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WH downplays significance of indictments. TRANSCRIPT: 02/26/2018. Hardball with Chris Matthews

Guests: Joaquin Castro; Miriam Rocah; Natasha Bertrand, Jonathan Swan, Dannel Malloy, Samuel Zeif

Show: HARDBALL Date: February 26, 2018 Guest: Joaquin Castro; Miriam Rocah; Natasha Bertrand, Jonathan Swan, Dannel Malloy, Samuel Zeif

ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST, THE BEAT: You can find that there or at thebeatwithari.com. "Hardball" with Chris Matthews starts right now.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. Let`s play "Hardball."

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.

If commander in-chief Donald Trump has his way, that old World War II slogan will become the motto for America`s teachers, pass the ammunition. Not only that, President Trump let us know today that if he were at Marjory Douglas Stoneman himself early this month when a gunman opened fire on students and faculty, he, Donald Trump would have rushed heroically in to save lives in contrast to the sheriff`s deputies who remained safely outside the building.

Let`s watch him do it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I got to watch some deputy sheriffs performing this weekend. They weren`t exactly Medal of Honor winners. All right. The way they performed was, frankly, disgusting. You know, I really believe you don`t know until you test it. But I think I really believe I would run in even if I didn`t have a weapon. And I think most of the people in this room would have done that too.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Even if I didn`t have a weapon. More on that coming up.

Meanwhile, it was another weekend of frenzy for the President as he repeatedly tweeted about Russia. He also called in to the friendly confines of Jeanine Pirro`s Saturday night FOX News show to bash the Democrats, the Russia investigation, and of course Barack Obama. It came after days of action by Robert Mueller and his team that indicate the probe is speeding along nicely. The latest brick in the wall, a guilty plea by former Trump deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates, who is cooperating now nicely with the Mueller investigation.

Today NBC`s Hallie Jackson asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders about the growing list of indicted officials who worked on the President`s campaign. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HALLIE JACKSON, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Given the guilty plea from Rick Gates on Friday, I`m wondering what it says in your view about the President`s judgment that three people linked to his campaign have now turned out to be criminals.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Look, I think that those are issues that took place long before they were involve had with the President. And anything beyond that because those are active investigation, I`m not going to go any further than that.

JACKSON: About his campaign?

SANDERS: Yes, but the actions are under review and under investigation took place prior to him being part of the President`s campaign.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Also this weekend, can the release of a memo by Democrats on the House intelligence committee defending the FBI and justice department against accusations by Republicans on the committee that they abused their power to go after a Trump associate. Trump quickly tweeted his reaction.

Quote "the Democrat memo response on government surveillance abuses is a total political and legal bust. Just confirms all the terrible things that we have done so illegal. Short time later, the President seemed to suggest his attorney general Jeff Sessions should investigate some of his political opponents.

Let`s watch that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Certainly the memo was a nothing. A lot of bad things happened on the other side, not on this side, but on the other side.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And you know what is interesting --

TRUMP: Should look into it. Because what they did is really fraudulent. And somebody should be looking into that. And by somebody, I`m talking about you know who.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, President Trump again denied any collusion.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: You have all these committees. Everybody is looking. There is no collusion. No phone calls. I had no phone calls. I have no meetings. No nothing. I don`t want to sound braggadocios. I was a far better candidate. She was not a good candidate. She went to the wrong states. Frankly, that`s what it was all about. It was nothing to do with Russians.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Of course, he also shifted blame to his predecessor, Barack Obama.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I have to say Obama was the President during all of this meddling, or whatever you want to call it with Russians and others possibly. But Obama was the President. He is the one that was supposed to take care of this. And he didn`t. Nobody brings that up. He was warned, and he didn`t which makes it even worse.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: For more I`m joined by Miriam Rocah, a former federal prosecutor and Natasha Bertrand, staff writer for "the Atlantic."

Let me go to Miriam on that question. What do you make of the defense -- well, I guess he is a defendant in the court of public opinion. I guess you have to call on that. But all he does is defend himself against charges no one really made. What is this frenzy about? Do you think it`s because of something to do with the prosecutor, the special counsel looking so robust in terms of the indictments he has made in the last couple of days?

MIRIAM ROCAH, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, it`s hard to be in the mind of Donald Trump. So I`m not going to quite attempt that. But I certainly think that, you know, Mueller`s indictment was so of the Russians and then following closely by the guilty plea by Gates and showing that he is cooperating. And you can see that he has been so thorough and detailed. And that`s got to be frightening to Donald Trump. Because that`s what Mueller deals. In Mueller and his team deal in facts and evidence. And things that they can prove in court if need be. I`m not saying it`s ever going to get to court. But that`s how prosecutors and FBI agents, investigators, that`s how they work. It`s not about politics. It`s about facts and evidence.

And they are clearly hard at work gathering that in a very meticulous detailed way. And I do think it`s interesting the clip that you played. One of the pieces that Donald Trump said on the judge Jeanine Pirro show where he said, you know, there was no collusion, no phone calls, no meetings.

And look, we don`t know right now, Mueller is investigating what it is that Trump and his inner circle did do, if anything that would constitute a crime. But I do know that if that`s going to be the argument that there was no crime committed because he didn`t have any meetings or any phone calls, that`s not going to hold water. Because the conspiracy law which is really the law we are talking about here, not collusion, but conspiracy, conspiracy law is much broader than that. It doesn`t require meetings, phone calls, concrete, explicit agreements. It can be much more subtle than that.

MATTHEWS: And what would it be in fact in the case of a President in seeking office, seeking the White House, and knowing the Russians are getting worried the Russians are trying to help you. What steps would he have to take to incriminate himself?

ROCAH: Well, it would depend on what the underlying conspiracy is. But let`s -- I`m hypothesizing here. But let`s generalize and say that it`s the Russians interfering in the election, either by the social media campaign or by other ways that we have not yet seen, the hacking of emails or even other things that we may not even know about yet.

Someone within the campaign, if they were aware of those efforts and had knowledge of them and took some step to further those efforts, the goal of that conspiracy by others, then they could liable for that conspiracy themselves.

MATTHEWS: With the President would he be responsible for the actions of his campaign in regard to a conspiracy charge?

ROCAH: Well, it`s not a strict liability. It`s not just liable because they are members of his campaign. He would have to have some personal knowledge himself.

MATTHEWS: OK.

ROCAH: And either approve of it in some way. But it can be much more subtle. It doesn`t require a sort of explicit, you know, hey, let`s do this kind of agreement. It can be much more nuanced than that.

MATTHEWS: How about checking with his in-law and his son-in-law and son and say what you get from the Russians on the dirt front? Or when you put out announcement, I want the Russians to help me get more emails on Hillary, or these sort of public calls to help, and also checking in with people like Flynn after he met with Kislyak and asking him how did that go. Did you ask him about sanctions? Would that all qualify as collusion, as conspiratorial in this case?

ROCAH: Well, again, I want to be careful about the word collusion. It could be enough if you add all that together or not. You know, I`m not sitting saying right now that I think he is guilty of that crime. I don`t know all of the facts. But those are certainly all the kinds of facts and factors that would look at. In fact, there is case law out there that talks about, you know, checking in on the status of other co-conspirators, that being enough to make someone part of a conspiracy or put them in a conspiracy. But we really would need to know all the information.

And the point is, that`s what Mueller and his team are doing. And so, when people in Trump`s orbit or his defenders say, well, no collusion has been found yet, again, bad word, collusion. Nothing has been found yet because he is not done with the investigation. He is building the blocks right now. And he hasn`t` established - Mueller has established that there is a conspiracy. And that`s only one part of it that he has already, you know, indicted.

MATTHEWS: One part. Are we talking Rico here?

ROCAH: Rico could be a possibility. Rico is sort of you could look at it as sort of an advanced form of conspiracy.

Right.

It`s even broader than conspiracy in some ways. But there is a loft different elements that you would need to show. You have to have an enterprise.

MATTHEWS: Sure, criminal enterprise.

ROCAH: But it`s a possibility. It`s definitely a possibility.

MATTHEWS: I have been thinking about it.

Anyways, on FOX News today, former chief of staff to President Trump Reince Priebus was asked about Rick Gates` duties during the campaign when Priebus was chair of the RNC. Let`s watch Priebus.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REINCE PRIEBUS, FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF: More logistics, event planning, things that were going on behind the scenes. A lot of the busy work was what Rick, I saw did. I wasn`t sure as how far into the policy or into the campaigning himself he was involved with. I don`t think he was, actually.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: OK, we have seen that before. It`s not the first time Donald Trump or his aides and allies have downplayed the contributions of anyone who has become a liability regarding the Russia investigation. Let`s watch more.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN SPICER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Even general Flynn was a volunteer of the campaign. And then obviously there has been discussion of Paul Manafort, who played a very limited role for very limited amount of time.

TRUMP: I know Mr. Manafort. I haven`t spoken to him in a long time. But I know him. He was with the campaign for a short period of time.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELLOR TO THE PRESIDENT: In the case of Mr. Page and Mr. Gordon, some others that they really have very opinionated contacts to the campaign that I managed for the last three months.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I never heard of Papadopoulos. He never showed up at Trump tower, never had any interaction with any of the campaign leaders around me. The guy was -- he was the coffee boy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you remember George Papadopoulos during that march meeting?

TRUMP: I don`t remember much about that meeting. It was a very unimportant meeting. It took place a long time. Don`t remember much about it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Let me go to another, Natasha Bertrand.

Natasha, there is really problem here. I don`t know nothing. As sergeant Schulz used to say on Hogan`s heroes. I don`t know nothing. Every time somebody gets indicted, none of these guys know who he is. Never met him. Coffee boy. Didn`t some kind of work around the office. Don`t really know him.

NATASHA BERTRAND, REPORTER, THE ATLANTIC: Right. Reince Priebus actually said it himself. He said Rick Gates was working behind the scenes. Rick Gates was flying on Trump`s plane, on Trump`s campaign plane until Election Day. He stayed on working with the transition team as a liaison between the transition team and the RNC. Even after, well after Paul Manafort was ousted, he stayed on. And he of course was still talking to Paul Manafort throughout that entire period. He was Paul Manafort`s protege. He was his right-hand man.

And I would also say the fact that George Papadopoulos is being characterized as a coffee boy, you would want the coffee boy to be the one doing the intermediary work if you wanted someone low level in the campaign who isn`t noticed to be colluding with Russia. So the fact that they`re trying to downplay Papadopoulos`s role, which we have seen he actually had a very prominent role in the campaign.

MATTHEWS: Sure.

BERTRAND: He was setting up meetings, and he was representing the campaign at the RNC at certain events. He went to England and he represented the campaign when he was talking to foreign leaders there. So, you know, the fact that they are representing Papadopoulos as a coffee boy or they are saying that Rick Gates didn`t have a very prominent role in the campaign is ignoring the fact that they were there. They were in the midst of all of this. They were at the center of it and they heard everything going on. And this campaign was notoriously not tight-lipped. I mean, there was -- this was an operation that was not very tight. So the fact that they were in the midst of it, even Rick Gates being behind the scenes, that kind of says it all.

MATTHEWS: I think they are called cut-outs. There is a term for exactly what you described there. They are called cut-outs you. Use people that you can pass off as not really one of yourself.

Anyway, Joaquin Castro joins us, congressman from Texas, a member of the House intel committee.

You are laughing. This is - we are talking about spy games. And we are also talking about conspiracy and maybe a Rico charge. And I`m talking about the President. When you watch this as a member of the intelligence committee and you have so much information, what do you see Mr. Mueller working on in terms of prosecution here? Do you see a picture of it?

REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO (D-TX), HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Yes, certainly. You know, of course, the House and Senate committees can`t charge anybody with a crime. If anybody is going to be charged with a crime as folks have, it`s going to be left to Robert Mueller and his investigation. But I think that there are three fundamental things that he is probably looking at. Obstruction of justice, collusion of course which we are also looking at and any kind of issue with money laundering. And based on everything I have seen, there are plenty of leads for him to track down.

MATTHEWS: And which is the richest field for you, for the prosecutor and yourself?

CASTRO: I still think that the obstruction of justice charges probably have the greatest merit. We don`t have enough information, at least on our committee about the money laundering because, well, for a few reasons. The first thing is that the committee has not done a good job of following up on leads, verifying statements that were made to us by witnesses of looking at people`s bank records and so forth that would give us any kind of indication about that kind of malfeasance.

MATTHEWS: I agree with you, congressman. Do you guys on the minority side of any power over that committee? Any call?

CASTRO: It`s been very tough. Devin Nunes, of course, is still inserted himself in the investigation, even though he had supposedly recused himself. So it`s been tough to get subpoenas out and to get all the information we would like to see.

MATTHEWS: You know, the President was pinning medals on his chest yesterday. What did you make of that, saying how great he was, what an American hero he was? What do you make of the way the President has thanked him for his services?

CASTRO: When he was talking about the shooting?

MATTHEWS: Yes. He is talking about how great Nunes has been as a public servant, as a patriot.

CASTRO: Sure. Sure. I thought you were talking about something else.

No, with respect to Devin Nunes, Devin unfortunately has been an obstruction in this investigation. He has caused a lot of division within the committee. I don`t know why he has done it. He basically has made sacrificed his own political career in service to Donald Trump. It`s been a very strange episode.

MATTHEWS: It sure has. And it`s embarrassing for everybody.

Thank you, as congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas, member of the intel committee. Thank you, Miriam Rocah and Natasha Bertrand.

Coming up, President Trump once again made the case today that we should arm teachers with guns, but only those with a natural talent he said for handling guns. Natural talent, whatever that is. One Democratic governor told the President to his face that teachers shouldn`t be packing and that Trump needs to do some less tweeting and more listening. He is out there passing (ph) the ammunition.

Plus, whatever happened to the conservative movement in this country? It seems as if it`s gotten more and more outlandish under Trump. It is really conservative? Now a CPAC spokesman says Michael Steele, our colleague here, was chosen to lead the RNC way back when, because, this is our phrase, he is a black guy. Great stuff in the right way.

And President Trump has punted the ball on Jared Kushner`s security clearance leaving the issue up, he says, up to John Kelly, his chief of staff. If Kushner is supposed to solve the mid-east crisis, how can he do it without the intel on the various players? What a joke.

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

This is "Hardball," where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: California Democratic Party this weekend offered an embarrassing rebuke to senator Dianne Feinstein, declining to endorse her re-election bid. Delegates of the party`s statewide convention instead voted overwhelmingly for Feinstein`s progressive rival, state Senate leader Kevin de Leon. While neither candidate reached the 60 percent threshold required to win the nomination, de Leon garnered 54 percent of vote compared to Feinstein`s 37 percent. The two will face off in a June primary open to all California voters which should give Feinstein an edge. In yet another sign the party is tilting left ward, the Democratic congressional campaign committee is refusing to endorse pro-life seven-term Illinois incumbent, Dan Lapinski.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Yesterday, the last of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting victims was laid to rest.

And, today, President Trump hosted a bipartisan roundtable discussion with a number of state governors on what to do about gun violence. And once again, Trump flirted with the notion of banning bump stocks, but did not offer a plan forward. He also repeated his pitch to arm teachers, a position consistently advocated by the NRA.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don`t want teachers to have guns. I want highly trained people that have a natural talent, like hitting a baseball, or hitting a golf ball or putting.

How come some people always make the four-footer, and some people under pressure can`t even take their club back, right? Some people can`t take their club back. And you don`t know what it is. I say the only way you stop it is retribution. I don`t think you`re going to stop it by being kind.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, Washington Governor Jay Inslee confronted the president on that proposal.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. JAY INSLEE (D), WASHINGTON: We need to listen that educators should educate and they should not be foisted upon this responsibility of packing heat in first grade classes.

So I just suggest we need a little less tweeting here and a little more listening.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, meanwhile, a "USA Today" poll taken over the weekend shows that Americans overwhelmingly want action on guns; 63 percent support banning semiautomatic weapons like the AR-15. According to another poll released by CNN, 70 percent of the public support tougher gun laws. And that`s the highest its been since 1993.

Well, despite this groundswell of public support generally, it`s unlikely that the Republican-controlled Congress will take sweeping new legislation of any kind. The president is set to meet with bipartisan members of Congress this week.

But if the DACA debate has shown us anything, it`s that, despite massive public support, Congress and the president are loathe to take a position at odds with their base, especially ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

For more, I`m joined by Democratic Governor from Connecticut Dan Malloy and Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent with the "PBS NewsHour" and an MSNBC contributor.

Governor, what do you make of the president`s claim that he, with or without a gun, would have gone racing into the school at the time of that shooting, hearing the semiautomatic gunfire and the mass shooting of children? He would have gone in there and stopped it, in some way, armed or not. What do you make of that claim?

GOV. DANNEL MALLOY (D), CONNECTICUT: Well, this from a guy who went to a military high school, and then dodged going to Vietnam on multiple occasions.

Sometimes, you just have to be embarrassed for the poor guy. Today, at the White House, with other governors, he was talking about shooting children in the same context about natural talent like baseball or putting or other things.

I mean, this is -- this is -- they`re highly unusual behavior for anyone who is taking this issue seriously.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

MALLOY: And then, of course, it came out that over the weekend the president had his buddies from the NRA to lunch. This is a bait and switch.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Well, let`s talk about -- well, there is a lot of going on of that with him.

What you make about a guy who compares facing down someone an AR-15 looking in the face, and you got the barrel pointed at you, as it would be if you went up and confronted him, with a four-foot putt?

MALLOY: Yes. No, I mean, it`s bizarre. Actually, as I`m sitting here talking to you, I am embarrassed for president of the United States that he doesn`t -- he is not capable of separating putting and death.

I know golf is important, but these are two things we shouldn`t be doing together. I had an opportunity to look up some of his prior statements about seeing an 80-year-old man fall and hit his head. And as the man was bleeding, the only thing he could worry about was the tile or the marble floor at his resort in Florida being stained.

We really are now in the theater of the bizarre when it comes to this president talking about these kinds of issues.

MATTHEWS: He has shown something.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Go, ahead, Yamiche, because I want to ask both of you. You can start, Yamiche.

He seems to have developed this skill of -- I`m going to talk about it at the end of the show -- a two-step. First of all, he knows he will say anything he wants in the moment. I`m for DACA kids. I love, I cherish these kids. Two weeks later, he does what he wants to do.

Same with the gun control. I will say anything right now. Oh, we got to do something on bump stocks, got to something with the age limits, blah, blah, blah, something on magazines. Knowing in two or three weeks, he will do whatever the hell he feels like doing.

He has mastered the time schedule and the limited time, what do you call it, the amount of time -- our attention span.

rMD-BO_YAMICHE ALCINDOR, MSNBC ANALYST: Attention span. Yes, the attention span.

MATTHEWS: We don`t have a long attention span. And he masters it.

Your thoughts, Yamiche? Because I think the governor was getting at that too.

ALCINDOR: So, I think that what we saw the president do today was really be a salesman. He is selling this idea that putting more guns into schools is somehow going to make people safe.

And he is selling this idea that he himself can be brave. Remember, he said that he alone could save this country. And now he is saying, I`m so brave, I`m the type of person that would go into a school when I know that I would probably be shot with an AR-15 without a handgun, and I would save these children.

What he is really trying to say is, one, to the NRA that, look, we really want to do this. I`m going to put my full throat behind this. I`m going to sell this idea that teachers who are already overwhelmed with so many other things going on in school, and who can`t even get money for school supplies, that they somehow are now going to get federal funds to learn how to shoot.

But you also have a president who I think is really feeling pressure from these students to do something in the moment. And I think that it`s fair and it`s smart to say that he is someone who has really I think monopolized and really used to his benefit the attention span, because he is someone who has really been able to, I would say, dominate the conversation based on what he wants to talk that week.

MATTHEWS: You know, Governor, I don`t know about you, but I went to parochial school. And I have to tell you, I wonder what they`re taking, the nuns in the convent tonight, the nuns thinking about this, Sisters of Mercy in Saint Joseph, where are we going to wear our guns?

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: I`m sorry, the Christian brothers.

This idea that teachers are naturally, their vocation called them in the direction of guns -- it called them away from guns. This idea that that`s how they`re going to spend their lives.

Your thoughts.

MALLOY: This is bait and switch. He is just running out the clock. If he was worried about bump stocks, how come he wasn`t worried about it after the shooting in Nevada, where they were actually used and bullets were raining down, 90 bullets every 10 seconds, on concert-goers? How come it wasn`t a big issue then, but he makes it an issue in this shooting, when that`s really not in play?

And, by the way, let`s point out that a lot of mass murderers want to die. They`re going to go with the expectation that they`re going to die. We have seen that time and time again.

So, you know, having a battle in a school with somebody with guns is not something that they`re afraid of. In fact, it`s ultimately part of their plan. Why don`t we do something to make people safer? Why don`t we have universal background checks? Forty percent of guns in America change hands without a background check.

Why won`t the NRA agree that we need universal background checks? Then here is another thing. Let`s go back to putting the no-fly list on the no- buy list. How about that, Mr. President? Wouldn`t that make us all better?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Where are you going be, Governor, in 2020? Where are you going be in 2020? Are you up for this one?

MALLOY: No, no. Listen, I`m sure...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: No, Trump is running for reelection. You sound like you`re ready to go against him. Are you going to do it?

MALLOY: No, no, no.

No. You know what I`m going to do is, I`m going to devote a good part of the rest of my life to trying to make people safer. And the number one thing we could do in America is to make sure that every gun purchase or sale is recorded.

Then we could improve the NICS system to make sure that no one ever again gets a gun that they use to murder people in a church because the NICS system didn`t say yes or no within three days. And they are purposely underfunding NICS.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Why don`t we have a ballistics test on every one of those weapons too, so we know what the character of the gun is, the signature of gun is?

Go ahead. Last word.

(CROSSTALK)

ALCINDOR: But I think I want to say this, though, that Democrats are also -- Democrats are also using this issue and they`re talking about this issue now because it`s top of mind.

Democrats didn`t -- this is not something that Democrats were talking about. They weren`t ready to die on this political hill. The same thing with DACA. They were also talking about this.

So, while the president is using this issue and is really using the failings of the Broward Clinton Sheriff`s Office to his advantage, really pointing out the inconsistencies, pointing out the fact that the FBI should have done more in this case, you have to be fair. Everybody is seeing this political football and saying, how can I use this to further my party?

MALLOY: Without -- with all due respect, Democrats have advocated for universal background checks forever. We have seven states...

(CROSSTALK)

ALCINDOR: But they haven`t done anything -- they haven`t always done anything.

(CROSSTALK)

MALLOY: I`m sorry?

ALCINDOR: Again, I`m not saying that Democrats...

(CROSSTALK)

MALLOY: Go ahead.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Go ahead, Yamiche.

ALCINDOR: Democrats have of course -- I agree with the governor.

Democrats have of course talked about gun safety. They are -- I think they are the party that has talked about gun safety more than the Republicans, for sure. The Republicans, of course, are the ones that are taking more money from the NRA. That`s settled.

The issue, though, is that Democrats, the ones that are in Congress, they didn`t make this a number one issue when they were in power in Congress. They could have done more when they were in power.

And you talk to gun advocates, people who are victims of gun shootings, and they say that. They say that they blame Washington, more so the Republicans. But they do blame the Democrats as well.

MATTHEWS: OK, because Democrats have other priorities. They have other good ones, too, like health care, things like that.

ALCINDOR: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Anyway, thank you, Governor Malloy. Please come back.

MALLOY: Sure.

MATTHEWS: Yamiche, you make a good point.

Progressives, by the way, and moderates have other interests besides guns. Gun toters have only one interest.

For more, I`m joined right now by Sam Zeif -- or Zeif, rather, a student at Stoneman Douglas high school itself. He met with the president last week.

Thank you, Sam.

What do you make of this debate? Do you think anybody is doing anything about gun control, gun safety right now after the horror of your school?

SAMUEL ZEIF, PARKLAND SHOOTING SURVIVOR: I think we are making the necessary steps, and they are steps in the right direction. They`re not enough.

But the age raise, the bump stocks, it is progress. And we`re definitely going to push for more.

MATTHEWS: What about the teachers and guns? Where do you stand on that?

ZEIF: I don`t understand, after a school shooting, why the answer would be to bring more guns into school. It doesn`t -- that idea doesn`t sit well with me or anyone else. I have spoken to many teachers, many faculty. They are not behind it. And I completely agree with them. Why should they have the responsibility to know whether or not they`re going to have to kill a kid that day, to know whether they`re going to take the first step? There is a lot of -- there has been a lot of officer -- police officer attacks for them being scared and taking the first step and pulling the trigger and making mistakes.

Why wouldn`t that happen in our schools? These people are trained their whole life to protect us, and that happens to them. These teachers are trained to teach. I don`t understand.

MATTHEWS: How do you keep the pressure on? I said something, and I think I`m right about it. The Second Amendment people who really care about their firearms think about it all the time. That`s their number one issue. That`s what they care about. And they will vote on that issue. Single voters.

How do you get progressives and other people concerned about firearms and misuse of them to focus on guns as their primary mission? How do you keep up that interest level?

ZEIF: Well, that`s another thing that doesn`t sit well with me.

I fully respect the Second Amendment. This is not about all guns. It`s about assault weapons, ARs. There is a very big difference between an assault weapon and a handgun, a pistol. A pistol is for self-defense. A pistol is maybe something you walk around at night to feel safe. But an AR is not. An AR is something that you purchase to kill. And look where we are now.

MATTHEWS: Thank you, Sam Zeif. It`s great to you on again. Thank you.

ZEIF: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: Up next: A CPAC spokesman -- spokesman says former RNC Chairman Michael Steele only got his position as chairman of the Republican National Committee because -- quote -- "He was black."

What is happening with the conservative movement to say stuff like that?

Anyway, this is HARDBALL, where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

President Trump was anything but the traditional conservative Republican candidate in 2016, of course. But as this year`s CPAC conference shows, it`s Trump`s party now.

CPAC communications director Ian Walters said on Friday that the RNC only elected former party chair Michael Steele because he was black.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

IAN WALTERS, CPAC COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: And a little bit of cynicism. What do we do? This is a terrible thing. We elected Mike Steele to be the RNC chair because he is a black guy. And that was the wrong thing to do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: And here is how CPAC chairman Matt Schlapp responded when confronted by Michael Steele himself.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL STEELE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: What the hell does my race have to do with any of that at the end of the day? What does the color of my skin have to do with anything you just said?

MATT SCHLAPP, FORMER WHITE HOUSE DIRECTOR OF POLITICAL AFFAIRS: Don`t take the worst out of what he said. You know. I know, but this is where you need to have some grace. Look at what...

STEELE: Wait a minute. What the hell do I have to be graceful for?

(LAUGHTER)

SCHLAPP: Well, you have not been very graceful to -- you have not been very graceful to the Republicans and the conservatives in this hall and in this room for a very long period of time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Anyway, I`m joined by conservative columnist George F. Will, who is also an MSNBC and NBC News contributor.

George, what do you make of the CPAC? Is it reflective of the modern conservative movement, such as it is?

GEORGE WILL, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Well, there are two modern conservative movements. One is more modern than the other, the other being conservative tends to look to the past, to the founders and all the rest.

Looking on the bright side, as I`m disinclined to do usually, I think there are moments when worse is better, and this is one at CPAC. It was very clarifying when they invited from Europe Ms. Le Pen, a fellow traveling neo-Nazi with a fascist past, to come and speak on a stage where the leaders of the Trump administration, including himself, were content to share the space with her, clarifying in this sense.

There is a continental, really Central European kind of right-wingery, throne, altar, blood, soil, tribe, all the rest, that is antithetical to the idea of the first Republican president that we are a nation dedicated to a proposition, that we`re a creedal nation, that you become an American by embracing the ideas, regardless of any other background.

It`s easy to say how you become an American. Not so easy to say how you become a Frenchman or a German or...

MATTHEWS: Or Japanese.

WILL: Or Japanese, of course.

MATTHEWS: Almost impossible. But you can become an American.

As you just mentioned, George, nationalists like Marine Le Pen took center stage at CPAC this year, last week. Let`s watch her.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NIGEL FARAGE, FORMER U.K. INDEPENDENCE PARTY LEADER: People like Soros don`t believe in the existence of the nation state. They don`t believe they don`t believe -- they don`t believe in national identity. They want us to live in a world where open borders.

(APPLAUSE)

MARINE LE PEN, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL FRONT PARTY: I want America first for the American people. I want Britain first for the British people. And I want France first for the French people.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: They`re not giving us their best people, folks. I don`t want people coming into this country with a lottery. I want people coming into this country based on merit.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: So there really isn`t much difference, it seems, in listening to those speakers between German nationalism and America -- U.S. nationalism. It`s blood and soil.

WILL: That`s correct. And it...

MATTHEWS: There`s no values attached to it, just us against them.

WILL: A conservative can be a nationalist, in that he says, I not only love my country, patriotism, but I believe there are superior aspects of the United States.

I`m a nationalist in that sense. That`s not the same thing as saying, I`m a nationalist because I`m born here, I`m of a particular tribe, and I believe that the tribe is superior.

MATTHEWS: Well, where is this going?

WILL: Well...

MATTHEWS: And where -- is there Trumpism in our future? Will this be redound to more Trumps in the Republican nomination process, more people like him, selling basically pretty gross nationalism?

WILL: I don`t know.

Perot-ism, if there was such a thing, didn`t survive the departure of Perot from the national stage. George Wallace-ism didn`t survive his departure.

I suspect that when this man with his peculiar persona and a hold it has on a certain minority of the American population departs, it will depart too. I have a feeling that people are going to say well, that was interesting, but also exhausting and faintly embarrassing. And I think you`re going see some anti-Trump personas come along, people calm and quiet and restful.

MATTHEWS: When he`s not in the room of the Republican leaders and people who are what we consider regular Bush Republicans or Reagan Republicans, is he in the room? Do they consider him part of them? Or are they glad he is not in the room that moment?

WILL: They don`t consider him one of them, but they know that he has a large hold on a large portion of their base.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

WILL: And since most of them have only to fear if you`re in the House, the only thing they fear is a primary dominated by the intense part of their base.

MATTHEWS: OK. So, is the Republican Party a Trump-occupied territory right now?

WILL: Absolutely.

MATTHEWS: Thank you. I was going say a captive nation. Would that be too strong?

Thank you, George F. Will.

Up next, President Trump says he`ll let Chief of Staff John Kelly call the shots on Jared Kushner`s security clearance. But if Kushner doesn`t have access to top secret information, how can he do his job? After all, he is supposed to be bringing about peace in the Middle East without any intel about the players? How does that work? All the Arab countries, he doesn`t know what they`re thinking, but he is going to bring them together.

Anyway, you`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We inherited a system that`s broken. It`s a system where many people have just -- it`s taken months and months and months. It`s a broken system. And it shouldn`t take this long.

That will be up to General Kelly. General Kelly respects Jared a lot. And General Kelly will make that call. I won`t make that call.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: We`re back to HARDBALL, or romper room in the case of the White House.

That was President Trump punting on the decision on Jared Kushner`s security clearance to Chief of Staff John Kelly. It`s up to Kelly now, he says today.

"Politico" reports that the president`s decision to stay on the sidelines has left Kelly and Kushner at an impasse, writing Kelly does not plan to recommend to the president that he grant Kushner a waiver. But he`s unlikely to resign if Trump ultimately decides to do so, according to a person familiar with this thing.

Let`s bring in the HARDBALL round table to figure this thing out. Jonathan Capehart, an opinion writer for "The Washington Post", Heidi Przybyla is national political correspondent for NBC News, and Jonathan Swan, national political reporter for "Axios".

Starting with you, Jonathan. This is an embarrassment that the president is making. He brought his family members in to the White House, like the Romanov family. He`s got Ivanka there being his representative in Pyeongchang. He`s got Jared bringing the American embassy to Jerusalem.

He`s got all this family, these Romanovs wandering around. And finally it`s come up against reality. They can`t pass must were the FBI. They can`t get cleared. That`s an embarrassment in his family. Now it`s an embarrassment for the White House and the country.

How is he going to fix this?

JONATHAN CAPEHART, OPINION WRITER, THE WASHINGTON POST: You meant Jonathan Capehart, not Jonathan Swan.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: We have two Jonathans here on the set.

When I look at you, I`m talking to you.

CAPEHART: Right. So, look, I have ceased looking at the Trump administration as a normal presidency or as a presidency.

MATTHEWS: How about a normal screwed up family?

CAPEHART: Well, definitely -- it`s definitely that. But it`s also -- it`s operating almost like a crime family. None of the norms, none of the customs that have regulated and ruled the Oval Office apply to those folks because one, they don`t know what they are. And two, they don`t care.

So in that paragraph that you just read, Kelly is not likely to do anything about this, even if the president has --

MATTHEWS: Does he give him the papers or not?

CAPEHART: Oh, I think he -- I would not be surprised if the president did, if Jared were stripped of his security clearance, the president wouldn`t just say here, take it.

MATTHEWS: Look at the test, here is my answer.

CAPEHART: Yes. Because it takes a void, careless person to think nothing of doing something like that with the nation`s biggest secrets.

MATTHEWS: I predicted this when they brought this guy in, Jared in. They start playing this game of playing family politics in the White House was not going to work because eventually somebody like Kelly trying to do his job comes up against the Romanovs and it doesn`t work.

HEIDI PRZYBYLA, NBC NEWS NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPODENT: Well, this is the clear example of the dangers of nepotism and why nepotism almost never ends well, because now he is in an impossible situation. The president is tied to whatever happens here. And I think that they`ll have to find some kind of work-around here to your point.

At the same time, they can`t continue to give him his regular clearance because Kelly said in this memo last week, last Friday that he is yanking it for everyone else. So based on what do they issue Jared a waiver? His extensive resume of experience in the Middle East?

MATTHEWS: Yes.

PRZYBYLA: No. Jared was brought in as the secretary of everything. That`s what they called him, right? And it was based on one thing alone, that he had familial connection. That he was married to his daughter.

MATTHEWS: Did he actually move the American embassy -- propose its moving to Jerusalem? Did he make a big decision like that, this guy with no background?

PRZYBYLA: I don`t -- I wasn`t in on the room for that decision. And apparently they`re still coming out with their grand Middle East strategy.

MATTHEWS: Jonathan, does this guy have the power the president has given to him or is it just phony to make him look good as the son-in-law?

JONATHAN SWAN, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, AXIOS: His responsibilities have changed dramatically from --

MATTHEWS: Downward?

SWAN: Yes. From January 2017 to this year. Originally, he was involved in almost everything. He was almost a parallel chief of staff. He was involved in whatever he wanted to be.

In that statement that Kelly put out last week, he had -- people described him as circumscribing Jared`s responsibilities. The reality is he accurately described Jared`s current responsibilities. He works on the Middle East, attempted peace negotiations.

MATTHEWS: Why? Does what does he know about the Middle East?

SWAN: You know, Tom Friedman had a line. He said Jared`s primary qualification is that he went to Jewish summer camp.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

SWAN: However, however, however, I will say all the great geniuses of Middle East diplomacy for the last 20 years haven`t done much either.

MATTHEWS: OK, look, that`s a nice wonderful --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: -- keep the doors open at the White House.

SWAN: No, I`m not saying anything like that. I`m just saying everyone talks about George Mitchell like the great genius.

MATTHEWS: Be a little less discreet.

Here is the question. If he is going to give this guy a walk around and sneak him papers, he is going to pardon him. That`s what is coming. This family is untouchable.

CAPEHART: Look, I --

MATTHEWS: He is not going to let his daughter swing. He is not going to let his son-in-law swing or his son-in-law. If it comes that, all that Mueller has to do is nail one of the family members and we`re going to see which way this is going, because when he starts pardoning his family members, this thing is going to have a whole new look to it.

CAPEHART: Right. It all boils down family. Everything that the president does revolves around family. Well, first, revolves around him. And then it revolves around --

MATTHEWS: Which is him.

CAPEHART: Which is him. But it also revolves around family. I think you`re absolutely right. If anything happens to Jared or Ivanka.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: I`ve got go back to my other Jonathan. Will he pardon him? Pardon the family members?

SWAN: Trump?

MATTHEWS: Yes.

SWAN: It`s so hard to know. Here`s the question.

(CROSSTALK)

SWAN: You know what?

CAPEHART: It`s possible.

SWAN: Family is important to him. But you know what is more important? Media coverage of himself. I think if he thought he was going to get bad coverage, I don`t know that he would.

MATTHEWS: He is not going to let his family swing. The family is close enough to be him.

SWAN: Yes.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`re back with the HARDBALL round table in just a minute. Up next, these three will tell me something I don`t know. You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`re back with our roundtable. Jonathan, tell me something I don`t know.

CAPEHART: Tomorrow at "The Washington Post", at 10:00 a.m., I`m interviewing former Attorney General Eric Holder in a live event for my podcast.

MATTHEWS: And that`s breaking news?

CAPEHART: Yes, that is breaking news.

MATTHEWS: Makes some news.

Go ahead, Heidi.

PRZYBYLA: A couple of letters that came out last week that raised serious questions about mission creep in Syria. That this administration does not think it needs to go back to Congress for widening the conflict in terms of battling the battling the Syrian government and maybe as a bulwark against Iran.

MATTHEWS: It was on "Homeland" last night, that exact same development on "Homeland".

Go ahead.

SWAN: Trump has been telling confidantes that he admires Singapore`s death penalty for drug dealers, and he would like to see a death penalty for drug dealers here in America. He understands he might have some trouble getting that through Congress. But he has spoken admiringly of Duterte and President Xi in China.

MATTHEWS: OK. We`ve heard enough of this guy. Anyway, what can I say? I just -- what can I say?

Jonathan Capehart, thank you. Jonathan Swan, thank you, and Heidi Przybyla.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Trump Watch Monday, February 26th, 2018. You can call it the Trump two-step.

It goes like this: say anything you want now, do anything you want later. When the heat is on, say good things about the Dreamers. Say you`re going to take care of these people who are brought to this country at a young age. Not to worry, President Trump is on your side.

Now, wait a few weeks for the heat to be off. Then when people have forgotten all those commitments you made about how you were going to look out for Dreamers, drop all that.

When horror struck Parkland, Florida, that high school, Trump began the same two-step. When he was on, when everyone wanted something done about guns being brought into schools to kill students, Trump talked about how he too wanted something done. He talked about such gun control measures such as banning bump stocks which make a semiautomatic rifle into an automatic, and even about raising the age requirement for buying AR-15s, assault rifles.

Let`s see how he takes the second step to find a way of avoiding all these commitments and leaving everything the way it is until the next school shooting.

That`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us.

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.

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

END