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Comey and Sessions questioned in Russia inquiry Transcript 1/23/18 Hardball with Chris Matthews

Guests: Steve Schmidt, Susan Page, Jamal Simmons

Show: HARDBALL Date: January 23, 2018 Guest: Steve Schmidt, Susan Page, Jamal Simmons

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Tipping point. Let`s play "Hardball."

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.

There are several big developments in the Trump-Russia investigation tonight. First, there`s brand-new reporting from are the "Washington Post" that special counsel Robert Mueller is seeking to question President Trump in the coming weeks about his decisions to oust national security adviser Michael Flynn and FBI director James Comey according to two people familiar with his plans. The development suggests that Mueller`s investigation is intensifying focus on possible efforts by the President or others to obstruct or blunt the special counsel`s probe.

Meanwhile, NBC News has confirmed reporting from the "New York Times" that the special counsel questioned attorney general Jeff Sessions last week and also interviewed James Comey late last year. Well then, the highest profile figures to join a growing list of witnesses who have been called to speak to the special counsel`s team. Among them, former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn are both cooperating with investigators.

To recap the progress of Mueller`s probe, it is proceeded on three fronts, looking at possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow, possible obstruction of justice and Trump`s reaction to the investigation, and also possible money laundering involving the Trump family, associates and Russian interests.

Attorney general Sessions could be central to both the collusion and the obstruction inquiries. As his multiple testimonies revealed, Sessions did not tell the whole truth about his meetings with the Russian ambassador during the campaign. And he was a key figure in the firing of James Comey.

Sessions is also the first known member of President Donald Trump`s cabinet to be questioned. As NBC News reports, had his rank within the administration may indicate that Mueller is zeroing in on central characters as he enters the more advanced stages of the investigation.

However, the President told reporters today he was not concerned about what his attorney general told the special counsel last week.



KRISTEN WELKER, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Mr. President, are you concerned about what the Attorney general told the special counsel?

TRUMP: No, I`m not at all concerned. No, I didn`t but I`m not at all concerned. Thank you all very much.


MATTHEWS: Well, James Comey is also central to the investigation of possible obstruction. As "The New York Times" reports, the interview with Mr. Comey focused on a series of memos he wrote about his interactions with Mr. Trump that unnerved Mr. Comey.

In one memo, Mr. Comey said that Mr. Trump has asked him to end the FBI`s investigation into the former national security adviser Michael Flynn, end the investigation.

I`m joined now by Ken Dilanian, investigative reporter with NBC News, Natasha Bertrand who covers the Russia probe with "the Atlantic" and Jill Wine-Banks is a former Watergate prosecutor and MSNBC contributor.

All three of you, I want to know what you all make of this big development, these two witnesses being called, Comey already and it is going to be Sessions very soon and then the President.

KEN DILANIAN, NBC NEWS INTELLIGENCE AND NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Chris, what I think this shows is that Mueller is accelerating the obstruction of justice aspect of the probe. You laid it out well, the three pillars of this investigation. And it really looks like the obstruction case is going down the track further and faster than the collusion and money laundering.

Now of course, there`s a lot that we don`t see on the collusion on the money laundering fund. But these obstruction witnesses we know who they are, we know what stories they have to tell. I mean, it`s not a surprise that James Comey is a key witness or that Jeff Sessions would have to be interviewed. What`s surprising to me is that it`s happening now. It seems like it`s speeding up.

MATTHEWS: Natasha, how do you see this because - explain how you see what kind of a case Mueller is going to make here with these hot witnesses now.

NATASHA BERTRAND, REPORTER, THE ATLANTIC: It certainly seems like Ken said that he is moving more quickly along the obstruction path. But it isn`t necessarily say to me or others who have been talking to people in these circles that this indicates that the investigation itself as a whole is wrapping up. It just means that perhaps one of phase of the investigation is closer to completion than another.

But one of the things that really struck me about the "Washington Post" reporting, just in terms of, you know, what Mueller wants to ask Trump is he really wants to hone in also on why Trump was so angry with Sessions and why at one point he wanted Sessions to actually resign.

That to me says that Mueller is honing in on the idea that perhaps Trump wanted attorney general Sessions to resign so that he could perhaps appoint someone who is not recuse from the investigation and that in itself is another aspect of the obstruction probe that could perhaps come into play.

MATTHEWS: Well, let me go to Jill on this because you have been through this before in history. And I want to know about -- it looks to me like Trump was trying to kill the investigation of Trump. It isn`t complicated. He didn`t like having an attorney general wasn`t out there fighting for him, not just defending but fighting for him and killing investigations. It`s clear he didn`t like Comey what Comey said that when he want put down his knee in front of him and put down the sword and let himself become a knight of the Trump roundtable. He wasn`t going to play that part. And it seems to me, he wanted to protect Flynn because Flynn new something.

I mean, watch this thing as a detective story. It seems to come out that Trump is hiding and he is using all his powers as President to protect himself.

JILL WINE-BANKS, FORMER WATERGATE PROSECUTOR: Everything you have said it absolutely correct. I agree with you completely. It certainly looks bad for Trump. But it probably actually is bad. It`s not just that it looks bad. We can also assume not just that Flynn knows things. We know that Comey knows because he was in charge of the investigation into the Russian collusion and the Russian wrongdoing toward our election before he was fired.

Now, whatever he knows, of course, the FBI still has in its institutional memory and can be used as evidence of any campaign cooperation with the Russians which is a very serious underlying crime. It`s always easier to make the obstruction case than it is to prove this underlying relationship with a foreign government. So that`s why it may look like it`s moving faster.

But let`s not jump to conclusions about this because we don`t know what Papadopoulos knows. We don`t know what Flynn knows, and we don`t know what Sessions knows. Remember Sessions was involved in the campaign. So he may have substantive information about relationships with Russia. He after all did not report at least two meetings with the Russians that he probably should have reported. He may have participated in others that we don`t know about yet. So I`m going to give the break to Mueller who I believe has a lot more information than we are even speculating about.

MATTHEWS: To make your point, Jill, we didn`t even know he had interviewed Comey. And apparently in December at the end of last year. Now we are reporting from history in this. We are moving a lot faster than the media`s.

When it comes to those meetings with the Russian ambassador, however, the attorney general has exhibited a pattern of what I like to call the old political term rolling disclosure, letting people know the truth when you the have to. And only that during his confirmation hearing in January of last year, for example, Sessions said at first he had no communications with the Russians.


JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I didn`t, did not have communications with the Russians. And I`m unable to comment on it.


MATTHEWS: Well, and then once his meetings with the Russian ambassador were revealed by the press, rolling disclosure, Sessions said in March, March a few months later that the meetings were not about the Trump campaign.


SESSIONS: I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign.


MATTHEWS: Well hen in October, a few months later after that, Sessions said it`s possible he did discuss some of the campaign`s positions with the Russian ambassador.


SESSIONS: I don`t think there was any discussion about the details of the campaign other than it could have been that in that meeting in my office or at the convention that some comment was made about what Trump`s positions were. I think that`s possible.


MATTHEWS: You know, you wonder about this ability to just sort of fade on the memory, you know. And some of it is the soft accent and nice folksy way and a very nice likable guy. But if Chuck Schumer tried that, said I don`t remember, nobody would give him an inch. Of course, you remember, Chuck. You remember everything.

DILANIAN: It`s no accident that Jeff Sessions went into this meeting with a criminal defense attorney. He looks like potentially he might have some exposure. There is another issue here. Remember, there was some single (ph) intelligence reporting, eavesdropping on the Russian ambassador where the Russian ambassador reported back to Moscow that he had a substantive conversation with Sessions at the Mayflower hotel. Now Sessions has adamantly denied that. But that`s the reason the Comey testified, you know, that Sessions probably had to recuse himself in addition to the other agency. So there`s absolutely - and the story has evolved and there`s a real question about, you know, does he have any exposure.

MATTHEWS: Let`s talk about that, Natasha, and what he would know. This is the question I know having worked in politics years ago. And I get to Jill on this and back to you, Ken.

You know, when you are in politics at the top, currently in the top, you are sitting there all the conversations are going on around you, not just the ones you are in, you are sitting there, you are a fly on the wall. And you hear things about wait a minute. What is that? You go home tell your spouse, what did that mean? What did that mean? I`m trying to figure this thing out.

You are always trying to figure the thing out, you know, Natasha. If Sessions is a political animal which he is, he got this far, attorney general, senator from that state all these years, he knows how politics works. He knows what they were up. If he heard a Russian accent or he heard somebody talking about the Russians, your ears would pop up.

What is going on with us and the Russians? And by the end of the campaign, you damn well know what the deal was with the Russians because you would want to find out. Your thoughts?

BERTRAND: Right. It`s very unlikely that all of this was just happening around him and he never noticed that hey, you know, why are all of these Russians approaching the campaign? Why is this happening?

I mean, the two meetings that had with Kislyak, he didn`t even disclose to Congress. The meeting that he had with George Papadopoulos he seemed to have completely forgotten until it, you know, until it came out that Papadopoulos had been in that meeting and had actually pitched the Trump campaign to meet with Putin.

So this is something that is genuinely, it`s curious. And it also, you know, another aspect of this is that Sessions is, you know, potentially facing some criminal exposure, you know. We don`t know the whether or not Mueller knows, you know. Perhaps he misled Congress. Perhaps he contributed to something that would resemble obstruction when he made the decision to write the letter that would then help Trump come up with a decision to fire Comey.

So these are all questions that Mueller wants to know the answer to. And of course, he has been speaking to Flynn. He has been speaking to Papadopoulos over the past several months. And they likely have given him a lot of information what Sessions did and didn`t know during the campaign.

MATTHEWS: Well, along this point while I have got you, Natasha, let`s talk about the fact that - can you turn an attorney general? Can you actually turn an attorney general during the course? I get the chill on this. Can you actually find that he discovers he is in trouble in a conversation with Mueller and he goes wait a minute? If you put it that way, I look like I`m guilty. I`m part of this effort to clean up the President`s by getting rid of Comey because I wrote this letter. This could be a step towards a commission of conspiracy. I`m guilty. It seems to me at some point that`s going to flash in his brain and they are going to start talking for a second session probably with Mr. Sessions. Your thoughts, Natasha?

BERTRAND: Yes. It is a good question. I mean, some legal experts that I have spoken to had said that Mueller, you know, would not have gotten to Sessions, you know, this quickly had he not thought that perhaps he had some evidence that maybe Sessions had said something in the past that wasn`t true that he potentially get him on. That`s part of the reason why he hasn`t perhaps interviewed Donald Trump Jr. yet. It is like he thinks that there is a possibility that Sessions has information that he can then give to Mueller that can help him further bolster his case.

Now whether or not that`s leveraging potential criminal exposure against Sessions or whether it is just saying hey, you need to tell me this or you could be in trouble, the, you know, that remains to be seen.

MATTHEWS: Well I think Donald Junior`s possession in court will be nervous time for his father.

Anyway, Sessions also testified in October that he was not aware of any campaign surrogates communicating with Russians. He wasn`t aware of any. Let`s watch.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You don`t believe that surrogates from the Trump campaign had communications with the Russians? Is that what you are saying?

SESSIONS: I did not and I`m not aware of anyone else that did.


MATTHEWS: However, former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos later revealed THAT Sessions did preside over a meeting in March of 2016 where Papadopoulos told, there they are together, told Sessions and Trump that his Russian connections could arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin himself. Here`s what Sessions the said when he returned to the hill to testify in November.


SESSIONS: I do now recall that the March 2016 meeting at the Trump hotel that Mr. Papadopoulos attended but I have no clear recollection of the details of what he said that the meeting.


MATTHEWS: Of course, George Papadopoulos who made a plea deal with Robert Mueller already, he is already working with him. He is cooperating with investigators. And yesterday his fiancee told the "Washington Post" that I believe history will remember him like John Dean adding there`s a lot to come.

Well, Jill, that`s a fruitful statement. The girlfriend, the fiancee of his who obviously has intimate information about what he thinks, thinks of himself as she and he perhaps as well think of him as the number one stoolie here, the number one witness for the prosecution.

WINE-BANKS: It could be. And I will point out that John Dean has said that a big mistake that the Nixon White House made during Watergate was underestimating how much he knew and that`s why he got in so much trouble. So we shouldn`t underestimate what George Papadopoulos may know. And it could be that he is the John Dean and that he reveals everything that we need to know.

And I also want to point out, you have mentioned several times this I don`t remember, I don`t recall and how many times our attorney general said that. And in any ordinary trial, any ordinary jury is going to say, that is not credible. A man of his education, a man of his position, a man of his experience does not forget all of those meetings. He does not forget that he had a conversation about surrogates meeting in Russia.

It`s not believable. He could be in substantive tub trouble for perjury. He could have misled the Congress when he was being confirmed. There are so many things that he could be in trouble for and maybe he will want to protect himself and he will cooperate.

MATTHEWS: Ken, where we heading?

DILANIAN: Here is the bottom line. George Papadopoulos knew before almost anyone that the Russians had hacked emails. There is no way that he kept that information to himself. He is a low level campaign functionary. His whole purpose was to please his betters. He had to pass information on. And the question is who knew about it? When did they know? How far it protect --?

MATTHEWS: I`m curious, back to Jill, real quick. I didn`t think I will ask this. But it seems to me the most powerful witnesses this sounds like first grade commentary, but the one with the really good memory. And John Dean it turned out was his memory -- as one of those tape recordings. I mean, it was like, he was just as good as the one they still reaped, it sound like the first time you heard it. In fact, it was a recording, his memory was like a recording. And when it came out and the tapes came out, everything he said was verified verbatim. Do we have any witnesses like that in this case? And how powerful will they bill being, to Jill?

WINE-BANKS: It`s impossible to guess because only Mueller knows the answer to that right now. But Dean was incredible in his memory and he testified without knowing that there were tapes. So he was making a big risk in giving the kind of detail he did. And you are right. When he said there`s a cancer on the presidency and he told the President that on March 21st and you play the tape of March 21st, that`s exactly what he said. And that was true with every conversation he testified to.

So I`m hoping there is someone like that. Unfortunately, so far, although the President threatened that there might be tapes that would get Comey in trouble for saying what he said about the White House meeting, so far the President hasn`t produced them. I hope there are tapes. That would be most helpful and interesting.

MATTHEWS: Well, my second effort memory has come through. But the product was called Memorex. And they used to show how it sounded just as faithful as the original sound made on this earth.

Thank you so much Ken Dilanian. Thank you Natasha Bertrand and Jill Wine- Banks.

Coming up, the news that special counsel Mueller questioned both the attorney general and the former FBI director comes as Trump is throwing up yet another smoke screen, that his word, that his arm right now, to distract from the Russia investigation. His weapon is smoke.

When Trump is in trouble, his strategy is to kick up smoke, confused people and attack the investigators and the media, also the average person doesn`t know what`s going on.

Plus, much more on the news today that Robert Mueller wants to question Trump in the coming weeks. His allies say they think it`s not a perjury trap. But why would they be so worried about it if they are not worried about perjury? Don`t they think Trump is telling the truth?

And Trump fights the football now. He says ending the shutdown of the government is a big win for the Republicans. And few people have wanted as much as him. Well, it sounds like he is happy to take credit for ending the shutdown even though he had nothing to do with it. He was sitting in the White House worrying about his birthday cake not eaten after his first year in office like Mrs. Haver sham in "Great Expectations."

Finally, let me finish tonight with the Trump watch. This is a doozy.

This is "Hardball" where the action is.


MATTHEWS: Former vice President Joe Biden today responded to criticism that the Obama administration did not do enough to address Russian meddling in the lead up to the 2016 election. Biden argued that any public announcement about Russian meddling would be proceed as political and aimed at tipping the election in favor of the Democrats. Here he goes.


JOE BIDEN, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Can you imagine if the President of the United States called a press conference in October with this fellow and Bannon and company and said tell you what, the Russians are trying to interfere in our elections and we have to do something about it. What do you think would have happened? Ask yourselves, what do you think would have happened? Would things have gotten better or would it further look like we were attempting to delegitimize the electoral process because of our opponent?


MATTHEWS: We will be right back.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

As Robert Mueller`s probe inches closer and closer to the Oval Office, President Trump and allies are once again throwing up a smokescreen to distract from the investigation.

They`re stepping up their attacks on the FBI, the agency whose probe into Russian meddling ultimately led to Mueller`s appointment. Axios reports that Attorney General Sessions, at the public urging of President Donald Trump himself, has been pressuring FBI Director Christopher Wray to fire Deputy Director the FBI Andrew McCabe.

The report adds that Wray threaten to resign if McCabe was removed.

Well, NBC News has not confirmed that reporting.

And, today, the president pushed back on the allegation.


QUESTION: Did Christopher Wray threaten to resign?


QUESTION: He did not threaten?

TRUMP: He did not even a little bit. No. And he`s going to do a good job.


MATTHEWS: Well, the White House confirmed it`s calling for changes at the FBI, however, even as it investigates the Trump campaign.

Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah said in a statement: "The president has enormous respect for the thousands of rank-and-file agents," adding that "He believes political motivated senior leaders, including former Director Comey and others he empowered, have tainted the agency`s reputation for unbiased pursuit of justice."

For more, I`m joined by Steve Schmidt, and Frank Figliuzzi, a former assistant director for counterintelligence at the FBI and a chief operating officer for ETS Risk Management.

Gentlemen, thank you.

Steve, you and politics, me and politics. Let`s talk about, what would you do if you got the federal prosecutor coming at you, the special counsel, you got your top -- your attorney general being called in, and been called in, you have got Comey, the guy you fired as FBI director, he`s been called in?

It`s all about you, it`s all about obstruction of justice, and now you squeal and say, these guys are tainted, they`re deep state, they`re the bad guys, don`t trust them. Who is he talking to?

STEVE SCHMIDT, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, he`s talking to his base. He`s talking to the faction of the American people -- about 32 percent are with him until the end.

I do think, Chris, it`s important to understand that the abnormality of what`s happening here. This allegation that there`s a deep state, that there`s a conspiracy within, that there`s a fifth column in the intelligence services, in the law enforcement community, deeply embedded in the American justice system, that is attacking the Constitution, the legitimacy of the presidency of this president, all of this is the hallmark of autocratic behavior.

In every autocratic system that`s ever been, there`s always been the allegation of conspiracy and, of course, conveniently also the scapegoating of an ethnic minority. And we can think about that insidious and terrible TV ad that the president`s team had up on the air this weekend.

So this conspiracy, it`s abetted by members of the Republican majority in the Congress, and it`s abetted by a television network that`s increasingly come to resemble state-run TV and an autocratic society, much more than it has been as a conservative television network, as we would have recognized it in the past.

MATTHEWS: Frank, let me ask you about the knives, the long knives. The knifes are out. Going after people like McCabe, trying to make them the bad guy, tell me about that as a strategy. I think it`s a smokescreen, it`s something for people to talk about, whether it`s Hillary`s e-mails or Benghazi over and over again.

It seems like if you do say something a billion times, people think it`s really important.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI, NBC NEWS NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: It`s a scorched- earth policy. And it`s designed to attack your attackers.

It`s something that I think we have seen Trump do throughout his career professionally and politically.

But I want to talk about this deep state, because it`s really answering your question, which is, first of all, in 25 years as an FBI official, I have never seen anything that even looks remotely like some kind of deep state conspiracy.


FIGLIUZZI: The closest we`re coming to it, quite frankly, is within the halls of Congress.

We have a congressman, Nunes, who is waving around a memo that he won`t show to anybody. He won`t release it. He claims it contains clear evidence that seems to be only in his possession that the FBI exploited or abused the Foreign Surveillance Court in order to get surveillance on Carter Page.

And my message to the people in Congress who are holding on to this is, look, you have got three options tonight. If you have really got that kind of information, release it. Let the FBI get their act together and correct whatever happened in that FISA affidavit.

You can give it to the chief judge of the FISA court. You can give it to the duly appointed Republican director of the FBI, right? Or you could give it to the inspector general of the Department of Justice. But sitting on it shows yourself to be a political animal motivated solely by politics.

MATTHEWS: But the kingpin of this escapade, Mr. Nunes, is the guy who notoriously did the midnight ride of Paul Revere, goes down to EOB, the executive office of the president, gets some dirt.

Next morning, he shows up with the dirt at the White House, as if he discovered something like the Pentagon Papers, and made it look like he was really blowing the cover on the bad guys, the Democrats. He is a tool.

Anyway, the president this morning also renewed another attack on Mueller`s probe. He referenced Peter Strzok, the former top counterintelligence official who Mueller removed from the investigation last summer. Mueller got rid of him after learning about text messages he exchanged with another FBI employee that were actually critical of Trump.

The president tweeted: "In one of the biggest stories in a long time, the FBI now says it is missing five months worth of lovers Strzok-Page texts, perhaps 50,000 of Page`s, and all in prime time."

Wow. That`s Trump building it up. The tweet comes two weeks after Trump accused Strzok, with no evidence, of treason over the texts in which -- in an interview with "The Wall Street Journal."

Anyway, GOP lawmakers say the texts are evidence of anti-Trump bias at top levels of the FBI. Let`s listen.


REP. JOHN RATCLIFFE (R), TEXAS: And we learned today about information that after -- in the immediate aftermath of his election, that there may have been a secret society of folks within the Department of Justice and the FBI, to include Page and Strzok, that would be working against him.

I`m not saying that actually happened. But when folks speak in those terms, they need to come forward to explain the context.

REP. TREY GOWDY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: There`s a text exchange between these two FBI agents, these two, supposed to be objective, fact-centric FBI agents saying perhaps this is the first meeting of the secret society.

So, of course, I`m going to want to know, what secret society are your talking about? Because you`re supposed to be investigating objectively the person who just won the Electoral College.


MATTHEWS: You know, Steve, it sounds like snake oil salesmen to me.

And I just keep reminding myself that Trey Gowdy, I don`t know if he`s a good guy or a bad guy, but spent one million hours trying to grill Hillary on Benghazi, and he got nowhere, nowhere with her.

Your thoughts?

SCHMIDT: Well, it`s absolutely snake oil.

There`s absolutely zero evidence that any of these FBI agents who`s has had their private text messages compromised, there`s zero evidence that they misused their badge, their office, their credentials to abuse the president, his family or any of the president`s supporters.

Again, this is a smear campaign directed at these twos FBI agents, absent any evidence. It`s latter-day McCarthyism. And it is entirely about what it seems to be about, which is trying to blow smoke around this investigation to obstruct the American people from finding out what went on here at all costs.

MATTHEWS: Well, it says to me, the more smoke, the closer they`re getting to these guys.

Anyway, thank you, Steve Schmidt. And thank you, Frank Figliuzzi.

Up next: much more on the reporting tonight that special counsel Robert Mueller is looking to question now the president himself. One of Trump`s top allies says that he should avoid the interview at all. Roger Stone says the president should not go anywhere near an interview. It could be a suicide mission, a perjury trap. That`s what Roger Stone says.

He`s been advising Trump for 20 years. He says don`t go anywhere near a hearing room.

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.



QUESTION: Would you be willing to speak under oath to give your version of those events?

TRUMP: One hundred percent.

QUESTION: So, if Robert Mueller wanted to speak with you about that, you would be...


TRUMP: I would be glad to tell him exactly what I just told you, Jim.



MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was, of course, our president this summer saying he would be 100 percent ready to talk to special counsel Robert Mueller under oath.

Well, now, months later, Trump`s allies warn that by opening himself up to questioning, the president could be walking into a -- quote -- "perjury trap." There`s a hot new phrase.

According to "The Washington Post," Mueller wants to question Trump on the departures -- I love that phrase -- of both National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who he hated to see go, and FBI Director James Comey he was glad to see go.

In June, Comey told Congress that the president had asked him to let Flynn go. Let`s watch.


JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: Understood him to be saying that what he wanted me to do was drop any investigation connected to Flynn`s account of his conversations with the Russians.

I took it as a direction. It 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.


MATTHEWS: And the president himself told NBC`s Lester Holt that he fired Comey because of the Russia investigation, per se.

Let`s watch.


TRUMP: Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey. I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.


MATTHEWS: I love these conversations between Trump and Trump.

For more, I`m joined by the HARDBALL Roundtable, Susan Page, right here, Washington bureau chief for "USA Today," and Michael Steele, former chair of the RNC, the Republican National Committee, and an MSNBC political analyst, and Jamal Simmons, who is a Democratic strategist.

Well, here we go.

And I`m thinking, let`s think about this happening as a dramatic moment, Trump vs. Mueller. Is it -- at the end of the show, I`m going to compare it to Columbo and one of those rich suave guys that is always the bad guy, who is always completely powdered up and is perfect and totally calm and sure of himself.


MATTHEWS: It`s usually Robert Culp or someone like that. And this time, Mr. Suave will be in there. Will he begin to sweat?

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "USA TODAY": Well, the trouble is, he`s not like that? He`s not like Robert Culp. He`s more like someone who you saw in the Lester Holt interview, where he`s volunteering all kinds of information that is incredibly legally problematic for him.

So, the qualities that President Trump brings...


MATTHEWS: But everybody likes Lester Holt. So, maybe that was -- he was charmed. Who knows?

PAGE: The qualities that President Trump has, to be expansive, to exaggerate, to be hyperbolic, to want to win you over, I mean, those are exactly the opposite qualities that you want to have when you`re testifying under oath to a prosecutor.

MICHAEL STEELE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: It`s that key point, wanting to win you over.

MATTHEWS: You want to go. You want to be Gary Cooper. Yes. No.

STEELE: Yes, wanting to win you over.

MATTHEWS: But Trump`s not that guy.

STEELE: He`s not that guy. He`s the guy who wants to win you over.

And I can see him wanting to get in that room and convince Mueller that everything you know, everything you have seen, everything you have read, whatever you heard from everybody else, that`s not true. What I`m about to about to tell you is the truth.

And he begins that convincing argument, which leads to what you were saying.

MATTHEWS: But he`s already on the record.

God, Jamal, he`s already on the record as saying, I got rid of that guy because he`s coming at me on Russia.


MATTHEWS: It wasn`t -- he`s not being sneaky about it. He told Lester that.

SIMMONS: And there are reports he said the same thing to the Russians when they came to visit him in the Oval Office.

This is not the first time that anyone`s ever asked Donald Trump these questions. And so I think Mueller has a lot of material here to work with. And, remember, it`s not just Trump who is in jeopardy here. Jared and his son Don Jr. Also may have some trouble also.

MATTHEWS: Well, I think so.

According to "Washington Post," Trump has told his teams of lawyers that he`s not worried about being interviewed because he`s done nothing wrong.

Back to you on that, because it`s clean -- it`s a question of how weavy can he be. Can he say, I got rid of Flynn behind he lied to the vice president?

I don`t know if he lied to the FBI or not, and I wasn`t trying to protect him, I didn`t foot-drag about that. I didn`t keep him around because I was afraid he was going to come at me. I didn`t go to Comey and ask him to go light on him because I was afraid he was going to come at me.

All the circumstance suggests he is trying to cover for himself, scared to death, the big fish has been caught by Comey, and the big fish is going to talk. And it looks like he is.

PAGE: The big fish meaning President Trump?

MATTHEWS: No, Flynn.

PAGE: Meaning Flynn?

MATTHEWS: Michael Flynn.

PAGE: Right.

MATTHEWS: He`s in a boat.

PAGE: Michael Flynn is a huge problem and concern for President Trump, because he was there during the campaign in the early days of the administration.

So, whatever was going on, he presumably knew.

MATTHEWS: He was his national security guy who would be talking to the Russians about sanctions. By the way, he was. And that`s why he was fired, because he was talking to the Russians about sanctions.

And he wouldn`t admit that to the V.P. or apparently to the FBI.

PAGE: And he`s cooperating now.

MATTHEWS: But now he is telling them.

PAGE: And now he`s cooperating.

And so that has got to be -- one would assume this is an issue of incredible concern to the president`s lawyers at least.

MATTHEWS: Yes. I`m not a lawyer, Michael. I say it a thousand times with sort of pride. No, just kidding. I do like lawyers.


MATTHEWS: But the fact is, I think they have got a case.

STEELE: They do have a case.

And it has been for quite some time one that runs in the obstruction of justice lane. At the beginning of this whole episode, a lot of conversation was around this idea of collusion.

And the legal beagles out there were like, we`re not following collusion. We don`t even know what that is. We`re looking at this.

And it is that thing that Michael Flynn, that Papadopoulos and others, through their questioning and answers, have brought to this table now. They give the president...

MATTHEWS: Jamal, I want to make your case. I know where you`re going.

There`s a smorgasbord, to use an old phrase, of cases they can make here. They can go after money laundering and that whole family and all that Russian money they poured into Deutsche Bank and everything, the 666 address and all that. They go after them all on collusion, because so many meetings with Russians, Russian, Russian, Russian, and, of course, obstruction.

I think all three plates are sitting there on the buffet table, and it`s up to this guy when to go for them.


SIMMONS: Let`s not forget about the Air Force One statement drafting, which we all think Donald Trump was involved in figuring out, how do they cover for the meeting that Don Jr. had with the Russian lawyers when they said, we have got dirt on Hillary Clinton, and he said, great?

MATTHEWS: Collusion.

SIMMONS: Collusion. Collusion and obstruction.


Well, President Trump`s longtime ally Roger Stone says don`t go into -- don`t go to this. That is kind of a vacant recommendation, because, how does he avoid it?

Can he say, I`m not going to testify?

PAGE: Well, legally, he could say, I`m not going to voluntarily testify.

But in that case, politically, that`s problematic. But, legally, then he could be subpoenaed, and then you would...

MATTHEWS: Like Clinton was.

PAGE: As Clinton was.

MATTHEWS: Would he have to be taken before a grand jury, like Clinton was, Bill Clinton?

PAGE: So, could be. They would then presumably work it out.

But I think it is hard to imagine this unfolding without President Trump having to testify under oath in some way to the special prosecutor.

STEELE: I -- I don`t see Mueller giving up that card...


STEELE: ... and negotiating that off the table. I just don`t see that.

MATTHEWS: I don`t think this is going to be like government closing and coming back open again. They`re not going to give the guy 50/50 take home exam. That is the most ridiculous idea. Who wouldn`t want a take home exam? We`ll figure this thing out.


JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: He`s so disciplined. He`s so undisciplined no telling what he says.

MATTHEWS: OK. This roundtable is sticking around.

Up next, President Trump can`t help but gloat over yesterday`s deal to reopen the government. But is he popping the cork confident champagne bottle early? And how much credit does the president actually deserve for what happened? He was in the White House crying over his birthday cake, wasn`t he?

You`re watching HARDBALL.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Over the past few days, President Trump has remained out of the limelight, have you noticed? The place he loves to be, the limelight. Anyway, the president finally resurfaced late last night, spiking the football hours after the shutdown of the federal government actually ended. Trump tweeted, big win for Republicans as Democrats gave on shutdown. Oh, caved on it.

It`s not the first time he`s taking credit for something he actually didn`t do. Here he is earlier today.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We`re bringing business back to the United States for the first time in many, many years. Many, many decades really.


MATTHEWS: He`s something actually. He or rather his co-author in the "Art of the Deal" called truthful hyperbole, an innocent form of exaggeration. That`s what he calls that, and a very effective form of self-promotion.

Here are a few more examples from the past year.


TRUMP: Since my election, Ford, Fiat Chrysler, General Motors, Sprint, Softbank, Lockheed, Intel, Walmart and many others have announced that they will invest billions and billions of dollars in the United States and will create tens of thousands of new American jobs.

And, of course, the stock market is at an all-time high, historic high. It`s never been -- I mean, it`s going up I think it was 54 times since I was elected.

So, congratulations. We have created nearly 2.2 million jobs since the election. By the way, African-American unemployment is the lowest it`s ever been in the history of our records.


MATTHEWS: We`re back with the roundtable.

What do you make of that? Michael, it`s not even pontificating. It`s bragging.

STEELE: It is bragging. It`s taking a fact and expanding it and exaggerating it and wrapping it around.

MATTHEWS: It was 61 degrees today in Washington. I think he should take credit for that, I mean --

STEELE: But this is his style. It is -- it is the consummate salesman style. I`m always selling. He`s always selling. He`s always making the point and it`s always what I`m doing for me and for you, by the way. You do get something out of this because you`re listening to me, you`re hearing me tell you all these wonderful things.

And that`s the president`s style. What Washington has still yet to adapt to is how do you respond to that? How much of that do you take as truth and how much of that do you actually go and write about and share with the public? And he knows as long as he`s got you off balance like that, it works.

PAGE: You know, if had he not been basically boxed out of these negotiations at the end of the shutdown, we would still be in a shutdown. However, they kept President Trump from engaging it meant Republicans had a consistent message which they didn`t have before. It meant that it robbed the Democrats of a big target which President Trump would have been. I mean, it was crucial in getting the government to get funded after just a couple of days.

STEELE: And he doesn`t want to hear that, by the way. He doesn`t want to know that that fact that this worked and he got boxed out of it by his chief of staff and by the speaker or the majority leader --

MATTHEWS: He was pretty good bragging about the women`s march over the weekend. That was his, too. That was his baby.

When it comes down to giving Trump a pass, some top evangelical leaders are turning a blind eye to his past discretions and came to his defense following recent reports about his alleged affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels. Let`s watch.


TONY PERKINS, EVANGELICAL LEADER: The evangelicals did not vote for Donald Trump based on his moral qualifications, but based upon what he said he was going to do and who he was surrounding himself with. We kind of give him, all right, you get a mulligan. You get a do over here. You can start --

DOVERE: A mulligan for 70 years of his life?

PERKINS: Hey, look, the guy committed -- this is what he`s committed to. And as long as he commits to that and continues on that, he will have the support of evangelicals. From a policy standpoint, he has delivered more than any other president in my lifetime.


MATTHEWS: I`ve never heard Faustian bargains described so well. I mean, basically, he says, as long as you`re with us on the issues, you`re off.

SIMMONS: And, Chris, they`re giving up all the moral authority here. I mean, that`s the thing. You know, these people -- the evangelicals come to the political game supposedly there to bring their moral authority from their faith. But then they do deals with people like Donald Trump and they lost it all. And we`ve been seeing that I think for a long time that they`ve been willing to sort of sit underneath the same tent with people who are absolutely not living up to the --


MATTHEWS: But in all fairness, they give a lot of moral credit to Barack Obama for being a good husband and good father and never messing around, anything like that. He was always a good man. Remember how they used to lavish credit on him? Not a minute. Not a minute.

PAGE: It makes the evangelical community like every other lobbying group in time. It makes them just like the NRA which is --

MATTHEWS: They want stuff.

PAGE: And if you give them that stuff, then they`ll support you.

STEELE: I have very simple admonition at this point to just shut the hell up and don`t preach to me about anything ever again.


STEELE: I don`t want to hear it because after telling me how to live my life, who to love, what to believe, what not to believe, what to do and what not to do, and now you sit back and if the prostitutes don`t matter --


STEELE: -- the grabbing the you know what doesn`t matter, the outright behavior and lies don`t matter, just shut up.

MATTHEWS: But if you`re a baker, you do not have to bake a cake for a gay wedding.


STEELE: Yes. They have no voice of authority here anymore for me.

MATTHEWS: You are very authoritative. This is a final statement.

STEELE: It rubs me raw.

MATTHEWS: This is a final statement from Michael Steele.

The roundtable is sticking with us. You`re watching HARDBALL.


MATTHEWS: Back with the HARDBALL roundtable.

And three big scoops you`ll be talking about tomorrow. I`m now raising the bar. But here we go.


PAGE: OK. So, President Trump is learning is the value of the talking and talking loud. Melania Trump has learned the power of not talking. You know, she didn`t say a word after the Stormy Daniels disclosures but she has canceled her plans to go with the president to Davos. That speaks powerfully.

MATTHEWS: Really? You have the scoop on that. This is new.

PAGE: It was out today. I think it sends.

MATTHEWS: News for me.


STEELE: Governor McMaster of South Carolina is not a happy camper today as the president has now imposed sanctions on washing machines and Samsung has recently opened up a wonderful plant there in South Carolina where they got 600 employees. They`re going we don`t know what to do with this plant if these sanctions stay in place. These tariffs stay in place.

So, the president`s global policy on tariffs and sanctions will have a very local impact and he`s going to hear it from his base at some point.

MATTHEWS: Jamal --


SIMMONS: Continuing the state-based part of this, lieutenant governor of Virginia, Justin Fairfax, first African-American lieutenant governor in Virginia history, today -- yesterday stepped down from the dais when they began to honor Stonewall Jackson. They were supposed to do an event for Robert Lee on Friday. They canceled it. I`m hearing they`re going to do the event tomorrow and he`s planning to have another silent protest and leave the dais. This is rural conservative Virginia coming in conflict with modern Virginia, and Justin Fairfax at the lead of it.

MATTHEWS: Battles were fought in Virginia, too. Anyway, thank you, Susan Page, Michael Steele, and Jamal Simmons.

You`re watching HARDBALL.


MATTHEWS: The 2018 O nominees are out today. It`s a diverse list actually that celebrates women and minorities. "The Shape of Water" dominated with 13 nominations just shy of the record. The World War II drama "Dunkirk" was nominated eight times while "Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri", I like that movie, also got multiple nods, including a lead actress nomination for Frances McDormand.

There were some familiar faces for the nominees, like Meryl Streep, who scored her 21st nomination for "The Post." Meanwhile, Greta Gerwig became just the fifth woman ever nominated for best director for her film "Lady Bird." It`s up for a number of awards by the way, that film, including best picture.

When we return, let me finish tonight with Trump Watch.


MATTHEWS: Trump Watch Tuesday, January 23rd, 2018.

The man in the White House is behaving now like a character on that old detective show "Columbo". He`s acting like one of the bad guys. You remember them. They are always rich, high ranking in society, suave and charming of manner, never giving off a whiff of guilt. They speak as if their words were powdered with fine talcum.

Well, this is President Trump crooning on and on how he has nothing to fear from oncoming Bob Mueller. Everything is perfectly in order. Yet, there are some little details that Mr. Mueller would like to clear up, like why did he, Trump, delay in firing national security adviser Michael Flynn after knowing Flynn had lied about his conversations with the Russian ambassador? Why did he after firing Flynn ask FBI Director James Comey to go easy on him?

Well, these are questions the special counsel will want Trump to answer. But the story line here is the slow grinding unglamorous advance of the forces seeking truth against those who are seeking to hold it tight to himself. If it were a contest of arrogance, Trump`s got a fighting chance. If it`s about the facts, Mr. President, let`s just see, as Detective Columbo would say, just one more question, sir.

And that`s HARDBALL for now.

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.


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