Show: HARDBALL Date: April 16, 2018 Guest: Ruth Marcus, Susan Page, Chuck Rosenberg, Jonathan Swan
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HARDBALL starts now.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: The third man. Let`s play HARDBALL.
Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.
Today in a New York City courtroom, the Trump circus came to town. Donald Trump`s fixer lawyer Michael Cohen asked a judge to keep federal prosecutors from looking at documents they seized after raiding every place Cohen could have hidden anything.
But the most explosive moment came when Cohen`s lawyer was forced to divulge the identity of one of Cohen`s clients who had been kept secret. In preparation for today`s hearing, Mr. Cohen told a federal judge that he had three legal clients in the past two years. The President, a GOP fundraiser, and a third client whose identity he asked to keep secret. The unnamed client turned out to be FOX News host Sean Hannity.
Hannity, who is on air when the news broke, explained his relationship with Michael Cohen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN HANNITY, FOR NEWS HOST: Michael never represented me in any matter. I never retained him in the traditional sense as retaining a lawyer. I never received an invoice from Michael. I never paid legal fees to Michael. But I have occasionally had brief discussions with him about legal questions about which I wanted his input and perspective.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Well, Hannity, who had never disclosed his relationship with Cohen on the air devoted a number of segments on his program after the raid of Cohen`s office last week. Let`s watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HANNITY: Robert Mueller is so far beyond his mandate. This is now spiraling out of control. Everything that we have warn you about is now coming to fruition. And Mueller has ostensibly tonight declared war against the President of the United States. Clearly his objective is to remove him from office. Now I told you, and I told anyone who will listen, Mueller`s team is corrupt, starting with him. And it has been from the very beginning.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Well, the disclosure was made in front of a packed courtroom today which included Stormy Daniels. Daniels was swarmed by reporters as she entered the courthouse early in the day. And after the hearing, she made this statement to the press.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
STORMY DANIELS, PORN STAR: For years Mr. Cohen has acted like he is above the law. He has considered himself an openly referred to himself as Mr. Trump`s fixer. He has played by a different set of rules, or shall we say no rules at all. He has never thought that the little man or especially women even more, women like me mattered. That ends now.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Well, despite that dramatic scene playing out today, the main legal fight today was over materials seized by or from Cohen, rather. Cohen`s under criminal investigation by the U.S. attorney`s office. And according to Cohen`s filing, more than a dozen electronic devices were taken by federal authorities, a dozen.
Well, late last night, President Trump`s own lawyer also asked the court to temporarily block prosecutors from reviewing the material. His lawyer requested the judge let Cohen review copies of the material and then allowed Trump to decide whether or not to assert his privileges, client privilege over them.
Well, late today the judge rejected Cohen`s motion for a preliminary injunction calling it premature.
For more I`m joined by Tom Winter, NBC news investigative reporter. He was at Cohen`s hearing today. Betsy Woodruff, politics reporter for the "Daily Beast" and MSNBC contributor. Kim Wehle is a former U.S. attorney and Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent with the PBS Hour. She is a political contributor here.
Let me go to Tom Winter about that. What happened today in terms of the law? I mean, we are out here. Everybody is watching this. We are hearing it from "the Times" and other sources, the "New York Times," that this investigation, this possible development or end game in this whole thing involving Michael Cohen may be a bigger danger to Trump than anything else he faces. Along that line, what happened today?
TOM WINTER, NBC NEWS INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER: So, Chris, what happened today is we had kind of a split decision if you are going to think of it from a boxing standpoint. So basically, the judge today said, you know, what the President is asking for, he is not going to totally get. What Michael Cohen is asking for, he is not going to completely get. What the government is asking for, they are not going to completely get.
The judge says that she wants more time. Basically, what she is saying is I want the sides to get together. I want both Cohen`s side and the government`s side to put forward a couple of names of people for what is called the special master. Think of that as a referee, somebody to oversee these privileged or possibly privilege documents to give to the government what they are entitled to under the search warrant or not. So she wants some names for somebody who could do that.
She also keeps open this idea, and she said something I think is really important, Chris. She said the U.S. attorney`s office is unimpeachable in their integrity and what they bring to the table as far as their ability to conduct an investigation using their own filter team, which could look at these documents or hard drives or any sort of this material and decide whether or not it`s attorney-client privilege or decide whether or not it should be in fact handed over to the investigative team so they can continue this investigation into Michael Cohen.
So nobody got entirely what they wanted today. But basically, both sides are going to come together. They are going to share these materials. So Trump, the Trump organization and Michael Cohen will have a chance to see exactly what material they were able to get.
You mentioned all those cell phones. They also took ten boxes of files. We found that out today. So basically, Chris, we are going to wait for another day to exactly find out how this goes. But the judge definitely got the idea that this needed to proceed quickly. She doesn`t want to delay things today. Basically, she is hoping for an answer that both sides can work out, some time in the near future.
MATTHEWS: That`s judge Kimba.
Well, one thing that has become increasingly clear is that the Cohen case represents a clear and present danger, as I said, to this President. In the wake of the raid, "The New York Times" reports that both Mr. Cohen and Mr. Trump were scrambling to assess the damage, unsure what had been taken even. "The Times" further report that President Trump`s advisers have concluded that Cohen`s investigation is quote "a greater and more imminent threat to the President than even the special counsel`s investigation.
Kim, let`s talk about this. Once they have done all the haggling and all the back and forth and they reach a synthesis here, the bottom line it seems to me is a lot of material about the President`s relationship with his lawyer of his, his fixer, is going to be in the public realm. We are going to have it.
KIM WEHLE, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY: Well, certainly the prosecutors will ultimately have it. And we don`t know how much of it is covered by the privilege. Of course there has been I think a myth --
MATTHEWS: But he is not a real lawyer. What could he cover? What kind of legal counsel has he ever given Trump?
WEHLE: We don`t know. But I think that`s the great point. And that the privilege is not this blanket that any time you talk to a lawyer it`s confidential. It has to be for the purpose of giving and receiving legal advice. And I`m not really surprised that the judge did this. And I think it`s really important that she made the point that the justice department is unimpeachable here. Because I think the ploy was really to make the argument that the justice department cannot be trusted. That Cohen and Mr. Trump had to come in and make the first cut at what was privileged on the theory that the justice department can`t do it in a way that`s non-corrupt. And she said no to that.
I mean, I think the special master makes sense. She is basically saying if you guys can`t work it out, I`m going have a third party do it. But remember, in the government`s paper, they basically said we are going do the first cut. Our team is going to do the first cut. If we think that there is anything privilege or maybe privileged, we will give to it Mr. Cohen and we will let that be resolved by the judge. So if you read the government`s papers, there is already a compromise in there to make sure that a third party gets to calm.
MATTHEWS: Yamiche, let`s start with how this first, the bottom line. I`m here, what. I`m a political guy watching a political story. Of course there is legal machinations that go on here. Things have to be done correctly. Of course they should. So the question. What`s Trump got to worry about? And what does the prosecutor have in New York? What did they have on him right now that they could use to squeeze Michael Cohen and possibly follow the path towards Prague to get to a possible deal where there is money paid on behalf of Trump to the Russians to pay for the hacking of the democratic committee and other things. How close will this take us if they get all that material from those offices?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, PBS NEWS HOUR: From all the reporting that I have done, it`s pretty clear that President Trump is at least worried about this. Michael Cohen was someone who worked for him for years. He was someone who was very, very loyal to the President. He is someone that is essentially a keeper of secrets for him, a gate keeper to the President, someone who is constantly giving him advice, someone who is obviously paying off women on his behalf.
So there is this idea that whatever they seized has to be of high value because they were basically trying to say let`s not take that search warrant. You guys really should have allowed us to figure out what to give you. And the government was saying, no. We got this legally through a search warrant. And we need to see what`s going on here.
The people that I have talked to say that Michael Cohen is someone who did regularly have tapes. That there was known kind of thing in the Trump circle that he was recording people. So my reporting says there are tapes out there somewhere. Whether or not they were seized, whether or not they are even something that`s illegal is a whole another story.
MATTHEWS: Avenatti is the lawyer for Stormy Daniels said Michael Cohen will be in big trouble if he has those tapes because you need two-party approval to do it.
ALCINDOR: Well, in New York from my understanding, you only need one party.
MATTHEWS: He says you need two.
ALCINDOR: Yes. So in my understanding as both a reporter and someone who has read it is you need one party. But the quicker and bigger question is not, is it legal to record this person? I think there are bigger problem is what was said on those tapes.
MATTHEWS: Yes. Well, on Friday as I said McClatchy News service reported that according to two anonymous sources familiar with the matter that Robert Mueller has evidence that Cohen secretly made a late summer trip to Prague in Czech Republic. Investigators have traced evidence that Cohen entered the Czech Republic through Germany apparently during August or early September of 2016, as the ex-spy reported. That`s in the dossier.
If true, the reporting would bolster the credibility of allegations initially made in the infamous or notorious Steele dossier. The dossier claimed that Cohen was playing a key role in the secret Trump campaign and Kremlin relationship. And in that capacity, he had travelled to Prague, that`s Cohen, in August or September. MSNBC has not confirmed this reporting.
In response for the story, Cohen said bad reporting, bad information, and bad story by saying the reporter Peter Stone, no matter how many times or ways they write it, I was never been to Prague. I was in L.A. with my son, Proven.
What do you make in all that, Betsy?
BETSY WOODRUFF, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE DAILY BEAST: It is a whole lot right there. It is really important to remember just how hard that Michael Cohen has pushed back against these Prague allegations. He takes these allegations very seriously.
MATTHEWS: Well, he should. It is (INAUDIBLE) of collusion with the Russians.
WOODRUFF: The fact of whether or not he went to Prague is at the heart of the dossier. Thus far, we haven`t seen any public evidence that this is true. McClatchy didn`t report that he went to Prague. They just reported that Mueller have some evidence that he did. If he had gone to Prague, of course, that would have been incredibly consequential. But we don`t know that yet.
MATTHEWS: What do you mean some evidence that he has with? What is that?
WOODRUFF: I`m not sure. That`s how McClatchy characterized it, the verbiage they used (INAUDIBLE). That said, one piece that is important as well, is that Cohen has gone on an offense against these allegations. He is suing BuzzFeed for defamation over the publication of the dossier. Inviting discovery, the discovery process is a very interesting one specifically related to the fact that the dossier said he had gone to Prague.
MATTHEWS: Let`s talk about this Sean Hannity piece of this thing. Sean Hannity has been very tough on Mueller. We know that is public information. And Sean is. I know the guy. He is very open to this. That`s whose side he is on. Now it comes out he had some relationship with Mueller that had been disclosed - with Cohen that had been. If he said I have not had him as a lawyer, I have never paid him a nickel, Yamiche, and they asked him. If he has never paid the lawyer a nickel, is he his client?
ALCINDOR: Well, he said that he has asked for legal advice.
MATTHEWS: But he has never asked - he has never given a nickel. Does he cover by --?
WEHLE: Sure, you don`t need to pay someone to be covered by the attorney- client privilege. NO, the question here is whether is going to waive it. If he is saying, listen, he wasn`t my lawyer, he can waive those conversations.
MATTHEWS: Why would Mr. Cohen -- I don`t know the guy. I looked at him in the television. He looks like what he I, I supposed. But I can`t quite figure him out. I thought that Ben Stiller had a take on him on Saturday night. It was pretty good.
What`s it mean when he says I only got three clients on this earth. Two of them are these Republican guys, Trump and this other guy, the fat guy who had the abortion case he was involved with paying for. And then this third guy. And then the audience in the court ooh, number three, the third man. What was ooh about? Because this is the kind of case the guy handles or what?
WEHLE: Well, the judge had basically put them in a corner on Friday and said, listen. You filed this extraordinary motion for temporary restraining order. You say you have thousands of privilege communications. Give me a list of your clients. And so, this is a situation they almost blew themselves up with their own bomb.
MATTHEWS: Would this probably to paper to all in Sean Hannity.
Let me go to Tom Winter. What would be -- I guess, if a guy says he is not my lawyer and the other guy says he is his lawyer, who wins that argument?
WINTER: Well, the bottom line is the argument is won by the guy who is in court who the judge just ordered on the spot as she did today, Judge Kimbal would, to say well, who is this mystery third client? At that point you have made a statement before a judge. I mean, there is no backing out there.
You know, the interesting thing about this, Chris, is this pertained to clients in the past two years. So the way that they phrased this, these were clients in 2017 and/or 2018 where Michael Cohen was involved. Obviously, he was the personal attorney to Trump. They said that. Obviously he was involved with Elliott Brodie because they said that. You just referred to his back story. And then this third person, she compelled them. She said I want to know right now who it is. And they kept saying well, we will file it under seal. We will give you this note. They actually had a note in an envelope. And then he just unfurled it and read Sean Hannity`s name, Michael Cohen`s attorney.
So this was a situation where they told the court this is somebody who we have done legal work for. I think this is really cut and dry. And I can guarantee you in the interactions that I have had with attorneys whether they be ones that work here at NBC, whether they be ones that I have been involved with in a personal matter, I can tell you right now, they are very clear whether or not they have worked for me, they have worked on behalf me, on behalf of my interests, or they are just somebody I have called for a story. I don`t understand where there is any confusion out there, I guess, in the public realm. It`s very clear that Michael Cohen considers Sean Hannity a client.
MATTHEWS: I want to quick take from our two reports here, Betsy and Yamiche. What do you think of this small circle? Everything is one degree of separation. Yes, Hannity gets legal advice from this guy, too. Is this like a little world? Like it`s not six degrees of separation like Kevin Bacon and that thing. It`s like one degree. They are all in this world together.
WOODRUFF: The most interesting member of this small world is Sean Hannity. It is not surprising that Michael Cohen and Donald Trump and Republican big waves are all close with each other. We see it on the Democratic side as well where lawyer will have multiple clients where they are all kind of friends and there is this association. What is unusual here is Hannity`s collection.
MATTHEWS: Yes. But this isn`t like we are in the level lawyer either.
WOODRUFF: No. This is a very controversial character.
MATTHEWS: Tom Hagan, I have a particular clientele in the godfather. Have I one client. In this case he says three clients.
ALCINDOR: I think it`s almost a non-starter that he was obviously a client, Sean Hannity. Even if he was doing it as a favor and didn`t actually pay him money, he was obviously giving legal advice that said before a judge that he - you were his client.
The most important thing though is that Sean Hannity is reporting on Michael Cohen every single day. He is talking to millions of people about it. As a reporter, you can call into question whether now you can objectively start talking about whether or not this lawyer is problematic if he is now someone who has given you legal advice and you are his client.
MATTHEWS: Sure. George Stephanopoulos have mentioned the fact he worked for the Clintons all those years when he interviewed Comey yesterday? I`m asking the same question.
ALCINDOR: I have no idea.
MATTHEWS: But you do rend area judgment on Trump.
ALCINDOR: No, I will say. I think as a reporter, if I`m someone who has connections to the person that I`m interviewing, I probably would mention that. I`m not saying that George Stephanopoulos --
MATTHEWS: "The Washington Post" has a premise, the editor obviously put in there, he owes his newspaper.
WOODRUFF: I think good journalist always air on the side of disclosure. And on disclosing too much about your relationship --.
MATTHEWS: Should George Stephanopoulos has mention he had a relationship with the Clintons for all those years?
WOODRUFF: I think there is a strong case to be made. The difference between Stephanopoulos and Hannity is that it was widely known that Stephanopoulos worked with the Clintons. It was not widely known whatsoever until today.
MATTHEWS: Fair enough. Thank you. That`s how we get questions answer around here. Surprising people.
Thank you, NBC`s Tom Winter and thank you Betsy Woodruff, Kim Wehle and Yamiche Alcindor.
Coming up, former FBI director James Comey says President Trump serial liar and marly unfit for president. Trump calls Comey a slime ball. Is this the street corner somewhere of Kensington in Allegheny and Philly? What is going on? Let these guys talk about each other. Is this a fight that helps the President or makes him think he looks like he has something to hide?
Plus, Trump says mission accomplished in Syria. He used that phrase. And by the way, what is our mission with Syria? And does anyone this think this is serious policy or we have one that deal with Bashar al-Assad? Do we want them gone or stay or contain or what?
And where is Trump`s mind tonight on the Michael Cohen? What is he thinking about tonight when he goes to bed? Robert Mueller and the Russia investigation. "Saturday Night Live" nailed it this weekend with this kid featuring the great Ben Stiller as Cohen and Robert de Nero as Bob Mueller.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look, Mr. Mueller, this entire Russia investigation is a witch-hunt and your whole team is prejudiced against the President.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not true. In fact, we used code names so personal feelings ever come in into it.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What`s President Trump`s code name?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It used to be Putin`s little bitch. Now it`s Stormy`s little bitch.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: It gets worse. Trump may be, by the way, have right to fear the Cohen investigation even more than the Russia probe.
Finally, let me finish tonight with a profile in courage from a Republican with an even handed sense of justice on the Russia probe.
This is HARDBALL, where the action is.
MATTHEWS: Well, the 2018 Pulitzer prizes were announced today with a number of HARDBALL regulars taking home awards. The "New York times" and "Washington Post" shared the national reporting prize for their ongoing coverage of the Russia investigation. Eleven reporters contributed to "the Washington Post" winning entry with nearly all of them pictured in this selfie. There is a lot of recognizable faces for those who watch this program including Carol Leonnig, Ashley Parker, Phil Rucker and Tom Hamburger. Nearly a dozen reporters contributed to "The New York Times" as Russia coverage including our colleagues Michael Schmidt. He got two prizes and (INAUDIBLE). Schmidt took home a second prize for his reporting on the sex and harassment allegations against Bill O`Reilly.
Columnist John Archibald, another frequent guest on this show and the run- up to the Alabama special election won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary.
Congratulations to all the winners. Pulitzer prizes. What a lifetime achievement.
And we will be right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: I actually believe he is morally unfit to be president.
And I say that because someone who is able to see moral equivalence in Charlottesville, or to speak and treat women like they`re pieces of meat, and to lie constantly, and who appears to lack an external moral framework, that collection of attributes makes a person morally unfit to be a leader, no less the president of the United States.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
That was James Comey`s harsh assessment of President Trump. It`s one of the many explosive charges the former FBI director has made in promoting his new book, "A Higher Loyalty."
In his latest interview with Susan Page of "USA Today," Comey would not rule out the possibility that the president has been compromised by Russia.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "USA TODAY": Do you think President Trump has been compromised by the Russians?
COMEY: I don`t know. And these are words I never thought would come out of my mouth about an American president. But it`s possible. There is a nonzero possibility that the Russians have some -- some sway over him that is rooted in his personal experience.
I don`t know whether that`s the business about the activity in a Moscow hotel room or finances or something else. But, again, I don`t want to overstate it. I`m not saying it`s likely. I`m saying, to be honest with you, I have to say it`s possible.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Well, despite the whirlwind of breaking news over the last few days, Comey`s book is making front-page headlines in advance of its official release tomorrow.
That coverage has clearly antagonized the president, who has responded with a series of preemptive attacks using Twitter, calling the former FBI director disgruntled. Trump said Comey and others committed many crimes.
Trump writes that: "The big questions in Comey`s badly reviewed book aren`t answered like, how come he gave up classified information? Jail. Why did he lie to Congress? Jail."
That`s Trump talk.
And he claimed that "slippery James Comey will go down as the worst FBI director in history, by far." That`s Trump.
I`m joined right now by Susan Page, who interviewed Comey, as you saw, for "USA Today" and Chuck Rosenberg, a former senior FBI attorney, and MSNBC contributor.
I want to ask you, Chuck, and I don`t know if this is within your purview to answer, but I know it`s my question. I read the long form of the transcript, the part of it that grabbed me, that George did with him.
And I think it`s a great interview. I did think he should have identified the Clinton thing, but let`s go on.
He said over and over again his loyalty was to the institution and to his country. I saw it three or four times in a row. I think he really wanted to get into the interview early on. Loyalty to the FBI. You can talk about what it is, because you were there.
Do agents of the bureau think of their loyalty to the bureau as basically an identity to their loyalty to the country? Because that`s the way it came across.
CHUCK ROSENBERG, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, I think there is some truth to that, Chris, that in the Justice Department and the FBI we think about ourselves as being part of an institution, so we`re institutionalists, and that our job is to serve the nation, consistent with our oath to the Constitution.
So they`re bound up together. And Jim is an institutionalist. I think that`s a fair description. I mean, he led at the Department of Justice as the deputy attorney general, as a U.S. attorney, and as the director of the FBI.
MATTHEWS: See, this gets to my question about motive. I think he is motived by institutional loyalty. Now, the Clinton people don`t like him, and I understand they don`t like him because of the effect of what he did 11 days out before the election. He clearly did something that hurt Hillary. That`s the effect.
But the motivation wasn`t to screw Hillary. I don`t go along with Lanny Davis and those people, oh, they were out to get Hillary. I think his loyalty was to the institution, as it was throughout, which hurt both sides.
What do you think from your reporting?
PAGE: Well, in fact, you know how distressed he is by President Trump`s behavior in office.
MATTHEWS: he says so.
PAGE: And he says so.
The whole book is about his...
MATTHEWS: He is a straight arrow, this guy. He doesn`t like a guy who has messed around his whole life and has had no moral compass at all.
PAGE: But he also says that if he knew that he was going to be helping to elect President Trump, he still wouldn`t have done anything differently, because, as you say, as Chuck says, his interest is to the institution and to that -- kind of the basic standards that are outlined, whoever the effect of that may turn out to be.
MATTHEWS: So, I have a sense that if this guy -- I think I wrote this somewhere today -- I did on a tweet -- that if this president goes down in history as a fallen, defeated president by the law, it`s his mistake was to go after an institution which has identified itself with the interests of this country more profoundly and durably than he will ever do it, and that that would be the battle.
MATTHEWS: I really think he made a mistake firing Comey. How is that for a light comment about a heavy fact? He went to war with an institution.
ROSENBERG: Other presidents have had disagreements with institutions. This is -- seems to be much more than that, Chris.
And here is the problem. The institution has been around for more than 100 years. It will remain. Presidents come and go. But the men and women of the FBI, of the Justice Department, of the DEA do their jobs day in and day out. This will continue.
And there is nothing the president can say that is going to stop these folks from doing their job.
MATTHEWS: Let`s talk about the moral issue, which you were mentioning, and we just showed it. Is that -- people got angry with him for doing that kind of thing to Hillary Clinton when he had his report on her, where he went beyond his ken, maybe you would way.
Instead of saying I`m going to indict her or nothing said, which you`re supposed to say nothing said, he went and said, I`m not going to indict her, but I`m going smack her around a little, basically, rhetorically.
And a lot of people say that was not within his right to do that. What does he say about that? I think George hit him on that.
PAGE: He is a man of few apologies. He does not express many regrets. He says there are a few things he might have done differently, but they tend to be on the margins.
The only thing he told us that he thought may have been a mistake with benefit of hindsight was telling president-elect Trump at the first meeting that he wasn`t under investigation. That, he thinks, had ramifications and complications that are still unfolding.
MATTHEWS: How about saying he would give him honest loyalty?
PAGE: Well, we didn`t talk about honest loyalty. In the book, he talks -- in the interview -- in the book, he talks about how he ended up with honest loyalty, because he was trying to not say loyalty. He was trying to say honesty.
How did the Trump persona that we have come to know, the presidential Trump, what gave him the idea he could use the FBI director as his personal person? Where did he get the idea he could make his made man?
ROSENBERG: The only thing I can think of, Chris, is that that`s how he operated in a very different environment.
But the FBI, the when and women of law enforcement, they`re not New York City developers. They take an oath.
MATTHEWS: You can`t pay off the guy with 5 percent or whatever. No.
OK, let me ask you a news question. You are on this front page. You are on the front page so often. Who is going to win this battle of the headlines, Trump or Comey, this week? Just this week?
PAGE: Well, I think that Director Comey has had a pretty effective rollout here. And I think that the reason you see such feverish tweets back from the president is because he feels embattled, and he is concerned that Americans are going to believe Comey, not Trump.
MATTHEWS: Well, they do.
PAGE: So, that would mean this would be...
MATTHEWS: And the headlines didn`t work, because even taking an active war against Syria, which may have well been 100 percent justified, didn`t knock Comey off the front page. It didn`t wag the dog.
PAGE: Well, it`s also a pretty important story. We have a surplus of important stories going on these days.
MATTHEWS: I know we do. You are so straight, Susan Page. Thank you. I can`t even get you get into this mood I`m into, the political mood I`m always into.
Thank you, Susan Page.
And thank you, Chuck. You`re great -- thank you -- at what you do.
Up next: President Trump is taking a victory lap after Friday night`s military strike in Syria we just mentioned, but what is his long-term strategy in dealing with Bashar al-Assad? Does he have a strategy towards this guy? Are we going to get mired down in the same situation for years? We got two years, Iraq and Afghanistan. Are we going to have another one that never ends?
We will see.
This is HARDBALL, where the action -- remember no more stupid wars?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Did he do it? Did our generals do a great job? Did our military do a great job?
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
TRUMP: And, you know, with way over 100 missiles shot in, they didn`t shoot one down. The equipment didn`t work too well, their equipment.
And they didn`t shoot one. You know, you heard, oh, they shot 40 down. Then they shot 15 down. They what -- then I call, I say, did they? No, sir. Every single one hit its target.
Think of that. How genius. Not one was shot down.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
(END VIDEO CLIP)
Welcome back to HARDBALL.
That was President Trump today boasting about the airstrikes he ordered on Syria in response to that country`s use of chemical weapons.
Well, this weekend, he tweeted that it was a perfectly executed strike and that military could not have had a better result. Mission accomplished. There is a phrase we have heard.
And despite, the situation in Syria really hasn`t really changed. Experts tell NBC News that the military action "appears to have been little more than an empty gesture and likely did not do much to actually alter Syrian President Bashar al-Assad`s military calculus."
Another expert told Axios` Jonathan Swan, here with me now, that "Syria is a microcosm of U.S. foreign policy in general. We never had a coherent strategy beyond simplistic generalities, childishly selecting our goals based on what we wanted, not what was necessary or even possible. The inevitable result was failure."
Although the president`s strategy over the past few weeks has fluctuated from wanting to withdraw troops from Syria to ordering this weekend`s missile strike, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters today that -- quote -- "Our policy hasn`t changed. We`re still committed to defeating ISIS."
I`m joined right now by Jonathan Swan, who is a political national reporter for Axios.
Well, we already dealt with ISIS. And the question is, what are we going to do with the government there? And I don`t get it. Do you? What`s our policy?
JONATHAN SWAN, AXIOS: Well, if you ask people in the Trump administration what the policy is -- and I have tried this -- there is a long pause.
And then they start, you know, talking about, well, we won`t let him use chemical weapons. OK. That`s fine. But Barack Obama in 2011 said that Assad must step down. And it was just totally hollow. They never did anything about it. He sat there, and he is still there. And Assad is stronger than ever.
He has Russia and Iran cocooning him. He was out the next day killing opponents. So, yes, very narrowly, they shot a few. They fired some missiles into some chemical weapons facilities. But, beyond that, Assad is as strong as ever.
And when Nikki Haley goes on TV on Sunday saying, we`re going to work through a diplomatic process, you know, to get him out of power, I mean, what motivation does Assad have to engage?
MATTHEWS: Well, he can`t leave because the Alawites would kill him on the way to the airport, because they will all get killed if he leaves. Isn`t that the fact? SWAN: But he also knows that there is no pressure on him to leave. The U.S. -- Trump wants to get out.
MATTHEWS: OK, look, Trump -- let`s go with the broad strokes here.
Trump said he was against stupid wars. We have got two going and still going. That`s Iraq and Afghanistan. Now we`re involved in this continuing mishmash over there. We have got the Kurds on our side, but we don`t really back them up all the way. They want their own country. We`re not giving them their own country.
The Turks are ready to jump them if they try. This thing isn`t going to end. And, you know, I get the feeling we`re going to have the same conversation. Well, I may not be here, because I think 30 or 40 years from now, we will still be talking about, what are going to do to Binky Assad, the next grandson, or whatever his name is.
SWAN: They have controlled the country for, I think it`s 50 years between him and his father.
Trump came into office genuinely wanting to pull all troops out of Afghanistan. And he was talked around by his generals. He had -- the only people around him that were supporting that idea of basically just very fast withdrawal was Steve Bannon.
And Trump at one point was listening to him. And then Mattis and the generals talked him around a bit last year. And you could easily see the same thing happen on Syria.
MATTHEWS: Did somebody warn the Russians? Apparently, we worked a deal with so we couldn`t kill any Russians. Good deal. That was smart.
Did somebody warn the Syrian people, the guys who work overnight guarding these chemical plants and coming in? How come there was nobody there when the bombs dropped? Nobody got killed. Did the warning, don`t take the night shift tonight? I`m serious.
SWAN: No, it`s a fair question, because there were no...
MATTHEWS: No casualties.
SWAN: No casualties. I don`t know.
MATTHEWS: How do you drop 100 missiles and nobody gets hit?
SWAN: I do know that they were moving planes out of certain facilities in anticipation of action.
MATTHEWS: Was this a Kabuki? Was it just for show and they knew what we were going to do and they said, OK, slap our hands, but we`re pulling our hand away?
SWAN: It`s hard to know.
MATTHEWS: There`s something strange about a war where nobody gets killed and every bomb hits its exact target.
Thank you, Jonathan Swan of Axios. We will know more about this in the weeks ahead.
Up next: Where is the president`s head when it comes to Michael Cohen and the Russia investigation? That`s the biggie. Trump spent the weekend fuming about the raid on Michael Cohen`s office. Maybe that`s because he sees the Cohen investigation as the biggest threat to him.
You`re watching HARDBALL.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BEN STILLER AS TRUMP LAWYER MICHAEL COHEN: Can you believe what they`re doing to poor Mr. Trump? It`s a disgrace. This whole raid was a complete violation of attorney-criminal privilege.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about.
STILLER: Is that a joke? Look, we`ve got a real problem here, Jeff. You know how much evidence I have in my office? I`m Donald Trump`s lawyer. I got a whole hard drive that is just labeled yikes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: That is great work by Ben Stiller on "Saturday Night Live."
Anyway, back on HARDBALL, that was Stiller perfectly embodying President Trump`s fixer lawyer Michael Cohen on "Saturday Night Live." The show had a field day offering its take on potential meeting between Cohen and special counsel Robert Mueller.
Here it is when the two guys meet. Let`s watch it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
STILLER: Look, Mr. Mueller, this entire Russia investigation is a witch- hunt, and your whole team is president`s -- prejudiced against the president.
ROBERT DE NIRO AS ROBERT MUELLER: Not true. In fact, we uses code names so personal feelings never come into it.
STILLER: Oh, yes? What`s president Trump`s codename?
DE NIRO: It used to be Putin`s little bitch. Now it`s Stormy`s little bitch.
STILLER: What about Ivanka`s codename?
DE NIRO: Girlfriend.
STILLER: Jared Kushner?
DE NIRO: Other girlfriend.
STILLER: Don Jr. and Eric?
DE NIRO: Two Fredos.
STILLER: What about my codename?
DE NIRO: Dead man walking.
STILLER: Look, I don`t have to take this from you. I have rights.
DE NIRO: Now, you listen to me, you little weasel. I don`t know what rights you think you have, you broke the law, and now, we`re going to catch all of you little Fokkers, you got that?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Great outrageous writing.
Well, "The New York Times" reports that President Trump sees the wider inquiry into Cohen, Michael Cohen as a greater threat than Mueller`s investigation itself. The question now, what is the nature of that threat? Why is Michael Cohen`s situation rattling Trump so much?
That`s next with the round table. There they are. There they are!
MATTHEWS: Back to HARDBALL.
President Trump spent much of his weekend raging at former FBI Director James Comey. But it`s reportedly the investigation into his fixer attorney that tipped off much of Trump`s recent fury, portraying Michael Cohen on "SNL," Ben Stiller joked about how much evidence Trump`s lawyer may have.
"The New Yorker" now reports the investigation into Cohen could bring about the end stages. You like that? The end stages of Trump`s presidency, writing, of course, Trump is raging and furious and terrified. Prosecutors are now looking at his core. Cohen was the key intermediary between the Trump family and his partners around the world. He was chief consigliore and deal maker throughout the period of expansion into global partnership with sketchy oligarchs.
Let`s bring in the HARDBALL roundtable. David Corn, Washington bureau chief for "Mother Jones", author of "Russian Roulette", right up there on the top seller list, bestseller list I should say, also top seller. Thank you. The name of the book is "Inside The story of Putin`s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump."
Ruth Marcus is deputy editorial page editor for "The Washington Post", and Michael Steele, former RNC chair and an MSNBC political analyst.
Let`s go to this thing. I`m going to start with Ruth. This thing -- no, you`re Mr. Russia. The connection between Michael Cohen not just as a fixer of women problems and all that, which we know about, the Stormy thing, the Karen McDougal, but the fact that he was at the tower in June of that meeting in 2016, he may well have been according to McClatchy, he may well have been in Prague, handing over money to Russians for hacking into the DNC.
Tell us how they can squeeze him on the criminal business stuff to get Trump caught in collusion with the Russians?
DAVID CORN, D.C. BUREAU CHIEF, MOTHER JONES: I used to say that the Russian investigation, the whole scandal was an iceberg.
MATTHEWS: I still say.
CORN: And we`re seeing the tip of it and what Mueller is doing. Now, we have a whole separate iceberg. The raid on Cohen`s office run by the U.S. attorney`s office in New York for business matters, maybe related to Stormy Daniels, related to taxi medallions and everything else. It seems like these two icebergs are colliding.
And Michael Cohen does have a foot on each one. He was very much involved in Donald Trump`s deal, a secret deal he didn`t tell the public when he was running for president. He was trying to build a tower in Moscow. He was working in this former felon named Felix Sater who happens to be a high school buddy of Michael Cohen, going to Michael Cohen and trying to get this deal, which Trump didn`t tell the public about.
You go fast forward to the Steele dossier. What`s the first memo say. The Russians are trying to cultivate Trump by dangling business opportunities in front of him.
So, Cohen knows about that part of the deal. He knows about the Stormy Daniels. I don`t know what Trump has to do with taxi medallions but this is not at least three or four icebergs --
MATTHEWS: They`re not worth what they used to be, thanks to Uber.
CORN: I know, I know, but Cohen has a lot to say.
MATTHEWS: Ruth, you know all this too. What are you worrying about if you`re Trump lying in his bed tonight if he ever goes to sleep?
RUTH MARCUS, COLUMNIST, THE WASHINGTON POST: I think he actually has a lot of troubles to counter, icebergs to counter, to go with David`s metaphor because, look, Mueller remains a problem for Trump. Mueller has -- Trump has issues relating to Mueller that go both to his conduct during the campaign and to his conduct in office, the obstruction end of the inquiry, starting with firing -- not starting with, but including firing Comey.
And then -- so that`s one thing. And Trump has thought maybe, no, I can get rid of Mueller. Maybe I can make this problem go away. Now with the - - A, he can`t. That`s difficult to do. But B, now we have this simultaneous parallel investigation going on in the southern district of New York that involves Michael Cohen, that both can outlast Mueller if Trump finds some way to get rid of Mueller and that investigation, and that can touch -- as David was explaining so well, can touch on Trump`s business dealings going back before the campaign and his family business dealings going back before the campaign. So, that is a picture of a Trump not getting a lot of sleep.
MATTHEWS: Remember, Michael, you`re almost my age. Remember Valachi? Remember the guy going public with the mob? It`s a classic case. It`s Fatangelo (ph) in the "Godfather 2".
MICHAEL STEELE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes.
MATTHEWS: They got to get to him because he`s got the stuff.
STEELE: That`s right.
MATTHEWS: There is Michael Cohen.
STEELE: From Italy.
MATTHEWS: They bring the brother over.
MATTHEWS: So, you got Michael Cohen. You`ve got Flynn. You`ve got, you know, Manafort eventually some day. You`ve got Papadopoulos. You`ve got all these characters, Rick Gates potentially. All these people that have stuff, and Trump knows each one. He knows what they know.
STEELE: But the degree of importance really rests on Cohen right now because he has been the longest and the closest to the president. I love the iceberg metaphor that David put out there. But here`s the rub. Two icebergs that crash into each other, you hope they don`t break apart with that -- you know, and Trump sitting there with two fractured icebergs --
MATTHEWS: Let`s stick with one iceberg, but go ahead.
STEELE: But no, this is my point. My point is there seems to be a lot of energy in this direction that, you know, somehow now Trump is trapped between these competing interests and forces. The question still runs back to what does Cohen know and how much does he share of what he knows? What is the pressure point that they`re going put on.
MATTHEWS: Well, they say bank fraud, they say mail fraud. It sounds like they`re stacking up.
STEELE: A guy who says I`ll take one for the team. I`ll take one for Trump.
MARCUS: Oh, come on.
CORN: It seems to me --
STEELE: Seems like that kind of guy.
CORN: That Trump, when he looks at the Russian stuff, he might actually believes what he says.
MATTHEWS: I think he believes it.
CORN: He may believe -- I`m not sure, but --
MATTHEWS: He says it all the time.
CORN: He didn`t know what was going on, but maybe he should have. Whatever. Whatever collusion or cooperation or associations between his crew and Russia, he might not have known about --
MATTHEWS: Like he didn`t know about the $130,000.
CORN: But -- you`re stealing my point from me, but when it comes to what Michael Cohen did, whether it`s the $130,000 payment or business deals in Russia, any place else, he knows about that.
MATTHEWS: The round table is sticking with us. And that`s a great point. He knows about the 130 because that guy lies. I saw Ben Stiller safe. He lied on that lie detector.
Anyway, they`ll be back with us to tell me somebody I didn`t know.
You`re watching HARDBALL.
MATTHEWS: We`re back with the round table. David, tell me something.
CORN: Jim Comey and the report that came out and Andrew McCabe both raised issues about the New York field office of the FBI, that they were going rogue, leaking information against the Clintons before the election, something that hasn`t been looked at strongly that needs a good scrutiny.
MARCUS: You might know this, but President Trump doesn`t. The attorney- client privilege is not dead. It`s alive and well. It`s being protected in the Southern District of New York and with Judge Kimba Wood.
STEELE: All the other excitement takes away from the real story that`s out there. Scott Pruitt, $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office at EPA. It just keeps piling on from him and it`s getting worse and worse. Here is another shoe that`s going to drop.
MATTHEWS: And Phillies have won six in a row and look out for the Sixers.
Anyway, thank you, David Corn, Ruth Marcus, and Michael Steele.
When we return, let me finish tonight with a profile in courage. You`re watching HARDBALL.
MATTHEWS: Let me finish tonight with a profile in courage.
Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina is co-sponsoring legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller from being fired by President Trump. The measure would give the special counsel like Mueller the opportunity to fight such a presidential move.
What`s remarkable is that the senator pushing it is a Republican from a state that voted for Donald Trump. Senator Tillis is taking heat for his stand, as you might expect. What is far more impressive is, one, his stand itself, and, two, his retort to those criticizing it.
Here is what he says to them: The same people who would criticize me for filing this bill would be absolutely angry if I wasn`t pounding the table for this bill if we were dealing with Hillary Clinton. So, spare me your righteous indignation.
Spare me your righteous indignation. He is right, of course. The same people attack him for protecting Robert Mueller from a capricious firing would be demanding he do so if Mueller was investigating the former secretary of state. They would be clamoring for Hillary`s head and attacking anyone who stood in the way.
A word about Senator Tillis -- I believe you get it, sir. This isn`t about right or left, but right and wrong.
Let me quote you from the greatest of all conservatives, Edmund Burke. Here is Burke paying tribute to a leader who dared do what was right, knowing he would be attacked for doing so. He well knows what snares are spread about his path from personal animosity and possibly from popular delusion. But he has put the hazard his ease, his security, his interest, his power, even his darling popularity, he is reduced to abuse for his supposed motives. He will remember that obloquy is a necessary ingredient in the composition of all true glory. He may live long, he may do much, but here is the summit. He can never succeed what he does this day.
Senator Thom Tillis, for the principle of even-handed justice, a profile in courage.
And that`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us.
"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.
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