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Cohen partner to cooperate with prosecutors. TRANSCRIPT: 05/22/2018. Hardball with Chris Matthews

Guests: Adrienne Elrod, Ellen Meacham

Show: HARDBALL Date: May 22, 2018 Guest: Adrienne Elrod, Ellen Meacham

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Attack the prosecutors. Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.

In a showdown with the department of justice over the Russia probe, it`s been pointed out that President Trump has a strategy employed by the attorney Johnny Cochran in the trial of the century. Put the investigators on trial by tainting investigators with accusations of bias, dishonesty and worse the President is trying to shift attention on the allegations against him to the fairness of the prosecution.

The President now speaks of how the FBI used informant to talk to members of his campaign who were suspected of dealing with the Russians. He has embellished those reports to make the claim a so-called spy was used to infiltrate his campaign supposedly for quote "political purposes." In effect, he is now manufactured a pretext to undermine the whole Mueller investigation.

As a further effort in this direction, the President`s pressuring the justice department to give Congress documents about the origin of the investigation of him and his campaign. Documents that could confirm the identity of that FBI informant. Here`s the President today in the oval office.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Congress would like to see documents opened up. A lot of people are saying they had spies in my campaign. If they had spies in my campaign, that would be a disgrace to this country. That would be one of the biggest insults that anyone has even seen and it would be very illegal aside from everything else. It would make probably every political event ever look like small potatoes.

General Kelly is going to be set up a meeting between Congress and the various representatives and they will be able to open up documents, take a look and find out what happened. But if they had spies in my campaign, during my campaign for political purposes, that would be unprecedented in the history of our country.


MATTHEWS: By attacking the department of justice, the President and his allies are hoping to convince the American public that our law enforcement institutions are not credible. As Peter Baker writes in "the New York Times," the President`s strategy is to quote "contain and threat and undercut the credibility of the escalating investigations targeting him and his associates."

O.J. Simpson`s defense attorney Alan Dershowitz tells "the Times" that the President is quote "preparing for a worst case scenario in which he has to try to de-legitimate the investigation, at least among his base and make it into a red versus bluish. If he can make it a red versus bluish, he can win because Americans don`t want to see a President impeached based on partisanship.

Well, despite attempts to put aside the investigation, prosecutors continue to close in on the President`s closest allies.

"The New York Times" first reported tonight that Michael Cohen`s business partner agreed to cooperate in state or federal investigations in a plea deal with state prosecutors up in New York. As the story notes, the development could be used as leverage to pressure Mr. Cohen to work with the special counsel. That would be Robert Mueller.

I`m joined by Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent of "New York Times" and an MSNBC contributor, Kim Wehle is a former assistant U.S. attorney and Natasha Bertrand is a staff writer at "the Atlantic" and an MSNBC contributor as well.

Peter Baker, you wrote very well on the front page of that main bar piece about this whole analysis piece. It seems to me it`s the Cochran method. If your defense is tricky, if it looks bad for your client, shift the question with the jury over to what do you think of the L.A. police in the case? What do you think of Robert Mueller in this case? Focus the attention at least of Trump`s people away from whether he did collude with the Russians or whether he did obstruct justice to whether you like the justice department. If you like the federal government, and most of his people don`t like the federal government. So that`s a pretty good place to put your focus. Your thoughts?

PETER BAKER, CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: I think you are right. He is trying to shift focus away from his own conduct to that of investigators. And what happened yesterday is fascinating because for a year or so, he has been attacking the investigation from time to time putting open pressure on the justice department to either open politically charged investigations or close them.

But yesterday is the first time I think he really met with people who are running these investigations for his justice department and FBI and force them to agree to release information to Congress they did not want to release because they consider it classified and highly sensitive.

MATTHEWS: Did Nixon ever meet with Archibald Cox? Did Nixon ever sit down with Cox and his people or those people who are running that investigation back in Watergate days? I never heard of that.

BAKER: Yes. It is hard to imagine. I can`t think of a parallel quite like this. It`s very striking. It`s worth remembering that, of course, in 2016, President Clinton, former President Clinton met brief lit with attorney general Loretta Lynch on a plane, on a tarmac in Phoenix. And that was seen as being inappropriate. Because at that time, Loretta Lynch is running an investigation of his wife in the email case.

This is a far more direct intervention by a sitting President who actually is the boss right now of the justice department. The White House will tell you it is his job as president to run the executive branch and that he has every right to do that, but it certainly raises a lot of questions.

MATTHEWS: You know, Kim, I was watching the NBA game last night. I will be watching one tonight again. But the whole thing is, if you don`t like the call of the ref, whatever the call is, if it`s against you, you blame the ref. You don`t say got me. And even in Perry mason they say got me. Defendants say you were being dishonest. It is a bad call.

KIM WEHLE, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY: It`s an extremely defensive posture. But I don`t see where else he has to go because the facts and the law, he probably knows are a problem for him at this point, I mean.

And I would say the constitution really is being tested. You mentioned Watergate, after that we had a statute creating an independent counsel. Whitewater, and that was designed to insulate the investigators from this exact pressure.

MATTHEWS: Everybody, Kim, started with this. I will start with you again. It seems to me when he calls these people in to the principal`s office, you know, come on down. I want to talk to you. So he has got General Kelly calling them in, if they don`t what he wants, he is making pretty clear he might bounce them all.

WEHLE: Right.

MATTHEWS: But he is going to, in fact, get rid of Rosenstein. If you don`t what I`m telling you to do, if you don`t give me all the evidence in your case against me, so I can give it to my lawyers --

WEHLE: Right. And Rod Rosenstein is taking heat on this in terms of actually playing ball with this game. But he has an impossible decision to make. He can either agree to these demands which are problematic because you are politicizing the justice department.

MATTHEWS: Do you think they will stop?

WEHLE: Or he could say no. But do you think he will stop? I do think -- I mean.


MATTHEWS: I don`t get enough evidence to say, all right, this is a fair prosecution to me. You are right, you are the guys. I`m the bad guy. He has never going to do that.

WEHLE: All the evidence point to that. Unlike the OJ situation, we don`t have the evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the justice department at this point.

MATTHEWS: Well, former director of national intelligence James Clapper told "The New York Times," the use of an informant is a common fact with the FBI investigations. That nobody in the Obama administration was informed had anything to do with it. Plus, no one in the White House knew, certainly the President didn`t know, this is a routine thing that goes on all the time, Clapper said. We are making a huge mountain out of a mole hill. The purpose was to understand what the Russians were doing.

In a fact, Clapper suggested Trump is attacking the FBI for doing its job which was to investigate if the Russians were working with the Trump campaign.

Natasha, this is a game that seems to be working because we hear it might be with the hard right, with the Trump people. They are lapping it up saying oh, he is catching him and investigating him. He uses informants to find out what the bad guys did. That proves what? It proves he is being investigated. I don`t know how -- anyway. The weakness of minds of some minds in buying this stuff, maybe it is not the weakness. They just like Trump so much they don`t want to the hear anything about him -- Natasha.

NATASHA BERTRAND, REPORTER, THE ATLANTIC: Well, look. I mean, to a certain extent, it already has worked. The informants name has been reported by almost every major news organization since the story started being publicized --.

MATTHEWS: How does that hurt the prosecution?

BERTRAND: -- by places -- how does it hurt the prosecution?

MATTHEWS: Yes, the fact the name has got out.

BERTRAND: It doesn`t necessarily, but could hurt the informant. I mean, this could put his life in danger. This is someone who approached three different members of the Trump campaign precisely because the FBI did not want to seem like it was interfering in the election for the FBI to have opened this investigation and then have approached the Trump campaign, various members of the Trump campaign, individually just months before the election was going to take place would have looked a lot worse than this British American professor from Cambridge approaching these members of the campaign and trying to having conversations with them that seemed pretty mundane. And he really didn`t get much information out of them at all.

But the fact that his name has now been exposed could present real problems not just for him but for any other informants that the FBI or CIA might potentially need to use in the future. What is a potential informant going to say when they hear that his name can be splashed all over the front page of the biggest newspapers in the United States? So this is definitely going to have a chilling effect. And that, of course, seems to be exactly what Trump and his allies wanted to happen.

MATTHEWS: Well, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said today that Republican lawmakers on the House intelligence committee and the oversight committees will meet with justice department and intelligence officials on Thursday to go over the requested documents. She also said nobody from the White House staff would attend and that Democrats were not currently invited. Big surprise.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: No one from the White House staff will attend.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Would the White House welcome Democrats to be at that meeting?

SANDERS: I will keep you posted. My understanding is the ones they haven`t been the ones requesting this information. To my knowledge, the Democrats have not requested that information. So I would refer you back to them on why they would consider themselves randomly invited to see something they have never asked to.


MATTHEWS: Peter, you did the big thing -- think piece on this today. I wonder, what`s next? Is this moving towards an actual constitutional crisis where the President is impeaching the investigators, saying they have to right to do what they are doing and begins to threaten them with firings?

BAKER: Well, we are in a really interesting gray area here because in fact, the independent counsel as we were just talking about has gone away. That law is gone. So this is a special prosecutor. It is a different thing, a different organization. And Robert Mueller reports to the justice department, the justice department reports to the President. Under the constitution, he does have a good deal of authority to run the executive agencies.

However, as a matter of custom, as a matter of tradition and politics, certainly since Watergate, it`s been seen as inappropriate for a President to intervene in a specific law enforcement investigation. Particularly one that involves yourself or the people around you.

So you know, is he going beyond those norms? Yes, he is. What will happen as a result? We don`t know. That`s probably a political question that would ultimately be, you know, rest with the Congress if they chose to do something about it.

But at the moment, Rod Rosenstein as we were just saying, is in a really interesting and tough position, depending how far he will go in this meeting now scheduled for Thursday in terms of releasing some of this information to the Republican members of the House.

MATTHEWS: Kim, when Rosenstein gave this job to Mueller, he laid down a mandate. He said here is what I want you to investigate, the possible role including with the Russians and the whole thing. And anything arises from that. It was a broad mandate. Are they going to try to strip this back from him at some point? Is that what we are talking about here?

WEHLE: Well, I mean, there is a number of things. He could fire Rosenstein. He could fire Mueller. You could amend the regulation that essentially gives Rosenstein the power. I mean, there are as was mentioned, the President does have complete control over this in terms of the constitution, he does have authority. The problem is that the other branch of government, the political branch, Congress is asleep on the job. So it has to really go to the judiciary at this point.

MATTHEWS: Natasha, you know, what I think? I see here in laying down day after day increasingly with each day, basically the argument for firing people, for basically a Saturday night live in slow motion. They are laying down why they have the right to get rid of these people because they are no damn good. What do you think is going on here? Isn`t that they are leaning toward that or recognize they are going to be charged with something serious by September and they are afraid it is going to look terrible and they are preparing their troops to deny its importance.

BERTRAND: Well, the easier thing for them to do and much less politically risky thing and something that they have been doing for the better part of the year now is just getting their allies in the media and in Congress to undermine the investigation and the people investigating Trump for them. So instead of firing Mueller, instead of firing Rosenstein which could be politically explosive and could create problems for the President in terms of potential obstruction of justice, what they have been doing is they have been steadily chipping away at the credibility of the investigation through people like Congressman Matt Gates, for people like, you know, Congressman Jim Jordan who go on FOX and who repeat these talking points about how the FBI is filled with bad people who have made mistakes and who how the FBI needs to be cleaned out, how director Wray needs to clean house.

So this has been their strategy. And whether or not it reaches a new level where they decide to actually take the next step and fire Rosenstein, we haven`t seen that yet. There was chatter a couple months ago that Trump was about to take that step. But even at their most fraught period of their relationship, it doesn`t seem Trump is willing to pull that trigger.

So it seems like the strategy for now, and it`s interesting when Ty Cobb and John Dowd, Trump`s former lawyers were around him, the strategy seemed to be, well, Trump really has nothing to hide. So why not sit down with Mueller.

Now, the strategy seems to be since Giuliani has come on, well, Trump actually is in big legal jeopardy here. So we need to make sure that if Mueller does find anything or if we refuse to sit down with Mueller, then the credibility of the entire investigation is going to be in question anyway.

MATTHEWS: You know, Giuliani has been operating almost not quite as brilliantly as Johnny Cochran but he has focused all the attention on weaknesses or what he argues are weaknesses in the investigation.

Anyway, meanwhile, it`s been 16 months since the U.S. intelligence committee or community assesses the Russian -- that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections specifically to help Trump. There are 17 agencies that did that.

However, secretary of homeland security, now, you would think she would know this. Kirstjen Nielsen today said that she is unfamiliar with that conclusion by the 17 agencies. Here she is.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you have any reason to doubt the January 2017 intelligence community assessment that said it was Putin who tried to meddle in this election to help President Trump win?

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: I do not believe that I have seen that conclusion. What I do --?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With the January 2017 assessment?

NIELSEN: That the specific intent is to help President Trump win. I`m not aware of that. But I do generally have no reason to doubt any intelligence assessment.


MATTHEWS: What is that? Peter Baker, this is the person, a cabinet minister responsible for defending this country against foreign interference, intrusion, attack, whatever, here at home. It is the old civil defense effort with a new name, homeland security. And this person is saying she doesn`t believe or know about, in fact, hadn`t heard that 17 intelligence agencies had concluded that the Russians interfered in our elections in 2016. How could she not have learned or is she afraid to say it? I don`t know how to interpret this.

BAKER: Yes, it`s a surprising thing to say. She is --

MATTHEWS: OK. We just lost him. Let me go to Kim on this. How do you explain the cabinet --? We have seen this sycophancy around the table of oval office meetings, rather cabinet meetings, where people are afraid to say anything with the president. Is that person being disloyal? Did they actually say that there`s a Russian collusion here?

WEHLE: Right. Who wants a pink slip on twitter the next day? On the other hand, we did have the Russians interfere in our elections. It`s extremely, extremely serious stuff. And that`s what the focus should be and that`s what Mueller is looking at.

MATTHEWS: Well, anyway, thank you Peter Baker. We lost him, but I want to thank him. Kim Wehle, as always. And Natasha Bertrand, you are all great.

Coming up, President Trump says his highly anticipated summit with North Korea next month might not happen, after all. That`s a big blow for the President, and maybe everybody who had a lot riding on cutting a deal with Kim Jong-un. Can Trump salvage the summit?

Plus, with so many people using the Trump election to their own personal advantage like some of these cabinet people, Democrats are hoping to make a campaign issue out of that calling them a culture of corruption.

And Donald Trump railed against Hillary Clinton`s emails. Remember that? But now that he is in the White House, he is using a cell phone that isn`t design to shows communications leaving him vulnerable to hacking or surveillance. And aides say he doesn`t want to use -- he doesn`t want to change phones because of the inconvenient. I heard that one before.

Finally, let me finish tonight with Trump watch. This is big tonight. It is about the kind of offense they are running in it the Trump operation.

This is HARDBALL where the action is.


MATTHEWS: Voters are headed to the polls tonight in four southern states. And once again it is setting up to be a big night for Democratic women. Polls have just closed in Georgia where two women are vying to be the Democratic nominee for governor. Stacey Abrams is running on a solid (ph) progressive platform and is backed which women`s groups like Emily`s list as well as by Senator Bernie Sanders. If elected she would be the first black female governor in history.

Her opponent another Stacey, Stacey Evans is running on a more moderate track arguing that Democrats should be courting centrist Republicans and independents in the general election.

Anyway, primaries are also taking place in Kentucky and Arkansas today. Arkansas while Texas voters are settling several runoff elections.

We will be right back.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The big topic will be Singapore and the meeting. See what happens, whether or not it happens. If it does, that will be great. It would be a great thing for North Korea. And if it doesn`t, that`s OK, too. Whatever it is, it is.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was President Trump in his meeting today with South Korea`s president. According to Trump, next month` planned summit in Singapore with North Korea`s leader, Kim Jong-un, may be in jeopardy.


TRUMP: We are working on something. And there`s a chance that it will work out. There`s a chance, there`s very substantial chance that it won`t work out.

I don`t want to waste a lot of time, and I`m sure he doesn`t want to waste a lot of time. So, there`s a very substantial chance that it won`t work out. And that`s OK. That doesn`t mean it won`t work out over a period of time. But it may not work out for June 12. But there`s a good chance that we will have the meeting.


MATTHEWS: Well, despite that concession, Trump expressed confidence that Kim Jong-un was serious about denuclearization.

And last week, North Korea threatened to pull out of the meeting if the United States insisted on unilateral nuclear abandoning. Watch that word unilateral.

Today, President Trump said denuclearization must take place, but -- I`m sorry -- excuse me -- but acknowledged it could come over time.


TRUMP: All in one would be nice, I can tell you. I`m not going to go beyond that. It would certainly be better if it were all in one. Does it have to be? I don`t think I want to totally commit myself. But all in one would be a lot better, or at least, for physical reasons, over a very short period of time.

You do have some physical reasons that it may not be able to do exactly that. So, for physical reasons, over a short period of time. Essentially, that would be all in one.


MATTHEWS: For more, I`m joined by Ashley Parker, White House reporter for "The Washington Post," and Eugene Robinson, a columnist with "The Post." Both are MSNBC contributors.

Gene, I saw you laughing at his sort of explanation there.


MATTHEWS: It is -- it depends what your definition of is, is. It goes back to Bill.


MATTHEWS: And I was checking. I had somebody check. But I could do it myself any time I wanted to. It was a two-year set of discussions between Kim Jong-un`s grandfather and us.


MATTHEWS: In the so-called ending of the Korean War, which took two years, until Ike got elected. Is that what they`re talking about, dragging us into a two sides of the table in Pyongyang somewhere forever, Panmunjom?

ROBINSON: It is unimaginable to me -- it is unimaginable to me that North Korea would agree to do anything without some sort of protracted negotiation process, whatever.

It`s also unimaginable to me they will give up all of their nuclear weapons, because, why would they? They have -- they worked for years, for decades.


MATTHEWS: They like the Libya model.

ROBINSON: They don`t like the Libyan model. They know what happened to Moammar Gadhafi. They don`t like that model.

And so, after all this money, all this research, all this effort to make nuclear weapons, and to be treated like a nuclear power, even though they`re not acknowledged to be one, are they going to give that up, you know, all the way? I don`t think so. I just don`t think so.

Now, I do think it`s good if Kim and President Trump talk, because I think talking is better than shooting. But I don`t think they`re going to give up all their nukes.

MATTHEWS: Same question to you.

When you look at the reporting -- maybe you can`t report this out. You have got to think this through and project it. But the history is right. The history is, they don`t do anything in an hour or a day. And Trump`s over there. He thinks in minutes.

ASHLEY PARKER, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, that`s exactly right.

And when you talked to White House officials initially, they sort of said, perhaps optimistically, or, quite frankly, optimistically, this isn`t going to be like other times. This isn`t going to be we start talking and there`s concessions and there`s easing of sanctions. There is going to be our maximum pressure campaign, until we get what we want.

Now, you talk to them this week, in light of recent news, and they have basically become, you could say pessimistic, you could say skeptical, or you could say realists, which is they understand that Kim has reverted to his usual playbook.

And it may not be that different than his father or grandfather.

MATTHEWS: Well, does the president know, President Trump know that he`s sitting on a dunking chair, basically? Once he sits in that seat with that guy, that guy can play every game he wants to. And I don`t know how Trump how be could humiliated rather quickly in Singapore.

ROBINSON: I think this is dawning on him, because what President Trump did was raise expectations to really a ridiculous level.

It was like, I`m just going to go over there, we`re going to talk. They`re going to get rid of all their nukes and it`s going to be -- and then we`re going to make them rich. And it`s going to...


ROBINSON: And so now the tone is that, well, you know, because he has to. What negotiating leverage does he have if Kim knows that he`s so desperate for a deal?

MATTHEWS: I`m hearing one word, unilateral. I`m hearing no unilateral. So, what do they want from us, Ashley?

PARKER: What do the North Koreans the...

MATTHEWS: What do they want from us and South Korea? Do they want to get -- take our umbrella away from South Korea, take our troops away, which are basically the trip wire, Cold War style? We keep our troops there, so if they attack our troops, we bring in the big bombs.

We always know that`s how it works. Is that what they want us to do, clear out of the DMZ, 38th Parallel? Is that what he is going to pull on us the first day?

PARKER: The thing that is unclear is they`re what they actually want from us and then what they`re sort of currently demanding, and some of that, what they`re demanding is stuff for a show of force in their own country or for leverage or to have an excuse when this falls apart.

But it seems like a lot of demands, at least as the White House views them, are, whether they want it or not, they`re absolutely unrealistic and simply not going to happen.

MATTHEWS: I just look at that rigid leader. If you wink the wrong way, if you don`t laugh in unison, if you do anything in that country that isn`t regimental, you`re dead.

You get some kind of poison in your face. He kills uncles. He kills everybody. And the idea he`s going in and do a rock `n` roll session and let`s see what happens with Trump is insane.


MATTHEWS: He`s not a rock `n` roller. He`s not Anwar Sadat. He`s not a guy who will even -- Begin would actually think there.

I don`t think he`s going to change his mind.

ROBINSON: Well, as far as we know -- and, frankly, we know less than we would like to know about North Korea.

But everybody I know who knows about that place says that`s not how North Korea works. There is a whole apparatus of officials and apparatchiks around Kim, the generals, these high-ranking people who live pretty good lives and who have power, and who are bought into this crazy system, and who are not going to give it up with just -- just on a whim.


MATTHEWS: They`re not going to say to the president, great idea. Let`s go with that one. Let`s try that -- put that up the flag and see if that works. I just don`t see this happening.


MATTHEWS: I wish it would.

ROBINSON: So, even if he tried to give it up, I`m not sure he would be allowed to.

MATTHEWS: I go back to, Trump thinks in seconds, mini-seconds, nanoseconds, tweets.

These people -- Asians do, as a general culture rule, think much more long- term than we do, a long term. They`re thinking about where they are going to be in 20, 30 years. This guy is 30-something.

ROBINSON: Right. He`s going to be there for decades.

MATTHEWS: He`s planning a long time.

PARKER: And Trump just wants the deal. He just wants the win. That`s what he always wants.


Ashley, it`s great reading every day. And, Gene, of course, the great Gene. I mean it. I`m not always sarcastic.

Up next: It`s becoming increasingly clear that many are using Trump`s election to their personal advantage, like their lifestyle advantages, people in these Cabinet positions flying first-class, et cetera, et cetera. And Democrats are looking to make that so-called culture of corruption a big focus in this year`s midterm elections.

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.



TRUMP: We`re going to drain the swamp of corruption.


TRUMP: And you`re right about the swamp. Say it again.


TRUMP: Right? You better believe it. Boy, that is...

AUDIENCE: Drain the swamp! Drain the swamp! Drain the swamp!

TRUMP: Drain the swamp. We`re going to drain the swamp of Washington. We`re going to have fun doing it. And we`re all doing it together.



MATTHEWS: Jimmy Two Times. Drain the swamp, drain the swamp.


Donald Trump promised to drain the swamp. But that`s proved to be more of a talking point than actual policy. His administration has been under siege with the kind of ethical scandals Trump was supposed to put an end to.

His EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, is currently the subject of 14 ongoing probes. His White House counselor, Kellyanne Conway, was rebuked by the Office of Government Ethics for promoting Ivanka Trump products from the White House.

And it`s not just his staff. His longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen reportedly took money from a firm tied to a Russian oligarch. And according to the Associated Press, A top fund-raiser for Trump, Elliott Broidy, tried to cash in on his access with the president by pursuing contracts with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to influence the administration.

But will any of this matter to the voters? The Democrats are betting it will, because, yesterday, they rolled out a campaign platform that will take aim at corruption and pay-to-play politics in this administration.

We will get to that next with the HARDBALL Roundtable.



REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: The American people are confronted with one of the most compromised, corrupt administrations in history.

Instead of delivering on his promise to drain the swamp, President Trump has become the swamp.

REP. CHERI BUSTOS (D), ILLINOIS: Enough of Paul Ryan, enough of Mitch McConnell turning a blind eye to corruption, not questioning what`s going on here. Enough of the president turning America into a nation of the rich, by the powerful, and for the lobbyists.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Illinois Democrat Cheri Bustos this week calling out the Trump administration for what they say is a culture of corruption.

It`s part of the Democratic messaging strategy heading into the midterm elections this November.

Let`s bring in the HARDBALL Roundtable to have a verdict on this.

Michael Steele, former RNC chairman and an MSNBC political analyst, Adrienne Elrod, Democratic strategist and a former senior aide with Hillary for America, and Yamiche Alcindor, a straight news reporter, White House correspondent for "PBS NewsHour" and an MSNBC political contributor.

You`re last. These pols are going to go in here first.


MATTHEWS: If you have a party message, do you have to announce it? Don`t people always know where Trump stands? You usually sort of know where Reagan stood. He didn`t have to have a message. You knew where he was.

And you knew where -- you know where Bernie stands. He doesn`t have to put a message board up. You know where Bernie stands.

Is it smart for a party to list its five-point crime program or something like that?


And the value of it is not for the folks who look and talk about it on television, but for that base out there that reinforces for them that, we`re out here, about something, and we`re going to push something. It gives them something about at the grassroots level, to go out into the community when they`re running into neighbors and friends and say, hey, these are at least one or two things that we think are important, which is why we`re -- want you to come out and vote.

So, it`s really more for beginning to feed that ultimate narrative that you want to commit to.

MATTHEWS: So, it`s grassroots, ultimately.

STEELE: It`s all about the grassroots.

But here`s the problem I think Democrats have, is that...

MATTHEWS: Everything before the word but doesn`t matter in Washington.



MATTHEWS: Once you get to the but, here it comes.


MATTHEWS: Here it comes.

STEELE: It`s got to connect. It`s got to connect. And it`s got to be something that those activists feel that they can go out and fight for to the nth degree.


Follow up here, Andrea.

ELROD: Adrienne.

MATTHEWS: Adrienne. Great name. I should know it.


MATTHEWS: Adrienne, do you think the average Democrat out there, whatever their background, middle-class, working-class, whatever, cares about ethics in Washington? Because that`s a big part of this new message.

ELROD: You know, I think that`s a good question.

I do think that they care about when their taxpayer dollars are being abused by the very people who they elected to serve them.

MATTHEWS: You mean like the EPA director.

ELROD: Exactly. Exactly.

And that is where this culture of corruption comes into play. You may remember, Chris, in 2005-2006, that cycle, when that`s what we ran on as Democrats. And it won. We won. We took back the House.

MATTHEWS: So, he goes out there and raises the salaries of his top people beyond the level that Congress are paid, and he does it on his own, against the rules. Right?

ELROD: Yes. Yes. Exactly. And, like, God, the list goes on and on and on about his abuses.


MATTHEWS: He claims he`s going to somewhere in North Africa, but he was really on his way to Paris. And that was...


ELROD: Yes, looking for free trips...


MATTHEWS: Yamiche, I have been in politics for so long watching it, being in it.

And I have seen so many junkets and so many people that just -- they love the perks. And since when is one party better than the other is my big question?

YAMICHE ALCINDOR, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Well, the Democrats are now on their something -- at least third rollout of a message to try to take back the party from the Republicans, and yet they still don`t really have the clear path, the clear path to passion that is going to be key for them taking back all of these seats and really taking back control of the culture of America.

I think that so many people now are kind of ready to fight Trump like Trump. They want to argue about things. They want to say -- they want to basically start name-calling, when the Democrats are itching to try to have an actual message.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you a question.

Why do Republicans -- are so good at memorizing the crap that Trump throws out? He says something, it echoes right back from the peeps out there? They start -- anything about the corrupt -- he will say that the investigation is corrupt. And they will start saying the investigation is corrupt.

Why don`t the Democrats be as good an echo chamber, because they don`t. Democrats seem a little more skeptical. I don`t know. Aren`t they?


MATTHEWS: Republicans fall in line.

STEELE: Well, they do. Republicans have the discipline of the message. And you see it from the top all the way down. There`s no doubt about that. It`s something that we used very effectively in 2010. You know, we started with the "Fire Pelosi" concept and it gravitated to a lot of other things.

MATTHEWS: That`s Republican stuff.

STEELE: Right, beyond.

MATTHEWS: You know, you`re supposed to play golf. They play golf. You`re supposed to read "The Wall Street Journal". They read them. You`re suppose to watch Fox. They don`t make up their own dance steps these guys. They do what they`re told.

STEELE: They do what they do. They`re very disciplined, yes.

MATTHEWS: Speak for the Democrats, Adrienne.

ADRIENNE ELROD, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: No. Look, I think, first of all, we got to keep in mind here that it`s really hard to break through in this media cycle that`s chaotic media cycle will Trump is perpetuating here. So, given that factor and combined with the fact that Democrats don`t have any control right now in terms of the House and the Senate, it is slightly difficult to get our message out.

But I actually happen to be one of the people who believe that the better deal message than Schumer and Pelosi are touting works and makes a lot of sense to me. And I think that --

MATTHEWS: OK, what`s the key thing you hope will ring out there? What`s the couple phrases that you think on a ring with the Democratic voters between now and November, Adrienne?

ELROD: Well, I think one of the things that is important on the better deal is that the economy is doing relatively well right now, right? So, Democrats can`t necessarily run only on the economy. That can`t be the only message.

So, this is basically saying, yes, maybe the economy is doing OK, but we want to raise wages, we want to create better jobs. We want to help people --

MATTHEWS: How do you raise wages in the private sector?

ELROD: You work on legislation that will allow private sector companies to --

MATTHEWS: Could that be?

ELROD: Well, that`s what we`re going to see Schumer and Pelosi unveil in the next few months.

MATTHEWS: I`m just wondering how do you raise wages in the private sector. How do you do that? I`m not --


ELROD: I`m not an economist.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: (INAUDIBLE) reporter. After the 2016 election, the first thing Democrats told me was that they were not going to run against Trump again. We could not. The message has to be bigger than we`re not Trump. They did that with Clinton and they lost.

The better deal sounds like better than Trump. And that`s going to be problematic. And then you have -- there`s all this talk about establishment Democrats, but Bernie Sanders group Our Revolution, there is that is political article that really laid out that there are people resigning, the president running it is trying to install --

MATTHEWS: What group is that?

ALCINDOR: It`s called our revolution. And the president who was running it, the part of the article said that she was trying to install a consulted that had praised President Trump on Fox TV. So, there were a lot of Bernie Sanders progressives in that group who said we don`t want this person in our organization. So, they have some stuff to deal with, as well. So, I think that the bottom line is the Democrats have to figure out how to do something other than run against Trump.

MATTHEWS: What about Bernie, what about -- just quickly, Adrienne, you`re here for that, what about the Bernie, plan? I mean, it sounds a little bit dreamy. But basically health care for all the whole time, from birth to grave. Medicare for life. Really a big break on college tuitions. You wouldn`t have debt anymore.

These are really dreamy ideas. But what happened to that? Democrats are not pushing that stuff anymore, are they?

ELROD: Yes, because I mean, look, this is part of the issue we have in the Democratic Party is that we have -- we all agree on the same philosophies but we have different ways of getting there.


ELROD: And this is, of course, as you remember very well in the primary, an issue that especially on free college tuition that Hillary and Bernie significantly disagreed on. She didn`t think that every single person in America, i.e. Ivanka Trump should have access to a free college education. And he did.

So, Again, these are fissures in our party that will get worked out. But there are plenty of diverse --

MATTHEWS: A good debate. Thank you. The roundtable is sticking with us.

And up next, Donald Trump used to argue Hillary Clinton`s personal e-mail server put U.S. security at risk. And now that he`s president, he`s reportedly rejected measures to secure his own cell phone, saying it`s too inconvenient to do that.

You`re watching HARDBALL.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We know Hillary can`t be trusted -- we`ve learned that -- with America`s security. You take a look at her e-mail situation. Can we trust her with our security?

Her server was easily hacked by foreign governments. Our enemies probably know every single one of them. So, they probably now have a blackmail file over someone who wants to be the president of the United States.


MATTHEWS: Well, Trump ought to know about what our enemies know. Anyway, he spent -- Donald Trump spent months as you heard railing against Hillary Clinton for use of a private email server. He insisted that she had put all of America in danger and was sure that China had hacked her server.

Well, her defense for the server, it was convenient she said.

Well, today, two senior administration aides are telling "Politico" that President Trump, quote, uses a White House cell phone that isn`t equipped with sophisticated security features designed to shield his communications because, catch this, the president thinks it`s, quote, too inconvenient.

I`m back with the roundtable.


ALCINDOR: I think this is something that it will be a big deal when it actually can stick to President Trump. He`s gotten away with it. And he has this idea and this persona that he`s a freewheeling person. His supporters kind of inspect from him. They think that he`s closer to them when he`s using an unsecured cellphone.

MATTHEWS: So the rules don`t apply?

ELROD: Yes, the hypocrisy is ridiculous, right? This is where the whole "lock her up" chant started.


ELROD: The media covered Hillary Clinton`s e-mail server for 20 months. I guarantee you in two days from now, we`re not going to be talking about this.

MATTHEWS: You know, Michael, I`m going to leave the big question to you.


MATTHEWS: The fairness issue, the fairness doctrine.


MATTHEWS: If Barack Obama had had a flirtation with somebody in the White House, it would have been scandalous.


MATTHEWS: They would have been trying to hang him. If Hillary had whisper to Kislyak in a Democratic if Kislyak had shown up at a Democratic convention, it would have been high treason.

How does Trump get away with everything?

STEELE: He gets away with it because he throws a lot of stuff on the wall at the same time. So when you`re focusing on that one thing at the moment, here`s seven other things now you need to talk about and focus on. It diminishes the impact and value of that thing. This is another good example of it. This is a "don`t do as I say, don`t do as I do, do as I say kind of environment".

And the question is a simple one. I`d like to hear someone ask in the White House press briefing, so what was so inconvenient about having the White House give you a phone with security on it? How are you inconvenienced by that?

It`s a very simple question. Yet, the obvious stuff is not asked.



STEELE: I think in many respects, that`s how they get away with it.

MATTHEWS: Yamiche?

ALCINDOR: I also think that we cannot discount the fact the way that people first interacted with Donald Trump was through a reality TV show. A lot of supporters told me he was a wildcard. That they understood they were dealing with someone who wasn`t going to be a politician.

But even when I say politician, I mean that they weren`t -- he wasn`t going to be cautious. He wasn`t going to be maybe as secure as some other people. They weren`t expecting a lot of same things that we might expect from President Hillary Clinton. So, as a result he gets away it, because they`re like, you know, it`s Donald Trump having fun on his cell phone, he`s tweeting while watching Animal Channel. That`s who elected.

STEELE: And maybe this is an easier way to communicate with the Russians.

MATTHEWS: Thank you, Michael Steele Republican.

Anyway, Adrienne Elrod, thank you, and Yamiche Alcindor.

Up next, the year before his run for president, Bobby Kennedy took a trip to the Mississippi delta, there he is. A new book takes a look at this visit and how its impact is still being felt.

You`re watching HARDBALL.



ROBERT KENNEDY, FORMER U.S. SENATOR: I would hope now that the California primary is finished, now that these primaries are over, that we could now concentrate on having a dialogue or a debate, I hope, between the vice president and perhaps myself on what direction we want to go in the United States. What we are going to do in the rural areas of our country, what we`re going to do for those who is still suffer within the United States from hunger.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was Robert Kennedy on the importance of addressing hunger and poverty. That was his victory speech after winning the Democratic primary in California in 1968. A few minutes later, he was shot and killed. In her new book "Delta Epiphany," Robert F. Kennedy in Mississippi, Ellen Meacham writes he wanted to see poverty for himself. What he found motivated him to work for change in ways that still reverberate today both in current in the lives of those he encountered.

I`m joined right now by the author, Ellen Meacham.

A beautiful book, Ellen. What made Bobby Kennedy go down to part of the country, the poor part of Mississippi, the delta that nobody else a big shot like him had bothered to?

ELLEN MEACHAM, AUTHOR, "DELTA EPIPHANY": Well, thanks, Chris, for having me on. Robert Kennedy went down there as part of a Senate subcommittee investigation. They were having some hearings about reauthorizing some of the war on poverty programs about two and a half years in.

And one thing I think is different than when we look back on it, sometimes people think it`s like celebrities do now which is not a bad thing but call attention to -- use their celebrity to call attention to a problem but he was actually there almost on a fact finding mission. The reporter Daniel Shore who -- a CBS reporter who did the report that night -- caught him an inspector general.

What was especially significant to me was that he made unscheduled stops. He was a rich man`s son and he was used to having people tell him what they wanted him to see and wanted him to do, but he would say let`s stop here and let`s find out. He would ask questions to mothers about how they fed their children, what did they have in their refrigerator, how were the poverty programs working.

He got really annoyed with an official in Greenville who didn`t have numbers on how many people could actually get jobs. So, he was going there to try to find the truth of the matter and try to find out what was actually going on.

MATTHEWS: And one thing that was going on I understand was people didn`t have enough money to buy food stamps. And he -- the Senate didn`t seem to understand that, that people didn`t have the few cents you might need for a meal. They didn`t have it.

And so, you couldn`t run based on phoning 50 cents or whatever for a meal because they couldn`t afford the 50 cents. And that`s the part of the country that was that dirt poor.

MEACHAM: That`s right. It was a particularly difficult time. There were thousands of people had been thrown out of work in about 18 months because after mechanization and changes in farming and they couldn`t afford food stamps. So, when Robert Kennedy went back to tell people in Washington he thought it would be -- he wasn`t naive, but he thought it would be a pretty simple proposition.

And the folks in Washington said, oh, there`s nobody in America that doesn`t have income. There`s nobody who can`t afford that. And he looked at them and said I met them yesterday.

MATTHEWS: Yes. He also told his family about what he had seen. That was amazing when he told the family around the table, you don`t know how well off you are.

Anyway, Ellen Meacham, you did a service. Here`s the book. I`m holding it up. It`s a beautiful book about this one moment where we learned about how bad it was even in this country.

Anyway, thank you. It`s called "Delta Epiphany," Robert F. Kennedy in Mississippi.

And when we return, let me finish tonight with "Trump Watch". He`s not going to like this one. You`re watching HARDBALL.


MATTHEWS: Trump Watch, Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018.

I think a lot of us are thinking the same thing these days about what Trump and his lawyers are up to. Giuliani and the others are doing pretty much the same thing that O.J. Simpson attorney Johnny Cochran and the rest of his dream team did in the greatest murder trial of the century -- focus attention away from the defendant, the question of his actual innocence or guilt, shift attention to questions, any will do, about the conduct of the investigation.

You can see how this works. We`ve been there before in that trial that went on and on without getting back to the question of offering O.J.`s actual innocence or guilt. There are people in this country who want very much to find out whether the Donald Trump and his campaign colluded with the Russians and there are people who very much do not want anyone to find that out.

And this is precisely what the last several days distraction has been about. During that trial of the century, the jury was given week after week of testimony that questioned police conduct and police attitudes while the questions of the defendant`s guilt or innocence was put aside. And people want to know if this president is guilt of colluding with foreign powers and those that want to focus on anything but that keeps the national jury from thinking about that may or may have not gone on between the Russians and Trump`s people, what Trump himself knew about all this, and when he knew it.

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

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.


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