Show: HARDBALL Date: March 19, 2018 Guest: Annie Linskey, P.J. O`Rourke, Eugene Scott
ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST: The new map will be on the books for the 2018 midterms. That`s one more story we are clocking.
I will see you tomorrow for our special on THE BEAT. I hope you tune in for that.
HARDBALL WITH CHRIS MATTHEWS starts now.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Mano-a-mano. Let`s play HARDBALL.
Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.
President Trump has unveiled a new more combative approach towards the federal investigation of his Presidential campaign attacking prosecutors. And for the first time singling out Robert Mueller by name.
It all began late Friday night when attorney general Jeff Sessions fired deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe less than two days before McCabe would become eligible for full pension benefits. President Trump, who has publicly attacked McCabe since last summer celebrated McCabe`s abrupt termination saying on twitter, Andrew McCabe fired, a great day for the hardworking men and women of the FBI, a great day for democracy. Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choir boy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI.
Well then on Saturday morning, Trump attorney John Dowd seized on McCabe`s firing to call for an end to the special counsel`s probe. As he told the "Daily Beast," I pray that acting attorney general Rosenstein will follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI and attorney general Jeff Sessions and bring an end to the alleged Russian collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe`s boss James Comey based upon a fraudulent and corrupt dossier.
Well, Trump`s legal team later he downplayed the apparent threat to Robert Mueller`s job. However, in a tweet storm that followed, an emboldened President lashed out at the Russian probe and directly attacked the credibility of Mueller, the special counsel.
Quote "the Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime. It was based on fraudulent activities and a fake dossier paid for by crooked Hillary. Witch-hunt!"
In another tweet, the President asked why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big crooked Hillary supporters and zero Republicans. Does anyone think this is fair?
Well, this comes as an outside adviser to the President tells the "Associated Press that quote "Trump has fumed to confidantes that the Mueller probe is going to choke the life out of his presidency if allowed to continue unabated indefinitely."
I`m joined right now by Shannon Pettypiece, White House correspondent from Bloomberg News, Natasha Bertrand covers the Russia probe as a staff writer for "the Atlantic." Frank Montoya is a former special agent and Joyce Vance is a former U.S. attorney.
Thank you all for joining us tonight.
It has change. What do you make of this, Shannon? Why is the President attacking Mueller by name now? It`s personal. It`s just about destroying this guy. He doesn`t have a legal case. Is that why he is doing it?
SHANNON PETTYPIECE, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, BLOOMBERG NEWS: It`s absolutely a shift going on. And the new lawyer he has brought on to his legal team is a fighter who is pulling no punches, who believe there is a conspiracy in the FBI to go after the President.
MATTHEWS: Says he believes.
PETTYPIECE: Yes, says he believes. So this is just the beginning.
MATTHEWS: Joe Digenova, a noted forever.
PETTYPIECE: Yes. Back in 1992, he worked on the passport scandal. He was a big fighter public --.
MATTHEWS: So he is bulking up. Does he have -- it looks to me like he is getting personal, however, Natasha. He wants to destroy. Think (ph) me about this. Tell me about this.
NATASHA BERTRAND, REPORTER, THE ATLANTIC: It really makes no sense. I mean, the White House kind of had a victory when it managed to get Mueller`s team to submit kind of written questions or at least topics to the White House about a possible sit-down interview with the President.
MATTHEWS: Interview. Where does that word come from? Help me with that word. Questioning, interrogation. Why it is an interview? I`m curious. Everybody is using that word, everybody. What does it mean?
The President of the United States is a witness in this case, probably a defendant. Why can`t they say question the guy and show up at this date or you are under subpoena. And if you break the subpoena, we will hold you in contempt. Why did they have to negotiate with the President? I don`t get this.
MATTHEWS: Send me your question -- they are talking about written questions. What, are you kidding me?
PETTYPIECE: Yes, exactly?
MATTHEWS: Take-home exams?
PETTYPIECE: Well, and that, you mentioned the subpoena because, listen, they only have - I mean, this is typical lawyering. Clinton`s lawyers did it too.
MATTHEWS: But they are leaking all that stuff to the press. Why do you guys buy the fact that they have a choice? Don`t they have to answer to a subpoena?
PETTYPIECE: There will be a subpoena. If Trump`s lawyers know they can only push so far and so long or they will receive a subpoena. And then it`s going to have to be walk down to the courthouse without your lawyers and you are testifying under oath, yes.
MATTHEWS: Back to you. Tell me about the interview. Everybody use the word. I`m not knocking you, but it seems so soft.
BERTRAND: Right. And now you see, it was a complete shift. I mean, John Dowd kind of riding high off of the firing I guess of Andy McCabe on Friday night, kind of issued this off-the-cuff statement to the "Daily Beast," saying, you know, I hope this witch-hunt comes to an end. And it was very, very Trumpian in its language. And this is not exactly a lawyer who is known for his discreetness, I should say. He and Ty Cobb were kind of sitting at a restaurant last summer talking about the Russia investigation.
MATTHEWS: I remember that scene. They were overheard.
Let me ask Joyce about this. Let`s get back to a couple of things here. The questions that they have apparently leaked out somehow gotten hold of the line of questioning seems to focus. They want to ask the question mainly about obstruction stuff. What does that tell you?
JOYCE VANCE, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, first, Chris, to go back to your comment about the interview process seeming a little bit soft, I would just point out that prosecutors learn an awful lot about where a witness is coming from during these negotiations over an interview. So, yes, absolutely true, the President will have to show up and be interviewed, or whatever you want to call it at some point in time.
But in this back and forth, I suspect Mueller`s team is learning an awful lot about what sorts of concerns they have, what the pressure points are, and maybe even how firm the President is in this red line assessment.
But look, the focus on the obstruction issue and the questions doesn`t in any way limit what Mueller can question the President about. Anything is fair game, whether this is an interview or a grand jury sort of an inquisition setting. The President will have to answer questions that the Mueller team deems it essential to hear from his mouth. And at the end of the day, that`s what will happen.
MATTHEWS: Let me go -- let me go to Frank Montoya, the same question. The President could be questioned on anything. In other words, if he shows up, I don`t know whether Bill Clinton, that President Clinton, was warned they were going to talk about Monica when he was asked about the Paula Jones case. But they sure as hell asked the questions. None of this preview of coming attractions crap where there is we are going to ask you all these tricky questions. Get him in the booth. Get him under oath and start grilling him. That seems to be the appropriate method. Your thinking?
FRANK MONTOYA, FORMER FBI SPECIAL AGENT: Yes. Once that get him down in the chair, that exactly right. They are going to, you know, they are going to start asking him questions about what they are investigating in. And he is going to have to make decision about how he is going to answer those questions.
Frankly, I think that`s what his lawyers are most worried about. Because what is going to come out of his mouth when he is asked those hard questions? Whether it`s about relations with Russians or it is obstruction of justice or the money trail.
MATTHEWS: Let me go back to Natasha and start, both of you guys. It seems to me that one of the goals if you are on Trump`s side, they want to catch him in a perjury trap.
BERTRAND: Well --.
MATTHEWS: They want Trump to lie about obstruction. Because that`s where I have always thought Mueller is coming from. He took this job as special counsel because he is furious at the attack on the institution he loves, which is the FBI by the firing of Comey. And he sees that as an obstruction of what Comey was doing, which was to help investigate the President, right? So it seems to me it would be appropriate for them to really grill down on that and what did you say to Flynn? What did you say to anybody working for you? Are you sure? And Trump will lie, and they will catch him. That`s what they are trying to do.
BERTRAND: Right. They are going into this interview asking questions that they already know the answer to. And I think when these reports come out saying that the special counsel is focusing on the obstruction of justice aspect, wanting to know what Trump`s intent and state of mind was when he fired James Comey, when he asked for the investigation into Flynn could be dropped, I think that kind of shrouds the collusion aspect, which is, OK, well, they are asking him these questions about potential obstruction to get to his state of mind, but also to get to the point of why he felt the need to end the Russia investigation. Because that ultimately is why he fired James Comey. He acknowledged that in an interview later as we all know with Lester Holt.
So I think that when you ask the obstruction of justice questions, it`s not that Mueller is no longer looking at the collusion question, he is perhaps just using it as a kind of jumping board to get back to that.
MATTHEWS: Well, going back to Trump`s state of mind, which is an interesting phrase right there, state of mind. Why is he attacking McCabe? McCabe is going to be a witness against him. McCabe has kept contemporaneous notes. And now he is attacking him saying these are lying notes. He made it a fake memo. How about he is trying to phrase that in fact.
MATTHEWS: Why would anybody make a note at the time of what happened in the meeting with the President of the United States and make it up? It doesn`t make sense.
PETTYPIECE: He is trying to attack McCabe because he is trying to undercut and chip away at the entire basis of the investigation. That`s what he has been doing. That`s what his lawyer, Jay Sekulow has been doing. That`s what his allies have been doing. They are trying to chip away at the individuals like the texts between Lisa Page and Strzok to show bias. These attacks on McCabe, these attacks on how the FISA warrants. They are going after the little bit here and there. Chip, chip, chip away. So whatever they find, they can say well, this was a flawed, biased, illegally conducted investigation.
MATTHEWS: Joyce, do you think that`s going to be a success? I don`t know who their jury is. I wonder if it isn`t the jury of his supporters, the 35 to 40 -- it`s up to 43. He is doing quite well right now, cyclically, the President. But in somewhere below 50 percent, it is the Trump people. Is that his jury? He doesn`t care what the government says.
VANCE: It has to be the court of public opinion. Because the way this would play out in front of a jury if he were ever charged would be in a way that would give I think great credit to those witnesses who could be heard to be honest and truthful and who would have -- you know, be able to tell their full stories in court, along, frankly, with the President`s witnesses. And I don`t have much doubt about how that would come out.
So what the President hopes to do here is to write off people like Andy McCabe and Jim Comey as liars, as people who conspired against him. I think we are all looking forward to Jim Comey`s book and seeing what sort of truths he has to tell.
MATTHEWS: April 17th, that book comes out.
Anyway, the President`s attacks on McCabe, as I mentioned, Comey and Mueller drew a strong rebuke from former members of the intelligence community. Former CIA chief John Brennan responded to the President this way.
When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America. America will triumph over you.
And that was John Brennan. The former FBI director James Comey responded to the President`s attack on him saying,
Mr. President, the American people will hear my story very soon. And they can judge for themselves who is honorable and who is not.
Frank, back to you. I again, we go to who is the jury here. I think it`s the deep state. And they already I think are against Trump on this. I think he has a point there. Anybody who cares about the FBI doesn`t like the way this guy has been behaving. And the whole justice of our country, the way we do things, the way we treat witnesses, the way we treat civil servants, lifetime civil servants like McCabe, enjoying firing him right before he gets his pension, that sort of thing. But there must be Trump people. Is that his jury?
MONTOYA: It`s a 60-40 split right now. These investigations that are taking place neither the District of Columbia or in the eastern district of Virginia. There are going to be folks that are supporters that are in those jury pools. There are also going to be folks that are not his supporters in that jury pool.
But I think the important thing here, you know, bottom line, baseline essential aspect of this investigation, and the fact that Bob Mueller is running it is that he is not going to be caring about public opinion. He is not going to be caring about popular opinion. It`s going to be about the fax. And then he is going to sit down and his prosecutors are going to make the cases based on the fact. And then the jury is going to have to make their decisions based on the instruction as they get from the court, given the information that has presented as evidence, they are going to have to make that decision. At least against defendants that are not the President, you know.
If in fact we are able to indict the President or if there is an impeachment, that`s a different story. But as far as the case is concerned, as far as Mueller`s prosecution of this case, it`s going to be all about the facts.
MATTHEWS: Let me go to Joyce in this, and then I will get back to the journalists here.
This about blaming the government, saying the government is no good. The prosecutors are no good. In this case, the police, the FBI are no good, does sort of go back to the O.J. case. Because Johnnie Cochran, notorious or popular whatever, successful certainly with his way of making the L.A. police the issue in that murder case, double murder case. He made the issue the police, whether they racist or not, whether they manipulated evidence or not. And the jury went with that argument.
This time around it seems like Trump in the court of public opinion is making the FBI the issue, the special counsel the issue, McCabe the issue, everybody but himself the issue. That seems to be the O.J. strategy at work here.
VANCE: Yes, I mean, it`s that old strategy that defense lawyers use when the facts are on your side, pound the fax. When the law is on your side, pound the law. When neither one is on your side, pound the table. And usually when you are pounding the table, you are pounding the police.
Unlikely to work here simply because this investigation has been handled by such professional people. They have undergone just crushing, as Andy McCabe did, just crushing sorts of diatribes from folks in the President`s circle. But their veracity and the process that they have used and the clarity with which they have proceeded will hold up when the end of the day, when they present this evidence, the evidence that they`re beginning to compile is overwhelming at this point. And this sort of attack on them as law enforcement officers won`t work.
MATTHEWS: Right now the positive approval of Mueller is 28 percent. Negative is 19. So a lot of people haven`t weighed in yet because they haven`t seen the evidence.
Thank you so much, Shannon Pettypiece and Natasha Bertrand and Frank Montoya and Joyce Vance.
Coming up, some Republicans are finally starting to speak up against Trump. Heard that?
Over the weekend, Lindsey Graham says if Trump fires Mueller, it would be the end of his presidency or the beginning of the end of his presidency.
Trey Gowdy, no liberal, who relentlessly investigated Benghazi says if Trump`s innocent, he ought to start acting like it.
But why are so many other Republicans, including the key Republicans in the leadership of the House and the Senate staying so quiet? Well, that`s ahead.
Plus, Trump`s lawyers are hitting back against Stormy Daniels, filing suit that she violated their confidentiality agreement at least 20 times. Where is this case heading? I really want to know. Where is this going to be in two weeks? And what is Trump into this fight for.
And look, ma, no hands. After weeks of White House departures, what we are seeing from the oval office right now is a President who feels newly emboldened to say what he feels like, maybe even what he thinks now that the so-called moderating forces are out of the way. This is what it looks like when you let Trump be Trump right now. That`s what it looks like.
Finally, let me finish tonight with Trump watch. He will not like tonight.
This is HARDBALL, where the action.
MATTHEWS: In what may be the biggest boost to Democrats so far in the midterm election campaign, the United States Supreme Court today rejected a challenge by Pennsylvania Republicans to the keystone state`s newly redrawn congressional map. That means the new map, which corrects the most gerrymandered map in the country, will likely go into effect this year. The old map was drawn to give Republicans maximum advantage, especially in the Philadelphia suburbs.
In 2016, they won 13 of the state`s 18 House seats. Well, Democrats need to pick up 23 seats to win control of this House across the country. And the redrawn map in Pennsylvania gives them a good shot at flipping possibly as many as six of those seats right there in Pennsylvania alone.
We will be right back after this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Well, as I said before, if he tried to do that, that would be the beginning of the end of his presidency, because we are a rule of law nation. But when it comes to Mr. Mueller, he is following the evidence where it takes him. And I think it`s very important he be allowed to do his job without interference. And there are many Republicans who share my view.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
That was South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, warning President Trump not to fire special counsel Mueller. The President`s weekend tweets about Mueller`s credibility led a handful of other prominent Republicans to also speak out. Let`s listen to them.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. TREY GOWDY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Give him the time, the resources, the independence to do his job. And when you are innocent, if the allegations is collusion with the Russians and there is no evidence of that and you are innocent of that, act like it.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: It is not a collusion probe. It is much broader than that. Now, obviously, once you open that up and you start looking, you can go in one direction or another. You go where the evidence takes you. And that`s what I support.
SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Talking to my colleagues all along, it was, you know, once he goes after Mueller, then we will take action.
I think that people see that as a massive red line that can`t be crossed. So, I hope that that`s the case. And I would just hope that enough people would prevail on the president now, don`t go there. Don`t go there. We have confidence in Mueller. I certainly do.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: In a statement, Speaker Paul Ryan`s spokeswoman wrote: "As the speaker has always said, Mr. Mueller and his team should be able to do their job."
But most other Republicans remain conspicuously silent, including Ryan`s counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
And while concerns Trump may be considering drastic action towards Mueller inspired some tough talk, it has translated into very little.
"The Washington Post" reports that, as some Republicans rallied around Mueller, "There were no indications they planned to take legislative steps to protect Mueller." The report adds, "It has been almost eight months since lawmakers introduced a pair of bipartisan bills to prevent Trump or any president from being able to order the firing of a special counsel without a reason that can pass muster."
Well, back in January, McConnell dismissed the need to take up such legislation. Let`s listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: My understanding is, there is no effort under way to undermine or to remove the special counsel. Therefore, I don`t see any need to bring up legislation to protect someone who appears to need no protection.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: How wily of him.
Anyway, for more, I`m joined by Robert Costa, national political reporter for "The Washington Post" and an MSNBC political analyst, and Steve Schmidt, Republican strategist and MSNBC contributor.
Let`s put a lay of the land. It does seem that Lindsey, by the way, is clearly a guy who believes in the institution of the United States Senate, and he actually believes in the United States government. He believes in it. He is a true believer. He is like a senator from 1,000 years ago. He is for real.
So I can understand him being honest about this thing.
But what about the leadership? Why don`t they come out and say, Mr. President, stay in your lane, you`re the one being investigated, you can`t fire the investigator?
ROBERT COSTA, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Based on my reporting, they`re saying it to him privately, to the president. But they`re wary of having this public war with the president over the Mueller investigation.
They`re sitting, wishing, waiting, hoping he doesn`t make a move. But they know, if he does make a move, that`s when -- that`s the crucial moment. That`s when they maybe have to make a decision.
MATTHEWS: But what about if he moves toward it by getting rid of Jeff Sessions, although he has been kissing up to him today, I noticed, thanking him for getting rid of McCabe, by the way?
COSTA: I have been talking to lawmakers all day, Republicans. And they say they`re worried their base is with Trump on the Russia issue.
MATTHEWS: Eighty-four percent today.
COSTA: Eighty-four percent of the polls.
And they if we want -- we already face a storm in the midterms. If we want any of our voters to come out, we have to avoid having some kind of public clash with Trump.
That`s what keeping them from having -- they`re not echoing Senator Flake, because they know their voters are pretty much with the president, watching conservative media, watching his tweets.
MATTHEWS: You know, Steve, you`re the most political, smart Republican I know around these days. So, let me ask you about this.
Aren`t there any Republicans who are discounting Trump, saying, hey, this guy is going to be gone in a few years, I want to be one of the guys that spoke up against him, I want to have the rep of the person, man or woman, who said, this guy is no good for our party?
Where are those people, besides you, I mean?
STEVE SCHMIDT, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I don`t know, Chris. I wonder it every day.
Look, if we were on Wall Street and we were selling stocks or buying stocks, if you`re a stock picker, you`re going to go long on the Trump stock or short on the Trump stock? And I just don`t understand why there`s not more Republicans saying, I`m going to short the stock, looking at the chaos, the incompetence, the general trajectory and the huge blue tsunami that is building offshore coming to wipe way the Republican majorities.
I will say this, Chris. We know that Mitch McConnell was informed during the campaign that the United States of America was under attack by Russia, that our elections process was under attack, and he would not work with the Democratic president to secure the country.
So the answer to the question about what Mitch McConnell will do if Donald Trump were to launch a full-on attack on the rule of law in this country, the answer is nothing. He is going to choose politics every time.
MATTHEWS: Well, it seems like that.
Robert, it seems like the number of people that are questioning the president are almost zero. And I`m wondering whether -- getting back to this question, is he ever going to fall? I don`t know. I think the Democrats will win the House this fall, just looking at the numbers. I think they will get to 218. And they will go win the House.
And I think that Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, will begin hearings. And I can see there are 60-some Democrats who already think the president should be impeached, so there will be action. There will be hearings.
But I`m not going to get they get 218 for impeachment right now. It depends on the sharpness of the report by Mueller and whether it really gets to something that hits people politically in the solar plexus and make even some Republicans say, whoa, this guy really broke the law. We have to get rid of him.
I don`t see that happening. So, I wonder whether it`s a good bet right now to bet against Trump, just simply that, because the Senate is going to -- they`re not going to convict him in the Senate. Two-thirds vote in the United States Senate?
COSTA: Well, I don`t like to speculate.
MATTHEWS: That`s not speculating. Look what happened with -- it`s never happened before.
COSTA: Look, the Democrats...
MATTHEWS: Go ahead.
COSTA: Why aren`t Democrats running on Russia? Because they`re seeing the same political dynamics you`re seeing.
They know that Russia is not going to automatically win them the House and the Senate. Democratic candidates are saying -- look at Dianne Feinstein today from California. She said of course she wants to protect Mueller. But there is not this huge eagerness among all Democrats to have legislation.
MATTHEWS: I think the Republicans are betting on Trump.
Anyway, the president`s attacks on Mueller came as a new NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll featured some numbers that don`t look good for Republicans. The NBC poll gives Democrats a 10-point advantage over Republicans in the generic congressional reference for this fall.
That`s why I think they will win. When asked their opinion of Robert Mueller, 28 percent, as I said, had a positive opinion of the special counsel, 19 negative. So, obviously, a lot of people haven`t thought about him there.
Steve, I don`t know. Mueller looks clean as hell to me. I don`t think he looks like a partisan Democrat to me. Nor does Comey. They look like institutional people, professionals who are frightening if they`re on the other side of the table from you. But I don`t think of -- they certainly don`t look like progressive political left people at all.
Which side are the Republican voters taking on these guys?
SCHMIDT: In the Republican Party of not too many years ago, these would have been figures of deep admiration, both of them Republicans, a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, a Marine Corps officer, highly decorated, Robert Mueller, serving his country, keeping America safe after the 9/11 attacks.
Now you turn on right-wing talk radio, FOX News on any given night, it`s nonstop conspiracy theories, the calls to lock up senior leadership of the intelligence community, the FBI, character assaults on both Mueller and Comey, conspiracy theories around every aspect of this.
And so the Republican Party that has been captured and is in thrall to Donald Trump and its complicit Republican leadership on the Hill, everybody has lashed themselves to the Donald Trump mast, and we will see as this plays out.
What`s for sure is that his firing Mueller would precipitate in this country, a country can founded on the rule of law, that it would precipitate a constitutional crisis, and the gravest maybe in the history of the executive.
MATTHEWS: How can you blame Comey as being in the tank with the Republicans when everybody says -- and the Democrats, the way the Republicans are arguing now and Trump is -- when he was the guy, according to Lanny Davis, and I think credibly argues, that by coming out 10 days before the election with the news that the Anthony Weiner desktop had some information of value to their investigation, which is what he did, didn`t turn a lot of people who were wavering away from Hillary Clinton.
And certainly that wasn`t a pro-Democrat guy. And now they say having that on the record, that everybody knows he did that, they`re all out there saying, oh, he is working for the Dems.
Steve, what kind of mind comes up with that one?
SCHMIDT: Yes, I mean, look, James Comey at the time, I was very critical of the decision. I think he broke FBI, Department of Justice procedure. I think he politicized the end stage of an election. And he was criticized roundly by many people. And I think he deserved it.
But, certainly, there is no evidence to suggest that James Comey has ever acted dishonorably in his career, that he has ever acted in any way other than what he thought was the right thing to do. And so those decisions, those things that elected officials, senior leaders of the government too, they should be open to criticism, open to review.
But the character assaults on these men who were so deeply admired in the Republican Party long ago is really evidence of the corruption inside the conservative movement and the Republican Party in this Trump era.
COSTA: There is anxiety inside of the West Wing tonight.
My sources are saying they hope the president is venting by bringing on these new conservative lawyers that are going to go after the institutional value of the investigation, but maybe that pulls him back from actually pulling the trigger.
MATTHEWS: Are they up or down in the White House right now?
COSTA: They`re pretty down about the investigation, because they don`t know where it goes for Kushner. They don`t know where it goes on obstruction. And they`re already negotiating terms of a possible conversation with Mueller, a meeting.
MATTHEWS: Why do -- I`m going back to my fighting word. Why do they call it conversations? Why do we call them interviews? Why isn`t the president required under law to answer to the law? Why does he get to negotiate?
COSTA: He should be.
MATTHEWS: I`m going to do a written test. I`m going to take it home with me.
COSTA: They`re negotiating the parameters.
MATTHEWS: Why don`t they just tell him to do what he has to do?
COSTA: Well, they could with an indictment.
MATTHEWS: Oh, they have to indict him first?
COSTA: Well, I mean, that`s the process. If you`re not a target, then it`s more of an interview process.
MATTHEWS: Yes. Well, Bill Clinton wasn`t indicted, and he had to go before a grand jury.
COSTA: You can volunteer to appear.
MATTHEWS: OK. Thank you, Robert Costa. I think they`re being too sweet.
Anyway, thank you, Steve Schmidt.
I would be a little tougher if I were Mueller.
Up next: Trump`s lawyers claim Stormy Daniels should pay $20 million for violating their nondisclosure agreement. Why does Trump want any part of this fight? Well, he`s in it personally.
This is HARDBALL, where the action is.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
President Trump finally weighed in on the Stormy Daniels drama. Trump and his longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, requested that the adult film actor`s lawsuit against them be moved to federal court.
They also claimed Daniels violated a hush agreement at least 20 times and is going to have to pay, therefore, $20 million. It`s the first time President Trump himself has weighed in on the case.
In a filing, a lawyer for Trump writes: "Mr. Trump intends to pursue his rights to the fullest extent permitted by law."
Well, that`s strong. Daniels in her lawsuit alleges she had a relationship with the president from 2006 to 2007. President Trump, who was married at the time, has denied the allegations. Her suit claims the agreement is null and void because the president never signed it.
Well, in response to the president`s filing, Stormy Daniels` lawyer tweeted: "How can President Donald Trump seek $20 million in damages against my client based on an agreement that he and Mr. Cohen claim Mr. Trump never was a party to and knew nothing about?"
For more, I`m joined by MSNBC legal analyst Katie Phang.
Katie, bottom line first to start the evening off. Where is this heading? I mean like the long-term future, like two weeks from now. Will we still - - as we say in this journalism, will this story still have legs? Will it still be worthy of our attention?
Will it be leading to some criminal charge against the president, something like an FEC violation, or something like that, something to do with the tax law? Are there opportunities here for prosecution?
KATIE PHANG, MSNBC LEGAL ANALYST: So, in the immediate event horizon, Chris, where is this going?
Well, apparently, it`s going head to "60 Minutes" on Sunday. Michael Cohen today in a "Vanity Fair" article says he actually hasn`t tried to stop CBS from releasing that interview that Stormy Daniels has already done.
So, Chris, the question is, how much interest is America going to have after Stormy Daniels tells her story in that interview when it airs on Sunday? And depending upon the information that is revealed during that interview, you may end up with more litigation. You may end up with more FEC issues in terms of campaign finance violations.
It just depends. But the discovery in this case is going to be key, because that will lead us to conclude whether or not Michael Cohen violated with the full knowledge of the president of the United States campaign finance laws when he gave $130,000 of his own money to Stormy Daniels.
MATTHEWS: Well, what about this question, without getting into the lasciviousness of the whole thing, which we`re already in, I guess, unfortunately, does she have something that goes beyond just, we had an affair? Because now that`s known to everybody on the planet. So, as you suggest there, what`s new?
Did he talk business around her? Did he talk politics around her? Does she hear something that she shouldn`t have overheard? I wonder whether there is something here that we`re just missing that suggests why his lawyers are being so feverish in trying to squash her -- or quash this discussion.
PHANG: So, we know that Trump has no problem admitting to grabbing stuff.
PHANG: He has no problem admitting to doing thanks things that are inappropriate. So what do we know about Trump?
Well, there`s two people in the hemisphere of the Trump orbit that Trump has serious problems not saying anything negative about. The man has no problems tweeting out about everything, right?
PHANG: But there`s two people, Vladimir Putin and Stormy Daniels.
You don`t hear anything negative coming out of Trump about those two people. And it makes you scratch your head and ask, why is that? Now, both of them, we have seen bare-chested, some of us maybe, right?
But here is the bottom line. He has something to hide. And that is the reason why he is not saying anything negative about her, and that`s the reason why he is trying to quash this. But, unfortunately for Donald Trump, even in the arbitration proceeding, discovery can be had.
And if discovery is had and things like a deposition have to happen, why is that going to be an issue for him, unless there is something that he doesn`t want the world to know about?
MATTHEWS: What about this physical threat thing that came out of Avenatti, the lawyer?
PHANG: So, that`s a serious issue. If you think of the evolution of the Stormy Daniels case, it went from I had an affair with a porn star, to I might have violated campaign finance rules, to now there may have been a physical threat of harm.
Now, the reason why this is important is the timing behind it. If a physical threat of harm was made to Stormy Daniels prior to her executing any agreement in this case, then that, in and of itself, could invalidate that agreement.
PHANG: Think about it. If she signed it under fear, coercion, duress, and if that happened, then a judge is going to say, uh-uh, bad agreement.
MATTHEWS: Yes, that`s Luca Brasi stuff out of "The Godfather." Your brains or your signature.
PHANG: Yes, that`s not going to -- yes.
MATTHEWS: Yes. Yes. I get you. I get you. You`re always a step ahead of me.
MATTHEWS: Katie, we`re going to have you. As long as you keep coming on - - back on the show, we`re going to keep talking about this. Anyway, just kidding.
But you`re great on this. I love the way you`re succinct and make the points that we have to make. Thank you so much you for coming on again.
MATTHEWS: Up next: These days Donald Trump is listening to one person, Donald Trump. Allies say he is newly emboldened to say what he really thinks and act from his gut.
And that may explain the fresh attacks on everybody right now, especially Mueller. Look, mom, no hands. I think that`s the theme.
You`re watching HARDBALL.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
This weekend, President Trump went further than he ever has before, directly attacking special counsel Robert Mueller. Over Twitter, according to "The New York Times," Trump is, quote newly emboldened to say what he really feels and to ignore the cautions of those around him. "The Times" goes on to report that that self-confidence has led to a series of surprising comments and actions that have pushed the Trump presidency in an ever more tumultuous direction.
Let`s listen to some of those comments from the past few weeks.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If we don`t get tough on the drug dealers, we`re wasting our time. Just remember that. We`re wasting our time. And that toughness includes the death penalty.
North Korea, Kim Jong-un, would like to meet with President Trump? This doesn`t happen. They say oh, well Obama could have done that. Trust me. He couldn`t have done that.
Trudeau came to see me, he`s a good guy, Justin. He said, no, no, we have no trade deficit with you. We have none. Donald, please, nice guy, good- looking guy, comes in. Donald, we have no trade deficit. He was very proud. Because everybody else, we`re getting killed. So he`s great.
I said, wrong, Justin. You do. I didn`t even know. Josh, I had no idea. I said wrong. You know why? It was so stupid.
There will always be change, and I think you want to see change.
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
MATTHEWS: Well, the president continuing to ignore the advice of his staffers and following his gut on issue likes the Russia investigation or policy decisions like capital punishment. That`s up next with the HARDBALL round table.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: But let me tell you, the one that matters is me. I`m the only one that matters, because when it comes to it, that`s what the policy is going to be. You`ve seen that. You`ve seen it strongly.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
That was President Trump himself making it clear that when it comes to everything, he is the one calling the shots. "The New York Times" is reporting that Trump ultimately trusts only his own instincts, and now believes he has settled into the job enough to rely on them, his instincts, rather than the people who dare to advise him.
Let`s bring in our round table tonight. Annie Linskey is national reporter for "The Boston Globe." P.J. O`Rourke, what a get, P.J. O`Rourke is the author of "How the Hell Did This Happen?: The Election of 2016", the Eugene Scott is political reporter for "The Washington Post."
So, we`re all covered tonight. The establishment, the anti-establishment, Bean Town and D.C.
Here is the thing. He does seem to be like a kid, having learned how to ride the bike, waves both hands in the air, hey, look, mom, no hands. That`s the presidency we got. But, look, mom, no -- he doesn`t need advisory, the handlebars, he doesn`t need brains. It`s all instinct.
ANNIE LINSKEY, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE BOSTON GLOBE: Well, that`s what he says. He`ll make these bizarre comments. But then the right wing is always able to bring him back to where they want him to be.
MATTHEWS: We don`t let the DACA kids off the hook. And what else do we do? We don`t do anything about the gun owners.
LINSKEY: Right, right. Suddenly, you know, he wants to take away guns and the NRA sat down with him.
MATTHEWS: So, he has little boss, he has bosses.
LINSKEY: He`s got bosses. They might not technically work in the building, but they certainly have the ability to yank his chain.
MATTHEWS: Eugene, you`re shaking your head excitedly.
EUGENE SCOTT, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes.
MATTHEWS: He is bossed by the right. He is not really the guy -- the id- driven guy he claims to be.
SCOTT: I think he is certainly bossed by his base. I think at the end of the day, he thinks about what these people who sent him to the White House want him to do, despite what may be advised by these people who actually do have experience and knowledge on these issues. He is always thinking about the people who sent him there, because those are the few people who actually still approve of the job he is doing.
MATTHEWS: Well, he`s not really a demagogue, he is just another reed shaken by the wind, as we say in the bible. Yes, P.J. O`Rourke?
P.J. O`ROURKE, AUTHOR, "HOW THE HELL DID THIS HAPPEN?": Well, hell, I`m the right, you know? And he is not listening to me. I`m not sure about that.
LINSKEY: You might not be far enough.
O`ROURKE: Maybe I`m not. But, you know, you can`t understand democracy without understanding the fact that 50 percent of people are below average in intelligence, mathematically fact.
SCOTT: Right, by definition.
O`ROURKE: Not to go sounding like Hillary Clinton here.
LINSKEY: Oh, here we go.
MATTHEWS: You are unfortunately making a much worse case. Much worse case. So what your point, sir?
O`ROURKE: Well, I mean, he is one of them is my point, basically. I don`t know where "The New York Times" --
MATTHEWS: By the way, that theory that half the people have lower I.Q. than 100 by definition is true. But I never heard anybody say, I got an 84. You never hear anybody talking about those numbers.
O`ROURKE: No, the average person is much smarter than average. Just ask them.
MATTHEWS: So let`s get back to this guy and his ego. I think it came out today, you and I were -- Gene, we were talking before, capital punishment, you know, it`s really not up to the president. I mean, it`s going to end up in the Congress or the courts, probably the courts eventually. And most people have a common sense, in certain cases, yes. I don`t really like to cheer for the capital punishment. But there are cases.
LINSKEY: Sure, there are cases. But, you know, it`s interesting. I`m working on a story right now for "The Boston Globe" about this. I mean, the states have done this before. Florida has tried it. And it has not worked particularly well.
MATTHEWS: Well, Texas seems to get in.
LINSKEY: And it`s certainly not a deterrent. I mean, any sort of capital punishment expert you talk to will say it doesn`t deter.
MATTHEWS: Why doesn`t it? It makes sense it would be.
LINSKEY: It`s more -- it`s retribution.
O`ROURKE: It seems like it. It worked with me.
MATTHEWS: They always said you`re going to the gas chamber. That`s an exciting and evocative.
O`ROURKE: That would make me stop smoking.
LINSKEY: People still get murdered. I mean, in Baltimore, 350 people murdered.
MATTHEWS: A guy who robs a Starbucks, takes all the workers that work at minimum wage, takes them down to basement, it happened in D.C.
MATTHEWS: Tapes their mouth, tapes them up, and actually executes one of them, totally deliberately -- totally deliberately executes people. I think I would go. I`m not going to hold a candle for that guy.
LINSKEY: It`s about retribution, though. It`s not something that deters a crime.
SCOTT: Yes. I think a lot of concern is rooted in the fact --
MATTHEWS: It is retribution. It`s called justice.
LINSKEY: An eye for an eye.
MATTHEWS: In that case.
SCOTT: The concern is that justice is not evenly and equally applied when it comes to capital punishment. There are real concerns.
O`ROURKE: The rich people don`t go on a lethal gurney.
SCOTT: And poor people and people of color proportionally do.
MATTHEWS: It`s somebody for upper middle class white persons, it`s very rare, these executions. In fact, it`s predictable it`s either a poor white guy or African American it seems like all the time.
MATTHEWS: "The Washington Post" is reporting that senior staff White House members were asked to and did sign nondisclosure agreements, vowing, I love that, not to reveal confidential information -- vowing -- and exposing them to damages if they violate their vows with, Marcus calls these agreements not only oppressive, but -- I agree with her -- constitutionally repugnant. And notes unlike employees of private enterprise such as the Trump Organization or Trump campaign, White House aides have First Amendment rights when it comes to their employer, the federal government.
I have written three or four books. They have mentioned my experience in the White House. I never thought I was violating a nondisclosure --
O`ROURKE: A vow.
LINSKEY: A vow.
MATTHEWS: And what Ted Sorenson and what about Pierre Salinger, all these guys wrote books over the years?
O`ROURKE: Everybody who has been in the White House has written a book.
LINSKEY: It`s part of why you sign up, right? Well, Trump clearly wants to replicate what he had at the Trump Organization. And that is a time when former employees left his employ and went out and wrote books that he`s got very upset about. So, he is used to this.
MATTHEWS: They wrote his books too. He never wrote a book.
O`ROURKE: I know a person who didn`t read them that would be him.
MATTHEWS: I don`t think he did anyway. How do you explain the id explosion of this guy? He seems like a guy who isn`t worried about saying stuff about -- Trump. He is bad-mouthing him all weekend, attacking Comey, attacking McCabe. Just spewing it all over the place without any sense of, like, brains.
SCOTT: Well, I think Trump is concerned that there are more people who would come out and talk about him and talk what is happening in the White House in this manner. You have to remember with the push to get these NDAs came about when there was a time when leaks were really out of control in the White House.
MATTHEWS: They haven`t stopped.
SCOTT: They haven`t stopped. That`s the point.
MATTHEWS: Talk to her. What`s new? What`s new?
O`ROURKE: You call the leak line.
SCOTT: And I don`t think these NDAs are going to do what Trump hopes they will.
O`ROURKE: Of course not.
MATTHEWS: Look at this. Do you think these people are quiet?
The round table is sticking with us. Can these people tell me something? I don`t know. Hold your horses --
MATTHEWS: We`re back with the HARDBALL round table.
Annie, tell me something I don`t know.
LINSKEY: So, I`m sure you do know the gun march is coming up on Saturday. But what you might not know is --
MATTHEWS: We`ve been covering it all day. I`ll be out there. Brian is doing it. All the people. The whole team is going to be there.
LINSKEY: And you will not see a politician speaking because they are not inviting politicians to speak at this event.
MATTHEWS: (INAUDIBLE), as the Germans would say. How come?
LINSKEY: So, they want politicians to be listening. They want young people --
MATTHEWS: Because Bernie was out there last time.
MATTHEWS: P.J., it`s great to have you on.
O`ROURKE: Great to be here.
MATTHEWS: Your book is called "How the Hell Did This Happen?" What`s it about?
O`ROURKE: What do you think?
O`ROURKE: And when you find out how it hell it happened, let me know.
MATTHEWS: It`s 2018. A little slow in the bell coming off the mat there.
MATTHEWS: Go ahead, we`re close.
O`ROURKE: If the Democrats win big in November, it`s going to destroy the Democratic Party.
MATTHEWS: I think I have that theory down, because they will be blamed for everything.
MATTHEWS: Go ahead.
SCOTT: Today, during Trump`s opioid epidemic speech, he actually ended up praising a program from the Clinton Foundation used to help high schoolers and college students overcome overdoses. And so, we don`t know if he actually knew that he was doing that.
MATTHEWS: OK. I want to hear this. "The New Hampshire Union Leader" will endorse John Kasich in 2020 for president in the primary up there in New Hampshire.
Thank you, Annie Linskey. Thank you, P.J. O`Rourke and Eugene Scott.
When we return, let me finish tonight with Trump watch. You`re watching HARDBALL.
MATTHEWS: Trump Watch, Monday, March 19th, 2018.
Watching Mueller and Trump go at it, I`m reminded of biology lab back in my sophomore year at LaSalle College High School. Remember the starfish and the clam? I know we dissected one or the other, definitely the starfish.
Mueller reminds me of the starfish which gets itself tightly around the clam and uses all its stuff to weaken and pry open the clam. Now, this is a battle to the death as far as the clam is concerned. If the starfish is able to open him even a little bit, he can open him all the way, and that`s it, of course, for the clam. He is the starfish`s lunch.
I`ve watched a number of these starfishes along the way, the special counsels or independent prosecutors, which is what we used to call them. Like starfishes, they don`t give up. Their purpose in life is to open the clam. Get what`s in them and devour it whole.
Whatever you can say about him, Robert Mueller is a perfect example of a starfish. He will not stop until he has gotten Trump to open up. He will use the charges he has against Trump`s family as leverage, the witnesses he has gotten from plea bargains, the power of subpoena and time.
If you haven`t noticed, Mueller is in no hurry. He just keeps prying, and that clam in the White House is now snugly in his grip. Does anyone think this is going to end well for the clam?
That`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us.
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