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Hardball with Chris Matthews, Transcript 7/20/17 Trump rages at own Attorney General

Guests: Chris Coons, Kelly Ayotte, Dan Rather, Peter Baker, Clarence Page

Show: HARDBALL Date: July 20, 2017 Guest: Chris Coons, Kelly Ayotte, Dan Rather, Peter Baker, Clarence Page

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Trump makes a threat.

Let`s play HARDBALL. Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in San Francisco.

President Trump has sent forth an aggressive message against his attorney general and most starkly against the man leading the Russian investigation, Robert Mueller. The big question today, where`s this headed? It looks to me like a constitutional crisis ahead between a prosecutor seeking evidence and a president refusing to surrender it.

In an Oval Office interview with "The New York Times," President Trump said it was unfair of Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from decisions about Russia. Let`s listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Sessions gets the job. Right after he gets the job, he recuses himself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Was that a mistake?

TRUMP: Well, Sessions should have never recused himself. And if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else.


MATTHEWS: The president criticized the investigation being conducted by special counsel Robert Mueller. He said his team was full of conflicts of interest. And he got off this warning shot.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If Mueller was looking at your finances and your family`s finances, unrelated to Russia, is that a red line?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Would that be a breach of what his actual charge is?

TRUMP: I would say yes. I would say yes.


MATTHEWS: Well, the president added he can`t answer whether he would fire Mueller. Anyway, the president also attacked his deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, as, quite, "someone from Baltimore," where there are, he noted accusingly, very few Republicans.

And he continue to disparage James Comey. According to President Trump, he did a great thing for the American people by firing Comey. He said Comey told him about the uncorroborated documented dossier filled with salacious claims in order to hold it over the president`s head. Let`s listen.


TRUMP: I didn`t know what to think other than this is really phony stuff.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why do you think -- why do you think he shared it?

TRUMP: In my opinion, he shared it so that I would think he had it out there.


TRUMP: Yes, I think so, in retrospect. In retrospect.


MATTHEWS: Well, this morning, Attorney General Sessions was asked about the president`s attack. Let`s listen.


JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I have the honor of serving as attorney general. It`s something that goes beyond any thought I would have ever had for myself. We love this job. We love this department. And I plan to continue to do so as long as that is appropriate. I`m totally confident that we can continue to run this office in an effective way.


MATTHEWS: I`m joined right now by the "New York Times`s" Peter Baker, who was part of the team that interviewed the president. NBC`s Hallie Jackson is at the White House, and Dan Rather, the host of "The Big Interview" on AXS TV (INAUDIBLE) there tonight.

Let`s go to Peter on this. I listened to that and I`ve read it a number of times. And what I`m hearing is Donald Trump saying, Don`t mess with my tax returns. Don`t go after my finances. And I`ll decide where the red line is. I`ll decide what`s in play for the Russian investigation and I`ll decide what` not in play, and I intend to deny that you information, that evidence.

PETER BAKER, "NEW YORK TIMES": Yes, no, it was very interesting. We tried several times to try to get from him what he thought the red lines were. Where are the boundaries of this investigation? What was his understanding of Robert Mueller`s charge as special counsel? And he wouldn`t -- you know, he wouldn`t be very precise except for that one clip you just played.

But I think rather than the precision, what`s important is that he is setting lines and he`ll decide, as you say, where those lines are probably at some future date. And it`s a warning. It`s a warning to the special counsel that he sees -- the president, that is, sees limits on his authority and his ability to conduct this investigation.

You mentioned that he talked about conflicts of interest. Why does he use that phrase? Well, the president has the authority to direct the Justice Department to fire a special counsel if there are determined to be conflicts of interest. So he`s -- he`s sort of laying the groundwork here to say, There`s not an unending, unlimited investigation here. I have lines beyond which I will not allow this to go.

MATTHEWS: Dan Rather, this is redolent, in fact, it echoes President Nixon and his refusal to release tapes at the order of Archibald Cox, then the special prosecutor. It`s as if Trump doesn`t know history or is determined to repeat it. Here he goes again, saying what he will not deliver to the counsel who is investigating him.

DAN RATHER, AXS TV: Chris, this very much seems to me a case -- you know, President Eisenhower once said, Never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut. And President Trump, of course, hasn`t followed that nearly (ph). My experience over a lifetime of covering prosecutors and the criminal justice system is it`s never a good idea to threaten a prosecutor, never mind a special prosecutor.

But you know, who can say where this goes? Every day that we have something like this happen, like "The Times" interview with all the rich material in it, it increases the possibility, if not the probability, that down the road somewhere, there`s going to be a constitutional crisis, certainly would be if the president decided to fire the special prosecutor, which you can`t read the interview and think that he didn`t intend that to be a threat -- a threat to the attorney general, to the deputy attorney general, to the special prosecutor.

This is unprecedented. And the closest we have is the Nixon period of Watergate, and -- well, that didn`t turn out too well.

MATTHEWS: No. Hallie, I want to ask you about the president. You know him very well, I guess, as any journalist does, and -- does he know that even if he fires Mueller, he will get another special counsel probably, he`ll get another attorney general if he fires this one. He may get a civil servant.

How -- does he -- do you really think he has the gall to keep firing people indefinitely and keep in control of this ball that way, even if it`s the crassest possible way to protect himself?

HALLIE JACKSON, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Let me back up a couple of gears (ph) there, Chris, because I do want to emphasize what was said here in the White House briefing room earlier on today, and that is from Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the deputy press secretary, saying the president has no intention of firing Bob Mueller right now. This was a question that she got a couple of lines. It is a line that we have heard from this White House before.

That`s not to say that may not change. Sanders certainly left the door open for that to change in the future. But at least at this point, it`s not as though the president has his pen poised, at least not that his staff is aware of and publicly sharing to be able to do so.

I will say that the White House is claiming that this line that the president delivered in Peter`s interview, along with his colleagues there, on Bob Mueller was not a threat. But it is difficult to read it as anything but a warning shot to Mueller to stay away from that particular area.

The other part of it, though, is that Mueller does not care, right? One thing we know about Bob Mueller, he`s going to continue to investigate regardless of any kind of outside influence or outside interference that might be put on him, and of that kind of pressure there, Chris.

So to your question, you know, will the president continue to fire people? He`s fired somebody so far, pretty high-profile person. But what we can say right now based on our reporting is that there is not actively plans in the works that we`re aware professor for him to fire Mueller yet.

MATTHEWS: Well, he`s got notches in his belt from Sally Yates and he`s got them from Comey, of course. Let`s...


MATTHEWS: Let me go back to Peter about this -- the president and where he stands on this. Do you get a sense that he knows that he put Mueller in a corner here? Because he said to Mueller, Don`t do this or you`re going to be fired, in an implicit threat. It makes Mueller almost have to do it, go after his tax returns even, to prove that he`s not on the leash of this president.

BAKER: Well, that`s an interesting point, right, is how much do you want to poke and prod a prosecutor? It`s like Dan Rather said. You know, that`s generally, you know, you get your defense attorneys tell you not to do that kind of thing. And President Trump`s attorneys have told him, Look, you know, Robert Mueller is good for you. He is a person of probity. If you have done nothing wrong and he finds that, then that will be accepted by the broader politic in Washington. But if you continue to goad him, if you continue to provoke him, that could be counterproductive.

He doesn`t see it that way. I don`t think he does intend to fire Bob Mueller, at least at this point, but I do think he wants to sort of, you know, implicitly, through this kind of conversation, you know, influence the course of the investigation and see what he can do to limit its effects.

MATTHEWS: Listen to this. President Trump also attacked the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who he said was somebody he hardly knew. But then he told "The New York Times" Rod Rosenstein is from Baltimore and there are very few Republicans in Baltimore, if any. I don`t know why he added that. I think I do.

Well, today, Rosenstein was asked about that comment by the president. Let`s listen.


QUESTION: Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, the president told "The New York Times" yesterday that the fact that you`re from Baltimore concerns him since there aren`t many Republicans in that city. Is that something that`s a valid concern in your view? What do you make of that (INAUDIBLE)

ROD ROSENSTEIN, DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: As the attorney general said, we are working here every day to advance the priorities of the Department of Justice and the administration. I was proud to be here yesterday, I`m proud to be here today, I`ll be proud to work here tomorrow, and we are spending every minute working to advance the interests of the department.


MATTHEWS: Dan Rather, it seems to me that this president sets up all possible opponents and obstacles as bad people. He went after that Mexican-American judge, questioning, given his heritage, how he could give a fair judgment. He went after Comey and he went after Rosenstein saying he`s got to be a bad Democrat saying he`s from Baltimore. He`s gone after now Bob Mueller, saying he`s got conflicts of interest already in his sort of infancy as a special counsel.

What is this MO of Trump in accusing everyone of being tainted who might cause him trouble?

RATHER: Well, I think what you have here is the president is afraid. Exactly what he`s afraid of is unclear to me, but it`s increasingly clear that he`s speaking out of fear. He knows that there`s something in his financial background, in his tax returns, in the meetings that he or the members of his staff had with the Russians, whatever.

What you`ve got here, clear case, he`s afraid. And what he`s trying to -- he`s speaking out of fear and he`s trying to intimidate. He`s trying to contract where the investigation will go. In effect, he is saying to Mueller and the others, Don`t follow the money. Anybody in journalism or a criminal investigation knows that following the money is the best way to find out if any criminal act has happened.

You know, we always get back to this question, Chris, what is he hiding? He has to be hiding something. Otherwise, he would just come and say, Listen, this is what I know. I`ll cooperate with the investigation. I`ll testify in public, what have you.

So you`ve got a fear factor operating with him here. And he has something to hide. It may or may not be something criminal. But there`s something that he is very afraid is going to get out. And you know, it`s damaging, really freezing his presidency, but more important, it`s and hurting the country. This is not only just a troubling time, it`s a dangerous time when we even have to talk on television about a constitutional crisis when we`ve only just now passed the six-month point for this new presidency.

MATTHEWS: Wow. That`s something. Anyway, Politico reports the interview left his most senior aides at the White House startled and scrambling to respond. According to Politico, quote, "Trump did not consult before the interview with his lawyers who weren`t aware that he was going to be talking about the investigation extensively, according to a person close to the legal team. He didn`t prepare answers with his top aides, some of whom were unaware that he`d been in such a lengthy interview with `The New York Times.`"

Let me go to Hallie. You`re an expert on this, as many things you are. What happens when they find out -- apparently, the White House press people had to get a transcript from "The New York Times" to find out what their guy, the president, had said.

JACKSON: So let me put out a couple of things here. I have had it pointed out to me today privately that only one person from the communications shop was in the room at the time of that interview, and that was Hope Hicks, with some folks close to the administration kind of pointing to that and saying -- that`s raising some eyebrows, if you will, regarding what the rest of the staff had known about what was going down during that conversation.

I will say that when I`ve had conversations today, the -- the -- I don`t want to call it spin, but the angle that you hear from people who are loyal to the president, is that, Hey, sure. But he`s being candid, is kind of the bottom line. You heard that a little bit from Sarah Huckabee Sanders today at the podium, as well, that the president is speaking his mind. He`s being honest. He`s talking about his disappointment in Jeff Sessions and how he feels with Bob Mueller. But they say these aren`t threats and they shouldn`t be read into as a sign that the president is, in fact, trying to imply he is going to be firing Mueller soon.

Remember, when you look at the president`s framing for this, Chris, the White House has made the argument, both publicly and I will say privately, that the president is coming from a place of frustration here. He sees these constant stories that are in the media for various reasons because they`re stories. And he feels like he is constantly being attacked by what he obviously and often calls a witch hunt. And so part of that conversation, they say, is centered on that, the president`s deep frustration that this is simply not going away and that he cannot talk about his agenda.

I would just point out to that a lot of this is self-inflicted. It`s the president himself bringing up these topics and not, for example, pivoting, as you saw Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein do today to the agenda topic at hand. So yesterday, that would have been health care, for example. Today, that would have been made in America.

MATTHEWS: I think it`s more of a warlock hunt. Anyway, thank you, Peter Baker, with the big interview of "The New York Times" -- with "The New York Times" of Donald Trump. It`s news-making. Thank you, Hallie Jackson, as always, and Dan Rather.

Coming up, Trump`s national security team is increasingly concerned, as we said, about the president`s bromance with Vladimir Putin. What else you going to call it? This president`s constant embrace of Russia has put him at odds with his foreign policy advisers themselves, who are urging a much more cautious approach to Moscow.

Plus, John McCain says he`ll be back to the United States Senate after getting some troubling medical news. I believe Americans are rooting for that guy.

And six months into the Trump presidency, as Dan Rather said, why does he what he does? And why is he threatening his attorney general and his special counsel in that interview with "The Times"? And what do we make of some of the more bizarre parts of the interview, like when he said the new president of France likes to hold his hand or his odd reference to Napoleon Bonaparte`s romantic life? Very bizarre.

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

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.


MATTHEWS: We have a late piece of breaking news tonight courtesy of "The Wall Street Journal." It reports that, quote, "Special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating possible money laundering by Paul Manafort, Donald Trump`s former campaign chairman, as part of his criminal investigation into what U.S. intelligence agencies say was a Kremlin-backed campaign to meddle in our 2016 election, according to a person familiar with the matter."

Well, NBC News has not yet confirmed the reporting. A spokesman for Mr. Manafort declined to comment on "The Wall Street Journal" report.

We`ll be right back.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. In his interview with "The New York Times," President Trump talked about that G-20 dinner in Germany where he had that undisclosed second meeting with Vladimir Putin, a meeting that "The Washington Post" says lasted up to an hour. Well, in his account of what happened, President Trump said that he and Putin also spoke about adoptions, the very same subject that his son, Donald Trump, Jr., says he discussed with Russians at that June 9th meeting last year.

Let`s listen.


TRUMP: I went down just to say hello to Melania, and while I was there, I said hello to Putin, really pleasantries more than anything else. It was not a long conversation, but it was -- you know, could be 15 minutes, just talked about things. Actually, it was very interesting. We talked about adoption.


TRUMP: Russian adoption. Yes. I always found that interesting because, you know, he ended that years ago. And I actually talked about Russian adoption with him, which is interesting because that was a part of the conversation that Don had with his meeting.


MATTHEWS: Well, the news of Trump`s meeting with Putin has now deepened divisions between the president and his national security team.

As one official told the Associated Press -- quote -- "Diplomats and intelligence officials were dumbfounded by the president`s approach toward Russia."

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster had warned that Putin is not to be trusted and advised the president against holding an official bilateral meeting with Putin.

Well, joining me right now is Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, who sits on the Judiciary and the Foreign Relations Committees, and Howard Fineman, of course, is global editorial director of The Huffington Post and an MSNBC political analyst.

Senator, what do you make of this strange behavior by the president, going over there and spending an hour, according "The Washington Post," chatting away and apparently talking about sanctions? Because I don`t know how you talk about the adoption issue without talking about the sanctions which led to the Russians cutting off adoptions to this country.

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Well, Chris, this is just another example of President Trump being an unconventional in ways that I think deeply concern his national security team and concern our allies.

And at times, it is even reckless. He is confronting someone in Vladimir Putin who is a sharp, capable former KGB agent with all the skills and tools that that implies.

Donald Trump is the fourth U.S. President that Vladimir Putin has sized up and dealt with. And Donald Trump, frankly, as our president, is, in some ways, learning on the job.

I think the fact that he went over and had a conversation of up to an hour`s length, and reportedly didn`t bring his own translator, but relied on the Russian translator, is the sort of rookie mistake that would make his national security adviser, his defense secretary and others quite concerned, that he is trusting Vladimir Putin.

MATTHEWS: Let`s talk about Russian tradecraft and KGB and latter-day Russian espionage.

It seems to me that they began this effort back in June of last year, at least by then, when they dangled dirt on Hillary Clinton to the president`s son, who then brought in all to the campaign manager, I mean, the campaign chairman, the son-in-law, the whole shebang to get all the dirt they could on Hillary.

But the Russians were signaling then in their e-mail that they were in this thing to help Trump beat Hillary Clinton. Is that -- was that the beginning of a control situation by the former KGB boss? What is this about?

COONS: Well, Chris, one of the things that was most surprising, most striking to me about the e-mail that Donald Trump Jr. released was that, in the e-mail transcript, when he was sent an e-mail saying, this offer of compromising information on Hillary Clinton is a part of Russia`s effort to help your father win the presidency, his response wasn`t, what or what are you talking about, or I will give this to the FBI, or that`s unacceptable, or we`re not interested.

His response was, let`s have a meeting.

I think that was the opening door of an attempt by the Russians to build a relationship at the senior levels of the Trump campaign team. But that is just conjecture on my part. This is why next Wednesday we are going to have Paul Manafort and Donald Trump Jr. appear in front of the Judiciary Committee.

It is why the Intelligence Committee continues to get both documents and witnesses in front of their ongoing investigation. We don`t know for sure what transpired in that meeting. But we know that, when it was first described and discussed, there was misrepresentations made. And it is only after several days of public disclosures that we ultimately learned how many people were at that meeting, who was at that meeting.

And we don`t yet really know the topic of the meeting.

MATTHEWS: Well, after defending his conversation with Putin by saying it was about adoptions, Trump moved on to defend his son`s involvement in that June 9 meeting last year.

He said that any politician would have agreed to meet with Russians to get dirt on the opponent and that some Republicans actually agree with him on that. Let`s watch.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know, when they call up and they say, by the way, we have information on your opponent, I think most politicians -- I was just with a lot of people.

They said, who wouldn`t have taken a meeting like that? They just said -- a lot of them. They said, who wouldn`t have taken a meeting like that?


TRUMP: No, a couple of them.

That was before Russia was hot, don`t forget. Russia wasn`t hot then. That was a year -- or almost a year-and-a-half ago. So, Russia wasn`t like it is. Like, it wasn`t radioactive. Russia was Russia.


MATTHEWS: Howard, what did you make of that, him trying to bring in the gang? Everybody does it. It sounds like something you said when you were 12 years old when you did something you shouldn`t have. Oh, everybody does it.

In fact, I just met with some Republican senators, unnamed. Talk about unsourced information. Here he is citing Republicans. He won`t even give their names, because the guys will hate him if he does. They say it is all right to meet with foreign Russian operatives to discuss dirt on the opponent. They think it is fine to meet with people all associated with Moscow, to get them involved in our politics.

Are you kidding? What are your thoughts about that politics?


Well, my first thought is that the three "New York Times" reporters in there didn`t take it serious enough -- seriously enough on demand to know who the senators were who told him that, because I doubt that there were any.

I think that what`s going on here is that Donald Trump is flailing. That whole interview to me was a man flailing. As you said, he is looking for ways to set up enemies to attack. He is looking for ways to discredit others. He is looking also to say, hey, it`s just business as usual.

The thing you have to understand about Donald Trump is, he always makes as many arguments as he can to as many discrete constituencies as he can. Whether they contradict each other, those arguments and defenses, doesn`t matter to him, whether they`re -- none -- he doesn`t think of any of them as inoperative.

They all to go a certain constituency. And when he says this is business as usual, he is speaking to the cynicism of his core voters, who hate and distrust politicians and government. And Trump is going to play to that with that type of answer.

MATTHEWS: It sounds right to me.

Anyway, while discussing special counsel Mueller, his investigation, President Trump conceded that he might have sold real estate, some real estate, to the Russians, but maintained he doesn`t make money from Russia. Here he goes.


TRUMP: It`s possible there`s a condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units. Somebody from Russia buys a condo. Who knows? I don`t make money from Russia.

They said I own buildings in Russia. I don`t. They said I made money from Russia. It`s not my thing. I don`t -- I don`t do that. Over the years, I have looked at maybe doing a deal in Russia, but I never did one.


MATTHEWS: Senator Coons, what do you make of Trump out there, who is being investigated, telling the investigator what he is allowed to investigate?

It is as simple and stupid as that. He`s saying, don`t go after my family finances, even though here he is right saying that he was investing in Russia, selling buildings with condominiums in it, whatever. He is admitting he`s had financial relations in Russia. And now he`s saying, but the special prosecutor can`t follow money.

COONS: Chris, this is just another example of outrageous actions by the president.

Threatening Bob Mueller and suggesting that there`s a boundary beyond which he is not supposed to go suggests that the president either doesn`t know or doesn`t care what the limits are here in his actions and how he should be respecting the rule of law.

Special counsel Mueller has been given a charge and the independence and the resources to pursue an investigation wherever it leads. And I think it is appropriate that Bob Mueller continue to do so.

I also, frankly, given who Bob Mueller is and his career, don`t expect him to be intimidated by anything the president says.


MATTHEWS: I agree with you. I don`t think he has the cut of that jib.


MATTHEWS: Anyway, thank you, Chris Coons.

And thank you, Howard Fineman.

COONS: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: Up next: Senator John McCain promises his sparring partners that he will be back following some difficult health news.

Straight ahead, we are going to talk to Kelly Ayotte, one of McCain`s close former colleagues in the Senate.

And this is HARDBALL, where the action is.


MILISSA REHBERGER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Milissa Rehberger. Here`s what`s happening.

O.J. Simpson was granted parole after serving nearly nine years in a Nevada prison for a robbery conviction. Simpson told the parole commission that he was sorry for his role in the 2007 robbery, saying he was just trying to retrieve personal belongings and didn`t mean to hurt anyone. Simpson could be freed as early as October 1.

The Treasury Department fined ExxonMobil $2 million for violating U.S. sanctions on Russia back in 2014. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was the oil giant`s CEO at the time of that violation -- back to HARDBALL.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: How many times, my friends, have the pundits written off the McCain campaign?


MCCAIN: We`re going to fool them again. We`re going to fool them one more time.



MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was Senator McCain during his 2008 presidential campaign. The six- term Arizona Republican senator is now facing a new fight after being diagnosed with brain cancer.

There`s already been a flood of support from across the political spectrum and the country. And, today, Senator McCain made a simple message -- he had one to his well-wishers and colleagues.

He wrote; "I greatly appreciate the outpouring of support. Unfortunately, for my sparring partners in Congress, I will be back soon, so stand by."

Well, Senator McCain has long been known for his independent streak, his straight talk, and his willingness to reach across the aisle. A few weeks before the election if 2008, Senator McCain famously defended his opponent, Democrat Barack Obama, against false allegations about the senator`s ethnicity.

Let`s listen to this great moment.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have got to ask you a question. I do not believe in -- I can`t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he`s not -- he is not -- he is a -- he`s an Arab. He is not...



MCCAIN: No, ma`am. No, ma`am. No, ma`am.

He`s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that`s what this campaign is all about. He`s not. Thank you. Thank you.



MATTHEWS: Well, that was an American moment.

And, yesterday, former President Obama tweeted -- quote -- "John McCain is an American hero and one of the bravest fighters I have ever known. Cancer doesn`t know what it`s up against. Well, give it hell, John."

I interviewed McCain in South Carolina`s great Clemson University back in February 2000, when he was running for president the first time. And it was just days after his big upset victory over George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary.


MATTHEWS: I will spend the next hour with the challenger, Senator John McCain.


MATTHEWS: Have you noticed the heat level rising?

MCCAIN: Oh, yes, sure. I feel -- I`ll tell you who I feel like.

MATTHEWS: Do you feel like you`re in a nose cone?


MATTHEWS: Because I have noticed down here the radio ads are about 4-1 against you. I`m sure the TV ads are just as bad.

I`m getting calls and -- I tried to get a nap this afternoon. It doesn`t stop.

MCCAIN: Ask him. Ask him.

MATTHEWS: They want to get me to nail you on these questions they have, which I will do, by the way.

MCCAIN: Absolutely.

MATTHEWS: But what do you -- what`s it feel like?

MCCAIN: And McCain is the enemy. He has always been an enemy of the...


MCCAIN: Look, it is intense. It`s tough. I feel like Luke Skywalker trying to get out of the Death Star.

I`ll tell you, they`re all -- from all sides. But I`m going to make it, just like he did.


MCCAIN: And the fact is...



MATTHEWS: Those were great days.

Anyway, I`m joined right now on the phone by one of Senator McCain`s close colleagues during their time together in the Senate, former New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte.

Senator, you`re one of the three amigos, as I remember. And you traveled a lot with Senator -- tell us about him. You got two or three minutes here. Give us a sense of the person.

KELLY AYOTTE (R), FORMER U.S. SENATOR: Chris, so, John McCain, you know, first of all, John has a great sense of humor.

He is a man of great integrity and courage. We know that, both politically and what he`s done in terms of his heroic service to our country.

But I just love the jokes that John McCain will tell. He is so quick, witty, smart. And, you know, just traveling with him was an incredible experience. And I know that he is going to battle this cancer like he has battled everything in his life, with all he`s got.

And he will continue to give his all to the people of Arizona and the people of this country. He`s a great patriot.

MATTHEWS: You know, I think the knock on most politicians -- and I don`t think you`re included at all -- is that they go along. They get up, they go along to get along.

And they try to troop along in the pack. And they`re like every other senator on their side of the aisle or the House. McCain looks like his whole purpose in life was to do the distinguishing thing, the action that would be important because wasn`t going along with the crowd.

AYOTTE: Yes, yes.

And John McCain is a maverick, you know, because he does what he thinks is right. And he will hold either party accountable, if he thinks they`re heading in the wrong direction, and I think he says a lot of times what people are thinking, but many politicians are afraid to say.

MATTHEWS: What do you think was the influence on his life of seven years, I believe it was all together, as a prisoner of war after being -- his plane was shot down over Hanoi?

How did that -- you never sensed that that resonated in his -- the way he looked about his public service, looked about his public service?

AYOTTE: I think it resonated with him because service is so deep, not only for him, but within his entire family, and, you know, the fact that he sacrificed so much for our country in that prison camp, but the fact that he wouldn`t go home when he could have gone home, because honor is very important to him.

And the other thing that I have heard John talk lot about, the fellow prisoners of war, that he thinks -- that he talked about how they saved his life and the camaraderie and the feeling that he had for the people he served with, their courage.

And I think that has shaped, obviously, his service, his character, his integrity, and why he is courageous and willing to call things as they are, and to speak truth to power, and really be sometimes that voice that needs to be heard, I think, in Washington.

MATTHEWS: You`re the best.

Thanks so much, Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

She served for many years.

I wish you would come back and be a senator again.

Up next: more from President Trump`s nearly hour-long interview with "The New York Times." Where is this -- where is this headed? By the way, I think he`s going after -- he`s going after Mueller. We`re going to have a constitutional crisis. He`s not giving up his tax returns. That`s not going to happen.

Plus, another strange moment from that interview. Here it is. Trump offers his view on Napoleon Bonaparte and his sex life. This is bizarre stuff.

You`re watching HARDBALL.



Well, today marks six months since President Trump actually took the oath of presidential office. His interview with "The New York Times" offers a glimpse into where the president`s head is at now, you might say, at this point in the presidency. Well, beyond the Russian investigation, Trump spoke beyond his recent visit to Paris, health care and his legislative accomplishments or lack thereof.

In one exchange, a reporter asked President Trump about his recent visit to France with President Macron. He tells "The New York Times", quote, I have a great relationship with him. He`s a great guy. A great guy. Smart. Strong. Loves holding my hand. People don`t realize he loves holding my hand and that`s good as far as that goes. Whatever that meant.

Trump added that upon leaving the Eiffel Tower after having dinner with the French president, quote: It looked like they could have never had a bigger celebration ever in the history of the Eiffel Tower. There were thousands and thousands of people because they heard we were having dinner.

Well, this morning, a French newspaper pointed out that the president seemed to be confusing regular Eiffel Tower tourism with interest in his visit. Well, that`s a smack.

For more, I`m joined by our roundtable. Michael Schmidt is one of "The New York Times" reporters who interviewed President Trump. He is also an MSNBC national security contributor. Yamiche Alcindor, also a reporter with "The New York Times". And Clarence Page, columnist with "The Chicago Tribune."

Well, let`s take a look at this interesting part of the interview. I thought it was interesting, when the president references French emperor from the 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte`s invasion of Russia back at 1812.

Trump told "The Times", quote, he did so many things even beyond. And his one problem is he didn`t go to Russia that night because he had extracurricular activities and they froze to death. How many times has Russia been saved by the weather?

Michael, explain. What would he mean by extracurricular activities? What -- is it, Napoleon had a jet start that was taking him to Moscow for the heat of the fighting. I don`t know what he was talking about. You don`t bop over to Moscow from Paris in 1805, or 1812, casually, and you don`t -- not do it because you`ve got a date that night. What is he talking about?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT, REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: This was the first time I`d ever interviewed President Trump and what I learned during it is that he goes in many different detours, and they move very, very quickly. Right after he talked about that, he moved right into the economy and we were off on something else. And oftentimes, you don`t have a chance to come back and ask him exactly what he`s talking about.

I have no better idea than you do about what he said, but there were certainly other aspects in the conversation. We were pressing him on the e-mail on Don Jr. that we never got an answer on. But he moves -- he speaks so quickly and so fast that it`s really hard to actually sort of pin him down on certain things.

MATTHEWS: Well, I`m going to Yamiche on this, one of your colleagues.

Yamiche, what do -- first of all, the obsession with Napoleon`s love life or sex life, whatever, he was clearly making a little reference there about what he thought was the reason why Napoleon lost the battle of Moscow, which obviously have to deal with -- I don`t want to get into it.

Anyway, it was a totally different situation. They burned the city. They killed the food. So, when the French army arrived, there`d be nothing to eat. It was called scorched-earth. It had nothing to do with Napoleon not being able to catch the night flight over there from Paris. Anyway, crazy talk.

What do you make about the -- we`re back in the small hands category here. What is it with three references to the fact that Macron, the very popular new president of France, liking, according to Trump, to shake hands.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR, REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, what I think President Trump is trying to do is make himself seem loved. There`s this idea that he`s not really seen as the world leader on the world stage as much as Macron and the leader of the Germany, and I think that what he is feeling is really backed into a corner, and he wants people to feel like, no, actually, the world does love me. They are very supportive me.

And, of course, as Trump has changed U.S. policy as it relates to climate change and trade, he is being seen as someone not as much as an ally to people -- to countries, I should say, that have been historically close to the United States. So, I think what we`re seeing there, what is going on, is that he`s really just trying to say, look, this guy likes the hold my hand. Even if the cameras and the media tell you they don`t like me, I`m trying to tell you that Europe really loves me.

MATTHEWS: OK. You`re last on this, Clarence, my friend. I don`t know what to say, but I`m not going to let this go. Michael said you have to follow the train of thought of Trump. I`m going to follow his train of thought. I`m going to catch him at each pass.

What do you make of the hands? It goes back to the -- is it the European culture where they do shake hands a lot more than we do? They shake hands when you meet a friend somewhere. We do it greeting somebody for the first time, perhaps, but then you stop doing it so often. Is it just that cultural difference he`s jumping on here?

CLARENCE PAGE, COLUMNIST, CHICAGO TRIBUNE: Chris, I learned during campaign, that with Donald Trump, it is wise not to try to read too much into what he is saying. It may seem like it was some kind of a code on operation here, but he`s just trying to be friendly. He`s just being Don.

He is always talking to his base. That`s where his audience really is. In the room, it kind of reminds me of Rocky`s manager in that movie, you know, who --

MATTHEWS: Mickey, Mickey.

PAGE: Yes, yes, that`s him. Thank you. Who was always chattering, but -- with no boundary between small talk and big talk. That`s why Donald Trump can go from Napoleon to economic policy to --

MATTHEWS: He doesn`t know anything about Napoleon.

PAGE: Yes, exactly.

MATTHEWS: He doesn`t know anything, Clarence. He doesn`t know anything.

You can tell, this thing about darting over the Moscow from Paris with the night flight. This thing about his love life, having a girlfriend or something that night, and that`s why they lost the battle of Moscow, it`s crazy talk.

Anyway --

PAGE: What goes into his head goes out of his mouth. That`s what happens.

ALCINDOR: I mean, he also said that Napoleon ended a little badly. And really, in reality, he ended at exile, he basically died of stomach cancer from most people think. So, the idea that he had all these failed military interventions. So, that`s not just ending a little badly, that`s kind of public failure and that -- so I think that even when you think about how he was characterizing Napoleon, he was kind of redrawing history there.

MATTHEWS: Yes. And even today, St. Helena doesn`t have an airport.

Anyway, in an interview, he talked about how successful Trump`s trim to Poland was. And he told "The Times", I`ve had the best reviews on foreign land. So I go to Poland and make a speech. Enemies of mine in the media, enemies of mine are saying, it was the greatest speech ever made on foreign soil by a president. I`m saying, man, you saw the reviews, I got on that speech.

Michael, I think the Sorbonne speech by Teddy Roosevelt gets a little credit here in this competition. What do we make of this?

SCHMIDT: Well, he seems to derive a lot of strength from these trips abroad. The trip to Saudi Arabia where they sort of treated him like king, and they really played to the things that he likes. He really likes the pomp. He likes the military aspects of these things. He loved the parade.

MATTHEWS: He loves the parade.

SCHMIDT: He loved the parent, he wants to do it here.

MATTHEWS: He wants a Bastille type parade in D.C., I guess on Pennsylvania Avenue. This is his dream. He is like an 8-year-old. What do you make of it?

SCHMIDT: Correct.

MATTHEWS: I want big parade, you know? This is really like --

ALCINDOR: All these rallies, right? That`s why he feeds off this idea that people want to love him. He feeds off this idea that I`ve got this really big thing and that the media told me and all these people told me I wasn`t going to be able to get here. Now, I`m here, I want everyone to praise.

And that`s somewhat why you have him talking about Jeff Sessions in that way. He`s saying Jeff Sessions should have known he was my guy. And that I`m rewarding his loyalty with this big job. So, how do you recuse yourself from this investigation?

MATTHEWS: Yes, I know.

ALCINDOR: That could possibly take me down? So, I think that`s -- all of this is connected. And when you think about the way he`s speaking and the way that he`s thinking.

MATTHEWS: Look out, Idi Amin.

Anyway, the roundtable is sticking with us. And up next, these three will tell me something I don`t know.


MATTHEWS: We have some new polling out on the 2018 midterm elections. A "Washington Post"/ABC News poll shows that a slight majority of voters, 52 percent, want Democrats to control the next Congress. That`s compared to 38 percent who want it controlled by Republicans. Those numbers can be deceiving because a huge number of Democratic voters nationally are squeezed into a few dozen districts.

And we`ll be right back.


MATTHEWS: We`re back with the HARDBALL round table.

Michael Schmidt, tell me something I don`t know.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: The Senate Judiciary Committee is not only serious about looking at obstruction that may have occurred on behalf of Donald Trump, looking at whether there was interference with James Comey. But they`re also very serious on a bipartisan level of looking at the issues of the relationship between Comey and Loretta Lynch.

The Democrats have signed onto this and are willing to go along with the Republicans at looking how Lynch and Comey interacted on the FBI investigation, whether Lynch, you know, tried to tell Comey not to call in an investigation, and whether there was anything untoward that, you know, this is part of the reasoning why Comey said that he held the press conference.

MATTHEWS: Yamiche?

ALCINDOR: So, the military office that supports the White House is leasing space in Trump Tower and it costs them about $130,000 a month to lease that space. So, when we`re talking about conflicts of interest, essentially, the federal government is spending something like $130,000 a month on a property owned by Donald Trump. So, that`s really something that people are worried about.

MATTHEWS: That`s a couple of million of a year.


PAGE: Yes. Chris, a Pew poll shows women in particular having a much greater interest in politics now since the election. Both -- there`s an increase among men and women, but especially among women, and particularly the demographic that tends to vote Democratic. So needless to say Democrats, liberals, progressives are very excited about this.

MATTHEWS: Well, I think we`re seeing that here on MSNBC, by the way. The interest in this country on this, what`s going on is very strong. I can tell.

PAGE: Right.

MATTHEWS: Anyway, Michael Schmidt, thank you, Yamiche Alcindor and Clarence Page, my friend.

Up -- when we return, let me finish with Trump Watch, again, not going to make him happy. You`re watching HARDBALL.


MATTHEWS: Trump Watch, Thursday, June 20th, 2017.

Donald Trump sent a message last night. It was addressed to Bob Mueller personally. He said Mueller better wise up and realize that he, Donald Trump, is in charge and Mueller better do what he tells them to do. Well, the central point Trump wants to make crystal clear is that he`s not to do -- Trump`s not to do too thorough a job investigating the Trump/Russia connection. He`s not to go poking around with Trump`s financial dealings with Moscow, he`s not to demand -- ready for the drum roll -- Trump`s closeted tax returns.

As Trump sees things, people working in the federal government work for Donald Trump. That includes U.S. senators from Nevada, who don`t share the same political assessment on health care, to attorneys general who wants to serve as his personal Johnny Cochrans, and special counsels named specifically to investigate him, Donald Trump. Well, Donald Trump, we all need to know is now seeing himself as above investigating.

But knowing this isn`t true would require a few courses in history. The kind of courses Mr. Trump skipped on his way to billionairehood. He spoke of Napoleon Bonaparte with "The New York Times" in regard to some untimely assignation he had during the French defeat of 1812 over in Moscow. Well, the true message of that defeat repeated again in the 20th century was Hubris, an emperor that thought he could dominate anyone, ended up, well, after a few more mistakes, on an island way down in the South Atlantic, an island even today without an airport. We must wonder whether Donald Trump thinks he can avoid that fate and do no worse than end up at Mar-a-Lago, because it`s what he`s tempted to do with this threat to the special prosecutor.

And that`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us.

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.