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Trump met Russians after firing Comey. TRANSCRIPT: 05/31/2018. Hardball with Chris Matthews

Guests: Michael Steel, Seth Waxman, Leonard Goodman, Susan Page, Edward-Isaac Dovere

Show: HARDBALL Date: May 31, 2018 Guest: Michael Steel, Seth Waxman, Leonard Goodman, Susan Page, Edward-Isaac Dovere

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Obstructer-in-chief. Let's play HARDBALL.

Good evening. I'm Chris Matthews in Washington.

With the Russian investigation speeding forward now, there are new signs today that President Trump may face the most immediate risk when it comes to potential obstruction of justice. Tonight, Axios is now reporting that Trump made multiple attempts to persuade attorney general Jeff Sessions to retake command of the Russian investigation.

After Sessions recused himself in March of last year, President Trump pressured him to reclaim control of it at least four separate occasions three times in person and once over the phone. According to Axios, the sustained pressure made several officials uncomfortable because they viewed it as improper and worried that it could be politically and legally problematic.

As "The New York Times" reported this week, Trump's intervention with the attorney general is a key line of inquiry for the special counsel. The central question in the obstruction prescribe is why Trump fired the man investigating his campaign, former FBI director James Comey.

Last night, "The New York Times" revealed that former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe took confidential notes about the circumstances of Comey's firing. According to McCabe's account, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein quote "said the President originally asked him to reference Russia in his memo which was used to justify Comey's dismissal. The "Times" reports to Mr. McCabe that seemed like possible evidence that Mr. Comey's firing was actually related to the FBI's investigation into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia.

Well today, the President tried to deny Russia played any part in his decision to fire Comey. Quote "not that it matters, but I never fired James Comey because of Russia. The corrupt mainstream media loves to keep pushing that narrative but they know it's not true."

However, there's now a preponderance of evidence out there showing just the opposite. One day after firing Comey, the President held an oval office meeting with Russian diplomats including some of the people under scrutiny by the FBI. In that meeting Trump described Comey as a nut-job and told the Russians I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off.

Well, then the next day he made this stunning public admission.


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


MATTHEWS: This Russia thing. Just this month, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani also acknowledged that Comey was fired over the Russia investigation because Comey wouldn't follow Trump's directive to publicly clear him. Here is Rudy.


RUDY GIULIANI, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S LAWYER: He fired Comey because Comey would not among other things, say that he wasn't a target of the investigation. He is entitled to that. Hillary Clinton got that. And he couldn't get that.


MATTHEWS: Well, joining me right now is Julia Ansley, national security and justice reporter for NBC News, Shannon Pettypiece a White House reporter with Bloomberg News and Michael Schmidt is the author of that report in the "New York Times" and MSNBC national security analyst.

Michael, put it in perspective. This constant pressure that is now being reported by your organization, by the "New York Times" that President Trump constantly kept pushing Mr. Jeff Sessions, the attorney general he had appointed to pull back on his recusal, to take over command of the investigation because he wanted his guy prosecuting him or not prosecuting him. How does it fit?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT, REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: To the President, the recusal is the original sin here. If he had not recused himself, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, never would have appointed Mueller. And Trump understands obviously the cloud that has cast over his administration. He holds Sessions directly responsible for this.

And while we are learning new things about what went on behind the scenes, the President has been very open about this in public. In July he said to us that he never would have made Sessions his attorney general if he knew he was going to recuse himself. What we are learning about now is that the President continued to pressure him to do that, to actually go back on that decision and take control of the investigation.

The President has long wanted someone loyal to him to be in charge of this. He sees the person that runs the justice department as someone that should it be like a personal lawyer to him. And should it be extremely loyal.

MATTHEWS: Julia, did the President think that Rosenstein -- rather Jeff Sessions would do his bidding? Did he think he would be like his Roy Cohn, the fixer?

JULIA AINSLEY, NBC NEWS NATIONAL SECURITY AND JUSTICE REPORTER: This is just a different relationship between the President and Jeff Sessions versus Rod Rosenstein. I mean, yes, he appointed those, but he seize Rod Rosenstein has someone who served under the Obama administration.

MATTHEWS: A Democrat.

AINSLEY: Well, even though he also served under the Bush administration. He sees Sessions as someone who not only pushes the edge of conservative politics but also someone who is one of his first major name endorsers on the campaign trail. He really saw that this as his guy he was putting in the justice department. And if you are someone like Donald Trump who commands loyalty and might be entering the presidency with fears over what the intelligence community or the justice department could get on you, that position is key. And so it may have even factored into his decision to appoint Jeff Sessions to that spot and when he recused himself, he is putting blame there.

But I will say, I think he is putting the blame on the recusal when the original sin is firing Comey. He doesn't want to blame himself.

MATTHEWS: Let me go on to this, Shannon. Here is the problem that everybody watching here to be in the show understands. Trump is not willing to tell the truth. He is willing to say it to the Russians. He is willing to tell it for some reason to Lester Holt on NBC and when he is forced to really acknowledge the importance of the fact that he fire this had guy Comey over the Russia investigation, he denies it today. He is up to that today.


MATTHEWS: Can he erase the past?

SHANNON PETTYPIECE, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, BLOOMBERG NEWS: Well, he said so many things around this that I think you can't believe anything that comes out of his mind, out of his mouth, I'm sorry. What Mueller has which will help in his investigation in determining the intent is the interviews he has done and he has interviewed dozens of White House officials.

He has interviewed multiple people in the general counsel's office. He had interviewed Rosenstein. He has interviewed Sessions. He has their notes, any notes that were taken either by people who are in the room as note takers or by people who were the principals. So that's what he can use to figure out what the President's intent was. Regardless of what the President said publicly or on twitter or in an interview with Lester Holt.

And then of course, potentially he would have an interview with the President where he could ask the President directly. But of course, then you go back to the issue of the President's credibility.

AINSLEY: I mean, all of that is true. He has, you know, a wealth of evidence now. But I don't think we can discount the interview. Obviously, you are not discounting interview. But what is important about it is that it really -- it was contemporaneous who is right around the time where Comey was fired. It was right around the time he was meeting with Russians in the oval office and talking how Comey was a nut-job. It really gives -- .

MATTHEWS: This is in plain sighting with Lester Holt.

AINSLEY: Yes. And it gives a window into his frame of mind at that time, not the polished Trump that could have --.

MATTHEWS: Well, late last night -- excuse, last night, the President, President Trump launched yet another attack on attorney general Jeff Sessions over his decision to recuse himself from the Russian investigation. And in doing so, the President quoted Washington lawyer Joe diGenova and tweet saying quote "the recusal of Jeff Sessions was and an unforced betrayal of the President of the United States.

Michael, I'm looking at this thing and you can lead off. And I want all three of you to talk about it. It seems to me like an old Polaroid film, you are watching this case or obstruction develop right in front of us. It's hard to believe it's not going to be centered on the firing of Comey or backed up by this constant effort to try to un-recuse Mr. Sessions. It seems like he's fixated on this.

And the only reason he is denying it today that he fired Comey over the Russia thing, the only reason he is denying is like the Watergate people, they didn't know they were obstructing justice until they were told they were obstructing justice. And then they realized they are committing felonies potentially here and they deny it. It seems like Trump is only covering his tracks because he has been informed now that you are committing a crime all the time every time you pull this number.

SCHMIDT: Well, I'm not sure about that because the President knew as far as the middle of last summer that there was an obstruction investigation. As these reports have come out about what he did with Sessions, it shows that he at least discussed it into the end of last year. So discussing it beyond that point.

MATTHEWS: Why did he tell Lester I did it because of Russia?

SCHMIDT: You would have to ask him. I mean, I think the questions to the Russians in the oval office are even more to the point, talking about how the pressure was relieved on him because of that. And that is something that the Mueller has a transcript of. These are -- the White House has handed over many different documents related to the questions of obstruction in this case, I mean, the transcript of the conversation there.

I mean, the interesting thing about Sessions is the fact that he has hung on as long as he has. Congressional Republicans especially Republicans in the Senate have said they will not confirm another attorney general. They rallied to Sessions' side when Trump tried to get him to resign in July and he is still around as is Rosenstein. And the fact that Sessions has recused himself has taken him out of the position of having to deal with the investigation on a day-to-day basis, allowed him to pursue his conservative agenda and put Rosenstein in the hot seat on all of these questions.

MATTHEWS: You know, it seems to go so far away from the evidence we talk about here. I mean, you reporters cover the evidence and did dig up the news. You really make the news with this evidence. And then Giuliani and diGenova and the whole rest of them all working for Trump basically say no, it's not about evidence. It's about this lynching mob, this lynch mod today they tried.

Last night, Rudy Giuliani repeated his demand that prosecutors give his client the subject of this investigation documents containing evidence from the investigation of him and his campaign. He wants all their evidence before the trial starts. He went further. He called the special counsel's prosecutors a lynch mob. Let's watch him.


GIULIANI: I'm not going to let my client testify, the President of the United States, even if he wants to, without those documents being produced only if and when we find that this was handled appropriately and there's some evidence on which they could face this phony investigation will we have him testify. You have got a group there that's a lynching mob. So let them do their job and boy, we are ready to knock the heck out of you with our report.


MATTHEWS: Joy, explain the use of that term. I mean, the last time I heard something like that was Clarence Thomas' hearings about Anita Hill and he said this is a hi-tech lynching. Here is Rudy Giuliani is saying this about the President of the United States being the victim of a lynching mobbing.

AINSLEY: Right. And it shouldn't be drawn around lightly. I mean, I think he is trying to sort of up the ante on the witch-hunt thing that we hear from the President a lot. But this is part of their strategy from the beginning, from the time that Mueller was appointed. We started hearing whisperings around the White House where they said what can we do to undermine this investigation?

They were going after credentials. They were, at first, kind of getting in the weeds should he be allow to investigate people whose law firm is also representing. And then they just went for the jugular. They went for politics. And they want to paint this as something that as Republican/Democrat. That it is people coming after the President because they don't want him to be President, not people who are gathering evidence in a very serious criminal investigation.

MATTHEWS: And how can this not be obstruction of justice if the President tried to pick somebody like Roy Cohn to be his attorney general, to protect him from any investigation like this. And he gets rid of the FBI director who is investigating because he is investigating him, right? And then he continued to try to go after Jeff Sessions, his attorney general and say why didn't I get rid of you because, you are no good, whatever, because you are supposed to protect me. You were supposed to obstruct justice for me.

PETTYPIECE: And of course, he could ask Jeff Sessions or he could remove Jeff Sessions and put someone new in there. I mean, the Congress has pretty much indicated that they will not give you another attorney general if you do that. It would create such a firestorm. But if he really wanted to, he could do that.

One point I just want to make about Giuliani with someone who worked with him for a long time pointed out, right now he is acting as Trump's lawyer. He is defending his client with everything he has got. And so, I think in a lot of us, he is no longer an analyst of, you know, law enforcement. He is no longer a former prosecutor. He is a lawyer defending his client tooth and nail. And so, that's how we need to take his comments.

MATTHEWS: On that point, Michael, last word -- question to you, how close are we to a collision to what looks to be the mounting evidence developed and the argument developing on behalf by the special counsel, by Robert Mueller, how far are we from a collision between that evidence gathering and the President's determination not to respect this investigation itself?

SCHMIDT: I think the biggest collision coming will be on the interview. They have been negotiating now for six months about this. And at a certain point, I think Mueller is going to lose his patience.

You have Giuliani out there saying all different types of things about the interview, about topics that they will discuss one day. They won't discuss the next day. And I think it's hard to believe that Mueller doesn't look at this and think this is a stalling tactic. So the question will be, does Mueller want to go to court and subpoena the President. And does he want to risk losing that battle and potentially giving the President a huge win on the question of the interview. Remember, Mueller wants to question the President about whether had he criminal intent when he fired Comey.

MATTHEWS: What's more likely that the President will give himself up to an interview with Robert Mueller or that Kim Jong-un is going to give up his nuclear weapons?

SCHMIDT: I don't know. But there's actually an interesting question there.

MATTHEWS: They are both questions are interesting. Neither one look credible at this point.

SCHMIDT: The thing about that is that Mueller is in an interesting position because if the President is coming into negotiations on the North Korea issue and Mueller wants to subpoena him, will Mueller think twice and say do I want to put the President in this position leading up to such an important negotiation. It will be a political decision for Mueller because there will be larger consequences because there will be some people who say this is what you are doing to the President at such a crucial time is unfair.

MATTHEWS: Ask him to cooperate, right? As he is prepping for his meeting in Singapore.

AINSLEY: Yes, I can see how that would be like Michael says something he would consider. I mean, people who know Mueller say he doesn't consider any of the politics but you have to consider timing.

MATTHEWS: Between now and the 12th, of course. That's between. I don't think we are going to have that interview before the 12th.

AINSLEY: Right. And we think that the obstruction probe could wrap up by the end of the summer or early fall. So the timing should work out. But I think that is a really interesting point.

MATTHEWS: And I think we will know all about North Korea before we know about whether the President is going to sit down and answer questions. And if he keeps answering the way he was today, he is going to perjure himself because he can't keep saying what he said today that there was no connection when he said before there was. That's what perjury is. When you say one thing and then you say another thing that's contradictory, that's when the judge catches you.

Julia Ainsley, Shannon Pettypiece, and Michael Schmidt.

Coming up, President Trump pardoned political ally Dinesh D'Souza with that move. Trump is sending a message loud and clear to other pals like Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen. He is staying strong and there's a pardon for you if you stay strong. That's the message from the President with his bouquet of pardons.

Plus, former House speaker John Boehner says there's no Republican Party left anymore. Only a Trump party. Boehner says the Republican Party is off taking a nap somewhere. Maybe these guys ought to stand up to Trump while they are still in office instead of already out of office.

What did President Obama think when Donald Trump won the 2016 election? We got an insider account for the first time of Obama's surprising reaction tonight with the HARDBALL roundtable.

Finally, let me finish tonight with the Trump watch. This is HARDBALL where the action is.


MATTHEWS: NPR has published explosive now audio recordings of President Trump's long-time lawyer Michael Cohen threatening a reporter. The audio was taken during a 2015 interview between Cohen and then "Daily Beast" reporter Tim Mack. At the time, Mack had been working on a story about Donald Trump's ex-wife Ivana Trump's claim in a divorce deposition that Trump had had once raped her. Ivana Trump later clarified saying that she did not want the term to be interpreted, these her words, interpreted in a literal or criminal sense.

And here is Cohen threatening the reporter with legal action.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you think that I'm misinterpreting some of the facts here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I know you are. Listen, my friend. Don't be a smart with me. Do you understand?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm giving you an opportunity.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I know you. I don't need your opportunity (bleep). I know exactly who you are and I know exactly what you do and I know exactly the story you plan on writing. So I'm warning you. Tread very (bleep) lightly because what I'm going to do to you is going to be (bleep) disgusting. Do you understand me? Don't think you can hide behind your paper it is not going to happen. I'm more than happy to discuss with your attorneys and with your legal council but the mother (bleep) --


MATTHEWS: Ted Mack's going to be on the program tomorrow night.

And we will be right back.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

President Trump's once again flexing his pardon muscle, today granting one to conservative Dinesh D'Souza.

Trump wrote on Twitter: "Will be giving a full pardon to Dinesh D'Souza today. He was treated very unfairly by our government."

In 2014, D'Souza pleaded guilty to campaign finance fraud. He was indicted for using straw donors to illegally contribute tens of thousands of dollars to a New York Senate candidate. D'Souza has also promoted right-wing conspiracy theories on Twitter and implied that his conviction was revenge orchestrated by the White House over his conservative views. Of course he did.

This marks the fifth time Trump has exercised his pardon power while in office.

In addition to D'Souza, Trump pardoned former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of failing to obey a court order to stop targeting illegal immigrants.

He also pardoned Scooter Libby, who convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury, Kristian Saucier, a former Navy sailor convicted of illegally retaining defense information, and granted a posthumous pardon to longtime boxing legend Jack Johnson, come from the turn of the century, the last turn of the century, for violating the Jim Crow era law.

For more, I'm joined by Seth Waxman, and Jonathan Capehart, opinion writer for "The Washington Post."

Gentlemen, thank you so much.

Seth, to you first.

It seems to me he's bandying about this big bouquet of pardons for one fat reason. I got something for you. I got something for you, Michael Cohen. Just shut up.


To me, it couldn't be any more clear that he is hanging this out there, sending a message to the people who are close to him either that have been indicted or may be indicted that if you stand tall for me, you stick by me, you don't point the finger at me or turn state's evidence, I have got something for you at the end, a pardon, a get out of jail free. So, stick -- stand tall.

MATTHEWS: How do you pick out -- part of this is a bouquet of constituencies. Jack Johnson -- if he has a black constituency, I guess.


MATTHEWS: But a lot of people who follow boxing like Jack Johnson. He was screwed historically because of race.

But Martha Stewart is bandied around, a name -- of course, she served her time. Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois, I can argue that case a couple ways. He is sitting in a prison after like four or five years in a 14-year sentence.

We will have his lawyer on in a minute. Why this bouquet? What are these different elements? Some of it, I can figure out. Scooter Libby, neocons. Arpaio, the people anti-immigrant. Sort of a nice sort of bouquet there.

Also, it promises, as Seth said, free ride out of town if you stick with me.


JONATHAN CAPEHART, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Yes. There are several things happening.

With Blagojevich and Martha Stewart, these are two former folks on "Celebrity Apprentice," so these are friends of the president. Martha Stewart lied--

MATTHEWS: He's talking about doing this.

CAPEHART: Right, right, right.

Martha Stewart lied to federal authorities. Blagojevich tried to sell a Senate seat. So, some corruption. Basically, these folks represent things that are important to him. So, Michael Cohen--

MATTHEWS: So, the M.O. matches up with his crowd.

CAPEHART: Exactly.


CAPEHART: And the key thing here is, so he's telegraphing -- not even telegraphing. He's bullhorning what he's doing and why he's doing it.

But I think, Chris, the key thing to remember here is, you just showed five people I think who have gotten pardons. Trump learned with the birther issue in 2011 that he could be as wild and as crazy as he wanted to be, and no one in the Republican establishment would stop him, would say that he's wrong, would say that this is wrong.

He's now pardoned five people. Some people have said he's wrong, but no one in the Republican establishment.


CAPEHART: Joe Arpaio, that right there should have been -- that should have lit this town on fire, should have lit the Republican Party on fire. And it didn't.

And so, for Donald Trump, the signal now is, well, I can pardon anyone I want. No one's going to say anything. So, one day, maybe I will pardon -- oh, no, I will pardon Michael Cohen or my son or my son-in-law.

MATTHEWS: What is the time -- I agree completely with what Jonathan said.

It's like a big bugle call. The cavalry is coming. We're going to protect you guys. Just stick with the wagon, wagon train, the circled wagons.

What can stop the president from waiting for that precise moment when he thinks somebody's going to talk and spring him?

WAXMAN: I mean, in my mind, it the only thing that can really stop him is an obstruction of justice charge. There needs to be some limit to the pardon power.

I understand that the executive--

MATTHEWS: Has there ever been a limit to it?

WAXMAN: Well, it's never been decided by the Supreme Court or otherwise.

MATTHEWS: Has the court ever stopped a president from pardoning somebody?

WAXMAN: I don't think that issue's ever raised to that point.

So, we have an open area. But the idea that the president can act in an unfettered way, with no check whatsoever, kind of speaks to a monarchy that got us out of England 200 years ago.


MATTHEWS: Anyway, I mentioned -- as I mentioned, President Trump also told reporters aboard Air Force One he's considering pardoning, as I said, Martha Stewart, and pardoning or commuting the sentence of the guy who is still in prison, Rod Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois.

Stewart was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction and making false statements to prosecutors -- investigators, rather. Blagojevich was removed from office and convicted of public corruption charge, including that he tries to trade Barack Obama's Senate seat for campaign contributions after Obama was elected president.

Blagojevich started serving a 14-year prison sentence in 2012.

Blagojevich's attorney, Leonard Goodman, joins us now.

Leonard, thank you. We talked a couple days ago, before we heard about this. What is the -- why do you think the president is looking to your client to give him a pardon? Why is that happening?

LEONARD GOODMAN, ATTORNEY FOR ROD BLAGOJEVICH: I do not think it's political. I disagree with your last guest.

MATTHEWS: Go for it.

GOODMAN: And I think it would be -- I think it's an absolute -- it would be an absolutely act of correcting an injustice.

He does know Blagojevich. That is true. And, you know, the other thing, as knowledgeable as your last guest was, it's not true that he tried to sell the Senate seat. He tried to make a political deal, which had never been prosecuted before, and in fact was not illegal. That part of the case was thrown out.

He's in prison for campaign fund-raising, which is his job. He never took a penny. He never tried to enrich himself in office. He's one of the few elected officials ever prosecuted for purely political acts.

He never took money from his campaign fund. He never took gifts and loans. He never took fancy trips. If he took his family on a campaign trip, he reimbursed the campaign fund.


MATTHEWS: Look, I know -- I think you got a good case. OK? I have heard the arguments. And we were talking about this before this even came up. I think Blagojevich serving 14 years is a really serious problem. I wonder about it. I have seen people for murder cases not getting 14 years.

Let me ask you about this. What would your client say? Would your client apologize for what he did? Will he express regret? Will he do all the things you have to do in accepting a pardon if the president offers it? Will he meet the concern of the Constitution here and the statutes? Will he do it?

GOODMAN: Absolutely, he will. He's expressed regret for his behavior and the things that he said.

But the fact is, Blagojevich is a man that stands on his principles. He has said all along that he followed the rules as they were laid out by the Supreme Court. The government changed the rules on him in order to convict him.


GOODMAN: So, you know, I think you have to hand it to President Trump, if he has the courage to actually do the right thing. You know, President Obama had an opportunity.


MATTHEWS: We have to move on.


MATTHEWS: The governor will accept the pardon and do what is necessary to able to be eligible for one? That's the news tonight, right, from you?

GOODMAN: He's got two beautiful daughters at home that have been without their dad for six years.


GOODMAN: For a man that has was -- only doing his job, was raising campaign funds and making political deals.

As the appellate court said, the deal over the Senate seat was equivalent to what President Eisenhower did with Earl Warren, which was considered a stroke of genius.


GOODMAN: You know, he was singled out for prosecution. He was under investigation for five years, Chris, targeted early on in his administration.


MATTHEWS: OK, appreciate this. We're going to have to move on.

But I think we have given you a platform to make this argument. And I think it's a good argument by you.

And thank you. We have talked before about this.


GOODMAN: Well, thank you for having me on, Chris.

MATTHEWS: Let's go back to this presidential thing on the pardon thing.

What does it say about our Constitution that the president of the United States can obstruct justice now flagrantly by saying, I'm going to obstruct in a new way, I'm going to pardon everybody in this case so they shut up? That's obstructing.

WAXMAN: I mean, it is in my mind.

The pardon power can be used to rid people of criminal histories and crimes, but it can't be done in a way to obstruct justice. And because Mr. Trump has been identified as a subject of this investigation, the people around him and close to him are, in theory, in that investigation, that using that pardon power to get rid of that --


MATTHEWS: See that picture with Ivanka there?


MATTHEWS: I think he's not going to let his kids go to the can.


MATTHEWS: And Jared, too. He's not going to let these guys go to jail.

CAPEHART: Jared, I don't know. The kids.


MATTHEWS: You're laughing. He doesn't care?

CAPEHART: Maybe he does. I don't know. We're talking about Donald Trump.

MATTHEWS: How about Donald Trump Jr.?


MATTHEWS: -- at the meetings.

CAPEHART: Donald Trump Jr., absolutely. Donald Trump Jr., absolutely.

I think the president will be a father and look out for him. But the son- in-law? I'm not so convinced on that.

But, look, what we're talking about here is a dereliction of constitutional duty by the other branch of government, by Congress. I mean, we're talking about norms and customs. We were talking just a moment ago before we went to Governor Blagojevich's lawyer about how, you know, it's not settled, whether -- the power of the parole of the president.

It used to be that there was processes and procedures that a president would have to go through. There's a person in the White House or in the DOJ whose soul job it is to vet people for parole.

What happened yesterday with Dinesh D'Souza, from the reports I read, a three-minute phone call where the president says, we have never met. I don't know you. You have been done an injustice. I'm pardoning you tomorrow. Three minutes, a phone call.

MATTHEWS: Yes. Thank you.

CAPEHART: The president of the United States, such a powerful power he has.

MATTHEWS: No, I think he does it with impunity.


MATTHEWS: He's got the power. He's going to use it.

Thank you, Seth Waxman.

It was a perk. The pardon is a perk.


MATTHEWS: Anyway, thank you, Jonathan. And thank you, Seth.

Up next: Former House Speaker John Boehner drops a big one tonight. He said there's no longer a Republican Party, just a Trump party. Boehner said the real cop was off taking a nap.

I think he was having a Bloody Mary early in the day when he said this. Anyway, but he did say it. He obvious -- there he is. That's a morning drink. And he said the Republicans seem comfortable taking on Trump. They don't, unless they're safely headed out of Washington.

Isn't that the pattern now? Only on the way out the door, with the door slamming them from behind, do they tell us the truth about their president.

This is HARDBALL, where the action is.



QUESTION: I want to talk to you about what's happened with the Republican Party.

JOHN BOEHNER (R), FORMER SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: There is no Republican Party. There's a Trump party. The Republican Party has kind of taken a nap somewhere.


MATTHEWS: That is a Bloody Mary sitting there.

Anyway, welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was former Speaker of the House John Boehner today conceding that Donald Trump has orchestrated a hostile takeover of the Republican Party.

According to former Speaker Boehner, Trump is the most unusual person ever elected president, and even while calling him a friend, Boehner questioned Trump's fitness to be president. Let's watch it here.


BOEHNER: Donald Trump, who I know well, was one of my supporters when I was speaker. I was having a rough week, Trump would call me, pat me on the back, cheer me up. We played a lot of golf together.

But president, really?


BOEHNER: I never quite saw this.

The two most surprised people in the entire world that night were Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.


BOEHNER: Hillary Clinton thought she was going to win. Donald Trump thought he was going to lose.


MATTHEWS: You know, you get the truth out of these guys when it's all over.

For more, I'm joined right now by Michael Steel, who was -- he was spokesman for a long time to Speaker Boehner.

What do you make of Boehner, the former speaker? Every -- I like the guy. Everybody likes him. He's a very likable, approachable person. Why is the truth coming out so clearly now, when he had to keep it secret before. He doesn't have to say what he just said. MICHAEL STEEL, FORMER BOEHNER SPOKESMAN: Well, no, he was not speaker under President Trump. There was no time when that would have overlapped.


STEEL: I think that he's watching the president on trade, on entitlement reform, on the debt and deficit walk away from central pillars of the Republican Party that really defined Boehner's legacy as speaker.


MATTHEWS: OK, here's my question. My notes right here, handwritten notes. What is the Republican Party position under Trump on trade?

STEEL: It depends. There is a Republican Party--

MATTHEWS: Is it a protectionist party or is it a free trade party?

STEEL: The party is split on that. The congressional wing and the president himself--


MATTHEWS: Oh, there is no party.

Where is the party now on deficits, federal deficits?

STEEL: The congressional wing of the Republican Party is very concerned about the deficit and debt. The president himself is not by any stretch.

MATTHEWS: Where are they on law enforcement, the law and order party, on the FBI and the -- they seem to be against the FBI now.

STEEL: Republicans all continue to support law enforcement.

MATTHEWS: Well, Meghan McCain criticized President Trump today for his attacks on her father, John McCain. Let's watch.


MEGHAN MCCAIN, DAUGHTER OF JOHN MCCAIN: There's a huge fracture in the party between Trump supporters and non-Trump supporters.

Since the beginning of Trump's campaign, there have been extremely personal attacks on my family, on my father that everybody knows about. Happened just recently. Had to talk about it on the show.

I don't like talking about my dad all the time, but he keeps being brought up. In a rally last weekend, there were boos elicited by President Trump at the rally.


MATTHEWS: Well, Meghan McCain who was there was referring to this rally in Nashville Tuesday, this week, when Trump brought up Senator McCain's vote opposing a Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act last summer.

The crowd booed. Let's watch.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We had it done, folks. It was done. And then, early in the morning, somebody turned their hand in the wrong direction.


TRUMP: That cost our country a lot.


MATTHEWS: You know, I look at -- I voted for a few Republicans in my life, not many of them, a few over the years.

And I don't think of Trump being a Republican. I think more of him more as a New York Democrat with some crazy attitudes what his job now. I think of McCain as a classic Republican.

STEEL: Absolutely. And he's an American patriot. He's a hero.


STEEL: I think these attacks on him, whether -- whatever you think about his vote on repealing the Affordable Care Act, he is someone who has given his life to service in this country and he doesn't deserve this kind of reprehensible attack.

MATTHEWS: So, why is he getting it?

STEEL: I think the president, who did not serve in Vietnam, may resent the fact that this man has given his life in service to the country and certainly doesn't appreciate it the way he should.

MATTHEWS: I have got you here. I got a question.

We have always thought that what happened with Obama when he was president -- and I liked Obama, of course -- and John Boehner would come and meet him at the White House, and they would sit down and cut a deal.

STEEL: Sure.

MATTHEWS: But by the time Boehner got in the car and hit the gates on the way out of the White House, he got a call from his chief of staff, saying, the Freedom Caucus is going to kill you on this. And that's why nothing ever got done.


MATTHEWS: That's not what happened?

STEEL: What happened, almost invariably, on the big stuff, on the fiscal stuff--


STEEL: -- is that President Obama would feel it necessary to share it with Senator Reid. Senator Reid would feel it necessary to tell Senator Schumer. Senator Schumer would feel it necessary to tell "The New York Times." That blew up every big -- that chain of events blew up--

MATTHEWS: Why did they all do that?

STEEL: -- every main -- because they were the leaders of the party in the Senate. He expected them to vote for whatever compromise he got to. He felt they had to be informed.

But they were worried--


MATTHEWS: But they were blowing -- they were blowing the deal by putting it out that way.

STEEL: They were worried about reelecting Democratic senators, not about President Obama's legacy or the fiscal situation.


MATTHEWS: Well, that's a pretty incisive attack on the Democratic Party's lack of cohesion. But it sounds fairly familiar.


MATTHEWS: Michael Steel, thank you.

Up next: an inside look at what President Obama thought following Donald Trump's victory in '16. What is it that Obama thinks he may have gotten wrong, in fact? This is fascinating coming out right now.

And that's next with the HARDBALL Roundtable.

You're watching it, HARDBALL.



BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Everybody is sad when their side loses an election. But the day after, we have to remember that we're actually all on one team. This is an intramural scrimmage.

We're not Democrats first, we're not Republicans first. We are Americans first.

We're patriots first. We all want what's best for this country.


MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was President Obama the day after Donald Trump won that 2016 presidential election. And according to "The New York Times" in the weeks after Mr. Trump's election, Mr. Obama went through multiple emotional stages.

According to a new book by his long time adviser Ben Rhodes, at times the departing president took the long view. At other points, he flashed anger. He called Mr. Trump a "cartoon" figure who cared more about his crowd size than any particular policy. And he expressed rare self-doubt wondering whether he had misjudged his own influence on American history.

"The New York Times" reports that Obama and his team were confident that Mrs. Clinton would win and like much of the country were shocked when she did not. President Obama asked his aides after the election what, if we were wrong? Maybe we pushed too far? Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.

After his aides reassured him, President Obama said: Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early.

Well, let's bring in tonight's HARDBALL roundtable. You got a great question tonight.

Susan Page is Washington bureau chief for "USA Today." Jason Johnson is politics editor at and an MSNBC political contributor as well. And Edward Isaac Dovere is "Politico's" chief Washington correspondent.

All of you -- I want to take a possibility. I want to look at it from one direction. Obviously, this president dismayed. His election dismayed someone who's a progressive like President Obama. But was there in that sort of self-analysis that we're getting from Ben Rhodes, somebody who worked pretty close to him, a sense maybe I didn't read the country because Obama read this country beautifully in '08. He knew we were tired of a somewhat dim-witted president, we're sick of that war, we wanted somebody to rejoin the nation, the war -- the community of nations.

All those things Trump was wrong on -- I'm sorry, Bush was wrong on, W. was and Obama was right about. But by 2016, did he lose his in sync sense of the American mood?

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, USA TODAY: You know, I think to some degree he did but so did a lot -- he had a lot of company in that -- in that -- in losing some of that touch and not having a sense of --

MATTHEWS: So, we turned off the globalism and sophistication.

PAGE: Part of the nation was, yes. I mean, we're a divided nation now in a way that we probably haven't been in some time, because you have the Obama side of the electorate that felt good about the direction President Obama was going in, and clearly had a big reaction to Obama that opened the door for Donald Trump.

MATTHEWS: Jason, your view?

JASON JOHNSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: There's coattails and having a forklift and bringing somebody over the line. Obama didn't misread the American public. Remember, Hillary Clinton won by 3 million votes. But he misread how people felt about her. And that's the issue. I mean, it's perfectly --

MATTHEWS: I think we all did.

JOHNSON: Yes, I think people really misunderstood how much she was disliked, how much she was distrust --

MATTHEWS: That was a quiet dislike in some cases or else we would have measured it in states like Pennsylvania which I said to the very end, Isaac, I said at the end, you're never going to break the blue wall of Pennsylvania. I talked to all the pals up there and they didn't believe --


MATTHEWS: And something happened up there.

Let me ask you about, we know the ethnic thing in this country the racial thing. I like to call it the ethnic thing because we're all the same race, but that sounds too liberal to say that. I believe it. I honestly believe it.

So, it's like American identity, we didn't like the metric system. We would never want to use the euro. There is something American about America.

Was that what helped Trump, this sense of -- sort of OK nationalism, not bad nationalism? Was Trump right about that and Hillary wrong about that and Obama wrong about that?

DOVERE: It's -- we can go through so many reasons of this is why Trump won. That's why Trump won. There are a lot of things that went into it. Part of it is that Hillary was a bad candidate. Part of it is that Obama did misread what was going on and had pushed on things that were not clicking in the country.

I remember the day after the election Obama aides saying to me that everybody should look at his own popularity numbers even though Hillary lost the election. You know, if the polls were wrong about Hillary's election and the fact she was going to win, they also maybe were off a little bit about Obama's popularity. And it's --

MATTHEWS: Well, people get tired of people in politics. Everybody knows things.

DOVERE: Look, if you go back and you look --

MATTHEWS: Sitcoms last about four years. I don't care how good they are, like "Seinfeld". And then people say I don't want to watch anymore.

JOHNSON: I mean, look, "The Cosby Show" got followed up by Roseanne, right? Barack Obama gets followed by Donald Trump. We do see this in America, this sort of retrenchment of attitudes and beliefs.

And also, a lot of Americans believe, not a lot of brown ones, and not the majority of them, believe that Donald Trump was a showman and he wouldn't be this bad. They thought he was a good gamble for this country. And it turns out he's an authoritarian monster. That's what ended up happening.


MATTHEWS: I love your bottom line.

According to "New York Times," few moments shook Mr. Obama more than the decision by voters to replace him with a candidate hop had questioned his very birth. Inning over power to someone determined to tear down all he accomplished, Mr. Obama alluded to the godfather, I feel like Michael Corleone, I almost got out.

Meaning, he wanted to get out. He thought Hillary would take over, now he's going to stay in and defend himself.

PAGE: You know, I think -- he knew Hillary Clinton would build on his legacy, right?


PAGE: I think he did not fully understand how Donald Trump would be devoted to tearing it down.

MATTHEWS: Point by point.

PAGE: Point by point.

MATTHEWS: He wants to get rid of the --

PAGE: Right, Iran deal, Trans Pacific --

MATTHEWS: Climate agreement in Paris, the Iranian deal, Obamacare. Everything.

PAGE: It's an animating principle for Donald Trump to tear down what it was President Obama set up.

MATTHEWS: Even his nationality. He claims he's an illegal immigrant basically.

PAGE: You know, it's natural after eight years of one party for us to change. We rarely elect the same party for a third term. It's just that the nominee for the other party turned out to be so radically different from the incumbent president.

DOVERE: I think the real thing bothering Obama when it comes to the legacy is that Donald Trump has been so effective at going at some of these things, the Paris agreement, the Iran deal. There was a sense within the Obama White House during the Republican primary that even if Trump won, he was not -- he wouldn't be able to do all of this. And that there wouldn't be as much going along with him as there has been.

MATTHEWS: Well, because Eisenhower came in the `50s, he didn't get rid of the New Deal.

DOVERE: Right.

MATTHEWS: That's not what people do.

Anyway, a program note, Ben Rhodes will be the guy who wrote this book, will be a guest on HARDBALL next Thursday, June 7th, for the release of his new book "The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House." This is the first we got a real inside look at the Obama world back when they were running the show.

The roundtable is sticking with us. And up next, three of them will tell me something I don't know. Each one of them.

You're watching HARDBALL.


MATTHEWS: Next week marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. And this Sunday, I'm anchoring a historic documentary on RFK, "Headliners: Robert F. Kennedy" airs at 9:00 p.m. Eastern this Sunday night right here on MSNBC. Be sure to watch it.

We'll be right back.


MATTHEWS: We're back with the roundtable.

Susan, tell me something I don't know.

PAGE: OK, men -- Republicans and Democrats live on different planets apparently. We look at all the ads that have run on TV for House candidates. Number one issue for Democrats: health care. Number one issue for Republicans: immigration. And those top issues don't even appear on the list of top issues for the other party.

MATTHEWS: I hear it's Pelosi on the Republican side. They're just banging into her.

PAGE: Not true. The number one -- it's immigration, it's taxes and it's pro-Trump.



JOHNSON: So, Chris, as you know, conventional which is Ohio is the bellwether state for this country.

MATTHEWS: It's actually for the Republicans. If they lose Ohio, they'll lose the country.

JOHNSON: Exactly.

Now they're getting too much like Washington, D.C. The Ohio house which has a super majority of Republicans hasn't had a speaker for six weeks. He resigned in the midst of an investigation into kickbacks. They've been fighting internally, and they can't seem to pass legislation.

Democrats are waiting for them to just do their circular firing squad. And if the Republicans lose some of their majority in Ohio during this blue wave, it's a bad sign for them in 2020.

MATTHEWS: And isn't it wonderful that graft still lives?



DOVERE: Well, number one, this Ben Rhodes book, every word in there's that's attributed to Obama is sanctioned by Obama. He's good with it. Rhodes is still on staff for Obama.

Number two, we're going to see a lot of Obama into the fall as he gets on the campaign trail and he'll be making some of these arguments himself, probably not directly at Trump in the way he has avoided for the last year.

MATTHEWS: Yes, he's avoided. Thank you so much, Susan Page, Jason Johnson, and Edward-Isaac Dovere. Thank you.

When we return, let me finish tonight with "Trump Watch". He's not going to like tonight. You're watching HARDBALL.


MATTHEWS: "Trump Watch", Thursday, May 31st, 2018.

He stands before us brandishing a handful of pardons, reminding us of a suitor holding a bouquet of roses. He wants all of us, friend, critic, whatever, to know he is generous with his favor. Stick with him and whatever your legal troubles, he will set you free.

This is President Trump, standing at the door of this entire world of investigation and likely prosecution, and what a way to make friends and influence people. Pardoned Arpaio, he wins the love of the "tough on immigrant" crowd. Pardon Scooter Libby, the neocons will love you. Pardon Dinesh D'Souza, wasn't he the guy who saw that birther stuff about President Obama being influenced by a Kenyan anti-colonial attitude? Isn't it great you can pardon them all?

And best of all, you can let all, all those scared people who did stuff for you know you've got a real goodie waiting for them. You will set them free. Not the truth. But you Donald J. Trump will set them free as long as they don't tell the truth.

And that's what's that man standing out there holding that bouquet of pardons is saying: hang tough, don't squeal on me. And when the time, the right time comes, I'll have you squealing with the light. You'll be free and I'll be home free.

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

ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES starts right now.


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