Hardball with Chris Matthews, Transcript 6/23/17 Trump on Mueller

Guests: Yvette Clarke, Shane Harris, Karoun Demirjian, Ashley Parker, David Cay Johnston, Evan Siegfried, Shane Harris, Ben White, Nina Burleigh

Show: HARDBALL Date: June 23, 2017 Guest: Yvette Clarke, Shane Harris, Karoun Demirjian, Ashley Parker, David Cay Johnston, Evan Siegfried, Shane Harris, Ben White, Nina Burleigh

STEVE KORNACKI, GUEST HOST: Trump takes on the special counsel.

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Steve Kornacki, in for Chris Matthews tonight.

Well, Donald Trump is throwing some shade at Robert Mueller -- Mueller, of course, the man now leading the investigation into his campaign`s potential collusion with Russia. In an interview with Fox News today, President Trump said he was bothered by Mueller`s relationship with James Comey and some of the people Mueller`s been adding to his team.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, he`s very, very good friends with Comey, which is very bothersome, but he`s also -- we`re going to have to see. I mean, we`re going to have to see in terms -- look, there has been no obstruction. There has been no collusion. There has been leaking by Comey, but there`s been no collusion, no obstruction, and virtually everybody agrees to that. So we`ll have to see.

I can say that the people that have been hired are all Hillary Clinton supporters. Some of them worked for Hillary Clinton. I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous, if you want to know truth, from that standpoint. But Robert Mueller is an honorable man, and hopefully, he`ll come up with an honorable solution.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: And today, Sean Spicer telling reporters the president has, quote, "no intention of firing Mueller even though he does have the authority to do so."

Meanwhile, "The Washington Post" out with a story today detailing the president`s irritation with the endless stream of Russia news. Quoting from the story here, "Frustration with the investigation stews inside him until it bubbles up in the form of rants to aides about unfair cable television commentary or as slights aimed at Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein. Some in the White House fret over what they view as the president`s fits of rage, and Trump`s long-time friends say his mood has been more sour than at any point since they have known him. They privately worry about his health, noting he appears to have gained weight in recent months and that the darkness around his eyes reveals his stress."

According to "The Post," the president holds morning calls many days with his outside legal team to discuss the latest Russia news." Again from the article, "The calls detailed by three senior White House officials are part of a strategy consultation, in part presidential venting session, during which Trump`s lawyers and public relation gurus take turns reviewing the latest headlines with him. They also devise their plan for battling his avowed enemies, the special counsel leading the Russia investigation, the fake news media chronicling it, and in some instances, the president`s own Justice Department overseeing the probe."

More now. I am joined by NBC`s Hallie Jackson, "Washington Post`s" Ashley Parker -- she co-wrote that article we were just reading from, also an MSNBC contributor, David Cay Johnston, author of "The Making of Donald Trump, and Republican strategist Evan Siegfried. He`s author of "GOP GPS." Thanks to all of you for joining us.

Hallie, let me start with you. So yesterday, the news was -- and Donald Trump was saying in this interview, we played a cut from there a minute ago -- a suggesting he had been trying to send a message to James Comey when he put that tweet out raising the possibility of having tapes.

HALLIE JACKSON, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

KORNACKI: Now these comments he`s making in this interview we just played about the special counsel, about Robert Mueller. Is there -- the White House is saying no intent to fire.

JACKSON: Right.

KORNACKI: He does have the right to do so, they`re saying. What kind of message is he trying to send here?

JACKSON: Listen, that has been the line, Steve, you`re right, and that has been the consistent message from the White House on Robert Mueller specifically.

Let me just quickly update you on a little bit of news coming out of the White House at this late hour. We now have the response from the White House to the House Intelligence Committee, who, as you will remember, had asked for any sort of relevant materials related to potential recordings that Donald Trump may have had of these conversations with James Comey. The deadline was today, close of business. It is now what, 7:04 at least in Washington.

Just about five minutes ago, we received that response. You know what it was? Essentially, a citation of the president`s tweet from yesterday, that carefully phrased, carefully worded language that some reports say was, in fact, signed off on by the White House counsel`s office in order to respond, essentially, to what the House Intel Committee had been asking for, Steve.

So when you talk about the messaging here -- listen, that is where it`s coming from, the president himself, and that is what we have seen from day one of this administration.

KORNACKI: So in terms of this issue of firing, again, they`re saying no.

JACKSON: Right.

KORNACKI: This is a president, though, who already fired an acting attorney general, who fired an FBI director. How much wiggle room is built into that statement?

JACKSON: A little bit, right, because you`ve heard that the president -- they believe that the president does reserve the right, essentially. People serve at the pleasure of the president, is the line that you heard from the press briefing and from White House officials over the last couple of weeks.

That said, we know what the procedures would have to be. The president cannot actually do that. He would have to direct somebody else to do that, to then ultimately try to get rid of Robert Mueller. And it seems as though, at least at this point, there is no intention of that (INAUDIBLE) listen to what else the president had to say in that "Fox & Friends" interview. He also said he hoped that the special counsel would come up with an "honorable solution" to all of this.

KORNACKI: All right. And speaking of those tapes you were just reporting on, President Trump was asked today why he wanted James Comey to believe there were tapes of their conversations, and this is what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: When he found out that I -- you know, that there may be tapes out there, whether it`s governmental tapes or anything else, and who knows, I think his story may have changed. I mean, you`ll have to take a look at that because then he has to tell what actually took place at the events. And my story didn`t change. My story was always a straight story. My story was always the truth. But you`ll have to determine for yourself whether or not his story changed. But I did not tape.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was a smart way to make sure he stayed honest in those hearings.

TRUMP: Well, it wasn`t -- it wasn`t very stupid, and I can tell you that. He was -- he did admit that what I said was right. And if you look further back, before he heard about that, I think maybe he wasn`t admitting that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: Not entirely clear how Comey`s story changed, as President Trump is alleging there, Sean Spicer saying today the goal of the tweet was to keep Comey honest.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think the president made it very clear that he wanted the truth to come out. He wanted everyone to be honest about this and he wanted to get to the bottom of it. And I think he succeeded in doing that. The reality is, is that he wanted to make sure that the truth came out, and by talking about something like tapes, made people have to -- made Comey in particular think to himself, I better be honest, I better tell truth about the circumstances regarding the situation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: Well, Ashley Parker, you wrote the story we were quoting from there a minute ago today in "The Washington Post" about what`s taking place behind the scenes, the mood of the president, what people behind the scenes are seeing there.

So in relation to this issue of the tapes, it looks like the grievance there that Trump had in mind was he believed the FBI director, Comey, had told him, You`re not under personal investigation, and he wanted him to say it publicly. He seems to be suggesting that he thinks he got him to say it. I don`t know if that`s true or not, seems to be his -- where he`s coming from on that.

But in terms of your reporting, in terms of that sour mood, a mood more sour, you`re saying, than his associates, his friends can never recall seeing, those venting sessions he`s having with lawyers -- give us a sense -- beyond this issue here of what he thought Comey did to him, what`s the bill of grievances? What are the things he`s venting about in particular?

ASHLEY PARKER, "WASHINGTON POST": Sure. Well, broadly, he`s venting about Russia. And he basically feels that it is this dark storm cloud that hangs over his entire administration. He`s frustrated with the press coverage. He thinks that the press automatically believes Comey`s side of things, instead of his.

He`s obsessed that Comey, you know, in his testimony admitted that he basically urged a friend of his to leak the memos to the media and that Comey`s reputation hasn`t been tarnished because of that.

He`s frustrated that there is a special counsel. He is frustrated that the special counsel`s probe has now been widened to include possible obstruction of justice.

He is just generally frustrated that this Russia thing that started with reports of possible collusion during the election, which he says are not true, not only will not go away but seems to be snowballing by the day.

KORNACKI: And David Cay Johnston, somebody who`s -- who`s written about Donald Trump extensively, you have a pretty good read on him, a pretty good sense of who Donald Trump is. This mood that`s around him, this mood that`s defining him now that emerges in Ashley`s reporting -- again, her reporting there says people around him say they haven`t seen him this sour before.

What`s your sense? Is this a side of Donald Trump that would surprise you to see? Is it something you`ve seen before?

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON, AUTHOR, "THE MAKING OF DONALD TRUMP": I said well before the election that Donald -- well before the -- he took office, that Donald`s behavior over time would become more and more erratic, and that`s what you`re seeing. He`s not qualified to serve on a city council. He has enormous responsibilities. And even though he`s let many of these responsibilities go, giving the generals decisions over military matters instead of controlling them directly, he still has these burdens that he has to deal with on issues he doesn`t understand.

I mean, Donald has -- is appallingly ignorant about the world. So he`s lashing out. And he is used to being able to cow journalists. He`s not able to do that now.

KORNACKI: And Evan, one of the details here from this story from Ashley is these phone calls that apparently take place every morning, Trump, his legal team. They get on the phone. He talks about the headlines. The idea here was, basically, sort of, like, you know, punching the pillow instead of lashing out at the world. They want him to be venting to his lawyers privately, get it out of his system, doesn`t sound like it`s working too much. And it just doesn`t sound like this basic nature, this basic combative nature of Trump -- there is no way for a political or legal professional to correct it.

EVAN SIEGFRIED, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Look at what happened a month ago when the last time he went out and vented on Twitter. He must have been Miss Cleo (ph) because he went out and said that he -- Comey should not hope -- or should hope there aren`t any tapes about his conversations, that was before there was any sort of testimony that was going on. That, by Comey`s own admission, triggered Comey to go out and leak legally this unclassified memorandum which he wrote to himself to "The New York Times."

And I think when you see Donald Trump go out and do it that way, that only causes more and more problems. Republicans privately grumble every time he tweets and he doesn`t tweet something that is actually mainstream.

I think one thing that Hallie just noted that the White House is going to have problems with now is that the president or the White House is saying that the tapes don`t exist, and they`re citing Twitter. Well, White House aides are saying tweets are just tweets. They`re just social media. They are now confirming through legal methods to a House committee that tweets are official statements of the president and the White House.

KORNACKI: And David, let me ask you, too, about what Trump was saying in that interview. He`s saying, Hey, look -- trying to make it sound like, at least, Hey, look, I`m a pretty smart guy here. I put this suggestion out in the air. I got Comey to say under oath that I wasn`t, at that point, through those memos, at least, under personal investigation.

Of course, the flip side is Comey has said because Trump put that tweet out, he released his memos. The memos led to the special counsel. The special counsel is apparently driving Trump to the point of distraction right now.

Does Donald Trump look at this and say, I screwed up here on some level, or does Donald Trump really look at this and say, yes, I outsmarted the guy?

JOHNSTON: Well, in his own mind, he may well be worried about how he handled it. But this is a basic tactic Donald has always used, delegitimize anybody who is coming after you or is an opponent of yours or is an obstacle to what you want to achieve.

So denigrate the people who are running for office against you -- Ted Cruz, Little -- you know, "Lyin` Ted," Hillary Clinton -- if she were to win, it would have been illegal votes.

And with Comey, he`s now trying suggest there is some cabal going on, some improper collusion between Mueller and Comey. Notice he doesn`t just say they know each other or they`re friendly. They`re very, very good friends.

And this is part of Donald`s tactic of delegitimizing anybody who is not doing what he wants.

KORNACKI: Yes, and sort of on that front, Hallie -- and I think you have some more reporting or some new reporting on this tonight, this whole issue of -- that Donald Trump has not been interested in talking about publicly this issue of Russian meddling, Russian interference in the presidential election.

Just in terms -- take away this whole question here that`s being discussed about collusion.

JACKSON: Right.

KORNACKI: But just in terms of actual hacking by Russia in the future, or for that matter, hacking by any other foreign government, any other foreign entity, any other entity, there are specific steps that can be taken, learned about from the experience of the last election.

Your reporting is the administration hasn`t taken any of those steps right now?

JACKSON: Our reporting is that there are these new and urgent warnings about exactly that, the idea that Russia or perhaps another actor could meddle in the next election, so the midterms in 2018, or the next presidential election in 2020. And while that seems like a long way offs, what we`re being told is that is a very short period of time when it comes to this big picture stance (ph). So let me break it down for you briefly what we`re talking about here.

Multiple current and former U.S. officials in the intelligence field have explained how Russia meddled in the election, interfered in that 2016 election. It was through several ways, like, for example, that fake -- flow of fake news, rather, on social media by propulgating (ph) other elements in our on-line feeds, by, for example, hacking and leaking embarrassing political campaign materials, as well.

There are specific steps that these officials are telling us should be taken in order to make sure that that doesn`t happen, and there are some real questions now about whether the Trump administration is taking the steps to do that. So for example, key positions in the Department of Homeland Security, permanently, permanent positions, not acting positions, still remain unfilled tonight.

We contacted every state, and dozens of state officials said that they have had only limited contact with the Trump administration on election security and had some confusion about this DHS designation on what`s called critical infrastructure, felt like they were simply not getting the information they needed from the Department of Homeland Security.

You might ask, What was the White House pushback on this, because there was pushback. And I will tell you that when I asked Sean Spicer about it today, his response was, Well, we are sending a letter next week to states and local municipalities about sending data over to DHS, over to this election voting commission that the vice president is running to try to review the data and begin this sort of thorough review, as they put it.

And then they hinted at possible hearing or public events coming up in July from that election commission. So they`re pointing to this election fraud commission, which by the way, was created after President Trump made this unfounded claim without an evidence that millions of people voted illegally.

They`re also pointing to some cyber-security measures that they`re taking to try to work with tech companies to ensure the integrity of the election system. And one White House official tells me tonight, Listen, some of the moves the public will see, some of the moves the public will not see.

But let me leave with you this. I had a conversation with one intel official today who said basically what you did, forget everything else. Forget the investigation, the special counsel investigation, the congressional investigations into this. The bottom line is, will we be protected enough the next time because as this warning we are hearing again and again, Russia will do it again. They did it once, and it`s coming.

KORNACKI: All right. On that note, Hallie Jackson at the White House, Ashley Parker, David Cay Johnston, Evan Siegfried, thanks to all of you for joining us.

Coming up -- one day after Republicans unveiled their health care bill, it is already on political life support, another Republican senator coming out against it today, this one a moderate in a state won by Hillary Clinton. That puts the immediate future of the GOP`s "Obama care" replacement plan in serious jeopardy. We will dive into that.

Plus, newly revealed details about the Obama administration`s response to Russia`s meddling in last year`s election. It`s all in "The Washington Post`s" big new report today about how Vladimir Putin himself directed the election hack and how President Obama struggled with how to handle it last fall.

And no Comey tapes, no problem for President Trump, who had a big week, at least with his base, which showed it is sticking with him.

And finally, the HARDBALL roundtable is here tonight with three things I don`t know.

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: Well, Americans say they believe former FBI director James Comey over President Trump, this according to our new NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" poll, shows that 45 percent say they are more likely to believe Comey`s version of events from his Senate testimony earlier this month, 22 percent say they`re more likely to believe the president. That`s a 2-1 margin in favor of the former FBI director versus the man who fired him.

We`ll be back (INAUDIBLE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. DEAN HELLER (R), NEVADA: This bill that is currently in front of the United States Senate is not the answer. It`s simply not the answer. And I`m announcing today that, in this form, I will not support it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: Will not support the Republican health care replacement bill in its current form.

Who was that? Senator Dean Heller, a Republican from Nevada. And that is a critical -- at least potentially critical announcement today.

Let`s show you why. So, here`s the deal. Republicans introduced the plan. Three. Three is sort of the magic number here. If there are three defections from Republicans, this bill will not pass the Senate. This bill will die.

So, yesterday, when it was unveiled, the news was you had four of the most conservative Republicans, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Ron Johnson, they said, hey, we don`t like it right now. We need to see some changes before we can get on board. So you had four on the right yesterday. Now you have got Heller.

Heller is a moderate, relative to the rest of the Republican Conference. Heller is from the only state, Nevada, where a Republican is running for reelection next year that Hillary Clinton won.

So, here`s the dilemma. If you`re Mitch McConnell, if you`re Republican leaders, if you want to take care of Dean Heller, if you want change this bill, you make it more moderate, more acceptable to somebody from a swing state running next year, do you make changes that risk losing these guys on the right who already said they need to see the thing go in the other direction?

So that`s one of your dilemmas. If you accommodate Heller, do you alienate too many of these guys?

Here`s another possibility. Let`s say they`re not able to accommodate Dean Heller. Let`s say he says I can`t win reelection next year if I vote for this. I`m against it.

Well, that would be one of the three. Let`s say they also lose Rand Paul. A lot of people say there really are no changes that could make Rand Paul, who is as close to a pure libertarian as you have in the Senate. There really are no changes that could get him.

Well, that would be one, that would be two. Remember, the key number here is three. So, even if they got those others on board, only one more defection and that would be it for Republicans.

And that opens it up. If you`re one defection away, I don`t know. Could it be Lisa Murkowski? Could it be Susan Collins, Rob Portman from Ohio, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, a state with a lot of Obamacare money coming into it?

A wild card. Could a Flake from Arizona, Cory Gardner from Colorado? If you get to that situation where one vote could sink it, a lot of variables come into play.

That`s one thing to keep an eye on here.

And the other thing is the politics of this. If Republicans do succeed in passing this, if they do succeed in implementing it, take a look at this. It`s the history of how parties pay a price for touching health care. Three times in the last 20 years. Look at this. In the `90s, Hillarycare, remember this?

Democrats had the advantage in our NBC News poll, a 48-point advantage when Bill Clinton came to office over Republicans on health care. Then they proposed what they called Hillarycare.

And that 48-point advantage, they lost 39 points. It came all the way down to nine. It was not popular. Republicans won the Congress in `94. Then Barack Obama came to office. In that campaign in 2008, his advantage was 31 points. Obamacare was proposed, dropped all the way down to seven, 24- point drop.

And now look what we`re seeing. This is our brand-new poll. Look at these numbers. Democrats had an advantage of seven points at the end of last year`s election, seven points on the issue of health care. Republicans put their plan out. That Democratic advantage more than doubled. It jumped 10 points. It jumped to 17 points.

What is the seeming political lesson from this? If you`re the party in power, and you touch health care, whether you`re Democrat or Republican, it looks like you pay a political price, an extremely sensitive issue.

For more on the state of play, let`s bring in MSNBC political reporter Benjy Sarlin.

And, Benjy, the dilemma for Mitch McConnell, he has got a moderate, he`s got Dean Heller saying I need some changes. He`s got four on the right side saying we need to see some changes. He doesn`t have many votes to spare. Where does he make his play on this?

BENJY SARLIN, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: He has a couple of options here.

The best thing you can try to do is win over one of those sides and then isolate to it one or two senators who would be under extreme pressure not to hold up the bill themselves.

No one wants to be the one vote that held up this entire bill and thus has all the entire apparatus of right-wing media and activists on all sides focused on you.

So what would he do to get there? The policy issue is that things that satisfy the moderates can antagonize the conservatives. So, for example, Lisa Murkowski, Sue Collins have expressed a lot of concern about some of the provisions related to abortion, reproductive health in the bill like defunding Planned Parenthood, which both the House and Senate would do.

If you get rid of that provision, though, you will antagonize the conservatives for sure. Similarly, they have expressed a lot of concern about people losing coverage, about Medicaid cuts.

Senators Rob Portman and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia have also raised issues with Medicaid cuts. Well, if you lessen the Medicaid cuts, then you also antagonize conservatives. And you also potentially have to keep some of the taxes to pay for it. So you`re really in a dilemma no matter which direction you go.

KORNACKI: All right, Benjy Sarlin with the latest on that, thanks, Benjy. Appreciate that.

Joined now here on the set in New York by Yvette Clarke. She`s a congresswoman from New York. She tweeted this today about the Republican health care bill: "Fact. Trumpcare will have a devastating impact on the health security of hardworking Americans living paycheck to paycheck."

Congresswoman, I`m guessing you`re against it.

Let me ask you this, though, bottom line. Your party is the minority party in the House.

REP. YVETTE CLARKE (D), NEW YORK: Absolutely.

KORNACKI: Minority party in the Senate.

Let`s say Mitch McConnell finds a way to thread the needle in the Senate. We just laid out the political obstacles he faces. They would reconcile the bill that passed the House with the one that passed the Senate. Have to go through the House again, have to go through the Senate again.

But, look, if they have gotten this far, if they get it through the Senate, is this as good as implemented?

CLARKE: Well, I hope not, Steve.

We know that this is a major, major mean bill. It is going to take health care away from 23 million Americans. We have got to sound the alarm here. There is no time to play around with this. The Republicans have decided that they`re going to take this march into oblivion, as I would say.

And I think that Americans need to make sure that they make their preferences known now. We have no time to sit back and wait and see what happens. There is clearly a willingness on the part of the Republicans to follow this path in trying to give Donald Trump a victory.

And it`s a loss for the American people.

KORNACKI: Is there a bigger picture lesson? To arrive at this moment, Donald Trump had to win the election. Republicans had to win back control of the House in 2010. They had to get Senate in 2014.

All of those things happened and all of those things were achieved by the Republicans, at least in part, by saying, we want to repeal Obamacare, we want to replace Obamacare.

And enough voters in each of those elections did put them into office to do that. When you look back at it from the implementation of Obamacare, the enactment seven years ago, to today, are there missed opportunities there for Democrats that allowed Republicans to do that?

CLARKE: I think that we have not touted as much as we should how this has revolutionized the way that Americans are now able to access health care in America.

(CROSSTALK)

KORNACKI: Do people make that connection? Is somebody receiving benefits...

CLARKE: Well, clearly, they are. All of the polling indicates that this is not popular with the American people right now.

When you think about, first of all, the wealth transfer that is embedded in this, which is the real crux of what the Republicans are trying to actually achieve, to take health care services away from seniors, mothers, children, it is unfathomable that we would be in this place in the 21st century where we would actually leave Americans high and dry, unable to take care of themselves and their families with respect to their health, to be able to give wealthy people who didn`t ask for it a tax cut.

I think that the American people are pushing back. They`re pushing back real hard. And we are going to encourage them to continue to make those calls. Send those e-mails. Come to Washington, D.C. It is time for us to make our preferences known here.

KORNACKI: We just have a minute left, but I want to get you on the record on something else, an issue that has bubbled up as a result of this Georgia special election over the weekend.

CLARKE: Absolutely.

(CROSSTALK)

KORNACKI: The Republican candidate won that.

In the wake of that, some of your own Democratic colleagues in the House, Tim Ryan most notably, Democrat from Ohio, he challenged Nancy Pelosi after last year`s election for the leadership position. He lost pretty soundly, but he is saying, and there are some others out there who are now making noise saying, hey, it`s nothing personal against Nancy Pelosi, but her association is so sort of coastal liberal elite, whatever you want to say, that it hurts our party trying to win districts like the 6th in Georgia.

Do you think there is anything to that argument?

CLARKE: Listen, I know Tim real well. And I know a lot of my colleagues, most of them, all of them, and I would say that that`s not the overwhelming sentiment of the body.

Clearly, Nancy Pelosi has been a champion for working people in this country. And across the board, we have to determine as Democrats how we work together in unity to sound the alarm, to forge forward, to bring that economic message...

(CROSSTALK)

KORNACKI: So you`re saying -- within the Democratic Caucus, you`re saying, as a member, you don`t think she`s in trouble right now?

CLARKE: No, I don`t, not at all.

Nancy Pelosi has been a source of inspiration and strength. She has moved the agenda on health care, keeping Democrats unified throughout her tenure. And I believe that she will continue to do that with the support of Democrats in the House of Representatives.

KORNACKI: All right, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, democrat from New York, thanks for taking a few minutes.

CLARKE: Thank you for having me.

KORNACKI: OK.

Going to take a quick break.

Up next, though, that new "Washington Post" report, another big one here today, this one about the debate within the Obama administration during the campaign last year over the question of how to respond to the Russian election interference.

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Well, it is no secret that President Trump frequently cast doubts over findings that Russians interfered in our election.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Knowing something about hacking, if you don`t catch a hacker, OK, in the act, it is very hard to say who did the hacking.

With that being said, I will go along with Russia. It could have been China. It could have been a lot of different groups.

Look, I want to find out if there was a problem with an election having to do with Russia or, by the way, anybody else, any other country. I want to get to the bottom if Russia or anybody else is trying to tamper or play with our election.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KORNACKI: And this week, he continued the trend, tweeting: "By the way, if Russia was working so hard on the 2016 election, it all took place under the Obama admin. Why didn`t they stop them?"

Well, today`s "Washington Post" seemingly tried to answer the question the president posed there. In an expansive and at times stunning article, it lays out the Obama administration`s struggle to manage the Russian assault during the most toxic presidential campaign in memory.

According to "The Post" in August of last year, CIA Director John Brennan alerted President Obama and three senior aides that American intelligence had captured Putin`s specific instructions on the operation`s of audacious objectives, defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

Reports were so volatile and sensitive, "The Post" reports, that CIA director John Brennan kept it out of the president`s daily brief to guard against leaks. Subsequent meeting in the Situation Room followed same protocols as planning sessions for the Osama bin Laden raid.

"The Post" goes on to report that for months the Obama administration struggled to find an appropriate response, only to settle on a modest set of sanctions issued late December, late December, of course, well after the election.

For more, I`m joined by Karoun Demirjian, congressional reporter for "The Washington Post," and Shane Harris, senior writer for "The Wall Street Journal."

Thanks to both of you for joining us.

Karoun, it is your paper that reported this today. It is a fascinating read.

Let me ask you this, though. The bottom-line question that I took away at least after reading this was, how much of this, how much of the agonizing that the Obama administration went through last fall and how much of the fact that the sanctions didn`t come down until well after the election, how much of it was a simple calculation or a simple assumption on the part of the Obama administration that, you know what, Hillary Clinton has got this election in the bag, let`s not stir anything else up until it`s over, let`s just get through the election?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I think that played a large part of it, because there was that surprise when they woke up the morning after the election of, wow, this is what we`re dealing with now.

The president and his team did not want to give the impression that they were spinning the election in any way, that there was any sort of political calculus to this.

And they went to the Gang of Eight in Congress to try to get some of that bipartisan support. And, as we reported in that article, Mitch McConnell wouldn`t give it to them.

So they were coming out of this knowing that by the fall they were going to have to go it alone if the president was going to say anything publicly and draw attention to this. And he could be accused of playing politics with an election that close to an election if you do that.

There was a lot of hesitancy on the part of the Obama administration members. And one of the senior administration members that was quoted in this article says, it is hard to explain. It`s the hardest thing for me to explain from the time of the Obama presidency. It`s like we choked.

And that is really quite a significant admission. But it is both the fact that maybe they thought that Clinton had it in the bag and so they didn`t need to muddy the waters. They were also concerned about how Russians might retaliate if they did make a public statement on this.

And then there was a third element which is important to recognize, which is that it wasn`t until the Obama administration ordered the full review of what had happened, which was after the election, that they actually realized that this was not just an episode. This was a piece of a campaign that had been going on for a very long time.

And that`s what was documented in that early January report from the intelligence community. But it is like they had blinders on for part of the -- they were aware of part of the story, but not the peripheral vision to see the entire thing at the time.

KORNACKI: What about in terms of -- and take us through what exactly we know here.

Vladimir Putin himself ordering this, ordering this for a specific reason. The United States having that intelligence well before the election. Putin`s specific role, tell us what we know here.

DEMIRJIAN: Right.

There has been suppositions for a long time that something like this, this sort of a campaign of hacking, wouldn`t have happened without the direction of the senior-most levels of the Kremlin. And that`s a pretty small inner circle, so that is Vladimir Putin.

But we haven`t before this article had the actual -- the closest thing to a smoking gun that you can get, basically, that this intelligence is coming from a Russian source, that it`s that sensitive that they only show to it the president, a few of his advisers, that they won`t even let them sit with the paperwork to pore over it after they have seen it. They have to hand it back and let it go straight back to the CIA.

And so this is basically -- it is closing that circle around was this actually ordered from the upper levels of the Russian government, from the president Russian president himself? And that`s a very significant thing, because this plays into not just those allegations that were out there, but the fact that the president of Russia had an interest in trying to sway who the president of the United States was going to be.

And that`s pretty serious stuff if it went that far. And, frankly, was this effective? There was not a response. A lot of people would say there`s not a response in kind. That`s the criticism that you keep hearing even to this day from Democrats, that we should have done more, we should have said more, we should have realized what a big deal this was. If the president knew, he really should have been further out there.

KORNACKI: Well, Shane Harris, let me bring you in on that question, because I just read the book "Shattered" recently about the Hillary Clinton campaign, what was going on there behind the scenes.

And toward the end of the book, one of the items they report on is that Hillary Clinton herself, they were saying, was a little perturbed after the election when she learned the extent, some of the extent of the Obama administration`s knowledge before the election of what Russia and what Putin were up to.

If you`re Hillary Clinton and you`re reading this story today in "The Washington Post," do you look at this and do you have a justifiable grievance maybe with the Obama administration for not doing more?

SHANE HARRIS, WALL STREET JOURNAL: Oh, I imagine she is probably pretty upset about it. I mean, remember, too, that Hillary Clinton has come out and said that she does think that the outside forces impeded her election, including, you know, Jim Comey coming out and reopening the investigation. So, I think she had a lot of cause for concern about this.

I mean, I think one of the things "The Post" story really does capture is this idea that it wasn`t until later on that they really realize exactly what they were doing with in this kind of full spectrum campaign. But one reason why I think that`s troubling, and them not putting together the pieces that maybe had gone back a few years is it was not unknown that the Russian government was trying to hack into the State Department, the White House, successful in some cases in getting into some unclassified systems.

So, I think one of the things that this article really keys in on, is why did it take them that long to put all the pieces together to really understand that what was happening in the election, which of course was new, we`d never seen a foreign government gathered up emails and in effect weaponize them by putting them back out again? Why was it so hard to put it together and realize that this was part of a pattern of behavior by the Russian government to try and compromise government systems in this country?

KORNACKI: That`s my other question. And I`m curious if you have any insight into this, because one of the items mentioned here in the article is that James Clapper last summer at a public forum said there was a long history of Russia meddling in American elections. Now, obviously n the nature of what we saw last year.

But what was that history and should that have alerted everybody sooner?

HARRIS: Well, I don`t think we`ve seen anything quite like this history. I mean, certainly, there is a long history of the Russian government interfering in U.S. affairs and trying to hack into sensitive or being successfully hacking into sensitive systems. I think what it seems to me and from my own reporting, too, that people were surprised by is the idea that the Russian government would turn these e-mails around and put them out there as a campaign to start a trickle of disinformation. That fact to me is also surprising, though, because as intelligence officials know well, the Russian government and other government as well do use these tactics and they were aware that they were using them in Europe in some instances as well.

So, it shouldn`t have come I think as that much of a surprise, but it clearly seems that all these pieces were not put together in time. I do think, though, that there`s a lot more emphasis here to place on this very question of whether or not the Obama administration wanted to be seen as tipping the scales. From my own reporting, and talking to officials, that was something that was really holding people back, was this idea if we come out and we say it`s the Russians, A, we could look like we`re weighing in for Clinton, and, B, we`re kind of giving the Russians what they want, which is to fan anxiety about the lack of confidence in the election.

KORNACKI: Right. It`s an absolutely fascinating story. If you didn`t see it today, I encourage everybody to take a few minutes this weekend and check that one out.

Karoun Demirjian, Shane Harris, thanks to both of you for joining us, appreciate that.

And up next, health care is coming to a head. That Republican plan is on the ropes in the Senate. Can Mitch McConnell find a way to get it passed? Will it fail? Or if they do get it through, will Republicans pay a price for it?

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: All right. Welcome back to HARDBALL.

As we mentioned earlier, we`re just a few days away now from a floor vote on that Republican repeal of Obamacare. Mitch McConnell can only afford to lose two votes. Any more and he cannot pass his bill.

And right now, five Republicans have come out against it, at least tentatively.

Let`s turn to our HARDBALL roundtable, Eunice Alcindor, national political reporter with "The New York Times", Ben White is the chief economic correspondent with "Politico", Nina Burleigh is national politics correspondent for "Newsweek."

Thanks to all of you for joining us.

Yamiche, let me start with you. I`m curious, the dynamics here in the Senate. So, you`ve So, you`ve got these four conservative who came out yesterday, led by Rand Paul. And a lot of people are saying, Rand Paul just cannot be won over this. Basically nothing can get him. If that`s true, that`s one of those three right there off the table.

But now you`ve got Dean Heller with an entirely set of demands coming out. And the dilemma for McConnell was, if you placate Heller, do you risk losing the guys on the right? Or if you lose Heller and you`ve lost Rand Paul, now, you`re only down to one. Is there a way to thread this needle?

YAMICHE ALCINDOR, THE NEW YORK TIMES: I -- there could possibly be a way to thread this needle. I don`t think Mitch McConnell has any idea how to do that yet. And I think what we`re talking about is different party that has been a different party and has been factioned for years, that they`re Republicans in name only really because you have -- even Susan Collins and Murkowski who -- they haven`t come out as a firm no, but they have their own moderate issues.

So, while you have right now the conversations about five senators, you have several others saying, I need to read the bill, oh, I haven`t read the bill yet. Or they`re saying, it`s too early for me to vote. So, really --

KORNACKI: They`ve made some -- Collins and Murkowski have made some comments that suggest to me, you know, unless x happens, I won`t vote for it.

ALCINDOR: Yes.

KORNACKI: And I can`t see X happening.

ALCINDOR: Yes, and a lot of these -- the people they have to placate is all about, from reporting, it`s about Medicaid and it`s about who wants to take away the health care from their constituents and can you survive the next re-election bid? If your opponent is going to say, well, you took away health care for millions in the state. How do you -- how do you explain that?

And that`s the thing that I don`t think the Republicans have yet to figure out.

KORNACKI: And the other issue, Ben, we showed this at the top. You go back 20, 25 years in this country, three times, the party in power has really taken a pass at the health care system. This looks like it is shaping up at least as the third time the party does that could pay a price.

BEN WHITE, POLITICO: They could pay a huge price. I mean, you did the piece that showed the price that the Clinton administration paid after they went after health care. George Bush didn`t touch it, so it didn`t impact him. But then the Obama administration obviously took a hit.

Look, I think they`re much better off politically if this fails and they move on to tax reform and do something that might goose the economy a little bit. But it feels like we`re talking, the same thing we talked about on the House side, there`s this balloon of health care. If you press one side, you lose some moderates like Heller. If you press the other side, you lose the Rand Pauls, that sort of thing.

I feel like it ends the same way, they lose Heller, they lose Rand Paul. Pence casts the tie-breaking vote and they pass it. That`s just my feeling.

KORNACKI: I mean, Nina, the point Ben was just making, and I`ve heard this argument put out there, that Republicans would be better off, politically, if they go through the motions. They tell their base they did. They try to do it and they couldn`t quite get it through.

But the Republican base that spent the last seven years saying you`ve got to get rid of Obamacare, can they really go back to their base and say, yes, we tried, didn`t get it done?

NINA BURLEIGH, NEWSWEEK: I think they`ll have to go back and try. I think they`re going to try and it gives cover for the White House. This was a good week for Trump.

I mean, there weren`t any gaffes. There was a lot of attention on the Congress. And it gave his staff time to lawyer up and interview lawyers for the coming investigation.

So, I think that they`re going to run it through and they`ll try and when they lose, they`ll go back and say they tried. And that is a win for them.

KORNACKI: All right. Well, it looks like, the aim right now is a vote next Thursday. But, obviously, probably a fluid situation. We have to squeeze in quick, and I promise, will be a quick break. But the roundtable is staying with us.

Up next, I want to ask them about this week in Trump. This is HARDBALL, where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: All right. Former President Barack Obama is wading back into campaign politics. He`s going to be returning to the campaign trail for the first time since leaving the White House, set to hit the campaign trail for the Democrat running governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam.

The Virginia race is one of the two gubernatorial races on ballots this year. The other is in New Jersey. I`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: All right. We`re back with the HARDBALL roundtable. Yamiche, Ben and Nina.

And the president`s job approval rating, 40 percent, in our most recent NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" poll.

And I guess it`s sort of in a week ending question here, Yamiche. But 40 percent, we would normally say a disaster for a president. He`s saying, hey, look, we put the issue to the voters in Georgia. It doesn`t look like my party lost much ground, at least. You know, in the presidential race, he won it by a point. His party won by four in this one.

ALCINDOR: By Trump standards, this was a good week for him. They won Georgia. He was able to get health care, this bill in. And, by the way, his supporters who he really cares about, they`re sticking with him.

KORNACKI: Russia, though, hangs over all this?

WHITE: Russia hangs over all this. I mean, we called it a great week for him because, you know, he didn`t fire an FBI director and there wasn`t a great bombshell in "The Post" or "The Times" on the Russia investigation, and he won in Georgia big deal. He had to win that seat. It would have been a terrible embarrassment had he lost. It`s same thing in South Carolina.

We`re defining good weeks now --

KORNACKI: It`s the NBA playoffs. They`ve got to win the home court.

(CROSSTALK)

KORNACKI: So, Nina, that is -- you were making this point last block, though.

BURLEIGH: Yes.

KORNACKI: The standard for what a good week is.

BURLEIGH: The bar is low as Yamiche said, and it`s, it gave his staff time to lawyer up, because that`s what they have to do. They`re interviewing private lawyers.

KORNACKI: OK, a quick break here. Another quickie, I promise.

On the other side, the roundtable is back with us. Three things I don`t know. They`re going to each tell me one.

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KORNACKI: This is going to be the shortest segment of the day. Yamiche, tell me something I don`t know.

ALCINDOR: The tax reform bill will likely also be written in secret because of Republicans like the way that this bill worked out.

KORNACKI: All right. Ben?

WHITE: Speaking of tax reform, the border adjustment tax is dead. So, that`s $1 trillion Republicans need to find to make tax reform revenue neutral. Very hard.

KORNACKI: OK. And, Nina?

BURLEIGH: A Russian phrase I just learned, polezniye duraki. You`re going to hear a lot of it in the summer to come. It means useful idiot.

KORNACKI: All right. My first two Russian words I just learned.

All right. Yamiche Alcindor, Ben White, Nina Burleigh, thanks to you for stopping by.

That is HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us.

And "ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END