CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Do you believe him now?
Let`s play HARDBALL.
Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.
Two days ago, the White House crafted a cover story about the firing of James Comey. According to countless White House officials up to and including the vice president, the order of events went like this. The deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, and the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, came to see President Trump to recommend that he fire James Comey, the head of the FBI. The president agreed with them and took action.
That was the White House story for two days. Today, we found that wasn`t true, and we found out from a reliable source, President Trump.
And here`s part of the president`s interview today with "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS" anchor Lester Holt.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LESTER HOLT, NBC ANCHOR: Monday, you met with the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Right.
HOLT: Did you ask for a recommendation?
TRUMP: What I did was, I was going to fire Comey. My decision. It was not...
HOLT: You had made the decision before they came in the room.
TRUMP: I was going to fire Comey. There`s no good time to do it, by the way. They...
HOLT: Because in your letter, you said, "I accepted their recommendation."
TRUMP: Yes, well, they also...
HOLT: So you had already made the decision.
TRUMP: Oh, I was going to fire regardless of recommendation. He made a recommendation. He`s highly respected, very good guy, very smart guy. The Democrats like him. The Republicans like him. He made a recommendation. But regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Well, for days, the president`s spokespeople told a very different story, and let`s watch it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
QUESTION: You said last week the president had full confidence in his FBI director. What changed?
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The recommendation that came today and the rationale behind it.
QUESTION: So the president made the decision today?
QUESTION: Did anyone at the White House order the Department of Justice to do into FBI Director Comey.
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: When you receive a report that is so clear and a recommendation by someone like the deputy attorney general, you have no choice but to act.
KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: This is the action that a president takes when he is told by the deputy attorney general, who has only been on the job for 14 days, so he took a new assessment, a new look at everything...
MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Because of the actions that the deputy attorney general outlined to the president that were endorsed and agreed with by the attorney general, the president made the right decision at the right time.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Well, the president`s reversal -- and it came today -- comes as reporting suggests that Rod Rosenstein was not happy with the original White House version of events. According to "The Washington Post," Rosenstein threatened to resign after the narrative emerging from the White House on Tuesday evening cast him as a prime mover of the decision to fire Comey and that the president acted only on his recommendation.
For more on the president`s interview on NBC, I`m joined by the former chair of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, and columnist for "The Washington Post" Eugene Robinson. Thank you -- Pulitzer Prize winner.
Let`s look at a couple things. First of all, the highest-level problem here. The president not only put out Ms. Huckle -- Huckle -- what`s her -- Huckle...
MATTHEWS: Huckabee, as in Huckabee, whatever Huckabee Sanders, the daughter of the governor. He put her out for two days to say that all this came from the deputy attorney general, from Mr. Rosenstein. It all came from him -- I accepted the recommendation of Rosenstein.
Now the president comes out and corrects his own flackery and says, No, what the vice president has been saying for two days, what all my people have been saying for two days, that`s not true. I ordered it. I made up my mind long before those guys even came in the office.
Why is this happening in America? Why is the chief executive of the United States, the president of the United States, having his people put out the wrong story? He puts out what apparently is the true story. It`s got nothing to do with Hillary Clinton last year. It has to do with what Trump doesn`t want -- he doesn`t want Comey doing now.
MICHAEL STEELE, FMR. RNC CHAIR, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: He doesn`t want this investigation to go forward. All of this hinges off of the reality of the inquiry made by Mr. Comey to Mr. Rosenstein about, I need more resources for this investigation. I need to expand this thing to the next level because there is a there there, apparently.
MATTHEWS: OK, how does the vice president deal with the fact he was -- I don`t like the word "lied," but how about fibbed, a couple times, big-time fibbing, all right? First of all, he was told by Michael -- let`s try this out with you -- Michael -- Michael Flynn says, you know...
MATTHEWS: ... I didn`t talk sanctions.
EUGENE ROBINSON, "WASHINGTON POST," MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: You can call that a lie, Chris.
MATTHEWS: And then this guy says -- OK, I...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can call that a lie.
MATTHEWS: ... call a guy a liar, you can`t deal with him anymore. These people were told to lie.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.
MATTHEWS: Unless they were told a lie to tell.
ROBINSON: But look, I Just -- poor Mike Pence. I mean, I kind of feel sorry for him. He signed up for this, right, so you can`t feel but so sorry. But this is the second time in a very high-profile way he`s been left hanging out to dry, sitting right out under that limb and it cracks.
MATTHEWS: He does "Simon says" every time...
MATTHEWS: He does it every time.
ROBINSON: Exactly. But -- but you know, yes, you cannot take seriously what this administration`s spokespeople say. You just can`t take it seriously!
MATTHEWS: And they were trying to cover for the president today.
STEELE: ... trying to cover for the president, and the vice president was given a bucket of water to carry with a lot of holes in it. And so he`s got this all over his shoes right now, number one. The communication shop does, as well. However this decision came down, it was clear that no one had command and control over it the night the president fired Comey.
ROBINSON: Right, but the president -- the central question really is, what is the president afraid of? What does the president not want to reveal?
MATTHEWS: What is that? What is that thing he doesn`t want -- because he has used every deflection device now for weeks now. He`s trashed everybody. Now he`s calling, what, Comey a trouble -- or showboater...
STEELE: A showboater and then -- right.
ROBINSON: He is obviously -- he`s obviously...
MATTHEWS: He`s trashing the guy.
ROBINSON: ... obsessed about this investigation.
MATTHEWS: Well, Lester Holt also asked -- this is a pretty good interview. Lester Holt also asked President Trump about one of the more bizarre lines in his termination letter to Comey. Let`s watch this odd little codicil in the letter. Let`s watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HOLT: Let me ask you about your termination letter to Mr. Comey. You write, "I greatly you appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation." Why did you put that in there?
TRUMP: Because he told me that. I mean, he told me that.
HOLT: He told you you weren`t under investigation with regard to the Russia investigation?
TRUMP: Yes, and I`ve heard that -- I`ve heard that from others. I think...
HOLT: Was it in a phone call? Did you meet face to face?
TRUMP: I had a dinner with him. He wanted to have dinner because he wanted to stay on. We had a very nice dinner at the White House fairly early on.
HOLT: He asked for the dinner?
TRUMP: A dinner was arranged. I think he asked for the dinner. And he wanted to stay on as the FBI head. And I said, I`ll, you know, consider. We`ll see what happens. But we had a very nice dinner, and at that time, he told me, You are not under investigation, which I knew anyway.
HOLT: That was one meeting. What were the other two?
TRUMP: First of all, when you`re under investigation, you`re giving all sorts of documents and everything. I knew I was under. And I heard it was stated at the committee. You had some committee level that I wasn`t. Number one.
HOLT: So that didn`t come directly from him.
TRUMP: Then during the phone call, he said it. And then during another phone call, he said it. So he said it once at dinner, and then he said it twice during phone calls.
HOLT: Did you call him?
TRUMP: In one case, I called him. In one case, he called me.
HOLT: And did you ask, Am I under investigation?
TRUMP: I actually asked him, yes. I said, If it`s possible, will you let me know, am I under investigation? He said, You are not under investigation.
HOLT: But he`s given sworn testimony that there`s an ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign and possible collusion with the Russian government.
HOLT: You were the centerpiece of the Trump campaign.
HOLT: So was he being truthful when...
TRUMP: I know that I`m not under investigation, me personally. I`m not talking about campaigns. I`m not talking about anything else. I`m not under investigation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Michael, Gene, this is like a deposition. I have never seen a president submit himself to this. Why is he -- first of all, Lester`s a pro and he knows how to ask the question. But it`s like he`s talking him into a perjury problem because he made him directly make these claims -- three conversations, two on the phone. He was basically voicing the words he says that Comey used.
STEELE: The president will pivot and deflect and move to another position...
MATTHEWS: But why is he giving us...
STEELE: ... later on.
MATTHEWS: ... all this information because it can all be checked?
MATTHEWS: Well, maybe it can`t be.
STEELE: It`s hard to check. The only way you check this is have Mr. Comey come out and say whether or not he did, in fact, on three occasions give the president, twice by phone, once at dinner, the heads-up that he was not being investigated. Now, you know, I know a little bit about this process.
ROBINSON: Yes, right.
STEELE: Typically, given that level of investigation, you`re not going to go in and confirm or deny that. I mean -- and the other thing...
MATTHEWS: Who wouldn`t confirm or deny it?
STEELE: Comey wouldn`t.
STEELE: But again, let`s take it back. Remember how exercised everyone got about a certain plane on a certain tarmac with the attorney general and the former president of the United States and what went on there?
STEELE: Are we not in that same space here again where you have the attorney general -- the FBI director was saying to someone who`s under an active investigation...
MATTHEWS: If a senator makes one little phone call, of either party, either gender makes a phone call to a regulatory agency about some pal of theirs, that`s a problem. You can`t -- how`s herb`s case going over there?
MATTHEWS: That`s a problem.
ROBINSON: That`s a problem.
MATTHEWS: Anyway, the president came under bipartisan criticism today for those comments to Lester Holt about James Comey. Let`s watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: Look, he`s a showboat. He`s a grandstander. The FBI has been in turmoil. You know that. I know that. Everybody knows that. You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil less than a year ago. It hasn`t recovered from that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: So he`s going back to a year ago and saying that that`s why he`s concerned about the way they may have helped Hillary in the campaign.
ROBINSON: Once again, he`s talking about -- right.
MATTHEWS: This is going back to the scene of the crime.
Anyway, the chair and vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, who I`m really counting on to do this job here, and Mark Warner, responded to that. Let`s watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. RICHARD BURR (R), NORTH CAROLINA: I found him to be one of the most ethical, upright, straightforward individuals I`ve had the opportunity to work with.
SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: I thought he`d made some mistakes last fall, but I never called for his resignation. I thought he was a straight shooter. And frankly, I`m offended at the president`s comments today. This is a continuing pattern of disrespecting the men and women who serve in our intelligence community.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: I think the president proved again today with Lester Holt he fears two kinds of people, straight reporters for the front page. Can`t stand them, factual reporting. He can deal with any kind of left-wing opinion. He doesn`t mind opinion. I`m sorry. He can live with you. He can live with me. He can live with any attitude...
MATTHEWS: He likes it, in fact, in a weird way. He relishes...
ROBINSON: Yes, he does.
MATTHEWS: But he`s afraid of straight facts on the front page. He`s afraid of public servants who do their job and are not political.
MATTHEWS: Like Sally Yates and this guy.
ROBINSON: And who don`t owe him. They don`t owe him.
MATTHEWS: ... he hates because they possess the truth.
ROBINSON: And he -- look, there was just no -- he could not abide having the FBI, which is investigating his campaign, run by a guy who didn`t owe him, who didn`t owe him his job, who didn`t owe him his loyalty.
MATTHEWS: As you know, as a Watergate, "Washington Post" guy, who brought down Nixon? It wasn`t just Woodward and Bernstein. It was the sources they had, the FBI...
MATTHEWS: ... the FBI.
ROBINSON: Exactly. Exactly.
MATTHEWS: Mark Felt (ph). Anyway, Lester Holt...
ROBINSON: They know a lot.
MATTHEWS: Lester -- what?
ROBINSON: They know a lot.
MATTHEWS: Lester Holt asked -- and Trump knows what they know. President -- he asked President Trump about his commitment to the Russian investigation. Let`s watch that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HOLT: What you said a moment ago about supporting the idea of investigation, a lot of people would find it hard to believe that the man who just said that tweeted very recently, It`s a total hoax. It`s a taxpayer charade.
TRUMP: Oh, I think that looking into me and the campaign -- look, I have nothing to do. This was set up by the Democrats. There`s no collusion between me and my campaign and the Russians. The other thing is the Russians did not affect the vote, and everybody seems to think that.
HOLT: There is an investigation under way, though, an FBI investigation. Is that a charade?
TRUMP: Well, I don`t know if it`s an FBI or -- there`s so many investigations. I don`t know if it`s an FBI investigation or if it`s Congress, if it`s the Senate.
HOLT: Well, James Comey testified there was an FBI investigation.
TRUMP: Well, yes, but I think they`re also helping the House and the Senate. So you probably have FBI, but you have House, you have Senate. They have other investigations.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Look at him, he`s actually denying there that there is an FBI investigation.
ROBINSON: What`s he talking about?
MATTHEWS: If you listen to him, he`s saying it could be them just doing the bidding of the House and the Senate. That`s not true. We found out from Comey that they`ve been investigating him since last summer.
STEELE: Since July of last year...
STEELE: Since July of last year, before we knew.
ROBINSON: He says this is set up by the Democrats? I don`t -- you know, where -- where does this come from? He`s just making stuff up. He`s making stuff up.
STEELE: Well, and I think that`s where guys like Comey get to a point where I believe, now that he`s a private citizen, may say, Enough is enough, short of, you know, disclosing something that`s classified. It will be interesting to see him before a Senate committee talking about the very things that he knows.
MATTHEWS: You cover politics. You are politics. Let me ask you this. It seems to me that Trump`s made a calculation in firing this guy and knowing there`ll be a backfire from that. He knows the guy will come back at him. Whatever he has to do, he`ll get back at him because he`s had his career attacked, his credibility (INAUDIBLE)
I think Trump made a very calculated decision, which is, I can survive what he knows now about me because I -- or else I wouldn`t be firing the guy because I know he`s going to go out and spread it around, whatever he`s got, and his people already have it.
What I can`t take is what they`re going to get to. So I`m willing to do a queen`s sacrifice, like in chess. I`m going to give away -- I`m going to give away how angry people are going to be for a week because I don`t want this thing going on at full steam for another year because they`re going to get to whatever it is, Gene, you were talking about. We don`t know what it is.
STEELE: And I`ll make another queen. And I`ll make another queen (INAUDIBLE) his appointment.
MATTHEWS: Well, that`s -- I don`t know if he`ll get away with that.
ROBINSON: Well, see We`ll see what they get away with.
STEELE: I`ll make another queen.
ROBINSON: I mean, it...
MATTHEWS: Maybe it`s Merrick Garland? What do you think?
MATTHEWS: Merrick Garland somebody (INAUDIBLE) why don`t you name Merrick Garland?
STEELE: Some folks are floating Joe Lieberman. I mean...
ROBINSON: It`s not an easy thing to stop an FBI investigation in its tracks, right, because they`re a bunch of bulldogs...
MATTHEWS: ... play harder now or...
ROBINSON: And this sort of thing tends to make them mad. And so -- I mean, it does.
STEELE: It does.
ROBINSON: It tends to make them mad. So you know, I hope the president, from his point of view, put that into his calculation because it`s not easy...
MATTHEWS: ... he`s trying to decapitate them by getting rid of...
ROBINSON: I mean, the acting head of the FBI has now promised to come up to the Hill and testify...
ROBINSON: ... if there`s any interference from the White House.
MATTHEWS: And also, McCabe is also vouching for Comey now, saying he was a respected leader.
STEELE: But the key thing to what you said is the president still doesn`t know what else they know.
STEELE: There`s a whole `nother universe of stuff that...
ROBINSON: ... how far they got.
MATTHEWS: Well, here`s Lester question to President Trump about Sally Yates`s testimony this week about Michael Flynn.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HOLT: General Flynn is a part of this investigation, as you know. Sally Yates recently testified that the White House was notified that he had been compromised. He was at risk of being blackmailed. It was 18 days later that he was finally fired. During that 18 days, he had access, I assume, to all the nation`s top secrets. One day, you meet on the issue of Comey...
HOLT: ... and you fire him in a humiliating way while he`s sitting in a room with his colleagues and it`s appearing on the TV.
TRUMP: Because my White House counsel, Don McGahn, came back to me and did not sound like an emergency of any -- it didn`t make it sound like he was - - you know, and she actually didn`t make it sound that way, either, in the hearings the other day, like it had to be done immediately.
This man has served for many years. He`s a general. He`s, in my opinion, a very good person. I believed that it would be very unfair to hear from somebody who we don`t even know and immediately run out and fire a general. Now...
HOLT: She was the acting attorney general at the time.
TRUMP: My White House counsel came to me. They had, I believe, two meetings, and we ultimately fired. But we fired for a different reason.
HOLT: Did you know that he had received payments from the Russian government...
HOLT: ... that he had received payments from the Turkish government?
TRUMP: No. But Obama perhaps knew because he had clearance from the Obama administration, and his clearance -- and this is something they never want to report. He had clearance from the Obama administration, the highest clearance you can have.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: You know, if I were Stasi or somebody going through this thin, this tape over and over again, I would hear something there. And what I heard was, We fired him for a different reason. And that`s what I think happened with Comey.
ROBINSON: Yes, I know.
MATTHEWS: We went after last year because we were worried about next year.
MATTHEWS: I think he gave away something right there.
STEELE: I think that`s very true. And I think that that`s part of the problem. This narrative has a lot of parts that still have not...
MATTHEWS: Where`s Reince, your old buddy -- I`m not being sarcastic, which I always am for fun -- Reince Priebus, who succeed you as chair of the Republican Party -- he`s supposed to be -- he`s supposed to be chief of staff.
MATTHEWS: He`s supposed to keep things organized and tell him what`s going on. Trump doesn`t know what`s going on the way we`re looking at him. We all see him. He`s like a little bug on the table. We know what he`s doing.
STEELE: But -- but I think your assumption is...
MATTHEWS: We know he`s...
STEELE: ... that hasn`t been informed or otherwise advised of what`s going on and he`s chosen to ignore that.
ROBINSON: Right. Right. Which he may have.
STEELE: And so the other part of that as reported earlier about the meeting the next day after the firing in the senior staff meeting, it was a line item that would say, Well, you`ve all heard about the news last night. Moving on.
So clearly, this White House has an attitude about this that they don`t see not just the danger that`s at the surface but how that`s leaking down beneath the surface and rotting away the foundation of the administration.
MATTHEWS: I smell Steve Bannon. I think he`s back.
ROBINSON: He never went away.
MATTHEWS: ... take somebody of that nationalistic, Screw you, you know, monarchical, We run this place, attitude to the way to fire people like this firing. By the way, there`ll be more firings because there are more public servants out there.
MATTHEWS: There`s a lot of decent public servants-...
STEELE: ... quitting, too, on their own.
MATTHEWS: And they`re not highly paid. They do the job for the country, and they`re not going to take this crap. Anyway, Michael Steele, thank you, Eugene Robinson.
Coming up, did President Trump use Rosenstein as a fall guy? Do you think so, maybe, in the Russian caper?
And the Senate Intel Committee heard from Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, another stand-up guy, today, who contradicted the story out of the White House00 yesterday. He testified Comey had the support of the rank and file agents at the FBI. Senator Angus King and U.S. Congressman Mike Quigley of Illinois, who both sit on the congressional Intelligence Committees, will be here to set the record straight.
And more reaction tonight to Lester Holt`s exclusive interview -- and what an interview -- with President Trump. You got to wonder. He showed up. Well, I give Trump that. He didn`t have much to say that made any sense, but he did show up for Lester. The HARDBALL roundtable will be here to discuss it.
Finally, let me finish tonight with "Trump Watch." Yes, he won`t like this one, either.
This is HARDBALL, where the action is.
MATTHEWS: President Trump has signed an executive order establishing a commission to review alleged voter fraud and voter suppression. The Presidential Commission on Election Integrity will be spearheaded by Vice President Pence and focus on, quote, "improper voting, fraudulent voter registrations and fraudulent voting." Well, I think we said that.
President Trump has repeatedly made claims that the election was rigged against him and that he actually won the popular vote if you deduce the millions of people who vote illegally,
Well, the panel, which consists of both Democrats and Republicans, is expected to meet for the first time within a few months.
We`ll be right back
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
QUESTION: Is the White House`s assertion that Rod Rosenstein decided on his own, after being confirmed, to review Comey`s performance?
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Absolutely.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
Welcome back to HARDBALL.
That was Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders yesterday -- mark that name and that day, yesterday -- saying it was Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, not President Trump, who initiated the process that led to the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
Sean Spicer also said late Tuesday night that President Trump did not direct the move, saying of Rosenstein, "It was all him," Rosenstein.
Reports today not only contradict those statements, but also reveal that Rosenstein might be uncomfortable with the messaging from the White House you just saw.
And as "The Washington Post" reports on Trump`s meeting with the attorney general and his deputy, "Trump gave Sessions and Rosenstein a directive to explain in writing the case against Comey."
So they were told to do what they did.
"The Post" also reports that following Comey`s departure, "Rosenstein threatened to resign after the narrative emerging from the White House on Tuesday evening cast him as a prime mover of the decision to fire Comey and that the president acted only on his recommendation."
Well, in response, two anonymous sources at the Justice Department -- catch this, anonymous -- disputed that report telling NBC News that Rosenstein did not threaten to resign.
Anyway, why would anybody go anonymous if they`re defending the president of the United States they work for? It makes no sense, unless they`re embarrassed by their job.
I`m joined right now by two of the authors of the "Washington Post" report. Ashley Parker is a White House correspondent. And, of course, Robert Costa is national political reporter and an MSNBC analyst.
Thank you both.
Yesterday, it looked like -- and the day before -- it looked like the president wanted everybody to think the president was simply playing an administerial role, that he was given a paper that said, we got to get rid of Comey because of what he did last year with Hillary Clinton, and you signed it off -- sign off on it, Mr. President, and it will be done bureaucratically.
And today we find out that the president was like the boss. I made that decision before these gentlemen came in to see me. They may have made a recommendation, but my decision was made.
Which is it? These are dramatic developments. And the vice president spent two days telling the wrong story.
ASHLEY PARKER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I think it`s the latter. It`s what the president said. He had already made up his mind to fire Director Comey well before he received that memo from the Department of Justice. And...
MATTHEWS: Then why the cover story? Why the fall guy?
PARKER: Well, I think it`s very tough, it`s certainly politically tricky to fire the director of the FBI when the FBI has an active, open investigation into if your campaign possibly was involved in collusion with the Russian government.
And so I think, originally, it was a lot more palatable to say, you know, I was basically ordered to do this, you know, under the pretense of this directive and this agency telling him to do it.
But as news reports sort of told the true story, you saw that narrative change in a very quick 24 hours, and then the president came out, and his deputies also came out and said what they said.
MATTHEWS: Well, Robert, you heard the president. I don`t know if you were listening to the program just a moment ago, but Trump used those very words to describe another instance where somebody used a different reason to get something done they wanted done, but wouldn`t -- but did a sort of a decoy duck thing. So, the real reason I`m doing it over here, and, in fact, I`m doing it over here.
And there he -- that would be an explanation. He got rid of him because he`s coming after him on Russia. He doesn`t give a nickel to what happened last year where Hillary Clinton got hurt by the actions of -- why would he care now about what happened to Hillary to help him get elected, when he, of course, brought out that investigation 11 days before the election? What is Trump up to?
ROBERT COSTA, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, and of all the people involved, Rosenstein, we`re told in the course of our reporting, is alarmed that he`s being seen as the impetus, that his rationale laid out in this memorandum provided to the president both in a conversation that began on Monday and ended up in the memo on Tuesday.
He thinks the president and he knows that the president, based -- according to people who know him, made the decision long before that Monday meeting with the attorney general and with Rosenstein. Then they used this Monday meeting as a way to have some kind of cover for the decision when it was formalized.
But as people on Capitol Hill were telling me just a few hours ago, they`re really unhappy in the Republican Party about how the White House handled it, because they feel exposed. And they were articulating this narrative that was laid out by the White House, and then the president comes out in the Lester Holt interview and says, it actually wasn`t like that.
MATTHEWS: Do you know why they didn`t ask him about that in the meeting with Burr today and Warner, why it didn`t come up?
COSTA: You mean the meeting with Rosenstein?
MATTHEWS: Wasn`t Rosenstein up on the Hill today, and he didn`t get asked about this?
COSTA: He was.
MATTHEWS: How did that happen? It doesn`t make sense, why he didn`t take the opportunity to say, look, I didn`t initiate this thing. Trump did. The president did. Do we know?
COSTA: So far -- look, there`s a lot of scrutiny now, just not on the White House, but on the congressional committees. What`s the Senate Intelligence Committee going to do in light of the -- in the wake of Comey?
You already have the House Intelligence Committee have the problem of the chairman, Devin Nunes of California, recusing himself because of his alliance with the White House and the way all those events unfolded that you have deeply covered.
Now the pressure is on Burr and the Republican-controlled House and Senate. How are they going to handle this White House? So far, they`re falling in line publicly, but I`m telling you, Chris, in the Cloak Room of the Senate and the House -- the Senate was in session today. When I was talking to some senators privately, they`re grousing about the way this was handled at the White House.
And they`re saying they`re going to have to, politically, to cover themselves do something it terms of investigation, furthering the investigation.
MATTHEWS: Ashley, it`s hard to get analysis. I know you can`t deal with this as a straight reporter. But it seems like we have turned a bend now.
It isn`t about Trump defending Trumpism, looking out for the working-class guy about a loss of factory jobs or concerns about illegal immigration. It`s about Trump himself covering his rear end. I just wonder whether he really has the political cover that he`s had on other issues, now that it`s him. It`s about him.
PARKER: Yes, he certainly is losing the political cover in Washington, even, as Bob just said, among Republicans. They`re increasingly frustrated, in part because they feel exposed.
They feel they went out and they parroted these White House talking points, and then had the White House do a total 180. I think it`s an interesting question of what Trump voters think.
MATTHEWS: Yes, we don`t know yet, do we?
PARKER: And we don`t know, because you have to keep in mind that, for months, Comey was sort of this -- the only bipartisan issue everyone could agree on was that Comey had botched everything.
That didn`t mean he deserved to be fired. That wasn`t necessarily what Democrats were calling for. But it is unclear if Trump voters will turn on him for this.
MATTHEWS: You know, I just saw "High Noon," the old movie. And when the marshal has to defend himself, not the town anymore, the town doesn`t care. It`s tough business.
But politics is about your interests. And I`m not sure the average soddy buster who voted for Trump really gives a damn about covering up him for something he did with regard to Russia.
Anyway, thank you.
And the other irony is, he may have been trying to do something good with Russia. He may have been trying to end the war in Syria by going over and developing some footsie deal with Putin that may have been for the interest of the United States. And in the beginning, he said, I may have done that. And then he spent all these months covering up what he may have done for good.
This is the weird thing, Robert. You and I have to talk about this, because you have been covering this guy when he first started to do this Russia thing. And I wonder whether he`s covering up something he shouldn`t be covering up. He should have been saying from the beginning, yes, I have been trying to cut a deal with Russia for the interest of world peace.
By the way, it`s the reason that Nixon got in trouble with Kissinger, who said, stop all the leaking, let`s create the plumbers, all that stuff? It`s interesting. Some guys get in huge trouble for doing the right thing because they do it wrong. Anyway...
COSTA: Well, I think -- well, I think you got...
COSTA: Real quick, you have to separate Trump`s difference on ideology. He`s not a traditional Republican hawk. He is thinking about Russia in new ways.
But that`s a separate issue from Russian interference and possible work with Trump campaign associates. Those are two different things related to Russia.
MATTHEWS: Good work. So true. The wrong way. He should have done it that way.
Thank you, Ashley Parker. Thank you, Robert Costa.
Up next: With so many people crying foul on what we`re hearing from the Trump administration, the Intelligence Committees of both the House and the Senate have their work cut out for them to flesh out the truth, don`t you think? And we`re going to hear from members of both of those committees in a second -- actually, a minute or so -- coming up here on HARDBALL.
This is it, HARDBALL, where the action is.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
In order to justify the firing of the now former FBI Director James Comey, the White House has maintained that Comey had lost the confidence of the bureau he led.
Well, however, in his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee today, the acting FBI director, Andrew McCabe, made it clear that the White House is wrong.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. MARTIN HEINRICH (D), NEW MEXICO: Is it accurate that the rank and file no longer supported Director Comey?
ANDREW MCCABE, ACTING FBI DIRECTOR: No, sir, that is not accurate.
Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI, and still does to this day. The vast majority of FBI employees enjoyed a deep and positive connection to Director Comey.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: I like this guy.
And the acting director also contradicted the administration when it comes to the size and scope of the ongoing Russian investigation, which the White House has downplayed.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: Yesterday, a White House press spokesman said that this is one of the smallest things on the plate of the FBI.
Is this a small investigation in relation to all the other work that you`re doing?
MCCABE: Sir, we consider it to be a highly significant investigation.
KING: So you would not characterize it as one of the smallest things you`re engaged in?
MCCABE: I would not.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: I`m joined right now by Senator Angus King of Maine, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Senator, do you believe what comes out of the White House these days?
KING: No. I don`t see how you can.
KING: We have had two rationalizations for this firing in the last 48 hours, and both of them have been proved manifestly untrue.
The first one was that it was based on the recommendation of Rod Rosenstein`s memo. The president himself today said that wasn`t true. And then they talk about the FBI being a mess, they have lost confidence. And the acting director said that wasn`t true.
I talked to a friend of mine, Chris, of 30 years who just retired as a senior official at the FBI. He characterized those comments as nonsense and unbelievable, that Comey is one of the most deeply respected men who has led the FBI in many, many years.
And so they keep throwing out new rationales, and they keep being proven untrue. And it is disturbing. There`s no doubt about it.
MATTHEWS: Well, here again is what Donald Trump says about James Comey today in his interview with Lester Holt. Let`s watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Look, he`s a showboat. He`s a grandstander. The FBI has been in turmoil. You know that. I know that. Everybody knows that.
You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil, less than a year ago. It hasn`t recovered from that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Well, Senator, I have never seen -- well, he`s trashing a guy he just fired. OK, that`s pretty rough business.
But he also said that Comey on three different occasions told him he wasn`t under investigation. Do you believe that conversation, those three conversations ever occurred?
KING: There`s no way to tell.
He was more specific on the Lester Holt interview about Comey telling him that, Director Comey telling him that. It would surprise me that Director Comey would say something like that, because, number one, the investigation isn`t over. I don`t know how he could make such an assertion.
KING: You know, we all have a tendency to hear what we want to hear, but I would be very surprised.
But give me a break. Donald Trump calling somebody a showboat and a grandstander?
KING: I mean, and I got to tell you, Comey doesn`t come to Congress because he volunteers and says, I want to come. He is asked to come, invited to come by the various committees.
And that -- he is the antithesis of a showboat. I have been referring to him for two years -- when I talk to friends, they say, what`s Comey like? The best word I can come up with, he is a Boy Scout.
I disagree with him on some things. And we have had disagreements in the past. I have gotten to know him. I have four years on the Intelligence Committee. I have probably been with him 10 or 15 times.
KING: He`s a straight arrow. And to talk about him being a grandstander, just it absolutely doesn`t pass the straight face test, particularly coming from this president.
MATTHEWS: So, the president is the showboater, and he`s the Boy Scout. I like it already.
Thank you, Senator Angus King, for that interpretation.
MATTHEWS: I`m joined -- I`m serious.
I`m joined right now by Congressman Mike Quigley of Illinois, who also sits on the Intelligence Committee, in his case the House committee.
Again, the question to you, Congressman, do you believe what you`re hearing from the White House, the president`s various accounts of what he calls reality?
REP. MIKE QUIGLEY (D), ILLINOIS: I mean, there`s a pattern here of deflection, distraction, denial. And the fourth D that comes to mind with me is, unfortunately -- and if I can say this with respect -- delusional.
MATTHEWS: What do you think he -- he clearly doesn`t want an investigation into whatever happened between his campaign people and the Russians. That is just -- all the world -- I think if you look at the headlines in the world, they will say that was the reason he fired the chief investigator of those relations.
What do you think? Is there any more to this story than the obvious?
QUIGLEY: Well, look, let`s look at the pattern. Obviously, he didn`t like the first open hearing in which Director Comey said there is an investigation, first time it was said publicly.
And the director also said that there was Russian hacking into this process and that they did it to help Mr. Trump and to hurt Mrs. Clinton. I`m sure he didn`t like that.
Watch what happened around these times. That was the time in which the distraction began, when the president accused President Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower. That`s when another public hearing was canceled. It`s when, you know, the excursions to the White House took place, the masking/unmasking issues, anything to deflect from the reality of the situation.
And let`s not remember -- I mean, just remember, this week, we had the testimony of Ms. Yates, who he can`t fire anymore. And we had the revelation that the director was asking for more resources to complete this investigation.
MATTHEWS: What do you think the impact was of Ms. Yates` -- Sally Yates` performance that we all watched on television, and you watched on the Hill? What do you think the impact of that was on Trump this week?
QUIGLEY: Yes, I`m sure it wasn`t his best day.
The fact is, whenever he`s confronted with reality, he behaves poorly. She has brought the reality back to the situation, that the White House knew, far before they fired General Yates, what had taken place, that he was susceptible to blackmail, that he had lied to them, and that there were other issues with him.
They just can`t accept the reality of the situation, and they certainly won`t cooperate with this investigation.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Thank you so much, U.S. Congressman Mike Quigley of Illinois.
Up next, the HARDBALL roundtable will tackle why we`re getting so many mixed messages from the White House.
Plus, they`ll have reaction to what President Trump told Lester Holt, which is on the news tonight. You`re watching HARDBALL.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
In a sit-down interview today with Lester Holt, President Trump left some of his closest aides and allies holding the bag. Yesterday, the vice president told reporters seven times that Trump fired Comey because of Rosenstein`s recommendation. Here are a few of them.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The president took strong and decisive leadership here to put the safety and security of the American people first by accepting the recommendation of the deputy attorney general, because of the actions that the deputy attorney general outlined to the president. The American people expect a president to act on the recommendations of those within the administration who are charged with oversight. In this case, the deputy attorney general, when he brought the recommendation to the president that the director of the FBI should be removed, President Trump provided the kind of strong and decisive leadership the American people have come to be accustomed from him.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Well, Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was taken to task for her contradictory statements over the past two days. Here`s what she said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: In this process, I gave you the best information I had at the moment. I still don`t think that it contradicts the president`s decision.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: What seems to be clear here is we`re witnessing a White House underwater and desperate for a lifeboat.
For more, I`m joined by our roundtable tonight. Ken Vogel, chief investigative reporter for "Politico", Kathleen Parker with "The Washington Post," Clarence Page, columnist for "The Chicago Tribune."
All of you, I find it interesting that the president decided to come clean today, at least partially, and say that he wanted Comey out of there for his own reasons. They weren`t Rosenstein`s reasons. It had nothing to do with the little letters that were printed up for the occasion because if you listen to Trump, he said sometimes people do thinks for different reasons than they admit.
And he didn`t quite admit it was about Russia, but he dropped the whole cover story. He left that flying out the window.
KEN VOGEL, POLITICO: Yes, and I think people assume that`s why he did it in the first place, that it was just a gut reaction. So, for the White House staff all the way up to the vice president to come up with this justification and then present it even if it seems disingenuous, and to have Trump come and wipe their legs out from under them is extremely frustrating. That`s what we hear --
MATTHEWS: We`re arguing, how do you pronounce the name? We figured out it was Stein because you had to check with the fellow. In other words, his debut on the national stage, he`s out there being used as a fall guy by the president.
KATHLEEN PARKER, THE WASHINGTON POST: He`s suddenly the guy that`s responsible for this whole massacre. You know, no one doubts ever that Trump does exactly what he wants to. He does the counterintuitive thing often.
He also does this thing -- he seems to hold his staff and even his vice president in contempt. It`s sort of like, well, you guys really screwed up, but I`m in charge and this is how I do things, you know? And even though, it`s -- I mean, I feel sorry for them frankly because there`s no guidance for them and they`re kind of stuck --
MATTHEWS: Who does he care about? His family?
PARKER: He cares about himself, my dear.
MATTHEWS: I think he cares about Ivanka and her husband and maybe a few of the other kids.
VOGEL: He cares about people going out there and defending him on TV, but he`s put them in this untenable position where it`s almost impossible to do that.
PARKER: It`s always, always, always about loyalty. You know, people who work in the administration are required to sign an oath of loyalty. And if they`re not willing to do that, they have to leave.
MATTHEWS: That is --
PARKER: Or people do not --
MATTHEWS: Is this reporting you`re giving us now?
PARKER: I have a friend who is leaving because she refused to sign this oath.
MATTHEWS: That`s not very American.
PARKER: Well, no, it isn`t, is it? There`s a lot about this administration that`s not very --
MATTHEWS: Your oath is to our country under the Constitution. That`s your first responsibility as a citizen generally, but as a public official, it`s your prime responsibility, Clarence.
CLARENCE PAGE, CHICAGO TRIBUNE: These are NDAs, non-disclosure agreements. That`s what he`s referring about, you know? And it`s like there`s -- well, he really cares about those people who will care about him, but he also cares about being in control.
I think that was the big frustration with Comey because he`s under control of nobody. That`s why both right and left have reasons to have grudges against him.
MATTHEWS: Right, the one thing you have to agree on Comey because he`s disliked by so many people is he is his own person. I think he`s loyal to the agency, I think he`s loyal to the agency. And they got caught in that lie today, and it was a lie to say that he somehow not respected by the troops, special agents. And according to McCabe who went up to the Hill and said right to the camera, yes, he is respected.
VOGEL: I mean, he was in a very tough position as well, where if he had withheld the information, you know, going back to why the left hates him, if he had withheld the information about the Clinton investigation and then something were to have come out after the election, then they would have piled on him. Now, he`s in the sort of opposite position.
MATTHEWS: Kathleen, respond to this. We`re going to show you one more bite. This is an amazing interview and we`re proud of it. Here`s an exchange with Lester Holt and President Trump on the current investigations into Russia. We`re going right into the heart here. Let`s watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HOLT: When you put out tweets, it`s a total hoax. It`s a taxpayer charade, and you`re looking for a new FBI director, are you not sending this person a message to lay off?
TRUMP: No, I`m not doing that. I think that we have to get back to work. But I want to find out -- I want to get to the bottom. If Russia hacked, if Russia did anything having to do with our election, I want to know about it.
HOLT: Well, there`s already intelligence from virtually every intelligence agency that, yes, that happened.
TRUMP: I`ll tell you this. If Russia or anybody else is trying to interfere with our elections, I think it`s a horrible thing, and I want to get to the bottom of it, and I want to make sure it will never, ever happen.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: You know, I was thinking of the East German inquisitions in the lives of others and I`m just wondering, I`d love to study that tape over and over again. When Trump is telling the truth, when he`s making up stuff, when he`s scared, there`s so much facial stuff going on, Kathleen.
PARKER: That would have been a reasonable thing for him to say six months ago, eight months ago, but we`ve all known this. We all know this. I`d like to introduce the president to "The Washington Post," for example, the newspaper that he could read and know this for a fact.
MATTHEWS: Know what?
PARKER: That we were hacked and that this did happen, that Russia --
MATTHEWS: He denied the FBI is investigating it.
PARKER: Suddenly, he wants to get to the bottom of this. That`s what everyone around him is trying to do, and he`s doing everything he can to --
MATTHEWS: How can he deny that the FBI is investigating him, which he did? He said they may be working for the House or Senate, Clarence, but they`re not really doing it on their own, I don`t think.
PARKER: He said, I don`t even know if there`s an FBI investigation.
PAGE: He`s trying to say they`re investigating his campaign but not him, which he`s a central figure. That`s a real stretch.
MATTHEWS: Yes, anyway, he`s riding in that car. Anyway, the roundtable is sticking with us.
And up next, these three will tell me something I don`t know. We`ll be back.
MATTHEWS: Well, you can play HARDBALL all week long if you want online. Follow the show on Twitter and Instagram and like us on Facebook.
And we`ll be right back.
MATTHEWS: We`re back with the roundtable, the HARDBALL roundtable.
And, Ken, tell me something I don`t know.
VOGEL: Well, Chris, in the absence of any specific information from the FBI about what they`re looking into in regards to Trump`s team and their ties to Russia, there`s a lot of speculation out there today the FBI raided a GOP consulting firm in Annapolis, Maryland. All the speculation was it was either tied to Trump, his campaign, or Paul Manafort. I did some investigating on that.
MATTHEWS: Who was it?
VOGEL: Absolutely no ties. I mean --
MATTHEWS: Who was in Annapolis?
VOGEL: Oh, it`s a firm called Strategic -- Campaign Strategic Group.
MATTHEWS: Who`s the bold faced name in that community?
VOGEL: The one guy they were looking at is a guy who used to work with Charlie Black, so there was some thought --
MATTHEWS: Black, Manafort and Stone?
MATTHEWS: That firm is unbelievable.
PARKER: OK, mine is easy and quick. Aetna, the third largest insurance company, has decided to drop all of their insurance programs in Obamacare exchanges.
MATTHEWS: Well, that`s pleasant news.
PAGE: Big one.
Oh, you mentioned earlier that the Trump administration is having a commission on voter fraud.
MATTHEWS: Oh, yes, I really believe that one.
PAGE: Yes. The Democrats are preparing to deal with whatever that means, targeting areas where voter registration and other impediments might be enforced. They`ve been doing this for the last couple of election cycles, so they`re getting pretty good at it.
MATTHEWS: I heard there`s like 30 illegal voters in the country.
Anyway, thank you.
PAGE: That`s about right.
MATTHEWS: Ken Vogel, Kathleen Parker and Clarence Page.
When we return, let me finish tonight with Trump Watch. You`re watching HARDBALL.
MATTHEWS: Trump Watch, Thursday, May 11th, 2017.
These are the times that try Trump`s soul. He spent the last several hours trying to regain a story -- regain control of a story he created himself. Did he fire James Comey? Well, for two days, he had his people paid by the government, working for him, putting out this story that he the president was only following the recommendation of the deputy attorney general. He simply accepted that guy`s recommendation.
Well, today when Lester Holt asked him for the truth, Trump said he himself wanted the troublesome, troublesome to Donald Trump, FBI director fired. After two days of happily having the deputy A.G. be the fall guy, Trump confessed the obvious, he admitted he was the one who wanted to get rid of the FBI director.
Well, there was another Trump fib flying around out there today, that Comey had lost the confidence of his agents in the FBI. Oh, yes? Well, it turns out the man who replaced Comey has shot down that notion saying Comey had great respect among the FBI`s agents. So there.
So, we come to the third claim that Trump has made about the matter. He said that James Comey told him on three occasions that he was not a subject of an FBI investigation into his dealings with Russia. Well, given what Trump said about Comey on the other related questions, it is hard to believe this one, isn`t it?
And that`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us.
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