president is under a lot of pressure.  The Mueller investigation is closing in.  That`s one of his obsessions for very good reason.  You`ve got the special counsel investigation, the Southern District of New York, the attorney general of the state of New York, the Manhattan district attorney all honing in on him, his businesses, his foundation, his transition, his family, his campaign aides. 

So, that is a tremendous source of pressure.  He`s had political setbacks.  The Democrats have taken control of the House.  They left him naked in that government shutdown and having to capitulate to Nancy Pelosi on his wall. 

That`s not happening.  He`s not getting the money to build this wall that he promised voters he was going to.  He`s launched this trade war with China that has damaged the U.S. economy as well as China`s economy.  Now, he seems very eager to get a deal, but it`s not clear that that deal is going to be anything that changes the growth path of the U.S. economy. 

So he`s coming up short in a lot of areas, and I think that is a source of stress for him on top of the legal problems. 

VELSHI:  And that`s interesting, David, because the fact is the effect of the trade war may be long-term damaging to U.S. growth.  So if the president does get a deal -- and today, waiting for the Fed to say that they weren`t raising interest rating, the market went up for about an hour and then went back down because people are worried that this ongoing trade war and this particular war with China doesn`t look like it is coming to an end any time soon. 

LEONHARDT:  That`s right.  And that is a risk for the economy. 

I think the bigger problem, it`s very easy for us to focus on the immediate numbers and the trade war and this plant in Ohio.  To some extent, I think the larger problem is the economy is not that strong.  Yes, wages have grown a little bit over the last couple of years, and unemployment is low, but wage growth has been weak for most workers.  And that`s part of why people are so dissatisfied out in the country. 

It`s been a main trend now in the economy for most workers, for most of the last 40 years, and particularly since 2000.  So, it is difficult for Trump to try to persuade people that the economy is great when it`s just pretty good for most people.  It`s really good if you own a lot of stock.  But for most people, it is sort of pretty good. 

And as you played in the clip from Jay Powell, the Fed chair, it looks like it is now getting weaker.  And so, I think there are all kinds of economic risks out there, even if it is impossible to know what route the economy is going to take.  It`s just not that strong already.

VELSHI:  I`m a little puzzled.  Donald Trump held up a chart like this.  I have no idea what he held up in Ohio.  He said, you don`t need to know what it is.  It is a good line.  It is a good number. 

I don`t know what he`s talking about.  Did you know what that was? 

LEONHARDT:  No, I mean, obviously.  You could find numbers out there that look like good numbers, right? 

VELSHI:  Of anything.  You can make a chart of anything.  There was no labels, no words, no numbers, charts and the line. 

LEONHARDT:  It was just sort of classic Trump.  It was like here is a scoreboard.  I`m going to say it`s great.  I`m going to say it`s big and beautiful and you just take my word for it. 

HARWOOD:  You couldn`t, guys, have a starker contrast than the White House coming out with a budget early this week, and Kevin Hassett, the chief economist in the White House, said the economic growth in 2019 was going to be even higher than it was in 2018.  It would be 3.2 percent. 

Jay Powell said exactly the opposite today. 

VELSHI:  Yes.

HARWOOD:  He said 2.1 percent growth, the second Fed downgrade in growth projections in the last couple of months.  There is a very big difference in outcomes between those two forecasts where now late in the first quarter, that`s expected to be below 2 percent growth, that is another source of pressure on the president. 

If he loses what even on its face is a good economy, even if David says for many workers it`s not a big increase in their living standards, that is the most significant prop underneath the support he has. 

VELSHI:  Hey, David, what do you think is going on with this Kellyanne Conway, George Conway, Donald Trump thing?  Kellyanne Conway did speak to "Politico" today, in which she said -- she seemed to be taking Donald Trump`s side.

She said he left it alone for months, talking about Donald Trump, out of respect for me, Conway, senior Trump aide, told "Politico" in a brief telephone interview.  But you think he shouldn`t respond when somebody, a nonmedical professional accuses him of having a mental disorder?  You think he should just take that sitting down?

What do you make of this?

LEONHARDT:  Well, I mean, I guess, look, I`m not -- I don`t have a habit of defending President Trump.  I have written I think he is unfit for office, and he is.

I will say that this is actually -- if we had any president, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, had a senior adviser in the White House whose spouse was basically out there saying all kinds of things about how terrible the president was, it would be a little bit weird for that president, too.  And so, I have to say of all the things that I object to with Trump, the idea that he finally responded to one of his senior aide`s husband just constantly attacking him, if anything, he showed bizarre restraint for Donald Trump in this case. 

VELSHI:  This thing gets --

HARWOOD:  Weird you guys is old enough to know, but we`ve seen it before.  Martha Mitchell, the wife of the Attorney General John Mitchell for Richard Nixon, was sounding the alarm during Watergate.  A lot of people dismissed her as kind of a kook and she turned out to be raising some significant points. 

VELSHI:  All right.  Thanks, guys.  I appreciate it.  Good to see you both, John Harwood and David Leonhardt.

LEONHARDT:  Thanks.

VELSHI:  Coming up, President Trump expressed confusion today that Robert Mueller would be able to issue a report even though President Trump won the presidential election.  That probably sounds confusing to you.  That`s because it actually is. 

The Trump administration is also not cooperating with congressional investigators.  Former Justice Department official Neal Katyal joins me next.

And reports of disarray in executive agencies from the Department of Housing to the FAA.  Former HUD secretary and presidential candidate Julian Castro will explain how to combat the reported presidential negligence of the government. 

And in tonight`s LAST WORD, two major barriers broken by a candidate in the Democratic primary race for president.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI:  President Trump`s continued attacks on George Conway and the late John McCain seem to be the shiny objects he`d like us to focus on instead of the looming release of Robert Mueller`s report of his Russia investigation.  Today, the president again tried to challenge Mueller`s appointment nearly two years into the investigation. 

Now, some of what you are about to hear from the president simply isn`t true and much of it simply doesn`t make sense. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP:  I just won one of the greatest elections of all time in the history of this country, and even you will admit that and now I have somebody writing a report that never got a vote?  Tens of millions of voters and now somebody is going to write a report who never got a vote.  The man out of the blue just writes a report. 

I got 306 electoral votes.  It`s sort of an amazing thing that when you have a great victory, somebody comes in, does a report out of nowhere? 

Tell me how that makes sense, who never got a vote, who the day before, he was retained to become special counsel, I told him he wouldn`t be working at the FBI, and then the following day they get him for that?  I don`t think so.  I don`t think people get it. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  All right.  So the president has a problem with unelected officials investigating him.  But apparently, he also doesn`t care for congressional committees that have a constitutional duty to conduct oversight investigating him either. 

Congressman Elijah Cummings, chair of the House Oversight Committee, says, quote: The White House has refused to hand over any documents or produce any witnesses for interviews, despite numerous requests.  Chairman Cummings says that this refusal, quote, reflects a decision at the highest levels to deny congressional oversight altogether. 

President Trump also welcomed the release of the Mueller report.  He welcomed it, despite the possibility it might further implicate members of Trump world. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPORTER:  Does the American public have a right to see the Mueller report?

TRUMP:  I don`t mind.  I mean, frankly, I told the House, if you want, let them see it.  Let it come out.  Let people see it. 

That`s up to the attorney general.  We have a very good attorney general.  He`s a highly respected man and we`ll see what happens. 

But it is interesting that a man out of the blue just writes a report. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  Out of the blue, sort of interesting indeed.  Or would it be if -- it would be interesting if a man just came out of the blue to write a report. 

However, more importantly, "The Washington Post" notes it is the first time that Trump has said that he would be okay with making the Mueller report public.  And in doing so, he might have nixed a major argument against its release. 

Quote: Justice Department guidelines prohibit revealing information about people who are not being indicted and that is obtained by a grand jury.  But the reason that information generally is not released is to protect the people involved.  And the most high ranking person involved, Trump, just gave it the green light.  Other figures who have not been indicted may still object to details of their conduct being aired publically, but it seems Trump has authorized the disclosure of detail about his own conduct. 

Joining us now, Neal Katyal, former acting solicitor attorney general in the Obama administration.  Neal wrote the special counsel regulations under which Robert Mueller was appointed, which makes me wonder, Neal, where he said he has just won the greatest election of all time in the history of this country, 306 electoral votes. 

So how could a guy just come out of the blue and investigate him? 

NEAL KATYAL, FORMER ACTING U.S. SOLICITOR GENERAL:  Yes.  So, Trump lies about things that are both big and small.  On the small, it`s not just that he didn`t win the greatest election in history, 306 electoral votes?  He didn`t even won 306.  He won 304.  So, he can`t even get the smallest details right. 

And then the big ones, the idea that Mueller is just some dude on the street who writes a report, Mueller was appointed by Trump`s own guy, Rod Rosenstein.  He was put into the job by Donald Trump. 

So the idea that it`s some man off the street or something like that, of course not.  And then the most corrosive thing, the idea the president says nobody voted for Mueller and millions of people voted for me. 

VELSHI:  Right. 

KATYAL:  I mean, there is nothing more corrosive and anti-democratic and a fundamental betrayal for Anglo American heritage, legal heritage for 500 years.  I mean, the idea is that no person is above the law.  Just because you were elected, that doesn`t put you above the law. 

And, by the way, it is an argument he should fear because it turns out there are some people who are elected.  They are called members of Congress, and they are now going to get into this investigation big-time.  I don`t think the president will be very happy about those elected officials and what they`re about to investigate. 

VELSHI:  One of those people is Elijah Cummings, who said President Trump`s actions violate our constitutional fundamental principal of checks and balances.  If our committee must resort to issuing subpoenas, there should be no doubt about why. 

This has nothing to do with presidential harassment and everything to do with unprecedented obstruction. 

But I wonder, Neal, from listening to the president today whether this is a game in which he believes his base or his supporters will play or whether he has a fundamental misunderstanding of the fact that because he won an election, it doesn`t prevent a report being written about him, an investigation taking place about him and that special counsel Robert Mueller isn`t a guy off the street. 

KATYAL:  Yes.  I think Donald Trump really does show that he believes that this Constitution is all a game and it`s just subject to rhetoric and being disregarded and the like.  And I think Representative Cummings is exactly right.  The most important duty he has as a member of Congress is to stand up and be a check and balance. 

I mean, that is the genius that Madison and Hamilton and others gave us in 1787.  The idea that no matter who the president is, no matter how wise that person may be, they have to be subject to checks and balancing.  And chief among them is the role of Congress. 

VELSHI:  You know, one of the things Adam Schiff was talking about, he told NBC News he wants to investigate whether Trump or those around him might be compromised by a foreign government.  One of the points that Adam Schiff is making is that he could get obsessed about Donald Trump pre-election and what he may have done to get elected.  And those appear to be the things in which he alleged to be involved are actual crimes for which Michael Cohen has been found guilty. 

That said, there are concerns about what Donald Trump is doing as president or under what influence he may be as president.  Adam Schiff seems to be indicating they`re more interested in that. 

KATYAL:  Yes.  So I think Schiff is on to something really important as the nation awaits the Mueller report.  It is important for everyone to know Mueller`s mandate is a criminal mandate and sometimes a counterintelligence mandate, but it is not going to get into all the stuff about whether Mueller -- whether Trump lied about the Russians, for example, in 2016 when he said he had no business dealing with the Russians. 

It could conceivably get into it, but it is likely not to because lying to the American public, while horrible, turns out not to be a crime.  So, I think Schiff and others in Congress are going to have to investigate these other things.  You could say, oh, this is this long prolonged witch hunt, but it is a witch hunt of the president`s own making. 

This is a president who has surrounded himself with people and who himself has lied about Russia repeatedly.  And someone has got to get to the bottom line truth.  And when Trump doesn`t even bother to show up in Mueller`s office and testify, someone has got to figure out, you know, what actually happened with Russia and what is continuing to happen with Russia. 

VELSHI:  Well, we talked about Elijah Cummings on oversight.  We talked about Adam Schiff on Intel.  And then there is Jerry Nadler on the Judiciary Committee.  All three committees taking a different approach in how to get the necessary information.  On Monday, there was a deadline for one of the committees to get subpoenas. 

Let me tell you what that "Wall Street Journal" is reporting about the House Judiciary Committee planning to request documents from other Trump connected officials. 

The House Judiciary Committee is planning to send a second wave of document requests to associates of President Trump including Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and a former lawyer for Michael Cohen who last year sought a pardon on his client`s behalf according to a person familiar with the committee`s plans.  Other individuals likely to be sent requests include former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Gary Cohn, an investment banker who served as Mr. Trump`s top economic adviser until he stepped down one year ago. 

Neil, there is going to be no stone left unturned by this Congress.  So, if there is anything that Donald Trump has been up to, there won`t be a place to hide. 

KATYAL:  I hope that`s right because, you know, for two years, Congress sat on its hands and did nothing to investigate Trump and, you know, this is someone who has repeatedly defied federal law just, you know, one example that Gary Cohn questionnaire that the Judiciary Committee is sending. 

Gary Cohn who has revealed two weeks ago complained about the fact that President Trump tried to block the Time Warner merger with AT&T because he was so upset by the coverage on the rival network on CNN.  That is a blatant abuse of power. 

Again, it might not be criminal, but it is exactly the kind of thing our founders wrote the impeachment clause all about.  And so, again, as we think and await the Mueller report, I think the most important thing is to understand it is only limited to crimes.  It is not limited to these other things.  And that`s why you see House Judiciary Chairman Nadler stepping up and saying, I`ve got to investigate this stuff. 

VELSHI:  Neal, as always, thank you for joining me, Neal Katyal. 

KATYAL:  Thank you.

VELSHI:  All right.  Coming up next, presidential candidate, Secretary Julian Castro on the president`s apparent refusal to cooperate with investigators and his attack on Robert Mueller. 

And later, the Trump administration keeps losing policy fights it should have won.  And reports say he keeps losing because of poor planning and even incompetence.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI:  This week, President Trump has ramped up his already prolific Twitter usage.  He tweeted more than 50 times over the weekend and has already sent more than 30 tweets since the week began, 31 I think, at least just sent a new one.

As the president continues to make the most of his executive time, the day- to-day work of actually running the country seems to be falling by the wayside.  More than two years into his presidency, there are 152 Senate- confirmed positions for which Donald Trump has not even bothered to nominate anyone to fill the role.

Just this week, after the deadly malfunction in the Boeing 737 Max crisis, the president finally got around to appointing someone to run the Federal Aviation Administration.  And after failing to find a replacement for former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, the White House is reportedly planning to drop the word acting from Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.  Mulvaney is still doing that job in addition to his other job, important job by the way, as the head of the Office of Management and Budget.

But this week, we learned there are even bigger staffing problems in the Trump administration.  Some of Trump`s appointees, who have actually been confirmed by the Senate are apparently taking their cues on how to do their job from President Trump.

On Monday, NBC News reported that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has kept a relatively light work schedule while running the agency.  A list of Carson`s appointments over a 31-week period in 2017 shows that he held one senior staff meeting a week and spent half of his Fridays either leaving early or taking the day off altogether so he could fly to his mansion in Florida for the weekend.  Sounds like anyone you know?

I`m joined now by someone who actually knows what it takes to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  Julian Castro was HUD Secretary from 2014 to 2017.  He is currently the only former head of a federal agency running for president.  And prior to that, he was the mayor of San Antonio.

Secretary Castro, good to see you.  Thank you for being with us.

JULIAN CASTRO, FORMER SECRETARY, DEPARTMENT OF HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT:  Hey.  Great to be with you. Ali.

VELSHI:  I want to go through a bunch of policy things, but I want to tell you the associated press is reporting now that the prime minister of New Zealand has announced an immediate ban on all assault weapons, military- style semiautomatic weapons.  It took them under a week to do that.

CASTRO:  It is amazing, isn`t it?  I`m glad to see that.  Those are weapons of war.  I don`t think that they have any place out there on the streets.

I believe the United States should reinstate an updated assault weapons ban.  Probably the most shameful moment in Congress over the last decade was right after the tragedy at New Town when President Obama implored Congress to do something on common sense gun reform, even something as straightforward and as supported by 90 percent of the American public as universal background checks.  And the Republican-controlled Congress did not lift a finger, even though more than two dozen children had died.

What we see in New Zealand tonight is something very different and positive.  I believe that we need to get to a point where enough politicians, especially Republican ones, are willing to stand up to groups like the NRA and to, you know, pass common sense gun reform, universal background checks, limiting the capacity of magazines and an assault weapons ban.

VELSHI:  Secretary Castro, I want to ask you about a topic that you and other candidates have been talking about this week and that is about the electoral college.  There are a number of people, a number of states in this country, a number of people in this country who think the system needs reforming.

Elizabeth Warren has said that she thinks we should get rid of the electoral college.  Beto O`Rourke has said that it makes some Americans feel like their votes don`t really count.  Pete Buttigieg says it`s got to go because people in his conservative state don`t count in some elections.  Where do you stand on this?

CASTRO:  I agree.  It should be abolished.  It`s an anachronism.  And by the way, as folks may remember, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton who ran against each other in 2016 at different points had called for doing away with the electoral college.

We have had two people now who won the popular vote in the last 20 years who did not become president.  And a lot of times folks will say, well, you know, the electoral college protects especially the small states, presidential candidates won`t get out to some of the smaller states if we don`t keep it.

I pledge to visit all 50 states.  And I know that some of the other candidates have pledged to visit all 50 states during this campaign.  I was in Idaho and Utah, two states that are some of the smaller states in our union.

And so it just shows you that that doesn`t mean, even if you did away with the electoral college, that people are not going to visit or go campaign or ask for the vote, the support of folks who live in some of these smaller states.  They`re going to go everywhere.  We`re going to go everywhere during this campaign.

VELSHI:  I want to talk to you about the Supreme Court.  "The Hills" reported that one idea talked up by both Beto O`Rourke and Pete Buttigieg would reform the Supreme Court so that Republicans appointed five justices and Democrats appointed five justices.  The 10 justices would then mutually agree on an additional five bringing the total number on the court to 15.

Donald Trump`s already says he thinks that`s a terrible idea.  What do you think?

CASTRO:  Well, you know, I -- of the different ideas that have been proposed, the one that intrigues me the most is something like term limits, even if they were long terms.  Something that balances it out bipartisanship, I think, also could make sense.

What I wouldn`t want to see happen is just a straight increase in the number of justices without reforming how the appointments are done because the problem with that is that you could raise the number to 11 next year.  And then 10 years from now, the other party could try and raise it to 15 so that they can have their president appoint several new justices.

So my preference would be for us to remain at nine and do it the way that we have been doing it.  But of the different proposals that have been out there, I think I would be most open to something that looks at term limit.

VELSHI:  Let me ask you just your thoughts at this point in the race.  How do you feel you`re doing and what do you think the Americans need to know about you?

CASTRO:  Well, I think that we`re steadily building momentum.  And I`m going out there visiting these early states.  I can tell that when I get in front of folks that I have gained a lot of traction.

I`ve also pledged to visit all 50 states.  I was in Idaho and Utah like I said because I believe that everybody counts.  That`s the reason that I went out to Puerto Rico right after I announced.

You know, folks have asked, well, you know, how do you feel about the fact that you are not a front runner right now?  And I point out two things.  Number one, that there are 46 weeks until the Iowa caucus, right, but who is counting?  There is a long time.

And then secondly, you know, I was not born nor did I grow up a front runner.  I can`t think of a single time in my life when I have been a front runner at something.  But I have been successful because I`m going to put in the hard work of going to speak to Americans everywhere.

There are a lot of folks in this country right now who don`t feel like a front runner.  I`m going to go and talk to them and I`m going to make sure that they hear my message, that what we need to do is to create the smartest, the healthiest, the fairest, and the most prosperous nation on earth.

I`m also one of the few candidates in this race, and you pointed out that I`m the only one who has actually run one of the federal agencies.  I have executive experience.  I have a track record of getting things done and a very compelling vision for the future of the country.

And, you know, I may not be ahead right now but I`m confident that by the time February 3, 2020 rolls around, when Iowa caucuses, that I will be.

VELSHI:  It is a worthy enterprise and we thank you for participating in it.  Secretary Julian Castro, good to talk to you again.

CASTRO:  Thanks a lot.

VELSHI:  All right.  Coming up, the Trump administration is ranking up a number of record losses in a way that you haven`t heard of and it`s caused mostly by incompetence.  I`ll tell you about that next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI:  You can probably guess why Donald Trump complains about the federal courts because he`s losing.  According to "The Washington Post", federal judges have ruled against the Trump administration at least 63 times over the past two years.  An extraordinary record of legal defeat that has stymied large parts of the president`s agenda on the environment, immigration, and other matters.

Why is he losing so much?  Legal experts argue that the real reason is because the Trump administration is rushing to implement policy changes without explaining why.

Bill Buzbee, an expert on regulation and administrative law who has studied Trump`s record tells "The Post" that administration officials "don`t even come close to explaining their actions, making it very easy for the courts to reject them, because they`re not doing their homework."

Take for example the White House`s attempt to revoke the program protecting young immigrants brought to the United States as children from deportation.  Four different judges who ruled against the Trump administration came to the same conclusion, "The Post" notes, "that the government`s stated reason for ending DACA that it was unlawful, was virtually unexplained."

Three judges rejected adding a question about citizenship to the 2020 census because they did not find Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross`s argument that it would improve voting rights believable.  Numerous courts have struck down the Trump administration`s efforts to roll back the Obama era environmental regulations citing failure to defend their actions.

Courts have blocked Trump`s ban on transgender people serving in the military, his attempt to pull funding from sanctuary cities and his push to revoke grant money from teen pregnancy programs.  Two-thirds of the loss cases accuse the White House of violating a long-standing law requiring the government to support its policy changes with evidence.

"The Post" reports that the normal win rate for the government in such cases is about 70 percent.  But as of mid-January, a database maintained by the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law shows Trump`s win rate at about six percent

After the break, we`ll discuss the haphazard Trump administration`s stunning record of legal setbacks and what that means for pending cases like Trump`s national emergency declaration with Bill Buzbee and Leonhardt.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI:  All right.  Joining us now Bill Buzbee, a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center and an expert on regulation and administrative law.  He has been following and studying the Trump administration`s court cases since 2017 when he noticed they were making policy changes and deregulating in ways that he says were illegal.  David Leonhardt is also back with us.

Bill, what made you think that these ways in which the administration was deregulating were illegal?  Given that this is something the president ran on and you can see in places like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or the EPA or the Department of Energy, put people in there to do what his opinion -- in his opinion is God`s work of deregulating.

BILL BUZBEE, PROFESSOR, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY LAW CENTER:  Yes.  Well, agencies certainly usually have some room to shift policies with new presidents but they have to follow the rules.  And the rules require them to look at what statutes require and go through the process set by Congress and provide good reasons for any change.

And right away, it was apparent to me that what they were doing was trying to make shortcuts and not do the work but nonetheless get the mileage of knocking out past regulations.  And that wasn`t going to work and I said so.  And so far, it has not been working for the --

VELSHI:  It`s truly remarkable when you look at these numbers, what the win rate would typically be in government cases around 70 percent, and seeing a six percent rate with this administration.  David, it does seem to be an issue, though, with how the president perceives justice.  Let`s just listen to what he had to say about his national emergency and how that`s going to play out in the courts.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  We will have a national emergency and we will then be sued.  And they will sue us in the 9th Circuit even though it shouldn`t be there and we will possibly get a bad ruling and then we`ll get another bad ruling.  And then we`ll end up in the Supreme Court and hopefully, we`ll get a fair shake and we`ll win in the Supreme Court.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  Notwithstanding the unusual delivery, the president there, David, talked about it shouldn`t be there and then he said bad ruling twice.  So there`s no real sense of the application of justice and fair-mindedness and judges who will consider something.  It`s either bad or good in his mind.

DAVID LEONHARDT, OP-ED COLUMNIST, THE NEW YORK TIMES:  That`s right.  It`s very outcome-oriented.  And we know that President Trump rejects all kinds of core parts of our constitutional system.  He rejects separation of powers.  He rejects all kinds of things.

And so far we`ve seen Congress really bend to his will, the Republicans in Congress.  They`ve basically for the most part done whatever he has wanted.  The courts so far have mostly held.

They have pushed back against the president when he has tried to do extralegal things.  They`ve pushed back against the president when he`s been sloppy.  And so that is something to be -- to feel very good about.

The one reason to have some anxiety about this is what Trump said at the end of that clip, which is the Supreme Court.  The John Roberts Supreme Court has alternated at times -- I don`t agree with him philosophically, but at times, they really have stood up for the rule of law and other times they`ve acted more like partisan legislators who are going to vote based on whether they`re an R or a D.

And I am worried, I am anxious about what the Supreme Court is going to do when some of these cases reach the supreme court because if they overturn what lower courts did, it doesn`t matter that much that lower courts stood up to the president.

VELSHI:  Bill, David brings up things that are extralegal, things that are sloppy.  But according to "The Washington Post", there`s another ingredient here in some of these cases and it`s the rhetoric.  It`s Donald Trump`s rhetoric.  Let me just read to you from this article.

"Contributing to the losing record has been Trump himself.  His reported comments about S-hole countries, for example, helped convince U.S. District Judge Edward M. Chen in San Francisco that the administration`s decision to end temporary protected status for hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Central America, Haiti, and Sudan was motivated by racial and ethnic bias.  At least a dozen decisions have involved Trump tweets or comments."

Strikes me, Bill, that that falls into a similar category of ill- preparedness when taking these matters to court.

BUZBEE:  Yes, it certainly could.  I mean judges expect agencies to follow the law, and that requires them to really look carefully at the law and the evidence and make decisions based on what Congress has required.  And if a president and perhaps agency officials have a sort of prejudgment or frankly disregard for the law, it certainly can`t help the agency that`s trying to defend itself in court.

VELSHI:  Gentlemen, thank you for your time tonight.  Bill Buzbee is a professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, an expert on regulation and administrative law.  David Leonhardt is an opinion editor and columnist for "The New York Times."

LEONHARDT:  Thanks, Ali.

VELSHI:  Up next in tonight`s LAST WORD, one of the Democratic candidates for president crossed a history-making milestone.  That`s next in tonight`s LAST WORD.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI:  Time for tonight`s LAST WORD.  "The Washington Post" reports that what we call Millennials, people born roughly between 1980 and 1996, displaced Baby Boomers as the country`s largest voting age group in 2018.  And according to Pew Research, Millennials will cast about the same percentage of votes in the United States as Baby Boomers and slightly more than Gen Xers in the 2020 election.

And now, Millennials have a better chance than ever of voting for one of their own.  Mayor Pete Buttigieg, his campaign announced that the Indiana mayor has crossed the threshold needed to make it onto the Democratic presidential primary debate stage in June.

The Democratic National Committee requires that candidates garner contributions from at least 65,000 people from at least 20 states.  That makes Buttigieg the first Millennial candidate to make it onto the DNC stage.

Buttigieg is a remarkably accomplished man.  He`s a Rhodes scholar, a mayor, and an Afghanistan war veteran.  Impressive.  But all of that has been achieved by those who have come before him.

His place in the debates this summer, however, will break another barrier.  Pete Buttigieg is gay.  He`s the first openly LGBTQ person to make it this far in a major political party`s nomination process for president.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg will add to the diversity when he joins the other candidates this summer on the Democratic Party`s debate stage.  Here`s what he said this morning on MSNBC.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG, SOUTH BEND, INDIANA:  I think what`s most important right now is the kind of person who`s walking in there.  Are they the kind of person who understands how to take advice?  Are they the kind of person who understands when you need to move from the listening phase where you acknowledge that you might be wrong to the phase when you`ve made a decision and you need to implement that?

This is the kind of thing that a mayor of a city of any size needs to do.  I understand it`s more conventional.  People have an easier time swallowing the idea of somebody who`s maybe marinated in Washington for a long time, been in Congress or the Senate.

You could be a very senior U.S. senator and have never in your life managed more than a hundred people.  I think this is an executive position that requires executive experience.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  Mayor Pete Buttigieg gets tonight`s LAST WORD.

"THE 11TH HOUR" With Brian Williams starts now.

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