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Hardball with Chris Matthews: Trump Defends Son, Transcript 7/17/17 Draws Contrast with Clinton

Guests: Susan Page, Jackie Speier, Jonathan Turley, Astead Herndon, Shannon Pettypiece

Show: HARDBALL Date: July 17, 2017 Guest: Susan Page, Jackie Speier, Jonathan Turley, Astead Herndon, Shannon Pettypiece

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: So what if it was Chelsea?

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in San Francisco.

Let`s call it the Chelsea test. A new Monmouth University poll shows that 29 percent of Americans say they do not think it was wrong for Donald Trump, Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner to meet with Russians to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Kremlin. This is their position, they say, the 29 percent, that even if it is proven that the Trump people did it specifically so they could get dirt on Hillary, it was fine.

Well, now the Chelsea test. If it were the other way around and Hillary Clinton had lost the popular vote last year by three million votes but managed to win in the Electoral College after news that the Russians had worked to swing the election for her and it then came out that her daughter, Chelsea, had organized a meeting last year with Russians close to the Kremlin, would that 29 percent of hard-core Trump people be saying the same thing if it was Chelsea Clinton organizing that meeting?

And I tell you, they`d be going nuts. They`d be demanding Hillary be thrown from office and that she and her daughter brought up on criminal charges. Can`t these hard-line Trump defenders see that? Can`t they see the basic wrongness in these dealings with the Russians, in engaging with people who are out to interfere in an American election, no matter which candidate`s people did it.

And this is the dirty game Trump is playing right now. He knows he`s putting out dishonest statements that even his amen chorus cannot truly believe. He knows that the Secret Service was not detailed back then to protect his son Donald, Jr. Yet his paid-by-the-hour lawyer throws blame on courageous professionals now who protect our leaders with their lives just to feed the Trump bitter-enders with someone to blame.

Well, this debate over the Russians is no longer just about what happened, it`s between people who think it important to guard our democracy from outside interference and those who say they don`t, even though they would be saying the very opposite, let`s face it, if the shoe were on the other political foot.

Joining me right now is Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor and MSNBC legal analyst and author of the new book, "Chokehold: Policing Black Men." Glenn Thrush is White House correspondent for "The New York Times" and an MSNBC political analyst. And Susan Page is Washington bureau chief for "USA Today."

Let me start with Paul Butler on this and -- let me try that on you. How do these people deal with the fact -- I`m stunned by this number, that 29 percent say even if it`s proven they were over there trying to get dirt in Trump Tower, bringing those Russians in just for the purpose of getting some espionage on Hillary from the people over in Moscow, that they say that`s fine. And I don`t think they`d be saying that if this was the other way around.

PAUL BUTLER, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR, MSNBC LEGAL ANALYST: You know, Chris, today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions did another one of his tough on crime speeches where he wants to bring back the war on drugs and "stop and frisk" and all these policies that target young black men.

And when you compare that to the way the Republicans respond to Donald Trump in this investigation, where, frankly, all of the targets are rich white dudes, the Trump folks are all, like, Well, we don`t see the problem with that. What`s wrong with conspiring with the U.S.`s sworn enemy to take over and subvert our democracy?

Well, fortunately, Special Counsel Bob Mueller shouldn`t go by that double standard. I think he`ll go by the U.S. federal criminal code, which makes what Donald Trump, Jr., is alleged to have done a federal crime.

MATTHEWS: Susan, let me -- what do you think about this? What`s -- what`s in the mentality of the Trump bitter-enders, the 30 percent, 29 percent, 31? I`ve been trying to narrow it down by the latest Monmouth poll numbers. They seem to be saying whatever Trump does is fine with them, even if it`s playing ball with the Russians.

SUSAN PAGE, "USA TODAY": You know, it`s very tribal. If you look at the crosstabs in this Monmouth poll, you see that 9 out of 10 Democrats say it was the wrong thing to do, but only about a third of Republicans said it was the wrong thing to do. So it`s really as though you put -- you know, you put the label on it and say this is something the Trump people did or are alleged to have done, and there are a lot of Republicans -- a majority of Republicans actually say they don`t see anything wrong with it.

We see this even when you look at things like the assessments of how the economy is doing. That now has a partisan tinge. It`s as though facts no longer matter. It`s really just whatever team you`re on.

MATTHEWS: Why don`t -- why don`t the pollsters as, Suppose Hillary Clinton had done it and Chelsea had been the one setting up the meeting and force them to have to acknowledge the lack of objectivity of what they`re saying?

PAGE: Well, that`d be -- that`d be an interesting thing to see because I quite agree with you that if the situation were reversed, the Republicans who now say it was all right for Donald Trump, Jr., to do this would certainly protest most strongly if they thought Chelsea Clinton had done it.

MATTHEWS: Glenn, it`s like "Simon Says." If they say Simon says, the Republicans do it.

THRUSH: Well, look, you know, one of the things that Steve Bannon has been telling people around the White House as these polls come out -- and we should say we`ve had a slate of polls in the last week, three of them, that are absolutely brutal. The best news out of these polls is that Trump is at 40 percent nationally, the worst is at 36 percent.

But what Bannon has been telling people for months is Trump has retained something between 90 and 95 percent of the people who voted for him last time. And to the folks in the White House right now, that`s good enough. This is all about -- Chris, this is all about holding a beachhead. These guys are in a defensive position.


THRUSH: They`re not moving ahead and getting other voters. So right now, all they care about is holding onto the -- you know, what`s our number here, 35 to 42 percent of the electorate that`s going to stick with him. That is not a long-term sustainable strategy. You can`t get a lot of stuff passed. But this is where they are right now. It`s trench warfare.

MATTHEWS: But Glenn, I understood to large extent -- not to the point of understanding he would win -- but I certainly understood the pull of this nationalistic push by saying this country ought to look out for itself and not be pushed around by other countries, not be manipulated by other countries.

Here`s a case where we were being manipulated, and these people that were supposedly so pro-Trump and so pro-nationalist going along with the Russian manipulation of our democracy. And it doesn`t seem to -- that contradiction doesn`t seem to click with them.

THRUSH: But this isn`t about words! It`s not about policy. It`s about where you are living in the United States. It`s about what your income level is. It`s about culturally what you`re exposed to. People are not absorbing any of this stuff, Chris. They voted for Donald Trump, a lot of folks, because he wasn`t Hillary Clinton. He didn`t represent the coastal Democrats.

So as this -- there`s not an internal -- necessarily an internal logic to all this stuff. The logic is more cultural. And as long as Trump broadly represents what they believe, they`re going to stick with him.

MATTHEWS: Well, I`m going to bring that contradiction home to these guys as much as possible.

Anyway, meanwhile, in an attempted damage control -- at damage control, a member of the president`s legal team, that`s his lawyer Jay Sekulow -- he blanketed the talk shows on Sunday, repeatedly saying that nothing about the meeting was illegal. Here he goes.


JAY SEKULOW, TRUMP LEGAL TEAM: Everybody`s coming to the same conclusion regarding the legality. There`s nothing illegal about that meeting.

None of that is violation of the law. That`s more process.

-- we -- of course, and as almost every legal expert says it`s not illegal.

What we know took place was not in violation of the law.


MATTHEWS: Well, you can always find somebody to defend a president. Anyway, when asked if the campaign should have reported the meeting by the (INAUDIBLE) Sekulow blamed the Secret Service. This is pretty sleazy. Here he goes.


SEKULOW: I wonder why the Secret Service -- if this was nefarious, why did the Secret Service allow these people in? The president had Secret Service protection at that point. That raised a question with me.


MATTHEWS: That is sleazeball. Anyway, responding to that charge a spokesman for the Secret Service itself told Reuters, quote, `Donald Trump, Jr., was not a protectee of the U.S. Secret Service in June of 2016. Thus, we would not have screened anyone he was meeting with at that time." And Sekulow knows that!

This is supposed to be -- let me go back to Paul Butler on that. Paul, you know, these guys, whatever -- I don`t know what your -- I don`t know anybody that doesn`t like the Secret Service. They protect people at the top with their lives. They take the bullet. And here`s a guy just choosing to use them for his practice game here of getting some of the delusionary Trump people to buy into a nonsensical argument that somehow, the Secret Service should have put a phalanx around Donald Trump, Jr., keeping away the Russians!

BUTLER: Oh, boy, Chris. This is what defense attorneys do when they don`t have a case. They weave and they bob and they try to change the subject.

The interesting thing here is that this is President Donald Trump, Sr.`s, lawyer, not Donald Trump, Jr.`s lawyer. So I think he perceives that Trump, Jr., is in big trouble. He`s got to decide whether he wants his client, the president, to go down with his son, or whether he wants to align his interests with Donald Trump, which I don`t really think is in the best interests of the president.

MATTHEWS: And you can indict a president`s son.

BUTLER: You absolutely can. The president would have to wait until he resigns or is impeached, and then he could be indicted if there`s probable cause of a crime. But Trump, Jr., could be indicted tomorrow if Special Counsel Mueller decides there`s a case.

MATTHEWS: OK. Well, let me go back to Susan on this. I thought it was illegal to take a campaign gift or contribution of any sort, in kind or in cash, from a foreigner, someone from another country or certainly representing another government. How can this guy Sekulow, say, We all agree this was legal? I don`t think Bob Mueller is in on that total agreement at all.

PAGE: Yes, that`s right. And in fact, we don`t know what -- we don`t know everything that`s happened. And we also don`t know what the legalities might be. This is -- it`s not up to Jay Sekulow. It will be in the end up to Bob Mueller and his investigators. So this is at least premature.

It`s also an interesting standard to set that as long as it didn`t violate the law...

MATTHEWS: Yes, it`s cool.

PAGE: ... it was OK to go ahead and do. I mean, there are things that don`t violate the law that we choose not to do every day because they`re the wrong thing to do.

MATTHEWS: Well, Governor Chris Christie -- he`s back -- of New Jersey said in a press conference today that accepting opposition research from a foreign government is probably illegal. Let`s watch.


GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R-NJ), FMR. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Yes, I think it would be. I think it would be. I don`t think there`s any evidence that they did, but I do think it would be. Sure. And I think, quite frankly, it`s probably against the law, Michael (ph), in addition to being inappropriate.


MATTHEWS: Glenn, that`s powerful stuff coming from the president`s ally.

THRUSH: Well, Chris Christie has this nasty habit of remembering that he used to be a federal prosecutor, right?


THRUSH: And the other thing about it -- let`s just say not a ton of love lost between Chris Christie, and say, Jared Kushner, even though they sort of came together a little bit later. Christie was ousted from the transition. But look...

MATTHEWS: Explain that background. Explain the background of the family issue there.

THRUSH: So Chris Christie was running the transition, and he was ousted by a group of Trump folks. Christie had actually sort of organized the transition in a really conventional kind of way. He`d done an organizational book that was rejected out of hand by three people, by Jared Kushner, by Steve Bannon and Vice President Mike Pence. And he was ousted and Pence then took over the transition.

And as we know, what happened after that? Mike Flynn. So Christie was -- Christie has continued to informally advise the president, oftentimes, we are told, on issues relating peripherally to legal matters. He doesn`t act as an attorney, but he clearly has a lot of experience. But the point is...


MATTHEWS: ... Kushner`s old man in prison, didn`t he?

THRUSH: Yes, he put Jared -- yes, he did. He put Jared Kushner`s father in prison. Curiously enough, however, it appears that over the past four or five months or so, the two of them, Christie and Kushner, have made something that resembles amends.

But the issue here is Trump is not listening, Chris, to anybody. He listens to Trump. This is a problem that is occurring with his attorney, Marc Kasowitz. He just got this Ty Cobb to join as special counsel. Trump continues to heed his own counsel. And we`re seeing -- I suspect we`re going to see a lot of dissonance between the Donald Trump, Jr., legal team and the president`s legal team. I think that`s the next area where we`re going to see some news stories breaking.

MATTHEWS: Yes, I think he`s got more lawyers now than ambassadors.

Anyway, this weekend, President Trump offered up plenty of red meat to keep his base happy, that 29 percent behind him. Despite the fact that his own son released e-mails showing the clearest evidence of collusion already, Trump accused the media of undermining democracy. Quote, "With all its phony unnamed sources and highly slanted and even fraudulent reporting, fake news is distorting democracy (INAUDIBLE)." That`s the latest tweet from Trump. Attempting to justify his son`s behavior, he wrote, quote, "Most politicians would have gone to a meeting like this one Don, Jr., attended in order to get info on an opponent. That`s politics."

Anyway, is there -- is there a chance -- let me go to Paul Butler. Is there a chance that Trump would actually pardon his son? He can pardon a whole slew of these guys, his son-in-law, everybody.

BUTLER: He absolutely could under the law, Chris, but that would just be more evidence in the obstruction of justice case that Special Counsel Mueller is investigating against President Trump. It would be like when he fired the FBI director, like when he`s threatened to fire Special Counsel Mueller. You know what President Trump? You can`t fire everybody who`s going to hurt you who might be wanting to do a good faith investigation against you. That`s not the way our system of justice works.

MATTHEWS: Glenn, when`s the breaking point going to come with Trump? Is he -- he doesn`t seem to have any advisers left. He`s plenty of lawyers trying to keep him out of legal trouble, but I don`t sense anything coming together in the White House. I don`t think we have a presidency yet.

THRUSH: I think that`s a good observation in terms of the presidency. It seems like we have a president who sort of operates on his own and then six or seven small clusters within the White House now composed of, like, his legal team.

I don`t know where the breaking point -- you`re right to focus on the polling. The other thing I would look at, this health care debate, which is happening in parallel to everything that`s going on with the Russia investigation. It`s equally as damaging and will eventually intersect with the Russia investigation as senators get used to saying no.

When senators and members of the House realize that there`s not a political price to be paid for flouting the president, challenging him on legislation, that is when the trouble is really going to start. We haven`t seen it yet. There`s been sort of conspiracy of silence. They`ll walk away from cameras. There`s been a great deal of reporting on they`re figuring out a way to dodge reporters.

They`re not going to be able to do that forever, and they can read a poll, too.

MATTHEWS: I don`t think they want this Trump raining (ph) on them the rest of their careers, any of these people.

Anyway, thank you, Paul Butler. Thank you, Glenn Thrush and Susan Page. Great front page piece in "USA Today," Susan. Thank you.

Coming up, much more on the Trump Russian investigation, including the pressure building on Trump`s family. Jared Kushner is under the microscope now with renewed calls for his resignation. As I`ve been saying from the start, that`s the trouble with nepotism. I told you from the -- this is a bad news story.

Plus, polling shows President Trump`s base is holding strong, but catch this. Independent voters who helped him win are starting to turn on him, and that`s pushing his approval numbers into record low territory. Watch the independents.

And why is the Republican Party going along with Trump on the Russians? Is the GOP becoming the Putin party? I love saying that, by the way, the Putin party. That`s the question. And it`s raising concerns that this president and his party are putting their interests ahead of the country`s.

Finally, let me finish tonight with "Trump Watch." He won`t like it.

And this is HARDBALL, where the action is.


MATTHEWS: The White House has dubbed this week "Made in America Week" in an effort to promote products made in this country. Trump Kicked things off today by hopping into a driver`s seat of a fire truck that was parked on the South Lawn of the White House. The president also took a moment to try on a personalized Stetson cowboy hat.

Despite all that, plenty of reporters were quick to point out the obvious, that for all that "Made in America" talk, the president does not practice what he preaches.


QUESTION: He has shirts made in China and Bangladesh and India. Other products made -- like Trump vodka made in the Netherlands. So give me a sense, if you could, about whether the president is the right vessel for the message that he`s going to deliver later today before the press.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Yes, I actually look at it in a very different way, which is the president`s been a very successful businessman on a number of fronts, in a number of areas and industries, and to understand very firsthand what the tax burden and what the regulatory burden do to a business that wants to grow or expand here or hire here.


MATTHEWS: By the way, haven`t we noticed a few "Made in Russia" labels on last year`s election? Just reminding you.

We`ll be right back.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

As the Russian investigation continues to spread, Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. are becoming increasingly central figures in this saga. It`s hardly surprising, given the role that nepotism has played in Trump world itself.

President Trump enlisted his family members to help him get elected and to help run the White House. Their collective governing experience, however, zero.

And now you have a son-in-law who is, according to various reports, a central focus in Robert Mueller`s investigation, and another son who openly admits now to meeting with a Russian lawyer to discuss potentially damaging material related to Hillary Clinton.

Over the past few months, I warned against this. I`m not always right, but I was right about this.


MATTHEWS: These people are really powerful. Imagine getting into a fight in the office with Jared or Ivanka. They have enormous power.

And they`re always going to be there.

He`s the son-in-law of the president. He will be like a viceroy. And if he gets a secretary and he gets a desk and he gets a phone and a title, and he`s working in the West Wing, then who cares whether he`s getting a salary or not?

This seems to me a violation of the spirit of the anti-nepotism law.

The law is the law. We need our president to obey it. We need to let him know he has to.


MATTHEWS: With each passing day, we learn more troubling news, like the fact that the president`s son-in-law, who has no political or foreign policy experience, failed to disclose foreign meetings on his application for security clearances.

Three times, he did it. And as the Russian trouble continues to set in, some Republicans are calling to cut out part of the problem. Let`s watch.


REP. BILL FLORES (R), TEXAS: I`m going out on a limb here, but I would say I think it would be in the president`s best interest if he removed all of his children from the White House, not only Donald Trump, but Ivanka and Jared Kushner.


MATTHEWS: Well, for the latest, I`m joined right now U.S. Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California. She`s a Democrat, a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Congresswoman, you know, there`s a reason why throughout history nepotism has been frowned upon, because it create these situations where these princelings and princesses have this incredible power that the public didn`t give them, they didn`t earn through work or background or experience or in any kind of way.

They were credentialed for these jobs. They inherited them. And that`s why we have democracy, so that we don`t have royal families like the Romanovs running our country. But now we do. What can we do about it?

REP. JACKIE SPEIER (D), CALIFORNIA: Well, we really have to make it apply to the White House, as well as to all of the departments.

The Robert Kennedy amendment came as a result of him being made the A.G. And so you can`t have any family members in any of the departments, but we should have also included the White House, never thinking, frankly, that anyone would put their family member in a position of authority within the White House.

Now, all members of Congress too are under that same restriction. We can`t have any family members working for us. And it makes all the sense in the world. If your son-in-law screws up, what are you going to do? You`re not going to fire him. You have to have Thanksgiving dinner with him.

So, I think this is way past any rational reason to keep both Ivanka and Jared in the White House. I mean, when you realize that Jared has had to amend his SF-86 form about foreign meetings three times, he`s had 100 meetings that he didn`t disclose, and then we find out that he was also negotiating with the Russian banker of VEB Bank, that he was negotiating with Qatar for financing for his Manhattan property, and also with an insurance company in China.

With Ivanka, you have a situation where, as she was meeting with the Japanese president, Abe, she was negotiating a deal with a clothing company in Japan that went through. And then, when she was with President Xi of China, she was, on that same day, granted three trademarks, and a couple of days later, four more trademarks.

I mean, this is not what you should be doing as someone working in public service, gaining personally from that public service. And both of them are doing that.

MATTHEWS: I know. I wish the Democrats had yelled loud when this first started. I tried to yell loud, because this situation, if it was Chelsea in these meetings, if she was working in the White House, it`s -- they would be going crazy, the Republicans, right now, wouldn`t they?

SPEIER: Absolutely.

I thought about, if it wasn`t Ivanka in that G20 meeting sitting, keeping the chair warm for her father, if it was Chelsea, you would have just pandemonium in these chambers right now.


MATTHEWS: Especially if she was meeting with the Russians, with all their dirt coming from the Kremlin. I think they would be thinking more than getting angry.

Anyway, U.S. Congresswoman Jackie Speier, please keep coming back on the program.

SPEIER: I will. Thank you.

MATTHEWS: In an opinion piece, by the way, entitled "The Decline and Fall of Jared and Donald Jr.: Nepotism Often Ends Badly," law professor Jonathan Turley writes: "Does the president have any choice but to continue to defend his relatives? With his comments today, Trump has assumed the costs directly for their actions. And that`s the real cost of nepotism. It reduces the range of motion in dealing with scandals. There`s no option for political triage when the family is on the line."

I`m now joined by Jonathan Turley himself, the Shapiro professor of public interest law at George Washington University and also a member of "USA Today"`s Board of Contributors.

Thank you so much, Jonathan, professor.

Let`s get to this. Why do we have nepotism laws, and why are the Trumps getting away with breaking them, breaking the spirit of them?

JONATHAN TURLEY, CONSTITUTIONAL ATTORNEY, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: Well, nepotism laws have existed in various countries for centuries.

The term nepotism actually comes from papal abuses, where popes would take their nephews -- that`s where the term comes from -- and give them cardinal hats, even ones aged 14, 15.


TURLEY: And it was abusive back then.

And what is interesting is that it almost uniformly worked against the sponsors, because, as you have already noted, it adds a vulnerability to you, because a failure of a family member becomes your failure.

And people like the Clintons found that out. When Bill Clinton made Hillary Clinton the head of the task force for health care reform, it was a terrible idea, because her failure would become his failure. And they lost any real chance of reform in doing that.

And so what is fascinating is that Trump has gone down the same path, but even more so.

MATTHEWS: What about Trump`s impulsiveness? If you tied that to his insistence of having the comfort of his family around him, including Ivanka, her husband, his son, he seems to need -- some athletes are like that. They need to have their old friends hanging around them all the time, even to travel with them.

There`s something about the comfort. But I don`t know what the public service comes from. There`s no evidence that these people are good at anything. There`s nothing with them personally, I don`t think, but where`s the credentials of these people to be serving as the Middle East envoy for President Trump and our country?

Jared Kushner is our expert now. He`s the new Henry Kissinger over there. Anyway...

TURLEY: It`s rare that there`s a public value to this.

Ulysses S. Grant had somewhere in the range of 40 relatives working in the federal government. And they were involved in a host of corrupt scandals, including his son-in-laws. And it helped destroy his administration.

That is the strange thing about nepotism, is, it draws people close because of this comfort factor, but it almost always results in great vulnerability and often great damage.

MATTHEWS: What do you think? I guess the last notorious pardoning was President Clinton pardoning Marc Rich, the notorious international whatever you want to call him.

What do you think about Trump just impulsively just say, I`m going to pardon all these people preemptively? He can do it, can`t he, so they don`t have to face investigation?


TURLEY: He can.

And actually one of the greatest abuses back then was when Bill Clinton pardoned his own brother, which was outrageous.

But the problem with that is that if you push down on the criminal side, it tends to push up political issues on the impeachment side.

Actually, Clinton -- Trump would be much better fighting on the criminal side. I`m not convinced that this meeting was a compelling basis for a crime. I still don`t see the crime. He might be better fighting it out there.

MATTHEWS: Well, let me ask you about that. You`re opening a door there, counselor.


MATTHEWS: I`m just going to ask you, was it a contribution to the Trump campaign to get an offer of dirt on Hillary?

Opposition research is a product. It`s an asset. And they were offered that for the purpose of that meeting. Isn`t that accepting assets from a foreign source, which I understand to be illegal?

TURLEY: Chris, look, you`re a great advocate of the First Amendment. And I respect that.

And there`s where I would caution you, that if you start to treat the exchange of information as if it`s equivalent to a political contribution, it would bring a host of political speech within the criminal code that`s never been done. It would cover a foreign academic or environmental group.

MATTHEWS: But this was offered as not just as a conversation, but the product of espionage, of digging up dirt on Hillary Clinton. This wasn`t just some conversation they were going to have. It was, here we have got some stuff, like the dossier.

I think the dossier could be considered a product, yes, a product of work, a work product, yes.

TURLEY: The problem with that, Chris, is there`s no limiting principle that would play a role here.

If a foreign person giving information to a campaign could suddenly become a federal crime, you`re handing the federal government a huge amount of power to regulate campaigns.

MATTHEWS: Well, maybe in this case, it would be good power.

Thank you, Jonathan Turley. I have great respect for you and I love to argue with you.

TURLEY: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: And I can argue too.

Up next: The Russian scandal is consuming the Trump White House, and it`s hurting him with independent voters. We haven`t talked about them. Yes, the Russian -- the Russians -- the Republicans fall in line, not in love, but apparently independents don`t fall in line. And they`re not in line with Trump anymore.

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

We have talked here a lot about President Trump`s support among his core supporters, but it was independent voters who helped give him his victory obviously in 2016.

And now a new "Washington Post"/ABC News poll shows the president`s support among that group, the independents, may be cracking. Just 32 percent of independents now say they approve of the ways he`s doing his job, down from 38 percent in April.

Well, 82 percent of Republicans, of course, still approve of his performance, by the way. And in Iowa, a state Trump won, a "Des Moines Register" poll now shows that 59 percent of self-identified independents in that state at least now disapprove of the president`s job performance, up nine points from February.

For more, I`m joined right now by Robert Costa, national political reporter for "The Washington Post" and an MSNBC political analyst.

You know President Trump and you knew candidate Trump as well as any reporter covering him.

What do you think? I want to ask my question. Maybe it`s my rant tonight. Did they see the contradiction in saying, even if Trump is guilty of his son meeting with the Russians and trying to get dirt from the Kremlin and all that, even if that`s all true, 29 percent say it`s fine with them?

Do they see the contradiction in the way they would judge, say, if Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton had been involved in the same sort of fandango?

ROBERT COSTA, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: When it comes to the family, you`re talking about a president who came from a family enterprise, only really knows a family enterprise. His father ran one. He inherited it.

Now he`s brought that same ethos to the White House. I think your polling data is intriguing, because this is a presidency that is also running a base-centric strategy.

When you think about what Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, the strategists inside of the White House, are doing, they`re running to keep that base, to cultivate that base, but they`re seeing a cost. Independents now, at that six-month mark, are wondering, is Trump really the disruptive outsider they wanted?

MATTHEWS: I have a sense, when I study the numbers -- and I don`t believe many numbers anymore because of how wrong they were in catching those swing final -- those tough swing states back in last November. They got them wrong.

But I do think it`s interesting to study how many people are core Trumpees and how many are sort of for him because they hate the establishment and they may hate Hillary. For all I know, they may hate the Republicans like Jeb.

But they`re not crazy. They`re not completely down-and-out dead-enders. So, it looks like to me like it`s about 30 percent of people that will defend anything Trump does, any meeting that is held. Anything that is used against him, they will defend.

But somewhere between 30 and 40 percent are in the middle. And they go, you know, if he`s had a pretty good run for three or four days, they will be with him. And if he doesn`t, they will fade against him.

Tell me how you see that edge, that independent edge of the Trump support.

COSTA: It`s a difficult question to answer, because you have got to wonder, Chris.

This erosion on the Trump number, is it because of his temperament, because of Russia and this cloud that hangs over the campaign, or is it because he embraced House Speaker Paul Ryan in the Republican agenda?

If you`re an independent voter, what bothers you more as you look ahead to 2018, all these Russia controversies and scandals or is it because the president is pursuing a health care bill that goes after the Medicaid expansion, that maybe even goes after your own coverage?

MATTHEWS: That would explain why the real right-wing -- I don`t mean right-wing -- very conservative people like Paul Ryan, ideological, Ayn Rand-type people, total ideologues that way -- they seem to like him.

We got a figure now in the poll. The new poll say -- it`s your poll, by the way, at "The Post" -- 90 percent of self-identified conservative Republicans, nine out of 10 -- I have never seen a poll like that for anybody -- are with Trump.

So, at the same time he`s coddling up to a relationship with Paul Ryan on ideology, you say he`s losing the independents, maybe?

COSTA: I think it`s not just the ideology.

If you think about what the Republican Party does today to gin up that base, it`s a grievance party. It runs against the media more than it even runs against the Democrats at times.

If you think about some people in the White House calling the media the enemy of the people, and so if you`re a Republican who think about politics in that framework, Trump is actually successful in your mind. That`s why I`m not surprised by these eight out of 10, nine out of 10 Republicans, because, to them, Trump is a hammer to the establishment, even if he`s not successful when it comes to legislation.

MATTHEWS: You, sir, are Trump`s Boswell.

Thank you so much, Robert Costa of "The Washington Post."

Up next: President Trump says that most politicians would have gone to that meeting with the Kremlin-linked lawyer and her fellow person.

Anyway, but if Chelsea Clinton had done it, don`t you think Republicans would be going nuts right now?

You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics.



Since word of Donald Trump, Jr.`s meeting broke, the White House story has spiraled from a denial that the campaign had any contact with Russia to an admission that the president`s son and top advisers met with two Russians close to the Kremlin, specifically to get dirt on Hillary Clinton, to help them in a campaign.

Well, despite that, President Trump says that is nothing out of the ordinary, tweeting this morning in fact that, quote, most politicians would have gone to a meeting like that, one that Don Jr. attended in order to get info on the opponent. That`s politics.

Well, that`s Trump talking. Even White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer still claims that the meeting was about adoptions. Let`s watch.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: That it`s quite often for people who are given information during the heat of the campaign to ask what that is. That`s what simply he did, the president has made it clear through his tweets, and there was nothing, as far as we know, that would lead anyone to believe that there was anything except for a discussion about adoption, the Magnitsky Act.


MATTHEWS: I think Sean will say anything, anything. Adoptions? That`s not why they went to the meeting.

Republicans have been forced to bend over backwards to try to defend the meeting. Let`s watch them in action.


REP. SEAN DUFFY (R), WISCONSIN: If I got the information, I could run it down within my team, I can report it to the FBI. There`s a number of different things I could do with that information. But I have no problem with a meeting that this could turn into nothing. You have to recognize Don, Jr. had a 20-minute meeting.


MATTHEWS: Well, in his latest "New York Magazine" column entitled if Republicans loved their country, when will they show it, conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan argues, quote, it`s really well written here.

This is not about being dumb. It`s not about being ruthless. It`s not about oppo research. It`s not even about dirty tricks. This is about a very basic level of patriotism. It`s about a deep question of how you were brought up and what your values are.

The question is whether we can trust this president to put the interest of the U.S. before himself or a foreign enemy, or some horribly compromised combination of the last two. If there`s any doubt about this, the doubt has been, well, has to be removed.

Let`s bring in tonight`s HARDBALL round table. Astead Herndon is the national political reporter for "The Boston Globe", Shannon Pettypiece is a White House reporter for "Bloomberg News", and Jeremy Peters is a reporter with "The New York Times" and an MSNBC contributor.

Astead, it seems to me the Republican parties are running the risk of being identified as the Putin Party, a party that fought the Cold War the hard way for years, was proud of its opposition to communism in Russia. It`s now seemingly happy with Russian nationalism as our ally.

How do they avoid the blame game when the time comes to see who was on Putin`s side and who was against him?

ASTEAD HERNDON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE BOSTON GLOBE: All Republicans need to do is hold true to the values that they said that they cared about for a long time. They have been the party that has talked about being tough on foreign adversaries, on people like Russia until Trump came along. And so, what we need to see from Republicans is to what people are asking for Republicans to do.

I think what that column calls for is to move beyond just the words of being troubled or concerned, but really hold consequences -- hold the White House responsible and accountable. And if they do see a string of things that are concerning to them, to really put weight behind that in terms of policy. And that`s what people are trying to pressure them to do.

SHANNON PETTYPIECE, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, BLOOMBERG NEWS: Well, you know, it`s also interesting because when you look at the rhetoric coming out of Republicans in Congress, it couldn`t be any difference than what the White House is saying. You look at the sanctions bill that`s in the Senate, and really, the hard liners in Russia are still there in the Republican Party. They`re just not in the White House.

But, I think, you know, you`ve been talking earlier on the show about a lot of polling data out there. For the Republican Party and for their base and for their voters, there are a lot more issues than Russia and whether the party is tough on Russia. Health care, terrorism, security, the economy, taxes.

And so, I think there`s this wiggle room, though, where they can maintain the base, and they can, you know, maintain their identity without the president having to even go after Russia on some of these issues.

MATTHEWS: Well, Jeremy, over the weekend, you wrote that, quote, Mr. Trump`s opponents have tried repeatedly to make an issue of the mutual admiration between him and the Russian president, Putin, of course, anticipating that Republicans would not tolerate any whiff of sympathy for one of their own toward the leader of what Ronald Reagan called the evil empire.

But Mr. Trump has never had to wait long for conservatives to leap to his defense and, often, Mr. Putin says, well, there you go again, as Ronald Reagan used to say, there they go again. I`m sorry. But this acceptance of Putin messing with our election, this casualness to which they defend, no matter what`s proven -- I`m still taken aback. I know these people on the hard right are patriotic normally.

But why are they so unpatriotic when it comes to letting the Russians mess with us? That`s not a patriotic position to be in. It just isn`t objectively.

JEREMY PETERS, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: It`s stunning. It`s this head-spinning role reversal from the party that was tough on communists and tough on the Soviet Union. I mean, this used to be a prerequisite for being a Republican, being tough on them.


PETERS: And now, all of a sudden, you have this band of conservatives who are basically apologists for Putin. And what`s I think really undergirding this, Chris, is it`s wrapped up in anti-Obamaism. For a lot of conservatives like Sarah Palin and eventually Donald Trump himself, Putin was the ultimate fuel for Obama.

He was more of a man than Obama was. He was more of a leader. He was decisive. He seized countries. He rode a horse shirtless and he went tiger hunting in the Russian wilderness.

So for them, he kind of took on this Paul Bunyan type quality.

MATTHEWS: Who does this bare-chested, tiger hunting image, who does that work for? It`s pretty primordial. I mean, give me a break here. Is this how they decide their politics? I liked Teddy Roosevelt, but this was a retrained version of this. I don`t know what to say.

PETERS: He almost became like this Paul Bunyan-like figure for a lot of conservatives because to them, he represented somebody who was emasculating and humiliating Barack Obama on the world stage. And because of that, almost any other transgression could be forgiven.

MATTHEWS: Let me go back to Astead on this, because I`ve said this before on the show that I do understand, in fact, I appreciate, in fact, positively, the notion that America should be looking out for America most of the time. Of course, we`re globalists and we understand the need to be part of a community of nations.

But don`t get screw us on trade. Don`t get us into stupid wars for somebody else`s interest. Don`t -- I mean, I understand that kind of nationalism, I do. And also, immigration has to be controlled at some point, on some level.

But Trump here doesn`t seem to mind being played around with by Putin. When you see the meeting together, Putin knows everything about Trump`s misbehavior. He knows about everything about their meetings and secret relations and everything. He seems to be the guy in charge. I don`t know why the Trump people like that or even abide by it.

HERNDON: I mean, that is -- that is the stunning part, is that the person who was holding the cards here is Vladimir Putin. He knows exactly what efforts Russia took to meddle in the U.S. election.


HERNDON: And he knows the extent to which on each one of these political fire storms, someone is lying or telling the truth or who messed with who at each time. And that`s what intelligence communities, that`s what stuns them about the president`s statements consistently, is that at many times, it seems like he`s siding with the Russians and not with our own intelligence community.

And so, that`s the real crux of it, is what is that patriotic question? Is it that by conceding what Democrats and other people are saying, is Russian meddling, that Donald Trump in the White House would be less American? They`re saying, and that`s what they`re asking for. And so, I think that the real -- what they need to look at is what is Russia trying to do and if -- and should the White House be stepping back to it?

MATTHEWS: OK, the roundtable -- go ahead, Shannon. Quickly. Go ahead. I`m sorry.

PETTYPIECE: Oh, I was going to say, the administration sees a foreign policy play here though, too. That if Putin can help with ISIS and Syria, Putin can help with North Korea, then they`re willing to do deals with them. But the concern is they`re going to sort of sell us up the river in the process and look at other the way on other things more important to us than, you know, ISIS and Syria.

MATTHEWS: I think we`re still waiting for that hamburger.

Anyway, the roundtable is sticking with us, and up next, these three will tell me something I don`t know. We`re coming back.


MATTHEWS: Well, a federal judge has now ruled that President Trump must release some of the -- catch this -- visitor logs at Mar-a-Lago. Since becoming, President Trump has spent 25 days at Mar-a-Lago using that place to entertain high profile guests, public guests like the Chinese president and the Japanese prime minister. That said, it`s unclear who else Trump has met with while staying down there at the so-called winter White House.

Well, the government watchdog group that sued for the record says that it will make public any information it receives. The scope of the visitor logs is unknown, but the Secret Service is expected to hand them over by September 8th.

Well, that`s news. We`ll be right back.


MATTHEWS: We are back with the HARDBALL round table.

Astead, tell me something I don`t know.

HERNDON: Well, last week, I was at a private talk with former Trump campaign advisor, Roger Stone, and he questioned the events of 9/11, and more importantly, he said the president may also be a 9/11 truther, saying he shares their curiosity about the events, and that the president has, quote, a number of unanswered questions, according to Roger Stone.

MATTHEWS: Well, that`s fairly sick.


PETTYPIECE: I`ve got a story out a few minutes ago that Michael Flynn is starting a legal defense fund to fund raise money to pay for his legal bills for the Russia probe. And it`s possible we could see more of these, especially from sort of the midlevel campaign and administration officials because these legal bills could range from the tens to the hundreds of thousands of dollars just to comply with all these subpoenas and investigation requests.


PETERS: As conservatives and Senate Republican leaders step up-to-pressure to get an Obamacare repeal and replace vote to the Senate floor, there are a number of senators who are privately thanking Susan Collins of Maine for saying the she`d come out against the bill because not that the they don`t want to vote on the health care bill, but they don`t want what would happen before that, which should be this flurry of votes on amendments called the vote-o-rama that would -- are intended to embarrass voter -- intended to embarrass senators and can be used in commercials against you later on.

MATTHEWS: Great. I know they want the 30-second ads to use against them.

Thank you, Astead Herndon. Thank you, Sean Pettypiece and Jeremy Peters.

We`ll be right back with HARDBALL.


MATTHEWS: Trump Watch, Monday, July 17, 2017.

This is addressed to those Trump folks who tell pollsters it`s all right to do political business with the Russians when they`re interfering with our elections. Well, it`s pretty simply. Just try it on the other guy`s foot. Think about what your reaction, your gut reaction would be to hear that Hillary Clinton, her crowd, had been doing precisely what your side`s been caught doing red-handed.

I`ll tell you what you`d be doing. You`d be high-fiving that you caught Chelsea and her mom in a Kremlin cookie jar. You`d be yelling treason. You`d be in sheer delight that you caught the hated Clintons selling out their country.

Now, stop for a second and think about your guy and his son doing all this, along with good old Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort and what this band of unmerry men were up to last summer when they invited the Russians into Trump Tower to help them win the election. Just think again for a lonely second precisely what your reaction would be if young Chelsea had been the happy host of that affair.

This HARDBALL for now. "ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.