Show: HARDBALL Date: May 17, 2018 Guest: Mike Quigley, Annie Karni, John Brabender
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: The follow the rubles. Let`s play HARDBALL.
Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.
President Trump marked the anniversary of special counsel Robert Mueller`s appointment with a tweet this morning proclaiming his innocence.
Congratulations, America, we are now into the second year of the greatest witch-hunt in American history. And there is still no collusion and no obstruction.
He went on to claim that despite the disgusting illegal and unwarranted witch-hunt, we have had the most successful first 17-month administration in U.S. history. By far. Sorry to the fake news media and haters but that`s the way it is.
Well, despite the President`s repeated assertion there`s nothing new, new reporting continues to raise questions about whether Trump and his allies collaborated with Russia during the election. We are now discovering how Donald Trump and his associates were pursuing a major business deal in Russia while he was running for President. In other words, Trump was chasing Russian rubles at the same time he was seeking American votes.
Today BuzzFeed news revealed that Michael Cohen`s effort to develop a Trump tower over in Moscow during the election year went on far longer than he publicly acknowledged extending into the spring of 2016. Most damning is that quote "even before the appointment of Mueller as special counsel in May of 2017, FBI agents investigating Russia`s interference in the election learned that Michael Cohen was in frequent contact with foreign individuals about Trump Moscow and that some of these individuals had knowledge of or played a role in 2016 election meddling.
It`s all connected according to two FBI agents. In May of 2016, Michael Cohen along with his partner Felix Sater were actively planning to send Trump to Moscow.
Quote "they discussed when in the Presidential campaign Trump should take the extraordinary step of flying to a country at odds with the United States in order to negotiate a major business deal."
Well, Sater told BuzzFeed that Cohen was also prepared to make a separate trip to Moscow and that planning for that trip continued through June of 2016 when Cohen suddenly demurred.
NBC News has not independently verified BuzzFeed`s reporting yet.
Joining me right now is former Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks, an MSNBC legal analyst, Eugene Robinson is a columnist for the "Washington Post" and an MSNBC political analyst and democratic congressman Mike Quigley of Illinois, sits in the House intelligence committee.
Congressman Quigley, I want to start with you the elected official. And here we are with more evidence thanks to BuzzFeed that there was ongoing business dealing by Trump`s associates, by his close fixer lawyer Michael Cohen and Felix Sater and his associate all on behalf of Trump. In other words, he was literally chasing money over in Moscow at the same time he was chasing votes here at home. What`s your thought about that?
REP. MIKE QUIGLEY (D-IL), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Yes, he testified before our committee last October in light of the information you have talked about in other documents we have received, he really should come back. But wait, they shut the investigation down.
Obviously, a great concern is the letter of intent signed during the campaign by candidate Trump about Trump tower Moscow. Information that Mr. Cohen perhaps other than the President alone can give us more information on.
MATTHEWS: Let me go to Jill on this. Jill, it seems to me that there`s lots to pursue here and the idea that this probe by Robert Mueller should end now because of some artificial anniversary celebration is insane. We are only learning now these stories about the way in which Trump`s people were out there trying to make a buck over in Moscow using his prestige as a candidate. We are going to develop that tonight. But apparently they were using the fact that he was now a big American political big shot as well as a tycoon as a way of greasing the skids for his investments in Moscow.
JILL WINE-BANKS, FORMER ASSISTANT WATERGATE SPECIAL PROSECUTOR: It`s an unusual situation where you have a candidate for President of the United States as concerned if not more concerned about his personal wealth and his financial dealings during the time of the campaign and to be that involved in trying to do business with Russia at the same time as a lot of secret meetings are happening with Russia and where the financing was going to come from sanctioned banks. And they are having discussions whether sanctions should be lifted.
It really is a very smelly situation. It clearly needs much more investigation, and a year is not a lot of time for the kind of sophisticated crimes that are involved here. It needs more time. Mueller must continue.
MATTHEWS: Gene, I get the sense more often that Trump has limited knowledge but he has a lot in certain areas. He knows a lot about real estate obviously and that kind of money making. He has people out there on his behalf who don`t have any grasp of what horrors are waiting for them in Russia. The stuff going on over there where they shoot you. They enforce context or ignore context with gunpoint over there. And the idea he had people over there saying let`s does business for Trump tower and those people he`s doing business with, this is Michael Cohen and the other fellow, Felix Sater, they are dealing with people who are at the same time involve trying to screw with our democracy.
EUGENE ROBINSON, COLUMNIST, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes. Well, let`s, you know, two things about what I assume to be Donald Trump`s state of mind during this. You know, first, I assume that he looked at -- had been looking at Russia for a number of years since Miss Universe and even before as a big pot of money, a big pot of money that he ought to get his piece of and so he was going to do Trump tower and he had oligarchs and they spent money like water. And so, why didn`t he get some of that. So that`s one mind-set.
The other mind-set is that for much of the campaign until fairly late, part of his thinking, part of his mentality had to be that this was really just the greatest marketing campaign in history, right? Because the odds were long that he was actually going to get across the finish line and win.
MATTHEWS: We all thought that.
ROBINSON: Until he did at some point probably convince himself that yes, I can do this. But meanwhile, part of him had to be thinking this is just raising my profile and so why shouldn`t he pursue this deal in Moscow if he was going to get his chunk of that money.
MATTHEWS: Mr. Quigley, congressman, you know, at the local level we all know that some people run for office knowing they`re probably going to lose but they have got a law license and want to make money and have the shingle out. So it doesn`t hurt them when you lose a race for the House or something like that.
Is it possible that we have a guy running for President whose secondary purpose is to be elected President, the long shot part but the short money, the short deal is, of course, to make a stab at a big business investment that will pay off down the road in Moscow?
The problem is, he has got all this going on and saying at the same time don`t look at this. Don`t look at this. Close down the shop. What do you think the chances are that Mueller would ever shut down his shop? What do you know about that? Is he going to go to stall the distance?
QUIGLEY: Yes, I don`t think Mueller stops by himself. You know, Speaker Ryan said today that the Mueller investigation should be allowed to continue on its own. Speaker Ryan can make sure that happens. He needs to put a bill on the floor to protect the Mueller investigation. Mueller won`t stop this until he is done.
MATTHEWS: Well, BuzzFeed is reporting also shows that nexus now between Trump`s political campaign and as I said his business interests. During a meeting with an intermediate to the powerful Russians, Felix Sater, that is one of his associates used Trump`s public praise of Putin to entice wealthy Russians to invest in the Moscow development.
Quote "Trump had recently praised Putin on TV so Sater, that is his associate, emailed Michael Cohen saying get me a clip. Get me the clip of Trump raising Putin see they can help grease the skids for this business deal."
Well, during the campaign Trump`s praise of Putin confounded many observers. Let`s take a look at some of the things he said that were useful to business.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think I would get along very well with Putin. I just think so.
I would get along with Putin. I have dealt with Russia. Putin has been a strong leader for Russia, a lot stronger than our leader. That I can tell you.
Putin said Trump is a genius. He is going to be the next great leader of the United States. Putin did call me a genius.
By attitude, when people like me, I like them, even Putin.
I`m going to disavow a statement when somebody calls me a genius? I`m not disavowing anything.
He does have an 82 percent approval rating according to the different pulses.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Does he actually believe this malarkey? I tell you, Joe Biden, malarkey.
Jill, I mean the idea that he believes Russian polling, there aren`t many options on the ballot over there. And the idea that -- anyway. We know what the story is. That`s not exactly Democratic the way we know it. But what do you make of this guy who seems to be constantly entwining, his people doing weather wants them to do, selling him as a business dealmaker because he is running for President? Selling him as a Russian business associate because he is saying nice things about the guy over there who has to approve all the deals over there? What does do to -- is this all legal to do what he was doing?
WINE-BANKS: Well, it may be legal even if it is immoral. But I also think that he was thinking that this would increase the licensing fees. They were having trouble getting developers willing to pay just to put Trump`s name on a building. And the thought was, and it was expressed in the emails between Cohen and Sater that when he became this very public figure in America, that they would be willing to pay more to put his name on a building. So he was clearly using his campaign to move forward and he was using it.
Now, at what point if any the campaign decided that they could use the relationships with Russia to do something other than a real estate deal and top cooperate with Russia for possible help in winning the election, that seems to be the question that Mueller is focusing on now.
MATTHEWS: Well, as we know Trump was aware of the negotiations for a Trump tower in Moscow because he signed a letter of intent with a developer that Felix Sater brought to the table in October of 2015.
However, just a month later Trump professed not to know Sater even though Sater was coordinating the deal in his behalf. As Trump said to the "Associated Press," Felix Sater, boy, I have to even think about it. I`m not that familiar with him. I`m sorry.
Jill, what do you mean I`m not that familiar with it? That`s when you admit when you say you know somebody.
WINE-BANKS: You are right. You are right. And, of course, he may be very sorry he said that because it apparently really angered Sater who is now seems to be cooperating with Mueller. And he may be doing that because exactly of that point was that Trump said I don`t even know him. So he may have made a mistake in underestimating what the connections that Sater had were and he seems to have had some pretty high up connections. So this may not have been a good thing for him.
MATTHEWS: Let me go back to my rant, if you will, because I have a few rants once Dick Cheney got us into a bad war. I might having a few rants. One of them is this Russia thing, this Russia-philia (ph). You and I have known politics all our lives, covered them, never realized they had close Russian friends or associates because they didn`t have any.
MATTHEWS: This guy they come out of the woodwork. All of a sudden, Felix Sater is in the news tonight along with Papadopoulos and all these other guys, Rick Gates and Manafort and Roger Stone and the endless list of these Kato Kalin (ph) characters and associates. And their only role seems to be to tie this guy to Russia.
ROBINSON: So look, you know, I know people who were correspondents in Moscow who developed a sort of deep relationship with the culture and the people of Russia and the history as opposed to the government and all that which has been oppressive since there was Russia, but that`s not what this is about. This is about the money I think. I really do and about the, know.
MATTHEWS: Deep pockets.
ROBINSON: When Soviet Union ended, this new kleptocracy (ph), these oligarchs managed to divvy up this incredible bounty which they dole out. It`s like a big candy -- he wanted a big handful of jelly beans.
MATTHEWS: Well, in his tweets this morning, President Trump also cited an allegation that appeared in the national review magazine last week tweeting, wow, word seems to be coming out that the Obama FBI spied on the Trump campaign with an embedded informant. If so, this is bigger than Watergate.
Anyway, the President also appears to be referencing a new detail about the investigation that appeared last night in the "New York Times." The Times report that at the start of the FBI`s investigation of Trump`s campaign, at least one government informant met several times with Mr. Carter Page and Mr. George Papadopoulos, current and former officials said. That has become a politically contentious point with Mr. Trump`s allies questioning whether the FBI was spying on the Trump campaign or tried to entrap campaign officials.
Well, Rudy Giuliani today seize on that reporting making clear the Trump legal team would fight the investigation by destroying its credibility, not on the merits of the evidence itself. Here we go.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RUDY GIULIANI, PRESIDENT TRUMP`S LAWYER: First of all, we are going to have to look into as a result of the times article. Thank you "New York Times." They usually don`t help us. In this case I think we are going to have to look into whether we can challenge the legitimacy of the entire investigation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: In other words, you can`t have an investigation without investigators. I don`t understand what they are charging here, that the FBI is trying to find out the Russian kicks and they are being called spies. That`s the nice word Giuliani is using. Your thoughts.
WINE-BANKS: This is an investigation by investigators. They are not spies. If you are under investigation, the FBI sends out people to interview people about you. To find out what you`ve been doing. That`s a legitimate investigation. And we know that there was evidence against both Page and Papadopoulos.
The Australians are quite proud of the fact that their foreign official notified American officials that are Papadopoulos had said I have been meeting with the Russians and they have dirt on Hillary. And so they had a legitimate reason to investigate these people for possible collusion with the Russians. And that`s what they were doing.
MATTHEWS: You know, the oddity of using the word spies, everybody who has ever worked in the Peace Corps, everybody who has ever worked in the United States government and has had a significant level has had a full investigation by the FBI. It`s part of the rite of passage if you will. We never thought of those people that went around to talk to our parents and neighbors as spies. They were government officials checking us out to see if we`re OK for these jobs.
Congressman, thank you very much. Congressman Mike Quigley of Illinois. Thank you Jill Wine-Banks and Eugene Robinson, of course.
Coming up, what`s Rudy Giuliani`s came game right now? He says Trump would love to testify. Of course, he wouldn`t. And Rudy is defending the Trump campaign by saying if they got dirt on the Russians, if they did, they would have used it. They were doing it. Think how many times Trump said WikiLeaks in the campaign trail. He`s all about using it.
Plus, besides Stormy Daniels, Donald Trump may have had paid hush money to at least two additional women in such circumstances. Michael Avenatti dropped that bombshell today. News keeps filing up.
And Trump seems to want to fight the Russian investigation in the court of public opinion. Don`t you think? With Trump`s latest over the top tweet about how well he is doing comes as a top member of the cabinet is taking a swipe at his ex-boss, recently ex-boss and calling out the country`s crisis of ethics and integrity. That`s Tillerson talking.
Finally, let me finish tonight with Trump watch. He will not like tonight.
This is HARDBALL where the action is.
MATTHEWS: We have got late breaking news tonight related to Donald Trump`s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. NBC News has confirmed now that Manafort`s former son-in-law, a real estate developer out in California, has pleaded guilty in a separate criminal investigation in that state. He has agreed to cooperate with investigators as part of his plea agreement which means he could be used by special counsel Mueller to put additional pressure on Manafort in connection with the Russia probe.
We will be right back.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
Rudy Giuliani continued his media blitz over the last 24 hours with a revamped defense of his client Donald Trump. He said special counsel Robert Mueller acknowledged he didn`t have the power to indict a sitting president. That`s what he said.
Giuliani also argued collecting opposition research even from Russia isn`t illegal. And, today, Giuliani told FOX News that President Trump would welcome the opportunity to sit down with Mueller`s team.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RUDY GIULIANI (R), FORMER MAYOR OF NEW YORK: You got to understand the president wants to testify. He wants to give out -- give his side of the case, which he believes is the truthful one.
If they had an open mind, we would be inclined maybe to let our client do what he wants to do.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
Giuliani told NBC News the chief counsel, the special counsel`s office is now -- quote -- "engaging us on several points where we could reach an agreement."
So, he`s playing it both ways. He said details about the conversations were confidential, but added: "The last day or so, it`s been more productive than in the last two weeks." This is like negotiating with North Korea.
For more, I`m joined by Kimberly Atkins, chief Washington reporter for "The Boston Herald." And Sam Stein is politics editor for The Daily Beast. Both are MSNBC contributors.
So, I have a theory. But what is yours?
Why is Giuliani so mouthy? Why is he all over the press? He`s like the full Ginsburg? He does everybody. He starts at dawn. He`s still talking late at night with Hannity. Why is he drawing attention to the Stormy Daniels part of this thing, first of all? Because that`s what he`s doing.
KIMBERLY ATKINS, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Yes.
I think he`s trying to act as President Trump`s mouthpiece on this issue, both to keep the president calm, and ostensibly the idea was to let the president focus on North Korea and other important things. Right? The president is not doing that. He`s also tweeting and talking about this, too.
MATTHEWS: From dawn.
ATKINS: Exactly, from his Twitter account.
But he`s trying to be the offensive people, trying to be the lead discreditor of the Mueller investigation, to signal to Republicans that they`re looking past this, they`re ready to discredit any sort of report that comes out.
MATTHEWS: And why are they doing that now? Because they fear to see what`s coming?
ATKINS: I think so. I think so. They want to get out ahead of whatever is coming. They want to do their messaging.
On the point about the indictment, look, we only know Giuliani`s side, because Mueller is not talking. So, I think we should take that with a little grain of salt.
MATTHEWS: He`s not a perfect messenger.
ATKINS: He`s not. He`s not. He`s certainly not acting as a lawyer, being that he`s given legal advice that isn`t sound at all.
SAM STEIN, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I don`t think he`s playing the role of lawyer here.
ATKINS: Well, he`s not.
STEIN: Rudy was brought on to this team for a P.R. purpose.
Trump didn`t like the fact that his old legal team was not hitting back on TV, which is Trump`s favorite medium, of course. And so Rudy was brought on to do ostensibly that.
And one of the things he`s doing with the Stormy Daniels thing is just get out in front of the news of the personal financial disclosure, which was coming out, which would reveal the payments.
But what he`s doing with Mueller is, I think, trying to soften up the public perception of the Trump status, which is, we are trying...
MATTHEWS: Well, follow up what Kimberly said.
MATTHEWS: If they expect the worst, if they expect that this iceberg of information that Mueller`s been able to be accumulate could be really damaging, even with people who are pro-Trump, what are any doing now to prepare for that?
STEIN: I think, first and foremost, they`re trying to message around the idea of whether or not he will do an interview.
So, Rudy goes out there and he says, we`re open to the possibility. We just want them to narrow it a little bit. What he`s really saying is, we`re trying to game the public.
MATTHEWS: Process. When everybody`s talking about process, here`s my thought.
I will run it by both of you. I think this is an old game in politics. Change the question. If the question is guilt or not, they`re probably going to lose, because I think Mueller is going to get something on all the associates. Look, he`s got 19 indictments. He`s going to get Manafort.
He`s going to get all these guys involved. He`s got Michael Cohen over there cutting deals. There`s so much stuff, and a lot of obstruction of justice material. They don`t want the question to be guilty or not guilty. They don`t want the country to be a jury.
They want to the ask the country, whose side are you on? Whose side are you on?
MATTHEWS: I think that is what Giuliani is all about, because he is a pol.
MATTHEWS: I think it`s New York, New York City, or Boston politics. You just people -- which side are you on? Are you with the labor unions or with the business? Are you the Democrats or Republicans, the left or the right, black or white? Get on your side and fight it.
ATKINS: And he`s been pegging this as an attack on America.
It`s difficult for him to do his job. It`s bad for America. He is painting this as anti-patriotic vs. patriotic, the president trying to do his job. So, I think that you`re right.
MATTHEWS: That`s what they did with Nixon.
MATTHEWS: That`s what they did.
STEIN: I would take it one step further, which is, they have moved the goalposts significantly.
At first, it was, we didn`t talk to the Russians. Then it was, well, the campaign didn`t talk to the Russians. Then it was, well, the campaign might have, but we didn`t collude with the Russians.
And then it was, well, collusion is really when you do X, Y, and Z.
MATTHEWS: Or it`s Mueller sucks.
STEIN: Or that.
MATTHEWS: He just says, I don`t care what he finds out. He sucks.
STEIN: I had a bunch of top Democrats say to me something very profound, which is, had the news of the Trump Tower meeting with Russian officials dropped tomorrow or a week from now, it would be treated as an utter and complete bombshell. It would be treated as proof of collision.
It would be a game over smoking gun. But it dropped. It dropped many months ago. And we sort of have grown numb to it in a way that we don`t actually recognize the significance of the moment, which was a hostile government offered dirt on a political opponent, and the Trump campaign said yes.
MATTHEWS: Isn`t that collusion?
MATTHEWS: Anyway, in a separate FOX News interview last night, Giuliani was asked about that infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and the Russians promising dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Giuliani argued that there`s nothing wrong with taking opposition research, even from Russia. Here`s Rudy Giuliani. Let`s listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GIULIANI: When I ran against them, they were looking for dirt on me every day. I mean, that`s what you do. Maybe you shouldn`t, but do you it. Nothing illegal about that.
And even if it comes from a Russian or a German or an American, it doesn`t matter. And they never used it, is the main thing. Never used it. They rejected it. If there was collusion with the Russians, they would have used it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Kimberly, I think -- I`m not into the law. None of us are lawyers here, I don`t think.
ATKINS: No, I am a lawyer. I am a lawyer.
(CROSSTALK) ATKINS: And he said about four different things that were wrong.
MATTHEWS: OK, go with it, because the first one I heard was you can take stuff from foreign governments. You`re not allowed to make a campaign contribution from another country.
ATKINS: Right, either money or in kind. You cannot take things from other countries to help you in an election. So, that`s wrong, point number one. Saying that we took it, but didn`t use it, is also not a defense to any sort of crime.
ATKINS: Nothing that he is saying is legally correct.
MATTHEWS: Receiving stolen property is illegal.
STEIN: I think he made an actual...
MATTHEWS: What are the other ones? I want to hear...
ATKINS: It was so many of them, so rapid-fire.
STEIN: I think he made a potentially damaging admission in that clip, which was, he defined what collusion is for Trump legal team. You have to use the material that you were given. That is collusion, he said.
Now, if Mueller were to go out and find that, for instance, Roger Stone used material from, say, WikiLeaks, that would meet now the Trump legal team`s definition of collusion. And there would be nothing that Rudy Giuliani or Emmet Flood or Donald Trump could say to take back the definition that Rudy Giuliani...
MATTHEWS: Do we know if Trump used something that Stone picked up from WikiLeaks?
STEIN: We don`t, but it`s possible Mueller has.
ATKINS: But at the end of the day, it is the definition by federal prosecutors that counts. It`s not Giuliani`s definition or anybody else`s.
ATKINS: It`s whether they find something that ties up Trump or anybody in his team.
MATTHEWS: Do you get a sense that Rudy Giuliani is not up to date on the law or any law?
STEIN: No, I haven`t picked that one up yet.
MATTHEWS: He seems more like a...
STEIN: He seems to be winging it a little bit.
MATTHEWS: ... talker lawyer than one who looks at books once in a while.
STEIN: I think he`s basically admitted that, that he`s leaving a lot of technicalities to the other people on the legal team, and he`s out there throwing the punches.
And that`s fine. Fair enough. But, you know, if that`s part of your legal strategy, it says a lot about your legal strategy.
ATKINS: I think part of the strategy is telling -- giving a message that the president wants him to give, saying what the president wants him to say.
MATTHEWS: Yes. He says it as if it`s the truth. Isn`t that amazing, the way he says it? He says things which are arguable as if that`s the bottom line.
STEIN: Well, that`s what most good politicians do.
MATTHEWS: Anyway, thank you, Kimberly. I now know your professional advantage over all of us actually here, right here. Thank you, Kimberly Atkins.
So many journalists have law degrees. Explain.
ATKINS: I just -- you know, I left the law because I didn`t like dealing with trial lawyers. But here I am dealing with trial lawyers.
MATTHEWS: Right. Glad you are. Kimberly, thank you, and Sam Stein.
Up next: Michael Avenatti, the lawyer for Stormy Daniels, dropped another bombshell this morning. He says two other women may have been paid off in order to keep quiet about their affairs with Donald Trump. This is Avenatti talking. But he`s been pretty sharp on this stuff.
This is HARDBALL, where the action is.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
Michael Avenatti had been a thorn -- has been -- in Donald Trump`s side since he took on the Stormy Daniels case in March.
He sued Trump and his lawyer Michael Cohen for defamation. He made public a summary of Cohen`s confidential banking records. And he helped expose news that Michael Cohen solicited a million dollars from the government of Qatar.
Well, today, he made an explosive new allegation, telling MSNBC that he`s nearly done confirming the accounts of two women who say they had relations with Donald Trump and were paid to keep quiet. Let`s watch him.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MIKA BRZEZINSKI, CO-HOST, "MORNING JOE": In past interviews, you have told us that other women have come to you, have come forward. You said you were vetting them. Are they fully vetted? Is there any more to share?
MICHAEL AVENATTI, ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS: They`re not fully vetted, but there`s at least two that I think are on solid ground. And I think that as the evidence rolls out over the coming months, disclosures are going to be made that my client was not alone as it relates to these payments, that Michael Cohen was not a 24-hour/seven-day-a-week fixer for the sole purpose of taking care of Stormy Daniels.
ARI MELBER, MSNBC CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Two women who allege that they have agreements with Michael Cohen or Donald Trump?
BRZEZINSKI: And women who claim to have had affairs or sex with Donald Trump?
BRZEZINSKI: And these women, are they part of larger payments?
AVENATTI: I`m sorry?
BRZEZINSKI: Did they have larger payments paid to them, larger than $130,000?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Lots of information there, thanks to Mika.
This comes a day after President Trump finally acknowledged reimbursing Cohen for the $130,000 hush payment to Stormy Daniels. It was part of the financial disclosure document he had to fill out.
For more, I`m joined by Jonathan Allen, NBC News digital reporter.
Well, this story is like a fire hydrant. I`m not sure it`s as important as the Russian probe. I don`t think so, because the consequences of letting the Russians mess with our democracy and have it known worldwide we had a problem because of that, and maybe we got a different result than we were supposed to, is not good for our history.
This is a messy, sexual-related scandal, not unfamiliar to us in politics who cover it. But it now seems to be getting, growing in numbers at least. What is the significance of the fact that maybe Avenatti`s got something? He has this whole portfolio of women who apparently will have the ability to claim that they in fact have the same situations that faced his client Stormy Daniels?
JONATHAN ALLEN, NBC NEWS POLITICAL REPORTER: And that`s the right question, Chris, is, what is the significance here? You know, I don`t think anybody would be surprised to find out that Donald Trump had affairs. We know about his past marital history before he ran for president. Obviously, there have been a lot of allegations of that.
And I think he`s probably from a political standpoint in that dead girl or live boy territory that Edwards talked about. He said he -- the former governor of Louisiana said he couldn`t lose unless he was caught with a dead girl or a live boy.
I think, for Trump, just having had an affair or multiple affairs isn`t going to change the calculus with his base. However, what we are seeing with Michael Avenatti is more of the story of the White House, of President Trump and his associates unraveling.
And what we`re seeing from what he`s produced -- and there may be more of this attached to these women that he says he`s vetting and may come out soon -- what we`re finding out is a lot about Michael Cohen. And we`re not the only ones finding out Michael Cohen.
Certainly, Robert Mueller is finding out about Michael Cohen. And he appears to have been not only a fixer in the department of paying off women so that they wouldn`t tell their stories, but also somebody who was involved in Donald Trump`s business dealings around the world.
So those bank records, the things that Michael Avenatti has put out there already, the strings, the threads that are being followed by Robert Mueller, those are things that I think do affect the American public and could have an effect on President Trump`s standing both politically and legally.
Let me try this by you here, Jon. Let me try this one by you.
Suppose Michael Cohen`s job was to tidy things up before the election and to go around to whatever situations were still out there they knew about and had fixed at the time and -- or knew about, and he said, any one of these parties may have a complaint to make and may be looking for the fortune cookie right before the election to make a demand, or they did make a demand.
There could have been other people in the same time sequence as Stormy Daniels, in other words, could be seen, the payments to them, as campaign contributions or campaign payments, because they were all made to keep people quiet on the very eve of a presidential election. What then?
ALLEN: Yes, I mean, that`s the 62 million vote question or 65 million vote question.
ALLEN: I mean, yes, what you`re getting at is important.
MATTHEWS: If a string of women had come out right before an election and said they all had affairs, and all of us were paid off, I`m sorry, or we -- or they tried to pay us off, I think that would have cost him a few thousand votes, maybe 30,000 or 40,000 votes in Pennsylvania, for example, especially in the more conservative areas of the state, the middle part, you know, the T.?
You know these areas.
MATTHEWS: They`re pretty culturally conservative. They don`t know guys like Trump.
They know -- they have heard of Frank Sinatra. They have heard of people in Hollywood who behave like that, but they don`t know people like Trump, who have all these marriages and all these affairs repeatedly, according to Avenatti now.
ALLEN: Yes. And certainly during the campaign, the "Access Hollywood" tape that came out was him talking, him boasting of sexually assaulting women. But it wasn`t an action.
Here, you would have actions, hush payments paid out. The big question on campaign finance -- and, look, what Donald Trump revealed yesterday in a financial disclosure form is important. He had said it before publicly. Now it`s a matter of record.
He reimbursed Michael Cohen for the payments that Michael Cohen was making on his behalf, which suggests that there was a debt to Michael Cohen.
And if a prosecutor can tie that to the -- as you say, can tie that to a desire to help him in the election, then you`re talking about an in-kind contribution that would have had to have been reported to the Federal Election Commission.
And, by the way, the Federal Election Commission is paralyzed. It doesn`t do anything. However, a federal prosecutor could go after people involved in a federal election crime.
MATTHEWS: Wow. It`s an amazing story and it keeps developing, and rolling disclosure. We finally have the president of the United States admitting he made this payment, because he had to, because he had to fill out the form, like other elected officials.
Anyway, thank you, Jonathan Allen, for that analysis.
Up next: President Trump claims his administration has had the most successful start in history, despite the Russian investigation. But a former member of Trump`s Cabinet, a very recent member of his Cabinet, doesn`t seem to agree. He`s warning about a crisis in the current government. And he`s doing it out loud.
You`re watching HARDBALL.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: I sat in the Senate Republican lunch with the president two days ago, and you heard senator after senator tell this president he is the most successful president in their lifetimes in 16 months of tax cuts and regulatory reductions and getting to -- close to making -- making conversations if not deals with North Korea and South Korea.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
That was White House counselor Kellyanne Conway saying that Senate Republicans have told Trump he`s the most successful president in their lifetimes.
Well, today, Trump took it a step further. As we mentioned, the president tweeted that despite the disgusting, illegal and unwarranted witch hunt, we have had the most successful administrations in U.S. history by far! Sorry to the fake news media and haters but that`s the way it is.
Well, Trump is comparing himself to presidents who have made monumental achievements in their first 17 months. FDR launched the New Deal. Truman ended World War II. LBJ passed the civil rights bill. In fact, in contrast, Trump`s achievements have been the tax cut bill and his judicial nominations.
And while Trump likes to praise himself, not everyone who`s worked for him is on the same page.
That`s up next with the HARDBALL roundtable.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, remember him, made some unexpected comments about Washington in his commencement speech at VMI, the Virginia Military Institute, just yesterday. Let`s watch some of there. .
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REX TILLERSON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: As I reflect upon the state of our American democracy, I observed a growing crisis in ethics and integrity. An essential tenet of a free society, a free people is access to the truth. If our leaders seek to conceal the truth or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Let`s bring in tonight`s HARDBALL roundtable.
Annie Karni is a White House reporter for "Politico", Cornell Belcher is Democratic strategist for everybody and MSNBC political analyst, and John Brabender is a Republican strategist.
Well, my first comment, well, let me ask you all, what do you make of cabinet secretaries that only speak the truth after they`re out the door?
ANNIE KARNI, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, POLITICO: It`s what we`re seeing from a lot of Republican leaders. It`s like the Jeff Flake syndrome. Suddenly, when there`s nothing to lose anymore, they speak truth to power.
With Tillerson, it`s quite rich to hear this from him now when he was the least accessible secretary of state ever, alienated the press corps that didn`t travel with him because he wouldn`t let them.
MATTHEWS: He let one reporter, I`m not sure who she was with, Erin McPike, whatever it was. He didn`t let the main reporters go around with him ever.
CORNELL BELCHER, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: Do you think there`s a sense that like for Rex, he didn`t speak up or say anything because he wanted to be the adult in the room. We talked about early on, we`re going to have some adults in the room with Trump and Rex was one of those. He didn`t want to alienate the president early on because he thought he could keep things under control.
MATTHEWS: If he pandered to him.
JOHN BRABENDER, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Yes, here`s what I can`t -- everybody keeps reporting --
MATTHEWS: What if that worked?
BRABENDER: But why is everybody reporting he must have been talking about Trump. He was talking about Washington and he said leaders, plural. I think that that`s reasonable.
MATTHEWS: So, Trump didn`t take this personally.
BRABENDER: I don`t it was directed -- I think it was towards Washington and frankly, I think he`s probably even talking about news media and everybody else. I think what he said was an accurate statement --
MATTHEWS: Annie, what do you make of that?
BRABENDER: -- about everybody in Washington.
KARNI: I think that`s a stretch to think he wasn`t talking about Trump. I think the guy --
BRABENDER: So, why didn`t he mention his name?
KARNI: The administration --
BELCHER: He didn`t have to.
MATTHEWS: Because everybody knew who he was talking about.
KARNI: He was fired while on the toilet. I think he`s pretty angry.
BRABENDER: Then he`s a disgruntled employee.
MATTHEWS: You`re in the barrel for a minute.
BRABENDER: OK, let`s go.
MATTHEWS: One of the greatest presidents in history, in fact, the greatest 17-month presidency ever. Your thoughts?
BRABENDER: Well, look, I understand where the president is coming from. This is going to surprise you, but I`m standing up for the president on this one.
Here`s a guy that turns on the news every night, like most Americans, we hear Russia, we hear FBI, and we hear about porn stars. We don`t hear about 3.9 percent unemployment, the lowest in almost 20 years, the lowest for African-Americans and Hispanics in history. We don`t hear about ISIS going from 34,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria to decimated.
BRABENDER: We don`t hear about these negotiations would be the most fundamental change in the world if these negotiations with North Korea.
MATTHEWS: We read the paper. Every front page every day practically is North Korea. So, I don`t buy that.
BRABENDER: Well, but they`re not saying it in the positive light of what we`ve seen with three Americans released last week, the stop of the missile program.
My point is, if I was this president, I would be awfully frustrated that there`s no bandwidth for some of the good news.
KARNI: In the clip you just played of Kellyanne ticking off accomplishments, she ticked off like, you know, peace with North Korea and that hasn`t happened yet. She`s counting a win that it looks now like that summit is likely not going to happen. That`s not a win yet.
MATTHEWS: A lot of what they claim is victories like killing environmental regulations, Judge Gorsuch are not considered big wins.
BELCHER: Well, that`s because they`re not considered big ones for most Americans. I mean, if you look at what came as a big win is their tax cut which quite frankly is underwater, their big victory is --
MATTHEWS: What do you mean underwater?
BELCHER: More people disapprove of it than approve of it, right? It`s almost disillusion. You have 80 percent of Americans from NBC polling say the country is divided, right? You have a majority of Americans is thinking that America is losing respect, not gaining respect across the globe. You have a president who is consistently stuck between 44 percent and 47 percent approval.
Now, he`s going to say he`s 47 now. His numbers are improving. He has a ceiling on his approval right now. You have more Americans thinking there`s something fundamentally wrong in this country than ever before. That`s not success.
BRABENDER: His numbers are improving. Let`s talk about that. More importantly right now for the 2018 elections, the generic ballot has tightened significantly.
BELCHER: And what`s the number right now.
BRABENDER: It`s pretty much one point by a lot of people this week. It was almost three points in other places.
BELCHER: Six points.
BRABENDER: No, it`s lower than that now.
Now, wait a minute. Let`s go back to the tax cuts, 91 percent have had an increase in take home pay, 5 million --
MATTHEWS: Let`s stop. We`re not getting into this. I want to make picks. Are the Democrats going to win the House in November?
BRABENDER: I don`t think so.
MATTHEWS: You don`t think so. Cornell, you`re the pollster, who is going to win this November? Will the Democrats get the House in 23 seats they need? They got three this week already.
BELCHER: Yes, yes, yes. And actually, I`ll back this up with fact. If you go back in 2006, you had the same underlying factors there. You have a historically low approval president, you have a Congress with 70 percent disapproval of Congress and a sense that they -- fundamentally they want change.
The underlying factors here look very much like 2006. And you have more college educated white women breaking away from Republicans not because of the economy because of their anger over the culture they see going on in Washington right now.
BELCHER: It`s -- I know you like to make it about the Democrats. But you know really well, it`s an indictment on the president.
BRABENDER: That`s your message?
BELCHER: Right. Well, Republicans do run Washington, right.
BRABENDER: Let me ask you this.
BELCHER: So, you`re not going to take credit what`s going on in the country.
BRABENDER: Democrats are going to run ads saying they voted against the tax cut.
BELCHER: Some of them will.
BRABENDER: Has any yet?
BELCHER: Wait a minutes, what`s more beautiful is, how many Republicans, we saw Republicans running an ad about tax cuts in Pennsylvania for the special election but they quickly had to pull it down because, you know why, because it`s not working. Most Americans don`t feel this tax cut.
BRABENDER: I`ve had a lot of candidates already run about the tax cut and their candidates --
BELCHER: I hope you do.
BRABENDER: Democrats dislike it so much --
BELCHER: It`s not Democrats.
MATTHEWS: The roundtable is sticking with us. We`re going to start with Annie because she hasn`t had a chance yet. We`ll be right back.
Tell me something I don`t know coming up. You`re watching HARDBALL.
MATTHEWS: We`re back with the HARDBALL round table.
Annie, tell me something I don`t know.
KARNI: The leakers in the Comms Department have become the story of the Trump administration this week and there are staffers who think they might, the ax might be coming for them, and the word on the street, the betting game in Washington is, how long will Sarah Sanders last, will she push past July her one-year mark in the job. People think that might be --
MATTHEWS: Communications department is in trouble.
MATTHEWS: Oh god.
BELCHER: Just a little bit.
MATTHEWS: We know what they did. You know, he`s dying anyway. You could say, they`re dying anyway. Go ahead.
BELCHER: BlackPAC came out with a poll of African-Americans in battleground states. We talk about the econometrics improving. A majority of African-Americans think the country is actually, the economy is growing worse, not better. A plurality of them feel they`re falling behind.
It is a very different picture for them economically than what we`re seeing in the numbers.
MATTHEWS: For what group?
BELCHER: Yes. Economically, for economics.
MATTHEWS: Brabender for -- John, who is working his candidate for the Senate race in Pennsylvania.
BRABENDER: We`re going to talk about Pennsylvania. In all the early primaries, there`s been a lot more Democrats intensity higher turnout. That changed in the primary in Pennsylvania this week. There are about 850,000 more Democrats than Republicans in Pennsylvania. Yet on primary day, only about 60,000 more Democrats than Republicans actually showed up.
And so, the intensity in Pennsylvania was nowhere near for the Democrats what we saw in other states.
MATTHEWS: Will your candidate win on the immigration issue?
BRABENDER: I think it will be an important issue. Yes, and I think he can. I think in Pennsylvania -- the president won in Pennsylvania on that issue. So, there`s no reason you can`t win the Senate race.
MATTHEWS: Annie Karni, thank you. Cornell Belcher and John Brabender.
You all in your own way know what you`re talking about.
When we return, let me finish tonight with "Trump Watch".
You`re watching HARDBALL.
MATTHEWS: "Trump Watch", Thursday, May 17th, 2018.
The Giuliani-Trump strategy is now out in the open, worried that Robert Mueller produce evidence of criminal action by the president and his associates, the plan is to shift the country`s attention to another question. Not whether the president has been shown to be guilty or colluded with the Russians or obstructed justice. In fact, nothing on the substance of what Mueller ultimately reports.
What Trump and his troubadour and fellow New Yorker Giuliani want the country thinking about is the totally different question of whose side are you on? Are you for the Democrats and Mueller in the deep state or are you on the side of the man who has taken on those forces in the establishment?
This is what Giuliani and Trump are using to pollute the national conversation: attacks on the FBI, on the Justice Department stormtroopers they call them, attacks on the illegitimate Mueller investigation they call it. I remember this kind of strategy being perpetrated back in October of 1984, in the days after President Ronald Reagan blew his first debate with Democratic challenger Walter Mondale, the Reagan forces were preparing for the worst. And what if Reagan blew his second debate with Mondale? What then?
Fearing the worse, Reagan strategist Lee Atwater dreamed up what he called the great American fog machine. If it`s clear the president did badly it read, then it`s our job to obscure the result. The Atwater strategy called for two main lines of assault, you can see them today. One, attack the other guy, in this case, Mueller. Two, polarize the country, force people to decide whose side are you on, the political establishment or Trump`s?
No matter what Mueller presents, no matter how it incriminates the president and his people, don`t forget they say it`s about a battle between them and us. The old great American fog machine is now being wheeled out for use. It`s not about the truth that works. It`s about standing up for Donald Trump right or wrong.
And that`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us.
"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.
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