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Hardball with Chris Matthews, Transcript 8/24/2016

Guests: John Brabender, Amy Holmes, Cornell Belcher, Sabrina Siddiqui, Ken Vogel, Molly Ball

Show: HARDBALL Date: August 24, 2016 Guest: John Brabender, Amy Holmes, Cornell Belcher, Sabrina Siddiqui, Ken Vogel, Molly Ball

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Clinton face time.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews up in Boston. Anyway, Donald Trump`s going on offense tonight against the Clintons, zeroing in on recent reports on their global foundation. He`s hammering away at Bill and Hillary Clinton, accusing them for pay-for-play politics and profiting from their charitable work.

Well, it comes after the Associated Press reported Tuesday that among the State Department calendars the AP reviewed, more than half the non- government officials Clinton met with as secretary of state had donated to the Clinton Foundation.

Well, Trump, Donald Trump, ratcheted up his rhetoric against Hillary Clinton today in Tampa, calling her actions criminal.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: She sold favors and access in exchange for cash. She sold it! She sold favors! She sold access! And wait until you see when it`s revealed, all of those people -- now it looks like it`s 50 percent of the people that saw her had to make contributions to the Clinton Foundation.

Wait`ll you see, ultimately, what she did for all of those people. Wait`ll you see. These are not people that go in, as I said, and talk about, How are you feeling.

It`s impossible to tell where the Clinton Foundation ends and the State Department begins.

She did so to cover up a vast pay-for-play scheme. Her actions are criminal. Hillary Clinton thinks she`s above the law.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, in his introduction to Trump today, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani took it further, alleging that the Clintons did -- what they did is worse than Watergate. Listen to him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDY GIULIANI (R), FMR. NEW YORK CITY MAYOR: I am more than willing to predict, when the history of our day is written, the scandal you are watching unfold is going to be like the Teapot Dome scandal was in the 1920s. and maybe bigger. It`s going to be bigger than Watergate! Nixon had to leave office, and he did a lot of bad things, but it wasn`t raking in millions and millions of dollars through a phony charity!

You know what the Clintons must be saying? What a jerk that Nixon was. You want to know how to really be a criminal, you destroy the evidence!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, it`s not a phony charity. Let`s get that straight.

Anyway, earlier today, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook took issue with the Associated Press report and denied there was a conflict of interest there.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBBY MOOK, CLINTON CAMPAIGN MANAGER: By our count, there were over 1,700 other meetings that she had. You know, she was secretary of state. She was meeting with foreign officials and government officials constantly. So to pull all of them out of the equation, cherry pick a very small number of meetings, is -- is pretty outrageous.

At every juncture, the foundation set up the highest possible standards to prevent any conflict of interest.

Hillary Clinton and her family had a foundation. It is charitable. They don`t receive a salary from it.

Hillary Clinton doesn`t have a conflict of interest with charitable work. That`s all it is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, earlier today -- actually, earlier this evening, Bill Clinton weighed in on what would happen with the foundation should Hillary Clinton win the presidency. Here he is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL CLINTON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And I made it clear that if she becomes president, we`ll have to do more than we did when she was secretary of state because if you make a mistake (INAUDIBLE) appeal to (INAUDIBLE) if you`re secretary of state. If you`re president, you can`t.

But we`re going to transition all these responsibilities that would require foreign or corporate donations, which I won`t accept. And I won`t raise money for the foundation, if she wins. And I`m happy to do the transition as quickly as we can. We`ve already found partners who want to do -- take over some of this stuff. But we have to do it in a way that no one loses their job, no one loses their income and no one loses their life. That`s all I`m concerned about.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: So is this about quid pro quo, or is it about social as well as political access to people who donate? Is this really pay-to-play or is this another more common case of pay-to-play with, to have access with people, socially as well as politically?

NBC`s Andrea Mitchell covers the Clinton campaign, is the host of "Andrea Mitchell Reports" here on MSNBC at noon weekdays. Andrea, just give us the -- what are the facts here that we can discern in terms of any possible conflict of interest between the people who come to see Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, who have already given to this Clinton Global Initiative? Is there a conflict there?

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Look, there are lots of people who are either corporate or social friends of the Clintons and contributors to the foundation. And they have had meetings with Hillary Clinton. And they got access. They got access, many of them, because they were officials or they were -- had relationships with other think tanks or non-government, NGOs, groups that do charities elsewhere, like -- like, you know, the Gates family and others, Muhammad Yunus.

This has been handled very sloppily, I think, and the firewall was not properly defined as well as it should have been. There was a memorandum of understanding that was signed by both sides when Hillary Clinton was confirmed by the Foreign Relations Committee, by John Kerry and Dick Lugar and people representing the White House, Valerie Jarett, and also the Clintons, Bruce Lindsay.

So they all agreed to the terms. They probably were not as careful as they should have been.

There is nothing here that anyone has been able to determine that was illegal, Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump notwithstanding. The State Department says that no rules were broken, no ethical rules were broken. No laws were broken. It was all aboveboard, that these people would have had meetings with her in any case.

So it is like a political campaign. Do senators and Congress members accept phone calls from people who are their contributors before they hear from, you know, the average person? Yes. That is the way business is done in Washington. It`s something Bernie Sanders and others have been, you know, campaigning against. And it`s not illegal. It is certainly, though, the old way of doing business and it`s not something that voters like, and it could hurt her at the polls.

MATTHEWS: Well, prior to becoming secretary of state, as you said, Andrea, then Senator Hillary Clinton of New York signed an ethics agreement with the State Department which was meant to serve as that firewall between her duties as secretary and the activities of the Clinton Foundation.

Now, the letter she signed said at the beginning of the letter, quote, "For the duration of my appointment as secretary, if I am confirmed, I will not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter involving specific parties in which the William J. Clinton Foundation or the Clinton Global Initiative is a party or represents a party unless I am first authorized to participate."

Now, that`s pretty legalese. I`m wondering if that has an understandable meaning? What would the firewall be -- I won`t meet with people who gave to the foundation? Does it mean, I won`t serve in office, little duties, little tasks to undertake as secretary of state that meet the needs of donors?

How do you read it, Andrea?

MITCHELL: It means no -- it means no quid pro quo. And we, frankly, have not found a quid pro quo. For instance, earlier tonight, I interviewed F. Daniel Abraham, who is the founder of Slim-Fast.

MATTHEWS: Sure.

MITCHELL: His communications, the e-mails to Huma Abedin asking for a meeting -- he`s in town, he wanted a meeting with Hillary Clinton. Was that a quid pro quo?

He tells me that he was meeting with her on -- that he knew her since 1992 and that he was meeting with her as head of the Middle East Institute on issues of Middle East peace...

MATTHEWS: Sure.

MITCHELL: ... getting the Palestinians and the Israelis together. And he was calling for that meeting when he was with a high-ranking Israeli official.

So he`s got an explanation. It doesn`t sound like a quid pro quo. He`s been -- he`s known Hillary Clinton for all of those years. He would get that meeting no matter when or how or whether or not he`d given to the foundation.

In the case of Governor McDonnell, the Supreme Court unanimously made it very clear that you have to do something absolutely overtly. She has to pick up the phone and say, I am calling and doing this for you because you are a donor. It has to be very explicit. They overturned that conviction. So there is no -- as far as we know, no legal case here.

And it`s really a matter of politics that the Republicans are claiming that this is pay-for-play and something that should lead to her being indicted or convicted or lock her up. That is really the campaign. We have yet to see anything from any investigator that says that this is the case.

MATTHEWS: You know, and Mr. Abraham -- we both know him. I mean, I know of his work, and he`s a man...

MITCHELL: 92 years old.

MATTHEWS: ... very much concerned for peace in the Middle East.

MITCHELL: Right.

MATTHEWS: He`s not some rabid Likudnik or anything. He`s a guy who happens to be Jewish who really believes in trying to find peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

A friend of mine, Wayne Owens, a former congressman, worked for him, died over there working for him, of natural causes, but he gave his life, basically, over there working for that cause. It was great cause. Why shouldn`t he get to meet with our secretary of state?

Thank you, Andrea Mitchell, for including that bit of fact.

Anyway, with me now is John Brabender, who`s a Republican strategist, and Jonathan Capehart`s an opinion writer with the "Washington Post," and course, an MSNBC contributor.

What would you call this, Jonathan Capehart, if you discovered that somebody had gotten a lot of access in terms office time, whatever the percentage is of a public official, for people who had given money to that person either as a charitable cause or as a campaign contribution?

Would that be new to you? Would that be unethical to you? Would that be the way things work? What would you call it?

JONATHAN CAPEHART, "WASHINGTON POST," MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: I`ll take first and the third piece first. No, it would not be new to me. It would be something that to me, as someone -- when I was a board member for the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, we had to go out and raise money, do philanthropic work for our own organization, a 501(c)(3).

And you know, people give money to nonprofits for all sorts of reasons, for access, to be close to important people.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

CAPEHART: We would do a dinner every year with big journalists, and people would pay a lot of money just to be able to sit next to Tom Brokaw or Dan Rather. I`m dating -- I`m dating myself here.

(LAUGHTER)

CAPEHART: But people give money to philanthropic organizations for various reasons.

And what`s at issue here, to get to your "Is it ethical" piece -- as Andrea said, from reading the AP story, I did not read anything that was remotely illegal. You know, you want to talk about appearances, you know, this whole story and the way it`s been handled feeds into the narrative that the Clintons can`t be trusted.

But if you actually read the AP story, as I did -- I came away thinking, Where is the beef here? If you`re going to hang your entire story...

MATTHEWS: I know. OK...

CAPEHART: ... on Muhammad Yunus, you have -- you really have no story, at least not the narrative...

MATTHEWS: Well, let me go to Brabender.

CAPEHART: ... people thing it is.

MATTHEWS: John, what are your -- John, you look at this, try to look at this from both sides, whoever was doing it. It doesn`t seem strange to me. In fact, my hunch is a lot of the people that gave to the Global Initiative, the Clintons, also gave to their campaigns, knew them socially, whatever.

And also, Jonathan`s so right. A lot of people give money to politicians, or whatever the cause, so they can sit next to them at a dinner. They just like the closeness of somebody important.

JOHN BRABENDER, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Yes, well, there`s a couple things. First -- well, as you know, Chris, I`m a campaign consultant, so I look at this in a different context. I look at it as the fact that we`re having a conversation a little more than two months out whether or not Hillary Clinton broke the law is probably not a good day for the Clinton campaign, number one.

MATTHEWS: Well, who said she broke the law? Who said she broke the law?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: ... say that?

BRABENDER: People are saying, We`re looking at this, and we`ve yet to find anything that -- where she did break the law.

MATTHEWS: OK.

BRABENDER: The point is, we wouldn`t even be having that discussion if there weren`t at least some concerns that there was some stupidity involved.

The second thing that I think you got to realize in a situation like this, is you have Bill Clinton now saying, Well, you know, if she`s president, we`re not going to do it this way. It could be a conflict.

Well, that was the same problem when she was secretary of state. If it was a bad idea when she was president, it`s a bad idea when she`s secretary of state. And I think they should be willing to own up to that.

MATTHEWS: Back to you, Jon, on that. That point sounds important to me. If it`s a problem so much that the president, the former president, has to pull out of this deal and say, No more foreign contributions, no more corporate contributions -- by the way, I`m ducking out of the deal if she`s elected president -- if you admit that concern about a conflict, why not do it earlier, do it when she was made secretary of state?

CAPEHART: But wait, because we`re talking about two different jobs. Of course, if Hillary Clinton is elected president of the United States, all the things that the foundation has announced that it will do, that it would do if she`s elected, are things that have to be done. I mean, the people who are saying right now that the foundation should close, that they should cease all their activities, at no point do they talk about what happens to the people on the other end of those services that the foundation helps. No one talks about the lives involved.

MATTHEWS: Well, Jonathan, I will -- and John Brabender, both of you gentlemen, I will talk about that at the end of the show because I believe because I`ve had firsthand experience with it, with the Clinton Foundation, I think it does great work, and I would hate to see it stop.

Anyway, coming up -- thank you, gentlemen, both. Coming up -- Donald Trump plans to meet with black and Hispanic Republicans tomorrow. But his outreach isn`t exactly being conducted the normal way. It`s an invitation- only thing to Trump Tower. They have to come to him, take the escalator up and meet him in his home place, his kingdom, if you will.

Also, overseas, new details of a murderous attack in Afghanistan today at the American University in Kabul. NBC`s chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel, will give us the latest on that horror.

And Hillary Clinton is leading in the polls in most of the big states that matter. Could she win this thing a landslide? I think it`s doable, at this point, if these trends continue. And our roundtable`s here to size up whether 2016 will look more like that lopsided race where Reagan got reelected or Nixon got reelected or Johnson got reelected, one of those babies, or more like the squeaker we saw, when the Supreme Court had to put its nose into the thing in 2000.

Finally, "Let Me Finish" tonight, as I said, with this attack on the Clinton Foundation and Global Initiative.

This is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, former Philadelphia and Miami police chief John Timoney was laid to rest Tuesday in New York City. Hundreds of mourners turned out at St. Patrick`s cathedral to honor Timoney, who lost his battle with lung cancer last week.

He was born in Ireland, John Was. Timoney moved to New York at the age of 12 and would later become an NYPD police officer. He rose up to first deputy commissioner in New York under Bill Bratton before his top positions in Philadelphia and in Miami.

In a eulogy today, Commissioner Bratton described John Timoney as, quote, "one of a kind." And he was also one of the last of that kind. What a great man, what a good man he was, John Timoney.

And we`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Donald Trump continued his outreach, if you will, to minority communities today, again asking them, What do you have to lose? Here he is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: What do you have to lose? What do you have to lose? It cannot get any worse! And believe me, I`m going to fix it. I`m going to make it so good. So to the African-American voter -- great people -- to the Hispanic voter who have been absolutely treated terribly, I say what do you have to lose? What? I will fix it. I`ll be able to make sure that when you walk down the street in your inner city or wherever you are, you`re not going to be shot!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Wow. That`s pretty rough stuff. Meanwhile, he seems to be moderating his language on deporting illegal immigrants. In the past, he`s said he would round them up and even called for a deportation force he would create. Well, here he was last night, however.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: You seem to, in the last week, be revisiting the issue of sending everybody back that is here illegally. Tell us where you stand on that.

TRUMP: We want to follow the laws. You know, we have very strong laws.

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

HANNITY: Is there any part of the law that you might be able to change that would accommodate those people that contribute to society, have been law-abiding, have kids here? Would there be any room in your mind or -- because I know you had a meeting this week with Hispanic leaders.

TRUMP: I did. I did. I did. I had a meeting with great people, great Hispanic leaders. And there certainly can be a softening because we`re not looking to hurt people. We want people -- we have some great people in this country. We have some great, great people in this country.

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: So but we`re going to follow the laws of this country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, according to today`s "Washington Post," Trump is trying shed the label that some critics have stuck with him -- or stuck on him or racist.

Well, -- quote -- "Trump has ordered a full-fledged strategy to court black and Latino voters and is mobilizing scores of minority figures to advocate publicly for his candidacy."

Well, tomorrow, Trump will meet with a group of African-American and Hispanic Republicans up at Trump Tower, an invitation-only affair, of course.

Can Trump outrun his birther past?

Cornell Belcher is a Democratic pollster, and Amy Holmes is a political analyst for Rasmussen Reports. She was a senior speechwriter to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

Let me start with Cornell and then go quickly to Amy.

What is your sense of what Trump is trying to accomplish here? And does he have the bona fides to pull it off?

CORNELL BELCHER, FORMER OBAMA CAMPAIGN POLLSTER: Well, I don`t really take it seriously.

I mean, one thing, if I want to how to better connect with African-American voters and Hispanic voters, I`m not necessarily meeting with black Republicans. Only 6 percent of African-Americans in battleground states are identifying as Republicans. And less than 20 -- around 20 percent or so of Hispanics are identifying with Republicans.

I don`t see this as an outreach the African-Americans at all. What this is, Chris, as you look inside the polling numbers right now in some of these battleground states. And we talk a lot sort of about what -- sort of he is losing ground with white college-educated voters.

He runs about 15 or 16 points off among Republicans where Mitt Romney was, right? There`s a whole swathe of moderate, middle-of-the-road Republicans who are uncomfortable with the idea of supporting a racist. This is about them. This is not about actually African-Americans and Hispanics forgetting a whole year of racism and xenophobia.

MATTHEWS: Amy, your thoughts?

AMY HOLMES, RASMUSSEN REPORTS: Well, I think Donald Trump would love to get a larger percent of the African-American vote and the Hispanic vote.

We know that Donald Trump, he likes to aim big. I don`t disagree that part of this outreach is to try to quell discomfort among some of those more centrist independent-leaning voters that he needs if he wants to become president of the United States.

But at Rasmussen Reports, in a four-way race among likely voters, we find Donald Trump getting 7 percent of the African-American vote.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

HOLMES: Compare that to Ross Perot back in 1992, who spoke in front of the NAACP, addressing that crowd as "your people." And he still got 7 percent of the vote.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

HOLMES: I think Donald Trump certainly has a lot more work to do. And his campaign has announced that they intend to hold a rally in Jackson, Mississippi, which is a town that is 80 percent African-American. I think it is going to be much watched TV. And the big challenge for Donald Trump will be, not only does his message resonate, but does he keep his cool being in front of a crowd that may not be his biggest fans?

MATTHEWS: That`s a great question.

Cornell, would you take this seriously or more seriously if he were to go into black churches, where the environment would be more conducive to the congregation there than to him, more comfortable than the people welcoming him than it might be to him?

That`s usually the way you show your politics in this country. You go into all kinds of areas and show your -- you have got the right chemistry to approach people who may have a different background than you. And that shows, I`m willing to do what it takes to ask for you vote. That`s the true ask.

Is it a true ask to invite people up to your gold tower and say, come on up for tea there or whatever tomorrow afternoon, I might give you some time? It doesn`t seem like the way you campaign by inviting people to you. You have to go to them, usually.

(LAUGHTER)

BELCHER: Well, it`s very condescending, but I don`t know why we`re surprised by that, right?

Another thing is, Chris, look at where he`s going. Last time I checked, Mississippi was not necessarily a battleground state. If this was actually about winning over African-Americans in places that are in play, you need to go -- you need to be in Florida and Ohio.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Yes, but the big cities in the South. You know the big cities are minority...

(CROSSTALK)

BELCHER: And Pennsylvania.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: But, Cornell, big cities are where you get an African-American audience in the South.

BELCHER: Well, to go Cleveland. Go to a big city in a battleground state, where it is actually competitive. Why go to a big city in Jackson, Mississippi?

Last time I checked, Democrats weren`t playing in Mississippi. This is more about shoring up some of his voters than it is reaching out to African-Americans. Now, that said, I`m for him all going into Mississippi. I`m for him to black churches. I think more competition for the black and brown vote, the better it is for the black and brown voters to move their agenda.

MATTHEWS: Let`s talk about this new report that just came out, Amy.

You were on this one first. In a yet-to-be-aired portion of an interview with Sean Hannity -- I guest it will be on tonight -- Trump seems to imply he is open to allowing some illegal immigrants -- of course, I think he implies from the southern border -- to stay in the U.S.

Quote: "No citizenship -- let me go a step further. They will pay back taxes. They have to pay taxes. There`s no amnesty as such. There`s no amnesty, but we work with them. Now, everybody agrees we get the bad ones out. But when I go through and I go meet thousands and thousands of people on this subject -- and I have had very strong people come up to me, really great, great people come up to me. And they have said, Mr. Trump, I love you, but to take a person who has been here for 15 or 20 years and throw them and their family out, it`s so tough, Mr. Trump. I have it all the time. It is a very, very hard thing."

So, it sounds like he doesn`t want to be the cartoon version of Donald Trump anymore on this issue, Amy.

HOLMES: Yes.

And it sounds like Kellyanne Conway is influencing the direction of his campaign, as his newly elevated campaign manager. The question is, of course, will Donald Trump supporters be unhappy with this softening of his rhetoric around immigration?

MATTHEWS: Yes. Good question.

HOLMES: And what I think is, interesting, anecdotally, the answer is no, because I think they think that Donald Trump is with them.

And early in his campaign, he said some pretty tough things. So, his instincts are in the right direction, not unlike in 2008 when then Senator -- President -- or Senator Obama, rather, said that he defined marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman before God.

But those who supported same-sex marriage, they knew, you know what? Secretly, he`s with us. His instincts are in the right direction when it comes to this issue.

And it turns out they were right. So, the question is, will Trump supporters` own sort of acceptance of this new campaign rhetoric also have the same payoff for them?

MATTHEWS: Good question.

It`s like when you pull the blanket around at night, somebody loses the blanket and get cold, while you pull the blanket your side. Look, when he tries to help the middle, he may be hurting the right.

How will his softening on this issue of deportations play with his base? Well, some conservatives are not happy.

For example, columnist Howie Carr up here of "The Boston Herald" up here: "Hey, Donald Trump, don`t go softening your stance against illegal immigration too much. I know, you`re back in a dead heat with Hillary in some of the recent polls, but don`t let it go to your head. You didn`t where you are by challenging Jeb Bush."

And here of course was Ann Coulter last night here on HARDBALL.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANN COULTER, AUTHOR, "IN TRUMP WE TRUST": I`m starting to worry that he`s panicking and talking to the wrong people, because he`s sounding a little bit more like the candidates he defeated with the talking points about softening on deporting the ones who are, oh, they have been here a long time and they are law-abiding.

Yes, that`s true, but how about you just say, no, my policy is consistent?

This could be the shortest book tour ever if he`s really softening his position on immigration. But I don`t think he is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Amy, where are you on the softening of Donald Trump?

HOLMES: I think it is him pivoting to the center in the hopes of winning this election.

Will he lose those core Trump supporters? I don`t think so, for the reasons that we were just discussing, which is, I think that they think he has the right instincts, so -- from their point of view.

So, when push comes to shove, as president of the United States, he will be supporting their outlook on these things. They didn`t have the same confidence in Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush. They thought that they were soft to begin with.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

HOLMES: Again, the question is, those Trump supporters, are they correct in this assessment?

MATTHEWS: It sounds right to me.

Thank you so much, Cornell Belcher. And thank you, Amy Holmes.

Up next: new details on a dangerous story unfolding in Afghanistan right now, as the American University over there comes under attack in Kabul.

HARDBALL returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) MATTHEWS: Well, back to politics in a minute, but welcome back.

We`re following breaking news out of Kabul, Afghanistan. That`s where officials say militants attacked the American University of Afghanistan, killing one person and injuring dozens more. This happened Wednesday evening Kabul time.

Anyway, witnesses say they heard gunfire and explosions. And one student said two grenades were thrown into his classroom. Well, security forces are now combing through the campus in search of the attackers.

Richard Engel is NBC chief foreign correspondent.

Richard, what do we know about who did this and why?

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: Well, frankly, we don`t know very much about who did it.

We have one main suspect, which is the Taliban. And the why is because it is the American University in Kabul. It has long been a target. Two professors, including one American professor, were kidnapped from -- just when they left this campus about two weeks ago.

This is the first major attack, however, on the facility. But if you are the Taliban, this facility represents everything that you oppose. It is co-ed. It brings American professors teaching Afghan boys and girls about civil society, teaching them in a Western education.

Frankly, it is one of the most positive legacies that the Americans have left in the city. And it is something that the Taliban has been determined to oppose. The Taliban hasn`t claimed responsibility. But the reason I say that they`re the most likely target is, there has been an increasing campaign against the Taliban recently.

While the rest of the world has been focused on the Olympics or the domestic politics in this country, the war in Afghanistan has intensified and the Taliban has come under heavy bombardment from the U.S. So, it could be a retaliation.

MATTHEWS: How do you protect a soft target like a university campus?

ENGEL: It is protected. There`s a wall around it. There`s a gate to go in.

But, frankly, if you set off a bomb, which is what happened in this case, and then rush in with gunmen, you have to be on a military-style footing to prevent that. It is not just normal security if people are willing to blow themselves up at a gate and then storm through commando-style. How do you prevent that?

I mean, you have to build every building like a supermax prison, frankly. And if you go through Kabul, a lot of the buildings look like supermax prisons. You have to go through airlock gates, that is, one gate, and then it closes behind you. And then they check you. And you have to go through another gate.

And even that kind of system doesn`t stop necessarily a determined attacker. So many buildings in Kabul are ringed by tall concrete T-walls. But if you`re willing to set off a bomb and then rush through with an assault rifle, it is not always going to stop you.

MATTHEWS: You know the area over there for a long time now.

And I was just thinking how wondrous it was after the Taliban fell, thanks to our forces over there, at the end of 2001. And to see the women waiting in movie lines, to see them knowing that they could dress the way they want in a free society, is that what it is like over there? Is that what drives the Taliban crazy, that people are actually culturally free to make their own religious and cultural decisions?

ENGEL: Well, that`s part of it.

The Taliban is a reactionist group. It wants to impose a strict version of Islamic law. It sees the world as completely corrupt, and through its vision. And, by the way, the al Qaeda vision is quite similar. ISIS` vision is quite similar. It`s this romantic idea that, if only pure Islamic law could be implemented, that all the ills of the world, which have been brought by the West and by Jewish conspiracies and things like that, would be wiped away.

So, that`s why it has been so important for the Taliban to attack things like girls education, to keep women oppressed in the most medieval kind of circumstances. And the American University in Kabul, as is embodied in its very name, is, frankly, trying to teach the opposite of that.

MATTHEWS: Well, I have nothing but respect for those professors who risk their lives to teach freedom.

ENGEL: Let`s hope they keep on doing it.

MATTHEWS: Anyway, thank you, Richard Engel, so much for giving us a great report again on a sad subject.

ENGEL: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: Up next: back to politics. Polls show that Bill Clinton -- Hillary Clinton has big leads over Trump in decisive states. If the trend continues -- there`s an old political phrase -- if the trend continues, could she win big enough to actually gain control of Congress? Could this be a mandate election this November, one that really matters historically?

We`re watching HARDBALL right now, the place for politics.

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MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Well, recent polls show Hillary Clinton with big a lead over Donald Trump. According to our most recent NBC News online tracking poll, Clinton beats Donald Trump by nine points. Getting close to double-digit.

In Virginia, she`s up 16 points. In Pennsylvania, a state we know Trump people need, she is up by 11.

And in Missouri, Republican-leaning state, normally, Clinton is behind by only a point, but in the margin of error. So, if the polls we see now hold, Hillary Clinton is on a track, and I think to win and win big come November, which is getting closer.

The default position for American politics lately I`d say, about 50/50, however. Most issues, people divide left versus right about 50/50. Well, the next 76 days, if they`re like the next few weeks, Trump could be in for an historic beating.

In a town hall yesterday, Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona said he would like to support Trump but he doesn`t think can or should win. He doesn`t think Trump should win. He also added that he has little faith at this point that Trump will change.

So, just how big can Hillary Clinton win this baby? And can she make a play for Democratic control of Congress so she can actually govern with a mandate?

Joining me right now is tonight`s roundtable is Sabrina Siddiqui, political reporter for "The Guardian" newspaper, Ken Vogel chief investigative reporter for "Politico", and Molly Ball, political reporter for "The Atlantic".

Well, I want you all to get into this scrum and I want to ask you about, what do you think the likelihood right now is that we`ll break from our normal pattern of 50/50 elections, that this could be a big one for Hillary.

Let`s start with Sabrina.

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, THE GUARDIAN: Well, Chris, a lot of the polling that`s done after the convention is typically predicted of where this all will end. Certainly, that`s been the trend in recent cycles. And Hillary Clinton in recent week has pulled ahead of Donald Trump by as much as double digits in key battle grounds.

It has reached a point where states like Arizona, Utah and Georgia are potentially in play, and Donald Trump is underperforming, among several. So, it`s hard to imagine when you take that and you couple with it the advertising advantage Hillary Clinton has, the organizational structure that she has which Donald Trump still has not shown how he can possibly turn it around with just less than three months to go.

MOLLY BALL, THE ATLANTIC: Well, the other thing that you see in these polls, Chris, is that she has disproportionate leads in the swing states, and that is because she actually has a campaign, and Donald Trump. She is running tens of millions of dollars of ads and has super PAC running ads and he is running almost no ads. She has a ground game. She has a field organization, organizing people to get ready to go out and vote for her. Trump doesn`t have that and it`s very hard to build at this late date.

And that gives her a floor in the states that she`s actually counting on to give her the electoral votes, which means that even if Trump turns his message around, turns his message around, if the polls start to tighten the way political scientists tell you that they should in a home stretch, it`s hard for him to make up some of that ground.

KEN VOGEL, POLITICO: You know, I agree, Chris, both with what Molly said about the Electoral College. It could be a landslide in the Electoral College, and really that`s all that matters. But I do think that the popular vote will get closer and the reason that I think that is that they both come into this with such high negatives, really historically high negatives.

If you look at the elections where we have had landslides in the popular vote, back to 1984 and 1964, you have a real imbalance. You had one candidate who was very popular, Ronald Reagan versus Walter Mondale in `84, and LBJ versus Goldwater in `64, and the other candidate was very unpopular.

In this case, you have two candidates who are very unpopular. So, I don`t see Hillary Clinton opening up a huge lead in the popular vote over someone who is sort of grappling with her for a title of most unpopular presidential candidate in the modern era. But that might not matter because the electoral vote is all that matters.

MATTHEWS: I think you`re all smart.

Anyway, take a look at this. Trump needs 270 electoral votes, as any candidate does to win. Last week, his new campaign manager Kellyanne Conway was here and she said he can get them. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: OK. Do you have 270 electoral votes in your head? Do you know where you`re going to get them?

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP MANAGER: I do. We do. I`ve got one that got us to 284, one has got us ahead 270-plus.

MATTHEWS: Not a lot to spare.

CONWAY: But we`ve got different situation.

MATTHEWS: Pennsylvania in there? Pennsylvania in there?

CONWAY: Yes, it is. It is in there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, I should not have interrupted, because really she was making the case of how difficult it is, because getting as her high point of gold of here is 270, 284, that is a squeaker already.

Anyway, according to our battleground map calculations, Hillary Clinton leads right now with 288 votes herself. Trump is down at 174.

Let me go back with Sabrina on this and start through everybody here.

Let me just ask you about something. Maybe this is nirvana. I keep hoping we`re going to have a government in the United States, something where whatever mix of the two parties, the country has delivered a mandate to a presidential candidate and there`s a sense that that person ought to get something done. It`s their turn at bat, if you will, in baseball terms.

And that candidate once elected president and sworn in will be given the respect of having won a mandate, and therefore, both parties will get together and actually pass legislation to support the mandate. So, the vote letters feel like they got something done instead of going back to the same old whatever thing we`ve been having now for 20 years, which is nothing.

Any hope for that? A governing majority, a governing presidency. Can we get one out of this election or we`re wasting our time voting?

SIDDIQUI: I think turning over the house is still very improbable but Democrats also shouldn`t take for granted their chances of taking back the Senate, although they are favored, simply looking at the map. There are several key battlegrounds where the Republican incumbents are running ahead of Democrats, even in states where Donald Trump is underperforming in the polls. You have Rob Portman in Ohio and Marco Rubio in Florida who have as much of a 6 to 8-point advantage in a series of polls, even though Donald Trump is losing, according to most polling in Florida by double digit.

So there have been some candidates, Republicans, who`ve been able to separate their support for Donald Trump by focusing on local issues and maintaining their appropriate level of distance. Certainly, Democrats have to do a better job if they plan to simply hang Donald Trump around their neck and take back the Senate that way.

MATTHEWS: There are still three seats there that they could pick up rather quickly, right? Illinois and Wisconsin and what`s the other one, there`s another one down there, too. I think they`ve got three anyway.

But go ahead. I think that`s depressing because if we have Hillary Clinton, Democrat, as president, a Republican Senate, a House of Representative is Republican run by an ideologue, nothing is going to happen.

VOGEL: You know, ironically, Chris, I think that Trump`s reverse coattails, that is the fact that we`re talking about here is dragging down some of the Senate candidates in key states is going to make it even harder for a President Clinton to come in with the ability to govern with that mandate because they`re going to see this candidates start to break off, these endangered Republican Senate candidates, maybe even House candidates start to break off and say, I oppose Trump, but you need elect me because I will be a check on Hillary Clinton. That`s how they`ll distance themselves from Trump. That`s going to come in already, sort of begin the Clinton presidency in a very adversarial fashion.

BALL: Right. If this race turns out to be a landslide, that`s not going to be seen as a mandate for Hillary Clinton. That`s going to be seen as a referendum on Donald Trump and all of his unusualness as candidate.

MATTHEWS: So, what`s the purpose of running elections for two years now we`ve had a presidential campaign? And you three are telling me, pretty much, we`re going to go end with the same hopeful crap we`re going into this thing, which was nothing gets done? Is that where we`re headed, to a January outlook of nothingness?

BALL: Well, no, look, whether Democrats take Senate or not, they`re not going to have 60 votes. Whether Democrats take the house or not, they are -- which is very, very unlikely, it still depends who the Republicans are who come back to Washington and how frightened they are by what they`ve seen, right?

MATTHEWS: What message? I agree with you. I agree completely.

BALL: I don`t think they`ve made that decision. It could be the case that the only Republicans left in the House are the ones from the deepest red, the maddest, the most right wing districts. So, they are more oppositional than ever. It could be that the proverbial fever finally breaks and all of these guys who`ve won the states where Hillary also won feel like they have to cooperate.

MATTHEWS: Well, you`re all smart. Somebody give me some hope besides brains. I`m getting brains, I want some hope. Does anybody see the possibility, the combination of people who win, the Democrats who win for example, and the people who get the message on the Republican sides adds up to a governing move for actions somewhere near the middle politically? Anybody believe that?

VOGEL: Well, if Clinton governs like her husband did, which is the sort of the strategy of triangulation and for real small ball victories where they could get --

MATTHEWS: Well, how about an immigration bill that`s fair and enforced, how about that?

VOGEL: I think that`s a little bit too ambitious.

MATTHEWS: Oh my God. We`re the only country in the world that can`t govern. It`s immigration policy. It`s a fair, American way. We can`t -- it`s hopeless, in other words, you guys are all saying, to have an immigration policy as an example, it`s hopeless.

BALL: I don`t think it`s hopeless.

MATTHEWS: Is this it?

BALL: I think there`s a slight chance that the same Republican Party that decided after 2012 that they needed to pass immigration reform, looks at 2016 and says, if only we had done it four years ago.

MATTHEWS: Well, I think it would be great for the country to have something to be proud of and enforced. A law we believe is fair and progressive and open and American. And we enforce it because we believe in it. Is that asking too much? So far, yes.

And the roundtable is sticking with us.

Up next, these three will tell me something I don`t know. And this is HARDBALL, the place for politics.

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MATTHEWS: We`ve got new polling data right now from a state that went blue in 2008 but red in 2012. That`s North Carolina.

Let`s go to the HARDBALL scoreboard.

According to a new CNN/ORC poll, Clinton is up by one point in North Carolina, the Tar Heel State. It`s Clinton, 44, Trump, 43, with Libertarian Gary Johnson coming up, by the way, at 11 percent. Research Triangle votes there, I would say are for Johnson.

And in Arizona, Trump is up by five. It`s Trump 43, Clinton down at 38. Gary Johnson there in third with a strong 12 percent, heading toward the 15 percent you need to get into the debates.

And we`ll be right back.

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MATTHEWS: We`re back.

Molly, tell me something I don`t know and make it optimistic, please. I`m just kidding. Go ahead.

BALL: Bernie Sanders tonight kicking off this new non-profit Our Revolution to try to keep that progressive energy going, keep the activism going for the people who supported him. They`re going to be active in the November election. They`re going to support progressive candidates up and down the ticket, all the way down to local office. Also possibly advocating for some progressive ballot initiatives in states, like the single-payer initiative in Colorado and anti-death penalty initiatives in several states.

MATTHEWS: Get rid of super delegates. That`s what I`d like.

Anyway, Ken, Ken Vogel?

VOGEL: Campaign finance reports filed over the weekend show that the Trump campaign spent $8.4 million on digital consulting and online ads. That`s a ton of money for a campaign that hasn`t spent a lot of money on this type of traditional political blocking and tackling. Most of it went to this firm out of San Antonio that had never worked on campaign before. It`s a firm that`s owned by his digital director, Trump`s digital director. Its only experience with Trump prior to this point had been working on websites for his golf courses.

MATTHEWS: OK. Sabrina, only a couple of minutes, a couple of seconds left here.

SIDDIQUI: So, I interviewed the RNC`s director of Hispanic outreach and asked her directly, should Trump apologize to the Hispanic community for saying that the majority of Mexican immigrants are rapists and killers, were attacking an American judge over his Hispanic heritage.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

SIDDIQUI: She told me as a matter of fact, no, he shouldn`t apologize. And he is most likely not going to apologize. So, as he expresses unspecified regrets for comments he`s made in the past, don`t expect him to get much more specific --

MATTHEWS: Well, that explains how you get a job like that, doesn`t it? Doesn`t that explain it? That`s what you have to do to get that job of working for Trump.

Anyway, Sabrina Siddiqui, thank you. Ken Vogel, and thank you, Molly Ball.

HARDBALL is coming back after this.

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MATTHEWS: Let me finish tonight with this attack on the Clinton Foundation and Global Initiative. Let me say what I often say, that people only truly believe what they discover for themselves. It`s not until you come face to face with a subject that you really know it.

And I`ve said this before a number of times, but let me say it again with pride. For five months after he graduated from college, our son Michael worked in Rwanda, getting AIDS drugs to people in that country, all the while ensuring personally that these medicines paid for by world donors didn`t fall into the hands of those who would sell them on the European market.

This was a classic example of how the Clinton Global Initiative works. They do two things to make sure aid to developing, vulnerable countries works. One, it gets the governments to commit to keeping their hands off the money. Two, they convince the donors in Europe, the United States and elsewhere, that that is one aid program that gets all the money to the person for whom is intended. It`s not going to find its way to the pockets of corrupt government officials. It`s not going to get lost on the route between donor and intended recipient like so much aid has been over the past year.

So, if you ask me if I believe in the Clinton Global Initiative, I do. I`ve seen how it works and proud as an American that we`re doing this kind of thing, that Bill Clinton and his people would found a way to serve the world, to encourage giving and to make sure that good people get what they need without bad people trying to grab their piece of it.

So, let`s keep our eye on potential conflicts here, not on the Clinton effort itself. Shutting down the Clinton effort would hardly make this a better world. Getting others to do what it`s doing, would.

And that`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being here.

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.

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