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Hardball with Chris Matthews, Transcript 9/4/17 Trump Senior staff dropping like flies

Guests: Eli Stokols, Jason Johnson

Show: HARDBALL Date: September 4, 2017

Guest: Eli Stokols, Jason Johnson

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: "Lord of the Flies."

Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.

Yes, they`re dropping like flies. In only his first seven months in office, Donald Trump has shed almost all of his senior staff. The result, one of the most chaotic, unstable West Wings in recent history.

Take a look at this incredible photo. It`s of the men pictured in late January. The only ones that remain in that picture are President Trump and Vice President Pence, constitutional officers.

Then there was the firing of James Comey in May. The president himself said that the "Russian thing" was on his mind. And of course, there was the spectacular implosion of "The Mooch," Anthony Scaramucci. His tenure was brief, of course. His downfall was unforgettable.

What does it all mean for the Trump White House, the JR, if you will? Chaos paralleled, perhaps, the governing chaos we`ve seen. We`ve got an all-star panel to talk about that tonight. "The Wall Street Journal`s" Eli Stokols, "USA Today`s" Heidi Przybyla, and The Root`s Jason Johnson.

We begin with Donald Trump`s first national security adviser, remember him? General Michael Flynn was a bombastic attack dog during the campaign. Let`s watch and listen.


GEN. MICHAEL FLYNN, U.S. ARMY (RET.): We do not need a reckless president who believes she is above the law! Lock her up! That`s right! Yes, that`s right! Lock her up! I`m going to tell you what. If I -- a guy who knows this business, if I did a tenth, a tenth of what she did, I would be in jail today!


MATTHEWS: Well, the irony must have been lost on him. Anyway, hours after Flynn was canned on February 13th, "The Washington Post" reported the acting attorney general informed the Trump White House late last month that she believed Michael Flynn had misled senior administration officials about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States and warned that the national security adviser was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

Remarkably, President Trump defended the man he fired a few days later, spinning his firing as though Flynn had been the victim of the media.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Michael Flynn, General Flynn, is a wonderful man. I think he`s been treated very, very unfairly by the media -- as I call it, the fake media, in many cases. And I think it`s really a sad thing that he was treated so badly.


MATTHEWS: Well, President Trump also said Flynn didn`t do anything wrong by reaching out to the Russians, prior to the inauguration. Let`s watch.


QUESTION: I just want to clarify...

TRUMP: Yes? Yes?

QUESTION: ... an important point, I think.

TRUMP: Sure.

QUESTION: Did you direct Mike Flynn to discuss sanctions with the Russian ambassador...

TRUMP: No, I didn`t.

QUESTION: ... prior to your...

TRUMP: No, I didn`t.

QUESTION: ... inauguration?

TRUMP: No, I didn`t.

QUESTION: And would you have fired him...

TRUMP: Excuse me!

QUESTION: ... if the information hadn`t had leaked out?

TRUMP: No, I fired him because of what he said to Mike Pence, very simple. Mike was doing his job. He was calling countries and his counterparts. So it certainly would have been OK with me if he did it. I would have directed him to do it if I thought he wasn`t doing it. I didn`t direct him, but I would have directed him because that`s his job.


MATTHEWS: Why do you think Flynn left? He was fired.

ELI STOKOLS, "WALL STREET JOURNAL": He was fired. And there was a lot of discussion inside about, Do we have to fire him? Mike Pence sort of laid the gauntlet (sic) down and said, This guy lied to me, I want him out. And there were a lot of people inside the White House who wanted Flynn out anyway because he was one of the Bannon guys. He was too close -- you know, he`s running the NSC. I mean, there was just a lot of people in defense circles that were worried about Mike Flynn having that job in the first place.

And one common thread throughout all these firings is the fact that, you know, these are all born of a campaign that actually didn`t expect to win, didn`t expect to have to put a transition together. Then suddenly, they win, and there`s this very hastily thrown together transition.

So a lot of people weren`t fully vetted the way normal -- normal transitions and incoming administrations are going to vet people. And that`s why you`ve had so much turnover just in general in the first several months.

But the Flynn was an interesting case because, you know, it`s always a matter of, like, pressure on Trump or pressure on the person, whether it comes from the -- most of the time, it comes from the media reporting things...


STOKOLS: ... in this case, it all came out. Pence took a stand, and the president said, OK, I`ll do it. And you could hear, days later, he was sort of regretting that he felt backed into a corner and forced to do this.

MATTHEWS: What about the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, coming out and saying, Wait a minute, the guy is basically a hostage to the Russians because they know -- they had talks with him about sanctions, and he`s out there denying it?

HEIDI PRZYBYLA, "USA TODAY," MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: And that`s why all of this is so unbelievable, that the administration didn`t know these things. And this is why timing is so important.

When you ask why, Chris, let`s point out -- back up a little bit and point out that this came after bombshell reporting about those talks that Flynn was having and that they had to do with sanctions.

There is -- it is highly unlikely that the administration did not know these things, which were supposedly the premise for Flynn`s firing, prior to the publishing of that news reporting. It was the news reporting which put sunlight on this and forced the administration into taking those steps.

So you know, we still don`t know -- we saw the question to the president about whether he directed these talks. Fine. He says he didn`t direct them. Did he know about it? That is still something we`re going to find out, hopefully, as Bob Mueller`s investigation goes on.

MATTHEWS: Jason, I think -- we all have the same buzz world. We all live here in Washington. And maybe it`s a little dull right now, but for months now, everyone`s talked about this guy as a flipper.


MATTHEWS: Everybody (INAUDIBLE) thinks that the president keeps saying nice things about him because he`s hoping he can soften (INAUDIBLE) reporting in his own interest what went on between him and the Russians...


MATTHEWS: ... and what the president knew about what went on between him and the Russians.

JOHNSON: I think that`s highly likely, but I also think...

MATTHEWS: Likely that he`ll flip.

JOHNSON: Well, I think it`s likely that he`ll flip. I think that what happened with Paul Manafort was a warning to people like Michael Flynn -- like, We`ll do this to you. We will send FBI guys in the vinyl jackets to your house to make you look bad.

But I also think this. This was the beginning of what we`ve seen throughout this entire administration. Yes, there were problems with Flynn. Yes, there were warnings. But it was also a panic move. And even though Trump is regretting it now and even though, he`s, like, No, I think Michael Flynn`s a nice guy and I want him to be covered (ph), I think there were a lot of panic moves at the beginning because, as we`ve mentioned, I don`t think they expected to win.

I don`t think they thought this was going to be much of a problem. I don`t think they expected the press to investigate the way they have. And that`s why Michael Flynn is gone.

MATTHEWS: Well, why did he wait to hear the press announce the fact that there had been this problem with those conversations that he wasn`t up front with the vice president about? Why did he wait, even when he found out about that, until -- well, you take up -- why did he wait until the press reported it? Did he -- would he have kept Flynn otherwise?

STOKOLS: Probably, I mean, until something else came out. This is a guy who...

MATTHEWS: Because he has to protect himself! That`s why you can`t fire people. You throw them to the wolves, and they talk!


PRZYBYLA: What we now know is that Flynn wasn`t the only one. His son-in- law was also talking to the Russians about a back channel. So much more reporting has come out since the firing of Flynn that shows there were other people who did the same darn thing.

MATTHEWS: Well, Flynn...



STOKOLS: The son-in-law also forgot a hundred or so things on his FS-86. He still has a job. I mean, of all these people we, you know, talk about who have gotten fired, Jared Kushner is still there.

MATTHEWS: Well, you know why. He`s married to...

STOKOLS: Well, that`s what I`m saying.

MATTHEWS: ... his lovely daughter! Anyway, in May came -- go ahead, Jason.

JOHNSON: You know, look, you break up the marriage and then your wife or your husband can testify against you, right? I mean, he wanted to keep Flynn...

MATTHEWS: Well, Javanka`s not a bad term (INAUDIBLE) came up with because they are close. I mean, he obviously loves his son-in-law, too.


MATTHEWS: Look, I`ve always called them the Romanovs because they behave less like a political operation than a family because they are a family.

Anyway, in may came the shocking news that President Trump was firing his FBI director. The White House first said Trump went along with a recommendation by his then attorney general, his attorney general still, and deputy attorney general to fire him because of his handling of the Clinton e-mail investigation.

Then a few days later, the president said he would have fired him no matter what, and it was really all about the Russian thing. Those are the president`s terms, "the Russian thing."

Then President Trump proceeded to attack Comey.


TRUMP: He`s a showboat. He`s a grandstander. The FBI has been in turmoil. You know that. I know that. Everybody knows that.

Director Comey was very unpopular with most people. I actually thought when I made that decision -- and I also got a very, very strong recommendation, as you know, from the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. But when I made that decision, I actually thought that it would be a bipartisan decision.


MATTHEWS: You know, I love it the way Lester Holt gives you that poker face when he says, here`s a guy -- Donald Trump is saying that guy`s a showboat. Excuse me?


MATTHEWS: Anyway, what about this thing? This Comey thing seems to have really got bad legs for this president.

STOKOLS: This is by far the most consequential of all the firings. And the reason why is this is what triggered the appointment of Bob Mueller to lead -- you know, as a special counsel to lead...

MATTHEWS: Explain that triggering mechanism. Why did Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, the acting attorney general, in the case of anything to do with Russia because the other guy -- because Sessions has recused himself...

STOKOLS: Because the -- I mean, the...

MATTHEWS: Why did he have to -- what was the reason he gave then for, we need a special counsel?

STOKOLS: Just the sort of...

PRZYBYLA: Because of the memo. I mean, the Comey memo came out at that point, where we learned that the president had tried to, you know, one on one, pressure Comey to back off the investigation of Flynn. And so Rosenstein was put in an impossible situation. He had no choice but to appoint that special prosecutor, given that -- given this raised real questions about obstruction of justice.

MATTHEWS: Explain that a little further. Explicate the...


MATTHEWS: ... because -- because, well, the president wasn`t trustworthy in this regard. He was really going to be the target of this further investigation. But why didn`t they just name a new FBI director?

PRZYBYLA: This opened the president to new questions about obstruction of justice. Naming a new FBI director -- the FBI director would then be working for the president. This would take it outside that kind of chain of command that you needed to have a special counsel.

JOHNSON: There`s also sort of the political consideration. You had members of the Senate, you had members of the House, you had people concerned -- as long as -- as long as the Russian investigation was being handled by Comey, it was over there. It was handled by the FBI. If you have Comey not there and you have him being fired because the president says, I want him off the Russia thing, then it`s on the backs of the Senate.

Then the Senate has to investigate. Then the public expects them, then the press expects them to be the most aggressive investigators of the situation. So I think, in some respects, it was a way of keeping this over on the side. As long as Mueller is working in silence, not talking to the public on a regular basis, it`s then not on the pockets (ph) and not in the sort of pants of...

MATTHEWS: But it`s still not in the president`s interests that any of this go on.

Anyway, in June, the country watched Comey testify before the Senate and excoriate President Trump.


JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: I was honestly concerned that he might lie about the nature of our meeting. And so I thought it really important to document.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Quote, "I hope" -- this is the president speaking -- "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go."

COMEY: I took it as a direction. This is the president of the United States with me alone saying, I hope this. I took it as this is what he wants me to do. It`s my judgment that I was fired because of the Russia investigation. I was fired in some way to change or the endeavor was to change the way the Russia investigation was being conducted.

The administration then chose to defame me, and more importantly the FBI, by saying that the organization was in disarray. Those were lies, plain and simple.


MATTHEWS: You know, Heidi, every time I think about Mueller, I think about a guy -- maybe not a bloodhound, but a pro, a real winner of a guy -- look at his resume -- heading toward anything we see in the media, any news that develops as somewhat related to this Russia thing because of that Comey guy. I think it`s not just friendship. It`s professional respect. He knows he has to do a 100 percent job on this, Mueller.

PRZYBYLA: Yes, I mean, he is one of the longest-serving FBI directors. He was -- they -- Congress passed legislation to extend his term because he is considered such a pro. He has impeccable credentials and is trusted by people on both sides of the aisle. And that`s why you see so many members -- now we`re learning about Mitch McConnell, as well, having been pressured by the president, pushing back, and trying to link arms and introduce legislation, right before they left town, to make sure that the president...


PRZYBYLA: ... couldn`t do something while they were out of town to try and push Mueller out.

MATTHEWS: That is something (ph) -- and the president is still putting his fingers in, trying to mess with that, still complaining to Thom Tillis of North Carolina...

PRZYBYLA: It`s like he didn`t learn.

MATTHEWS: ... Why are you -- Why are you protecting Mueller? I may need to get rid of the guy, is implicitly what he`s saying.

Anyway, we`re (INAUDIBLE) a little lighter moment here. Sean Spicer was next to go. He resigned July 21st. Seems like a long time ago, the day it was announced Anthony Scaramucci was joining the White House as communications director.

For months, the Spicer show was must-see TV.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period! Both in person and around the globe.

You had a -- you know, someone as despicable as Hitler who didn`t even sink to the -- to the -- to using chemical weapons.

QUESTION: He says it`s a ban.

SPICER: He`s using the words that the media is using.

QUESTION: I understand your point, but...

SPICER: It is extreme vetting.

QUESTION: ... the president himself called it a ban.

SPICER: I understand.

QUESTION: Is he confused, or are you confused?

SPICER: No, I`m not confused. I think that the words that are being used to describe it are derived from what the media is calling this. He has been very clear that it is extreme vetting.

QUESTION: Does the president believe that millions voted illegally in this election?

SPICER: The president does believe that. He has stated that before. I think he`s stated his concerns, voter fraud and people voting illegally during the campaign. And he continues to maintain that belief based on studies and evidence that people have presented to him.


MATTHEWS: What do you think of this guy professionally? He went in there, and he obviously -- we can all imagine what goes on.


MATTHEWS: He`s in (INAUDIBLE) the president, You tell those people it was the biggest crowd in history!

JOHNSON: There are very few people in this administration I feel sorry for. Sean Spicer is one of them. I had worked with Sean Spicer before. He was a hard-working, legitimate, dedicated Republican. And for him to have to go in and lie on a regular basis -- you just got the feeling he came home and would just whip himself in the mirror every single day...


JOHNSON: ... saying, Why do I have to do this?


JOHNSON: Exactly! He just -- and you felt bad for him. But it set a precedent. It set a precedent for what you have to do to be a part of this administration. Your integrity is left at the door. You have to lie for this president. You have to be dedicated to this president. And even when he eventually leaves out in the rain, you got to smile and say, Thank you, give me another.

MATTHEWS: Well, I`ve seen him since, saw him in the train stations a couple weeks ago. He looks pretty happy.


STOKOLS: A big weight lifted off his shoulders now. That`s definitely true of Sean. But you do -- you know, you can feel sorry for him if you want, but he chose to go every day. He chose the notoriety and he chose the infamy that came from his, what, six-month tenure on that job. And you know that is a difficult job...

MATTHEWS: It`s tough to quit the first week.

STOKOLS: ... to work for this president.

MATTHEWS: It`s tough to quit the first week.

STOKOLS: It is. But I mean, he -- his credibility was shot from day one.

MATTHEWS: I know. You know, he even got so befuddled about something in - - in that -- it`s a position up here. It`s the highest position of our presidential spokesman, next to the president. And he`s saying the Nazis didn`t use chemical weapons. Well, they used chemicals, certainly.


MATTHEWS: They killed (INAUDIBLE) million people, six million people. But you know, he meant in his battlefield situations, OK? But even that was being watched. And the guy wasn`t ready for this onslaught of...

PRZYBYLA: You have to wonder if there was just a level of stress underneath it all that would explain making a slip like that.

MATTHEWS: OK, you know what was...

PRZYBYLA: You know the president was watching...


MATTHEWS: He didn`t like his looks!

JOHNSON: He didn`t think he was protecting him enough.

MATTHEWS: Well, he didn`t like his looks.

PRZYBYLA: Well, they were picking -- he...

MATTHEWS: You know who I`m betting on? What`s her name? Hope Hicks is coming, eventually, anyway -- anyway -- although Sarah`s doing a great job, I think, Sarah Sanders, Huckabee Sanders. I think she looks country. She`s very much, I think, at ease with that kind of presentation. I think she`s probably better for this job. Anyway, our panel -- she`s the daughter of an Arkansas governor, anyway. That`s pretty country.

Our panel`s sticking with us throughout this hour. Coming up, Mooch, vamoose! Trump`s former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci thought he`d last, as he put it beautifully, longer than a carton of milk. But he didn`t. He`s not only the -- the only colorful figure that`s been shown the door so far. Let`s not forget chief strategist Steve Bannon. Ooh! Anyway, Darth Vader.

Plus, if you thought this summer was a busy one, get ready for the fall. President Trump`s threatening to shut down the government if he doesn`t get his wall. And let`s not forget Bob Mueller`s Russian investigation.

And can Democrats take back the House and the Senate next year? We`re about to get a rough, very rough electoral indicator of where things stand heading into 2018.

Finally, these three will tell me something I don`t know.

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.




REINCE PRIEBUS, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: On behalf of the entire senior staff around you, Mr. President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you have given us to serve your agenda and the American people.

And we`re continuing to work very hard every day to accomplish those goals.


MATTHEWS: That was an embarrassing time.

All around the Cabinet, they did those sort of benedictions, anyway -- or genuflections.

That was the over-the-top praise. It wasn`t enough for the president`s chief of staff, however, to keep his job. He was fired on July 28.

Priebus was a major target of the newly installed communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, alias, the Mooch, who boasted about not reporting to Priebus, but rather to the president directly.

Well, Scaramucci began his tenure with a similarly over-the-top love song to the president. Let`s watch.



The president himself is always going to be the president.

I think he`s got some of the best political instincts in the world, and perhaps in history.

The president is phenomenal with the press, OK? And he`s a great communicator. He is an unbelievable politician.

The president`s a winner, OK? And what we`re going to do is, we`re going to do a lot of winning. The president has really good karma, OK? And the world turns back to him.

He`s a genuinely -- a wonderful human being. He`s the most competitive person I have ever met.

Look, I have seen this guy throw a dead spiral through a tire. He sinks three-foot putts.

But I love the president and I`m very, very loyal to the president. And I love the mission that the president has. I love the president. And I think a lot of you guys know in the media I have been very, very loyal to him.

Here`s what I will tell you, OK? I love the president. And the president is a very, very effective communicator.


MATTHEWS: Jimmy, two times, three times, four times. How many times do you have to say, I love the guy?

Anyway, his spectacular downfall, the Mooch`s, came with this phone call to "The New Yorker"`s Ryan Lizza.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP) SCARAMUCCI: Reince is a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) paranoid schizophrenic, paranoiac.

And he`s going to do is, oh, maybe Bill Shine is coming in his office. And let me leak the (EXPLETIVE DELETED) thing and see if I can (EXPLETIVE DELETED) these people, the way I (EXPLETIVE DELETED) blocked Scaramucci for six months.

OK, but he leaked the (INAUDIBLE) stuff on me. You know my financial disclosure has been leaked to Politico, which is a felony.


MATTHEWS: Well, that call was made public on July 27. He was fired four days later. And he later joked, the Mooch did, about this with Stephen Colbert.


SCARAMUCCI: When you take a job like that, Stephen, you know that your expiration date is coming. I didn`t think I was going to last too long, but I thought I would last longer than, like, a carton of milk.




MATTHEWS: You can`t beat the guy for metaphors.


STOKOLS: I mean, the thing you can say about this presidency is, the lines between politics and entertainment are completely blurred. PRZYBYLA: There`s no...


MATTHEWS: Doesn`t it belong on "Steve Colbert"?

There is no difference. Stephen Colbert`s coverage is almost like he`s a news show now.

STOKOLS: Here`s the thing about Scaramucci. He was brought in to take out Priebus, OK? That was where the animus was. He came in. He did his job. And yes, I think Kushner and the people who brought him..

MATTHEWS: Didn`t he also knock out...

STOKOLS: ... did think he would last a little bit longer. And he lit himself on fire by calling Ryan Lizza and going off like a volcano.

PRZYBYLA: Doesn`t that tell you so much about how this White House functions, though?

Because prior to that call with Ryan, he went on TV and ripped Reince. And the news reports at the time were that the president actually liked it.


PRZYBYLA: It tells you, you know, the blurring of that line. He likes the reality show. He likes this display, which all of us take it in and say, ooh, that`s dysfunction. He likes it. He likes the drama and the reality show aspect to it.

STOKOLS: And the president didn`t like that Reince didn`t fight back. There was this perception that Reince was kind of feckless, running from meetings, scampering around the West Wing, never really...


MATTHEWS: Didn`t fight who back?

STOKOLS: And he didn`t fight back. When Mooch torched him on TV, Reince didn`t say anything. It`s not Reince`s style.

Mooch was much more in the president`s personal style.

MATTHEWS: Well, I started the show by saying "Lord of the Flies," because we have read that book about these kids stuck on a desert island somewhere, where it`s about this kind of who`s the king of the hill, who`s going to beat who up, who`s got the conch, who`s the got the -- literally, who has got the voice?


Well, kill the pig, smash his head, right? And who was the pig? The pig is whoever Trump is not happy with in that particular week.

And what was interesting, also, as you heard about with the interview with Mooch, is he`s saying, look, Reince has been blocking me for a long time. So, it seems like he was waiting to get into this administration and felt like it was traditional Republicans that were keeping him out.

But, again, they still didn`t vet him. He was still getting rid of old tweets.


MATTHEWS: I want some psychobabble, Jason. I want psychobabble from you.

Why can`t the president fire Reince? Why did he need the Mooch to do it?

STOKOLS: Because he`s a coward.


Last but not least, alt-right firebrand Steve Bannon, well, Bannon`s tenure was rocky. He seemed to float in and out of flavor with the president, or favor -- flavor. And he landed on the cover of "TIME" magazine. Always a mistake. Presidents don`t like being upstaged by their peeps.

Anyway, Trump dismissed him as an insignificant factor in his campaign and presidency. Watch him erase the guy from his history.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I like Mr. Bannon. He`s a friend of mine. But Mr. Bannon came on very late. You know that.

I went through 17 senators, governors, and I won all the primaries. Mr. Bannon came on very much later than that. And I like him. He`s a good man. He is not a racist. I can tell you that. He`s a good person.


MATTHEWS: Well, the word "but" sort of introduced the truth there.

Anyway, in an interview with "The Wall Street Journal," he called Bannon "a guy who works for me." Bannon clashed with the people he reportedly called the globalists in the White House. That included, of course, the president`s daughter and son-in-law, the couple that Bannon calls Javanka behind their backs. He was fired August 28.

That day, Bannon said he was heading back to Breitbart and told "The Weekly Standard": "The Trump presidency that we fought for and won is over. We still have a huge movement and will make something of this Trump presidency, but that presidency is over. It will be something else."

You know, Eli, how does a guy who`s the ultimate nationalist go to "The Weekly Standard," which is globalist and neocon, and say, this is my departure speech?

I just thought the whole thing was...


STOKOLS: Or "The American Prospect" a couple of days earlier, a Democratic magazine. I mean, Bannon...


Why was he going to the enemy press to make his goodbye remarks?

STOKOLS: Well, I think he was bored.

He was sitting in the White House while everybody else was up in Bedminster. He knew he had been left behind and his days were numbered.

And I don`t know if it was sort of strategic or cabin fever, but he felt the need to reach out and sort of push his narrative.

MATTHEWS: It`s brilliant P.R.

STOKOLS: And it was a conflicting narrative in a lot of ways.

MATTHEWS: Because he got a lot of ink out of those interviews.

STOKOLS: But the interesting thing about Steve Bannon, there will be perhaps over the next several months some tension between the nationalist base that Bannon represents sort of keeping an eye on this White House that Steve Bannon says now you look up and you see generals, you see Democrats in charge.

But one of Steve Bannon`s goals was the destruction of the administrative state. And I will say, you know, in sort of looking at all of this palace intrigue and all of these firings and all the fact that Scaramucci and Reince Priebus are household names across America, people know about who`s in and who`s out of the president`s favor at the White House.

And that has been an effective smokescreen for what this administration has done in terms of the administrative state, in terms of what is going on at a lot of these government agencies.

MATTHEWS: There`s no State Department.

STOKOLS: The EPA, HUD, the State Department. There`s not been...

MATTHEWS: They have hollowed them out.

STOKOLS: ... enough focus on those things because everybody is watching the reality drama at 1600.

MATTHEWS: OK. Nationalism says no more stupid wars. That`s sort of the Bannon doctrine.

A day after he`s gone or the day he left, the president comes out and escalates the battle in Afghanistan.


PRZYBYLA: Well, I mean, that`s one of the results of surrounding yourself with generals and having Kelly come in and be your new chief of staff. So it`s a logical outcome.

And we have seen previous presidents who have wanted to extract themselves, Obama, and gotten further enmeshed. And so I think it`s just a logical result and something that we could have expected going into this.

MATTHEWS: Well, they blame the generals, Jason, but I think the question that goes into this Situation Room from the president is always, how do I lose a war and still look good?

JOHNSON: Right. Right.

MATTHEWS: And the answer is, you can`t.

JOHNSON: You can`t.

Look, everybody has been increasing the troops in Afghanistan. We`re probably not going to be able to figure out a way to get out of that. And that`s the kind of thing that Trump ran on. He ran on...


MATTHEWS: Would Bernie take us out of Afghanistan?

JOHNSON: Bernie would say he was going to.

MATTHEWS: Would he do it?


JOHNSON: ... the exact same situation. He wouldn`t pull us out.

MATTHEWS: I`m just trying to -- I use it as an extreme case, because he was so doctrinally against this war.

JOHNSON: Exactly.

MATTHEWS: And I wondered if even he could face the generals down and say, OK, I`m going to take the loss in the next election. They can blame me for losing Afghanistan. We never really had it. I`m not kidding myself.

Anyway, up next: The White House turmoil has been a boon to the late-night comics. We`re going to take a look at their greatest hits, which are all at the expense of Trump, obviously.

And this is HARDBALL, where the action is.


MILISSA REHBERGER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Milissa Rehberger with your top headlines.

The Caribbean is bracing for Hurricane Irma, now a Category 4 storm with maximum sustained winds of 130 miles per hour. The governors of Puerto Rico and Florida have declared states of emergency ahead of the storm`s expected arrival.

And Congress will vote this week on financial relief for those affected by Hurricane Harvey. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy says the chamber will vote Wednesday on the first relief package -- back to HARDBALL.

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Well, the various late-night hosts have had fun covering the comings and goings, a lot of goings, actually, of the Trump administration. Here`s what they had to say about all of the people who have been ousted, fired, if you will, off the island, if you will, under Trump.

Let`s watch.


SETH MEYERS, HOST, "LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS": After months of will he or will he speculation, Sean Spicer has finally stepped down as press secretary, I`m guessing so he can spend more time with the bushes outside the White House.




STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT": Just this afternoon, I was shocked by this breaking nooch.



JAKE TAPPER, CNN: Anthony Scaramucci gone after just a week and change on the job.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Mooch is toast.

COLBERT: Yes, the Mooch is toast. The front-stabber has been backstabbed.


COLBERT: He said he was going to fire everybody. And I got to admit, he delivered.





TREVOR NOAH, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW WITH TREVOR NOAH": This is like this is like -- you know, this is the song of the summer. Scaramucci came into our lives, made everyone obsessed with him for like a week, and then he left us with nothing but memories and like a bunch of weird moves.

Like, Macarena. Hey, Macarena. Macarena. Hey, Scaramucci.



MEYERS: Just think about that. Scaramucci got Priebus fired, and then he got fired two days later. That`s like telling someone, see you in hell, and then literally showing up in hell the next day.




JOHN OLIVER, HOST, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER": Yes, yes, Steve Bannon is gone. He leaves behind a legacy defined called by quasi- constitutional xenophobia, unfulfilled campaign promises, and a definitive answer to the question, what would happen if Martin Sheen ate nothing besides sea salts for 1,000 years?




MATTHEWS: Well, we`re back with Eli, Heidi, and Jason.

Guys, I don`t know who is hot on this, but I`ll tell you, there is no line. There is no red line between satire and late-night and what we talk about in politics.

JOHNSON: You had -- like, Jon Stewart would talk about this beforehand, that we thought that Trump would kill comedy, because how can you make fun of someone who`s so ridiculous?

And yet his administration has provided tons of comedy. If anything, it`s impossible now to do late-night television and not talk about politics. No one can escape it.

MATTHEWS: OK. Let me talk about polarization, because isn`t it true that "SNL" -- oh, you had a better thought. I can tell. Go ahead.

PRZYBYLA: No, I just think it`s a way of national self-soothing, in a way, because when you think about the numbers of people who didn`t vote or who didn`t vote for Trump, it`s many, many millions more people.

And I think people have also been activated and awakened, and many of the people who didn`t vote. And this is a way of -- there`s nothing you can do at this point, other than organize and self-soothe and at least find some humor in it.

STOKOLS: But the entertainment value of this president -- I mean, it`s a presidency. It`s about the country.


STOKOLS: And yet it is being consumed as if it is nothing different than a TV show. It`s huge ratings, not just for these shows, but for our business, for our newspapers.

And, you know, so a presidency that is, by most accounts, not a real successful presidency so far, approval rating in the 30s, is a smash hit on TV.

And the issue is, when you step back from it, people are eating all this stuff up every night on TV. And they can`t seem to get enough of it. Are people comprehending the gravity of this? Sometimes, you don`t sense that the president comprehends the gravity of it, because he jokes about stuff too. When he says offensive things, the next day, the response is, oh, he was joking.


MATTHEWS: Well, Charlie Chaplin made fun of Hitler -- not that he`s Hitler or anything.

But Charlie Chaplin made fun of that dictator, and it was funny. But then we realized how Hitler wasn`t just a pain in the butt. He was horrible.

And so humor and satire didn`t cut it. Right?

Victor Borge, the great comedian I grew up with who was Danish, who was Jewish, had escaped from the Nazis, he made a living making fun of the Nazis until he had to escape Europe.

So, the satire only goes so far. And I just wonder whether -- maybe you are suggesting, are you, that somehow we`re covering up our own fears or legitimate fears, or else we`re denying them?

STOKOLS: I don`t know.

I just -- you can tell that there is just this sort of -- everyone`s feeding the beast all the time. Nobody can seem to get enough of stories and coverage about this administration. Perhaps that`s because everybody is kind of on edge about it. But the entertainment value of this is undeniable. And I don`t know what that is.

PRZYBYLA: There is a very serious moment...


MATTHEWS: Every conversation I have been in, in Washington or anywhere in the Northeast is the same.

Now, I know I run in that circle, progressive to moderate, whatever. And - - but everybody seems to say -- and I know the conversation`s different in Texas or in Alabama. We know it is. Is it different? Are they watching "SNL"? Are they watching "Colbert" in those parts of the country? Are they?

JOHNSON: There are people who still find -- even conservative people, who still find some humor in some of the antics. They can still laugh at Sean Spicer.

Now, they may be laughing for different reasons than liberal people do. They can still laugh at Scaramucci`s antics. This is catharsis for a country that`s desperately waiting for the 2018 midterm elections. That`s what I think this is really building towards, because people, they can`t vote him out, they can`t say, I feel sorry enough.

They have got to laugh until they have an opportunity to really express how they feel about this presidency next year.

MATTHEWS: Whistling past the graveyard.



PRZYBYLA: Chris, it`s not just geographic. It`s generational.

Even before Trump ever came into office, we know that millennials, younger people, a disproportionate number of them are already getting their news from late-night comedians. And so I think there is actually a civic sense among some of these comedians as well that they`re getting their jabs in.

And they`re getting the information -- they`re getting message across, too, through their comedy. And, yes, they have even had some serious moments after some of the worst stuff that`s happened, like Charlottesville.

And it`s a way to, I think, broadcast that to a younger generation, that, I`m sorry, but fewer of them are watching us. They`re watching the comedians.

MATTHEWS: Speak for yourself.


MATTHEWS: Up next: President Trump maintains there`s been no collusion with Russia. So, why is he obsessed with the Russian investigation? Why is he telling senators to protect his right to get rid of Mueller?

And why is he so upset with the GOP for not doing more to quote -- I`m sorry -- here it comes again -- "to protect him"? That`s what he seems to be worried about, this investigation. And I will bet he should be.

You`re watching HARDBALL.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now, the obstructionist Democrats would like us not to do it, but believe me, if we have to close down our government, we`re building that wall.



That was President Trump, of course, threatening to hold the U.S. government hostage in a shutdown, until Congress funds his border wall with Mexico. And that`s not the only crisis the president will have to confront this fall. He`s still denying the legitimacy of the investigation into the Trump campaign`s possible collusion with Russia.

Let`s watch.


TRUMP: We have a situation which is very unusual. Everybody said there`s no collusion. You look at the councils that come in, we have a Senate hearing, we have judiciary, we have intelligence, and we have a House hearing. And everything walks out, even the enemies. I say, no, there`s no collusion, there`s no collusion.

So, they`re investigating something that never happened. There was no collusion between us and Russia.


MATTHEWS: Russia has consumed the president`s mind over the past few months and has strained his relationship with Republican leaders, especially Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

"The New York Times" reports that Trump was even more animated about what he intimated was the Senate leader`s refusal to protect him from investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

We`re back with Eli, Heidi, and Jason.

If I were Trump and I had any kind of conversations, either through my son- in-law or my son or my daughter with the Russians, that nobody knows about, yes, I would be worried.

ELI STOKOLS, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, WALL STREET JOURNAL: Right, and he`s acted like he`s worried. And he also betrays this naivete about thinking that people in D.C. can protect him and that he -- that they are going to be loyal to him, protecting him. He came in as an outsider. He torched D.C. and the establishment and the swamp. But relationships matter in this town.

And so, when you`re looking at the fall and you`re looking at an investigation that you`re trying to stave off, when you`re looking at Congress and trying to come up with something that is a win, he doesn`t have anybody really who knows him and has a deep relationship with him here. Very few people, maybe David Perdue and a few others on the Hill, but just not enough. And then he`s out there on Twitter every morning, scratching the itch. And he`s alienating them more.

MATTHEWS: You know, Eli really understands this city, because I know how that works. Because if you have a question mark about somebody and you don`t like `em, you go after `em. If there`s a question mark about somebody you do like, you go, let`s see if there`s more on that.

STOKOLS: Most people take it out in the open --

MATTHEWS: Let`s see if there`s more on that. If there`s more on it, I`ll move. But that`s not enough for me to move right now. It`s called prosecutorial discretion.

But in a legislative context, it`s always there. Do I give this prosecutor more muscle? Do I give them more protection from being fired? Or just a little. And it`s all nuance. And it`s up to these relationships.

JASON JOHNSON, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Well, look, I think the other problem is that Trump has not been able to demonstrate thus far that he can protect you, either. I mean, we start at the beginning, look at all the different people that he`s fired. So, even if I am a Trump loyalist, even if I think that Russia is absolutely flimsy nonsense and created by the fake media --

MATTHEWS: Hence the pardon talk.

JOHNSON: Yes, exactly, like he`s got to be able to pardon, he`s got to be able to provide some more support for the people who are willing to take bullets for him and right now, he hasn`t show that he`s as good a shield.

HEIDI PRZYBYLA, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Did you think about this? That up until this point, his entire life, he`s a 72-year-old man, the way that he`s actually gotten things done is by stomping his foot, kicking down, making people cower, because he`s the chief executive, he`s the sole proprietor of essentially a family-owned business and you work for him, so you do what he says. Then he comes to Washington and he tries doing that to Mark Meadows.


PRZYBYLA: He tries doing that to Paul Ryan. He tries doing that to Mitch McConnell.

Well, hello, Mr. Trump, there are people here in Washington who have equally as big egos and they don`t work for you. Congress doesn`t work for you. It`s a fundamental, also, revealing of kind of a civic misunderstanding of the separation of powers here in Washington, and how you get things done. Very different from, you know, being the sole proprietor of a family-owned business.

JOHNSON: The transaction is totally different because in his business, he`s buying. So, he can say, I`m not buying. OK, we won`t do the deal, I`m not buying, you`re going to be poor, right? He doesn`t pay bills, we`ve heard that, OK? I don`t have -- but now he`s asking people to do stuff for him.

It`s a totally different transaction, Jason.

JOHNSON: And here`s the thing -- and he doesn`t have the power, he doesn`t have the knowledge of the city yet to even cower people into control the way he used to. Look, when senators walked into George Bush`s office and said, you`re going to listen to me, what`d he do to Trent Lott? Just knocked him out, knocked him out. He demonstrated his like, look, if you don`t get along with my program, if you don`t like me, even if you don`t like Karl Rove, I can demonstrate some political savvy and power. Trump hasn`t been able to do that yet.

Now, maybe if some of these Republicans --

MATTHEWS: If he knocks off Jeff Flake next year.

JOHNSON: Exactly. If he can knock out somebody in a primary, but until then, he`s paper tiger.

PRZYBYLA: And he does it in such a public way of bullying these people, such that the news reports get out or he does it over Twitter. It`s not that we haven`t had presidents before who have been intimidating and maybe even bullying like LBJ, but they did it in private. They didn`t do it in public.

MATTHEWS: The more I hear about Jeff Flake`s primary opponent, the more I like Jeff Flake by the way.


STOKOLS: People on both sides of the aisle like Jeff Flake, because they have a relationship with him and he`s a decent guy.

MATTHEWS: He`s a senator from Arizona.

STOKOLS: It`s the myopia. It`s never thinking more than one play ahead with President Trump himself, and so, who cares? Maybe he takes out flake in a primary. But does she win that race or do they give up the seat? And even if she wins the seat -- if she wins the seat, what is the cost to the relationships with Mitch McConnell and the Republican caucus?

MATTHEWS: You know how you play pool? It`s about placement of the ball after you make the shot. Not just about making the shot.

Anyway, when we come back, a big test for president coming up this November.

You`re watching HARDBALL.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

September`s a pivotal month for the president`s legislative agenda, but November`s gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia will be taken by some as the first test to President Trump`s political prowess. The outcomes of these races are taken by some as the first clues about the national mood a year after a president`s election. In this case, Trump`s, and a year before the midterm 2018 elections this time.

And for Democrats, it`s their first opportunity to prove to voters they`re more than just the resistance.

We`re back with Eli, Heidi, and Jason.

Let`s just -- I`m just going to say it. New Jersey looks good for the Democrats. This guy, Paul Murphy, is probably going to win. Chris Christie has just left a bathtub ring around the governor`s office --

PRZYBYLA: His approval ratings are worse than Trump`s.

MATTHEWS: It`s not going to be good for anything.

Let`s talk about Virginia, which is fascinating. It`s a purple state. Ed Gillespie lost a race, a couple of years ago, a good candidate, a surprising candidate, almost knocked off Mark Warner, and amazing performance actually. But now, he`s behind about six points, but it`s a good race. The monuments issue.

I`ve just looked at this poll here. Now, Virginia`s Virginia. It`s not New Jersey. It`s not Philadelphia of Pennsylvania. Fifty-two percent of voters polled think the monument is part of Southern heritage. That can cover a lot of territory, 52. Twenty-five percent believe the statues a symbols of racism pure and simple. That`s not just minorities, some liberal whites, too.

But I have a sense that that`s Gillespie`s only chance to make this a referendum on, do we betray our heritage.

JOHNSON: You`ve had people who have actually attacked Northam already and basically -- they called him a race traitor for this particular issue. I think that when this debate happens, when we see a debate between these candidates, it might be one of the most explosive things that we`ve seen in this country in a gubernatorial race in years.

I don`t know what the right answer is. I don`t think anyone in Virginia yet know --


JOHNSON: Yes, I don`t think anyone knows what the political right answer is, because it`s not just about heritage. It`s just not about hate. It`s also about a terrorist attack. And what kind of terminology you use to discuss --

MATTHEWS: In Charlottesville?

JOHNSON: In Charlottesville.

PRZYBYLA: But here`s what I think could happen. Right now, things were looking very good for Northam. You know, he`s ahead in the polls. Trump`s approval ratings are lower than average there. The Democrats are doing a good job of tying Gillespie to Trump.

But if this issue, depending on how it plays out, energizes the right in the way Democrats feel energized --

MATTHEWS: The southern part of the state.

PRZYBYLA: -- right now -- in the southern part of the state -- right now, they`re depending very much on the Democrats in northern Virginia, who are hot to trot, want to get out there in the midterms and vote. But if this issue, depending on how it plays out, energizes the right, then I think, you know, this race is a lot closer than we think.

And it`s also going to be very bad for Democrats, because many analysts no longer consider Virginia even a purple state. Democrats have taken it at the presidential level, nine out of the past ten. If a Republican wins, and this is one of the only elections, the only major election that we have this year, rolling into the midterms, I think that`s going to be a significant scalping for the Republican Party.


STOKOLS: Yes, I think that`s right. And this is a very interesting test case, because Heidi`s right. Virginia, Colorado, states we used to consider purple states, they`re more blue now than some of these Rust Belt states that Democrats have taken for granted for a long time. At least with the politics of our country the way they are today with Donald Trump.

MATTHEWS: What about with the monuments?

STOKOLS: Well, I think that there`s a reason that Donald Trump decided to pivot from the both sides screw-up in the aftermath of Charlottesville to, I`m defending the monuments, because it`s a better political issue, and I think the Democrats who latched on to that issue are sort of playing or misplaying what was a very good hand.

MATTHEWS: OK. Let me give you a little red line. There`s a nice little statue on the Main Street of Washington Street in old town Alexandria, not far from here. It`s not about a big general riding on a horse, I won this battle. It`s not about slavery, as you can see.

It`s a poor white -- I guess white -- Southern soldier, a grunt, leaning down southwards, called Appomattox. It`s about failure. It`s about defeat. It`s about a region that lost.

They go after that one, they`re making a mistake. That`s my hunch. If the progressives think that`s something that has something to do with slavery, I think they lose on that, but I`m not sure. I think they lose on that one.

JOHNSON: We still have time, but I also say this. If there`s ever a canary in a mine, look at Justin Fairfax. Look, you have an African- American male who`s running for lieutenant governor in the state and this has not affected his numbers at all. He has come out and said, he has threaded that needle.

He said, look, we need to look at this on sort of a case-by-case basis. We don`t like the violence that happened down there, but communities do have a right to say if something offended that community.

MATTHEWS: Case by case. It`s so true.

PRZYBYLA: Northam has said -- Northam has moved slightly left to a place he might be in a good place on this because he said, these monuments should stay and be put in historical context. So, let`s just put up additional monuments.

MATTHEWS: In museums?

PRZYBYLA: That`s the position I think he`s going to keep --

MATTHEWS: I`m not sure it will win. I`m not sure it will win.

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

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Eli, you`re first. Tell me something I don`t know.

STOKOLS: OK. So, we`re just six to seven months into this presidency. He`s already had political rallies run by his re-election campaign, but I`ve talked to people in the last few weeks who are close to the president and speak with him regularly. And there`s a lot of chatter that he`s not even going to be running for re-election in 2020. There`s just people close to the president think this has taken too much of a toll and they don`t know he`s going to last four years, but they`re cold on the idea that he`s going to run again.

MATTHEWS: Wow. I hear that.

PRZYBYLA: We talk a lot on this show and other shows about how the president --


STOKOLS: People pretty close to this president.


PRZYBYLA: We`ve talked a lot about how this president isn`t getting anything done and there`s an important distinction. He`s not getting anything done in Congress, but there are plenty of things that are getting done and one of the top ones is energy. It`s not just clearing the way for XL Pipeline, there`s many regulatory reforms that he`s putting in place.

And as a matter of fact, we`re now getting the numbers in that last year coal production is up by about 15 percent. We can`t prove the causality, but that`s a number that`s hard now.

MATTHEWS: I think regulatory, you`re going to claim credit, as you hear from business guys. And I think he wants to get another Supreme Court justice in there, and he might quit. I think he wants to get a little more accomplishment behind him.

JOHNSON: "New York Times" has a piece out talking about after 35 years, a series of affirmative action has done nothing to improve the number of minorities at elite schools in the United States of America. They say the numbers are pretty much the same as 1980, but Latinos and African- Americans, when you talk about Harvard, Duke and elite institutions.

But they`ve only got half the story, which you may not know, is over the last three years, there`s been a massive increase in minority students to historically black colleges and universities, in part because of costs, in part because of issues of on-campus safety, and in part because many students feel that going to an elite undergrad institution is not going to improve their chances in the economy.

MATTHEWS: Very interesting.

Thank you to our great panel tonight, Eli Stokols, Heidi Przybyla, and Jason Johnson.

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

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.


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