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Mueller has dozens of questions for Trump. TRANSCRIPT: 05/01/2018. Hardball with Chris Matthews

Guests: Eric Swalwell, Seth Waxman, Shannon Pettypiece

Show: HARDBALL Date: May 1, 2018 Guest: Eric Swalwell, Seth Waxman, Shannon Pettypiece

ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST: The names of those people murdered are engraved on 800 columns suspended in the air. It`s a dramatic illustration of a history that must be acknowledged. We wanted to show you that. That is the end of our broadcast.

HARDBALL WITH CHRIS MATTHEWS is up next.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: The big leak. Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.

The "New York Times" has revealed dozens of questions that special counsel Robert Mueller and his prosecutors want President Trump to answer under the penalty of perjury. And some they provide a road map of potential leads that the special counsel is exploring to ultimately determine whether the President colluded with Russia or obstructed justice.

According to "The New York Times," Mueller`s questions emerged from the ongoing negotiations over whether President Trump will ultimately speak to prosecutes. They were read by the special counsel investigators to the President`s lawyers who compiled them into a list. That document was provided to the Times by a person outside Mr. Trump`s legal team.

And while the questions themselves are fairly broad they could represent a legal minefield for a President known to stretch the truth. Today, in an attempt to distort the news in his favor, President Trump incorrectly claimed that none of the questions related to potential collusion with Russia.

Quote "so disgraceful that the questions concerning the Russia witch-hunt were leaked to the media. No questions on collusion. Oh, I see, you have a made up phony crime collusion that never existed."

Well on that point, however, the President`s mistaken a review of the 49 questions made public today shows at least 14 of them relate to the potential collusion with Russia during the presidential campaign. And while those questions don`t reveal what kind of evidence the special counsel might already have, there`s one in particular that`s receiving a lot of attention.

Mueller wants to ask Trump quote "what knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign including by Paul Manafort to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?"

Well, the reference to Manafort`s potential outreach to Russia suggests the special counsel may have evidence that has not been publicly revealed so far.

I`m joined right now by the reporter who broke the story for "the New York Times" Michael Schmidt. He is also an MSNBC national security contributor. Kim Wehle a former federal prosecutor, and Democratic congressman Eric Scwalwell sits on the House intelligence committee.

I got to start with Michael on this. What`s this tell us that just look at the interpretation here? He is going after something Manafort may have told him about Manafort`s ties to the Russians.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT, REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Yes, but when you step back.

MATTHEWS: So it is about collusion.

SCHMIDT: Some of it is about collusion. But when you step back from it, here you are two years into an investigation that was about Russia`s meddling in the election, ties between his campaign and the President has an enormous amount of issues related to obstruction, related to things he did in office.

One of the questions relates to something that happened as recently as January. So the obstruction issue being the central thing that he has to explain to Mueller. What were his intentions? Why did he do these things? Why did he fire Comey? What was truly behind it? Was he trying to interfere with the elections? It`s all getting at his intent.

MATTHEWS: Kim, it seems to me he is making a case through his tweets. This is the President of the United States. OK, he is allowing, maybe I did obstruct justice. You can argue that. But since there`s no underlying crime of collusion with the Russians, he will argue, it`s like escaping from. The police when you`ve been innocently arrested.

KIM WEHLE, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY: Well --

MATTHEWS: That`s what he seems to be arguing to the average guy, well he didn`t do any including. Therefore, he has a right to obstruct when they come after him. That seems to be his angle to the guy in the street corner.

WEHLE: Well, sure. I mean, I think he is taking the position which is erroneous that you need to actually have a completed crime to obstruct justice in pursuing that crime. And that`s not true. The question really is, we don`t want people interfering with our judicial system and our criminal justice system. And if he had that intent, then that itself can be a crime.

Now, the other point and I think some of his lawyers have made this is this sort of broader constitutional question as to whether the President could ever obstruct justice on the theory that he is in-charge of the justice department. He is in charge of the article two branch. And that`s kind of a thorny constitutional issue.

MATTHEWS: Well, that`s a frightening notion if our constitutional is that expansive about article two that the President can do anything he damn well wants to the do.

WEHLE: I think that`s an assumption underlying a lot of the President`s positions. And I think it is flat out wrong. And it is truly problematic.

MATTHEWS: Well, again, just remind everybody, 14 of the questions deal with collusion with the Russians. And when it comes to that part of his inquiry, Mueller wants to ask the President a key question that`s gone unanswered to date. During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media or other acts aimed at the campaign?

Well, that question was no doubt fuelled in part by Trump`s public overture to Russia, remember it, in 26th, do you remember it, encouraging the Russians to continue hacking and releasing democratic emails. We all heard him do it. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will tell you this, Russia, if you are listening, I hope you are able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, Mueller also wants to know whether the President had any discussions during the campaign regarding any meeting with Mr. Putin. We already know that one such discussion in March of 2016 when George Papadopoulos told the President had he Russian contact who could arrange such a thing. Then there`s that infamous meeting the campaign held at Russians in Trump tower in June of 2016 to get dirt on Hillary Clinton meeting for that purpose.

Specifically, Mueller wants to know or to ask Trump when did you become aware of the Trump tower meeting. When did you know and what did you know and when did you know it. Mueller`s also interested in Trump`s involvement in the RNC platform change toward Ukraine. Remember that one at the convention? As well as his communications about Russian real estate developments during the campaign. Again, it`s a question as I said, what did the President know and when did he know it?

Congressman, let me ask you about that. That ridiculous report that came out from your majority Republican committees on the intelligence committee seemed to overlook a lot of these questions. There seems to be a lot of fertile territory here for examination by the special counsel, Mr. Mueller, that Mr. Nunes doesn`t seem to be interested in getting the answers to.

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D-CA), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Thankfully, Chris, the special counsel is asking all of the questions that the Republicans on the house intelligence committee were not willing to ask. And hopefully, using their subpoena power to get the documents, the bank records, phone logs, travel records to test the answers they received either in the future from the President or from other witnesses.

But we saw so many witnesses who told us about approaches that Russians were making to Trump family members, Trump business individuals, Trump campaign officials, and the themes were like this. It was either to give them dirt that existed on Hillary Clinton or to set up a meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

And so, it is a fair question to can what was Donald Trump`s knowledge of all of these efforts. It`s very hard for me to believe that he had no idea at all, particularly that one of the outreaches occurred to his son on a floor just below where he was working on a day he was in the office at a meeting set up from a very close Donald Trump family friend. I can`t believe he had no idea about it. But he should sit down in the chair and tell us whether it`s the case for not.

MATTHEWS: Listen. A question whether he had a phone call with his son right before the meeting.

SWALWELL: Right. And we have evidence that Donald Trump Jr. calls Russia, makes a call to a blocked number and then calls Russia back. And we know that Donald Trump, his father, used a blocked number at the residence in Trump tower. And so, the Republicans on our complete weren`t willing to subpoena the phone provider to get that answer. I don`t think Bob Mueller is going to be so kind.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, Michael, about this, about the whole methodology here. You know, what happened was to retrace the steps of these questions, they were given to Mr. Dowd, the lawyer for President Trump sometime in mid-March as you can tell from your article. What`s the take home exam aspect of this? Everybody wants a take home exam? You can take it home and look up anything you want even under the rules of most colleges, you can look up anything and any question in the textbooks. And here he can get home and get lawyered up, get rehearsed. Talking about mirandized, this guy would be totally (INAUDIBLE) the BS his way through any kind of prosecutorial hearing once he gets all the questions ahead of time. So was the trick them with phony questions? Are they really the questions they were going to ask Mueller?

SCHMIDT: I think it was actually the opposite. They were trying to get Trump to agree to an interview.

MATTHEWS: With easy questions or what?

SCHMIDT: Dowd was telling them the President is very busy. He has a lot of things to do. He is getting a lost information from a lot of different folks. And Mueller is trying to say OK, here, we would really like to talk to him. We will give you a bit of fig (ph) leaf here. We will give you something. Here are some of the questions. Here are the topics. And what happens is, I Dowd goes into Mueller`s office to meet with the investigators. The investigators go through all the topics they want ask about. They take them down and they come up with the 49 questions that they know Mueller wants to ask. Mueller is trying to say look, we are not, you know, here being up front with you or being transparent with you.

MATTHEWS: Why did Dowd`s people leak it six weeks later? I`m teasing.

Let me go to -- let me go to Kim -- let me ask you about these questions. They are all state of mind questions. So many, what were you thinking? Why do lawyers or prosecutors ask questions where you are up to -- you and your lawyer will sit there for hours coming up with answers. Well, I was thinking about God and how I can be a good American civil servant. What do you meant? I mean, you can come up with any answer. Trump could come up with nonsense and what`s to stop him when he has been totally prepared and warned. Here is out toughest questions.

WEHLE: Well, there is couple of things. One is we don`t know what the Mueller team knows, right. We have Papadopoulos, Flynn, we have Gates giving them lots of information. We don`t know what their narrative is of what the truth is. So Trump is in a situation where he could say things that are inconsistent with contemporaneous things he said and also information. So it could be perjury. The other question is --

MATTHEWS: you mean, everything is they are just ask him to ratify what they already know or perjure himself.

WEHLE: Or perjure himself. Or in the other piece is, if we are going to make an obstruction case, what`s his story going to be? How do we frame our evidence in a way to prove that? I mean, that`s assuming that`s their objective. But they could just also just be trying to find out what his position is on this. I just don`t think there`s a safe harbor for him unless he goes in and says I don`t recall, I don`t recall because they know this record cold. And a lot better than any of us do.

MATTHEWS: Well, as I mentioned, most of the questions that we learned about in "the New York Times" today relate to potential obstruction of justice. Among them Mueller wants to ask Trump about the purpose of his meeting with FBI director James Comey in February of last year just after Trump fired his national security adviser Michael Flynn. According to Comey, that`s when the President asked him about letting Flynn off, letting him go, something that President Trump subsequently denied saying. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He did say under oath that you told him to let the Flynn -- you said you hoped the Flynn investigation you could -- he could let go.

TRUMP: I didn`t say that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So he lied about that?

TRUMP: Well, I didn`t say that. I mean, I will tell you I didn`t say that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: There are also questions for the President about his firing of James Comey later. Namely, what did you mean in your interview, Lester Holt about Mr. Comey and Russia. By the way, let`s listen to this. This could be incriminating. Here`s this is interview with NBC`s Lester Holt.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: But regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey knowing there was no good time to do it. And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, additionally, Mueller wants to know what the President meant when he told Russian diplomats (INAUDIBLE) that firing Comey had taken the pressure off the Russian investigation.

Mueller is also interested in the President`s discussions about terminating him, that`s firing him as special counsel as well as whether Trump asked his attorney general Jeff Sessions to protect him.

Kim, these are interesting question. But this, I talked to myself and I thought to myself I might have a problem with Russia but --. I mean, it`s amazingly incriminating statement. He says he got rid of the guy because he was coming at him with the Russian probe.

WEHLE: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Isn`t that sort of like obstruction?

WEHLE: I think on its face it`s really problematic for Mr. Trump. I mean, this is the President of the United States. So there is going to be a higher standard here. The question is, what can we prove before a jury? And it is difficult to prove to climb into someone`s brain. I mean, this happened in whitewater, to climb into somebody`s brain and actually prove what he believed at the time.

His defense has to be listen, it`s all a bunch of baloney. I think -- I thought it was baloney. I didn`t mean to obstruct an investigation because it was illegitimate. That`s a theory. And the question is whether a jury would buy it if we got to that point.

MATTHEWS: Some of this looks like robbing a bank in broad daylight.

Congressman, here is a President who is asked to a national television for the Russians to help him beat Hillary Clinton. Here is a guy on national television talked to Lester Holt, the reason I fired the guy because he is prosecuting me on Russian case. There you have, at least to me, the prime to face, the examples of collusion, a, b, obstruction of justice. He is saying what he is doing. He is not hiding it.

SWALWELL: That`s right. And there is now -- who could be so dumb that they would tell Lester Holt exception to admitting to a crime.

And Chris, and prosecutors also look at actions that a suspect will take after a crime to determine their intent when they committed the crime. And so that`s why this obstruction issue is so important because innocent people generally don`t obstruct.

Innocent people don`t ask that your friends` cases relating to what happened regarding what you are suspected of go away. Innocent people don`t fire at that time person investigating you. Innocent people don`t continue to undermine the investigation taking place. And innocent people say hey, that wasn`t me. Let me do all I can to cooperate. Let me get in that chair as soon as possible. Wild horses couldn`t keep an innocent person from going to Bob Mueller and saying let`s get this over with as soon as we can.

MATTHEWS: Congressman, thank you so much.

Michael Schmidt, I got to say, I could be a sarcastic guy. But I`m so impressed by the work you guys do at the "Times." And now I`m going to break your heart. But also at "the Washington Post."

Thank you Eric Swalwell, congressman from California.

SWALWELL: My Pleasure.

MATTHEWS: And Kim Wehle.

Coming up, what`s behind the leak of those questions and who benefits from those questions, the 49 that that are out there now? Could it be an effort by Trump`s allies to convince him never to sit down for an interview with the special counsel? That`s one mode for leak. Or is it an attempt to get Republicans to shut the Mueller investigation down because they don`t like the questions. Either way, if it came from Trump`s side, it could backfire dramatically. Don`t you think? Unintended consequences, the best of politics.

Plus, new reporting tonight on how long-time fixer Michael Cohen reacted after Trump said Cohen only handled a tiny fraction of his legal issues. Trump`s throwing Cohen under the bus when he should be worried what Cohen could tell prosecutors, a lot on that tonight. Watch Cohen.

And the NBC News exclusive report, the chief of staff John Kelly called Trump an idiot. It is latest in a long line of Trump cabinet members who belittled the boss. What`s worse, idiot or moron? Moron is a little bit more lyrical. But idiot is pretty bad. We will get to that in the HARDBALL round table tonight.

Finally, let me finish tonight with Trump watch. He will not like tonight.

This is HARDBALL where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Well, another one of President Trump`s doctors is in the news. Dr. Harold Borstein (ph), Trump`s former personal physician, gained notoriety during the 2016 Presidential campaign when he wrote a letter declaring unequivocally that Trump would be the healthiest President in history. And now Bornstein (ph) is making headlines once again telling NBC News that this office was raided by Trump`s associates just after the inauguration. Borstein (ph) tells NBC News that in February of 2017, three men including a top White House aide who was Trump`s long-time personal bodyguard showed up in Borstein`s office without notice and took all the President`s medical records. The incident allegedly took place two days after Borstein told a newspaper had he prescribed a hair growth medicine for the President for years. Big deal.

Anyway, Dr. Bornstein tells NBC News he felt frightened by the incident.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. HAROLD BORSTEIN, FORMER TRUMP`S PERSONAL PHYSICIAN: I didn`t know what to make of the whole thing. I couldn`t believe anybody was make a big deal about a drug that`s to grow his hair which seemed to be so important. And it certainly is not a breach of medical trust to tell somebody they take propeachia (ph) to grow their hair. What`s the matter with that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And then it was about a month later that they raided your office. And what exactly were they looking for?

BRONSTEIN: Well, it his medical records, his pictures, anything they could find.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: He doesn`t look like the doctors in the advertisements, does?

Anyway, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded to that today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: As a standard operating procedure for a new President, the White House medical unit took possession of the President`s medical records.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was characterized as a raid. Is that your understanding before what happened? The doctor seemed pretty upset about it.

SANDERS: No. That is not my understanding.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Took possession of. We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

The real mystery about Mueller`s questions, the 49 of them, for President Trump is, who leaked them, and why now, six weeks after the lawyer got hold of them from the Mueller prosecutors?

As I mentioned earlier, "The New York Times" reported the questions were read by the special counsel investigators to the president`s lawyers, who compiled them into a list. That was in March. That document was provided to "The Times" by a person outside Mr. Trump`s legal team, according to "The Times."

In other words, the questions clearly came from Trump`s orbit. For months now, the two sides have been negotiating a deal between Trump and Mueller to get the president to answer Mueller`s questions.

Well, publicly, at least, President Trump has said he`s willing to sit down with Mueller.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Would you still like to testify to special counsel Robert Mueller, sir?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you.

QUESTION: You would?

TRUMP: I would like to.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: "I would like to."

According to the report in "The New York Times," however, back in March, Trump`s personal lawyer John Dowd advised the president not to speak to Mueller`s prosecutors, but -- quote -- "Mr. Trump signaled that he was prepared to ignore Dowd`s advice and wanted to sit down with investigators." Dowd later resigned.

Well, the leak of the questions also comes a week after Rudy Giuliani, the president`s new personal lawyer, sat down with Mueller to discuss the possibility of an interrogation.

For more on what`s motivating the leak, I`m joined by Shannon Pettypiece, White House reporter with Bloomberg News, and Seth Waxman, who is a former federal prosecutor and a partner with Dickinson Wright.

Seth, question, who wants -- who wanted these papers out there? This is a lot of paperwork. I don`t think you e-mail it. I don`t know how you do it. But that`s 49 questions verbatim from the Mueller people to the president`s lawyer, Dowd. This is a hell of a scoop. Who wanted it out?

SETH WAXMAN, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, I think it`s someone from the Trump team.

And I think the reason for that is, I don`t think there`s ever going to be a criminal trial in this case. The president sits uniquely. So, I think the audience the Trump team is looking at is the American people through an impeachment proceeding, potentially, if it ever gets there in Congress.

And so, as we learn as defense lawyers learn, you want to front your bad facts to your audience. So, in my mind, what they have done is, they have put this negative narrative out there that is in the form of these questions.

MATTHEWS: Why do the questions look bad for the prosecution?

WAXMAN: For the prosecution? I don`t think they do. I think they look bad for Mr. Trump.

MATTHEWS: Oh, OK.

WAXMAN: And that they speak of collusion or conspiracy on the one hand and obstruction on the other.

And I think it`s kind of a road map as to what Mr. Mueller is looking at. And I think they`re all kind of taken from the headlines of various news publications or cable network. I don`t think Mr. Mueller disclosed anything.

MATTHEWS: Well, do you think it`s an alley-oop play?

Do you think -- Shannon, a journalist`s question. Do you think it`s an alley-oop play in basketball, when you throw the ball up above the net and somebody stuffs it? Is this a case where they threw out there the 49 questions on the front page of "The New York Times," so the president could say , see, it`s all about obstruction, there`s nothing in there about collusion, which is not true?

But he did attempt to put the ball for his people, the 40-some percent out there who buy his act. That`s who he`s talking to.

SHANNON PETTYPIECE, BLOOMBERG NEWS: Well, I don`t know the motives.

But I can tell you some of the...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Well, that`s what you`re here for. I want the motives. I need to get them from you.

(CROSSTALK)

PETTYPIECE: Why don`t I tell you the consequences that are happening?

MATTHEWS: OK. Thank you. Good.

PETTYPIECE: And I don`t think they`re good for the president.

It`s creating distrust among the president`s own legal team, among his own advisers.

MATTHEWS: How so?

PETTYPIECE: Because things that are discussed in confidence are not being kept in confidence. It`s creating distrust between the lawyers and Mueller -- between Trump`s lawyers and Mueller`s office, again, this feeling that they cannot talk candidly and honestly with each other because it could leak at any moment.

And that inhibits the president`s ability to get a fair defense. And like it or not, in this country, guilty or innocent, people are entitled to a fair defense.

When the questions the prosecutor is asking the defendant are leaked early, are put out in the public, it`s inhibiting his ability to get a defense. So, whatever the intentions were, I don`t think in the end this is going to be good for the president.

MATTHEWS: Is that -- do you buy what -- do you think Shannon`s right in saying this hurts the defense or it hurts the prosecution?

One of the questions out there is whether this was an obstructive act in itself to give away these questions.

WAXMAN: Well, I think that, on balance...

MATTHEWS: But you said you think it might end up hurting the...

PETTYPIECE: Well, I think the distrust that this creates, the good will that this breaks, because, remember, in Clinton, the -- one of the biggest things going on between Starr and Clinton was, they were at each other`s throat, they distrusted each other.

And there`s a theory that that is really what drove Ken Starr down this road of going after Monica Lewinsky. There was such distrust among the sides, that it was nuclear war.

And Trump`s lawyers have been fighting to prevent nuclear war from breaking out between these two sides.

MATTHEWS: Oh, really?

Do you think it`s possible they could lessen the aggressiveness of the Mueller team by being nice to them?

WAXMAN: No.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: See, I think the Mueller people are self-animated. They took that case, Mueller took it because he thought the institution of the FBI was being abused by the president.

WAXMAN: Well, I agree. And I think Mueller is going to continue down his path kind of unabated, whether or not Mr. Trump`s team leaks information.

I agree to some degree that to the extent they are leaking information, it does kind of imbibe a little bit of mistrust. But I don`t know that there`s a whole lot of trust in the first place among these various parties.

MATTHEWS: Well, let`s go back to the president and the lawyers` trust in the president.

The president`s lawyers, do they trust the president to be competent as a witness? Everybody seems to say they all -- the reporting has been of the major news organizations there`s people around the president either think he`s an idiot, a moron, but they all agree he`s not going to be a good witness for himself, because he can`t tell the truth.

PETTYPIECE: Well, I guess the most tactful way someone described it to me was that some people are built for testimony and some people aren`t.

You had Bill Clinton. He was a lawyer, an attorney general. His lawyer said he was an excellent person for testimony.

MATTHEWS: Except even he screwed up.

PETTYPIECE: Yes, exactly. And even in that situation, when you have a lawyer who knows this game so well, they can even step in it.

The president, not someone built for testimony.

MATTHEWS: Do you agree?

WAXMAN: Yes, I do.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Well, that seems to be the judgment of the people around him. They don`t think he can competently define or explain the truth, if there is a truth that he knows and recognizes.

WAXMAN: Right. That`s possible.

And, as well, he can`t seem to follow lawyers` instructions. One of the key instructions any defense lawyer would give to a client is, don`t take about these things publicly.

And we all have seen that he can`t help himself minute by minute, let alone day by day or month by month.

MATTHEWS: He has to be right. Like, his hands have to be huge. His crowds have to be huge. Everybody -- it`s almost like huge is his word. So, everybody -- the answer is always going to be huge.

And you go, did you -- but I just think that it`s an open -- to me, it`s an open-and-shut case, in the sense that -- in this sense, a non-legal sense. He wanted the Russians to help him beat Hillary, and he said so.

PETTYPIECE: I mean, I don`t know...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Isn`t it astounding that he said it? He said it on national television. Hack.

PETTYPIECE: Well, and I think that`s why Mueller to talk to him directly, because a big key of obstruction is intention and trying to prove the intent. Was there intention to obstruct?

MATTHEWS: Yes.

PETTYPIECE: And, on collusion, I mean, if there is a collusion case, is there a big -- was there a bigger motive, conspiracy here, or was this just throwing spaghetti at the wall?

MATTHEWS: Well, what did you make of that -- we`re both not lawyers, right? You`re not a lawyer? I`m not a lawyer either.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: We`re both not lawyers. What do you mean when the guy says to Lester Holt on national television -- and Lester is a complete straight arrow journalist -- he goes to him and says, yes, I didn`t like this Russia thing he was doing; that`s why I got rid of the guy?

WAXMAN: I used to sit on wiretaps for months waiting for a statement like that.

(LAUGHTER)

WAXMAN: That is per se evidence of obstruction. And to have him put it out there in the public realm like that is surprising, to say the least.

MATTHEWS: Can you benefit legally by just saying, even if I committed a crime, I did it in such blatant daylight conditions, I couldn`t possibly be guilty? But he is.

WAXMAN: I have seen that play out sometimes, and it fails. The "I am too stupid" defense does not typically work at the end of the day.

PETTYPIECE: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

PETTYPIECE: So, the point you were making at the beginning, though, what is this exercise all about?

Because can a president be charged criminally and prosecuted while he`s in office, or is this all about impeachment? So, we will go through this whole obstruction question. For what?

MATTHEWS: I think, to answer your question with another question, the fact that Mueller isn`t sure he can even subpoena him to testify, apparently -- that`s why he`s going through this, can you interview me, can you at least come in? I will give you my questions if you come in.

Suggests he`s not sure how much constitutional power he has with this court, by the way. It`s this court, Gorsuch court. We keep forgetting who is on that court and which side they are going to take.

Anyway, thank you, Shannon Pettypiece.

And we have learned in Gore vs. Bush in 2000 the court is partisan.

Thank you so much, Shannon Pettypiece and Seth Waxman.

Up next: new reporting on Michael Cohen`s reaction to Trump`s FOX News interview, where the president distanced himself, actually cut him loose from his longtime fixer. And Trump`s trying to throw Cohen overboard or under the bus. Use your metaphor. Does he really think he`s already flipped? Is that why Donald Trump has flipped on him?

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "FOX & FRIENDS")

QUESTION: How much of your legal work was handled by Michael Cohen?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, as a percentage of my overall legal work, a tiny, tiny little fraction.

But Michael would represent me and represent me on some things. He represents me, like with this crazy Stormy Daniels deal. He represented me.

And, you know, from what I see he did absolutely nothing wrong. From what I understand they`re looking at his businesses, and I hope he`s in great shape.

But I`m not involved, and I`m not involved -- and I have been told I`m not involved.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: "I`m not involved. I hope he`s OK."

Hmm.

Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was President Trump last week distancing himself from his lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, after the FBI raided Cohen`s office.

"Vanity Fair" reports that Cohen -- quote -- "was baffled about why Trump even made the remarks in the first place. He did not see the benefit and was not sure what purpose it served, which frustrated him, especially as he had been spending 10 hours a day fighting these allegations."

I`m joined right now by Emily Jane Fox, who wrote the article on Cohen. She`s a "Vanity Fair" senior reporter and an MSNBC contributor.

Emily, thank you.

It`s the hardest question in the world. But in this sort of relationship between Cohen, the fixer, who has got all these secrets, we assume, and Trump, who doesn`t want those secrets spilled out, what`s their relationship back and forth? What does Cohen want from the Trump at this point? I don`t know what he can get from Trump. What does he want?

EMILY JANE FOX, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: I think, from my reporting, earlier in the week, when the president had sent a stronger message on Twitter and had made comments that Michael was a great guy, that is the kind of message and the kind of support that buoyed him, especially as, as my reporting panned out, he`s been spending upwards of 10 hours a day with his lawyer going through the documents that the government seized and has since started to give back to him.

The message that he received on Thursday morning, or -- it was not -- certainly not the message that he thought that the president was going to give him publicly. And it didn`t help his legal case. He was due in court at noon that day. This interview aired four hours earlier.

And not only did it show that the president was perhaps publicly distancing himself, but it changed his legal strategy that he had been working so hard on in the days prior and had planned to work on this week as well.

And so this was not something that he saw coming and certainly didn`t do him any favors. And right now, I think that everyone`s consensus is, shouldn`t the president be trying to do favors, going out of his way to do favors for Michael Cohen, when there`s so much potentially at stake here?

MATTHEWS: Good question.

"The National Enquirer," whose publisher, David Pecker, is president with President -- or friends with him -- went after Michael Cohen in a cover story this week entitled "Trump Fixer`s Secrets and Lies."

"New York Magazine"`s Jonathan Chait points out that this is -- quote -- "a charge it would be hard to imagine a Trumpist organization orchestrating against a close Trump ally, unless it had strong reason to suspect he was turning against his patron."

According to CNN, when asked whether he thought a message was being sent by the story`s publication, Cohen told CNN -- quote -- `What do you think?"

Well, what do you think, Emily? It looks to me like Trump`s given up on this guy, he assumes he`s going to turn evidence against him, and he`s going to try to discredit and distance himself as much as possible from his own affairs.

FOX: It is certainly an assumption that pretty much everyone else has made, so that the president could potentially be making that assumption or parroting that assumption that has been made over and over again.

It`s not out of the question. I can say, from my own reporting, that, from people around him, Michael Cohen is not there yet. But stranger things have happened.

MATTHEWS: He hasn`t flipped. He hasn`t flipped yet.

FOX: Not -- from my reporting, he`s not there yet. He hasn`t even been charged with anything.

So I think that that is a bit premature. But stranger things have happened.

MATTHEWS: Well, suppose he gets charged with stuff that has nothing to do with Trump. That might mean that Trump can ignore the whole thing. If he gets charged with something that has something to do with -- that exposes Trump, then Trump should definitely pardon him, right, to get him to stop talking. Or is it too late?

FOX: I do not know what the president could do with his pardon power or wants to do with his pardon power.

But I would say this is just not an opportune time for the president to be saying something that surprises Michael Cohen and catches him off-guard.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

FOX: I don`t think that anyone would say that that`s a wise strategy to go by right now.

MATTHEWS: Yes, it looks like he`s saying, give me your best shot. I`m going to take you down.

Thank you, Emily Jane Fox.

FOX: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: Up next: According to that exclusive report by NBC News the other day, Chief of Staff John Kelly is just the latest White House staffer to refer to the president -- here it goes -- as an idiot.

Why are so many of the president`s top aides questioning the president`s intelligence? Top aides? We are going to show how many of them. These are Cabinet level and higher -- and top White House level saying moron, things like that. He`s not saying more on that afterwards, afterwards, as they tried to say at the time. He`s saying moron.

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

President Trump`s on the defensive amid bombshell reports about the Mueller investigation and new reporting that his White House chief of staff called him an idiot.

Trump lashed out on Twitter, writing the White House is running smoothly despite phony witch hunts, et cetera. Fake news is going bonkers.

According to an exclusive report from NBC News however, four administration officials say that Chief of Staff John Kelly has referred to Trump as an idiot multiple times. Kelly responded saying this story is total B.S. Well, the report has intensified questions about Kelly`s job security obviously, and added another layer of trouble for a White House already roiled by personnel problems.

"The Washington Post" points out the failed nomination of White House Doctor Ronny Jackson as V.A. secretary was just the latest unforced error when it comes to vetting staff. And "The Wall Street Journal" now reports that Kelly could be under consideration -- catch this -- to take over the V.A. after the implosion of Jackson`s nomination. I`m sure he wants that job.

The White House press secretary weighed in on that rumor today. And that`s next in the HARDBALL roundtable. Ha!

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, as I said, responded today to reports that Chief of Staff John Kelly is being floated as a possible pick -- this is a real downgrade for him -- as V.A. secretary. Talk of that possible personnel shift comes in the wake of an exclusive NBC News report last night that says Kelly called the president an idiot.

Here`s Sarah Huckabee Sanders earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: No, he is not being considered as the V.A. secretary. Both the president and the chief of staff are very happy with his position that he currently holds which is chief of staff to the president at the White House. And I would refer you back can to General Kelly`s statement that he put out yesterday.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, let`s bring in the roundtable, the HARDBALL roundtable tonight. Phil Rucker, of course, White House bureau chief for "The Washington Post," Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for PBS "NewsHour," Eli Stokols, MSNBC political analyst.

All of you, why is the situation around General Kelly become so precarious? Who doesn`t like him? Or is there a general problem with his performance?

PHIL RUCKER, WHITE HOUSE BUREAU CHIEF, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, for a few reasons, Chris. One reason is the president is getting tired of him, grew tired of him several months ago, according to our reporting. And the reporting yesterday --

MATTHEWS: Is he leaking there stuff?

RUCKER: -- from NBC.

MATTHEWS: About -- that`s pretty, queen sacrifice to say he calls me an idiot, therefore I got to get rid of him.

RUCKER: Well, look, Kelly has been disparaging of the president in many different ways, not just that one comment but sort of in his general body language and sort of the way he interacts with the president. He`s been very forthcoming about his own frustrations with the president at times and the jobs really weren`t on him, but he`s also lost trust of a lot of the senior staff in the building.

MATTHEWS: Because?

RUCKER: They felt like he`s not always an honest broker, that he`s sort of casting himself as the savior, as NBC reported yesterday, but he`s not always --

MATTHEWS: OK.

RUCKER: -- honest in dealing with his colleagues.

MATTHEWS: There`s a great Michael Moore movie where you see Don Regan as chief of staff to Ronald Reagan telling him to hurry it up on a speech. He`s talking to the president of the United States, you better hurry it up.

Is this guy the boss? Does he think he`s the boss? Is this the problem, hubris?

YAMICHE ALCINDOR, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, PBS NEWSHOUR: I don`t think Kelly thinks he`s the boss. The reporting I`ve gotten there are people that came with the president from New York that are kind of loyal to the president that are frustrated not only with -- that are frustrated with John Kelly`s access to the president and the fact that he changed -- he shifted kind of the culture at the White House.

The idea is that the person who`s leaking this, probably he has -- it`s kind of two things. Either, one, the person actually wants to be chief of staff, so maybe there`s someone who doesn`t like Kelly and wants to take his job. But then there`s also this idea that they just want him gone and it`s kind of the frustration that Phil was talking about, in the sense that people don`t see him as an honest broker anymore.

MATTHEWS: Is it the neo-cons? Is it the family? Is it Gary Cohn? Is it the -- what they call them, the globalists? I mean, what`s this guy`s -- he`s sort of a restraint on Trump`s foreign policy, with people who are more expansive in their foreign policy, more hawkish. I`m trying to figure, or is it just people who want his job? Maybe Gary Cohn wants his job, I don`t know.

ELI STOKOLS, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, it`s always sort of lord of the flies over there in terms of who is angling for this job. But I think if you could step back to look at John Kelly`s actual frustrations, they emanate from the fact that Donald Trump is just not a person who can be managed. He puts strictures in place. He likes the narrative that John Kelly is bringing order to the administration.

But beyond the public narrative around what John Kelly was brought in to do, Trump really didn`t like it very much. Started staying in the residence longer, having executive time to get around John Kelly`s controls.

MATTHEWS: You mean watching television.

STOKOLS: They`ve argued about a lot of different policy matters. And so, John Kelly has privately to reporters and other people grumbled about the experience of being chief of staff. He has talked a little bit about you think this is crazy, you should see the things, the tweets that I`ve been able to prevent the president from saying.

So, I think the relationship has just grown part and it`s almost inevitable that anybody the president brings in and puts in these roles, over time they`re going to -- the relationship is going to get icier and eventually, they`re going to --

MATTHEWS: Let`s talk big politics. If he president thinks he`s doing OK right now, if he`s cruising right now, I think he could see things that way. Certain polls say he`s not doing badly at all. He may figure this new hubristic approach of his going to shooting the moon with North Korea and all that stuff. He says, you know, my instinct`s pretty good right now, maybe I should run the show.

Or if he`s -- I don`t think he`s acting scared.

RUCKER: No.

MATTHEWS: So, he may be willing to go without a chief of staff. I can do this myself. Look, mom, no hands.

RUCKER: He`s quite confident especially when it comes to North Korea. He thinks he`s on the verge of a major triumph there.

MATTHEWS: He wants to have them in the 38th parallel, where he could have all the excitement in the moment in place.

ALCINDOR: Well, I was talking to someone, a foreign diplomat who is one of our allies and he said that the thing that worries people mainly our allies is that presidents usually do so much preparation they do -- not only preparation to know who you`re talking to, but they actually go through drill, whereas it`s like if the conversation goes this way, this one is what might happen, the conversation goes this way.

But most people, including our allies, don`t think that President Trump has the patience to do the homework to do that and then it`s going to go back to this idea of instincts and that he could meet somebody who also understands kind of pomp and circumstance. The North Korean leader right now is acting really nice. But most people know or think that he is not going to just say I`m going to do away with my nuclear weapons. That instead he`s thinking about freezing them which is completely different than what President Trump said.

MATTHEWS: Well, you know what? Nothing`s worked before. I`ll say that for Trump. and all the other, we`re going to give them coal, remember under Clinton? We`re going to give them coal and that`s going to calm them down. They want nuclear -- they want nuclear weapons for power and survival.

STOKOLS: Well, you can understand the president`s confidence when the domestic politics are static.

MATTHEWS: Same reason we got him.

STOKLOS: His poll numbers do not change. I think what we`re talking about though goes beyond domestic politics when you hear the comments from Kelly and from Tillerson calling him a moron after a meeting at the Pentagon. I think what really sets off some of these people is the president`s sort of short attention span and lack of understanding on national security matters. That`s what frustrates people.

MATTHEWS: Anyway, the roundtable is -- well, remember Ronald Reagan stayed up all night during a Mideast talk, watching "The Sound of Music"? Nobody could believe he did it.

Up next, Chief of Staff John Kelly isn`t the only top official to have insulted a president. We`re going to play a game of who said it next. This is a contest. Are these smart people at the roundtable able to pick out who called him a moron, who called him an idiot? We`ll get it figured out in a minute.

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`re back with our HARDBALL roundtable.

According to exclusive NBC News reporting, Chief of Staff John Kelly reportedly called President Trump an idiot. He isn`t the only Trump cabinet member however who is said to have bashed the boss.

Let`s take a look at some of the low lights. Well, and play who said it. First, Phil Rucker, who also reportedly called Trump an idiot.

RUCKER: No idea.

MATTHEWS: Let`s show it. .

RUCKER: Reince Priebus. There you go.

MATTHEWS: OK, there he is.

Yamiche, which official called the president dumb as --

ALCINDOR: I have no idea.

MATTHEWS: Well, who is it? Who was it? Oh.

ALCINDOR: Oh my gosh.

MATTHEWS: Gary Cohn, 0-2.

Eli, this official called him a moron. Come on, who was it.

STOKOLS: You gave me the easy one. We know that. It`s Rex.

MATTHEWS: Rex Tillerson. For the group, 1-3.

This adviser reportedly called him a dope with the intelligence of a kindergartener.

RUCKER: H.R. McMaster.

MATTHEWS: I think you made it up. You won the big round. Double jeopardy. You`ve won whole thing. Thank you.

Isn`t this outrageous? What do you think it is?

ALCINDOR: I mean --

MATTHEWS: So, if you`re Trump watching this program or any other program where they delight in this fun because it`s fun. The kids at school, they`re grading the professor and they found him stupid.

ALCINDOR: I mean, if you`re Trump and you`re watching this, you`re feeling like how could -- how could I have these people around me, how can I really run this place and by the fact I`m president and no one respects me. The fact that some people told me that President Trump what frustrates him a lot and why he brings up President Obama a lot is because he doesn`t feel like he`s getting respect the office has in the past.

Of course, he changed the office in some people`s minds.

MATTHEWS: Of course not.

ALCINDOR: But that`s one of the main things that frustrates him.

MATTHEWS: Eli, I can`t imagine talking about like that about any of the people I work from politics or anybody I know talking about them and lasting another nanosecond.

STOKOLS: That`s the whole reason they have all these personnel problems and so few people, because they had the loyalty test at the beginning and said anybody who said anything negative during the campaign, they can`t work here.

MATTHEWS: How did these guys get in?

STOKOLS: Well, there are people on the staff now, Raj Shah, Scott Pruitt, their statements they made during 2016 that were negative about the president. That was where the Republican Party was then and now everybody who says those things mostly --

MATTHEWS: But do they believe he`s an idiot? Do they believe he`s a moron? Do they believe he`s dumb as whatever?

RUCKER: They don`t think he`s not intelligent. He`s a smart man. They just point out that he has no capacity to sort of read and learn and absorb information and he`s not curious and he doesn`t, you know, read his intelligence briefings.

So, the knowledge that he has on the issues is very low.

MATTHEWS: That`s Washington thinking.

RUCKER: Low knowledge.

MATTHEWS: Anyway, thank you. I`m being sarcastic. Thank you, Phil Rucker. Thank you, Yamiche Alcindor and Eli Stokols.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Trump Watch, Tuesday, May 1st, 2018.

Spring came to Washington today and with it a new season of clarity in the investigation surrounding President Trump. Ignore for just a moment today`s "New York Times" report on what questions Mueller might ask Trump. As of now, it appears Trump`s fate rises or falls with the information special counsel Mueller has received or will receive from sources beyond that of president himself.

We know them both by name and by the assumed roles they have played. If this case comes down to collusion with Russia and it better for the prosecution`s good, the question is who will offer testimony against Trump? Paul Manafort who served as both convention and campaign manager for him or Rick Gates or George Papadopoulos or Michael Cohen, or Roger Stone, or Mike Flynn?

It seems logical to assume that Robert Mueller has testimonies from all or most of these figures well in hand. And that the questions he`s proffered to Trump`s lawyers back in March were mainly to confirm their testimony or to catch Trump lying under oath about it. And this raises the dramatic question whether these associates of Trump will turn state`s evidence, that they will swear that he did something with the Russians, that he`s refused to confess.

What would stop them from doing just that? Take the case of Michael Cohen who many see as Trump`s most dangerous booby trap. If the prosecutors in New York have something on Cohen, something really bad that incriminates Trump, as well, Trump will face the existential choice of either preempting the attack by pardoning Cohen or having to brave the assault against him by a combined alliance of Michael Cohen and the federal prosecutors and that`s not a pretty prospect.

And this is the human drama that lies ahead in the Trump investigation. It`s not about what questions Mueller puts to Trump or what lawyered up answers Trump gives back. It`s most likely to be what his former associates will say about him. And that may have already happened.

And that`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us.

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.

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