Comey tells all in explosive new memoir. TRANSCRIPT: 04/12/2018. Hardball with Chris Matthews

Guests: Carol Leonnig, Shannon Pettypiece, Yamiche Alcindor

Show: HARDBALL Date: April 12, 2018 Guest: Carol Leonnig, Shannon Pettypiece, Yamiche Alcindor

Mueller; Syria; Defense; Policies; James Comey; Politics>

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Comey throws the book at Trump. Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.

Huge news on the investigation of the President. NBC News is reporting tonight that special counsel Robert Mueller is now moving more speedily toward a report that could show that President Trump obstructed justice. What opened the way is the realization that the President will refuse to answer Mueller`s questions.

The other breaking story tonight is we are seeing the first excerpts from James Comey`s explosive new memoir. And the former FBI director didn`t hold anything back. "The Washington Post" has obtained a copy ahead of its publication next week and is reporting that it even includes new details about the alleged incident in that Moscow hotel room.

Comey reveals when the solation allegations came up quote "Trump told him to consider having the FBI investigate the prostitutes` allegation to prove it was a lie." Comey says quote "in an apparent play for my sympathy, he added that he has a beautiful wife and the whole thing has been very painful for her. He asked what we could do to lift the cloud."

Well, in response to the President`s denials, Comey writes that though I didn`t know for sure, I imagine the Presidential suite of the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow was large enough for a germaphobe to be at a safe distance from that activity.

More broadly, however, the former FBI director offers a portrait of what he calls the forest fire that is the Trump presidency.

I`m joined right now by "the Washington Post" Phil Rucker who wrote that the report who has read Comey`s book. Also joining me tonight Julia Ansley, investigative reporter for NBC News, Jill Wine-Banks, former Watergate special prosecutor and MSNBC legal contributor, Robert Costa, national political reporter with "the Washington Post" and MSNBC political analyst and Bret Stephens op-ed columnist with the "New York Times," also an MSNBC contributor.

All these points, let`s start with the facts we got just brand-new tonight and that is from you, Phil Rucker.

Phil, the juicy stuff, sir, what`s in the book?

PHIL RUCKER, WHITE HOUSE BUREAU CHIEF, WASHINGTON POST: Well, Chris it`s a long book detailing all of Comey`s interactions with President Trump beginning when he was the President-elect at Trump tower, when it was Comey one-on-one with him who briefed the President-elect on that intelligence dossier with unconfirmed allegations that you alluded to from that Moscow hotel room. And he writes in the book that again and again and again in their conversations Trump would come back to that scene. He would try to convince the FBI director that it was not true, that it could not be true. And at one point he asked Comey to have the FBI investigate the allegations in order to prove they were not true to the American people to make that proof that it was not true public. Trump was really fixated on this.

MATTHEWS: Well, does Comey say he did investigate and agreed or disagreed with what the two sex workers had said had happened in that room?

RUCKER: Well, Comey in the book does not render a judgment about what happened. He simply relates his conversations with the President but he did go ahead and investigate it. It really bothered the President according to Comey`s account because it was so painful for first lady Melania Trump and President Trump would bring that up with Comey in their conversations.

And it`s important to point out, Chris, that that Comey draws broader conclusions about Trump as a President and about this presidency. He says that he is a congenital liar, an unethical leader who blurs the line between the politics that goes at the White House and what should be an independent FBI and department of justice and he calls this a forest fire of a presidency that must be contained.

MATTHEWS: Let`s talk about the accusation for Comey. I understand he says the President acted like a mob boss.

RUCKER: That`s exactly right. Comey before becoming FBI director was a prosecutor in New York. He prosecuted the mafia, went after mobsters. And at a couple different points in the book he reflects on Trump and says that, you know, a lot of traits that he saw in the mafia he also sees in Trump and in the Trump White House. The circle of deceit, the demands for loyalty pledges, the sort of with us or against us world view. And the constant lies and Comey says it became very clear to him that the lifestyle he saw within the mafia and the mob was evident in the oval office now.

MATTHEWS: Two more questions, the small hands reference which I thought was a bit cheap and also the more serious question about Trump`s admitting that he likes oaths of loyalty.

RUCKER: That`s right pep talks about the loyalty oath. And this is something that Comey got into in his Senate testimony that we remember. There was one-on-one dinner Comey had with President Trump in the green room of the White House where the President asked for his personal loyalty. They sort of went back and forth. Comey made clear he wouldn`t give his personal political loyalty that he would be loyal to the truth and they sort of left it at that.

But then after that point, Trump went through a litany of accusations against him to try to convince Comey they weren`t true beginning with the sexual assault allegations that were brought up during the campaign. He talked about that moment at that campaign rally where he mocked "New York Times" reporter Serge Kovaleski who is disabled and said that was not true. And went through other examples, as well.

MATTHEWS: What about the small hands reference?

RUCKER: Yes, the small hands reference. He describes meeting Trump for the first time at that briefing in Trump tower. And noticing a few things about his physique. One that he thinks Trump was smaller in person, shorter rather in person than he appears on television. Trump is 6`3" but Comey is 6`8".

Comey describes his hands, says they`re smaller than mine being Comey`s and describes his face as being orange and that he would look at the sort of center of his eyes where he suspected there were tanning goggles. It`s a real personal attacking inning this book leveled at the President.

MATTHEWS: Yes. It strikes me.

Let me go to Robert who knows the President pretty well. What do you make of Trump`s reaction on this tonight? He is getting this as we are getting it, apparently. I don`t know if he has an advanced copy.

ROBERT COSTA, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, WASHINGTON POST: He has already fighting a political war against the Mueller probe mulling his decisions, if any. He is going to make on that front. And now it`s the Comey book. And the White House has some strategy prepared but not a wholesale strategy working in coordination with the Republican national committee. And there`s a lot of angst in President Trump`s inner circle that could he erupt in the coming days as this book becomes the national firestorm.

MATTHEWS: What do you think of Comey putting in this cheap stuff about his hands at all? I always believed in if you write a book, your weakest cheapest charge becomes your vulnerability, that people will focus on that and take you apart. If it looks like a vendetta, personal vendetta, doesn`t that hurt Comey`s case on the facts even if he has the facts?

COSTA: I haven`t read the book so I don`t want to speculate too much. But I will say what`s more important about this book is what it outlines about potential conduct by the President, possible obstruction of justice, how does the Mueller probe look at the Comey book? How do people in Congress look at the book. The little things do matter politically. They are going to create headlines. But in the big picture of this presidency, his behavior conduct, his actions, that`s what matters.

MATTHEWS: Let`s go to question on that, Julia Ainsley.

You have got this reporting tonight we are going to get to in a moment. But it seems to me that both Comey who wrote this book and it`s coming out now, tomorrow morning we will read it all in the papers and "the Washington Post" especially already have got it. But we also know that Comey`s firing was probably what triggered the fact that Robert Mueller wanted to take the role of special counsel. This is important to him institutionally. The role of obstruction of justice in the firing of Comey. How are the stories we are getting now going to affect the power of the prosecution?

JULIA AINSLEY, NBC NEWS NATIONAL SECURITY AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Right. So it is a triggering effect. As you remember, Jim Comey was fired and then Rod Rosenstein turned around and hired Robert Mueller appointed him to be the special counsel. And that`s a point that the President has been very angry about and it all builds into the obstruction case. So we know now from our reporting that Robert Mueller has been building an obstruction case based on his firing of Comey, his intent behind that, about the statement he made on the Trump tower meeting, these pardons that he has dangled in front of grand jury witnesses and on this idea of the recusal of Jeff Sessions that allowed Rosenstein to then appoint Mueller after Comey was fired.

I mean, all of this you can`t really just put in one vacuum. And Robert is absolutely right that this is -- a lot of the things we are hearing in this book are probably things Mueller already knows. So as we are reading through this, there is going to be a lot that can be used as political spit fire back and forth. Trump can say look this and say, look, Comey was biased against me the whole time that`s reflect the Peter Struck (ph) text.

But he can also look at it and say, well, there`s actually a lot of information that if this comes out, the obstruction case can be looking harder and harder and especially if he decides not to sit down with Robert Mueller for an interview as we believe his legal team now wants to do. That`s going to just make the obstruction case move faster against him.

MATTHEWS: What do you think they are going to reach or come out with a report? Can you tell? This summer? Early summer?

AINSLEY: So what we have heard is between May and July was the plan before Monday. But again, the whole plan got thrown up in the air on Monday after that raid of Michael Cohen`s apartment and offices and all of that because the President said forget it. I don`t want to sit down with this guy. So we think it could speed it up.

MATTHEWS: So maybe by June.

AINSLEY: Yes, as journalists, if I had a key witness, a key source who doesn`t want to talk to me and I`m writing that profile, like I get everything else I can around them and then I move out that story. I don`t wait for an interview that is never going to happen and Mueller wouldn`t either.

MATTHEWS: Jill Wine-Banks, when you hear that Comey, the head of the FBI at the time of all this happening, referring to his experience with the President as feeling he is in the presence of a mob boss, I`m wondering about the whole notion of what the crime end up being in terms of the report.

If the President has a pattern of running basically a racket of one after another to obstruct justice, is that going to be the kind of package this report will come in, something like a RICO (ph), running a criminal enterprise out of the White House? I`m wondering how strong the fact the FBI director looks upon the President as a mob boss will influence the report by the special prosecutor.

JILL WINE-BANKS, FORMER WATERGATE SPECIAL PROSECUTOR: I think the special prosecutor`s report is really what is going to matter to the public. It`s more important than the Comey book. And I think the report as I have been reading the reports is going to be a seriatim series of reports that will first deal with obstruction of justice and only obstruction of justice. He will then move on to collusion and other crimes that may be involved.

And as far as obstruction, he has a pretty significant amount of evidence that could show that there has been a violation of that law. I think that the mob boss and Rico which would allow greater penalties may be something that would be in an indictment later on.

But in terms of the report, I think he is going to set out what are the facts about the various things that have happened? What are the facts about the firing of Comey? Maybe even the firing of Sally Yates before that. Maybe about keeping Flynn even when he knew the bad information that existed about Flynn. It`s going to include the false statement that was drafted to explain the meeting in Trump tower in June.

So there`s a lot of elements of obstruction that could be just straight-out facts. And I think he will stick to the facts and not draw conclusions that are of a bigger scene unless and until he indicts.

MATTHEWS: Phil Rucker, let me get back to you. When you read the Comey book, which you had, do you sense an indictment, an implicit indictment of this President?

RUCKER: Well, Chris, there`s not -- if you`re looking for Comey to lay out sort of articles of impeachment, for example, you are not going to find that in the book. In fact, in the conclusion of the book, Comey writes that he simply doesn`t have enough of the full evidence to be able to render that judgment. He can only go based on his own experiences and what he witnessed one-on-one with the President. But in a broader sense --.

MATTHEWS: How about his firing? Does he take his firing as an obstructive act?

RUCKER: He does not spell that out specifically. He details the act surrounding the firing but he is leaving it to Mueller I think to draw those conclusions. But Comey does indict more broadly the President`s behavior and his presidency in very strong terms.

MATTHEWS: Bret Stephens, your thoughts about this, big picture?

BRET STEPHENS, COLUMNIST, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, the big picture is it doesn`t sound like Comey`s book reveals anything we don`t already know about the President from his skin tone to the size of his hands to his behavior.

But the larger picture I think here is a political one, whatever Mueller comes out with in a report about obstruction, unless there are like very clear black letter violations of the law, the question is simply going to be, how it`s perceived, how it`s perceived among wavering Republicans of whom there are, of course, an ever greater number, what happens in November and whether Democrats can then move forward with a case for impeachment.

I do think that the obstruction charge is likely to be the most damaging against the President because that`s where it seems we have the greatest amount of evidence that the President tried to tamper with an investigation.

MATTHEWS: That`s probably what Mr. Mueller believes. That`s why he is moving with it first.

Let`s get back to our other breaking story tonight which we have been discussing. NBC News is reporting tonight that both Mueller`s prosecutors and Trump`s legal team are now proceeding with strategies that presume a Presidential interview will not take place. Will not take place.

As a result, Mueller has now accelerated his timeline and quote "may be able to close the obstruction probe more quickly." Most significant is that three people familiar with the investigation tell NBC News Mueller has collected findings on Trump`s attempts to obstruct justice which will be included in a confidential report. Those findings, which Julia mentioned, are elements of the potential obstruction case.

They include the President`s intent when he fired former FBI director James Comey, his intent. His role in drafting a misleading statement about a campaign meeting with Russians at Trump tower in June of 2016. His dangling the prospect of pardons before grand jury witnesses who might testify against them. And the pressure he put on attorney general Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.

Depending on Mueller`s conclusion, it could spark impeachment proceedings against the President in the House if it when it is sent to the house. This news comes amid multiple reports the President is considering a move against deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein who has ultimate authority over the special counsel`s probe.

Julia, you have done the reporting on this. Tell us about these findings and how. Because we have heard about these things from the beginning, the firing of Comey, the intent. What`s new there? The intent.

AINSLEY: Yes. I mean, so intent of course, underlines any obstruction case. You have to be able to show that he didn`t just fire Comey because he felt like it because he can as President but that he did it in an intent to actually obstruct this case and to try to move it away from him.

In this case, we want to see how Mueller may be moving forward. And we know that these are four areas. There could be other areas.

MATTHEWS: Right.

AINSLEY: When I talk to these three sources, this was really what was overlapping. I was hearing these four areas. And we know that Mueller is someone who follows the book and he is going to most likely send a report which would be confidential to Rod Rosenstein. And then he would have to make the decision, Chris, whether or not that goes to Congress, whether or not it goes public and then, just as Bret was laying out, it depends on Congress, whether or not they would move forward with impeachment proceedings.

So right now, Mueller is in the business of trying to gather everything he can to make this as hard of a case as possible.

And I also want to say that we know he has findings on these areas.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

AINSLEY: We don`t necessarily know what the findings are. I mean, there could be a scenario where he finds that some of the findings are actually exculpatory.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

AINSLEY: That does not every box is checked. We know these are areas because we know that these are things that witnesses have been questioned about already.

MATTHEWS: Let me go ahead Jill with a bigger question in which I would (INAUDIBLE) question, everybody wants to know now. If you are President Trump and you are sitting in the White House now watching all this take place around you and you are thinking, what`s my best way to do, you know, damage control, if there`s any damage you could control, what would it be? If you fire Rosenstein which is your right, right now, can you kill with hip any report coming from or the person you put in that place any report on any one of these findings from the special counsel? Can you kill it, put it in a box somewhere, put a lock on it and throw it away? Can a President do that? Can this one do it legally?

WINE-BANK: This President could do it. But there is not an alternative available to Mueller. And that is the grand jury`s power to issue a report. That`s what we did in Watergate. We compiled all of the evidence that would lead to impeachable offenses and we got permission to give that to the House Judiciary Committee which then reviewed it as it considered impeachment, voted articles of impeachment that led to the President resigning. So that is an alternative that cannot be taken away from the grand jury. They have that inherent power. And it`s a different kind of report than the legislation that creates the office of special prosecutor which is the confidential one. So it would be up to Rosenstein as to what happens to it after it`s given to him, but it wouldn`t be if it`s the grand jury`s power.

So even if Mueller and Rosenstein were fired, the grand jury doesn`t go away and the grand jury has the power to issue that kind of a report setting out the facts. And I think it`s very important for Americans to get those facts. They need to know as do members of Congress, what has the President done and is he guilty, is he fit to be President, and the only way to know that is through real facts, through evidence. And that`s what the grand jury has been putting together.

MATTHEWS: Robert cost ta, your thoughts again before we break with you about the President`s reaction to all this tonight. What do you think the king is thinking tonight?

COSTA: Well, he is the President and he is thinking through both the political challenges facing him but also the executive challenges facing him. And he has been fuming privately and on twitter about the Mueller probe for days. He has been talking to friends and allies who have been urging him to fire Rosenstein. Now with the Comey book out there, all of this will be fueled even more. Decisions to make in the coming days and not only here at home but abroad, of course, was Syria and trade.

MATTHEWS: With these, I don`t want to make too big a thing about it. But I`m the kind of think this from a way Trump is cornered right now. What the President would go after. He is not going to go after the main significant charges. He is going to go after motive on the part of Comey.

Now, he has said this whole thing is a vendetta by the deep state. There`s Comey a classic product, a figure of the deep state. Been in the FBI for years. This guy writes a book in which he makes fun of his hand size, his physique. He makes fun of the fact he is smaller than he thought showing this prejudice toward him.

It may not be a big thing but I can see Trump making a big deal out of it and saying this is what I have been saying. These characters have been out to get me. And it`s clear by language of this book that`s what their motive is just to get me personally. Your thoughts? What will Trump do with that?

COSTA: He may believe that. But there`s a calculation to make if he is only a subject at this moment in the probe and not a criminal target, if he still has a choice to making whether to sit for an interview or not. He is being told by White House officials and his attorneys to stay cool, relatively cool, when it cops to the real decisions he has to make with regard to the investigation. They are fine with him firing off different tweet but they would like him to stay cool, not do the interview. NBC has sharp reporting tonight on that. And hope to weather this storm both the book and the investigation and the report.

MATTHEWS: Bret, your big bet right now, where is it heading, right now this year? We are talking now a possible report from Mueller late May, late May next month. This thing is moving.

STEPHENS: I would be stunned if the president doesn`t fire the deputy attorney general, Mr. Rosenstein, well before -- before then.

And, by the way, I have to tell you, based on what I have just heard about the book, if I were the president, I would be actually relatively happy about the idea of a Comey book tour, because Comey can do himself a great deal of damage.

Look, let`s not forget the kind of damage he did himself in 2016. The president has an opportunity to paint Comey not just as a creature of the deep state, but as a condescending prig.

(CROSSTALK)

STEPHENS: The important point here is that, beyond the legal maneuvers, this is a political question about whether the American people want to keep this president or not.

And the president, if he knows nothing else, he understands that.

MATTHEWS: Let me just add a little piece here, a partisan piece from the Hillary people.

And they`re still out there. They`re very angry. Lanny Davis is not the only one who believes that, 10 days before the 2016 election, Comey dropped a bomb on Hillary Clinton when he came out and said she`s still under investigation. So, I`m not sure he`s going to have a lot of allies on the center-left or the left in this coming days.

Anyway, I`m talking about Comey.

Thank you so much, Julia Ainsley. Great reporting for MSNBC. Jill Wine- Banks, as always, we love your expertise here. Robert Costa, sir, who knows Trump. And, Bret Stephens, thank you for the big picture. And, Phil Rucker, who has left us, Phil, you got that book. I don`t know where you got it, but you got it.

Coming up: Another part of the investigation centers on Trump`s longtime lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen -- this stuff is really fascinating -- and what role Mr. Cohen may have had killing negative stories about Trump, including the news today that the company that publishes "The National Enquirer" paid a Trump doorman for a salacious tip it never ran.

You know, kill -- I`m sorry -- catch and kill, remember that one? What does Mueller have on Cohen? We will see. And how exposed does it leave Trump? We will get to that next.

Plus, with the investigation swirling around him, Trump now says a decision of whether to strike Syria could come soon. But it`s coming at a time when Trump is under siege politically, legally, whatever, and constitutionally. And even his allies say he`s at his most unpredictable and impulsive right now.

Wow.

And much more from former FBI Director James Comey`s new book, "A Higher Loyalty." That`s the title. There are a lot of new details about Comey`s interactions with the president.

And we will get back to that with the HARDBALL Roundtable table tonight.

As I said it, tonight, Comey has thrown the book at this president.

Finally, "Let Me Finish" tonight with Trump watch.

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Ahead, we`re going to have more excerpts from James Comey`s new book in this hour.

And this Sunday, I will host a special documentary on the former FBI director himself, James Comey. It`s called "HEADLINERS: JAMES COMEY."

It airs, as I said, this Sunday at 9:00 p.m. Eastern right here on MSNBC, by the way, before George Stephanopoulos.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Today, we got yet another report of a Trump-related hush money payment. According to articles in "The New Yorker" and the Associated Press, American Media, Incorporated -- that`s the parent company of "The National Enquirer" -- allegedly paid a former Trump Tower doorman $30,000 to keep a salacious story quiet -- a salacious story.

The Trump Organization has denied this story and says that the doorman is pushing a false story. NBC News has not confirmed the story and has reached out to the White House for comment.

This new report is the second example of AMI reportedly using a tactic called catch and kill, a practice in which a tabloid pays for a story in order to keep it out of the public eye. Well, the first example was reported by "The Wall Street Journal" just four days before the election.

And according to "The Journal," a month after Trump secured the Republican nomination, AMI paid Playboy model Karen McDougal $150,000 for the exclusive rights to her story. McDougal alleged that she had a nearly year-long affair with Trump going back -- actually going in 2006, allegations the president has denied.

Well, "The New York Times" reports that President Trump`s personal attorney Michael Cohen was in touch with AMI while they were negotiating the deal with McDougal. All this comes as federal investigators are examining how Cohen might have played a role in quashing negative stories about his boss.

And one aspect of the inquiry is focusing on Cohen`s relationship with the chairman of "The National Enquirer"`s parent company, David Pecker, and the chief content officer, Dylan Howard.

NBC News is reporting that federal investigators have requested all communications between the two the tabloid executives and Mr. Cohen.

President Trump is close personal friends with Mr. Pecker.

For more, I`m joined by Katie Phang, an NBC legal analyst, and Jonathan Allen, national political reporter for NBC News Digital.

Katie, we don`t have a whole lot of time tonight. There`s so much news, but this simple question. What would be illegal about Michael Cohen, the president`s lawyer-fixer, for arranging payments to people through "The National Enquirer"`s ownership, to keep stories out of the public eye for political purposes?

KATIE PHANG, MSNBC LEGAL ANALYST: So the answer to that is Michael Cohen would be trying to do an end-run around campaign finance laws.

So, instead of the direct individual contribution that we have heard about that`s been alleged that Michael Cohen did to Stormy Daniels in the amount of $130,000, putting aside the salaciousness -- and, really, who cares about the underlying facts of this Trump doorman?

It`s the idea of using AMI as a conduit to funnel the money. Instead of going directly from either Donald Trump or Michael Cohen`s pocketbook to that of the Trump doorman, they use AMI to be able to catch and kill. So you achieve two goals. You basically shut the guy up because you bought the story, you never run it.

And then, basically, you don`t ever have to declare the $30,000 in terms of it having an influence in the outcome of the presidential election.

Chris, what`s key about all of this stuff is the common denominator for Stormy Daniels, Karen McDougal, the Trump doorman, Trump Organization deals in Russia is Michael Cohen.

And he`s kind of like the guy with the fingers in the dam waiting to see if something is going to go, because now that that raid has happened on Monday, and evidence has been seized, we`re going to find out what the feds have in terms of the evidence that`s been collected and in terms of what could actually be used against Michael Cohen to perhaps have him flip against bigger fish in the Mueller investigation.

MATTHEWS: Well, the feds would like to pull his fingers out of the dam and pull them out of those holes and let the dam go.

PHANG: Exactly.

MATTHEWS: So, what have they got on him legally? They can that he broke the law how? What can they use to squeeze him to start squealing on Trump?

PHANG: The direct answer would come from the affidavit that accompanied the search warrant that was served on the Cohen office and the Cohen hotel and his home on Monday.

And that would be stuff like bank fraud, wire fraud, campaign finance violations. And those would be set out with specificity in the affidavit and the search warrant. In addition, We would know upon the return of the search warrant exactly what was taken, computers, documents, tax returns.

These would give us huge clues. But Mueller is operating behind the scenes. He has this huge arsenal of information and evidence. He`s sifting through it now. And we`re ultimately going to find out what he has of value and who are really going to be the targets in the crosshairs.

MATTHEWS: Let`s try to be nice now.

Would Michael Cohen, if he`s not a great lawyer, would he know he was breaking the law arranging third-party payments to keep stories out of the press during a campaign, a political campaign? Would he know that was illegal?

PHANG: Yes, he would know that. It`s not that difficult to be able to know that the timing of it is suspect. If you have somebody like Donald Trump as your client, as the guy that you`re the fixer, the guy that you would jump off a building for, that type of stuff, if you`re operating for him, you know exactly you`re skirt accounting law, if not violating the law, by using AMI to make payments to somebody to shut him up, so that he doesn`t adversely influence the outcome of a presidential election.

MATTHEWS: Thought?

JONATHAN ALLEN, NBC NEWS POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, I mean, Katie is absolutely right.

The core issue here is whether something of value was provided to the Trump campaign that was not recorded and not reported to the Federal Election Commission. This is a basic no-no. It doesn`t take a great lawyer to know that.

MATTHEWS: OK, let`s just talk turkey.

If you`re Donald Trump and you live the lifestyle he apparently leads, with a lot of, what, girlfriends, whatever, affairs, one-night, whatever you want to call them -- and we don`t deal on this, but if you live in that life, and you have decided to run for president, how do you put them together? You have to have a Michael Cohen.

(LAUGHTER)

ALLEN: You need a fixer.

MATTHEWS: Right.

What was the guy that Nixon used to have, somebody was -- they used to have somebody in the Clinton campaign back in the early -- what was that called? Bimbo erupting expert.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: I`m serious.

(CROSSTALK)

ALLEN: Played by Kathy Bates in the film "Primary Colors."

MATTHEWS: Yes, the bimbo erupter person.

Here, you have the guy whose job it is, is to somehow reconcile Donald Trump`s lifestyle with his campaign for president, which requires a lot of fixing.

ALLEN: A lot of fixing.

And, look, it`s not just the stuff that we have found out about now, or it`s not just the big stuff. There`s a million little things. I think Katie has got the perfect example there, the perfect metaphor of trying to put your fingers in the dam as everything is breaking.

This is an incredible story.

MATTHEWS: But I don`t know if this guy is smart.

People say they like -- he`s likable. Donny Deutsch this morning on "JOE" was saying he`s likable. Is he a guy that would know that kind of overlay of campaign law and what`s an implicit campaign contribution, which is a payoff to keep something quite, and what is just something that you do as part of the sleaze world?

ALLEN: I mean, anybody who is involved in politics knows the basics of campaign finance law. And if you have got -- again, if you have got something of value that goes to a campaign that helps a campaign, you don`t report it to the FEC, this is a no-no.

MATTHEWS: Do you think Bunny Mellon was guilty with John Edwards? That case was never resolved by a courtroom.

ALLEN: That`s right. It is a difficult case to prove.

It`s different in part because of the timing. This is something that happened, you know, sort of in the run-up to the election. And that`s something that a jury would have to decide, ultimately.

They`re going to decide, determine what the motivation was, if there`s no greater evidence. We have got to see what happens here. I think one interesting facet of this, this whole catch and kill idea...

MATTHEWS: That`s what I want to get to.

ALLEN: ... is the opposite of journalism.

MATTHEWS: Let`s get to Katie on that.

If you hire -- if you pay somebody real money, $100,000, $150,000 in the case of McDougal, just to kill a story, it just smells. Is that illegal, if it weren`t for a campaign season going on?

PHANG: No, it`s not. That`s a bargain for a contract. If you`re going to pay her -- now, the thing is, what did you pitch to her? Did you tell her you were going to run stuff?

That`s really the crux of the Karen McDougal lawsuit, is that she got snowed by a combination of her former lawyer, Keith Davidson, who again used to be Stormy Daniels` lawyer, and that with Michael Cohen in cahoots with AMI.

MATTHEWS: OK.

Katie, we got some new news now, breaking news on Michael Cohen. "The Washington Post" is now reporting right now that Trump`s allies worry that federal investigators may have seized conversations recorded by Michael Cohen and his associates.

"The Post"`s Carol Leonnig broke the story and joins us now.

Carol, what do you got? This is hot.

CAROL LEONNIG, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, we just posted it. So, thanks for asking, Chris.

My colleagues Ashley Parker and Tom Hamburger and Josh Dawsey and I have been working on a story about the fact that Michael Cohen, the president`s personal attorney, and his personal attorney especially during the campaign, was known for making recordings, tape recordings, digital ones, of several conversations.

And now there is worry within the Trump ally world that those recordings were seized on Monday when federal agents basically grabbed up every piece of electronic device that Michael Cohen owned in his home, in his office, and in a hotel room where he had been staying.

MATTHEWS: So let`s imagine the -- you don`t have to do much imagination here, imagining.

Trump is talking to Cohen. Cohen says, I have quieted down that McDougal story.

LEONNIG: That`s a possibility. I think that might be a little farfetched, but it`s possible.

We`re told that this was not an everyday event for Michael Cohen. Multiple sources, though, said that, during the campaign, they were aware and actually wary of Michael Cohen because of his reputation for tape-recording conversations, some of them on the phone.

And they don`t believe that he was tape-recording necessarily the president, though it`s possible. And he may have been tape-recording especially conversations with people he considered adversaries or litigants.

And you could imagine a situation where he was tape-recording conversations with people he was negotiating negative stories.

MATTHEWS: Let me go to Katie Phang on that. Is there a one-party approval for tape-recording in New York state?

PHANG: You got to have both parties that are going to consent to that. If you don`t, you are going to have a Monica Lewinsky situation, aren`t you?

Both parties have to be understanding that they are subject to and privy to this type of communication.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: In New York state?

PHANG: I can`t say exactly if it`s in New York state right off the top of my head, Chris.

But I can tell you this, though. What`s important about what you`re hearing right now is, Trump was never an e-mailer, by all accounts. If Cohen is going to do one of two things, if he`s going to hedge to protect himself and he`s going to record conversations with somebody like Trump, then that`s exactly how it`s going to happen.

It`s going to be by way of telephone conversations or person-to-person conversations. But if you don`t have the consent, then you have committed another crime. And if that`s Michael Cohen`s problem, he`s got a big one at that.

MATTHEWS: Let me go to back Carol on what you know about the scope of these potential conversations. I assume they have something to do with Trump.

LEONNIG: Well, again, I`m not going to pretend that we know which conversations can Michael Cohen tape-recorded.

We just know that there is a good deal of concern. There was one Trump adviser who told us earlier today, we`re trying to figure out which conversations did he tape, when were these tapings occurring, and are they now all in the possession of the FBI?

MATTHEWS: Well, in the case of -- you talked about the possible adversarial relations he might have had. Well, clearly, he`s negotiating with people like Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels, because those are the people pressing them for money at one point and being satisfied with money at one point.

And negotiating those questions would involve, you know, it would seem to me, making the case of what they know, what they`re able to establish through their own evidence. And Avenatti would obviously be able to -- would like to know what these conversations are about at this point.

But, anyway, you have got this story, you believe. "The Washington Post" is reporting the fact that among the materials gathered in that raid, if you will, on Monday of Michael Cohen`s office, apartment, and hotel room, and on his phone and in his computer are tapes of conversations that might be relevant to this prosecution, Carol?

LEONNIG: It`s definitely the belief of multiple people that, if he these recordings were made by Michael -- and many people believe he made them -- that all of those have been swept up by the FBI, because they were on his electronic devices in these three places.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

LEONNIG: Now, I have to say, earlier, you all were talking about the consent.

I don`t know the rule in New York state. But I know from our sources that Michael Cohen had often told other campaign folks that he was comfortable because he believed it was a one-party-consent state.

MATTHEWS: I see. Well, it`s interesting, Carol, because of all this and everybody on right now. It`s so fascinating, because what did he say afterwards, Jon?

He said, I want to thank the agents for being so, what`s the right words, finesseful as they raided my apartment, my office, my phone, my computer. They were so nice about it. I`m sorry.

(CROSSTALK)

ALLEN: ... someone in deep trouble.

MATTHEWS: Maybe that`s what you`re hoping for, a little bit of mercy.

Anyway, thank you, Carol Leonnig. Great reporting. What a headline. Thank you, Katie Phang, for your reporting and actually your political knowledge, and, Jonathan Allen, because you know so much, and especially human nature.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: Up next: President Trump says a military strike on Syria could come very soon. That`s his term. But how can this president take us into an act of war when there`s so much suspicion he might be doing it to wag the dog? What do you think?

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

President Trump today says a decision about a military strike in Syria will be coming, here`s his words, fairly soon. According to "The Washington Post," the president is, quote, operating on a tornado of impulses and with no clear strategy as he faces some of the most consequential decisions of his presidency, including Syria, trade policy and the Russian interference probe that threatens to overwhelm his administration.

Meanwhile, NBC News is reporting that the United States now has blood and urine samples from last Saturday`s deadly attack in Syria that tested positive for chemical weapons. And according to NBC, U.S. officials say they believe the Syrian government was behind the weekend attack.

I`m joined right now George F. Will, columnist for "The Washington Post" and an MSNBC contributor.

George, I can`t remember a time when the president is considering an act of war against another country even if it`s a small country at a time there`s so much suspicion he may try to distract from political problems.

GEORGE F. WILL, COLUMNIST, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes, it`s like the movie "Wag the Dog."

MATTHEWS: Yes.

WILL: Well, there are four reasons aside from the fact that he said he would that they would pay a price. Four reasons for doing this. Two of them are trivial and one is delusional. The trivial one is it`s cathartic, it makes us feel good. The second is virtually signaling it makes the world feel good about us.

The third that is delusional is that somehow this would change the trajectory of the war. The outcome of the civil war in Syria is known. The war is not over, but the outcome is known, Assad has won in part because Putin picked a side and decided to help it win.

The fourth is quite serious that we have a national interest in buttressing the norms against the use of these weapons. To which end we would try to make such a ferocious strike that he would be deterred, and other watching dictators with similar arsenals would not do it.

MATTHEWS: Can we do that without killing a lot of Russians?

WILL: No one knows quite where they are at any given time I assume, but probably. But if not, what happened the last time we had some big Russian casualties, Putin said, they`re private people, something or other.

MATTHEWS: Small potatoes.

WILL: Well, he doesn`t want to have that as a flash point.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about the Republican Party. You`ve been identified with it, but independently and you haven`t been a surefire supporter of everything starting with Nixon when you first started. Is the Republican Party going to survive Trump?

WILL: Something called the Republican Party is certainly going to survive. How like the previous Republican Party it will be we don`t know.

MATTHEWS: Will it be a free trade party? Will it be a party that focuses on fiscal responsibility as it once did?

WILL: No, and no. There`s a permanent incentive as you know. Bipartisan, permanent incentive for the political class to run huge deficits.

MATTHEWS: Right.

WILL: Give people a dollar`s worth of government, charge them 60 cents for it, borrow the money from the consenting unborn future generations -- that will not change. The retirement -- coming retirement of Paul Ryan simply underscores the fact that conservatism is now a persuasion without a party.

MATTHEWS: Where is it going? Will there be a separate party?

WILL: I don`t think so. It`s much too hard. Valid access and all the rest, it`s --

MATTHEWS: Will the American people support impeachment if it`s only about obstruction and not the underlying charge of collusion with the Russians in the 2016 election? Does Mueller need that underpinning?

WILL: I don`t think the public will support it. Forty percent of the public will never support it because they`re sort of core Trump people. And the grown-ups in the Democratic Party, who they`re a vanishing few at the moment in both parties, know that if they win the House, which they have to do, and they come back in January with chanting impeachment, that that`s setting up to re-elect Mr. Trump.

MATTHEWS: Good thinking. Thank you, George F. Will, for joining us. I actually agree with you.

Up next, more excerpts from James Comey`s new book, including new details about his interactions with Trump, someone he compares to a mob boss.

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

In the first excerpts from the new book "A Higher Loyalty," James Comey offers a series of explosive revelations about his interactions with the president. "The Washington Post" which obtained a copy of the book today reports that Comey paints a portrait of an unethical leader obsessed with personal loyalty.

Interacting with Trump, Comey writes, gave him flashbacks to my earlier career as a prosecutor against the mob. The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things large and small in, service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth. Wow.

Comey adds, what is happening now is not normal, it is not fake news, it is not OK.

Let`s bring in the HARDBALL roundtable, Shannon Pettypiece, White House reporter for "Bloomberg News", Betsy Woodruff, politics editor, a reporter rather for "The Daily Beast", and Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the "PBS NewsHour".

In order, I want you all to tell me what grabs you in the Comey`s right now news.

SHANNON PETTYPIECE, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, BLOOMBERG NEWS: I thought there would be more of a smoke gun in here. I think that was the expectation, and I think this does say a lot of things that people know. They know that Comey does not like the president`s personality. I mean, they know that the president has done and said a lot of outrageous things. But I think this just sort of will reinforce the narrative that a lot of people have in their mind, and not necessarily change anyone`s narrative.

MATTHEWS: Betsy, what do you know from this?

BETSY WOODRUFF, REPORTER, THE DAILY BEAST: What I thought was new from this book excerpts that we got today is that Trump, according to book, asked Comey to try to do some sort of exculpatory investigation into the so-called tape --

MATTHEWS: Sure.

WOODRUFF: -- that the dossier refers to.

MATTHEWS: A hotel room in Moscow.

WOODRUFF: Exactly. And one thing --

MATTHEWS: What`s wrong with that? That sounds like human nature of any spouse would say, I don`t want my spouse reading this horrible thing. Can you find out and disprove and do some work on this?

WOODRUFF: It`s very humanizing to see Trump actually worried about the effect all this would have on his wife.

MATTHEWS: Who wouldn`t?

WOODRUFF: At the same time, though, at the same time though --

PETTYPIECE: Comey wouldn`t have thought there was a 1 percent chance he would have done that.

WOODRUFF: Yes, but at the same time, also, it`s not the FBI`s job to do background checks on the president to try to clear his reputation. It`s the president`s job to take care of his reputation. The president seemed to be treating Comey like his own personal --

MATTHEWS: OK, let`s go to Comey. He said, Yamiche, no, you go first because I`ve got this I want to ask you about. Go ahead.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, PBS NEWSHOUR: I think there`s two things. The first is what strikes me about this is how personally and vindictive and really how much he has an ax to grind against the president. It comes off as someone he might have a legitimate claim about the illegal things -- possible illegal things the president did.

But talking about his hands, talking about his color, I just was just texting with someone who know President Trump pretty well, that seems like a distraction. It seems like you just wanted to put that in there to sell your book and to be mean.

And the second the guy thinks is that, there is a section where Comey says that after President Trump asked him to stay behind and told Jeff Sessions to go away, that Jeff Sessions later -- when Comey tried to say, you know, you can`t leave me alone, Jeff Sessions shook his head and said, I can`t help you, like he didn`t verbalize it, but Comey made it seem as though that`s what he felt, and that means that Jeff Sessions said, look, I mean, I can`t even handle this guy, so like you`re in it by yourself. That was something that was new that we didn`t know about before..

But I think going back to the personal vendetta, that`s what I feel.

MATTHEWS: OK, let`s go to that point. Now he says that the president, in his defense, we`ve known about this, one of the first things we knew about Trump was he was a big mouth and everything was that he was germaphobe. Now, he said -- Trump and his own defenses, I wouldn`t have allowed this kind of weird thing going on in the hotel room, anywhere near my bed I want to sleep in. He says yes, and Comey says, yes, but it was a very big room. He could have kept his distance.

It seems like he`s stretching, Betsy, stretching to keep this little vendetta going.

WOODRUFF: It does. It seems like Comey is relishing having this chance to finally be the person who is perhaps playing Trump`s game of name-calling and needling someone.

MATTHEWS: Grossing out, too.

WOODRUFF: The criticism we`re going to hear of Comey and this is a criticism we`ll probably from the left and the right, is that in some ways, this books is Comey stooping to Trump`s level.

MATTHEWS: Let`s talk about the mob thing. It fits the notion that it seems like Mueller is working on. That there is kind of RICO thing here, where everything he does from dangling pardons to Manafort and to Flynn and whatever else or Papadopoulos, every time he dangles it, and he says that will shut him up, right? So, he looks at this as a part of a pattern of obstruction.

PETTYPIECE: Well, and Mueller`s investigators have experienced dealing with mob bosses. And I think you`re very right. I think they are treat this investigation whether they`re treating the president or his associates like they would treat mob bosses.

MATTHEWS: Al Capone.

PETTYPIECE: Tightening the noose as hard as they can, trying to get people to flip.

MATTHEWS: But is that a presumption of guilt like you had against mob boss where you have a reasonable presumption of guilt? He seems to have it.

WOODRUFF: Even in the case of a mob boss, you don`t presume guilt, everyone is presumed innocent up until trial, up until the jury decides.

(CROSSTALK)

ALCINDOR: And Comey says that. Go ahead.

WOODRUFF: And even we use tough tactic, and remember, there`s nothing that`s more of a mob tactic than raiding a lawyer`s office.

MATTHEWS: We`ve got to come back. The roundtable is sticking with us. You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`re back with the roundtable, only time for one, but I know it`s going to be good.

Shannon?

PETTYPIECE: We`ve got fresh details out tonight on this meeting between Trump and Rosenstein today at the White House.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

PETTYPIECE: Rosenstein was brought in. This was an idea to try and ease tensions, to give Trump an update where things are at with this DOJ response to the congressional inquiries. It did not appear to ease tensions. Trump seemed distracted during the meeting.

MATTHEWS: He still could fire him the next morning.

PETTYPIECE: Probably after Syria is taken care of, then he`s going to get --

MATTHEWS: Anyway, thank you.

So, you think that`s the sequence. Syria first, when Syria.

PETTYPIECE: He`s supposed to be focused on Syria.

MATTHEWS: Do you guys know when Syria is?

WOODRUFF: Not going to be tonight.

PETTYPIECE: We cannot reveal those secrets.

MATTHEWS: Oh my god, national security.

Thank you, Shannon Pettypiece. Thank you, Betsy Woodruff. And thank you, Yamiche Alcindor.

When we return, let me finish tonight with Trump watch. You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Trump Watch, Thursday, April 12th, 2018.

Tonight, President Trump, Donald Trump, is a pilot in scary weather with the barometer dropping fast. He`s got adult film actor Stormy Daniels, Playboy model Karen McDougal and that "Access Hollywood" tape that never stops grabbing eyeballs. In the midst of all this with Robert Mueller about to make his windup pitch for obstruction, we find a president with no time for a, quote, "interview" with the prosecutor but time for a war. Even a bite sized one.

Which raises the question, how does this country go into a war situation with a good number of the American people, mainly those paying the most attention, thinking the immediate cause of this war as we used to read in books is the commander in chief has a desire to shift attention from the flack attacking him at home.

Remember the movie "Wag the Dog," remember the president having the affair with the young girl, remember the political opposition playing the old Maurice Chevalier song "Thank Heaven for Little Girls"? Remember the girl the president desire wearing a beret?

Well, that movie of Barry Levinson came out in 1997. In 1998, a year later, President Clinton got into trouble with a young aide also wearing a beret. Who knows how that happened? Life imitating art?

More to the point, how does a commander in chief convince his country he`s sending forces into combat in the interest of national security not simply his own security?

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

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.

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