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Hardball with Chris Matthews, Transcript 5/16/2017

Guests: Bianna Golodryga, Julia Ioffe, Eli Stokols, Ayesha Rascoe,Greg Miller, Angus King, Jeff Merkley

  CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Written evidence.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.

I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.  He`s a good guy.  I hope you let this go.

Well, that is what President Trump said to the head of the FBI when he met with James Comey in February, according to a memorandum Comey kept for his file.  Before he fired Comey for not dropping the Russia thing, he fired -- tried asking him to drop it personally.

Well, this bombshell hit tonight.  "The New York Times" has the story, and NBC confirms it.  President Trump tried to shut down the Federal Bureau Investigation probe of then national security adviser Michael Flynn and his conversations with the Russian ambassador.  Not getting his way, Trump fired the FBI director.

Again, that`s the story out tonight.  It`s come on the tail of the news that Trump himself gave classified information to the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador when they met in the Oval Office late last week.

What do the American people make of this kind of news, that the president tried to get the FBI director to kill his investigation of Trump`s top security adviser, then proceeded to fire the FBI director because of what he called -- what Trump called the Russian thing?

What do we think of a president who conducts his public presidency now in a two-step pattern of denial followed by defiance?  If he can`t get away with hiding the truth, they hunker down and defend what they can no -- what can no longer be denied.

Well, first, they denied firing Comey, for example, over Russia.  Then the president admitted it himself.  Then the president denied having given classified material to the Russians, which turns out to be from the Israelis.  And now he says he has the right to give any material he wants to anyone he wants to.

And tonight, on top of all that, we find out, as I said, he tried to pressure Comey, the head of the FBI then, into dropping the Russian investigation, and then failing that effort, he fired Comey.

We`re in stage one now of the process this time.  Here`s the denial from the White House on cue.  "This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey."  Well, we`ll see because it`s on record by Comey.

I`m joined right now by NBC national security reporter Ken Dilanian.  We have a paper document, a memo written in contemporary time after the meeting with the president by the FBI director, who we have to assume is good at this -- at keeping personal records and keeping them straight.


MATTHEWS:  What can the president do now to deny that that document exists, Ken?

DILANIAN:  I don`t think he can deny it, Chris.  And you know, the document was written after an Oval Office meeting two weeks after that infamous dinner where Comey says President Trump asked him for loyalty.  And you know, the document is in possession of the FBI, so presumably, Congress is going to request it, if it hasn`t already.

And you know, I`m not a lawyer.  I don`t know if this is obstruction of justice.  But it certainly raises a question about how it is that a president can think it`s OK to interfere with an FBI investigation.

Now, I was told by a source close to Comey that he did not feel it necessary to resign at that moment and go public.  He felt he could manage the situation, Chris.  You know, he wrote this memo to document the situation and kept this information from the rank-and-file FBI agents who were conducting the Russia investigation, so they didn`t feel chilled.

And by the way, Chris, this source tells me that Comey documented nearly every conversation he had with the president either in person or on the phone.  So there are other memos out there, and we can only wonder what they say, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of the interaction here?  The president said a couple days ago, Be careful, in a tweet in the morning.  I`ve got tapes.  And now -- however this story became uncovered, we`ll know how the reporting tradecraft went, but the story came out that there`s a written memo now to counter this tape.

I don`t personally believe there were any tapes, but what do you make of that?  The sort of -- if it was a bluff by Trump?  Are we going to have a battle between tapes and written memoranda?

DILANIAN:  A friend of Comey`s has told me that he`d be only too happy for there to have been tapes because, you know, he -- he thinks they would vindicate his -- his side of this, and that`s why he wrote these memos.

And by the way, he has a career of doing this, you know, of memorializing controversial episodes for the record to make sure that his side is recorded contemporaneously.  It`s a powerful piece of evidence.  And in this case, you know, he`s saying that the president asked him -- suggested that they drop this investigation into the national security adviser.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you so much.  It`s great to have you working with us, NBC`s Ken Dilanian.

As I said, last week, President Trump delivered this warning.  "James Comey better hope that there are no `tapes` of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press."  But it might turn out to be Comey who has the most comprehensive accounting of those interactions.

According to "The Times," Mr. Comey created detailed memos, as Ken just said, about every phone call and meeting he had with the president.  Wow!

I`m joined right now by "The Washington Post`s" Greg Miller, who broke that news yesterday, that President Trump shared classified information with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, and Charlie Savage is a national security and legal reporter for "The New York Times," an NBC News/MSNBC contributor and author of "Power Wars: The Relentless Rise of Presidential Authority and Secrecy.  And of course, "USA Today`s Heidi Przybyla is with us right now.

A couple questions.  Let`s start with the obvious ones.  Let me go to Charlie on this question.  What do we make of these -- this memorandum, that now we have a memorandum from -- in the hand of, dictated perhaps, typed perhaps on a word processor.

Well, Greg -- why don`t we go to Greg on this.  What do we make of that?  How -- it seems incontrovertible.

GREG MILLER, WASHINGTON POST":  So I think that these are -- this is starting to look like -- I mean, when Comey was fired by Trump, people were starting to whisper the words "obstruction of justice."  This just takes you so much closer.  I mean, the idea that there are contemporaneous records sitting in a file that presumably represent accurate recollections of the FBI director, who`s seen as a highly credible figure here -- how do you add that up against the credibility of a president and a White House that has had so much trouble keeping facts straight?

MATTHEWS:  Heidi, it seems to me that the FBI director is responsible to the law, not to the president.  He`s not his lackey or his employee.  He`s got a 10-year term.  He`s meant to be independent of the president.  That`s why he gets a 10-year term, subject to cause, perhaps, but he`s supposed to be there and be a watchdog on all law-breaking in the country, including that of the president.  Let`s face it, the FBI tracked down Nixon!

HEIDI PRZYBYLA, "USA TODAY," MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  And that`s something that Donald Trump either doesn`t realize or is willfully violating.  And this is the point now that I think this represents, which is that all of these iterations -- Sally Yates`s firing, the timing of Sally Yates`s firing, the denials -- all of these things the public and even us in the media have been willing to say, OK, this just could be incompetence, this could just be being clumsy.

Now, like Greg says, people are starting to whisper those words, "obstruction."  Was this intentional?  Was this intentionally trying to stop the FBI director from pursuing an active investigation, to put his thumb on (INAUDIBLE)

MATTHEWS:  Well, Charlie -- Charlie, pick up on here because we`ve all watched courtroom drama.  I think it`s the best drama there is besides boxing movies, courtroom drama.  We all know about obstruction of justice.  We know what it looks like.

Here`s a president who has a guy who knows a lot from his conversations with him, Michael Flynn.  If there`s been any conversations about Russia involving the president, they probably involved Michael Flynn.  Michael Flynn`s under serious heat from the government now.  He`s talked about getting immunity.  Obviously, getting immunity means he wants to testify to somebody higher up than him.  That would be the president.  Of course, the president would then logically want to get the heat off Flynn so that he wouldn`t be pressured into giving up the boss, meaning him.

It does fit together.  It wouldn`t be a matter of compassion, whether he likes Flynn or not -- he probably does like Flynn.  There`s Flynn dancing around him there.  But the fact is that Flynn was very dangerous to him, and to go in January or February to the FBI director and say, Can you let my friend off, he`s really letting off the guy that was going to rat on him.



SAVAGE:  You`re putting your finger on it there, Chris.  I`ve talked to several former federal prosecutors or experts in white collar criminal law over the last few days, starting with the Comey firing and leading up to this now, and who knows what may be next after this.  But I`ve seen an evolution in their thinking, some of the smartest people on this topic.

When Comey was fired, it was, like, Well, maybe it was.  Maybe it wasn`t.  The problem with obstruction of justice is you have to prove it was the specific intent of the person committing the act to impede the investigation.  It`s not just enough that they might know that might be a side consequence, so Trump could say, Well, I just thought he was doing a bad job running the FBI in general, and so forth, and it would be sort if hard to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

But then you have the threatening tweet at Mr. Comey, and now you have, apparently, a written contemporaneous record of a conversation which, as one former prosecutor put it to me, looks like the president himself suggesting he had improper intent in terms of wanting to interfere with that investigation.

Of course, all of this may just be theoretical.  It`s hard to envision the Trump Justice Department charging the sitting president.

MATTHEWS:  Let me go -- let me go to Congress -- U.S. Senator Angus King of Maine, an independent in the United States Senate.  He`s on the Intelligence Committee.

Senator, look at this.  If this were a Perry Mason case or some sort of television drama where the person who was going to rat out the boss man, if you will, in some sort of conspiracy -- that guy was talking about getting immunity because he had something to say and he wanted to protect himself from prosecution himself, get a lighter sentence or no sentence at all.

And all of a sudden, you find out that the boss man goes to the prosecutor and says, You know what?  I want this guy off.  I want him off.  I want you to drop the case.  And of course, I`m in a position to continue your employment here as FBI director, so why don`t you do what I want you to do?  And then when he doesn`t do what he wants him to do and doesn`t drop the case, he fires him.

I mean, this is a simple drama to people watching it, including, I would bet, your constituents.  That`s the way they`re -- people that read the paper see this story developing rather clearly.  Trump`s protecting himself.

SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE:  Well, Chris, if we`re going to talk about courtroom drama, I`m going to go back to a show you and I remember, "Dragnet," where Joe Friday always started out by saying, Just the facts, ma`am, just the facts.


KING:  I think we need to take a little bit of a deep breath here.  We haven`t even heard from Jim Comey authenticating this memo.  We`ve heard accounts of people who`ve said they`ve read it, and they`ve talked to reporters.


KING:  I want to slow down a little bit, get more of the facts and get the facts of what happened that day in the Oval Office.  Now, clearly, a contemporaneous note that he wrote is pretty credible, and Jim Comey is a guy who goes by the book.

MATTHEWS:  I can`t hear right now.  I`m not getting this.  Oh, there it is.  Go ahead.  I can hear now, Senator.

KING:  OK.  Jim Comey is a guy who goes by the book, so a record he kept is pretty powerful evidence.  The White House, apparently, a few minutes ago said that it never happened.  It`s -- they`ve categorically denied it.  I think it`s up to them now to come forward with what evidence they have that the conversation didn`t take place.

And if there are tapes, we want those tapes.  And I think the president is the one who brought tapes into the discussion.  We want to know if there are tapes.  If there are, I can tell you that Congress -- and I was in the Intelligence Committee this afternoon.  We want to know what went on in the Oval Office that day, and also last week in the meeting with the Russians where classified intelligence was released.

MATTHEWS:  Why do you want to know what the conversation was between the president and Mr. Comey?  To what effect?

KING:  Because we -- you know, I want to know whether, in fact, the president said what Mr. Comey says he did.  And I think...

MATTHEWS:  What would you do with that information if you got it?

KING:  Well, I think then we have to go forward and try to understand what the context was, what else was said in the conversation, and then the Congress is going to have to assess that material.  This is very, very serious stuff, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Well, you`re investigating -- in other words, what you`re describing is a program, an agenda for discovering whether the president committed obstruction of justice.

KING:  Well, that`s certainly a question that`s been raised by this whole matter that`s come out just in the last few hours.  And you know, obstruction of justice is a legal term.  It`s 18 USC 1503, and it talks about corrupt and what your state of mind was.

I`m not ready to act as judge, jury and prosecutor here, but I think we do have to get to the facts.  And the White House has now denied it, and I want to know what basis they have for that denial.

MATTHEWS:  If it turns out that the evidence is solid, that the then FBI director had contemporaneous and accurate notes of a conversation he had with the president of the United States in which the president of the United States asked him to drop a case against his then national security adviser -- if that`s the case, and later on, he fires that FBI director and the causality is fairly implicit there, is that a case for obstruction of justice, Senator?  Or else why are we investigating this if it doesn`t have that value?  In other words, if it doesn`t lead to a prosecution or an impeachment, why are we studying this case at all?

KING:  Well, I don`t want to practice law on TV, Chris, but it`s -- let me just say it certainly appears to meet the definition in the statute, and it`s -- it`s -- it`s a very serious matter.  It`s been one that`s been part of proceedings around here for many years.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about this other matter that came up the other day, which is the president basically sharing with the Foreign Minister Lavrov of Russia information which we now learn has come from the Israeli intelligence, from Mossad, and doing so at his own whim, if you will.  What do you make of that?

KING:  Well, it`s clear -- and the White House has said this -- the president has the power to declassify whatever he or she wants.  That`s true.  But usually, it ought to be -- and it ought to be a process where you check with the intelligence agencies.  You talk about the consequences.  You weigh the pros and cons of releasing the information.

The problem in this case -- again, apparently, because we don`t have all of what went on in that meeting.  But apparently, this material was released just in the midst of a conversation without that kind of thinking it through of what the consequences.  And there are two problems.  Number one, it telegraphs through the Russians to ISIS or whoever else how we got that information.


KING:  You don`t have to talk about sources and methods.  If you tell people you`ve got information, quite often, particularly if they`re as sophisticated as the Russians, they can engineer it backwards and figure that out.

The second thing, and perhaps even more serious, it`s going to chill our allies.  And I can`t confirm whether it was Israel or anywhere else, but it`s going to chill our allies from passing information on to us because if we burn them or burn their agents, that -- you know, that`s going to end up cutting off the flow of what could be life-saving information.  That`s why this is so serious.

This is -- you know, I work on the Intelligence Committee.  We deal with this kind of material all the time, and this is the highest -- this material was at the highest level of classification.  And to just in the middle of a conversation, for whatever reason, to share it with somebody who, by the way, are allies of Assad and the Iranians -- that`s -- I`ve got a real problem with that.

MATTHEWS:  I don`t blame you.  Thank you so much, Senator Angus King of Maine.

Let me go back to Greg.  Congratulations.  You broke the story about that conversation, but I hate to trump it with this new one.  You just heard him say that...

MILLER:  I do, too.

MATTHEWS:  ... the definition of -- the senator just said -- he`s an independent.  I think he`s pretty much a middle-of-the-roader -- saying that the evidence they`re looking at right now, if they get it, is serious business.  This is going to be an obstruction of justice charge, an article of impeachment, basically.

MILLER:  Yes, I mean, so these stories over the last few days are -- they take you in, you know, similar but slightly different directions.  This story about what he`s disclosing to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador -- that really gets to sort of his fitness for office, right?  What is he doing?  Why does...

MATTHEWS:  His comfort with the Russians, too, which -- which to me...

MILLER:  Right.  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  ... back channels us back to all the last six or seven months.  If he`s that comfortable talking with Lavrov and Kislyak, well, why wouldn`t Michael Flynn be just as comfortable chatting with Kislyak on the matter of sanctions?

MILLER:  It`s just an astonishing blind spot.  I mean, how do you -- how do you even go into this meeting with the Russians, let alone start bragging or boasting about this great intelligence you have, put a potential really critical ally, intelligence ally, in jeopardy?  It`s just astonishing the sort of behavior.

MATTHEWS:  I know.  Heidi...

PRZYBYLA:  It`s astonishing, and it`s not because I bring you back to the fact that we all pointed this out at the beginning.  Trump is an experiment.  He`s an experimental president.  He`s the first president in our history who has no experience in the military, no experience in the government.

What do you learn in the military and the government?  Among other things, handling of classified information.  You combine that with -- sorry to bring is back to this word from the Hillary campaign, but temperament, because all of these stories that we`re hearing about...


PRZYBYLA:  ... have to do with temperament.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let`s jump to where we were with the senator.  And he is a member of the United States Senate, and they get to convict, not just impeach.  They decide by two thirds vote.

He`s asking for evidence.  He`s not sure of the evidence of the memo being true or not.  But if it`s just a matter of getting that, and I would bet "The New York Times" has the story, I would bet we have it, that there is such a memo, where Comey really did say after meeting with the president, He just asked me to drop the Flynn case, and has the wording of it.

And if that`s the case, and if the senator is right, then it`s just a question of nailing that down.  We already nailed down the fact he fired the guy afterwards for not playing ball with him.  There`s a lot of evidence here.  It seems it would take a reasonable person in the direction of perhaps wanting more information, but clearly, we`re on the trail there to an impeachment.

PRZYBYLA:  If there is a memo, it is the property of the government, and Congress will demand it and they`ll get it.

MATTHEWS:  And any tapes, as well.

PRZYBYLA:  Can I just point out one other thing, Chris?  Another piece of this puzzle could come into play.  I sat down with Senator Durbin today, second ranking Democrats, and he said on Thursday, when Rod Rosenstein, the assistant -- the deputy AG, comes before us in a closed session -- I believe that he was set up.  I believe that he was set up to write that memo.

MATTHEWS:  What does that mean...

PRZYBYLA:  We`re going to make him...

MATTHEWS:  ... in English?

PRZYBYLA:  That someone...

MATTHEWS:  What does "set up" mean?

PRZYBYLA:  That someone in the White House or higher up in the Justice Department -- he didn`t give me names, but who`s his boss, Sessions -- told him to do it.  That`s a pretty clear question...


MATTHEWS:  And protect Flynn and himself from further investigation of what Trump calls the Russian thing.

PRZYBYLA:  So that`s a question.

MATTHEWS:  So it all goes back, Greg, to the Russian thing over and over again, the Russian thing.

MILLER:  Over and over again, which is why it`s so remarkable that once again, he`s allowing the Russians into the Oval Office, and that this story just -- I mean, if he had disclosed this classified information last week with any other country, it would still be a big story.  The fact that it`s Russia just compounds it.

And I think the other thing, Chris, very quickly, is, you know, his own words have gotten him in trouble in trying to defend the Muslim ban, you know, immigration policies and so forth.  His own words on these issues, on Comey, on Russia, are going to be so (INAUDIBLE)

MATTHEWS:  Yes, it`s not a leak, it`s him.  Anyway, Charlie, you still there?  What do you think of the fact of what the senator just said from Maine, that basically, it`s a question of tracking down the evidence now, but there`s a pattern.  There`s a trail.

SAVAGE:  I mean, absolutely, whether you`re just a member of the public or a reporter or member of Congress, it`s clear that we need more information to make sense of this.  And you know, one of the issues here has been that, you know, the question of whether there should be a special prosecutor who has greater day-to-day independence at least from the Justice Department running this.

Another has been the fact that the Congress is controlled -- all the chairmen are members of the president`s party, and there`s been this sort of slow burn of the House Intelligence Committee`s investigation, not sort of stumbling around with Devin Nunes, maybe the Senate investigation a little more serious, but also not going very fast.

The real question is where is the subpoenas from Congress to the executive branch, saying, Give us all memos that James Comey left behind contemporaneously recording his conversations with the president on this matter? Where is the subpoena saying, if there are tapes, preserve them and give them to us? 

It`s going to take -- it`s more obvious than ever that we need better and more and more complete information to make sense of this sort of spiraling situation.  There needs to be a serious investigation that has some degree of independence, no matter what your opinions are.


MATTHEWS:  I think that the people on the Hill who are Republican, and are Republican long before Donald Trump was a Republican, are worried about what happens to those people who play ball with him. 

Nunes was basically defrocked as a serious investigator by his midnight ride down to the White House and back again, and then back again, with the White House, with what they gave him to give back to the president.  He looked like a fool.  And he`s probably not a fool, but he looked like one. 

And I think that anybody who deals with this White House has to risk that they will be used to protect the president, not to protect their own integrity. 

Anyway, Greg Miller.  And thank you, Heidi Przybyla.  And thank you, Charlie Savage.

There`s bipartisan reaction and alarm on Capitol Hill, as you might expect, from this report from "The New York Times" tonight. 

Here goes. 


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA:  If Mr. Comey is alleging that the president did something inappropriate (INAUDIBLE) it`s open invitation to come to the Judiciary Committee and tell us about it.  I don`t want to read a memo.  I want to hear from him. 

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D-IL), MINORITY WHIP:  Well, this stunning, breathtaking revelation that the president is accused of reaching out directly to the head of the FBI to stop an investigation of General Flynn, under the circumstances, it raises serious questions of obstruction of justice. 

QUESTION:  Do you expect Director Comey to testify publicly soon? 

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT:  Oh, I hope he will, and I think it should be in public.  If there`s some classified material, we could always close the session just for that.  But I think, for the American -- the American people are very frightened about what`s going on. 

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA:  More than ever, although I have always felt that Jim Comey at the appropriate time was going to want to tell his story to the American people.  I think he deserves that. 


MATTHEWS:  Well, they`re all being careful. 

Let`s get reaction now from a U.S. senator.  Jeff Merkley is of course a Democrat from Oregon who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee. 

Senator, what do you make of this?  You heard your colleague Angus King, an independent who votes with the Democrats from Maine, who is talking about wanting to get more information.  But it`s the information he wants.  As he said, Jack Webb, just the facts. 

But the facts he`s looking for are confirmation of what`s been reported, which is there`s a memo out there that said the president tried to get the case dropped against the guy who was trying to get immunity, so he could perhaps testify against the president. 

This is very much connected to Russia and Trump.  You just need those two words to cover the news lately, Russia and Trump.  They`re useful proper nouns that get you through all of this. 



MATTHEWS:  What do you think of this impeachment possibility?  What`s more needed to prove obstruction of justice than the president fires the guy coming after him after asking him to drop the case?  What more do you need? 

MERKLEY:  Well, we now do have a very powerful story of the case, a theory of the case. 

The pieces are starting to fit together, and this Valentine`s Day massacre of justice that was reported just a couple hours ago is a key piece.  Now, certainly, my colleague from Maine is absolutely right.  We want to see the memo.  We want to see the rest of the memos. 

We do want to subpoena the tapes that the president has referred to.  Do they exist?  I suspect they don`t exist.  I suspect the memos all exist, and we`re going to learn a great deal from them. 

MATTHEWS:  I`m with you.

MERKLEY:  And I think we`re going to find out that that -- it basically makes the case that the president has all -- has been engaged in a strategy. 

He`s afraid of the investigation.  He was trying to shut it down.  He took inappropriate actions and quite possibly illegal actions. 

MATTHEWS:  Let`s go back to your state, and I have always thought of Oregon, for better or worse, as being something of an intellectual state. 

It`s got a few old hippies out there in Portland, but it`s an intellectual state.  People read the newspaper.  They think.  They`re suburban in many ways.  They`re pretty well-off generally person to person, and they keep up. 

And your people out there you talk to probably on a regular basis, especially on weekends, keep up.  What do they make of this guy Trump?  Forget all the crazy stuff. 

The fact that he is intent on protecting himself on this Russian thing, to the point that he fires the FBI director, that he tries to get the FBI to get him off the case, all this stuff with Sally Yates, firing her, everything to try to protect himself on the Russian thing, there`s a strong pattern here of a guy worried about something he`s done or said, or both. 

MERKLEY:  I will tell you, we have two completely different reactions in Oregon. 

In the conservative parts of the state, in the red parts of the state, people are very upset with Trump, but they`re upset with -- about him over Trumpcare.  They`re not paying attention to the ins and outs of the Russia investigation. 

And in basically more blue Oregon, people are saying, this is outrageous.  This is a miscarriage of justice.  Why is it taking so long for the House to act?  Why isn`t the investigation proceeding more quickly?  They want answers, and they want a special prosecutor. 

And I must say, I want a special prosecutor too.  And I hope -- after today, I hope that the Republicans in the Senate will come together with the Democrats as Americans in pursuit of justice and will immediately push until we get a special prosecutor. 

MATTHEWS:  Why don`t you guys wire a vote in the Senate, where you have -- the Republican senators have to vote for it?  I mean, when you bring up -- first of all, they`re going to have to name somebody to replace the FBI director that they have sacked. 

At that point, you just say you won`t get confirmation of anybody to have that job, even if it`s a member of the Senate, until you agree to name a special prosecutor.  Then you put the scale.  You put the moderate Republicans in difficult states, put them on the skillet and make them vote against having a special prosecutor. 

You don`t have to be a genius to figure this thing out.  Why can`t you wire the vote to force the Republicans to come forward and be for an investigator?  Why can`t we do that? 

MERKLEY:  Well, the conversation you`re describing, this is -- this is actually what we`re pushing for.  We`re pushing for an understanding that no one will be confirmed as the FBI director unless they`re free of political influence and have a powerful and overwhelming bipartisan vote, and that they commit to appointing a special prosecutor, one who...

MATTHEWS:  Can you spring three or four Republicans loose from their pack to vote for this, so you get the 51 votes? 

MERKLEY:  I think that, after what happened after today, again, after the Valentine`s Days events reported today, I think we`re very likely to have bipartisan support to say that we must pursue justice in this case.  This is -- it`s unacceptable not to have a special prosecutor. 

I mean, everyone`s being compromised.  The acting director, McCabe, has said in regard to a closely associated investigation that there have been no effort to influence it.  I mean, it`s almost hard to believe that that`s possible now after this.  We want to see the rest of the memos. 

I suspect both cases, the one into Flynn and into the Trump campaign collaboration, potential collaboration with the Russians, would probably influence this as well.  So let`s get the facts.  But I think then we will have the bipartisan...

MATTHEWS:  OK.  I don`t think it`s about facts at this point. 

Does your caucus have the steel for this fight? 


MATTHEWS:  You know, I grew up with Watergate, like we all did.  I understood it.  I understood that to end up -- you had tough guys like Tip O`Neill that were serious as hell about investigating it. 

MERKLEY:  You did.

MATTHEWS:  Once they saw that Saturday Night Massacre back then in October, or the fall of `73, they said, this is it.  We`re going to get this guy out of there.  We`re going to get the evidence and get him out of there. 

It takes more than evidence.  It takes steel.  Do your colleagues in the Democratic Caucus to have the steel to take on Trump if he`s guilty? 

MERKLEY:  Absolutely, a deeply united caucus pushing for a special prosecutor, pushing for the Republicans to join us.

This isn`t really Democrat or Republican now.  This should be all Americans coming together for justice. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, name me four Republican who`s are with you, then. 


MERKLEY:  Stay tuned.  Stay tuned.  But I can tell you...

MATTHEWS:  Well, it`s getting a little -- I hope there`s some, because it does seem to me it should be a matter of right and wrong, truth or not truth, not about what side of the aisle you happened to be elected to. 

But I understand politics. 

Senator, it`s great to have you on, Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon.

MERKLEY:  Thank you.  Thank you.  Good to be with you, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Earlier tonight, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer was on the Senate floor reacting to today`s bombshell that President Trump asked - - and it`s on the paper -- former FBI Director James Comey to end the investigation into his national security director, Michael Flynn.


SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK:  We are only one day removed from stunning allegations that the president may have divulged classified information to a known adversary.

Concerns about our national security, the rule of law, the independence of our nation`s highest law enforcement agencies are mounting.  The country is being tested in unprecedented ways. 

I say to all of my colleagues in the Senate, history is watching. 


MATTHEWS:  Well, that was rather ecclesiastical.

Anyway, that`s Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on the floor of the Senate, as we continue to follow the big report tonight from "The New York Times" -- and NBC confirming it -- that President Trump personally asked FBI Director James Comey to kill the investigation into Michael Flynn when Michael Flynn was looking for immunity later on. 

Anyway, this is fascinating, because Trump was protecting himself from Michael Flynn.  He wasn`t looking out for his buddy. 

Tonight, Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz serves on the House Oversight Committee and says he wants to see the memo as soon as possible and will use every tool imaginable to get it. 

Here`s Jason Chaffetz. 


REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R), UTAH:  If the memo exists, I need to see it, and I need to see it right away. 

We`re drafting the necessary paperwork to get the memo.  But we will find out in a hurry if it`s out there.  I want to read the memo first, but, on the surface, that seems like an extraordinary use of influence to try to shut down an investigation being done by the FBI. 

I don`t know if it`s true yet, but I want to find out if that`s actually out there. 



We`re joined right now by Josh Earnest, the former White House press secretary, of course, for President Obama, and Michael Steele is the former chair of the Republican National Committee.  Both are now MSNBC political analysts.

Gentlemen, thank you for joining us. 

First of all, your reaction, first of all, Michael, then Josh. 

Comey is one guy who covered his rear-end.  You know, when he heard about tapes going farting around there, he goes, wait a minute.  You got tapes?  I got something better. 



MATTHEWS:  Contemporaneous notes.  And I`m a good note keeper. 

If I were Trump, I would say, why did I push this guy? 

STEELE:  Well, and he has a history of this.  He`s one of those methodical bureaucrats who makes sure that every dot is covered.  And he did in this case, especially going into meetings with the president, where I think he sort of sized up the man before he went in the door. 

So, he knew he would need to have something at some point.  And it`s playing itself out now.  The president actually, just by the way he`s led on this whole issue related to Comey, has really pushed Comey and his allies to sort of push at this thing a little bit forward, probably sooner, rather than later. 

And the president`s now going to pay a price for it. 

MATTHEWS:  And everything he`s done, Josh, has been to look like he`s done something wrong. 

He acts like the bad guy in a courtroom drama. 


And I think -- the other question that I think was raised by this report is, how naive is the president of the United States to sit down in the Oval Office with the FBI director, Jim Comey, no less, and think that you`re going to be able to influence him? 

MATTHEWS:  You have got a great broadcast voice, by the way.


MATTHEWS:  I`m overwhelmed by this voice of yours.

EARNEST:  I have been practicing in the mirror.

MATTHEWS:  You`re getting it.  This is Washington.


MATTHEWS:  No, I -- let`s get back to the thing, because I think the -- we all think like this.  We have all made mistakes in our life. 

And I always say -- in my books I write, I say, get it out.  When it doubt, put it out. 

EARNEST:  Exactly. 

MATTHEWS:  It`s like rotten fish.  The older it gets, the worse it smells.  Just get it done.  But that`s so hard to do. 

What is Trump hiding that`s so bad that he has to fire the FBI director over it, and then he has to scramble around to save Flynn`s rear-end?  What`s so bad that -- was he in fact in bed with the Russians, plotting something about relief of sanctions on the record in these conversations that Flynn knows about or Manafort knows about or Carter Page? 

Is he worried there`s some evidence of Logan Act violation or what?  Because that`s never been prosecuted. 

STEELE:  I think, to Josh`s point...

MATTHEWS:  What`s he worried about?  What did he do wrong?

STEELE:  I don`t know -- but I don`t know if the president was that naive, because, according to reports, he actually asked others who were in the room to leave, so he could be alone with the FBI director to have this conversation. 


EARNEST:  But to think that it would work with Comey, though, I think is just...


STEELE:  That`s a good point.

MATTHEWS:  How does that help, by the way? 

The old rule was, when you were about to bribe somebody, one of the two of you were going to leave. 



MATTHEWS:  Which one of you are going to leave?

STEELE:  Well, I think, to your earlier point, I don`t think he figured out that Comey would actually go back and transcribe the meeting. 

MATTHEWS:  He wouldn`t?  Look at the guy. 


MATTHEWS:  He`s the kind of guy that would go back and do it. 


STEELE:  But I think, to the question you just asked, the fact of the matter is, they`re -- this all may be very innocent at the end of the day.  OK, just go with me here for a moment. 

MATTHEWS:  I`m going with your word may. 

STEELE:  This all may be very innocent at the end of the day.

MATTHEWS:  Why.  Give me the innocent...


STEELE:  Because it could be Trump over-responding, overreacting to the very thing you said, trying to help a friend out and saying, look, there`s no there there.  Can this go away? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, this friend of his was seeking immunity to testify against him. 

STEELE:  Understood.  Understood.  But I`m trying to -- you asked about how Trump is looking at it, and I think that`s possibly a way.



Anyway, I think the way most people are looking at it, I think there`s friendship here involved.  I think he`s lately been pining for the guy.  He doesn`t like McMaster so much.  He likes -- he probably likes Flynn. 

Flynn is a likable enough guy.  And I think he likes him.  But the fact is, Flynn is holding evidence against him too right now.

EARNEST:  He is.

MATTHEWS:  Because that`s what he wants when he goes with immunity.  You got to have something to go to the prosecutors with. 

STEELE:  Yes. 

EARNEST:  I think the other thing when it comes to Trump is...

MATTHEWS:  He`s a time bomb, Flynn. 

EARNEST:  He is a time bomb.

I think the other thing when it comes to Trump is, you have got to follow the money.  And at least the risk of sort of...


MATTHEWS:  Go ahead with the money.  What money?  What, the 34-K that Flynn got from speaking for R.T. over in Russia? 

EARNEST:  I`m actually going much broader. 

In terms of talking about Trump and his reputation, the thing that he`s desperate to protect is his reputation as somebody who is very rich and successful in business. 

And so all of these entanglements with Russia, and whether it is the mixed messages that are coming -- or the variety of stories that are coming out of Mike Flynn, the variety of entanglements that he`s had with Russia, you have got to follow the money.  And that is what Trump...


MATTHEWS:  Why is he afraid with having had business relations with Russia at this point, before he was president?  What is illegal about that?

EARNEST:  Well, because -- I don`t think -- I`m not suggesting there`s something illegal about it, but it does give the Russians leverage over him. 

STEELE:  It gives them leverage.  And it`s left a sour taste in a lot of people`s mouths, because...

MATTHEWS:  No, what gives them leverage is the conversation that was held.  And that`s why the professional -- that is why the FBI was going after it, the conversations held.

And Sally Yates brought this up first before she was fired by this president.

STEELE:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  Brought up the fact that there was conversations between Flynn and the Russians that could be used against Flynn. 

STEELE:  Well, and, again, that`s the leverage point that he -- that that`s one part of it.  But I...

MATTHEWS:  You don`t have to go digging for information.  This is right in front of us. 

STEELE:  It`s right in front of you. 

But I still think that there is a more personal side to this that ties into the whole loyalty thing. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  OK, let`s talk about -- I`m sorry, Michael, to interrupt. 

But we just had a United States senator on, a moderate.  I think if there are any left, it`s probably Angus King. 

STEELE:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  That name, by the way, Angus King from Maine, an independent.

I think he`s pretty prudent in his politics, and Maine is too. 


MATTHEWS:  And he said it`s a question of getting the evidence, but he`s also saying, if you go down that road and find the evidence the president did in fact offer this guy, ask this guy to drop the case...

STEELE:  It`s a problem.

MATTHEWS:  ... if he did fire him because he wouldn`t drop the case, you are going down the alley that takes you, with the proper evidence, to a charge of obstruction of justice, which is impeachable. 

STEELE:  Angus...

MATTHEWS:  It`s a high crime. 

STEELE:  The senator has it exactly right.

And that`s where the White House counsel right now, the chief of staff and others need to be having a serious conversation with the president along the lines of, what else do we need to know? 


STEELE:  What have you said to folks?  What have you done?  What have you intimated?

Because the press and others inside the intelligence community clearly -- look, if you`re going to tick off the intelligence community, you need to know that the keeper of your secrets are sometimes going to let those secrets out. 

So, all of this diversionary conversation about, well, we need to go after the leakers belies the reality that what the leakers are leaking is problematic, ultimately, for the president. 

MATTHEWS:  How did you deal at the White House -- just -- this is tradecraft.


MATTHEWS:  When you needed help from the Democratic Party -- President Obama is a Democrat.

EARNEST:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  And you needed some -- you needed a chorus of support.


MATTHEWS:  How did you do it?  Did you have the usual suspects?  You don`t have to give names, but did you have certain people you know would be good, reliable supporters of the president? 

EARNEST:  Well, sure, you can go to the...

MATTHEWS:  A Durbin -- Durbin, people like that, who you knew liked the guy from Illinois?


MATTHEWS:  And you would call up their chief of staff and say, come on, how about a nice little thought for us today? 

EARNEST:  Yes, we would certainly -- we would -- the first place we would turn would be to the congressional leadership.

And, obviously, President Obama had an interesting relationship with Congress, but he had a strong relationship with Democrats...


MATTHEWS:  I would say Durbin would be a good one. 

EARNEST:  Durbin was certainly somebody that was reliable.

Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi were regularly very reliable in terms of having the president`s back. 

MATTHEWS:  So Trump does -- does Trump have the ability to call up these guys and say, I need some help today?  I don`t know if he does, because none of them are helping today.


EARNEST:  Not on this issue. 

And I think what`s interesting about this issue, Chris, is, this is a situation where you had this rather remarkable set of circumstances during the election...


EARNEST:  ... where you had Democratic and Republican national security experts come out and say that President Trump is -- Donald Trump is unfit to hold the presidency. 

They have been proven right today.  And all of those people were whispering in the ear of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan and John Cornyn as these leaders in Congress were weighing how to handle Trump during the context of the campaign. 

So, right now, we have actually touched on what is a sensitive topic for them.  And it should be.  And it`s why you see them be so conspicuously reluctant to step into the line of fire and defend him. 

MATTHEWS:  Now, the president has said...

STEELE:  That sounds a little bit like, I told you so, but...




MATTHEWS:  Well, the president said...

EARNEST:  A bunch of those other experts told you so.

STEELE:  No, no.


MATTHEWS:  Michael, the president says still that, three times, Comey said, I`m not investigating you. 

But a friend of mine who knows this kind of situation in Philadelphia told me that he could have said to him, you`re not the target of an investigation, which means we already got you nailed, basically.  We just want to tidy it up a little bit and cross the I`s and whatever -- cross the T`s and dot the I`s, or a subject of the investigation. 

STEELE:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  We don`t know what he actually said to Trump. 

STEELE:  We don`t know. 

MATTHEWS:  But tell me -- so that kind of thing is -- whatever Trump got out of that conversation was, three times, the guy is -- it`s almost like the Bible. 


MATTHEWS:  Three times, he said I`m OK, you know?  It was a little neat. 

But do we make that -- why would Comey tell him, you`re off the hook, at the same time Trump is firing him basically for thinking that he`s in the target zone?


STEELE:  Well, that`s what the president said.  Trump...


STEELE:  Comey has not come out and said, I have said that to him. 


STEELE:  In fact, Comey has intimated quite the opposite.  And I think...

MATTHEWS:  So you don`t believe him either? 

STEELE:  No, I don`t. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  I just thought -- I didn`t believe him either, Trump, because he was looking up in the air like that dog, canine look, like he started -- let me think of those three cases.

STEELE:  He was processing, right.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  He was processing.  Go ahead.

STEELE:  So, no, I want to get back to what you were just saying about Republicans and why they don`t have, as we saw in the Obama administration, sort of the chorus of angels who comes out with their...

MATTHEWS:  Yes, or Greek chorus.   

STEELE:  The Greek chorus, right. 

And I think it`s partly because of what we don`t know. 


STEELE:  And partly because of what we`re starting to find out. 

MATTHEWS:  Well...

STEELE:  And that puts these guys, on the eve of an election cycle, where they need to hold the House, and they want to make gains in the Senate... 

MATTHEWS:  OK, I understand. 

STEELE:  ... look very carefully at how this thing could ultimately play out. 

The splash-up from this, if they`re out in front going, this is my guy, I`m there with him, everybody is lying, and it turns out to be different, it could be ugly. 


MATTHEWS:  I`m going back into my treasure chest of great stories. 

One time, Tip O`Neill needed a vote from a congressman from Massachusetts.  And he said: "I need your vote on this.  It`s a tough one."

And he goes -- the congressman said to the speaker: "I will be with you when you`re right."


MATTHEWS:  To which Tip says, "When I`m right, I don`t need you."


MATTHEWS:  Thank you. 

And that`s what`s going on right now. 

Thank you, Josh Earnest.  And thank you, Michael Steele.

We are following two big stories tonight, the breaking news, the biggest bombshell, I believe, in a while, that former FBI Director James Comey kept a paper trail.  He has a memorandum that President Trump asked him to end the investigation into Michael Flynn. 

The other story is the continued fallout over President Trump`s decision to give Russian diplomats highly classified information which was gathered from Mossad -- that`s Israeli intelligence -- and how it could jeopardize future cooperation. 

Of course, the president is going to Israel.  This is a very awful -- mishegas is a good Yiddish word for it, a real screw-up. 

I`m joined right now by intelligence terrorist and intelligence analyst Malcolm Nance, as well as Bianna Golodryga -- Golodryga.  Thank you -- I`m sorry, I sure know these things -- of Yahoo! News.

Thank you, Bianna.

I want to start with -- with Malcolm. 

Malcolm, what -- you have watched this show now for about a half-hour, and you have seen where I`m going.  I`m trying to find out how you put it together if you`re a person watching right now.  And what you`re watching is a president fired Comey.  Fact.  We don`t need Jack Webb on that one.  That`s a fact. 

And now, we have a memorandum.  "The New York Times" reporting, I would call "The New York Times" reporting pretty close to a fact that there`s a memo out there from Comey, contemporaneous.  This guy tried to get me to drop the case. 

Then, we put together those two dots and we`ve got a line.  It`s called causality, I would say.  You don`t drop the case, I`m dropping you.  And that`s what happened.

Your thoughts.  What can you add, Malcolm? 

MALCOLM NANCE, MSNBC TERRORISM ANALYST:  Well, everybody needs to understand that this all originates in one place, and that is with the Russian hacking of the election and the potential -- the possibility that people on the Trump campaign may have been involved in that and that General Michael Flynn was neck deep in his contacts with Russia.  And all of this was to get the investigation into Michael Flynn and Trump/Russia eliminated, to get it dropped.  And now we appear to have documentary evidence of that. 

MATTHEWS:  How much do we have on his conversations with people like Kislyak, the Russian ambassador?  You don`t see them dancing around with Trump like a puppetone.  I don`t know why he`s showing himself to be so useful that way. 

But tell me this, Malcolm.  What do we have factually on that, the conversations between Flynn and the Russians? 

NANCE:  We know that there`s been -- there absolutely has been a recorded conversation between General Michael Flynn and the Russians from both sides.  The Russians record their calls and transcribe them, of course, for their intelligence agencies, and the FBI when monitoring foreign nationals who may be of intelligence value or who may be intelligence assets, they record them, which means we have Michael Flynn --

MATTHEWS:  Sally Yates presented that information to the White House twice.  Twice, yes. 

NANCE:  That`s correct.  And she told them, this man was a threat to have blackmail carried out against him.  And we don`t know if that`s the only thing that he has which may carry out blackmail.  There are other reports, contacts with Russia in the past, with Russia today, contacts with Turkey where he took a half a million dollars in payments. 

We just don`t know the bottom of Michael Flynn.  And for the president of the United States to go to the director of the FBI and say, he`s my friend, drop this, you`re moving into a completely different battle space now.  Now, you`re talking a Justice Department case in which a president actively tried to apparently obstruct justice. 

MATTHEWS:  Bianna, my question has been the one since the beginning, which is this constant overlay of Russia, Russia, and Trump. 


MATTHEWS:  Through all his associates going back to roger stone and carter page and Paul Manafort and, of course, Michael Flynn, I`ve never seen such erst politics from an American politician.  Love of the East, of always having something to do with the Russians. 

Now, we saw him the other day, and those pictures are killers.  Him hanging out with Kislyak like he`s his best friend.  They go chuckling away, the three of them.  He and, of course, Lavrov, the foreign minister, like they`re keeping secrets from the American press and they`re in on this thing together. 

It looks like a cabal.  It just looks like that.

GOLODRYGA:  And the pictures -- 

MATTHEWS:  I wouldn`t want it to look that way if there`s been all questions now for months about is there a cabal?  And now, these guys make it look like one.  And now, they end up saying it turns out that the conversations were so intimate that they were sharing Mossad information with the Russians.  What`s this about?

GOLODRYGA:  Yes, and the pictures came courtesy not of the U.S. press, but guess whom?  The Russian press.  We now know that Mossad early back in January was concerned and was given information from U.S. intelligence that they should be concerned about a Trump administration and sharing any sort of intelligence with them because of Russia, because, of course, Russia`s ally is Iran in the region.  We do not have our allies aligned in the same region in the Middle East. 

And you look back at one constant within this president`s time frame as the president and throughout his campaign, and you`re absolutely right.  It has always been Russia.  It has always been cooperating with Russia, with this fight against ISIS.  You can go back to July of last year at rallies.  He was talking about wouldn`t it be great if we get along with Russia so we can fight ISIS? 

The one problem is Russia -- from Russia`s standpoint, ISIS is not their top priority.  Their top priority in Syria is beefing up Assad`s power and holding him there in power so that Russia can have a leg in the region as well.  And, yes, if they can kill a few ISIS terrorists, so be it. 

But Putin obviously picked up on this, and he`s working that with the president of the United States.  And, yes, we can work together to fight ISIS.  We can work together to fight ISIS. 

Those pictures were disgusting and a disgrace, especially the day after the FBI director was fired we now know because of that investigation into Russia and we know that because the president admitted it. 

MATTHEWS:  Malcolm, I hear you there and I just want to hear your last thoughts tonight about this thing and putting it together.  Why don`t you explain this as you would put a puzzle together as an expert?  What do you see -- what is the Russian connection from President Trump`s point of view, and what role does Michael Flynn play in it? 

Because he still wants the guy sprung.  He wants the guy back in his good graces again.  He wants him off the heat. 

NANCE:  This is really difficult.  I think the president is very well aware of what James Comey had coming down the pike. 

This is not a normal FBI investigation.  I say this all the time.  This is a counterespionage investigation.  These are the nation`s spy hunters, hunting for American citizens quite possibly in the Trump campaign who had contact with Russian intelligence.  That is how serious this matter is. 

And I think that all the actions of President Trump thus far has been to kill this investigation.  And for people who are in the FBI counterintelligence division, that makes them suspicious.  That makes them only want to get to the bottom of why the president seems to have this fealty, this subservience to Russia more than to the Constitution and the role of law and justice in the United States. 


MATTHEWS:  Go ahead, Bianna.  Last word, Bianna.

GOLODRYGA:  And, Chris, one takeaway from this story if proven to be true today is just how dependent the president was on Michael Flynn.  Now, was it for nefarious reasons?  Is it because Flynn knows about any sort of business deals the president may have had with Russia? 

NANCE:  Right.

GOLODRYGA:  That`s one explanation. 

The other is that he was very reliant upon General Flynn, reliant upon domestic issues, reliant upon foreign policy issues.  There are reports that the president call him in the middle of the night and ask him whether a strong dollar was good or bad for the U.S. economy.  Michael Flynn said, call an economist.

So, that really did seem to rattle the president with not having him at his side, and I think we`re seeing the fallout from that. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, life`s complicated. 

Thank you so much, Malcolm Nance and Bianna Golodryga. 

Let`s bring in NBC News justice correspondent Pete Williams. 

Pete, obstruction of justice carries a lot of meaning to the civilian non- lawyer it means stopping the wheels of justice from coming at you, using your power to do it.  What do you -- what is it technically?  What is it legally? 

PETE WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT:  Sure.  I think you just said a moment ago that life is complicated, and this is complicated too.  And I`ve talked to several federal prosecutors and not surprisingly they have different notions about whether the bare bones of what we know here would constitute obstruction of justice. 

The central thing here is that unlike many federal statutes, the obstruction statutes don`t have a specific intent element.  Instead, what they say is where they supply it is they say whoever corruptly tries to influence a federal investigation.  That`s the key word, "corruptly." 

It doesn`t mean in the usual context of doing something if someone pays you.  It means with bad intent, with evil intent, with the intent to derail an investigation. 

And simply by the president`s words that have been explained to us by people familiar with this memo, I sure hope you can let this thing go.  He`s a nice guy.  You know, why don`t you let it drop?  It wasn`t even that explicit.  It was, I sure hope you can find your way to let this go. 

A, does the president realize that what he`s doing is improper?  Does he realize the import of what his words are?  Was he actually trying to get the FBI to stop the investigation?  That much seems true. 

But was he doing it corruptly?  Was he doing it with evil intent?  That`s a very hard question to answer at this point, and that`s why you get so many different opinions about whether this is obstruction or not. 

It`s in the mind of the person who did what was done here and, you know, we`re a long way from knowing the answer is the simple way to put it. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, but one thing we know is they were both on the same page because they both knew that Trump was thinking about whether continuing the service of that FBI director or not.  And in that context, when he checks him out on something like, are you going to help out my friend or not, couldn`t that be seen as a test? 

WILLIAMS:  Well -- 

MATTHEWS:  If you do this, I`ll keep you on.  I won`t find cause to get rid of you because he did find cause through Rosenstein, the deputy A.G., to get rid of him.  But he did apparently -- all the reporting we`re getting is he went out and found cause because he didn`t want him there because of other reasons, assumedly the reason he gave, which is this Russian thing, which he said was the reason he got rid of him. 

WILLIAMS:  So, what you`ve just laid out is a plausible case. 

But a couple of things to note about that: the president has said that when he had dinner with James Comey, that Comey asked to have the dinner because he wanted to stay on. 


WILLIAMS:  What we`ve been told by friends of Comey is that he didn`t ask for the dinner and that the subject of his staying on wasn`t what they talked about.  So, whether James Comey knew as he sat there that the president was thinking about canning him, we just don`t know the answer to that question.  I`m sure it occurred to him.  He thought this was wrong enough to memorialize it in the files. 

But what you`ve just laid out is, I suppose, a plausible case if the evidence supports it.  We just don`t know that yet. 

MATTHEWS:  Thanks so much.  You`re the best.  NBC`s Pete Williams, our justice correspondent for NBC News.

Congressional Republicans are continuing to react to tonight`s bombshell that President Trump asked again then FBI Director James Comey to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn. 

Let`s listen. 


REP. CARLOS CURBELO (R), FLORIDA:  Disconcerting, and it opens up a new chapter of scandal and controversy in this country.  Now, we need to get to the truth.  We need to find out what happened.  And no president, no government official, no one in this country should be allowed to obstruct justice. 

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK:  I`ve seen the headlines.  I`ve seen some discussion of it.  I would have to see the entire context.  I doubt there`s very much too it because if there were, we would have thought that Director Comey would have reported this to someone earlier. 

REP. MARK SANFORD (R), SOUTH CAROLINA:  It would be more than deeply troubling. 


MATTHEWS:  More than deeply troubling. 

Anyway, let`s bring in the HARDBALL roundtable tonight.  Julia Ioffe is a reporter for "The Atlantic", Eli Stokols covers the White House for "The Wall Street Journal", and Ayesha Rascoe is White House correspondent for "Reuters". 

Ayesha, what do you make of this so far?  I mean, this is going to be right across the front pages tomorrow. 

AYESHA RASCOE, REUTERS:  Well, I mean, it seems like this White House is trying to test the limits of how many scandals can you pack into like a ten-day period right before you go out of the country? 

MATTHEW:  This bumped out a lot of other stuff we thought was five points.


MATTHEWS:  It`s about a ten-pointer. 

RASCOE:  Yes.  And so, and then how do you remain standing, and how do you get things done when you have like three scandals that might have, you know, in other situations could have taken another politician out completely?  So, how do you -- how do you continue getting anything done in this environment? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, Eli, my usual Marxist analysis of things, economics is my Marxist meaning, I can always judge the temperament of a country by the economy.  Nixon went during a bad economy.  Clinton survived in a good economy. 

If the economy is OK, the larger context, people aren`t in a rush to get rid of anybody.  But this is distinctively different.  And I -- the economy is pretty good right now compared to what it has been, and yet the country, 20 percent or 30 percent of it, I don`t know what the percentage is, is following this guy intently and they don`t like what they see.  I know.  I hear from them all the time. 

ELI STOKOLS, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL:  Well, I mean, close to 40 percent of the country is still with him.  We`ll see if that changes in the coming weeks.  But this doesn`t feel sustainable. 

It doesn`t -- for the entire country to just sort of have scandal after scandal, constant controversy and chaos coming out of the nation`s capital, it has to disturb America`s allies and it has to disturb a lot of Americans.  I know it does disturb a lot of people.  Look at his disapproval ratings.  It`s up near 60 percent.

MATTHEWS:  Wrapping us, how can you as a citizen, you`re reading the front page and you`re trying to keep up.  I try to recap.  OK.  The guy fired the guy a few days ago.  Then it comes out that he tried to get him to drop a case against the guy that he wouldn`t drop the case against.  And you go, is there a pattern here, on instructing justice?  I`ll fire you if I don`t get my way, but I`d like to get my way without firing you. 

But he really wants to protect himself a guy who is asking for immunity to testify against, guess who, Donald Trump. 

STOKOLS:  Well, he just can`t let it go. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, would you let it go?  If you knew that a guy was asking for immunity so he could testify against you? 

STOKOLS:  Well, I mean -- 

MATTHEWS:  Wouldn`t you want to get rid of that guy get him out from heat?

STOKOLS:  But there`s no thought to how this looks , how obvious it is that it looks like this is a president with something to hide.  I think that`s what`s calling him. 

MATTHEWS:  Ayesha, explain the pictures.  Him hanging out with that overweight Russian Ambassador Kislyak.  And then he`s hanging around with this other guy we gotten used to, doesn`t look very nice guy, Lavrov, the foreign minister.  He`s yakking it up, heading into a room, closing the door behind him. 

And what`s the investigation?  Is he too cozy with the Russians?  Looks like it. 

RASCOE:  Well, I mean, the White House has defended, you know, the meeting.  I don`t think -- it doesn`t seem like they intended for those pictures to get out.  As people have pointed out over and over again, it was the Russians who put it out. 

MATTHEWS:  The TASS news agency puts this stuff out. 


RASCOE:  And so -- but, yes, this compounds the issue.  I mean, you couldn`t have kind of a worse timing for all of these things to come together. 

MATTHEWS:  Julia, put this together from your perspective.  I think the narrative here is from the beginning, Trump has been involved with the Russians through all his people, Carter Page, you know, sort of the Kato Kaelin of this case, a little bit ditsy out there in his testimony.  And then you`ve got, of course, the more seasoned Michael Flynn, who I think is probably at the heart of it.  You`ve got Manafort`s business dealings, which Rachel talks about at night and is investigating, and you`ve got, of course, Roger Stone.  That`s sort of an interesting guy to put it lightly. 

Although those Russian contacts, including Russia, Miss America -- Miss Universe has to be in Russia.  What`s Trump`s dealings over there?  We still don`t know.

According to the FBI, his tax returns involve some exceptions.  In other words, some cases where he is doing business.  We have no idea how many billions of dollars those exceptions are. 

All of those leading up to getting rid of Sally Yates as acting attorney general after she comes forward and says there`s been a conversation between your guy, Flynn, and the Russian ambassador dealing with sanctions and they`ve got it taped.  Be careful, Mr. President.  She`s sacked. 

Now, Flynn is gone.  He fires him.  Then he fires the FBI director. 

He keeps firing people to keep us from the truth.  What`s the pattern here?  Or I just described it?

JULIA IOFFE, THE ATLANTIC:  I think you just described -- I think you just described it.  I don`t know what you need me for.  You know, I think we -- I think there`s still a lot more digging to be done. 

I think honestly, though, for the Russians, they were throwing things at the wall and seeing what would stick.  They did not -- you know, James clapper, when he went in front of Congress, in front of a Senate subcommittee, said that the Russians succeed beyond their wildest imaginations. 

I think that`s absolutely true.  I think they don`t know what to do with their unbelievable luck. 

MATTHEWS:  They got Trump. 

IOFFE:  Well, they got Trump.  They thought they lost.  It`s like a rom- com, you know? 

MATTHEWS:  They got him elected. 

IOFFE:  Russia gets Trump.  Russia loses Trump.  Then they reunite, you know, in this like wonderful, jovial setting in the Oval Office. 

And, right now, if you look at Russian media today, I mean, they were gloating.  There was, you know, the report from Washington on the main newscast, evening newscast said, you know, what Russian hackers?  We don`t need Russian hackers.  Trump is just giving his secrets to us by himself. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you have any relatives in Russia?  Do you have any friends to tell what they think of it over there?  Do you get any of that kind of input? 

IOFFE:  Yes, I am.  They think we`ve lost our gosh darn minds.  They think that -- you know, that really this is us trying to blame -- and even people who don`t like Putin, they think Russia is simply not capable of doing something like this just because they live in a country where nothing works. 

So, they don`t see a reason why this would work with exception to everything else, with few exceptions. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you. 

IOFFE:  And they think that we`re just trying to look for excuses when really we created Trump, and they have a point. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, it`s all that. 

Let me ask you, Eli, you know the government here.  I have confidence in two forces -- straight front page media.  I think it`s better than it`s ever been in years.  I think the trade craft of the top metropolitan papers is unbelievable right now, the people we have on the program from "The Times" and "Journal" especially, in some cases, "The Wall Street Journal" as well.

And I also have faith in the civil service.  I think people like Sally Yates save us every day of the week.  I think those people do their jobs.  Some of them may be Democrats and liberals even, progressives, but they do their job and they uphold their service. 

I think Trump can`t stand either one of those two groups because they confound him and they limit his power and he hates that. 

STOKOLS:  He`s never had to deal with checks and balances before in his life.  He`s getting a civics lesson, a very public and embarrassing one in his 70s before the entire country.  And the frustration inside the White House, you see him lashing out.  You see even Jared Kushner also lashing out. 

They want to blame -- 

MATTHEWS:  He`s mad at Kushner now. 

STOKOLS:  Yes, but Kushner is mad -- they`re all mad at the press department as if it`s Sean Spicer`s fault that the president is sort of running his mouth in these meetings with the Russians, that he`s running his mouth in a dinner with James Comey and that this stuff comes out.  They feel like they should be able to stop it. 

Welcome to Washington, right?  He said he`d drain the swamp.  You`re not going to fix Washington.  You`re not going to -- you know, the federal bureaucracy, the fact they thought they could pick a fight with the FBI and that it would end well for them.

I mean, the hubris is just off the charts.  You can`t make this stuff up.  And, you know, everybody said, you want an inexperienced president.  You want somebody who is an outsider, you got him. 

MATTHEWS:  That`s so smart.  The Kennedys were pretty sharp. 


MATTHEWS:  Go ahead.  The Kennedys were afraid of the FBI.  The FBI, all it does is dig up stuff on people all the time.  That`s all they do. 

RASCOE:  Well, and that`s the thing.  With these type of stories coming out, you have to think that the White House has to start considering -- I mean, they`ve been talking about are there going to be shake-ups and things like that.  I mean, it seems like there has to be some type of fundamental repositioning or turning point for them. 

MATTHEWS:  Let`s go to the other -- first, let`s go to Julia over there.  Julia, tell me something I don`t know. 

By the way, Spicer -- I think Eli is so right.  Getting rid of Spicer solves no problems.  Maybe it gives him a day of different news from the situation he`s facing in the Middle East where he goes over there, and he`s going to Saudi.  He`s going to Israel.  You know, he`s going to Vatican.  I mean, what do you think of it?

IOFFE:  He`s going to give a speech on Islam.


IOFFE:  He`s going to give a speech on Islam.  Like I can just picture his plane taking off from a burning hellscape as he`s done. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh, God.  Ayesha? 

RASCOE:  Something I don`t know -- well, I did review of all of president Trump`s public remarks, and the one place that he hasn`t gone and given remarks is a health care facility unlike his past three predecessors. 

MATTHEWS:  That`s too real. 

RASCOE:  Yes, and that`s what he`s supposed to be trying to get done. 

MATTHEWS:  Eli, last thought.

STOKOLS:  Well, we`re talking about the White House`s credibility and how Spicer has lost it.  They trotted out H.R. McMaster yesterday. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, he didn`t help him.

STOKOLS:  Well, but that`s the thing.  He -- of all the people in the White House, he might be the one with the most credibility, even Mattis.  And people close to McMaster now are telling me they`re worried about him because once the drip, drip of sort of spinning for this administration starts with him -- he wrote a book called dereliction of duty.  Him because once the drip, drip of sort of spinning for this administration -- he wrote a book about Vietnam called "Dereliction of Duty" 20 years ago, it was about people not going up the chain and pushing back up the chain of command.  And somebody pointed that out to me and said, this just is really hard to watch to because he`s not pushing back at the chain of command.

MATTHEWS:  They`re using up good people.

Julia Ioffe, thank you.  Julia Ioffe, Eli Stokols, and Ayesha Rascoe.

That`s HARDBALL for now.  Thanks for being with us.