Trump pardons criminals TRANSCRIPT: 2/18/20, The Last Word w/ Lawrence O'Donnell

Guests: David Cicilline, Jennifer Palmieri, Jamil Smith, Dan Pfeiffer

LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC HOST:  Good evening, Rachel. I have my reading glasses on because at 9:23 p.m. when I know you were working, "The Washington Post" delivered a story saying, William Barr is telling people he`s considering quitting.

But I know because you and I communicate during your commercial breaks that you`re aware of this story.

RACHEL MADDOW, MNSNBC HOST:  I just got it.

O`DONNELL: But I just want to read you this opening. It says, Attorney General William Barr has told people close to President Trump, both inside and outside the White House, that he is considering quitting over Trump`s tweets about Justice Department investigations, three administration officials said, foreshadowing a possible confrontation.

And it goes down here. The third paragraph begins with this sentence: he has his limits, said one person, familiar with Barr`s thinking. So --

MADDOW:  Wait, a person familiar with his thinking?

O`DONNELL:  He has his limits.

MADDOW:  Speaking from -- a person familiar with Attorney General Barr`s thinking, speaking from inside the attorney general`s mouth suggests -- 

O`DONNELL:  Something like that.

(LAUGHTER)

O`DONNELL:  Possibly, possibly.

So, there are so many possibilities with this, including that it`s real. There`s also the possibility that William Barr just kind of wants this out there as a way of kind of declaring, this is as much independence as he will declare, get a headline saying he`s thinking about quitting.

MADDOW:  I mean, listen, the problem with what`s going on here with the rule of law being shredded and made a mockery of is not that Donald Trump is tweeting witch-hunt, witch-hunt. That person should go to jail, this person -- the president has been doing that since before he started running for president. He did it all through his campaign. He`s doing it the entire time he`s president.

The problem here is not the president tweeting. At least that`s not the new problem. The new problem is Attorney General William Barr doing what the president is tweeting at him to do. The problem is Attorney General Barr intervening in cases at the president`s insistence and to benefit the president. Both in cases that we know about and cases we still don`t know about where he`s installed this team to override normal prosecutorial discretion. I mean, William Barr has a beef here, if he has a beef here, it is a beef with William Barr.

O`DONNELL:  Rachel, before you go and read this article, I just want to give you this one sentence, this one really exquisite sentence in the reporting. It says, this is "Washington Post" saying, Trump, White House officials said, is not entirely receptive to calls to change his behavior.

(LAUGHTER)

O`DONNELL:  See, that`s why I wanted to read that. I wanted America to get your reaction to this. I didn`t want you alone in a room reacting to this. I wanted America to see your reaction to that.

MADDOW:  Breaking news. Sea is deep. Sky is up.

O`DONNELL:  Thank you, Rachel.

MADDOW:  All right. Thanks, Lawrence.

O`DONNELL:  Well, Congressman David Cicilline will join us tonight. We`ll get his reaction to this report of possibility of Attorney William Barr resigning. If he does not resign, Congressman Cicilline will be asking Attorney William Barr questions the next time the attorney general testifies to the House Judiciary Committee which is scheduled for next month. We`ll get Congressman Cicilline`s reaction to today`s pardon party by the president of the United States.

And most of what you hear the candidates say in tomorrow night`s debate, almost all of it will be completely impossible for them to deliver, even if one of them wins the presidency, as long as Mitch McConnell is still the majority leader of the United States senate. He can block every single thing they want to do, just about everything that the candidates will propose tomorrow night will be completely irrelevant, even in a Democratic presidency, if Mitch McConnell still controls the Senate. No health care plan of any kind will pass. No tax increases on billionaires will pass. Probably no Supreme Court justice would be confirmed for the entire four years of a Democratic presidency if Mitch McConnell is still there.

And so, at the end of this hour, we will concentrate on the second most political fight of the year and that is the fight to control the United States Senate. We will be joined by two Obama administration veterans, Dan Pfeiffer and Jen Palmieri at the end of this hour to look at the Senate seats that the Democrats are trying to take away from Republicans, including Senator Susan Collins in Maine where Donald Trump is now very unpopular, as is Senator Collins.

We begin tonight with the president`s pardon party today. Who`s next? Roger Stone? That`s what Roger Stone is hoping tonight after Donald Trump`s big flurry of pardons and clemencies issued today.

Roger Stone is going to be sentenced on Thursday. Today, the judge in the case said she will not execute the sentence until she formally rules on another request from Roger Stone`s attorneys for a new trial. So, he won`t be going to prison on Thursday. But is it coincidence that two days before Roger Stone gets sentenced, Donald Trump throws a pardon party?

Donald Trump commuted the sentence of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich today. Blagojevich has served eight years of a 14-year sentence for trying to sell an appointment to Barack Obama`s Illinois Senate seat when Barack Obama became president of the United States. They had Rod Blagojevich on wiretaps. They had tape on Blagojevich, on the phone trying to sell the Senate seat. He couldn`t have been more guilty.

But Donald Trump, who was impeached for a phone call, doesn`t believe politicians should ever get in trouble for anything they ever say on a telephone.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  He`s been in jail for seven years over a phone call where nothing happens, but over a phone where nothing happened. Over a phone call where -- which he shouldn`t have said what he said, but it was braggadocio, you would say. I would think that there have been many politicians, I`m not of them, by the way, just in case -- but that have said a lot worse over telephones.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

O`DONNELL:  Did Donald Trump commute Rod Blagojevich`s sentence so he can say that he has taken action for a Democrat who he thought got too tough a sentence? Is that what he`s going to say when he pardons or commutes the sentence of Roger Stone? I`ve done it for a Democrat, I`m just being fair. I don`t like sentences that are too tough.

In Trump world, there`s no such thing as coincidence. This happened this week for a reason. Donald Trump gave out some pardons to some very rich guys today who don`t need pardons who won`t become one penny richer because they now have pardons. How much did they have to pay for those pardons, if anything?

We`ll never know because there are so many ways to give giant amounts of money to Donald Trump that we can never know about. The donors to Trump`s super PACs are anonymous. There is no legal requirement to reveal who gives and how much to those super PACs and the rich guys who are pardoned today can give unlimited amounts of money to those super PACs, $100 million, whatever they want.

There are many ways for the rich people who got pardons today to pour money into Donald Trump`s businesses that we will never know about. But we do know how Donald Trump does business.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DANIEL GOLDMAN, DEMOCRATIC COUNSEL:  Ambassador Taylor also described a comment that you made where you were trying to explain what President Trump`s view of this was. And you said that President Trump is a businessman. When a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something, the businessman asked the person to pay up before signing the check. Do you recall saying that to Ambassador Taylor?

GORDON SONDLAND, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO E.U.:  I don`t recall it specifically, but I may have.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL:  One of the men who got a pardon today is not a rich guy, but he has friends who are and Rudy Giuliani was actually pleading his case directly to the president. So the fix was in. The fix was in for Bernie Kerik.

Bernie Kerik was the worst police commissioner in New York City history, the first and only New York City police commissioner to go to prison and he will remain a convicted criminal for life because he was not just convicted of the federal crimes that Donald Trump pardoned him for today, he was also convicted by New York state under New York state law.

When Rudy Giuliani was mayor of New York, he promoted Bernie Kerik who was a high school drop out all the way from being the mayor`s chauffeur to being the police commissioner. Bernie Kerik was convicted of tax evasion because, among other things, he hid income from a book that he wrote about what a hero he was in the aftermath of 9/11. Bernie Kerik also lied about a mob-connected company that did hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of free work on an apartment that Bernie Kerik owned when that company was actually banned from doing business with the city of New York. That`s how bad that company was.

In the investigations of Bernie Kerik, we discovered a lot. We discovered how he used another apartment that a public spearheaded landlord had donated to the city of New York for the city`s use near ground zero. For the use of the exhausted firefighters, police officers, and other city workers who were doing that horrible work in the rubble of the World Trade Center.

Berne Kerik had other plans for the bed in that apartment. He used it for affairs with at least two women. One was a corrections officer with whom Bernie Kerik started an affair when he worked in the Corrections Department, and the other was the editor and publisher of his book, the book whose royalties he hid and lied to the U.S. about. No exhausted firefighters got to use that bed. No exhausted police officers.

You can see, in all of the worst evidence revealed about Bernie Kerik, that what emerges is a picture of what it would have been like if Donald Trump were the New York police commissioner. Bernie Kerik is in every way a Donald Trump kind of guy.

Today, the White House statement about Bernie Kerik said he embodied the strength, courage, compassion and spirit of New York and this great nation. The federal judge who sentenced Bernie Kerik to four years in prison said, I think the damage caused by Mr. Kerik is in some ways immeasurable. The same can be said of Donald Trump on this day of his presidency and on every day of his presidency.

Leading off our discussion tonight are Joyce Vance, former U.S. attorney for the northern district of Alabama. She`s a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law.

Barbara McQuade is with us. She`s a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan.

And Benjamin Wittes is the editor in chief of Lawfare, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

All three are MSNBC legal analysts.

Joyce, let me start with you and let`s start with the pardons and the commutations and your reaction to that package delivered today.

JOYCE VANCE, MSNBC LEGAL ANALYST:  If this was the first time we`d ever seen president Trump deliver a pardon package, as you called it I think more aptly, a pardon party, then maybe we would think that he was trying to fulfill some kind of a commitment to criminal justice reform and doing justice. But we know better than that at this point in the Trump presidency. We know that this is a president who uses pardons to signal to people who have been his friends and have been his associates that if they will not turn and testify against him, that he will take care of them down the road.

And with this package of pardons for people who have engaged in public corruption, lying to law enforcement, extortion, other crimes that are akin to some of the allegations that have swirled around the president and his associates, there`s no way to take this other than as a message to people that he will take care of them as long as they don`t stray from the fold.

O`DONNELL:  Barbara McQuade, the Trump rule of corruption seems to be, if I do it in public, if I actually say I`m doing it, if I tell you as openly as I can what I`m doing and why I`m doing it, it cannot be corrupt. And this, of course, is why there is a process for pardons, so that presidents won`t be pardoning their friends or friends of their friends.

But Donald Trump puts in writing in the White House document today that Bob Kraft, the owner of the patriots wanted this guy to get a pardon and Bob Kraft`s name appears multiple times as one of the rich guys who wanted one of the rich guys to get a pardon today. That just seems to be the Trump method of, I`m going to do it in the ugliest way possible, but I am going to do it publicly.

BARBARA MCQUADE, MSNBC LEGAL ANALYST:  President Trump is exercising his power to the fullest extent. He has absolute right to pardon people who are convicted of federal crimes and he`s using it. He seems to enjoy this power and he is using it in a very aggressive fashion. It`s really contrary to the way prior presidents have used this power, though. When I worked in the Obama administration as U.S. attorney, from time to time, we would have applications come to us to review, and they went through the office of the pardon attorney and a really important part of that application was whether the person had shown remorse, admitted what they had done, and asked for forgiveness because they wanted to get back into society and become a productive member of the community.

Instead, we`ve got people like Rod Blagojevich who still deny they did anything wrong. So, it`s a very different use of the pardon power and it seems to be one that favors the rich and the powerful and the well connected over those who are truly expressing remorse.

O`DONNELL:  Benjamin Wittes, 100 years ago, there was no formalized process set up about exactly how the president would arrive at pardons. But over the course of the 20th century, it became a highly evolved process specifically to make people believe it was an honest process and it wasn`t being corrupted by friends of the president, how is that process supposed to work?

BENJAMIN WITTES, MSNBC LEGAL ANALYST:  Well, so, the process is voluntary on the part of the president in the sense that, you know, you have this process set up. But the power belongs to the president personally. And if he chooses to issue a pardon because he, say, likes Rod Blagojevich`s hair, he could do that. It`s this elaborate process that kind of exists only if you want it to exist.

But the way it traditionally has evolved to exist is that you apply through the Justice Department`s office of pardon attorney. The pardon attorney`s office makes recommendations to the attorney general, who then refers recommendations to the White House, which then reviews them itself.

And so the process can be quite elaborate, and this has allowed certain presidents, most notably in recent years, President Obama, to use the pardon power to create certain -- to effectuate certain public policy object objectives. So, President Obama was concerned about overly lengthy drug sentences for non-violent drug offenders and, you know, use the clemency process by way of shortening a lot of people`s sentences.

Donald Trump`s, you know, if you take his pardons altogether, I agree very much with Joyce that one of the purposes is clearly to signal to people that loyalty to him will be rewarded.

Another purpose, frankly, is just to own the libs and some of the pardons he`s issued, particularly to people like Dinesh D`Souza are really -- and Joe Arpaio, are really efforts to, you know, take a pie and smash it in the face of his political enemies. So I think there`s -- you know, there`s a few things going on here.

And then the final element that`s just worth mentioning is one of the reasons he loves this power so much is that, you know, you get the sense that he kind of imagined the presidency as this, you know, like -- almost like kingly thing where you get to wave your hands and things happen. And most of politics doesn`t work that way.

You know, legislation is hard, running the government is hard, but the pardon power actually does work that way, you know. He just gets to do it. And he clearly loves that. And so I think those are kind of the three things that are behind it.

He loves how free he is with the power. He loves using the power to upset his enemies. And, yes, Joyce`s point is absolutely right, that he signals with it to people who are still within the criminal justice system and may -- may or may not be tempted to Cooperate at some point stick with me and I`ll make sure things work out OK for you.

O`DONNELL:  Joyce, the president was asked today, of course, is he thinking about pardoning Roger Stone. And he lied and said he hasn`t even thought about it.

Here he is doing this two days before Roger Stone`s sentencing. Clearly, I, for one, am not a believer in coincidences in Trump world.

VANCE:  I think that that`s absolutely right. And it defies belief that he`s being truthful here. As hard as it still is to say those kind of words about an American president, but we know that this is on his mind when he does this.

And I suspect that there`s a group of pardons that he`s contemplating, perhaps starting with General Flynn, maybe including Paul Manafort, and certainly extending to roger stone. I think the more interesting question, Lawrence, is what the timing will look like. It would be brazen for this president to pardon his closest allies before the election.

One would suspect that a president with wisdom in this situation, if you could call it that, would wait until after the outcome of that election was known. But one wonders if Trump, who has been impetuous with pardons, who does not respect the pardon process that Barr detailed and that Ben talked about, if he might not just go ahead and do it off the cuff on Twitter one morning.

O`DONNELL:  Yes. Barbara, that`s what I`m thinking about because there`s no reason to do these pardons this week, none of these pardons makes sense now unless it is somehow related to Roger Stone. And the question of the Roger Stone pardon could be exactly how much time is roger stone willing to do. If Roger Stone is not willing to do a single night in prison, never mind all the way to November, then Donald Trump may be facing a pardon demand, in effect, from Roger Stone right now.

MCQUADE:  I think President Trump is doing what predators do, and that is grooming his victims. He is sensitizing the public to this idea that corruption is not a big deal, and so by pardoning people like Rod Blagojevich, and others who are engaged in corrupt activity, Bernard Kerik and others, he saying to the world, these aren`t serious crimes. Nobody got hurt. They weren`t violent.

And so, similarly, when Roger Stone`s name is the next that comes up for a pardon. He gets grouped into the whole category of people who, eh, haven`t done anything all that bad.

O`DONNELL:  Ben Wittes, before we go to a break, a word about this "Washington Post" report tonight indicating that William Barr is thinking about resigning. The article says that William Barr specifically has warned the president that this is a problem for him. What`s your take on that?

WITTES:  I think it clearly is a problem for him, and it has dramatically eroded his already impaired credibility within the department that, you know, he -- the president tweeted a demand and he then seemed to comply with the tweet, though he claims to have made an independent decision to revise the Stone sentencing recommendation even before the president issued the tweet. It clearly bothers him and he feels that he is, you know, made to look ineffective and non-independent as a result of the president`s behavior.

The problem, of course, is that as Rachel said in your transition, you know, he`s got his own problem here, which is that he is actively intervening in cases to the benefit of the president`s interests, and that is not a problem that would be fixed by the president stopping tweeting. That`s actually a problem with his behavior. And so, I think he`s probably sincerely upset about the president`s tweets, but I actually think that is not wholly responsive to the problem that he faces.

O`DONNELL:  Benjamin Wittes, Joyce Vance, Barbara McQuade, thank you all for starting us off tonight. I really appreciate it.

And when we come back, Congressman David Cicilline a member of the House Judiciary Committee will join us to discuss the growing list of questions that he has for attorney General William Barr under oath if William Barr is still attorney general when his scheduled appearance before the House Judiciary Committee comes next month.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O`DONNELL:  The breaking news of this hour is that "The Washington Post" is now reporting tonight that Attorney General William Barr is considering quitting if the president continues to tweet about Justice Department cases. Today, the president continued to do exactly that. The president tweeted today about the Roger Stone case, which Attorney General William Barr has said makes it impossible for him to do his job.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPORTER:  He said that your comments on Twitter are making it impossible to do his job. Are you making his job impossible?

TRUMP:  Well, but it allows me -- yes, I do make his job harder, I do agree with that. I think that`s true. The attorney general is a man with incredible integrity.

Just so you understand, I chose not to be involved. I`m allowed to be totally involved. I`m actually -- I guess the chief law enforcement officer of the country, but I`ve chosen not to be involved.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL:  Joining us now is Congressman David Cicilline, Democrat from Rhode Island. He`s a member of the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committees in the House, and he`s the chair of Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.

Congressman, your reaction, first of all, to the president just saying that he is the chief law enforcement officer of the country.

REP. DAVID CICILLINE (D-RI):  Yes, well, the pre -- good to be with you, Lawrence.

The president is not wrong. He is not the chief law enforcement officer of the country. That`s the role of the attorney general who`s expected to lead the Department of Justice in a fair and impartial way.

He doesn`t work for the president. He`s not the president`s lawyer, although the attorney general has behaved that way. And that, you know, the president said, I want my own Roy Cohn, and he got him with the attorney general of the United States.

And while he`s disturbed by the tweets, he ought to be more disturbed by the ongoing effort of the president to politicize the Justice Department and to interfere with the administration of justice in this country.

O`DONNELL:  I want to get your reaction to the pardons today that we saw come out from the president, seven pardons, three -- four sentence commutations.

CICILLINE:  Look, Lawrence, I think the president is setting the stage for an additional set of pardons for his close associates that have been convicted in connection with the Mueller investigation. Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort. I think what he`s doing today -- this is on the eve of the Roger Stone sentencing. There was no particular urgency to any of these actions, but I think he`s trying to say, first of all, these are not big deals.

These involve public corruption. These involve people who abused their position of trust, but they shouldn`t get long sentences, and I think it`s a pretext so that when he moves forward with a pardon for those other individuals that are part of his inner circle, that it will be sort of a lot of noise.

Oh, he`s doing a lot of pardons. He did a bunch of them last week. And I think it`s really setting the table for, for his inner circle folks and his close associates.

And he wants to make it very clear, stay loyal to me and I will take care of you. That`s the message. That`s the message of the people he picked to give pardons to today. It`s the message he`s transmitted all throughout the Mueller investigation.

It`s the message he`s tweeted about to Roger Stone. The people who stay loyal to him and don`t share information which is damaging to the president will be taken care of.

O`DONNELL:  So, the essence of this breaking news in "The Washington Post" tonight is that William Barr has made it clear to the White House and the president that he might resign if the president continues tweeting about Justice Department cases and activities.

And "The Washington Post" reports that the president has made it clear to White House personnel that he is going to continue tweeting about whatever he wants, including Justice Department cases.

CICILLINE:  Well, look, I think it`s hard to imagine the president is going to remove the attorney general who has executed on everything the president wants. So, this notion of the attorney general might quit because he doesn`t like the tweets, how about attorney general who says, you know what, I may resign from this position if you continue to interfere with the fair administration of justice? If you continue to try to influence sentences of individual defendants and corrupt the Department. That would be the Attorney General that we all here would be proud of. Its defending the integrity of the Department of Justice.

So it`s hard to believe when you look at the record of this Attorney General, who has basically behaved as President Trump`s Roy Cohn who has defended the President`s interests and undermined the rule of law, who mischaracterized the findings in the Mueller report, traveled over to Europe to try to meet with intelligence officials to dig up dirt on some of the political opponents of the President. And is following the President`s recommendation of lowering a sentencing recommendation for one of his close associates.

So it`s hard to imagine that he`s suddenly bothered by the President`s tweets. But I called on the Attorney General to resign many months ago. He ought to do it. And we ought to have an Attorney General that has the confidence of the American people to fairly administer justice in this country.

O`DONNELL: Congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island, thank you very much for joining us. I really appreciate it.

CICILLINE: Thanks for having me.

O`DONNELL: And when we come back, tomorrow`s Democratic presidential debate right here on MSNBC has a new player, which means the debate has a new target for the five debaters who have already been on that stage.

If you think you know what New York City Mayors are like in presidential debates, because you saw Bill de Blasio in the early debates, you`ve got another thing coming tomorrow night, Mike Bloomberg could not be more different from Bill de Blasio, including the fact that Mike Bloomberg was a Republican when he was Mayor of New York.

How will the dynamics of the debate change with a new player on the debate stage tomorrow night? That`s next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O`DONNELL: William Barr`s people at the Justice Department have been watching TV tonight and certainly reading that "Washington Post" report saying he is considering resigning if President Trump keeps tweeting about Justice Department cases.

The Justice Department has just tweeted - we might be able to get this on the screen. The Attorney General has no plans to resign. OK, so it`s official, no plans to resign. Turns on what the next tweet is maybe.

A new NBC News Wall Street Journal poll of Democratic presidential candidates shows Bernie Sanders now clearly in the lead at 27 percent. And then an extraordinary four way tie for second place with Joe Biden at 15 percent; Mike Bloomberg and Elizabeth Warren at 14 percent; Pete Buttigieg at 13 percent; Amy Klobuchar is at the bottom of this poll at 7 percent; Tom Steyer is down at 2 percent; Tulsi Gabbard is at 1 percent.

This morning an NPR/Marist poll released at dawn showed more separation among the candidates, with Bernie Sanders still at the top of 31 percent; Mike Bloomberg in second place at 19 percent; Joe Biden at 15 percent; Elizabeth Warren at 12 percent; Amy Klobuchar at 9 percent and Pete Buttigieg 8 percent.

Mike Bloomberg`s second place showing in the polls qualifies him for tomorrow night`s debate in Las Vegas right here on MSNBC and he has said he will join that debate. Joining us now is Jennifer Palmieri, a former White House Communications Director for President Obama and former Communications Director for Hillary Clinton`s presidential campaign. Jamil Smith as well, he is a senior writer for "Rolling Stone."

Jennifer, you`ve been there. You`ve been in campaigns at this moment when the new poll comes out and kind of shakes things up a bit. But have you - you`ve never been there when the new poll includes a billionaire with unlimited funding, who makes his first entry on the debate stage just a couple of nights before the Nevada caucuses. What is going to happen tomorrow night in this scenario we`ve never seen before?

JENNIFER PALMIERI, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR FOR PRESIDENT OBAMA: It`s crazy. It`s like the Democratic presidential primary actually starts tomorrow night, right? Because its - the campaign isn`t going on for 13 months, right? Warren got in in January of `19. But it`s like it starts tomorrow, because you have something that is remarkable.

The campaign`s been going on for a year and the guy who was number two in the polls has never been on the debate stage. I think tomorrow night is the ninth debate. It might be the eighth or 10th. But at any rate, there`s been a lot of debates, and Michael Bloomberg hasn`t been on this stage.

I think it probably would have behooved the Democrats to have him on the debate stage earlier than then tomorrow night, because he`s gotten a big head of steam. And as Biden has - Biden not doing well in Iowa, New Hampshire, meant voters started to leave him and they were not waiting till South Carolina, what Biden considers his firewall, to make a decision that they wanted to find somebody else to - who`s going to pick up the mantle of "I`m the guy that can beat Trump."

And I think I mean - and Bloomberg knows how to throw a punch. He`s been doing on Twitter. His campaign manager tweeted today that they have epic amounts of opposition research on Sanders, so he can lob something like that - out there like that and not follow through on the debate stage.

And you know, all the candidates have been attacking Bloomberg for trying to buy the debate, so I think it`s like it`s hard to predict how the debate is going to go. But I think this is going to be raucous. And, yes, something we haven`t seen before.

O`DONNELL: Jamil Smith, the collapse of Joe Biden in the polls is one of the big stories that we`re looking at here. But there`s one way in which he has not collapsed and that is in the head to head polling of Democratic candidate versus Donald Trump.

And we`re going to look at the PBS Newshour version of this, because for some inexplicable reason, the NBC poll did not include Elizabeth Warren in the one-on-one matchup, so we will ignore that. We`ll look at the PBS version.

Joe Biden is at The top of this. He has the biggest margin over Donald Trump 50 to 44; Bloomberg 48 to 44; Bernie Sanders 48-45; Pete Buttigieg 47-45; Amy Klobuchar, same thing. 47-45; Elizabeth Warren 47-46. But way still up there at the top on that one on one matchup with Donald Trump is Joe Biden and the voters say that`s the most important thing.

JAMIL SMITH, ROLLING STONE, SENIOR WRITER: Well, I think if you look at that poll, Lawrence, and you see that people seem to believe that white men - specifically older white men will beat Donald Trump. At least, that`s what they believe.

I think that poll, and a lot of other feelings that we`re seeing going through this election are reflecting is that people are scared. People are frightened. Specifically, in this moment, you see a president who has been emboldened by his escape from impeachment. You see him, you know, behaving more rabidly than usual.

And I think people are a little bit more frightened that he may survive into a second term. And so they`re going to - I guess, their default in what they get assume is a political sure thing. And unfortunately, in this country, that tends to be an old white men, and they say that that`s a sure thing. And, unfortunately, that tends to not actually have the best track record.

So I think people need to look at that poll and realize that actually, they can vote for whomever they like, and they should probably have a good chance of beating Donald Trump in November.

O`DONNELL: Jamil, the polling now is so tight, and now this new tension with Mike Bloomberg. And the attacks that we`re seeing on Mike Bloomberg re-raised the question that have been answered already on this debate stage, but I think has to be asked again of each candidate. And that is, will you support the Democratic nominee, no matter who it is? That`s a new question with Bloomberg there.

SMITH: Yes. And I think it`s frankly a question that should be asked of all of the candidate supporters no matter who they are. But I think certainly with Bloomberg, I think people are turning to somebody that they don`t fully understand. And they don`t really fully know what he`s buying with all of his millions is not necessarily support so much as name recognition. I think that`s a point that we really need to hone in one.

He is buying - simply his name, association with whomever he`s putting in his commercials, I think, people are mistaking the fact that he`s putting Obama in his commercials and he`s - you know, people are thinking that Obama is endorsing him. Obama has not endorsed him.

People who are thinking that he is some kind of staunch tough progressive, when in fact, we`re finding out more and more each day that he`s had these really terrible conservative opinions, specifically about some of the most marginalized and communities that, you know, tend to vote Democratic.

So I think people need to really do their homework on who Mike Bloomberg actually is and I think they`re actually going to find out a lot more after they watch the debate tomorrow night.

O`DONNELL: Jamil Smith, Jennifer thank you for joining us for that round.

When we come back, Dan Pfeiffer has been there. He`s been where the campaign steps are tonight in Las Vegas worrying about their candidate`s performance tomorrow in what could be a do or die presidential primary debate. When Dan Pfeiffer was there his candidate was Barack Obama. Dan Pfeiffer joins us next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O`DONNELL: How do you un-Trump America that`s what the candidates on the debate stage tomorrow night will be trying to tell you they`re going to do. Our next guest has literally written the book on un-Trumping America, and he has been there.

Dan Pfeiffer has been where these presidential campaigns are tonight, quite literally, in Las Vegas for presidential debate in 2008 that could make or break his candidate`s presidential campaign. Dan Pfeiffer`s candidate was Barack Obama, who did very well in that debate, and the rest is history.

Joining us now is Dan Pfeiffer. He`s a former senior advisor to President Obama and author of the new book "Un-Trumping America." He is also the cohost of the biggest podcast in the universe "Pod Save America." Dan, thank you very much for taking time out of your podcasting.

DAN PFEIFFER, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, thank you for having me.

O`DONNELL: So the polling movement now with Bloomberg is kind of sudden. I just want to take a look at the NBC News, Wall Street Journal poll, which shows where people were in January and what they`ve moved up to now.

Bernie Sanders was 27 in January, he`s 27 now, real stability. Biden, down 11 points from January. Bloomberg, up five. Warren, basically the same. Pete Buttigieg, up six since January. Amy Klobuchar, only up two from what we thought was this big bump out of the last debate. But that`s the national poll. She really surged in New Hampshire. So in this debate, you`re aiming for a score in Nevada, but this debate is also playing in other states like California where they`re already voting.

PFEIFFER: Right. We are two weeks away from - as you went up, you have voting in California. We are two weeks from Super Tuesday, which is going to be the biggest chunk of delegates, because that`s what this is all going to be about, delegates.

And so these candidates have to do two things at the same time. They need to have a message for the voters who are going to caucus on Saturday. They have to also speak to people in South Carolina and speak to people across the nation who may be tuning in for the very first time tomorrow night.

So it`s a very complicated task as they`re playing a little bit of three dimensional chess, which is the very nervous about Bloomberg looming. But if Bernie Sanders continues unimpeded, he`s going to - he made will be the nominee by the day after Super Tuesday. If there isn`t some change in dynamic,

O`DONNELL: But in debate prep, you can prep, but there`s a certain amount of luck involved, especially when there`s six people up there. If it`s one on one, you actually have more control.

PFEIFFER: Right.

O`DONNELL: You can make more of a plan of I`m going to say this. But when there`s six people up there, you might not ever get a chance to say something about that issue that you have something great that you`re ready with.

PFEIFFER: Right. And sometimes the tone of the debate is set by the moderator early, right. Sometimes if you start with a debate, you may come in there, with you have a killer line, you`re going to launch on Bloomberg with the first set of questions about Iran, or Syria. It`s hard to get that zinger in there. And then the debate has sort of moved on before you can ever get there.

And so these candidates have to be - they have to be well prepared. They have to be very opportunistic. Look for look for opportunities to execute their strategy. The moment there`s a glimmer of opportunity to do so, because we only get two of these left before Super Tuesday and this could be the last - one of the last

O`DONNELL: Is it more important for a candidate to say in a positive way, here`s - basically here`s why you should be voting for me? Is that more important to say than here`s why you should not be voting for the other one?

PFEIFFER: I think you have to do both. Right? I think what`s so interesting about the dynamics here is, we`ve been talking about policy nonstop. Incredibly detailed substantive debates 10 - nine-10 debates now. But the issue everyone cares about is who can win.

O`DONNELL: Right.

PFEIFFER: That`s the movement in the poll you were talking about, which is we have some concerns about these other people, so we`re going to this - to Bloomberg who is an unknown quantity, because he seems like he might be able to win, which is an open question.

And so I think these candidates have to get on stage and say, very explicitly, why I am the best candidate to take on Trump and why these people who may be ahead of me in the polls are not. Like that`s what voters want to hear.

O`DONNELL: All right. We`re going to take a quick break. When we`re going to talk about other things. But I also want to get the answer of the question of how Barack Obama proved that he could win, because he had this challenge in debates. This exact challenge in 2008, how does he prove he can win?

We also have to discuss the United States Senate, as I said at the beginning of this hour, because if one of these candidates debating tomorrow night wins the presidency, but the Democrats do not win the Senate, just about everything you hear tomorrow night will not matter. None of it will happen as long as Mitch McConnell is there stop it. We`ll be right back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O`DONNELL: And now the reality note that will probably be ignored in tomorrow night`s debate, the United States Senate. Republican Senator Susan Collins, for the first time in her career, is in trouble in her reelection campaign in Maine.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So why do you have that feeling that he has changed, that he learned a lesson?

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME): Well, I may not be correct on that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In light of the President`s actions, do you think there`s any lessons that he learned from being impeached?

COLLINS: I don`t know which actions you`re referring to.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You said the President learned his lesson. Did you learn any lessons?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O`DONNELL: That is paid for by the Democratic Super PAC who is trying to win control of United States Senate for the Democrats. Susan Collins is now polling in a tie with one of our Democratic challengers, Sarah Gideon, the Speaker of the House in Maine. Susan Collins is polling at 42 percent. Democrats are - Gideon is polling at 43 percent.

The rule of polling for incumbents generally is that anything below 50 percent means the incumbent is going to have a very difficult struggle getting reelected. That could mean the Democrats might win back the Senate. We`re back with Jennifer Palmieri and Dan Pfeiffer author of "Un-Trumping America."

And Jennifer, almost everything they talked about tomorrow night won`t matter if Mitch McConnell is still in control the senate.

PALMIERI: Yes, and Chuck Schumer is really glad that you`re making that point that. That man is a relentless - let me we tell you he is a relentless recruiting machine to try to get good candidates to run for senate, and they really do have an opportunity to win back the Senate if - Maine`s a good example. But there`s other states where you have vulnerable incumbents.

People didn`t expect necessarily to be vulnerable like Joni Ernst in Iowa as well. And, you`re right, without changing the makeup of the Senate it`s - you`re just going to run into - continue to run into brick walls.

O`DONNELL: And Dan, if the Democrats can get the wave going, you`ve got Arizona pickup possible, Colorado seems like a very likely pickup. So four which is what they need, its well within the realm of possibility.

PFEIFFER: That`s right. We have a very good chance to get the Senate. And this is - this we have to do it now, because this is the most favorable map we`re going to have for a while. And it`s - what`s really important is that we have a - we are a united party that is strong at the top of the ticket.

Because when Democrats - or when the - the close rates usually tip in the direction of the winner of the presidential. In 2012, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, all tipped towards Obama. 2008 similar situation in Minnesota and elsewhere. And so we have to be united.

I think if we do, we have an opportunity to actually get something done. As you point out if we do not, and Mitch McConnell still controls the agenda, then there will be no legislation. If we - if a Supreme Court justice decided to retire on the way home from the inauguration, Mitch McConnell will hold that seat open for four years.

O`DONNELL: Absolutely. Yes, I no doubt about it anymore. Jennifer and I want to go to you, Dan on this question on the eve of the debate. A candidate who needs to convince voters that he or she can win, can beat the Republican opponent. What does that like - even in presidential campaigns, what is that like when the candidate has that obligation? The candidate is not presumed to be the one who can beat the Republican opponent.

PALMIERI: Well, you know, the, the people in this race that it hits the hardest is are the women. And you know, there is - and it`s bizarre, because there has been somebody who went up against Trump in a general election, there was a woman and she got 3 million more votes and women had historic wins in 2018.

I argue, if there`s anything that we know about when Trump - what happens when Trump is on the ballot itself, women win. So I think you know, you see Warren makes the case really forcefully about electability now. And I know she does it, because she feels like she has to. She`s got to make that - she can`t let that question go unanswered.

It may be that she`s been helping Amy Klobuchar doing that. Right? She made that case really forceful late in the last two debates, and you saw Klobuchar did - you know bested her in New Hampshire. But the - it`s the women in particular that have to prove to people that women can win.

O`DONNELL: Dan, how did Barack Obama and the Obama campaign do it in 2008, because he faced that question, can he possibly win the general election?

PFEIFFER: He had to stand on that stage and be seen as someone who looks like they can they can be in the Oval Office. And I would say as challenging as that was that as the first African American candidate, I think it`s much harder now for the candidates of color and the women candidates. Because elect--

O`DONNELL: Why would it be harder now?

PFEIFFER: Because we are the - there is a paranoia of fear in the Democratic electorate. And there`s been this narrative that the only way we win the election is convincing a group of working class white men in Wisconsin that they should vote for a Democrat and we presume sexism in them, that would reflect that into our electorate.

I think the best way that any of these candidates can do it is to be not seem like the replica of Trump, but to be the replacement. Who looks like the opposite, and who can represent change against him. And I think Warren, Klobuchar, Buttigieg, Sanders all have the opportunity to do that.

O`DONNELL: Dan Pfeiffer gets tonight`s LAST WORD. His book is "Un-Trumping America." Dan Pfeiffer, Jennifer Palmieri, thank you both very much for joining us on the eve of this next presidential debate. Really appreciate it. That is 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