Trump feeling heat as Hicks resigns. TRANSCRIPT: 02/28/2018. Hardball with Chris Matthews

Guests: Richard Blumenthal, Randall Eliason, Eddie Glaude, Carrie Johnson, Astead Herndon

Show: HARDBALL Date: February 28, 2018 Guest: Richard Blumenthal, Randall Eliason, Eddie Glaude, Carrie Johnson, Astead Herndon

ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST, THE BEAT: That's our show.

"Hardball" with Chris Matthews starts right now.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Losing hope. Let's play "Hardball."

Good evening. I'm Chris Matthews in Washington.

The heat is rising on Donald Trump. On Friday, first son-in-law, he gets locked out of seeing anything top secret. Yesterday, close aide Hope Hicks admitted she tells white lies for the President. Today, she announced she is quitting.

Meanwhile, special counsel Robert Mueller is drilling down on Trump's Russia business dealings and what he may have known in advance about the Russian hacking into the Democrats' email, knowledge that could make him a co-conspirator.

And now new heat on Trump and guns. With the students heading for Washington, can he still get away with doing nothing?

First, NBC has confirmed the incredible news that White House communications director Hope Hicks, someone who has been with Donald Trump since the early days of his campaigning is leaving. The timing certainly raises questions.

Just yesterday, Hicks testified for eight hours before the House intelligence committee about Russia. According to "The New York Times," she made an astounding admission, especially for a communications director for the White House.

According to the "New York Times," she told White or actually House investigators that her work for President Trump had occasionally required her to tell white lies, to tell white lies. Required her. Earlier this month, there were reports Hicks was involved in drafting early statements of support for Rob Porter. The White House aide who stepped down after reports emerged he abused his ex-wives, two of them. Hicks was reportedly dating Porter at the time of drafting that report. At that the time - anyway, the President is frustrated according to the reporting over her handling of the Porter controversy.

And for more, I'm joined by the "New York Times" Peter Baker, "the Washington Post" Robert Costa and Meike Eoyang, vice President for the national security program at Third Way.

Thank you all for. I will start with Peter.

Peter, this leaving, there was tears at the White House today. There was shock. The day after she made that amazing admission of white lies which didn't shock anybody but her leaving did. How do you put it together?

PETER BAKER, REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Yes, I know. It's great question. We don't really know how the time works out. She told people before yesterday's session that she had been thinking about this. So it's not directly tied --

MATTHEWS: Well, everybody is thinking about it. Why did she walk out the very day after making this astounding admission of telling lies for President?

BAKER: Yes, I know. I agree. That certainly going to raise questions if you wanted to manage the exit, you wouldn't want to be connected to that same news cycle, right, because people would ask the very obvious question, is one related to the other.

You know, she told people that there has never a good time to leave. There's no point in trying to manage it too much because this news cycle is constantly churning. Something would come up if it wasn't that. But sure, I obviously, she has raised questions about her credibility, her conduct with the press.

Now Look. She has got a lot of respect among people in the White House and among reporters. But you are right. The notion that you used that phrase white lies even if it is meant to be innocuous for communications director raises a lot of questions. And the questions that she hasn't answered in a public setting that people can see.

MATTHEWS: Robert, he is up to his elbows in alligators right now. His guys, Mueller coming at him for his involvement with the Russians, business deals in the past. They are going after him for knowing about all this stuff with the emails and the Russia's hacking of the DNC, of John Podesta and why he knew ahead of time and what that meant in terms of being a co- conspirator because now we know it is all a crime. And therefore if he played any role in advancing that crime, he is a co-conspirator.

All this is breaking at the time where he has to do something about guns even if his party won't help him do it. And by the way, those guys in Pennsylvania and West Virginia are not going to help him. And yet, he has to do something. The kids are coming to Washington in two weeks. Maybe a million of them demanding that something be done. He can't be hiding in the White House bunker when kids and teachers are saying you have to do something. At that moment, Hope Hicks, his most loyal person walks. Explain. You see the top of the explain, I admit.

ROBERT COSTA, REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: There's a lot there. But you have seen the unraveling of the power structure inside of the White House. You have Veteran Republican operatives. You have seasoned military figures and then you have the family and inner circle. That was Hope Hicks, Josh Rafael --.

MATTHEWS: Jared Kushner is not allowed to see anything secret. Yet, he is supposed to carry on our most secret sensitive negotiations?

COSTA: Hope Hicks leaving, Josh Rafael leaving, Jared Kushner downgrade in security clearance. On guns cruise, Republican are feeling the heat.

MATTHEWS: Rick Gates turning on him. Flynn already turning on him. Manafort about to do it.

COSTA: And on guns the Republicans are telling the President, they are feeling the heat. Suburban voters in places like Philadelphia, they want to see gun control. And Republicans know the NRA gets their base voters to come out. But they need to show some movement. That's why you saw the President today, I'm told, trying to show a little bit of movement.

MATTHEWS: Right. Meanwhile, he has got to deal with the Appalachian wing of his party that doesn't want to do anything about guns. Look at Conner Lamp out in Western Pennsylvania, he is not talking guns.

Mieke, thank you so much for joining us. This is a political mess. It's not so much about reporting right now what is this President going to do in his situation?

MIEKE EOYANG, VICE PRESIDENT FOR THE NATIONAL SECURITY PROGRAM, THIRD WAY: I think he is increasingly isolated. What you have seen is that for a man who values loyalty, as much as he does there. There is no one who is willing to go down with the ship with the possible exception of the family. So --.

MATTHEWS: But he said - look. Dianne Feinstein is 85 but she is sticking it out, OK. This woman is 29 and she is going to spend time with her family? What family. I'm sorry. It sounds like the thing you do when you have been sacked. I have got to spend more time with my family. Everybody says that.

EOYANG: Well, everyone is fleeing the ship. And the problem that they have is that they cannot get anyone else to replace them. Not only was Jared Kushner stripped of his clearances, but you had all these other White House aides. So now they don't have anyone who can even do the basic blocking attack for the White House. So, for as many mistakes that they have made, expect to see far more because they don't have anyone who can help him.

MATTHEWS: Peter, I just wonder whether Trump know anybody? You know, they always say you don't make any new friends at the White House. I'm wondering if at the meets anybody who could be the next flack for him. This is the fifth flack, the fifth communications director trying to explain him to the country.

Meanwhile, he is tweeting at dawn. He does what he wants to do. And by 7:30 in the morning you have to clean up the mess and explain what he meant at 6:30 in the morning when he got the times and started rattling off his thoughts. I'm giving pay for the credit.

COSTA: Look. It's a thankless job. And it is the reason why Hope Hicks is the fifth person to have it in just 13, 14 months. It's hard to imagine who might want it next. But you are right. It's not just that she has been in that crucial job. Is that that she has been somebody who kind of had a connection to him that very few other people had? And the people he has been close to that he came to town with as friends as you say, Hope Hicks, Keith Schiller, a handful of others, they have one by one been leaving. And who is he left with? People he didn't know before 13 months ago.

That's an awkward situation. It is a volatile situation because who is he going to turn to when he gets upset when needs somebody to execute his desires, how is he going to operate and a new team that will be in some ways brand-new to him.

MATTHEWS: Anyway, for many observers of the Trump White House, the admission of white lies by Hope Hicks yesterday was nothing more than confessing the glaringly obvious.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I guess it was the biggest electoral college win since Ronald Reagan.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you think that talking about millions of illegal votes is dangerous to this country?

TRUMP: No, not at all. Because many people feel the same way that I do.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You tweet the former administration wiretapped me, is your failed me at Trump tower during the last election. How did you find out? You Said I just found out.

TRUMP: Well, I have been reading about things.

We are the highest taxed country in the world. We are having not only reform but the largest tax cuts in the history of our country.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, WHITE HOUSE COUNSELOR: You're saying it's a falsehood. And they are giving Sean Spicer, our press secretary gave alternative facts to that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: What do you make of this? Let's put a couple things together. He has got a communications vacancy. She walked on him today in the middle of all this (INAUDIBLE). Just walked out the door. You have got -- what's his name, Jared Kushner, who is the strangest being I have ever come across in politics. I look at him and wonder if it's a robot. I don't get the guy. I know he has got good posture. I give him that. But what's it about?

Is he really his foreign policy guru? Is he the guy who decided we move the embassy into Jerusalem in the middle of all that fighting over there? And centuries of conflict and that kid starts making decisions? Is that his guy?

BAKER: No.

MATTHEWS: Why does he say he is?

BAKER: Well, he says he is an advisor on foreign policy. But if you go ask secretary of state Rex Tillerson or defense secretary Jim Mattis, is Kushner the senior adviser of the president really making these negotiations? No, he is a confidante of the President. The reason he is there and the reason general Kelly is sensitive about going after him too much is he's family. He is married to Ivanka Trump. But otherwise, he is --.

MATTHEWS: Can't they visit on weekends at Mar-a-Lago? Why they have to in the White House --?

BAKER: They want to be close to the flame. You understand.

MATTHEWS: Yes. Well, they are getting a piece of the action.

What do you make of this, Mieke?

Look. I'm not a genius. I just know the American political history and world history. Nepotism is a problem. The Romans didn't do well.

EOYANG: Right. Going with family members, right. We see this all the time. Leads to you lower quality advisers, lower quality outcomes. But in this fall (ph), if they want him go around ad be a good will ambassador, open up some meetings, shake some hands and do things that are purely symbolic, they are only in it for the symbolism anyway.

MATTHEWS: So he is an official greeter.

EOYANG: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Come on. And maybe Ivanka went over to the South Korea at the Olympics for that reason. But my God.

Anyway, yesterday "the Washington Post" reported officials in the White House were concerned that Kushner was naive and being tricked in conversations with foreign leaders. And Jonathan Swan of Axios reported the Trump family and the president's eldest son, Don Junior in particular was angry at the overwhelmingly negative TV coverage about Jared Kushner last night and feels White House chief of staff Kelly is hanging Jared out to dry. Is he?

You in your sourcing, do you sense or sniff out the possibility that Mr. Kelly doesn't love Mr. Jared Kushner? I don't think he does.

COSTA: Based on my reporting, he has been very clear to that. He says I'm the chief of staff. You can be family or you can be employees. If you choose to stay, you are going to be employees. But of course, that has caused tensions. Because you can never fully be an employee and still be the President's son-in-law or the president's daughter. And this has created all the tension within the White House. That even general Kelly with his four decades of experience in the military, he is finding it troubling to try to move forward and make some decisions.

MATTHEWS: There's an irony -- go ahead.

EOYANG: I was going to say, but not only that. It's not just that this is some vendetta about family versus staff. Kushner himself has huge security vulnerabilities. And the reporting that we saw that foreign governments are trying to influence him through his business.

MATTHEWS: What did he do wrong that won't allow the FBI to clear him for top secrets?

EOYANG: So he has had meetings with foreign people that he wasn't disclosing, right. And when you are dishonest with investigators, that's a real red flag. He has got all these foreign businesses that create huge vulnerabilities for leverage from foreign countries that want to get to him. It is a huge problem.

Are people like Ron Dermer, the ambassador from Israel and Bebe and people like that using this guy as a slight figure that they can manipulate? That's what the reporting was.

EOYANG: That's what the reporting suggests.

COSTA: We know - look. The Post reported, my colleagues and I, that two weeks ago, the FBI is still doing its background investigation on Jared Kushner. That's why he is not getting the clearance.

MATTHEWS: What did he do wrong?

COSTA: They're still doing field work on all his foreign meetings.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: This is so much march of the second year. Then candidate Trump hammered Hillary Clinton for her handling of classified information. We all remember that. Let's watch him in action on what he says about his rivals.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: We also need the best protection of classified information. Hillary's private email scandal which put our classified information into the reach of our enemies disqualifies her from the presidency. This was not just extreme carelessness with classified material which is still totally disqualifying. This is calculated, deliberate, premeditated misconduct.

In my administration, I'm going to enforce all laws concerning the protection of classified information.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: OK. Peter, and so he gets elected President, he flips. He starts giving all the classified information to his son-in-law that can't pass muster with the FBI. He is now talking about background checks for buying guns but he apparently doesn't believe in background checks for people getting classified information. He has got a real credibility problem here and it's his family they brought in, it is causing it. Your thinking.

BAKER: Well, you are right that the classified information was a big theme of his in the campaign and the question then becomes, are you living up to the standard you yourself set. What he is doing, of course, is still on the attack against Hillary Clinton. You saw just today in his tweet assailing his attorney general Jeff Sessions for not having an investigation into how the Obama administration handled their FISA warrant of Carter Page. He is trying to make sure that the focus is on the Democrats as much as he can.

But it's a tough battle when you are the President of the United States. You are the one in office right now. It's your conduct and your staff's conduct that is at issue. Right now, of course, Jared Kushner's in the spotlight. And one of the reasons you bring in family on a staff like this because you want somebody you can trust. The downside as (INAUDIBLE) say it's harder to fire somebody if they mess up.

MATTHEWS: Well, he didn't have to fire Hope Hicks.

Let me ask you. You know Trump as well as any reporter. How does he operate like this? How does he operate with all these moving parts, Hope splits, his son-in-law is a problem, his daughter he loves, of course, he gives her big opportunities. No problem there. The son is sort of -- Don Jr. is no help. And yet he relies on the people that are really no help. Who does help him? How does he get through the day and the night? How does he do it?

COSTA: How does he do it? At the end of the day based on all my experiences over the years was candidate Trump and President Trump, he is a loner. He is someone who relies on staff. Hope Hicks was someone who provided him with media information. He was his own strategist. He was someone who saw the Republican primaries and said I'm going to try to dominate that through the media. I will do it my own way. We keep talking about this staff are coming. This staff are going. All important discussion. But if you really know Trump, you know at the end of the day, it's him alone choosing to be alone, making decisions. And as a reporter, you just step back and say that's what I have always encountered.

MATTHEWS: Who is he see after midnight? Who is he call up and say I'm in trouble here. Can you help me? Is it Tom Barak?

EOYANG: He loves working the phone. He actually is more candid, his friends tell me when he is on the phone. (INAUDIBLE). And sometimes he doesn't even want to hear what people have to say. He will just talk and he will flesh out ideas with them. And some people will say I spoke to Trump last night for 45 minutes. And said, what did you say? And they say, well, he spoke for 44. And this is just who he is.

He is a complicated figure. And people work for him. They are friends with him. But no one really controls him or ever has controlled him.

I always think back to my "Access Hollywood" conversation with him on October 2016. He told me you don't know life. He said I have been through everything, personal problems, political problems, financial problems. And he said it was him alone after "Access Hollywood" watching television, watching the crowd outside of Trump tower. And so you think how does he go without Hope Hicks? How does he go on without Steve Bannon? It's always about him at the end, not the staff.

MATTHEWS: Sinatra. Sinatra in the White House. That's what I keep hearing.

Anyway, with Joey Rizo (ph) somewhere nearby.

Thank you, Peter Baker. Thank you Robert Costa and Mieke Eoyang, thank you. You were great tonight. Meike, thank you.

Coming up, as if the chaos inside the Trump White House wasn't enough, Trump's feeling the heat from two big sources right now.

NBC News is reporting tonight the special counsel Robert Mueller is zeroing in on whether Trump knew about that stolen democratic email cache before they were released by WikiLeaks. And there are reports that Mueller is he digging into Trump's business dealings with Russia right now. This is something. And that's ahead here on "Hardball."

And on the home front, more trouble. Trump is also under pressure on guns. Today he seems ready to get behind a bill that strengthens background checks and raising the minimum age to buy an assault rifle. He know he has got to do something in the wake of the deadly shooting in Parkland, Florida with all those young people coming to Washington in March.

And another sign Trump is under pressure, he is back at war with attorney general Jeff Sessions. He called Sessions disgraceful today. His own attorney general after the attorney general opened an investigation into surveillance abuse and now Sessions is hitting back.

Finally, let me finish tonight with Trump watch. He won't like this one.

This is "Hardball" where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, today the country paid tribute to America's pastor, the late Reverend Billy Graham. The evangelical leader who counseled presidents for more than 60 years was afforded one of the country's greatest distinctions as his body lay in honor at the capitol rotunda. He became only the fourth private citizen to receive that honor, the first since Rosa Parks in 2005.

Graham ministered to people from all walks of life from heads of state to every day Americans. Today he was honored by all of them. It was something to see, by the way, that wooden coffin sitting in the capitol rotunda today surrounded by all that history.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Amid the chaos at the White House today, an explosive new report today puts President Donald Trump at the center of the special counsel's probe into possible collusion with Russia during the 2016 election.

Multiple people familiar with the probe tell NBC News that Robert Mueller's team is asking witnesses pointed questions whether Donald Trump was aware that Democratic e-mails had been stolen before that was publicly known and whether he was involved in their strategic release.

As the U.S. intelligence community concluded over a year ago, Vladimir Putin himself ordered the operation that ultimately hacked the e-mail accounts of the Democratic National Committee and that of Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta.

Those e-mails were then disseminated to the public through WikiLeaks as part of Russia's massive influence campaign to help elect Donald Trump over Clinton.

Well, among his lines of inquiry, Mueller is questioning witnesses about the public overture that Trump famously made to Russia just after the first stolen e-mails were released, when Trump embraced Russia's efforts and called on the Kremlin to find more of Clinton's e-mails.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Do you call on Putin to stay out of this election?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm not going to tell Putin what to do. Why should I tell Putin what to do?

I will tell you this. Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Well, Ultimately, today's reporting makes clear that Robert Mueller's determined to find out when and how Trump learned of the damaging e-mails that Russia possessed back then.

As former U.S. attorney general Miriam Rocah told me on Monday, anyone who knew of Russia's efforts and actively advanced their scheme could be implicated in a conspiracy charge. Let's watch her.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIRIAM ROCAH, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: 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 be liable for that conspiracy themselves.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, I'm joined right now by Senator Richard Blumenthal, Randall Ellison -- Eliason, rather, a former federal prosecutor. And Katy Tur co-authored that report for NBC News.

Katy, this is fascinating on a couple counts. Let's start with the fact of pre-knowledge. If the president knew about what the Russians were up to in terms of John Podesta's e-mail, the DNC stuff, and also knew they were out to help Hillary, I'm told by Miriam Rocah -- and I guess this is common knowledge among prosecutors -- if you advance the cause of a criminal activity, a criminal conspiracy, you're a co-conspirator.

KATY TUR, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Well, that is the big question.

What did Donald Trump know and when did he know it? You played the sound bite a moment ago of that news conference from July 27, 2017. That's in the middle of the Democratic National Convention. The e-mails, the hacked e-mails from the DNC had just started to come out.

Donald Trump was asked about this. Remember, he had taken these friendly positions towards Russia and people were wondering why and what would Donald Trump say to this? Would he tell Russia not to meddle in our election?

And you heard what he said. Russia, if you're listening, I want to see Hillary Clinton's e-mails.

Now investigators want to know if that call right there meant that he knew not just about the hack of the DNC, but the hack of the Clinton server e- mails, John Podesta's e-mails, which didn't come out until October. And if he knew about that, how did he know about that?

They're also looking into Roger Stone, who is one of Donald Trump's early campaign advisers. He was a staffer on the campaign until August 2015. The campaign said he was fired. Roger Stone said he quit.

Investigators want to know if he continued to be an unofficial part of the campaign, and, if so, what did he and Trump talk about? Could there have been some sort of liaison between the two of them, and could it have resulted in a back channel potentially with whoever had these hacked stolen e-mails?

Remember, Roger Stone in August of 2016 was tweeting about how it was going to be John Podesta's turn in the barrel.

MATTHEWS: Right.

TUR: A month later, the same day as the "Access Hollywood" tape, mind you, those Podesta e-mails come out, a day that -- that would particularly help Donald Trump, because he was facing so much scrutiny for what he said on that tape.

MATTHEWS: Well, Senator, either Roger Stone is Jeane Dixon, he's a clairvoyant, or he just knows stuff. I think the latter is true.

How did he know that it was going to be John Podesta's turn to get hacked?

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: There was some real facts here that make this timing deeply damning to Donald Trump, not only the participation of Roger Stone, but also, remember, George Papadopoulos, who has been convicted, in his plea agreement, he acknowledges that he knew in April, months before WikiLeaks actually released the e-mails, that they had been stolen by the Russians, that they were in fact likely to be released.

George Papadopoulos is a foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump, one who wants to ingratiate himself, falling all over himself to make himself more friendly and impressive to the Trump campaign.

And there's, additionally, his son Donald Trump Jr., who in a series of messages given to the Judiciary Committee, now made public, indicates a familiarity with WikiLeaks and with those stolen e-mails. What did he tell his father and when did that happen?

So there is a ladder here of criminal culpability that the special counsel is following. Pieces of the mosaic are coming together. It is damning and extraordinarily significant.

MATTHEWS: Randall, when you're in a losing campaign, you look for a Hail Mary opportunity, something that might change the game. You do. You're desperate. And if somebody comes along and says I have got dirt on your opponent that could blow -- that could break her campaign, you know that's what you need to win.

Now, putting aside whether the Russian involvement changed the result of the election, in the middle of the last summer of '16, Trump thought he needed some way to change the campaign. It doesn't surprise me at all that he would take extraordinarily dangerous steps and listen to people like Roger Stone and all kinds of people, and Papadopoulos, to get anything he could to change that election around, which he was losing.

(CROSSTALK)

RANDALL ELIASON, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: And, of course...

MATTHEWS: Go ahead. Is that a conspiracy if he did try to help the Russians? We were told by Miriam Rocah yes.

ELIASON: Yes, potentially.

Of course, it all depends what Mueller uncovers in terms of the facts. But 13 Russians who colluded illegally to influence the election have been charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S.

MATTHEWS: So, is there an underlying crime?

ELIASON: Yes. That same crime potentially applies to Americans, Donald Trump or others on his campaign, if they worked with the Russians to illegally influence the election.

So, potential is definitely there. Conspiracy is all about proving intent and knowledge. And that seems to be what Mueller is probing now, sort of what did the president and others know about the Russian involvement, about the hacked e-mails, about any illegal efforts to influence the campaign, and were they involved?

MATTHEWS: Well, even that public admission, request by the president, will the Russians please put out some more stuff on Hillary, could that be a crime, since it's so obviously open? There's nothing sneaky about that.

ELIASON: That, by itself, actually doesn't bowl me over. I think if there was actually a secret conspiracy going on, the president is unlikely to announce it publicly at a campaign event.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: OK. Let me start with this, last question you to, Randall.

From the day this Russian thing came about, I thought, on a positive side, Trump may be trying to pull off a grand deal in the Middle East, somehow to deal with Syria. We all think that is what he was up to.

He hasn't said a word against account Russians from day one, up until recently. Not a word against them. Everything around the context, the package of his relationship with the Russians is goodwill, don't say a word against a terrible dictator.

Does that tell you anything what his motives are here?

ELIASON: Yes, I think that's definitely part of the entire picture that Mueller is looking at, sort of circumstantial evidence. You're trying to put all these little pieces together. Why is it that he is not willing to say anything negative?

MATTHEWS: Senator?

BLUMENTHAL: And in that same press conference that you cited, where he lauded the Russians, in effect, and asked them to go find other hacked e- mails, he also said he would he consider lifting sanctions and recognizing Russia's annexation of the Ukraine.

So, there were more signals.

MATTHEWS: How did do that, through signals, through private messages, or how did he do that?

BLUMENTHAL: And publicly as well.

And so, to go to your point, I agree that it is not itself a crime to have said that in public. But it is evidence. All of this stuff really counts as very important evidence.

MATTHEWS: Well, in a story that just broke moments ago, "The Washington Post" is reporting that special counsel Mueller has been investigating a period of time last summer, when President -- this is the '17 summer -- that Trump seemed to determined to drive Attorney General Jeff Sessions from his job.

That's according to people familiar with the matter who said that a key area of interest for the inquiry is whether those efforts were part of a months-long pattern of attempted obstruction of justice.

Katy Tur on this.

The president, I can understand why, has never gotten over by the decision by the attorney general he put there, Sessions, Jeff Sessions, to basically pull himself out of the whole question, to recuse himself from the whole question of picking a special counsel, allowing the deputy attorney general to pick one and to set this whole train running toward him, this whole prosecution by Robert Mueller.

Is this all part of that, this effort to try to ruin -- to ruin and force out, as part of an obstruction effort, the attorney general he put in there, because he got this thing going, this prosecution?

TUR: Well, listen, it seems like the anger that he has about Robert Mueller, he's taking out on Jeff Sessions, which is why we see flare-ups like we saw today.

Clearly, he is not happy that his attorney general is not protecting him. He has said as much on television in interviews. He thinks the attorney general should protect him. Eric Holder, in his mind, protected President Obama. Jeff Sessions should be protected him.

Appointing a special counsel and allowing this to continue is not -- or -- excuse me -- recusing yourself and allowing this to happen is not protecting Donald Trump. So he's certainly frustrated.

I don't have that piece of the puzzle quite yet on whether the special counsel is asking directly about that line on Jeff Sessions, on obstruction.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

TUR: But I can tell you, Chris, that those who have sat for interviews say that it seems like they know what they're doing, and they very something pretty concrete, pretty clear on Donald Trump himself, and not just on the obstruction angle, but rather on the coordination or collusion angle.

MATTHEWS: Yes, it sounds like they got all three vines working, including the laundering, I believe, too, because that red line has been crossed already. I think Trump's going to crazy on that.

Anyway, the senator -- Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, thank you, sir.

And thank you, Randall Eliason, and, of course, my colleague Katy Tur for her reporting.

Up next: The Trump White House is also feeling the heat on another front, guns. Today, Trump showed his hand. He knows he has to act in the wake of the Parkland shooting. He wants to do something or certainly look like he's doing something for the next couple of weeks.

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Well, today was the first day of classes at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School since a gunman killed 17 students down there and staff on Valentine's Day.

In the wake of that tragedy, there's been a growing outcry, of course, spearheaded by the young survivors of the shooting and their teachers, to do something on guns.

Well, this morning, Dick's Sporting Goods announced that it was ending sales of assault rifles and that it will no longer carry high-capacity magazines. The store will also raise the age limit for gun purchases to 21.

And late today, Wal-Mart announced that it too would raise the age limit from 18 to 21.

Well, today, President Trump hosted another discussion on school safety and guns with a bipartisan group of lawmakers. He pushed both sides to get something done.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: So, as we continue to mourn the loss of so many precious young lives in Parkland, Florida, we're determined to turn our grief into action.

I really believe that. I think that the people at this table want it. I mean, I see some folks that don't say nice things about me. And that's OK, because if you turn that into this energy, I will love you. I don't care. We're going to be able to do it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, at times, the president seemed willing to go further when it comes to guns.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: You can buy a handgun. You can't buy one. You have to wait until you're 21. But you can buy the kind of weapon used in the school shooting at 18.

I think it's something you have to think about. If you add concealed carry to this, you will never get it passed.

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: I would rather have you come up with a strong, strong bill and really strong on background checks.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: But Republican leaders, who have control of the House and the Senate, are reluctant to take on the NRA, of course.

And for more, I'm joined by Charlie Sykes, author and MSNBC contributor, and Eddie Glaude, who is professor at Princeton and also an MSNBC contributor.

I want to start with Charlie, then get to Eddie.

And here's the question. I had a sense that Trump knows he has to do something. I know he knows he has to do something at least on background checks, although even that could be tricky, and maybe on raising the age for an assault rifle purchase up to 21, although I'm worried that that isn't going to pass muster with the Appalachian guy like Toomey, who represents Western Pennsylvania, and especially Manchin.

They didn't look very happy today, Charlie. They didn't look very happy today when he, the president, started to talking about raising the age to buy an assault rifle.

Your thoughts first.

CHARLIE SYKES, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: OK, first of all, it was amazing.

You actually have to watch some of the video where he talks about his support for grabbing guns without due process. If Barack Obama had said some of the things that Donald Trump said, everybody in that room would have had their hair on fire.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

SYKES: My advice would be, give it a couple days. This reminded me a lot of that immigration meeting, where he's sitting around the table talking about an act of love and I will sign whatever you bring up, because one of the things that was very clear is that he wants to do something, but he is profoundly ignorant of the policy.

And I think he's going to find out how deeply ingrained the power and the authority of the NRA are, so -- continues to be. But some of the things that he said there mark a dramatic break with the NRA and puts his fellow Republicans in a very awkward position, which makes me think that, again, give it a little time to see whether or not, when he goes back in and his staffers say, you can't do this, and Wayne LaPierre is on the phone screaming at him, whether or not you might see the kind of reversal that you saw after that immigration lovefest.

MATTHEWS: Yes, I agree.

Eddie, I get the feeling, watching -- so much of this is about geography. And if you represent West Virginia, you have got to be very careful not to break with any of the rituals down there, like teaching your son how to use a gun or daughter even. Don't mess with that.

And I thought that the fact that Joe Manchin looked a little easy when the president started to talk about raising the age to buy an assault rifle.

EDDIE GLAUDE, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Right. I think this is classic. I think Charlie is absolutely right. This was classic Trumpian political theater.

He feels the pressure. He wants to be seen as a man of action. And he's feeling the pressure of actually those -- those young students down in Florida who are pushing the agenda.

MATTHEWS: Sure.

GLAUDE: So, I also think that, you know, he hasn't quite got his mind around the different constituencies and how difficult this nut will be to crack.

And so we will see, once he gets back to the White House, whether or not he's going to flip, like he always -- like he just did on -- like he did with the immigration issue.

So, I think we need to take this meeting at face value, because we don't know what's coming afterwards.

MATTHEWS: I agree.

But let me ask you about the -- anyway, you're on.

You know, he -- look how he set up the choreography today. He put Dianne Feinstein, the foremost advocate for limiting sales of assault rifles -- she got the bill through in the '90s. She's the one you think of as go-to for stopping the sale of assault rifle.

Then he had just two seats to his right, a strong gun control person, Chris Murphy of Connecticut. I mean, he seemed like he wanted to flinch -- what do you call it, not flinch, that's unfair, clinch like a boxer who's losing a round. He wants to stop the action a little bit and look like -- he also said, I want to have a bill both sides agree with.

I'm not sure if he doesn't think this is one issue that's going to hit him in the burbs and he better be careful if he looks like the obstacle.

Your thought on that, Eddie?

EDDIE GLAUDE, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR: You know, Chris, I think -- if we were dealing with a traditional political actor, that would make sense. I don't just know what Trump's political calculus, how he thinks politically. I just don't know what they are. So, it just seems to me that it would make sense on the one hand that that choreography that you just described would suggest that he's up to something.

But again, I don't know what's going to happen once he gets back to the White House. What's interesting about the room, he's talking about gun violence in America. Did you see any black Congress members in there? You think about gun violence affecting black communities in this country? There was literally no one in the room, to give you a sense of who matters in Trump's mind.

MATTHEWS: It could be a suburban show, too. It could be about the areas for this 2018 lacks will be decided. You're smart about that. I didn't notice. That's the kind of thing I should have noticed, the absolute lack of diversity in that room.

It was -- thank you for bringing that up. That's the thing that has to be brought up all the time in any meeting, in any political setting in this country the need for diversity. Thank you very much, Eddie.

Thank you, Eddie Glaude of Princeton, and Charlie Sykes.

Up next, with the walls closing in on every side, Trump is lashing out, once again, he attacked Attorney General Sessions over the Russia probe, calling his actions, his attorney general's, disgraceful.

You're watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

The walls are closing in on the president right now. According to the latest reporting from NBC News, Trump now finds himself under the spotlight of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. One of his most loyal advisers Hope Hicks is calling it quits today after admitting to investigators yesterday she tells white lies for the president.

And Trump remains under pressure when it comes to gun control. In the face of forces beyond his control, the president's acting true to form, he's lashing out at a favorite target believe it or not, Attorney General Jeff Sessions who he picked to be A.G.

Trump asked on Twitter, why is A.G. Jeff Sessions asking the inspector general to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse? Isn't the I.G. an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? Disgraceful.

Well, Sessions fought back saying in a statement: As long as I am the attorney general, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor.

Let's bring in the HARDBALL roundtable. Carrie Johnson is justice correspondent for NPR, Beth Fouhy, senior politics editor for us, for NBC News and MSNBC, and Astead Herndon is national political reporter for the "Boston Globe."

Well, gentleman and ladies, I want you to pick your poison. There's so many things coming at this guy. He's got to do something on guns because the students and teachers are coming at him. and they are a strong force. He's going to do something about Mueller because Mueller is getting into his role in working with the Russians to get himself elected president. It's getting in close. That's what he's looking at.

What else? I mean, the guns thing, the Mueller thing and, of course, Hope Hicks, who is the one constant in every picture he has there is she, a young person, a very important person to him. Good-bye, I'm leaving right now. I'm leaving now. Maybe she planned it.

I said today, Dianne Feinstein is sticking around at 85 and she's leaving at 29 because he wants to spend more time with her family? I'm going to pursue other ambitions. When you get fired, that's what you say. I'm pursuing.

Why is she leaving?

Let's start with something simple, this question, Mueller is going after -- let's go after Sessions. He's still blaming Jeff Sessions for allowing Robert Mueller to come at him.

CARRIE JOHNSON, NPR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Nine months after special counsel Robert Mueller was appointed, President Trump is still upset with his most loyal ally Jeff Sessions another attack this morning on sessions.

MATTHEWS: Disgraceful.

JOHNSON: The difference today, Chris, is that Jeff Sessions actually fought back for the first time. He said as long as he's the attorney general, he's going to discharge his duties with honor and integrity. The Justice Department is going to follow the Constitution, not the orders of President Trump.

MATTHEWS: He wants his Justice Department leader, his A.G. to be Roy Cohn. He wants to be a dirty trickster for him is what he wants.

JOHNSON: He's talked about that. Jeff Sessions is not playing ball. Robert Mueller is here to stay. It appears Attorney General Jeff Sessions is here to stay too. Even though the president now seems to desperately want him to quit, Sessions says he's not going anywhere, at least for now. Neither is Robert Mueller, as he inches closer to President Trump's inner circle.

MATTHEWS: You got a political nose for this thing. What the hell is going on with Hope Hicks? They put out a lot of slop today to Maggie Haberman -- I shouldn't knock any reporter, because they're the best in the business. But -- especially Maggie. To put out, she was always planning to leave, this is always been on the work. No news here. Yes, it's news. Our network tonight said a shocker.

BETH FOUHY, NBC NEWS SENIOR POLITICS EDITOR: Well, as you said earlier, Chris, she was up at the House Intelligence yesterday admitting she told white lies for her boss. That renders her basically ineffective.

MATTHEWS: Why did she say that? Because they do say, remember Kennedy -- remember Kennedy said when the Cuban crisis missile, he has a cold, he has to go back to the White House. He didn't have a cold.

FOUHY: Well, evidently, she was saying things like, I'll sometimes say that when he's in the office, I'll say he's not in the office, or he can't see a visitor when he probably could, he doesn't want to. Those kind of white lies.

But, sorry, when the word is out of your mouth, white lies, you're no longer effective. And really, I know she's a very loved at the White House, she's very loved by Trump and his family. How effective has she been? Trump is his own communications adviser. Is she really there when he's up at 6:30 in the morning choosing what target to tweet? Was she there when he tweeted at Sessions and called him a disgrace?

By the way, right at the same time that Paul Manafort was arriving at district court to be arraigned. It was a bad morning for communications by President Trump.

MATTHEWS: Waiting for him to roll.

Let's talk about guns. Astead, you know, it seems to me that he knows that this -- I keep thinking of when the Doug boys arrived in World War I, the situation change and Germany was going to lose and the Brits and French were going to win. This new force of students and teachers are so credible, when they go on television, everybody stops and listens.

ASTEAD HERNDON, THE BOSTON GLOBE: And they give a sense of credibility to the gun control issue and the sense of raw emotion. We know these are kids who just went through that. You can see in this meeting today that Trump at least believes that he can believes rhetorically take on the NRA. He's at least saying at least to Republican senators, you know, you are too scared of the NRA. It's time to take them on.

MATTHEWS: That's the truth.

HERNDON: Who knows?

MATTHEWS: By the way, that's not a white lie to say they're afraid of the NRA. That's the truth.

We're going to stick around. Roundtable is sticking with us. You're watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We're back with the HARDBALL roundtable.

Carrie, tell me something I don't know.

JOHNSON: Well, you know, Chris, since this terrible shooting in Parkland that killed 17 people at the high school, some disreputable companies have been marketing backpacks saying they're bullet proof. The Justice Department came out today and said the DOJ doesn't test anything other than body armor for police. So, any marketing you see about these being bullet proof, don't believe it unless it's coming from a reputable source. Yes.

MATTHEWS: That's disturbing.

FOUHY: Chris, Hope Hicks served 168 days as White House communications director. Anthony Scaramucci served ten. By my calculations she has served 16.8 Scaramuccis.

MATTHEWS: Ha! She's got the record.

Astead?

HERNDON: Fun fact for the last day of Black History Month.

MATTHEWS: Good for you.

HERNDON: This is a White House that has no African-Americans among the top ranks of their commissioned officers. Our reporting says that's the first administration since Omarosa left.

MATTHEWS: You mean top people.

HERNDON: I mean, yes, among their top ranks of commissioned officers. First time it's happened in a long time.

MATTHEWS: Thank you, Carrie. Thank you, Carrie Johnson, Beth Fouhy, Astead Herndon.

We'll be right back. I'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Trump Watch, Wednesday, February 28th, 2018.

I believe President Trump is going to do something about guns, nothing great, just something. The reason he's taking action is that group of students and teachers from Parkland, Florida, who insist he do it. They are the game-changers, forces for action Donald Trump doesn't want becoming his enemies, especially when they arrive for that big rally here in the nation's capital of Washington, D.C. on March 24th.

These students and teachers are tilting the country toward action. Doing nothing is not an option for the president. But Trump doesn't want to get ahead of those in Congress. He wants the lawmakers to take the lead. That's why he had Senator Dianne Feinstein of California sitting right next to him today. She's the lawmaker most associated with banning assault rifles like the AR-15. He knows that no bill in gun safety will pass muster that fails to deal with that, the availability of easy to use mass killers.

Well, today, President Trump showed himself eager to get action going on guns. There he was carrying on a lively respectful, actually respectful conversation with Connecticut's Chris Murphy, one of those that NRA chief Wayne LaPierre dismissed last week as a socialist.

We'll have to see if Trump puts the pressure on McConnell and Ryan, which is the real deal to get the gun safety bill through both houses of Congress. If he does, it will be great watching Trump actually going up against the NRA, sort of like King Kong tangling with Godzilla.

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

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.

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