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Conservatives condemn Trump-Putin love fest. TRANSCRIPT: 7/17/2018, Hardball w. Chris Matthews.

Guests: Betsy Woodruff, Joyce Vance, Ryan Costello, Anita Kumar, Dana Milbank

Show: HARDBALL Date: July 17, 2018 Guest: Betsy Woodruff, Joyce Vance, Ryan Costello, Anita Kumar, Dana Milbank

ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST: That does it with THE BEAT.

HARDBALL WITH CHRIS MATTHEWS is up next.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Trump`s two step. Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening, I`m Chris Matthews in San Francisco.

After giving Vladimir Putin a free pass on the world stage yesterday, Donald Trump is digging himself an even deeper hole. Under extreme pressure from all sides of the political spectrum, he made a pebble (ph) attempt today of damage control.

NBC News reports late tonight that it was vice President Mike Pence and secretary of state Mike Pompeo who urged the President to publicly change his comments from Helsinki. In a statement the President read aloud today, he effectively said he misspoke yesterday when he said that he didn`t see why Russia would interfere in the 2016 election.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I realize there is a need for some clarification. It should have been obvious, I thought it was obvious but I would like to clarify just in case it wasn`t.

In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word would instead of wouldn`t. And I thought it would be may be a little bit unclear on the transcript or unclear on the actual video. The sentence should have been I don`t see any reason why it wouldn`t be Russia. Sort of a double negative. So you can put that in. And I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: You can put that it. What a nonsense.

Anyway, Trump spin and that is what it was yesterday or today. However, cannot erase the victory he already handed Vladimir Putin yesterday when he clearly said otherwise.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: My people came to me, Dan Coats said to me and others and said they think it is Russia. I have Vladimir Putin, he just said it`s not Russia. I will say this, I don`t see any reason why it would be.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Would. Trump also said today that he backs the conclusion of U.S. intelligence community that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. However, he did not laid the blame squarely at Russia`s feet. Instead, he said it could be other people who were also responsible. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: While Russia`s actions had no impact at all on the outcome of the election, let me be totally clear in saying that and I have said this many times, I accept our intelligence community`s conclusion that Russia`s meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people also. There are a lot of people out there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Now, feast your eyes on this. Photographs of Trump`s prepared remarks appear to show that Trump crossed out a line about bringing back election hackers to justice. And then he added a line, you can see in there in sharpie, denying collusion.

Trump`s attempt to controlling the damage today, came after he defended his shocking performance with Putin, saying on twitter this morning quote "while I had a great meeting with NATO, I had an even better meeting with Vladimir Putin to Russia. Sadly, it is not being reported that way. The fake news is going crazy."

But the outpouring of reaction from across the political spectrum speaks for itself. Here goes.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: His smartest most loyal aides, and most trusted advisors that are super loyal to him got to get to him right now and say listen, this is a grave mistake.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I think it is bad day for the President. I think he can fix it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The President seems to give Vladimir Putin assurances over the findings of the Senate, the House and our intel agencies. Dan Coats, and that is not good.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And to do that on the world stage to me is indefensible.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I should have defended us. He should have defended his own intelligence community.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: His behavior in that press conference was un- American, outrageous, ridiculous, stupid.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Trump made a mockery of the U.S. presidency today. He made a mockery of our country and our shared values today.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R), ILLINOIS: I think Trump, President Trump was wrong yesterday in a major way. And I think it was a very embarrassing press conference.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was probably the low point of the presidency so far.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is the musings of an imbecile. Vladimir Putin looks across to the other party in a way he is standing there is a fool.

SEN. BOB CORKER (D), TENNESSEE: It felt like Dan (ph) is right. And you know people are, and I was really glad to see people on both sides condemning what happened yesterday strongly.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS: Joining me right now is Ashley Parker, White House reporter for "the Washington Post," Michael Steele is a former chair of the Republican National Committee. Malcolm Nance is MSNBC national security analyst.

Ashley, after months of defending the President saying he didn`t collude with the Russians, looks like he is colluding with them today. Who told him to change his tone today?

ASHLEY PARKER, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: A number of people told him to change his tone today. You had Mike Pompeo pushing him. We understand chief of staff John Kelly was pushing him. I know MSNBC reported vice president Mike Pence.

There was a little bit of a lag from the White House, I have to say, because they were kind frozen getting no clarity from the top. Because they first didn`t understand if the President did in fact want to do some damage control or if he wanted to double down. But there was an effort to push him there and that is what you saw today. Him kind of begrudgingly haltingly reading from the sheets something closer that the aides wanted him to express.

MATTHEWS: Who came out with this Mickey Mouse spin about would and wouldn`t? Who came out with that one? That is pretty weak stuff. It is watch this in politicians for 30 years, 40 years. It is called spin. It is a one step. You admit you made a mistake and while people are believing you, in those few seconds, they believe you because you seem like you are being honest, you lie again. Who taught him to do that one?

PARKER: So, I don`t actually know who came up with the double negative defense. But I can tell you that a senior White House official say these are the President`s words even though we have heard other people help massage and shape that statement. If you believe the White House top line spin with the President`s words, so in theory, he came up with that.

MATTHEWS: Yes, right.

I mean, let`s go -- I understand that is what they would put out.

Michael, what do you make of this? Because it seems like -- and I want to reiterate this. We have been arguing this back and forth from the White House. All I did haven`t anything to do with the Russians. I am all my own except I completely utterly and willing to say anything they want or repeat like a parrot. One of the editorial pages today had him as a parrot, the president of the United States.

Why -- let me just ask, do you think he covered himself at all? Did any damage control or look more like a double downer? Your thoughts?

MICHAEL STEELE, FORMER REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: No, no, no. No, there is no coverage here at all, Chris. This was an attempt at double downing because it was written all over the President`s face. His body language told everyone who was watching this, he didn`t want to say it, didn`t believe what he was saying, he didn`t want to be in that space because he had already told us what he already thought.

And for all the clips you just played of my friends and colleagues in the Republican Party who are now somewhat upset about this, why?

The President has been saying very clearly from day one, he does not trust, like, or want anything to do with our intelligence community. So this is nothing difference. This is nothing new. The only difference, Chris, is that he said it standing next to Putin. And in that stark moment, it became real that this President and this Putin guy, this you know, this soul mate that he seems to have an infinity for has something far beyond what the Republican Party ever thought possible.

So, you know, let`s stop the surprise here. There is no real new news here other than just actually seeing with our eyes what we have already heard out of the President`s mouth for the last 18 months.

MATTHEWS: Malcolm, jump on this because I think I hear something, I would like to pay attention to secondary characteristics. I like to watch how people move and what they are doing with their arms or hands whatever. I got the sense that Putin was in heaven yesterday. Did he had a guy with him under his captivity? He was smirking as if he owned the guy. And I watched Trump. I don`t know what he was like. Trump seemed to be unfortunately comfortable in the role of captive. I don`t know how to explain it. You are the expert.

MALCOLM NANCE, MSNBC TERRORISM EXPERT: Well, it is not Stockholm syndrome.

Let me tell you. I can tell you Vladimir Putin is a human intelligence officer. He is a person who manipulated people to betray their people, to go from East Germany into West Germany to steal technology as a member of the KGB. He is a former communist. Brought out that way throughout his life. And now, and is now the President of Russia.

The only thing that I didn`t see yesterday was exactly how Putin could not move his fingers and make Donald Trump marionette around the stage. Because that is what I saw. We saw a man who is being handled. And that is a professional term. And I think we can start using that term a little less rhetorically now.

I don`t think that Donald Trump did anything more than express the admiration and love and bromance that he has for Vladimir Putin that he has -- it told us for years now that he has. The problem here is that he came off as not the President of the United States but as a representative of the Russian federation, all of the second Russian vice president. And John Brennan, the CIA director who I admire greatly, use the word treasonous. I don`t think we should that term. But we can use ultimate loyalty.

MATTHEWS: Yes. I couldn`t believe. I will get later in the show, I get it.

But for Putin, a communist or is like dare talk about Lee Harvey Oswald killing Kennedy as if they didn`t have anything to do with it. An extraordinary thing to bring up a comedy shooting of American president and saying it was our fault.

Anyway, "the Washington Post" is reporting that ahead of the meetings, staffers provided Trump with some hundred pages of briefing materials aimed at laying out a tough posture toward Putin. But the President ignored most of it. According to a person familiar with the deliberations quote "Trump`s remarks were very much counter to the plan, the plan.

According to a report in "Axios," one of the Trump`s national former security official said this is a total effing disgrace, the President has lost his mind. "The New York Times" further reports that aboard air force one back to Washington, Mr. Trump`s mood grew foul as the breadth of the critical reactions became clear. Aides steered clear of the front of the plane to avoid being tapped preventing session with Mr. Trump. It was against this backdrop that the President`s daily intelligence briefing this morning was removed without explanation of his schedule, according to the NBC.

Let me get back to Ashley. How did it unfold today that Trump begun to realize that he was cornered, that he had blown it yesterday, at least in the short-term?

PARKER: So the President was upset flying back even yesterday on air force one with the blanket negative coverage. And that what he wasn`t upset with the summit, but he didn`t like how it was being covered. And he was surprised and shocked and then again frustrated by even some of his traditional Republican allies including FOX News being quite critical of him.

One thing, I`m told is that there was a tweet yesterday by Newt Gingrich who is someone is a staunch ally who always defends this president, even criticizing him. And that really rattled Trump.

So this morning, and again, he sort of didn`t provide that much clarity to his aides at first which kind of froze everyone. So you had a situation where the White House communication office didn`t quite know what message to push out. You had negative cable news coverage and no Trump surrogate supporting him on air. And finally with some nudging by aides, the President did under what it looked like a bit of duress, arms crossed, sort of reading verbatim, read that statement, although as point to that earlier in the show, he did make his own notations and tweaks and flourishes in the margin.

MATTHEWS: Well, in contrast to the President, senate majority leader, to make your point, leader Mitch McConnell said today that Congress is united and standing behind NATO and offered a message of warning to Russia.

This is Mitch McConnell here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: So make no mistake about it, I would say to our friends in Europe, we understand the Russian threat and I think that is a wide spread view here in the United States Senate among members of both parties.

There is a possibility that we may very well take up legislations related to this. In the meantime, I think the Russians need to know there are a lot of us who fully understand what happened in 2016, and it really better not happen again in 2018.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: You know, Michael, I would say in all fairness and with some respect, Michael, that Mitch McConnell is an iron butt Republican. He doesn`t move according to fashion. He stays where he is. It seems to me that he should be an (INAUDIBLE) for Trump (INAUDIBLE). He is blowing his constituency, falling in love publicly with Putin. Why would any Republican want to be seen as pals with Putin?

STEELE: Well, that is because that`s what has been brought into the party and in large measure everyone has fallen in line with that, you know. You look at the polls that now show that Putin is growing in popularity among Republican circles.

MATTHEWS: Yes, but relatively, 25 percent compared to 67 percent. I know it is wrong, but --.

STEELE: But Chris, it was 16 and now it is 25 points. So it is gone up almost ten points. And that is the anchor for Trump.

You are right, Mitch McConnell of all the leaders in the House and the Senate is that one anchor that the President should be listening to. But as we saw with a piece of paper, even when you give him the script to save his behind, he is going to write something in the margin and he is going to take it some place it doesn`t need to go.

MATTHEWS: Thank you.

And by the way, it is disappearing ink and we all know that. Two days from now, he will back where he wants to be with Putin.

STEELE: That`s right.

MATTHEWS: Thank you, Ashley Parker. Great reporting by the Post again.

Michael Steele, sir, thank you for your inside view of the Republican Party which I think you are still a member of.

STEELE: I am.

MATTHEWS: And Malcolm Nance for the knowledge of the spook world, the spy world which I got to tell you is we are going to increasingly into a world of spies, i.e., Putin. We got to understand these guys.

They don`t speak the truth. They look like they are sort of telling the truth and you have to be really stupid to believe that it is the truth.

Coming up, President Trump failed to stand up to Putin. But the Russians` strong men still going to grill in Helsinki. Putin was confronted with the latest Mueller indictments and asked why so many of these political opponents end up dead.

Plus, how did special counsel Mueller look at what happen in yesterday`s summit. Is it becomes part of his investigation? I think he saw some things yesterday. And with the threat to Mueller`s job growing by the day by Republicans, will Republicans finally do something to actually protect his job, Mueller`s job.

And the HARDBALL roundtable weighs in today on Trump`s two step this afternoon that is spin of his from saying an honest think, I blew it too. This stupid explanation of what he blew.

Plus, a rare public appearance today by President Barack Obama is a great as ever. He says political leaders these days just double down after being caught in a lie. It was a wonderful speech done in Johannesburg. We will talk about this. And we of course know who he is talking about.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Polls in Alabama will be closing in less than an hour tonight. Voters there are at a potentially telling choice to make today. Incumbent Republican congresswoman Martha Roby is facing a primary runoff against former Democratic congressman Bobby Bright. President Trump endorsed Roby despite the fact that she withdrew her support for him after the Access Hollywood tape came out.

Meanwhile, Bright is a former Democrat who at point supported Nancy Pelosi for speaker, obviously, as Democrat`s tend to do. This is a district that went overwhelmingly for Trump in the presidential election. Will voters there will be willing to overlook Roby`s lack of support for the President? We will find out later tonight.

And we will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Russian president Vladimir Putin emerged from his summit with President Trump unscathed and triumphant, of course. Trump refused to press the Russian leader publicly about his country`s encouraging in attempted to disrupt out democracy, of course.

However, Putin did face a more forceful grilling from Chris Wallace of FOX News. Let`s watch that action.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WALLACE: I have here the indictment that was presented on Friday from the special counsel Robert Mueller that says that 12 members of Russian military intelligence, they say -- you smile, let me finish. They say that these units were specifically involved in hacking into Democratic Party computers, stealing information and spreading it to the world to try to disrupt American election.

May I give this to you to look out, sir? Here.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): First of all, Russia, as a state, has never interfered with the internal affairs of the United States, let alone its elections.

WALLACE: But, sir, this is the indictment. It shows -- I have 12 names here.

PUTIN (through translator): Interference with the domestic affairs of the United States, do you really believe that someone acting from the Russian territory could have influenced the United States and influenced the choice of millions of America? This is utterly ridiculous.

WALLACE: I`m not asking...

(CROSSTALK)

WALLACE: ... influenced. I`m asking whether they tried.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Putin`s denials fly in the face of mounting evidence delivered by the special counsel investigation, obviously.

Well, today, Mueller`s team has indicted or secured guilty pleas from 32 people and three Russian companies. And just yesterday, around the same time Trump was undermining America`s intelligence, a criminal complaint was unsealed in Washington here, charging a Russian national, Maria Butina, with conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian Federation.

According to court documents, her goal was to establish back-channel lines of communication with American politicians in order to -- quote -- "create wedges that reduced trust and confidence in the democratic process."

That`s called a smoking gun. The Daily Beast writes that this has "implications for domestic politics because the case is as close as it gets to collusion."

For more, I`m joined by Betsy Woodruff, politics reporter for The Daily Beast, and David Corn, Washington bureau chief for "Mother Jones."

I want to get an overall question for Betsy, as a straight reporter.

And, David, you have an opinion about these things, and you`re also a straight reporter on the facts.

Let me get this. At the same time that we`re gathering more and more evidence of collusion and involvement by Americans and people, intermediaries -- intermediaries between us and the Russians about their attempt to disrupt and discredit -- that`s the key word -- discredit our electoral process, the essence of our republican form of government, these people, like the president and Putin, are blatantly denying it all.

Betsy, how do you put that together? Why are they -- are they doubling down on the cover-up? It looked like Trump -- looked like, not just colluding, but covering up for Putin yesterday.

BETSY WOODRUFF, THE DAILY BEAST: They`re just in denial about the paper trail.

The reality is that special counsel Mueller and prosecutors at the Justice Department are amassing more and more evidence every day pointing to the widespread and very sophisticated Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election.

Part of the reason that the Butina case is so uniquely important is that it`s the first evidence we have seen in federal court that connects a United States citizen directly to Russian efforts to interfere in the American political process.

The indictment of Maria Butina specifically says that there was a United States person who was trying to help her, who was giving her advice, making introductions for her, giving her a list of people in the United States she needed to get to know, particularly people in a major gun rights group, which reporters have identified as the NRA.

Butina had a U.S. citizen who was involved in this operation, a United States person who was there, and, according to the indictment, knowingly helping her advance the goals of the Russian Federation. That`s new, and that`s something that it`s going to be tough for the White House to try to pretend away.

MATTHEWS: Given all this, David, my friend, why did Trump act like not just a guy who defended Putin in regard to some issues, but he acted like Simon and Garfunkel? They were harmonizing yesterday.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: On every single syllable, he was backing -- I mean, it was embarrassing.

DAVID CORN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, this is...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: I don`t know two politicians in America that cover for as much as he covered for that guy yesterday. And he`s the -- he is the foe, competitor, whatever you call him. He is something that`s not American. And why Trump wants to sound like his brother, well, I don`t get it.

Can you explain? Because you have got a lot of theories.

CORN: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Is it because they got the dossier? Is it because they got him on something else? Is it -- it can`t be the grand strategy I used to believe as a possibility, because -- because Mueller knows a most of what Putin knows. But Putin knows the whole lie.

Why would he want -- why would Trump want to act like he bought the lie to a guy he`s trying to get the respect of? Putin knows he`s lying.

CORN: Well, you mentioned Simon and Garfunkel. I think this is a bridge over very troubled water.

And they`re standing on it together. In fact, in some ways, Trump is holding Putin up above the high water. I mean, what we -- everything that Trump said yesterday, none of it was new. He`s all said it before multiple times from the very beginning of the campaign and through his presidency.

He has been colluding with Putin to cover up, deny, dismiss, disregard a Russian attack on the United States. He`s done it time and time again.

Now, before this even happened, going back to 2013, we have talked about this -- and this in the book I wrote with Isikoff, "Russian Roulette" -- from 2013 on, Trump had this strong desire, as he put it, to be best friends with Putin, a murderous thug who runs a corrupt autocracy.

So, even before he ran for president, he had this psychological affinity for Putin. And we see the psychological affinity for strongmen around.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

CORN: So, I do think, because Trump has spent 30 years going back and forth to Russia, the Russians have something on him, as they would on anybody who`s traveled to Russia that much.

But I don`t think Putin needs to use it. I think Trump wants to be in this space. I think he`s drawn to Putin, the same way he`s repelled by Justin Trudeau.

MATTHEWS: It doesn`t explain why really he lip-synched the guy.

(CROSSTALK)

CORN: He doesn`t want to work with our allies.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: You can show respect for somebody, David, without lip-synching the guy.

CORN: Yes.

MATTHEWS: Anyway, during the same FOX interview, Putin was asked why so many people who have opposed him have ended up dead. This is Chris Wallace questioning.

Listen to what he had to say about this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WALLACE: Why is it that so many of the people that oppose Vladimir Putin end up dead or close to it?

PUTIN (through translator): Well, first of all, all of us have plenty of political rivals. I`m pretty sure President Trump has plenty of political rivals.

WALLACE: But they don`t end up dead.

PUTIN (through translator): Not always? Well, haven`t presidents been killed in the United States? Have you forgotten about...

(CROSSTALK)

PUTIN (through translator): Well, has Kennedy been killed in Russia or in the United States?

All of us have our own set of domestic problems.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Betsy, I don`t know what to put it, the most outrageous statement ever made by a foreign leader with an American leader and getting away -- with an American interviewer -- to say -- to bring out the case of Lee Harvey Oswald, who had just come from Russia to shoot Kennedy, who had gone to the Cuban Embassy in Mexico, had gone to the Soviet Embassy, who had all kinds of communist connections, including his infatuation with Fidel Castro, to bring up that name with an America broadcaster is just astounding to me as their example of how we have problems.

They brought that problem to us. Your thoughts. Why Kennedy, why Lee Harvey Oswald? Why would he do that?

WOODRUFF: It`s perplexing.

And perhaps Putin in some weird way is trying to troll American political figures by suggesting that somehow what happened to JFK decades ago is analogous to what`s happening to Putin`s critics every day, both in Moscow, in Russia and in the United Kingdom.

Another piece of that interview that was really important, shortly after Putin talked about, made this perplexing JFK analogy, Putin also suggested that civil rights activists in the United States, people who are concerned about police violence and the criminal justice system, are somehow also evidence that the United States has the same kind of problems that Russia has.

And the reason he would say something like that, likely, is because that`s the way Russian propaganda works. If you look at Russia Today or Sputnik News, state-backed Russian media outlets, they always point to sort of this broad civil rights, criminal justice reform effort in the United States, and try to suggest that it`s somehow evidence that the United States is not functioning well, when, in reality, peaceful protest is the best thing about this country.

But Russia likes pointing to that type of activism and suggesting that it`s something wrong with the country. So it`s not a surprise that Putin would use this stage that he had to try to take that same effort to try to undermine protesters in the United States.

CORN: It`s his form of saying...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Well, I watched his eyes yesterday, guys. I don`t -- I just got to make a final point.

I watched his eyes looking at Chris Wallace, who I think is a great reporter and a great interviewer. He looked like he wouldn`t -- like to get this guy into one of his chambers.

Anyway, thank you, Betsy Woodruff. And thank you, David Corn.

Up next: Did we witness collusion in plain sight during Trump`s visit to Helsinki? I thought so. And what impact, if any, will it have on the Mueller investigation? What did Mueller and his experts see in that strange interview where Trump was trying to be best, harmonious buddy of Putin?

The HARDBALL show continuous, where the action is.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Yesterday, President Trump said he saw no reason to believe that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election, no reason to believe it.

Well, shortly after yesterday`s press conference, "The Washington Post" ran an editorial that said: "In refusing to acknowledge the plain facts about Russia`s behavior, while trashing his own country`s justice system, Mr. Trump, in fact, was openly colluding with the criminal leader of a hostile power."

Well, today, after 24 hours of outrage, he walked back his remarks, only technically. The president also argued that the Mueller probe was at fault in for damaging the relationship between the United States and Russia. Let`s watch that joke.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think that the probe is a disaster for our country. I think it`s kept us apart. It`s kept us separated.

There was no collusion at all. Everybody knows it. We won that race. And it`s a shame that there could be a little bit of a cloud over it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Well, think about the dozens of indictments that exist, Mr. President.

So, what`s Mueller`s takeaway, Mueller`s, from yesterday`s meeting in Helsinki and the president`s comments today?

I`m joined right now by Pennsylvania Republican Congressman Ryan Costello, and also by Joyce Vance, a former U.S. attorney.

Joyce, I want to start with you.

You know the way that these teams, these investigators work and these prosecutors work. In what they saw yesterday in Helsinki, and what they saw in this modest cover-up today by the president, what are they seeing that would propel their investigations and their mission?

JOYCE VANCE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: So, I don`t know that it propels their investigation directly.

Certainly, a videotape of yesterday`s press conference would be exhibit A if Congress were to decide to take proceedings and have the president held politically accountable for his misconduct yesterday.

Where it may prove very interesting for Mueller`s team -- and this is one of those known unknowns that we all ponder -- Mueller obviously have a lot of folks on his radar screen. We don`t know who all he considers to be a subject or a target. Watching their reaction to events between the indictments on Friday and then this incredible summit event on Monday could be very telling for Mueller in terms of how and who he proceeds against.

MATTHEWS: Congressman, if Barack Obama, when he was president, had talked like Trump when he was a candidate in the "Access Hollywood" tape, I think he would have been almost removed just for that.

If a Democratic president were -- Hillary Clinton, if she were president, or Barack Obama, since he was -- had sold us out to the enemy, sold us out the Russia the way Trump did yesterday, I really believe impeachment would have started just for that performance.

Your thoughts about this sort of discriminatory way we look at things? Trump can get away with anything when it comes to the Republican Party.

REP. RYAN COSTELLO (R), PENNSYLVANIA: Well, we would certainly be calling it an apology tour, because that`s -- that`s what I felt that it was yesterday.

MATTHEWS: Yes. Yes.

COSTELLO: The partisan dimension here shouldn`t be avoided.

But I do want to hone in on something else that Betsy mentioned before the break. And that is the real long-term, durable damage here is in a state like Bosnia, where they`re about to have elections in the fall, and Russia is going to have proxy candidates up. And they`re going to deny that Russia is propping them up and that they`re interfering.

And everyone`s going to look at the president of the United States and say, he heard what the intelligence community said in his own country, and he listened to Vladimir Putin, and even he doesn`t think the Russians are meddling in elections.

That is the long-term, very serious damage to our standing as the leader of the free world and with our president and who we are as a country.

Politically, partisan-wise, certainly,if a Democratic president had said -- what President Trump had done, you would -- we`d be lighting them up right now.

MATTHEWS: Do you think he was covering yesterday for Putin or covering for himself, or both? Because I get the sense sometimes it`s mainly for himself, because, if he admits that there were Russians meddling in the election in 2016, he wasn`t quite elected. Your thoughts?

COSTELLO: Well, you do hear that he -- he conflates Russian interference with delegitimizing his victory.

But, at some point, he has to get beyond that. And, at that point in time, I think the broader question, as you have laid it out, is, there`s something about him and Putin. He just wants to be close with him for some reason.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

COSTELLO: I don`t think that there`s collusion here. And here`s why.

I don`t think that Vladimir Putin has come to any sort of agreement with President Trump. I think Vladimir Putin played him in Helsinki. That`s what happened. And I think that it`s embarrassing for all of us to see. It was a disgraceful display.

I have never seen in my lifetime -- and I have a lot of Steve Kornacki in me, right? I watch everything from every president. I get really into it. I have never seen anything like that. It -- it really is disturbing.

And if you look, the press conference with Prime Minister May, that wasn`t any better. I mean, that was not statesmanship. He was bouncing all over the place there as well.

MATTHEWS: Well, Steve Kornacki`s book is great. I have read the whole book and gone through it very meticulously. It`s very brilliant.

Let me ask you about, will the Republican Party, those who are independent to some extent of Trump, be willing to get out there and legislate a defense, a protection of Mueller`s investigation?

COSTELLO: Well, we have a bill that does just that.

But, because you`re not going to see Mueller removed, I don`t think you`re going to see any momentum or appetite to take that bill up. I think if there`s one area where you could see some momentum, it would be in the Senate, and it would be on legislation that would impose additional sanctions if we see any evidence of Russian interference in the 2018 midterm elections.

Then you`re also going to see a bill I have also sponsored on the tariffs issue. I mean, the use of 232 national security to implement tariffs, the way that the president has done, is not only misguided, but it`s actually not allowed. It`s not permissible. George W. Bush did it in the early 2000s, and it was struck down by WTO.

But in terms of what the president said at Helsinki, there`s no taking that back. I mean, he can walk it back. There`s nothing we can do to prevent him from saying something that we could be embarrassed by. That`s -- I mean, he`s elected to a four-year term, and you need to see robust oversight.

But there`s -- the check and balances is in having members speak out when they disagree or they`re bothered by what he says or does.

MATTHEWS: Joyce, according -- in reference to that four-year term, let`s talk about, well, it wouldn`t be a four-year term.

I have been told by lawyers that a conspiracy -- the Russians could have be seen as having been involved in a criminal conspiracy to disrupt and discredit our electoral process. If Donald Trump yesterday went on the national stage and furthered that conspiracy, furthered, supported, wouldn`t that be part of the conspiracy?

Wouldn`t he be criminally vulnerable, exposed?

VANCE: It is.

Conspiracies are interesting creatures, in terms of the law that guides them. They`re ongoing crimes. They`re not committed just on one day, like a bank robbery.

MATTHEWS: Right.

VANCE: So they start when the agreement is reached or when early steps towards it are taken, and they continue through a cover-up on the end.

So, if we assume for a minute that there is a large overarching conspiracy here, then anyone who take steps to continue to try to keep that conspiracy from coming to light is guilty as part of that conspiracy process, at least for aiding and abetting.

MATTHEWS: Thank you so much. That`s what I have been told to believe.

Thank you, U.S. Congressman Ryan Costello. Good luck, sir. And thank you for joining us tonight, and Joyce Vance for your expertise.

Up next, the continued fallout from Trump`s visit with Putin, will Republicans call out the president`s wild spin today, this little Mickey Mouse thing he pulled about "I got the wrong word in there" to rationalize what he`s been saying?

Plus, President Obama gave a -- I thought it was a great speech today and he took some not-so-veiled shot at his successor. You know who that is.

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I accept our intelligence community`s inclusion that Russia`s meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people also. There`s a lot of people out there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

That was President Trump this afternoon attempting to clean up following yesterday`s press conference with Russian President Putin. It was a classic example of spin.

First, he admitted he had made a mistake and that was honest certainly. And then he said something totally dishonest that all he did was forget to use the word "not".

Let`s bring in tonight`s HARDBALL roundtable. Anita Kumar, White House correspondent for "McClatchy" newspapers, Dana Milbank, political columnist for "The Washington Post", and Sam Stein, politics editor for "The Daily Beast".

Glad to have you all here.

Let me ask you, Dana, about the -- what`s this ridiculous Mickey Mouse little spin number he did. Nobody thinks it was a miss word, missed word. Nobody thinks the whole theme of the thing was that Putin was swell, I love the guy, he didn`t do nothing wrong. It`s not about a word.

DANA MILBANK, POLITICAL COLUMNIST, THE WASHINGTON POST: No, I mean, if you miss a word, you correct it on the spot or at the very least when you`re told about it a couple of minutes later. I mean, that picture of Trumps sitting there reading this forcibly, the only thing missing is John Kelly under the table with a cattle prod if he goes off script.

So, I think what this does do is something. It`s a bit of a fig leaf to Newt Gingrich or Fox News, wants to say, hey, he retracted that, they can do that.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

MILBANK: It might take some of the impetus out of the resolution in the Senate. But it was the spectacle yesterday. It wasn`t just what he said.

I mean, tomorrow he`ll be back to saying it was a 400-pound man sitting on his bed. It was the spectacle that did the damage. And you can`t unring that bell.

MATTHEWS: Anita, it reminded me of when he finally said the birtherism stuff was crap, when he finally said under duress, sometime I think September of `16. He just came and said, oh, by the way, Barack Obama was born the United States and then as if what nothing had to happen for terms of lying about it.

Your thoughts?

ANITA KUMAR, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, MCCLATCHY: You what it actually reminded me of the incident in Charlottesville last year, where he said one thing, he got a lot of criticism, he and then I think he read from a piece of paper and took it all back. And then, was it a day later or 24 hours later, he was back to the original thing. It reminded me exactly of that.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: What do his peeps think as? Sam, what do his peeps think? Do they believe he doesn`t could these little fixes of his, these little Mickey Mouse fixes? Do they believe he`s just -- believed he`s doing that because the press makes him do it and it doesn`t really matter? What they really do is they like what he said the first time.

SAM STEIN, POLITICS EDITOR, THE DAILY BEAST: I mean, first of all, I think Dana`s right. I think this was done because people in the Republican Party need a fig leaf to say, well, you know, he took it back. But let`s just not even -- let`s not give him that, he didn`t take it back.

What he said was I believe our intelligence community but it could be someone else, i.e. the 400-pound guy in the basement. So, I don`t think this is a walk back at all.

And to your question, Chris, do his people -- what do they actually believe? I think they know that he`s going through a song-and-dance right now when he has to sit there and read a paper like it`s a hostage video. I think that they truly believe that the guy who stood up next to Putin and act acted obsequious towards Putin is the real Trump and they don`t mind it. They`re willing to be led down that route a lot of these people.

As you saw the president this morning, he was saying, well, Rand Paul supports me. Rand Paul has some of the most vigorous defenders in the Republican Party and they are transferred to Donald Trump in this case.

KUMAR: Yes, and here`s the thing it wasn`t just that he said or would and would not. It wasn`t one sentence. He had said over and over in 45 minutes that both countries were to blame for the bad relations. He didn`t just say at one time. He said several times, so you can`t take --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: -- which is all they want to do is be able to say, he walked it back. that`s what --

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: This major speech since -- we got to go on -- first major speech since leaving the White House, former President Barack Obama, remember him, how great he was, warned against the rise of strongman politics, he called it and while he did not mention President Trump by name, he took some subtle or whatever, swipes at Trump. Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT: The politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment began to appear and that kind of politics is now on the move. But those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning.

We feed them the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they`re caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Let me go to Anita. That`s what I like this that crowd, that huge crowd they`re all caught his idiom, they caught his references, at least the ones on the camera. He was completely communicating with that crowd. I thought it was fantastic.

Your thoughts about the president down there in Joburg?

KUMAR: Yes, I`ve been really surprised actually that we haven`t heard more from him. He definitely has been holding back. You know, people -- Democrats have been asking him, begging him really to get out there in sort of counter President Trump and he really has resisted.

And I think this is going to be the beginning of maybe he`ll be doing more of this as he hits the campaign trail.

MILBANK: It`s a delicate maneuver though because you don`t want this to become Trump versus Obama again. You want this to be Trump or not Trump.

Obama is vital to have him out there rallying the vote, getting out the vote, particularly minority voters who need to turnout in huge numbers. He`s an absolutely essential asset but he also can`t be the messenger for the Democrats.

MATTHEWS: Sam, can he take a punch at this point the president, former president?

STEIN: Can Obama take punch? Sure. The question is does he have too much respect for the norms and the precedents of ex-presidents not weighing in on their successors while they`re in office?

And, you know, there`s a lot of growing frustration among Democrats as was referenced earlier about the fact that Obama has been basically largely on the sidelines. He weighs in with Facebook posts when keep tenets of his legislation are being disemboweled like the Iran deal.

MATTHEWS: Sure.

STEIN: And the Affordable Care Act. But he has largely refrained from getting at it at Trump in a sort of guttural partisan way.

And I get Dana`s point. You know, you don`t want to set up a frame that maybe he`s not advantageous, but what I hear continuously from Democrats is that we are at a place that it is existential, that the stakes are way too high that people just can`t afford to sit in silence, let alone the best communicator in the Democratic Party and that it continues to be Barack Obama.

MATTHEWS: Well said.

The round table sticking with us. You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We`ll be right back with the HARDBALL roundtable. And up next, these three will tell me something I don`t know. You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: We are back with a HARDBALL roundtable.

Anita, tell me something I don`t know.

KUMAR: The second quarter fundraising numbers just came out in the last couple days and Republicans are increasingly worried because more than 70 Democratic candidates have out-raised the Republican challengers, including 50 Republican incumbents.

MATTHEWS: I think that 50 is the number I`ve been watching, too.

Dana?

MILBANK: Well, the president`s European trip was a disaster but it was not a total loss for him. A Scottish newspaper reports that U.S. taxpayers pay $70,000 to Turnberry his golf club there for his weekend of golfing and it is just a reminder that we all pay for Donald Trump.

MATTHEWS: What do we get for that?

(CROSSTALK)

MILBANK: Well, we got a great spectacle to watch.

MATTHEWS: Are you kidding me? Really, what was the payment for? Do we know?

MILBANK: Security and all his staff staying there and, you know, it`s a lovely emolument.

MATTHEWS: OK, Sam, your thoughts? What do you got for me?

MILBANK: So, tucked in to President Obama`s speech in Johannesburg was a reference to universal basic income which is a popular policy among the Bernie Sanders types, sort of on the fringe of the Democratic Party but it`s gaining a lot of traction. I think President Obama giving a casual endorsement, not full endorsement, a casual endorsement of the concept actually could elevate it even further within Democratic ranks.

MATTHEWS: Well, that means a lot more in South Africa, too. By the way, thank you Anita Kumar, and thank you, Dana Milbank and Sam Stein.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS: Trump Watch, Tuesday, July 17th, 2018.

Today, Donald Trump, the president of the United States, engaged in damage control. He was forced by circumstances to get himself at least for the moment out of being seen as either a liar or stupid. So, someone on his staff rehearsed him with a classic bit of what we call spin.

Now, there are two steps to spin. Step one, you make a true statement, thereby creating a moment of perceived honesty. You must be telling the truth because just this moment, you admitted something damaging to yourself. Step two, you use this moment of perceived honesty on your part to say something totally dishonest.

So, following this classic two-step method of spin, Trump said he wanted to correct what he said yesterday in Helsinki. And then with the media ready to tell his story, Trump said the mistake he made was to say he couldn`t see any reason why the Russians would have interfered in the 2016 elections when he wanted to say wouldn`t.

Trump isn`t correcting his continual siding with Putin against our intelligence agencies, he`s simply spinning.

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

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.

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