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Hardball with Chris Matthews, Transcript 4/6/2017

Guests: Ben Cardin, Mike Quigley, Mark Jacobson, John McLaughlin, Ayesha Rascoe

Show: Hardball with Chris Matthews Date: April 6, 2017 Guest: Ben Cardin, Mike Quigley, Mark Jacobson, John McLaughlin, Ayesha Rascoe



Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.

Well, tonight, the Trump administration is weighing a possible military response to Bashar al Assad`s gas attack over in Syria. And as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said today, all options are now on the table.

On his flight down to Palm Beach this afternoon, President Trump himself was asked if Assad must now go.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think what Assad did is terrible. I think what happened in Syria is one of the truly egregious crimes, and it shouldn`t have happened. And it shouldn`t be allowed to happen.

QUESTION: Do you think that Assad should leave power in Syria?

TRUMP: I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity. And he`s there, and I guess he`s running things. So something should happen.


MATTHEWS: Something should happen. You heard the president.

Well, joining me right now from London with more is NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel. Richard, there`s something happening, and I`m wondering what we know at this point. What do you know?

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Well, I`ve been speaking to senior U.S. military officials, and they say that something is seriously under consideration, that it could happen imminently, that a wide range of options are being presented to the president -- this could develop very quickly, perhaps even in the next couple of -- next several hours, and that the president is leaning toward a more limited option, not a massive military campaign that would change the regime, not toppling Bashar al Assad, not a U.S. ground invasion, more like limited military strikes, potentially -- or particularly strikes against the chemical weapons capability. So more of a measured response.

You have to look at what the situation is like in Syria. Bashar al Assad is a dictator. He`s been condemned around the world for using these weapons, and now the U.S. says it has evidence, radar evidence, that links his aircraft to this attack that was so horrific a few days ago.

But if Bashar al Assad were to go, there is also ISIS. There are al Qaeda groups. And who would step in to fill that gap? So I think it seems that the president and his advisers are trying to weigh what is an appropriate response. How far can they go without destabilizing the regime and opening an entire new can of worms?

MATTHEWS: Let`s talk about the situation over there with regard to -- and I was thinking also of measured response, like during the Cuban missile crisis, of course, where President Kennedy handled that in a very measured way. What about the Russian air defenses? From what I can understand, you have to penetrate them to get to any target. How do we do that?

ENGEL: Well, you might not have to use manned aircraft. There`s a lot of talk about using cruise missiles. So you can fire weapons, and if some of them are shot down by air defenses, so be it. The cost is only one lost missile, not the cost of a lost pilot.

What I`m thinking of and the analogy that keeps coming into my head is if,a you`ll remember the 1998 attack by President Clinton after there were the two terrorist attacks in Africa, in Kenya and Dar es Salaam. There was a series of cruise missile attacks. They targeted al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and in Sudan. The idea was to send a message that there will be a response, but not to get the United States involved in a war. That later happened, and we saw the result.

MATTHEWS: What about the Russian casualties? I keep going back to that because what I understand is that they`re the main military force in the country, that they could be targeted. We could hit them unintentionally. We can also hit civilians. I mean, how many times have we been engaged in what seemed to be surgical strikes, and an hour or two later, we`re watching world television with people being taken to a hospital? It just seems there`s a syndrome here. We all know it very well.

ENGEL: Well, this is the real risk, and this is why these decisions are so important and so difficult to make because no war plan survives the first engagement. That`s what they all say. So if the idea is to have a limited strike and it`s just going to send a proportionate response, that doesn`t mean that necessarily that is what happens. There are Russian troops on the ground. Russians have bases.

They are flying missions over Syria. If the Russians were hit even by accident, it would escalate the situation dramatically. Also, there are hundreds of American troops inside Syria. They`re there on the counter- ISIS mission. If large numbers of Syrian troops were killed in this raid, Syria might feel compelled to respond to an attack on its troops with an attack on U.S. troops.

So finding the response that sends the message but doesn`t escalate with Russia, doesn`t put U.S. troops in the Syrians` crosshairs or even the Russians` crosshairs -- it is difficult. That`s why what I`m hearing from some sources is that they`re trying to find a more limited option targeting the weapons capabilities, particularly those linked to chemical weapons.

MATTHEWS: Last question, Richard. What`s the gain or the purpose of a punitive attack? In other words, it`s not an existential attack on the regime over there. They remain in place. The Assad family remains in power. The regime holds, but we somehow administer a punishment to them. What is the efficaciousness of that?

ENGEL: Yes, no, I was thinking about that, as well. So if you`re going to do what is effectively a big slap on the wrist, why bother doing it? Why not go all the way and remove Bashar al Assad if Bashar al Assad is the problem?

ANNOUNCER: The issue is who then steps into the breach. And in Syria, this is one of the most complicated civil wars in the world. You could have ISIS coming in, marching into Damascus. You could have al Qaeda, a whole host of terrible outcomes.

The goal is to send Assad a message, I`m told, but also to re-establish U.S. credibility. A lot of this goes back to that red line moment that has so often been criticized, particularly from the Republican side but not only, that last time, there was a major chemical weapons attack in Syria, President Obama said there would be action, and then the action never came.

And it seems that President Trump wants to do an act and maybe do that act quite quickly to send a message that things are different now, that he`s different, that times have changed, that America has its credibility again. That would be a goal.

MATTHEWS: Well, something`s going on. Thank you so much, NBC`s Richard Engel in London.

Well, now to NBC`s Hans Nichols at the Pentagon. Hans, thank you for this. And I get back to the same questions, and I have been hearing about phone calls being made to different members of the Congress today. Something`s afoot.

HANS NICHOLS, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Well, I can tell you, Chris, that the Pentagon seems a little bit more busy tonight than it normally does at 7:00 o`clock on a Thursday night.

Here`s what we know. We have a very clear signal, strong signal from President Trump himself that there could be action. We had something similar from Secretary Tillerson. And then here at the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff are meeting, have been meeting in the Tank. We don`t know if that meeting is still taking place. They went in there about 4:30.

They`re planning on presenting plans to President Trump, on the far end, taking out the entire air force of the Assad regime, grounding them, and on the other end, more to the point of Richard was talking about, more surgical strikes, actually taking out the assets that did this initial -- this attack, this chemical weapons attack, which U.S. military officials and the Pentagon clearly thinks they`ve pinned on the Assad regime. They saw it quite clearly with their radar.

MATTHEWS: How active and up to date is our map of Syria? Do we know where the Russians` encampments are, where they`re deployed? Do we know where their aircraft is deployed? Can we discriminate among the embedded troops? We have Russians embedded in various units over there, Syrian units. How do we single out Syrians for attack without attacking Russians?


NICHOLS: Chris, you really sort of hit the nail on its head there because they know where the Russian regime force is here. Most of the briefings we get, those two are captured -- they put those two together.

Excuse me here. I`m going to assume that is an important phone call from an important source.

But what we do see is up to date maps, every week, every other day here. I`m looking at a map up in my booth right now, and it`s from January 2016. I have that map because in February, there`s a new one. In March, there was a new one, and I borrowed it from a defense official here.

MATTHEWS: We`ll be right back to you when you get that call, Hans Nichols at the Pentagon.

Joining me right now is MSNBC military analyst Colonel Jack Jacobs, who`s also a recipient of the prestigious Medal of Honor. Thank you, Colonel, for joining us.

And I guess the questions are pretty obvious. How do we avoid hitting the wrong targets, the Russians, and opening up a larger front than we intend?

COL. JACK JACOBS, U.S. ARMY (RET.), NBC MILITARY ANALYST: Well, the more limited the strike, the less chance you have of having collateral damage, of hitting Russians, and so on.

The targeting is going to revolve around delivery means, airfields, maintenance facilities that service airfields. But remember the Russians have maintenance people there, and it`s going to be extremely difficult, even if you launch a surgical strike with cruise missiles on specific installations in the middle of the night, when it`s less likely to hit civilians and other people who may be there, you`re still liable to have collateral damage and have Russians killed. So there`s no guarantee that even a limited strike is going to avoid any collateral damage.

MATTHEWS: What about the problem of embedding where you have Russians embedded in the Syrian units? How do we avoid again hitting the other world power?

JACOBS: Yes, I think that the objective is not to hit units, it`s to hit facilities instead. And it may very well be that a limited strike just to demonstrate that we`re annoyed and irritated and, Don`t do it again, is the way they`re going to go. There is still some risk involved, but not so much as there is in cratering all the airfields, grounding the air force, and making it impossible for Assad to launch any planes. The more limited, the less likely there is to be any collateral damage and the less likely it is to involve Russians.

Having said that, the Russians are crucial to ensuring that whatever gets resolved in this arena gets resolved. The Russians don`t care about Assad. It doesn`t matter whether Assad is running the place or somebody else. Indeed, there`s plenty of evidence to indicate that Assad is not really running it. It`s the top of the military food chain there, and those are the people who really need to be convinced otherwise.

MATTHEWS: Give me an example. I was thinking back to Ronald Reagan, President Reagan`s, attack on Gadhafi where he hit them in their tents and killed a member of his family. But it was certainly a painful strike. Is that an example of a successful punitive attack in 21st century or late 20th century fighting?

JACOBS: Yes, it is in Libya, as was, but it`s certainly not as -- it`s not the fact -- it`s not going to work in Syria. The top of the military food chain is all in revetted positions. Everybody`s located in built-up areas. It`s a very cosmopolitan country, and so on. So what we did in Libya is not going to work in Syria.

MATTHEWS: You know, it was once said years ago that the East, or the Middle East, they look upon us as always covering our retreat with stand- off weapons, that we`re shooting at them and always skipping away. And that sounds like, no matter what it looks from our perspective, from their perspective, we`re retreating.

How do you impress a Middle East power by hit-and-run, by hitting them and then making sure you have limited exposure to yourself, and you skip back to your safe units, you skip back to your country, and you think you`ve whacked them, and all you`ve done is demonstrated you`re in retreat? I don`t know how it demonstrates power. To me, it demonstrates -- if you`re going to swat somebody and skip town, how does that impress them in terms of the future and where you`re going to be a year, 10 years from now?

JACOBS: Yes, I`m reminded of the observation of Lewis Carroll, who once wrote, If you don`t know where you`re going, any road will take you there. So you have to first establish what it is you`re trying to do.

If what we want to do is to make sure that Assad leaves, that the military food chain there ceases to exist, that all of Syria is controlled and that we can get in there and take care of ISIS and -- if we want to do that, you`re talking about a large number of American or multi-national troops there for a long period of time. That`s going to require a great deal of coordination, an enormous commitment that we`re not willing to make.

If at the other end of the spectrum, our objective is to send a message, you can do that, and we don`t care very much what other people think about us. We just want to send a bomb there, blow up a couple of planes and leave, and that`s not going to change the observation, the feeling that...


JACOBS: ... you`re talking about...


JACOBS: Nothing`s going to change that except...

MATTHEWS: So it`s for our satisfaction, rather than deliver a message. It`s to make us feel like we`ve done something.

JACOBS: Yes, I think a lot of it -- look, everybody in the world, every leader in the world is playing to two audiences, the international audience, but more often than not, a domestic audience, and there`s a lot of that in this -- whatever happens, there`s a lot of that in this here.

MATTHEWS: So much to have you -- great to have you, Colonel Jack Jacobs.

JACOBS: You bet.

MATTHEWS: Stick with us during this hour.

Former National Security Council member and MSNBC military analyst General Barry McCaffrey joins me now. What`s your sober look at this right now, what looks to be afoot right now, some sort of military action fairly imminently right now, General?

GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY, U.S. ARMY (RET.), NBC MILITARY ANALYST: Yes. Well, I think Jack Jacobs had it pretty much right. The question is, has the Trump White House written down the political objectives they are trying to achieve through military force? And if we`re signaling displeasure to killing people with chemical weapons, there`ll be a consequence of that strike that will achieve no decisive results in this ongoing war.

A half million have been murdered, self-propelled artillery tanks, AK-47s. Now we`re going to respond with military power over 100 people murdered with chemical weapons. So I`m not too sure there`s clarity in what they`re trying to achieve.

MATTHEWS: What would be the reason for a military person in the Situation Room or wherever at the Pentagon to recommend such -- if it is such a limited strike, why would -- what would be the argument for it except, you know, PR?

MCCAFFREY: Well, I don`t think there is an argument. I think it`d be a mistake to conduct limited political signaling using naval air power or F- 16s flying out of someplace in the region.

I do believe there`s, you know, a chance that Mattis will table -- the secretary of defense -- an option to eliminate the Syrian air force. The Russians will not confront the U.S. Air Force and naval air in air combat. We probably would kill some of them. But I think they would probably step aside.

Now, the consequences of that, though, might be Iranian Revolutionary Guards killing soldiers, U.S. soldiers in Iraq, Hezbollah going after the Israelis. So military power invites unknown consequences when you carry it out.

And the question might be, why don`t we consider significant humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees in border regions of Turkey and Jordan and Iraq in lieu of ineffectual military strikes?

MATTHEWS: General, if you`re sitting tonight writing down the mission plan and telling our pilots to go over there and hit Syrian planes, wipe out the Syrian air force while not destroying Soviet air defenses, Soviet personnel -- their forces are over there, which are embedded in those units -- avoiding any kind of confrontation with the other power in the world, the Russians -- how do you discriminate when you`re in the air looking down? I mean how do you know which plane is Syrian? How do you know which unit is embedded with Russians? How do you know these things from the air? Do we have that good a map?

MCCAFFREY: Well, look, they`re awfully good. There`s no question about it. They are going to be drones collecting intelligence and post-strike analysis. But they are, as Jack Jacobs has said, intermixed. It`s very likely you`d end up with significant damage to Russian forces.

It`s possible they would make a mistake and defend their airfields using their very sophisticated ground-to-air missiles.


MCCAFFREY: So you know, this would not be a conflict in which there wouldn`t be U.S. forces at risk. But again, to underscore, U.S. naval and air power can definitely destroy the Syrian air force in a couple of weeks or so. That would be a decisive military objective. The question is, what would it contribute to the political outcome on the ground in Syria?

MATTHEWS: Let`s assume that the Syrians benefit from state-of-the-art Russian air defenses. What`s our vulnerability -- what`s the vulnerability facing our pilots who go over that country tonight perhaps?

MCCAFFREY: Well, I think, mostly, it`s political. Look, we just had one extremely courageous, you know -- the best people on the face of the earth are these JSOC special operations forces. We had a Navy chief killed in action on what I think was a pretty well planned out and conducted raid, and there was a huge political fallout.

So again, in today`s day and age, digital communications, warring political factions in the U.S. -- if we go after the Syrian air force, if there are Russians on the ground, then there may well be consequences, one of which would be incurring casualties in U.S. air power. You know, this is dangerous business.


MCCAFFREY: They`re the best on the face of the earth, but there would be a risk, no question.

MATTHEWS: Thank you so much for your experience and your wisdom. Thank you, General Barry McCaffrey.

We are now continuing to follow the breaking news tonight, president Trump considering military action against Syria. We`re going to get reaction from the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. And back with more. We don`t know when it`s coming. It could be soon.

We`ll be right back.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Well, tonight, President Trump is facing two big diplomatic tests, of course -- right now, the president and the first lady are dining with Chinese president Xi Jinping and his wife at Mar-a-Lago, there are the pictures there of their meeting earlier today -- while administration officials are exploring all options when it comes to responding to Syria`s gas attack.

Watch this.


REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We are considering an appropriate response for this chemical weapons attack, which violates all previous U.N. resolutions.


MATTHEWS: Well, while down there at Mar-a-Lago, the president will not only weigh military action against Syria, perhaps very soon, perhaps tonight, but we also have to figure out what to do with North Korea, another dangerous country.

For more, we`re joined by Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

We didn`t know what was going to happen tonight or could happen tonight, Senator, when we booked you, but I`m glad you`re on.

Have you gotten any word asking for support or offering a consultative role, a consultative role, for you as a ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee about military action tonight?

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: First, Chris, it`s good to be with you.

Secondly, I`m not aware of consultations with members of the Senate in regards to any planned activities. We were pleased to see Secretary Tillerson reverse himself as to the legitimacy of President Assad to remain at the head of Syria`s government. That was a good sign.

Obviously, we are concerned about military actions. Congress has not authorized military action, and we are concerned about, what is the mission? What is he trying to achieve? But there`s been no consultation with us.

MATTHEWS: What does your history tell you about that? Because I`m not sure -- when Reagan went after Gadhafi and killed the people in the tent that time, which went over very well back here at home, obviously, and, then, of course, President Clinton also launched an attack against this same country, Syria, was there always a full, formal approval by the Congress before it?

There obviously wasn`t a vote. So, what kind of consultative experience was there in those cases?

CARDIN: The typical procedure is to have consultation with Congress before any action is taken, unless it requires an emergency response.

This is not that circumstance. So, the normal practice would be consultation with Congress. If it`s use of force, there is the War Powers Act. And we would like to be part of the authorization process.

But, at a minimum, there has to be consultation. There should be consultation with Congress. We have not seen that. And the reason is, we would like to know the mission. We would like to know what he`s attempting to do. We want to be united as a nation, particularly when we`re using military force.

What is he trying to achieve? Most experts will tell you that there is no military victory for solving the Syrian problem. We`re going to have a political solution. Obviously, we cannot stand still as people are being gassed. We have got to do things about that.

So, I would hope the president would have consulted with us, worked with us, because I can tell you, we want a strong response to what Mr. -- President Assad is doing.

MATTHEWS: Do you believe it would be wrong for the president to take action tonight against Syria, military action?

CARDIN: Well, I don`t know what he`s planning to do. I don`t know what the mission is. I don`t know what the objective...


MATTHEWS: Well, any military action? Are you against any military action tonight?

CARDIN: Well, without understanding it, it`s hard for me to respond to that.

I -- we want to obviously protect the civilian population from the use of chemicals. And that is unacceptable. But I`m not sure what his objective is all about. That has not been explained.

I also don`t understand his Syrian policy. We need to know what he`s trying to achieve in Syria. He hasn`t shared that with not only members of the Senate. He hasn`t shared that with the American people.

MATTHEWS: Do you trust him as commander in chief, Senator?

CARDIN: He is the commander in chief, and, obviously, we`re going to have to work with him as president.

MATTHEWS: But do you trust him?

CARDIN: I`m going to wait to see his actions as president of the United States.

I have already expressed serious concerns about President Trump, and -- but, obviously, at times in which he has to exercise this type of power, we want to make sure that we are acting in the best interests of America.

MATTHEWS: OK, Senator Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

We`re going to continue to follow this top story tonight.

But there was a big shakeup here in Washington just today, as the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee stepped aside and down, I would say, from the investigation into Russia, big loss, right after Steve Bannon got pushed out of the National Security Council. There are already casualties in this shakeup.

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back.

The embattled chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Devin Nunes, is today stepping aside, if you will, from the committee`s investigation into Trump`s connections with Russia.

The decision to step aside comes as the House Ethics Committee confirmed today it`s investigating -- quote -- "allegations that Nunes may have made unauthorized disclosures of classified information."

Well, the investigation is in response to a request filed by multiple advocacy groups last month. It`s intended to determine whether Nunes violated House rules or the law when he said he saw intelligence reports over that midnight show of his that showed Trump transition officials accidentally or incidentally picked up in surveillance of foreigners.

Anyway, in his statement today, Congressman Nunes said: "Several left-wing activist groups have filed accusations against me with the Office of Congressional Ethics. The charges are totally" -- "actually, entirely false and politically motivated, and are being leveled just as the American people are beginning to learn the truth about the unproper unmasking" -- this is complete party line -- "of the identities of U.S. citizens and other abuses of power."

Well, without Nunes as the chair of that committee, the committee`s investigation into Russia will now be led by -- catch this guy -- U.S. Congress Michael Conaway of Texas, with help from Trey Gowdy and Tom Rooney. These guys are all right-wingers.

NBC is reporting that Nunes met last night with Speaker Paul Ryan and that they both agreed with the decision.

Isn`t that nice? They both agreed he would step aside.

However, Ryan today said that he doesn`t believe the charge that Chairman Nunes mishandled the classified information is true.


QUESTION: Do you still have faith that he didn`t do anything wrong? Did he mishandle classified information?

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: No, I don`t believe so.

Chairman Nunes has offered to step aside as the lead Republican on this particular probe, and I fully support his decision. Chairman Nunes wants to make sure that this is not a distraction to a very important investigation, so he wants to go clear himself while this investigation continues on without any kinds of distractions.


MATTHEWS: Well, Chairman Nunes has been criticized as a flack of the White House, a pawn, I would call him, especially since it was reported that top administration officials provided him those intelligence reports to defend the president. He was working for the president he`s supposed to be investigating.

And now Nunes, who conducted frequent press conferences over the last couple weeks, is no longer answering any questions.

What him with Kasie Hunt.


KASIE HUNT, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Are you concerned about potentially being in trouble with the Ethics Committee investigation? Any concerns at all?

REP. DEVIN NUNES (R), CALIFORNIA: Doing all right?

HUNT: Did it become a distraction?

NUNES: You doing OK?

HUNT: I`m doing well.

NUNES: I gave you a statement.

HUNT: You believe that these are left-wing group, baseless charges?


MATTHEWS: Former chairman, now pacer bunny.

Anyway, while the White House said today that this is an internal matter for the House, the president told "The New York Times" just yesterday that -- quote -- "The Russia story is a total hoax."

I`m joined right now by U.S. Congressman Mike Quigley of Illinois, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee. Also with us is David Corn, Washington bureau chief for "Mother Jones" and of course an MSNBC political analyst.

Congressman Quigley, I don`t know. Maybe I`m a cynic. Maybe I have been studying politics way too long. It looks to me like this guy had his head chopped off because nobody takes him seriously anymore. That would be Nunes, who was working for the White House, delivering -- actually getting information from the White House he wouldn`t share with you.

REP. MIKE QUIGLEY (D), ILLINOIS: Well, it`s interesting.

And it follows on the heels of Senator Graham and McCain both calling the White House and the chairman`s behavior bizarre, a bizarre ordeal. The very unfortunate part of all this is the fact that probably the most important investigation of a White House in my lifetime has been distracted, delayed for some time simply because of these actions.

MATTHEWS: What do you make of these beheadings? I mean, it looks like the axe is out at the White House.

You have got Steve Bannon, who was a big shot at the National Security Council. Now he`s off that list completely. Now Nunes, who they were all defending right up until yesterday, he`s gone.

It seems to me there`s a lot of collateral damage to that little midnight jaunt that this guy Nunes took to the White House, at the behest of the president. It`s all karma. It`s all, like, going to hell.

Your thoughts?

QUIGLEY: Yes, I think there`s a bigger picture.

I think you had Vice President Biden suggesting last week that the president needs to grow up. My suggestion is that he needs to take responsibility. And I mean for anything.

We have talked about the Yemen raid recently. He blamed the generals for that. He blamed the joint session of Congress the next day, issues with his senior staff, the health care on the Tea Party and the Democrats, the press, anybody but himself.

The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but sometimes in ourselves.

He would gain a lot more respect, I think, on the Hill if at once he stood up and said, I own this one. The buck stops here.

MATTHEWS: Let me go to David on this.

And I will hit you with real cynicism, OK? I think I can outdo you on this one. Here`s a president who is under incredible scrutiny for his relations, such as they were, with the Russians in all those months that the Russians were helping him get elected president.

And here he is tonight, apparently -- we hear lots of talks about it with guests we have had on -- that there may be military action against Russia`s number one ally in the world maybe, and certainly in the Middle East, which is Syria.

Is this to cover his tracks?

DAVID CORN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, that would be the wag the dog scenario, right? And perhaps...

MATTHEWS: No, I mean to cover his tracks, meaning, you think I`m in bed with the Russians?

CORN: The Russians, that`s right, yes.

And it would distract from the investigation and would show, I`m not in bed with the Russians. I can launch strikes that are inconvenient and maybe even end up killing some Russians. Who knows where that goes from here?

MATTHEWS: Would that clean him -- would that clear him of the charge that he was...


MATTHEWS: ... the Russians?

CORN: I don`t think so, but it may distract us if we get into a mess in Syria.

To me, one of the big pictures here, because you talked about what Nunes did. We have seen the NSC. It`s only been 11 weeks. It`s been a disaster. We are on our second national security adviser. People who want to be fired are kept in place for political reasons. They`re involved with Nunes in this midnight run.

And, listen, tonight`s a good example. We need sound and sane national security policy. That -- functions at the White House is centered in the National Security Council. And so Trump has not been able to put a team in place there.

And only yesterday afternoon, he was saying, you know, my thinking has changed on Syria, when he always said to Obama, don`t do any of this.


CORN: And now we might be rushing into military action without him contemplating it, without a National Security Council that works.

MATTHEWS: OK. Let me go back to the congressman.

Congressman, who do you think is advising the president tonight in terms of possible military action, possibly in the next couple of hours even? Is it Jared Kushner, his son-in-law? Is it Tillerson, who comes from -- Exxon, rather, an oil man? Where does it come from?

Does it come from what`s left of the State Department? Is there one? Or does it come from Mad Dog Mattis at the Pentagon? I see a lot of circulating people that don`t seem to even talk to each other.

QUIGLEY: We have absolutely zero information of how the White House makes decisions.

It`s certainly one that seems to be all over the place. I will use health care as an example. Every 12 hours, it seemed to change, the path, the plan, who they`re listening to among that group where they`re all a little bit scary.

I hope they`re reading Barbara Tuchman`s book "The Guns of August" for the sake and peace of all of us.


Let me ask about your role as a U.S. congressman. You have been elected a couple terms now. You know the responsibilities of your office. Do you think Congress should be notified before military action is taken against another sovereign government or not?

QUIGLEY: Well, unless there`s some emergency.

But let`s put it this way. For all the criticism that President Obama got about Syria, all the tough talk you heard about Syria, when he came to them with some plans about what to do, there was absolutely no vote in that bark.

For all the tough talk, you didn`t see members actually step up and say, yes, let`s have a vote. Let`s give the president the authority, because they knew the American public was not for doing what was going to be suggested by some of them, putting a lot of American lives at risk.

MATTHEWS: Let me test you on this one.

If you were called in the next half-hour by the president or someone in his Cabinet, someone at a high level, and said, we`re doing a punitive raid -- and that`s what it is. It`s not an existential assault on the Assad regime. We`re going to whack them hard. We`re going to take out some of their planes. They`re going to know we meant business, and somehow this is going to change the mind-set of Assad and his people, his clique.

My question, would you say yes to that, or would you say no to that?

QUIGLEY: Yes, I have to say, I have been briefed on Syria for over two years now. For every action, there`s an equal and opposite reaction.

It is layered, textured and complicated. This would be more than a phone call that says, we`re going to do this. It is the -- what is the long-term plan? It is -- if it is simply to make us feel better, like we accomplished something, I wouldn`t support that.

MATTHEWS: Thank you so -- well, thank you, U.S. Congressman.

Your thought on that, David?

CORN: Well, I think that`s right. I think Syria is about as complicated an issue as we have.

MATTHEWS: Give me the fallout if we hit -- if we kill a bunch of Syrians, kill a bunch of Russians.

CORN: Well, you can go in any way you imagine.

MATTHEWS: Hezbollah strikes.

CORN: Yes, you could have Hezbollah striking. It could embolden ISIS to move forward in Syria, and maybe that -- take out Assad, but is that good? Do we want ISIS to take out Assad?

Relations between Russia and the United States are already conflicted and tainted. And so the issue is, is he doing this -- yesterday, he came out and said, you know what, I never thought about this before. I have changed now because of this.

MATTHEWS: Well, you know, I...

CORN: So, is he just doing this because he feels like doing something right away?

MATTHEWS: I was at the Four Seasons this morning.

El-Sisi, the president of Egypt, is there.

CORN: Yes.

MATTHEWS: King Abdullah of Jordan is there. I hope he talked to those gentlemen.

Anyway, U.S. Congressman Mike Quigley, thank you, sir, and, as always, David Corn.

CORN: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: Much more on our top story tonight, the possibility of military action against Syria by us, tonight perhaps.

President Trump right now is meeting with the Chinese president at Mar-a- Lago. We will go there next, actually.

HARDBALL back after this.


MATTHEWS: Well, right now, we`re live and continuing to follow the breaking news right now. It could be really big news, that President Trump is considering military options -- actions, actually, against Syria, perhaps tonight.

NBC`s Hallie Jackson, however, is traveling with the president right now. She`s outside Mar-a-Lago, where the president is meeting with the Chinese president.

Hallie, give us an update on this, what seems now a sideshow. Of course, it couldn`t be more important in terms of a summitry.


MATTHEWS: What`s getting -- what`s getting done down there in the midst of this war talk and conversation that`s buzzing around?

JACKSON: And it`s almost unbelievable, Chris, that we`re standing here ten minutes outside Mar-a-Lago where you would think the discussion would be centering around the threat from North Korea, right, and the discussion related to how the president will be putting pressure on President Xi Jinping of China to do something about Pyongyang. But instead Syria, of course, has overshadowed that as we look ahead to potential more movement on that front.

Let me tell you what`s happening right now. The president is having dinner with President Xi. The two of them have just addressed guests down at Mar- a-Lago, and according to the small pool of reporters who travels with the president, he`s cracking a couple of jokes, right? He`s had a long discussion with President Xi, but he hasn`t given me anything just yet with a smile on his face.

Remember, this is a very quick summit between the two men. And it is a first face-to-face. Senior administration officials tell us this is meant to be an ice breaker. This is intentionally set outside of the White House to be less formal setting, because they wanted to feel more like two people trying to get to know each other and build a personal relationship, and that is something that President Trump just tonight alluded to, this idea that he is working to build a friendship with Xi, who has not yet commented to the members of the media that are down at Mar-a-Lago.

We know the two of them will be in many more talks tomorrow. They`re going to have a lunch. We expect to see both of them together again after the greetings, of course, between both couples here in Palm Beach. And I do think it`s significant.

We know two things are on the table and two things the president is explicitly saying are his priority. Number one, North Korea, number two, trade, after the president made China one of his favorite foils on the campaign trail. Of course, there have been a couple opportunities to yell questions at President Trump. Some of those questions related to Syria, President Trump did not answer those from members of the pool, Chris, but it is something that we are all watching obviously very closely.

MATTHEWS: Thanks so much, NBC`s Hallie Jackson down at Mar-a-Lago.

Up next, much more on our top story tonight. The possibility of a military strike, perhaps tonight, against Syria.

You`re watching HARDBALL, where the action is.



STEVE BANNON, TRUMP CHIEF STRATEGIST: The third, broadly, line of work is what is deconstruction of the administrative state. If you look at these cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason, and that is the deconstruction, the way the progressive left runs is if they can`t get it passed, they`re just going to put in some sort of regulation in an agency. That`s all going to be deconstructed.


MATTHEWS: OK. Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was President Trump`s chief strategist Steve Bannon, promising to disrupt the way government institutions function, such as the National Security Council. Bannon`s initial appointment to the NSC was an unprecedented shake-up at the White House.

Here`s how we reported it back then when Bannon was given this position.


MATTHEWS: In an historic restructuring of this country`s national security apparatus, President Donald Trump has authorized his political strategist, the aforementioned former editor of Breitbart, Steve Bannon, to join White House National Security Council meetings as a permanent regular member of the NSC.


MATTHEWS: Well, ever since President Trump`s tweet last month that President Obama wiretapped him, his administration has been left grasping at straws to explain his unsubstantiated claim. But now, Bannon has been removed from his position on the NSC, which, as NBC News reports, has exposed a rift between the West Wing Democrats, they`re called which includes the president`s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and economic adviser Gary Cohn, and the nationalists like Bannon. This is fashionable anyway.

It appears that Bannon is now collateral damage as the White House scrambles to change the narrative, but Bannon isn`t backing down, telling Axios that, "I love a gun fight," he says. In fact, Axios, the news agency, reports that "the hatred between the two wings is intense and irreconcilable. The Bannonites believe the liberals staged a coup and will turn Trump into a conventional squish who betrays the very voters who brought him to power. The Jared wing thinks the Bannonites are clinically nuts however."

And "The Daily Beast" reports that fighting between Kushner and Bannon has been nonstop in recent weeks.

Joining me right now to talk about this mishegoss are former CIA director John McLaughlin, "Reuters" White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe, and MSNBC political analyst and former RNC chair, of course, Michael Steele.

This is fascinating. If you`re a Chinese intelligence expert and you`re setting up this dinner with the president of the United States, how in the world do you figure out who is running the United States foreign policy?

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, FORMER ACTING CIA DIRECTOR: Well, the Chinese spent a lot of time on this. They probably know as much about it as any American citizen frankly.

MATTHEWS: But we don`t get it. We don`t get it. Who is Bannon? Who is Jared Kushner? I mean what -- does McMaster run the shop, or who runs it?

MCLAUGHLIN: I think this latest develop suggests that McMaster really is in charge. He`s won this round, and that`s a good thing. When you look at the composition --

MATTHEWS: By bouncing Bannon?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, when you look at the composition they`ve put out now, it looks like every National Security Council that I worked with in the last four administrations. So, it`s becoming normal in that sense. Now, also as you know better than anyone, influence is not always on a piece of paper.


MCLAUGHLIN: Bannon may still have great influence within the White House.

MATTHEWS: It`s who you talked to last at night.


MATTHEWS: And his daughter-in-law, I mean, his daughter. You don`t know what role, she`s got an office in the White House, and she`s married to the guy who`s now the spot -- what`s he called? The troubleshooter in the Middle East, Canada, Mexico, everywhere. Jared Kushner.

So, who is advising the president on how to negotiate with the Chinese or what war to fight tonight?

AYESHA RASCOE, REUTERS: Well, Jared Kushner was supposed to be taking a big role in that. I mean but then he was also in Iraq earlier this week. So, I mean, it`s really unclear like who they want to be the face of their foreign policy and who they want to really take charge.

MATTHEWS: I hear the Chinese are studying Jared Kushner. They think he`s the guy because of his family relationships.

RASCOE: Well, I mean, that seems like the smart case. I mean, you can`t fire your son-in-law, right? So --

MCLAUGHLIN: You know, an important point here, Chris, is that you don`t get to be Chinese leader easily. Chinese leaders prepare to be leader for literally decades. They apprentice at this.


MCLAUGHLIN: And when they come to a meeting like this, they are very scripted. They`ve done their homework, and they will know who to talk to and what strings to pull.

MATTHEWS: Let`s imagine the scenario.


MATTHEWS: I want to talk about this, Michael, this scenario. You know the guy Trump. Several hours ago, he decided that he didn`t like what he saw going over there in Syria, like everybody I know didn`t like it. But he`s president, and he has fire power.

And now, he decides he wants to do something. We`re hearing all kinds of - - we don`t know what`s going to happen tonight if it happens, but lots of talk out there.

And the question, who did he ask for advise about what we could do militarily, and what would be the purpose of a punitive attack, not to take out the Assad regime. What`s the point of spanking a guy like Assad who goes back to his palace with all his relatives and all of his, you know, pamperers and he`s not going to get killed. He just says, is that the worst they can do? I`m going to keep doing what I`m doing.

MICHAEL STEELE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, yes and no. This is as much about spanking Assad as it is about letting the Russians know that they`re not happy.


STEELE: So, that`s something that the Russians do not want this to escalate or elevate to a level that requires them to actually put their fingerprints on stuff. And so, this is Trump`s way -- I mean, again, the art of his deal is, I`m going to -- this is my first overture in the game. This is my first shot across your bow. This is my first play dealing with your puppet, Assad.

And so, now, the Russians are going to be forced to have to acknowledge certain things and to come to the table in a certain way through those back channels.

So, I think to your point, McMaster does have a bigger role here. The foreign policy has taken much more central focus than it did with Bannon in place.

MATTHEWS: John, I understand if we go in tonight, if we go in in any way to hit the people, hit the Syrian officials, hit their air force or whatever, hit some of their personnel, hit some of their factories or whatever, their munitions dumps or whatever, we`re doing it on a basically U.N. sanction. These are U.N. decision making, it has to do with the values of the all the countries involved with the U.N.

How does that square with the nationalist thinking of Steve Bannon, which is only America first? What`s America first got to do with going over because some kids got gassed? America first would say, we`ll look out for our country.

This is to me the kind of generous internationalism that Bannon was opposed to.

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, there`s a lot of things going on here. There`s that, and on the other hand, there`s the perception abroad that this administration doesn`t quite know what it`s doing. This could be Trump`s way -- we don`t know what he`s going to do yet, but this could be Trump`s way of just saying, we`re back in this game. It could be a very limited strike just to make that point.

MATTHEWS: Who hears that positively? Who benefits from hearing that? How do we benefit from somebody hearing that?

MCLAUGHLIN: I think the only benefit of that is very small. It only indicates to others -- if you go to the Middle East and you talk to people there, they will typically say, no one`s leading. It just starts to say someone`s going to lead.

MATTHEWS: This would show our gun`s loaded.

MCLAUGHLIN: That`s what it would show. Now, it depends on what the strikes are if there are strikes. But it could be that. It could be a strike on military targets, fixed installations. It could be an attack on regime targets, that is, people.

And my question, hearing any of that, would be what`s plan B? Where do we go next?

MATTHEWS: Ayesha, your thoughts on that. Consequence is everything in war. It`s like, to put it bluntly, it`s like playing billiards. You`ve got to set up the next shot. What`s the next shot going to be?

RASCOE: Well, I think that`s the issue here. I mean, President Trump has said we`re not going to be the world`s policemen. So -- but he`s sitting here saying that there are certain lines that you can`t cross. So, he`s going to have to deal with that. And if he you make limited strikes and then it doesn`t -- the behavior doesn`t change from the Assad regime, what happens next?

MATTHEWS: Let`s go to Mark Jacobson now. He`s joining us. He`s a senior fellow at the Pell Center for International Relations. He`s a former senior advisor to the secretary of defense.

Mark, your thoughts about what choices the president has tonight?

MARK JACOBSON, PELL CENTER FOR INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS: Well, what I`m going to tell is that Steve Bannon must be going crazy right now. We are talking about the United States going to enforce an international norm against the use of chemical weapons?


JACOBSON: It goes against everything Bannon stands for.

MATTHEWS: That`s what I thought.

JACOBSON: Being the global policemen. I think the key for the administration right now is to determine what exactly its goals are. If the goals of the administration in using military force are to deter Assad from using chemical weapons again, then I think a set of limited punitive strikes against static targets, headquarters, airfields, the air force, stand a reasonable shot for success if there is the diplomacy to back this up if Assad can be coerced a bit.

MATTHEWS: Why would he change now, Mark?

JACOBSON: Well, actually I don`t think that Trump`s ideology or his world view is frankly that grounded in anything -- in any deep belief --

MATTHEWS: No, I meant, why would Assad change his manner? Assad`s been known for using chemical weapons for decades, it seems, and his whole family has. I mean, his father destroyed an entire city. I mean, this is -- they`re not afraid of looking like the bad guy.

JACOBSON: His father killed tens of thousands. He`s well past where his father is. I think -- and I hate to say this -- I think the failure of the Obama administration to strike in 2012 and 2013 gave Assad some breathing room.

Now, I do not hold the Obama administration morally responsible for what`s happened over the last couple of days. That`s on Assad, and, frankly, it`s on the Russians.

But I think if Trump can show that he is willing to commit the United States to use some sort of military force, it is, as John has said and others, this sends a signal not just to Assad. This sends an important signal to the Russians, to the Europeans, and interestingly enough, it sends a signal to the Chinese about the U.S. willingness to use force.

MATTHEWS: John, what kind of conversation would the president have with Vladimir Putin before taking military action? Would we have a conversation?

MCLAUGHLIN: I think he`d have to have a conversation. I absolutely think so. It would be foolish, I think, not to have that conversation because regardless of what he does, the Russians have to get out of the way.

MATTHEWS: Right, tactically. They have to remove themselves from the target. Would he give away the target?

MCLAUGHLIN: There are channels that have been established for deconflicting with the Russians.

MATTHEWS: Let`s take a look at this. We`re getting our first look inside that dinner down there -- there it is, the dinner in Mar-a-Lago. The dinner in Mar-a-Lago with President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago. Trump is hosting him apparently to no effect yet. These are pool pictures from just moments ago.

Let`s listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And his incredibly talented wife. A great, great celebrity in China. A great singer.

It`s an honor to have you in the United States. We`ve had a long discussion already, and so far, I have gotten nothing, absolutely nothing.

But we have developed a friendship, I can see that. And I think long-term, we`re going to have a very, very great relationship, and I look very much forward to it.


Thank you all very much. Thank you.


MATTHEWS: You just saw the Kremlin wall there, guys. You just saw Jared Kushner there. At least in the way people are sitting at the table, he`s above the salt.

STEELE: He`s above the salt.

MATTHEWS: What do you make of that? This Romanov family. They look royal. There they are and it looks -- I`ve been there once. It looks like Versailles in that room. It`s all mirrors and gold gilded.

Michael, react.

MCLAUGHLIN: You know, I think this setting is what Trump is comfortable in, and the comment he just made that I`ve gotten nothing, and I see I`m going to have to build a relationship and a friendship speaks to why this setting was important, why this was not in D.C. as opposed to being at Mar- a-Lago, which is his playground, his backyard. And he can sort of set the tone. He doesn`t have to deal with the pomp and circumstance that comes with having an official visit in Washington versus, hey, just come over for the weekend.


RASCOE: He likes the winter palace, yes, where he can hold court.

MATTHEWS: It`s very Romanov. It`s very regal, the setting. It`s not republican in a lower case R setting. It just isn`t.

MCLAUGHIN: There`s two points here I think we have playing out. China`s always the bad man, the boogeyman if you will in presidential campaigns, since time immemorial. Once a president is elected, they come to their senses and realize you`ve got to deal with -- this is the most important bilateral relationship we have in the world.

Second thing is, although all this is good-feeling now, it`s important to remember that the president, by backing away from TPP, by throwing that overboard, has basically opened up a vacuum that Xi has moved into in Asia in ways that have our allies are very disturbed by the vacuum that we`ve created here on that score.

STEELE: And China`s more than ready to fill it.

MCLAUGHLIN: They are filling it. They`ve got at least four different initiatives that are coming in behind what we were doing with TPP, including a regional economic initiative.

STEELE: It will be interesting to see if the president raises that economic piece in the discussions this weekend because of --

MATTHEWS: A Vietnamese told my wife actually who was just over there, that we fought the Americans for 20 years and the French, but we fought the Chinese for a thousand years and we`re worried about them now.

MCLAUGHLIN: So are the Australians. So are the Koreans. So are the Japanese. So are the Thais. So are the Singapores.

MATTHEWS: Well, a lot to talk about. Thank you, Mark Jacobson, who`s in another location. John McLaughlin, thank you, Ayesha Rascoe of "Reuters" and Michael Steele.

Let me finish tonight with our hope for our country. It is the presence here in this land of people who quietly and with dignity show us how to do a job and do it well. In professional sports, I think of Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Cal Ripken. In business, it`s Warren Buffett and Michael Bloomberg and too many to count. In space travel, it was the man buried today at Arlington national cemetery, John Glenn, soft-spoken, fighter pilot, test pilot, astronaut, United States senator.

I love the fact that the movie "Hidden Figures" paid tribute to the quiet, firm, good will of the man who insisted on getting the OK before takeoff from that African-American mathematician, the woman saluted so well in that important film. And this is a culture, by the way, that gives much of its attention to those who step out in front, ask us to hear them, and generally make the story about them.

John Glenn made the story about this great country itself. He stood there for all the people we used to call squares, those who show up, do the job, don`t ask any more for themselves than what comes with doing the job. And today, this man who sat next to us at all those Redskins games -- yes, I`m name dropping right now. What an honor that was. He was given the honors of his country, honors he well deserved as the last taps were played for him -- the man who fought for his country and truly helped make it great.


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