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Hardball with Chris Matthews, Transcript 5/12/2017

Guests: Catherine Rampell, Michael Schmidt, Frank Montoya, John Feehery, Jennifer Rubin, Zeke Mille

KATY TUR, GUEST HOST:  President Trump`s tale of the tapes.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I`m Katy Tur, in for Chris Matthews.

Yesterday, President Trump insulted his recently fired FBI director James Comey as a "showboat" and a "grandstander."  Today, he delivered this warning.  "James Comey better hope that there are no `tapes` of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press."  That came after people close to Comey pushed back on the president`s claim to Lester Holt that Comey told him he wasn`t the target of an FBI investigation.



LESTER HOLT, ANCHOR, "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS":  He told you you weren`t under investigation with regard to the Russia investigation?

TRUMP:  Yes, and 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.

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.


TUR:  According to NBC and other news outlets, people close to Comey say the reality was very different.  During the dinner, quote, "Comey tried to stay away from the Russia investigation.  He would say, Look, sir, I really can`t get into it, and you don`t want me to."

The former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, told Andrea Mitchell today that at the time of the dinner in January, Comey expressed unease to him.


JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE:  He mentioned that he had been invited to the White House to have dinner with the president and that he was uneasy with that because of even -- compromising even the optics, the appearance of independence, not only of him but of the FBI.


HOLT:  And that`s not all.  NBC and others report that the president also asked Comey for a loyalty pledge that night.  According to NBC, Comey replied that he could not offer loyalty, but he could pledge his honesty.

And as for that threat that the president may have surreptitiously recorded his FBI director, press secretary Sean Spicer back at the podium today didn`t deny it.


QUESTION:  Did President Trump record his conversations with former FBI director Comey?

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  I assume you`re referring to the tweet.  And I`ve talked to the president.  The president has nothing further to add on that.

QUESTION:  And why did he say that?  Why did he tweet that?  What should we interpret from that?

SPICER:  As I mentioned, the president has nothing further to add on that.

QUESTION:  Are there recording devices in the Oval Office or in the residence?

SPICER:  As I said, for the third time, there is nothing further to add on that.

QUESTION:  Does he think it`s appropriate to threaten someone like Mr. Comey not to speak?

SPICER:  I don`t think that`s -- that`s not a threat.  He simply stated a fact.  The tweet speaks for itself.  I`m moving on...

QUESTION:  Is the president of the United States currently recording conversations taking place in the Oval Office?

SPICER:  I think the point that I made with respect to the tweet is the president has no further comment on this.


TUR:  This afternoon on Fox News, President Trump was asked about both headlines, first that he requested a loyalty pledge from Comey, and second, about those tapes.


JEANINE PIRRO, FOX NEWS:  People suggest that the question that apparently "The New York Times" is selling, that you asked Comey whether or not you had his loyalty was possibly inappropriate.  Could you see how they would think that?

TRUMP:  I read that article.  I don`t think it`s inappropriate, number one.  And...

PIRRO:  Did you ask that question?

TRUMP:  No.  No, I didn`t.  But I don`t think it would be a bad question to ask.  I think loyalty to the country, loyalty to the United States is important.  You know, I mean, it depends on how you define loyalty, number one.  Number two, I don`t know how that got there because I didn`t ask that question.

PIRRO:  What about the idea that in a tweet, you said that there might be tape-recordings?

TRUMP:  Well, that I can`t talk about.  I won`t talk about that.  All I want is for Comey to be honest, and I hope he will be, and I`m sure he will be, I hope.


TUR:  He`s not going to talk about those tapes.  There`s a lot to get to, but let`s begin with NBC justice correspondent Pete Williams.  Pete, let`s start first off with that dinner.  Is Donald Trump, the president`s, account correct?

PETE WILLIAMS, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, there were two people in the room.  We`ve heard from one of them, and we`ve heard from friends of the other.  We have not heard from James Comey about this.  We haven`t heard from him at all either directly or indirectly since he was fired on Tuesday.  He hasn`t responded to the interview.

But what his friends say -- and I have to give credit to "The New York Times" for first ferreting this out.  What his friends say is that Comey talked to them at the time of the dinner, right afterwards and right before.  Right afterwards, he said that, number one, the White House invited him.

The president said twice in there that Comey asked for the dinner, but Comey told his friends that he was invited by the White House to come and talk to the president, was a little reluctant, as you heard James Clapper say, didn`t know what the appearance would be like, but felt he couldn`t say no to the president of the United States, and that during the dinner, the president asked him a couple of times, Will you -- can you say -- can you tell me that you`ll be loyal to me?  And what Comey said is, Well, all I can tell you is that I`ll be honest, and at some point said something like "honestly loyal," according to the people he talked to.

TUR:  And Pete, in your years of reporting on the FBI, have you ever heard of a circumstance where the president calls the FBI director and asks him directly, Am I under investigation?

WILLIAMS:  Well, no.  But I mean, there are a number of things about what has happened this week that I`ve never seen before, I don`t think anyone has ever seen before, given especially that an FBI director has only been fired once before and under very different circumstances.

As for the idea that there might be tapes -- I wouldn`t consider that a threat because I think Mr. Comey would be delighted if the tapes came out, based on what his friends have told us.  He has a very different version of what happened at the dinner, and undoubtedly, he thinks the tape would support his version if, indeed, there are tapes.

I think, eventually, we`re going to hear from James Comey.  We had thought maybe earlier this week that it would happen by the weekend, but now it appears he`s not going to come up to Congress next week.  I`m sure at some point, he has a story he wants to tell.  He wants to get out his version of it.  But it`s not going to be anytime too soon.

TUR:  Any idea what sort of circumstance he`d be telling that story?  Would it necessarily be in front of Congress, or would it be in a different venue?

WILLIAMS:  If I had to guess -- and it would be just a total guess -- I can`t imagine he is interested in going back up and testifying before Congress yet again.  I don`t think anyone ever thinks that that`s a very pleasant experience.  A great forum perhaps, but he would probably choose some other forum of his choosing.  And if he`s watching right now, this would be an excellent one.

TUR:  Absolutely!  Pete Williams in Washington, appreciate your time, Pete.

WILLIAMS:  You bet.

TUR:  For more, I`m joined by the author of that story, that "New York Times" story that Pete just talked about, Michael Schmidt.  Also NBC national security reporter Ken Dilanian, who`s been doing some remarkable reporting on this on his own, and Frank Montoya, a former senior official at the FBI.

Ken, I want to start with you because you`ve got more information about the timeline, when exactly President Trump asked the FBI director over for dinner.

KEN DILANIAN, NBC NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER:  That`s right, Katy.  In the last hour, I`ve heard from a friend of Comey`s, a former FBI official who was there at the time, who recalls that this invitation came in at the last minute, either on the day of the dinner or the day before the dinner.  So that would have been either January 27th, the day of the dinner, or the 26th, the day before.

Well, January 26th was the day that Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, came to the White House counsel to warn about national security adviser Mike Flynn and to say that Mike Flynn could potentially be blackmailed by the Russians for lying about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.

So this raises the question of, did that issue come up in this meeting.  Now, nobody I`ve talked to knows whether it came up.  Only Jim Comey and Donald Trump may know whether it came up.  But it`s a really interesting question.

The other thing to keep in mind is that just a few days before, on January 24th, the FBI had come to the White House.  FBI agents had come to the White House to interview Mike Flynn about his contacts with Sergey Kislyak.

TUR:  But not even that did it come up, did Donald Trump know about the Yates warning before he invited Jim Comey to dinner, Ken?

DILANIAN:  Well, here`s what we know about that.  We know that when Sean Spicer was first asked about this issue, he said that President Trump was briefed immediately after Sally Yates went to White House counsel Don McGahn, that McGahn turned around and briefed the president and a small group of advisers.  So I was reading that thinking it was either that day or shortly thereafter, Katy.

TUR:  So it sounds like that answer to that question is most likely yes.

DILANIAN:  That`s what it seems like.

TUR:  Michael, let`s take a look at your "New York Times" article.  It`s a remarkable tick-tock of what happened inside that dinner.  It says, "As they ate, the president and Mr. Comey made small talk about the election and crowd sizes at Mr. Trump`s rallies.  The president then turned the conversation to whether Mr. Comey would pledge his loyalty to him."

Michael, pledge his loyalty -- Donald Trump is saying he never said that.  How confident are you in your sources that they`re the ones telling the more truthful version of this story, that Donald Trump did ask for loyalty and that Donald Trump, not James Comey, asked to have this dinner?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT, "NEW YORK TIMES":  Well, the folks that I spoke to, Mr. Comey`s associates, said that Mr. Comey had told them about this at the time and that Mr. Comey was very concerned about it.  So this is not something that they learned about after the fact.

And even another friend has contacted me today to talk about, you know, other examples that Mr. Comey was really concerned about the way that this loyalty question sort of overshadowed his time working for Mr. Trump.  And he really felt that Mr. Trump was never really able to get past that.

TUR:  President Trump criticized Director Comey during his interview with Lester Holt.  Let`s take a look.


TRUMP:  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.


TUR:  Yesterday, the deputy press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, told reporters that the FBI was widely supportive of the president`s move to dismiss Comey.  Let`s take a look at that.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  I can speak to my own personal experience.  I`ve heard from countless members of the FBI that are grateful and thankful for the president`s decision.  And I think that, you know, we may have to agree to disagree.  I`m sure that there are some people that are disappointed.  But I`ve certainly heard from a large number of individuals, and that`s just myself, and I don`t even know that many people in the FBI.


TUR:  And she doesn`t even know that many people in the FBI.

There is a very different picture emerging from recent reporting.  According to NBC, the White House has abandoned the idea of President Trump visiting FBI headquarters after being told that he would not be greeted warmly.

Listen, this is a complicated story, and I -- my curiosity is what are people inside the FBI saying right now?  How are they reacting to this?  And is it just -- is it likely that the FBI agents are coming to Comey`s -- or being as critical of Comey as Sarah Huckabee Sanders is making them out to be, Michael?

SCHMIDT:  Well, in the past few weeks, even before this happened, we had spoken to dozens and dozens of law enforcement officials because we had worked on a larger story about Mr. Comey`s decision on the Clinton e-mail stuff.  And almost every single one of them, even if they disagreed with Mr. Comey`s judgment, said that they trusted his independence and they sort of admired him as the leader of the FBI.

And there was really no feeling like he should go.  They actually sort of took pride in the fact that they had this director at a time that such a high-profile investigation was going on that involved the White House, and that it was a director that was going to go out, was going to speak publicly, and that was going to have their backs.

I just -- I find it very, very hard to believe that a bunch of FBI agents called up the White House to thank them for this happening.  Even there was a report out there that some FBI agents had changed their Facebook photos to this photo of Comey that emerged of him in his yard just the other day.

TUR:  Frank, you worked in the agency.  You know Comey.  You were a close associate of his.  Tell me what the reaction is that you`ve been hearing.

FRANK MONTOYA, FMR. FBI COUNTERINTELLIGENCE AGENT:  You know, first of all, the characterizations from the White House are utter nonsense.  The fact of the matter is that the support for Jim Comey was widespread.  It was deep.  It wasn`t sort of or kind of or qualified.  It was absolute in the sense that they knew he would stand up for them.  They knew that he would do the right things.

Even in those instances where there were some questions about decision- making, for instance, after the e-mail -- in the wake of the e-mail investigation, he went out to folks and he explained what the rationale was behind the decision-making.  It wasn`t just one person making that decision.  It was a number of people that were involved, lawyers, investigators, analysts.  And when he would explain that, people would accept that.

And you know, in terms of the support, in terms of the reaction inside the organization, it is widespread, but it`s widespread disbelief.  It`s widespread disappointment.  It`s widespread shock.  It`s all about support for Jim Comey.

TUR:  Frank, what about the idea that Donald Trump is threatening the FBI director by releasing tapes?  What message does that send to the FBI?

MONTOYA:  Again, it`s -- there were some statements made, I think, in the media earlier today or yesterday about, you know, the president declaring war on the FBI.  That means something to us.  It`s one of those situations where -- and it`s just not like it`s the first time.  There were, you know, a number of broadsides that have been, you know, delivered or fired at us over the past few months, and they just -- they add up.  And it`s one of those situations where folks are really, really upset about this.  They`re disappointed...

TUR:  Is the message, Get in line, though?  Is the message, Get in line, and if you don`t get in line, then I`m going to try and tear you down?

MONTOYA:  I think that there`s an element of that.  I think that there`s an element of trying to disrupt our sense of independence.  But you know, remember what Andy McCabe said yesterday about what the men and women of the FBI will do in this circumstance.  They`ll just work harder.  They`ll do better.  They will -- if there`s a case to be made, they will make it.

TUR:  Frank Montoya, appreciate your expertise.  Also Ken Dilanian and Michael Schmidt, thanks, guys.

Coming up -- Trump`s troubling week has put Republican lawmakers in a bind.  Is this a temporary setback or a sign of things to come?  Two Republican heavyweights will debate that next.

Plus -- Trump gave "Time" magazine an after-hours interview for this week`s cover story.  One of the reporters will give us an inside glimpse of Trump`s White House.

And later -- he`s back!  Sean Spicer took to the podium today just in time for Melissa McCarthy to host "Saturday Night Live" tomorrow night and reprise her now infamous impression of him.  Here is a sneak peek.


(SINGING):  I feel charming, oh, so charming, it`s alarming how charming I feel, and so pretty that I hardly can believe I`m real.  Such a pretty face, such a pretty dress, such a pretty smile, such a pretty me!


TUR:  And now we will all have that song in our heads for the rest of the show.  That is, though, just a taste of what late night is doing to take on Trump`s White House.  We`ll have much more ahead.

Finally, the HARDBALL roundtable will wrap up the show by telling me something I don`t know.

This is HARDBALL, as Chris says, where the action is.


TUR:  A mother whose daughter will lose coverage under the Republican health care bill makes a tearful plea that has gone viral after she said her congressman refused to see her.  According to Julie Anderson (ph), her daughter, Loretta (ph), suffers from a liver problem that carries out-of- pocket medication costs of $12,000 a month.  Before "Obama care," insurers refused to cover the 4-year-old.

Anderson was escorted from Congressman Patrick McHenry`s office in North Carolina who voted for the GOP health care bill last week.  Take a look.


JULIE ANDERSON, NORTH CAROLINA:  Making my child uninsurable for something that`s not her fault is not OK!  If Loretta doesn`t have her medication, she will die.  There are thousands of people like me who are watching their kids get sicker and sicker, and we can`t do anything about it.  And people are actively working against us to let our kids just be sick because they`re a drain on the system.


TUR:  A spokesperson for McHenry says the deputy sheriff on duty in the building asked Anderson to leave and that the congressman`s staff was not involved in her removal from the premises.

We`ll be right back.


TUR:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

It was only a week ago that House Republicans gathered with President Trump at the White House to celebrate the passage of the American Health Care Act. 

Now President Trump`s sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey threatens to derail the party`s agenda. 

House Republicans on recess this week are facing angry voters demanding an independent investigation.  Take a look. 


MAN:  In view of the recent revelations and the firing of Comey, are you about ready to call for an independent counsel?  And, if not, what will it take? 


REP. ROD BLUM (R), IOWA:  Right now, I don`t think we need an independent counsel.  There`s been zero shred of evidence, zero shred of evidence...


BLUM:  ... that the president, that there`s been any collusion with Russia. 

WOMAN:  Will you advocate for a special prosecutor to investigate Trump`s ties to Russia? 


REP. DAVE BRAT (R), VIRGINIA:  Yes, we have oversight committees in the House, in the Senate. 


BRAT:  They`re working their course. 

MAN:  We need a bipartisan select committee to investigate this.  When are you going to open your eyes?  We all see it.  Why -- you don`t see what`s going on?  You don`t see it?  When are you going to decide to be an American and not a politician? 



TUR:  Speaking to reporters in Wisconsin today, House Speaker Paul Ryan was asked to comment on the president`s tweets about James Comey.  Here`s what he said. 


QUESTION:  What are your thoughts about what some have considered to be a threatening tweet from the president directed at Mr. Comey today? 

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE:  I have decided I`m not going to comment on the tweets of the day or the hour.  I haven`t seen them all, to be candid with you.  I`m going to leave it to the president to talk about and defend his tweets. 

You know what I`m focusing on, Ken?  I`m focusing on what is in my control, and that is, what is Congress doing to solve people`s problems? 

QUESTION:  You said you talk with the president all the time.  Would it be OK with you if he recorded those conversations? 


RYAN:  I have never given any thought to that. 


TUR:  He`s never given any thought to that. 

All this comes as the party`s chairwoman declared today at the annual RNC spring meeting that the state of the party is -- quote -- "strong."

But in a blistering op-ed in "The Washington Post," conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin writes: "If Trump is still around by November 2018, a thrashing at the polls may be the only thing to persuade Republicans to walk away from Trump."

I`m joined now by the author of that piece, Jennifer Rubin of "The Washington Post," as well as Republican strategist John Feehery. 

Jennifer, that article -- that`s just one quote of many in that article.  This is what many would call an epic takedown of Republicans and what is going on in this White House. 

What circumstances do you see -- and you just out -- you outlined them -- that the Republicans are going to start walking away from Trump, finding that their own self-preservation is better than the preservation of the president? 

JENNIFER RUBIN, COLUMNIST, "THE WASHINGTON POST":  Well, you would have thought that the confession in the interview with Lester Holt would have done it, when he acknowledges that the reason for the firing of the FBI director was not the stated reason, but had to do with Russia. 

You would think it was this morning when he, in fact, threatened the FBI director and hinted that there might be tapes in the White House.  But they haven`t broke yet.

And I think what we`re going to see is a gradual drip, drip, drip of more and more information.  We`re going to hear from Rod Rosenstein next week.  Eventually, Mr. Comey is going to come forward.  We know there`s a grand jury that`s been impaneled that`s getting documents regarding Mr. Flynn. 

So, eventually, there may be a body of information that comes out that is so disturbing, that is so distressing, that they break.  But they may well not.  They may wait until 2018, and I think they`re going to get quite a thrashing. 

Usually, the party that has the White House loses seats, but if this is the clown show that`s going on then, they`re going to lose a whole bunch of seats. 

TUR:  John, do you agree with her?  Do you think that yesterday and today were setbacks for the GOP? 

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  Listen, I think the biggest problem for the GOP right now is what is going on with health care.  They passed this health care bill out of the House, and now they own health care. 

I think you saw that in the earlier story, and I think that`s a huge problem for the Republicans.  They have got to get the Senate to pass a bill that is a lot better than what passed the House. 

TUR:  But, John, how are they going to do that when the Senate now has to confirm an FBI director?  The Senate has to deal with the very many controversies that come out of this White House.  And now they have Democrats who see no reason whatsoever to work with them on anything. 

FEEHERY:  Right. 

Well, let me tell you this, that the American people outside the Beltway care more about the health care bill than they care about what happened with the FBI director.  And that`s -- polls show that. 

So, the number one thing for Republicans is, they have to figure out how to fix the health care bill.  They can worry about an FBI director later.  The FBI director -- they have an acting FBI director right now. 

But this -- all this stuff with James Comey is not nearly as important as getting to the legislative agenda and fixing their problem with health care, which they now own. 

TUR:  Speaking to members of the RNC in a pre-recorded video today, President Trump vowed to hit the campaign trail for members of his party in the 2018 midterms.  Let`s take a look. 


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I will be going around to different states.  I will be working hard for the people running for Congress and for the people running for the Senate. 

We can pick up a lot of seats, especially if it all keeps going like it`s going now. 


TUR: "Especially if it all keeps going like it`s going now."


TUR:  Jennifer, is it going so well that the Republicans are going to pick up seats? 

And the reason I ask this is because there was so much talk before the election about how it was going to be a complete slaughtering in the Senate, that the Democrats had a chance potentially to take over the House, that Donald Trump was never going to win the presidency. 

All of those expectations were completely moot come 10:00, 11:00 on election night.  Is this the same circumstance, where there`s a lot of talk about all these controversies, but it`s not actually going to translate into Democratic votes? 

RUBIN:  Well, we have a lifetime between now and November 18. 

What we know is that the Democratic base is fully energized.  What we know is people like John, who are so professional, don`t even want to talk about the Comey disaster and obstruction of justice and all sorts of things. 

But, in fact, a large number of the American people, a high percentage of them want some kind of independent investigation.  So, right now, you have an energized Democratic Party.  You have a Republican Party that has ethics issues, has policy issues, as John acknowledges, and that`s generally the making of something that`s going to look like a wave election. 

I`m not going to predict anything sitting here in May of 2017 that`s going to happen 18 months from now, but right now, whose team would you rather be on, the Democrats or the Republicans in 2018? 

TUR:  John, whose team would you rather be on, quickly? 

FEEHERY:  Well, I would rather be on the Republican team. 

And I would point out that Jennifer, throughout the campaign, strongly expressed her dislike of President Trump.  She still has that strong dislike of President Trump, and that`s fine.  I appreciate where she`s coming from. 

RUBIN:  Yes, I`m a principled conservative.  It`s a lonely...


FEEHERY:  Well, whatever, Jennifer.  Whatever.  Whatever.  You have not changed your mind.  And I get that. 

TUR:  What do you mean "whatever"?  John, hold on.  What do you mean?  What do you mean "whatever"? 


FEEHERY:  Can I finish my point, please, Jennifer? 


TUR:  Whatever.  She`s a principled conservative, she said.


FEEHERY:  Can I finish my point?  Can I finish my point?

TUR:  Yes, go ahead.  Finish your point. 

FEEHERY:  My point -- my point is this, is that the number one thing that`s going to drive this election is going to be the economy. 

And if the economy is going strong, which I think we can expect because it has been going strong, then I think the Republicans will do very well.  If the economy falters and fails, then Republicans are going to be in big trouble, which means they have to get to a policy agenda, especially when it comes to fixing our tax code and getting economic growth and keeping economic growth. 

That`s a much stronger position for Republicans to campaign on.  All this other stuff will be a blip on the screen. 

TUR:  I don`t disagree with you.  That is if all this other stuff is not actually a blip on the screen and actually turns out to be much more.  Where there is smoke, people say, there is fire.  We will see if that does happen. 

Thank you, John Feehery and Jennifer Rubin.  Appreciate your time. 

Up next, we have the reporter from "TIME" magazine who sat down with Donald Trump for nearly two hours this week, the inside scoop -- and we mean scoop because they actually talked about ice cream -- on his cover story straight ahead. 

This is HARDBALL, as Chris says, again, where the action is. 


TUR:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Today, we got another peek inside the mind of Donald Trump with more of Lester Holt`s must-see interview with the president. 


LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS ANCHOR:  Do you feel like you`re fighting for your legitimacy sometimes, that your legitimacy is under attack? 

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Well, we`re fighting for our -- well, we have a very divided country. 

I mean, the Republicans are very, very much behind me.  They love what we`re doing on health care.  We had a group in the other day with poll numbers that were so good -- it was actually yesterday -- that were so good, so strong, that if the election were held today, I would win by a lot more than I did on November 8. 


TUR:  But that wasn`t the only interview that made news. 

Earlier this week, "TIME" magazine got their own exclusive and a dinner invite with the president.  In one revealing exchange, the president discussed if he believed the administration has been too combative, saying: "It could be my fault.  I don`t want to necessarily blame, but there`s great meanness out there that I`m surprised at."

A senior administration official also outlined to reporters the three rules of Trump:  When you`re right, you fight.  Controversy elevates the message.  And never apologize. 

For more, I`m joined by one of the "TIME" magazine reporters who interviewed the president, White House correspondent Zeke Miller, and a good friend of mine from the campaign trail. 

Zeke, good to see you. 

Quite an interview you had with Donald Trump.  He was talking about how there`s a great meanness out there.  Take us into the mind of Donald Trump right now in the White House. 

ZEKE MILLER, "TIME":  Well, first of all, good to be with you, Katy. 

I mean, I think we saw the inner tension within the president of the United States on Monday night.  There`s the desire to be loved, the desire to get people to respect him, view him as a legitimate president.  And then there`s the desire to, you know, fight when he`s been attacked. 

And, often, he`s struggling to really -- you know, those are two essentially contradictory, you know, problems for him. 

TUR:  But what does he define as attack?  Is any sort of criticism or news that might be negative about him an attack on him? 

MILLER:  In his mind, yes, and also any mention of Russia. 

We have seen that over the last six months.  That`s part of the reason why it took the president so long to acknowledge that Russia was behind the e- mail hacks.  After all the intelligence agencies had made that conclusion by Election Day, it took Donald Trump until the week before he took office. 

He`s very sensitive to all of those things.  And, you know, he wants to counterpunch.  That`s the -- that`s his natural instinct.  And then he wonders why -- you know, why things are so negative, in part because he doesn`t want -- he can`t absorb an attack without fighting back, and that just elevates the temperature. 

TUR:  You talk about meanness, but -- he talks about meanness, but you were walked into, I think, his dining room right off the Oval Office, where you could see his fantastic DVR.  I think he said it was the world`s greatest DVR, or something like that. 

And he showed you video of the testimony that former DNI James Clapper gave, and so did former A.G., Deputy A.G. Sally Yates.  And he talked about them choking while -- they were choking like dogs while they were giving their testimony. 

James Clapper responded to that on "ANDREA MITCHELL" earlier today.  Let`s take a listen to that. 


ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT:  The president actually taped your testimony from earlier this week, played it back for some "TIME" magazine reporters, played back your segment about collusion, lack of collusion, and said that you were choking on your testimony. 

Do you want to respond to that? 

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER U.S. NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE DIRECTOR:  Well, I heard about that tweet.  I don`t know what he meant by that. 

I certainly knew what I wanted to say, and I attempted to certainly to clear up this misunderstanding about what I meant. 


TUR:  So, how does he control what he hears and he sees?  Obviously, he`s controlling that DVR and watching back certain mentions of him that aren`t so positive. 

MILLER:  Yes. 

I mean, the president records, you know, a large amount of cable news during the day, and then watches it back in the private dining room.  He wants to be able to see it.  He wants to bring aides in and sort of do color commentary. 

It`s almost like watching a play-by-play of a football game on a Sunday afternoon, the president sort of saying, oh, Chuck Grassley, great question.  Look at that.  See how he`s going to do that?  Almost as if he`s drawing lines on a screen for you.  Here`s how he runs that play. 

And then when it comes to -- you know, he also picks out the things that he believes vindicates him.  He took Director Clapper`s answer and then fast- forwarded through Sally Yates` answer on the collusion question where she said she couldn`t answer because it was classified. 

He found the parts that he wanted because he was essentially putting on a show for us.  And that`s the other tension with the president.  He`s often very combative with the press.  At the same time, he couldn`t have been a more gracious host for us for three hours on Monday. 

He is -- and I think you have experienced this on the campaign trail.  One- on-one, the president is a very different person than you see him -- than you see -- the Donald Trump that you see in public. 

TUR:  Absolutely.  He called me a great reporter.  Then he caught himself and said, "Sometimes."

And one other thing -- and we have to go, so we have to be short about it - - but he got two scoops of ice cream, when everyone else got one? 

MILLER:  He didn`t ask for it.  It just came out that way.  That`s the perks of being president. 

TUR:  Interesting. 

Zeke Miller, appreciate your time.  Good to see you, even if it`s through a TV screen. 

MILLER:  Thanks for having me.

TUR:  Up next:  Who do you trust, President Trump or his surrogates?  We will ask our HARDBALL Roundtable next. 

You`re watching HARDBALL. 



SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  We get here early.  We work beyond being here at this podium.  As many of you know, we get here early.  We work pretty late.  We work very hard to get you the most accurate and up-to-date information throughout the day.  We don`t always have the opportunity to get in to see the president.  In those cases, I think we do a pretty good job of following up. 



The White House originally said President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey because his deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions recommended it.  But in President Trump`s interview with NBC`s Lester Holt yesterday, the president insisted it was actually all him. 

It`s not the only time the White House has struggled to get its story straight.  The administration`s message can mutate daily if not hourly, so who do the American people trust?  The president or his spokespeople, or neither? 

President Trump says trust them all, just don`t blame them if they get it wrong.  He tweeted today: As a very active president with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy. 

For more on this, let`s bring in tonight`s HARDBALL roundtable: Nick Confessore is a political reporter with "The New York Times," Catherine Rampell is an opinion writer with "The Washington Post," and former Democratic congressman from Tennessee, Harold Ford, is an MSNBC political analyst. 

So, that`s the question.  Do they have a credibility problem?  Do you trust anything the White House says, whether it comes from the president or the spokespeople?  Is there a point to those press briefings? 

HAROLD FORD, JR. (D-TN), FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN:  I think they`re trying very hard.  The president`s comments certainly don`t inspire confidence not only in his words or their words, but if you`re Sean Spicer or Ms. Huckabee Sanders, he basically said, look, I`m going to send you out there, and if I change my mind or new facts come my way, you should hope I`m going to present them to you. 

I thought one of the questions in the briefing, I think today, I can`t recall who asked it but it was a legitimate question.  Can we trust that you guys know what you`re talking about, and can we take back to the reporting room what you`ve shared with us?  And Sean seemed to be a little upset about the question.  Maybe it Ms. Sanders seemed to be a little upset about the question, but it was a legitimate question. 

And one can only hope that their follow-ups with the press, that they talk to the president before they follow up with the press. 

TUR:  Sean Spicer said he`s doing the best job that he can, and so are the other communications staff members.  But sometimes they just don`t have access to the president.  I mean, that`s a big deal to not necessarily know what the president is thinking or believing or why he made a decision before you get onto that podium. 

That podium is -- it`s a big deal.  Big things happen at that podium, and it`s not just talking to a bunch of reporters, which it may look like.  It`s talking to the American people and the rest of the world. 

NICHOLAS CONFESSORE, THE NEW YORK TIMES:  I think the real problem here is this is a president who lives from moment to moment and minute to minute.  He lives in his own head sometimes.  He says whatever works for him in that moment, and he has a press staff that is often trying to rush to catch up to what he has said most recently.  And he changes the game on them all the time.  So, I have some sympathy for them. 

On the other hand, this goes back to the first day on the job. 

TUR:  Yes.

CONFESSORE:  When Sean Spicer came out there and lied to the entire country about the crowd size at the inaugural, it was ridiculous.  And that set the tone from the beginning, and no one should go out there to that podium and say things they know are not true. 

TUR:  You know, Nicolle Wallace said exactly that on the "Today" show this morning.  I think we should just listen to it.  Steve Schmidt as well.  Both of them have held those positions.  Take a listen. 

We don`t actually have that sound.  Anyway, I will explain it to you.

She said she was never asked to go out and lie.  Sean Spicer, as you said, starting off with that whopper about the inauguration crowd size.  So I mean that is the question.  Do the American people look at Sean Spicer, if they`re not a Donald Trump supporter, and say this guy`s a liar? 

CATHERINE RAMPELL, THE WASHIGTON POST:  Well, if they are a Donald Trump supporter, I think that they just say, we don`t really care if they fudge the truth, whether it`s Trump or his surrogates.  You know, we believe in the mission.  We think he stands for people like us.  And, you know, we`ll cut him some slack. 

The rest of the American populace, it`s harder to say.  There are a lot of people who are inclined to disbelieve everything that comes out of the White House, but then there are a lot of people in the middle who are looking to the White House for a credible message, even when it`s not on something silly and easily verifiably wrong like crowd size, but like think about more serious issues that we might want statements from the White House to be truthful about, whether it`s about foreign relations or otherwise.  You know, you want to have --

TUR:  Reason for going to war potentially. 

RAMPELL:  Right, exactly, exactly. 

So, when you set that tone on day one, lying about crowd size, that means that you`ve basically given the American public no reason to believe you when the stakes are much higher. 

FORD:  You all three are highly acclaimed and decorated journalists.  Think about this.  If you`re Mike Pence, you`ve been lied to twice that we know of, and you`ve had public embarrassment in front of you. 

Two, this all comes about because yesterday the president sent out his entire team, and they said this whole thing about firing Comey was something either he`d been thinking about for a long time or something he placed all of his cards on with this young deputy attorney general.  Then the president himself comes out the following night on this network, the mother ship of this network with Lester Holt and says, you know, Russia was on my mind, and it was totally my decision.

Now, a normal person and in a normal setting, we would not only be on fire about this but say, how can you do this?  But with Trump, he gets this allowance almost and this accommodation.  And to your point, his supporters, I don`t think are offended by this at all.  I think his supporters view him as getting one over on the press by doing it this way. 

TUR:  When he`s attacked, his supporters feel attacked. 

FORD:  No doubt about it. 

TUR:  Absolutely. 

FORD:  And I think one of the things I watch, as much as people are watching Richard Burr, you`ve also got to watch when that group of his begins to turn on him a little bit.  And I feel sorry for Spicer too because Spicer -- his service -- he`s serving the president, not the public.  And oftentimes, that service is in conflict. 

TUR:  He`s serving the president who is serving the public, so it`s a roundabout way of saying he`s serving the public as well. 

FORD:  But sometimes serving the public is in conflict with serving that president.  We see it day in and day out unfortunately, for him and for us, those of us who listen and are following in.

TUR:  The HARDBALL roundtable is staying with us. 

And coming up, Stephen Colbert versus Donald Trump.  This is going to get good.  Take a listen, or wait. 


STEPHEN COLBERT, COMEDIAN/TV HOST:  The president of the United States has personally come after me and my show, and there`s only one thing to say. 




TUR:  More from Lester Holt`s exclusive interview on NBC with President Trump.  He said he was also disappointed in FBI Director Comey for exonerating Hillary Clinton. 


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I happen to have some lawyers, unrelated lawyers, and they were saying, wow, she`s guilty here.  Guilty, guilty, guilty.  Then he gets to the end, and he said she`s free as a bird. 

LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS:  So, you didn`t like the outcome? 

TRUMP:  No.  What happened, he had a lot of pressure put on, and he exonerated her. 


TUR:  We`ll be right back. 


TUR:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Sean Spicer is back after a short break for naval reserve duty.  The White House press secretary was back at his perch today, and so is Spicy, I mean, Melissa McCarthy. 

The comedienne was spotted in her Spicy suit rolling through traffic this morning on her mock White House press room podium.  McCarthy is hosting "Saturday Night Live" tomorrow, and the show released this promo video. 


TUR:  Who knew she had such a great voice? 

"SNL" isn`t the only late night show taking on the White House.  "Late Show" host Stephen Colbert, who president Trump referred to as a no-talent guy, hit back at Trump last night. 


COLBERT:  The president of the United States has personally come after me and my show, and there`s only one thing to say. 


Mr. Trump, there`s a lot you don`t understand, but I never thought one of those things would be show business.  Don`t you know I`ve been trying for a year to get you to say my name?  And you were very restrained, admirably restrained.  But now you did it.  I won. 


TUR:  I`m back with Nick, Catherine, and Harold. 

Nick, tell me something I don`t know.  I love that I`m on this side of this by the way. 

CONFESSORE:  All right.  Well, I was thinking when was the last time we had questions about a secret taping in the Oval Office.  Of course, today, the president and the White House refused to confirm or deny if he actually had a taping system. 

And back in the summer of `73, the rumors around Washington that President Nixon had a taping system, but nobody could confirm it for weeks and weeks and weeks until a White House aide finally admitted it to investigators. 

TUR:  Interesting. 

CONFESSORE:  That`s how we know about the secret taping system. 

TUR:  You know what I did just now? 

CONFESSORE:  What did you do? 

TUR:  I jumped the gun on this because I`m not used to this format.  I jumped the gun.  That is coming up.  Let`s talk about late night. 

CONFESSORE:  I was wondering why we weren`t going to talk about that video. 

TUR:  That`s obviously what we led in with.  I`m sorry, guys.  I`m getting the hang of this. 

CONFESSORE:  It`s a Friday, Katy. 

TUR:  Saturday, are you looking forward to Melissa McCarthy? 

FORD:  Look, I think, I don`t know who came up with her doing it but she is phenomenal at it.  They say the president doesn`t enjoy it, but I hope Spicy gets a kick out of it.  He should.  He`s global because of what Melissa McCarthy does.  But she can sing as you said. 

TUR:  Do you think it bothers the White House that this is happening?  I was talking to an associate of Trump`s today, and he said that whenever Sean Spicer takes the podium, it`s like it`s a hostage video. 

CONFESSORE:  I mean, it shouldn`t bother them, but it does.  I think that the president is thin-skinned about this kind of treatment.  I think it`s a great parody, and I`m sure Sean appreciates it.  I`m less sure the president appreciates it. 

RAMPELL:  I`m sure he does not appreciate it. 

FORD:  But the Reagans invited Joe Piscopo over when he was on "Saturday Night Live" doing Ronald Reagan. 

TUR:  Do you see Donald Trump inviting Stephen Colbert over? 


TUR:  No?

RAMPELL:  Absolutely not. 

TUR:  Does late night really get under his skin? 

RAMPELL:  Yes, absolutely.  I mean, Trump doesn`t care about being called on a lie.  He doesn`t care about being revealed to be ignorant about something or not knowing how much health insurance costs or whatever, but if you question his manhood, if you make him look silly. 

TUR:  I hope you`re not referring to the hands thing at the debate. 

RAMPELL:  I didn`t say anything, what that might reference.  Or you question the manhood of his spokespeople for that matter by having Sean Spicer played by a woman, that stuff I think really gets under his skin.  He commits a lot of unforced errors when that does happen.  And, hey, it distracts him from doing lots more pernicious things when he`s tweeting about "SNL" or whatever it is at the time. 

TUR:  So, coming up, we`re going to do tell me something I don`t know. 

Nick, you have to think of another one because you already gave me that one.  And, Harold, come up with something. 

They`re staying with us.  This is HARDBALL where the action is. 


TUR:  We`re back with the HARDBALL roundtable. 

Nick already told me something I didn`t know, so, Catherine, let`s start with you. 

RAMPELL:  OK.  So I will do the non-political one. 

TUR:  Go ahead. 

RAMPELL:  OK.  So, you`re aware great inflation, big deal, taking over college campuses, high schools, et cetera.  About 100 e let prep schools around the country have decided that grade inflation is so bad that they`re getting rid of grades altogether. 

TUR:  Wow.


TUR:  That would certainly help. 


CONFESSORE:  OK, back to politics for my second bite at the apple here.  This comes from my colleague Rachel Shure in the Washington bureau at "The Times".  She tells me that the super PAC that`s been running these nasty ads against Jon Ossoff in Georgia saying all his money comes from out of state donors just got a million dollars from Stephen Cohn of Greenwich, Connecticut. 

TUR:  Wow.

Harold, who`s going to win in 2020?  I`m going to give you a hard one.  Tell me something I don`t know.

FORD:  The approach taken by if the Democrat wins in Ohio, Michigan, or Florida for governor, that will be a philosophy that wins in 2020 in for Democrats.

TUR:  Give me a name. 

FORD:  I like Tim Ryan in Ohio, and I like my mayor out of Palm Beach -- out of Miami in Florida. 

TUR:  Thank you.  Nick Confessore, Catherine Rampell, Harold Ford, Jr., that will do it for HARDBALL. 

Chris Matthews is right back here on Monday. 

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.