Show: HARDBALL Date: December 21, 2018 Guest: Tim Ryan, Ron Reagan, Zerlina Maxwell, Rick Tyler, Amanda Terkel, Eric Swalwell, Sam Stein
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR: Let`s play Trump. Let`s play HARDBALL.
Good evening, I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.
We are now five hours away from a government shutdown. An hour ago, senate leaders made clear no deal has been reached. And President Trump tweeted he has he has cancelled his trip to Florida while waiting on a deal.
From a White House that careens from crisis to crisis, the last week has been one for the history books after President Trump`s roller coaster instinct plunged Washington into chaos.
On Capitol Hill today, senators scrambled back to Washington to vote on a measure to keep the government open a mini standoff over funding for the President`s border wall. The stalemate, driven by the demands of the hard right media, leaves the markets rattled, even worse over the prospect of a shutdown. And amid of it all, the last guard real (ph) stability within the administration, defense secretary Jim Mattis now headed out after resigning and delivering a stinging rebuke to President Trump`s foreign policy.
And today, the President remain defiant, doubling down on his demand to deliver a campaign promise.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now, it`s up to the Democrats as to whether or not we have a shutdown tonight. I hope we don`t. But we are totally prepared for a very long shutdown. And this is our only chance we will ever have, in our opinion, because of the world and the way it breaks out to get great border security.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Trump started today ready for battle firing off nearly a dozen tweets blaming Democrats for the prospect of a shutdown and doubling down on demands for funding for his wall. He also zeroed in on the top Republican in the Senate writing senator Mitch McConnell should fight for the wall and border security as hard as he fought for anything.
Trump went on a step further writing, Mitch, use the nuclear option and get it done. Our country is counting on you.
While the "Washington Post" reports that the escalating chaos was a product of a press under siege noting Trump was in what one Republican close to the White House describe as a tailspin, acting totally irrationally and flipping out over criticism in the media.
The report goes on to add, he had no plan but was spoiling for a fight. He got one senate, he got one. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer called the process a pointless exercise. Here goes.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), MINORITY LEADER: President Trump, you will not get your wall. Abandoning your shutdown strategy. You are not getting the wall today, next week, or on January third when democrats take control of the House.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: I`m joined right now by a highly Democratic congressman Tim Ryan, Heidi Pryzbyla, national political correspondent for NBC News, Phil Rucker, White House bureau chief for the "Washington Post" and author Ron Reagan."
Thank you all. So little time, so much craziness.
I want to go to the congressman. This President is behaving like Henry the VIII. Like a guy who just can`t get his divorce, he can`t get his remarriage, can`t win what he wants from anybody. And he is in a tantrum. Last night, after saying he pulled troops out of Syria. OK. He pulled 7,000 troops out of Afghanistan to sort of show how angry he is as the secretary of defense. He is not acting like a serious leader.
REP. TIM RYAN (D), OHIO: No. No doubt about it. Promising the Senate that he was going to go along with the original deal, back-pedals --.
MATTHEWS: Yes. Keeping the government open.
RYAN: Wakes up the next morning, sees Ann Coulter, sees Rush Limbaugh, sees Laura Ingraham, the right wing talk radio circuit blasts him. He gets spooked. The next thing you know we are heading for a government shutdown.
MATTHEWS: Well, Rush Limbaugh, I guess you can list on why are you working in the beauty shop, working in the shop or driving a cab, fine, he is a past time. How does he become - Heidi, you take this, how does he become the leader of the country? I mean, it is part performance art. We all know what these guys do for radio for three hours. You got to be a performer. But you are not the President. But the President-elected is doing what they want. Listen to Ann Coulter, who is a great show. Bit who would think this is her as governing the United States?
HEIDI PRYZBYLA, NBC NEWS NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: This is just exposing what has been there all along that has been the symbiosis. The only thing that is different right now is that instead of praising him, they are lighting him up. It`s not any secret that the President talks regularly that one of his top advisers, informal advisers is Sean Hannity. And there is no doubt that this is exactly what happened like the congressman said, even the conservative Republicans, who I spoke to on the hill today, they all thought they had deal, they left town. Poor senator shots went back to Hawaii and spent few minutes with his kid and had to turn around and come back. And why? It was because people turned on him.
MATTHEWS: Because it is like the cheerleaders calling the place on the field.
Cheerleaders are supposed to cheer. They are not supposed to call the plays in the football game. You have Hannity, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh are telling the President what to do.
I want to go to Phil, because your report has been unbelievable. I don`t know how you get sources in the White House. But you have got people. You are chuckling. You have got sources sitting with the President in the oval office who are rating him out every night saying he is in a tailspin. I know you are frowning. Tailspin is pretty rough.
PHIL RUCKER, WHITE HOUSE BUREAU CHIEF, WASHINGTON POST: Yes. No, it`s pretty - it has been a rough week.
MATTHEWS: He sounds nutty, according to your source who are in the White House.
RUCKER: Well, here`s the deal. I think he is afraid. He lives in perpetual fear of losing his conservative base. He has seen through the day, Wednesday. Wednesday night especially. Thursday morning on TV, an erosion of support. FOX and friends is one of the friendliest sort of enclaves of support for Trump. Their host was going after Trump on Thursday morning. It spooked the President, as Congressman Ryan said. And our reporting indicates this all is a reaction to his fear of losing his this wholes --?
MATTHEWS: OK. Who is leading the Congo line? Is it the people out there who listen to Rush Limbaugh on the radio from 12:00 to 3:00 eastern? Is it Rush Limbaugh, himself, or is it the President, based upon your reporting, who is leaning the line?
RUCKER: Well the President is the President.
MATTHEWS: Is he leaning?
RUCKER: That he is listening to what these others are saying.
MATTHEWS: No. Is Rush Limbaugh calling the shots or his listeners calling the shots?
RUCKER: Well, this week I am with -- with the shutdown, I would say Rush Limbaugh is calling the shots.
MATTHEWS: So I think.
Go ahead, congressman.
RYAN: Well, you factor in the Mueller investigation, which is just hanging in the background there. He knows that if he is going to protect himself in 2019.
MATTHEWS: Thank you.
RYAN: He needs the conservative base.
MATTHEWS: He needs at least a third of the U.S. Senate plus one or he will be kicked out of office. He needs 34 senators.
MATTHEWS: It is the way I was thinking today.
Anyway, Trump`s power, that was Nixon, by the way, Trump`s power play over wall funding may turned out to have been largely for show. "The Washington Post" reports Trump`s adviser acknowledges that the funding may not be secure on the end, but boasted that the spectacle will be remembered favorably by his base voters as proof of his mettle.
In fact, today, radio show Rush Limbaugh, praised the President - well, he should, he has tell him what to do. Let`s watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Here we have somebody to shake it all up and shake it all up is exactly what`s going -- this is exactly what it looks like. This is what pushing back against the Washington establishment looks like. And it was never going to be pretty. It was never going to be clean. It was never going to be supportive and so forth. Man, there is panic!
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: And there is a guy, the gob shirt in Palm Beach telling the President what to do. This is crazy, the Tennessee Republican senator Bob Corker slammed the influence of Rush Limbaugh and others.
According to a "Daily Beast" reporter, Corker said, do we succumb to the tyranny of talk radio show hosts? I mean, this is juvenile place we find ourselves. The reason we are here, is that we have a couple talk-radio hosts that get the President all spun up. You use the term, spun up. Let me get Ron Reagan on this. Tell me what you think of this guy and what`s going on this week? It`s not that he`s the ideolog in chief. It`s not that he is a tyrant or dictator, he is being dictated to by all talk radio. Your thoughts, Ron Reagan.
RON REAGAN, AUTHOR/COMMENTATOR: Well, it`s true. I mean, who exactly is running domestic policy here? Is it Anne Coulter? Is it Sean Hannity? Is it FOX and friends? Who is running our foreign policy? Is it Recep Erdogan of Turkey who suggests that we get out of Syria? And the next thing you know, that everyone is surprised in the White House, that`s what Donald Trump has decided he is going to do.
But the issue is not just that these people have a voice. It is that Donald Trump has no ideas. Donald trump knows nothing. He is an empty vessel that can be filled up by these sorts of people. And that that is really scary thing.
MATTHEWS: Well, let me ask you about the sense of the media. Is it the people at home that Rush Limbaugh is worried about, so he tries to get ahead of the crowd or is it the people that pushed him? Is it the reaction he is getting from the real whacko right? I mean, if you listen to yourself, if you go in the social media and listen to the far out people, you are going to go crazy.
MATTHEWS: Because the far out people, the angriest people, they are responsible, except ordering pancakes from mom upstairs. I`m sorry, that will drive some people crazy. Mom, I just brought down the government. Can I have pancakes?
MATTHEWS: But the fact is they are making these. And Rush Limbaugh, I know if you listen to the guy changing tires, nothing with the guy changing tires, but he shouldn`t decide whether we pull our troops out of Syria. Just a thought.
REAGAN: I think it`s all symbiotic there. I mean, FOX`s ratings depend on Trump`s base and Trump`s popularity, of course, depends on his base. So they are all just feeding off of each other. But without that base, it all falls apart. The Republicans aren`t going to do anything about Donald Trump, themselves, congressional Republicans until the base desserts him. And it doesn`t look like the base ever will. I mean if they were going to, they would have by now.
MATTHEWS: Why not? Have you ever seen anything like there?
MATTHEWS: I mean, even your dad, he was enormously popular on the right would have a bad year like 1982. People would sigh, I don`t like the economy, so I don`t like Reagan this week. This is kind of seems to have as rig.
Anyway, Congressman Ryan, you had some words in House floor like night. This one is (INAUDIBLE). I love how you did this. Let`s watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RYAN: You guys are living in the past and this government is in chaos. It`s in a freefall. The market`s in a freefall. The staffing at the White House is in a freefall. The secretary of defense is gone. We are pulling out of Syria. What is going on? You are in charge of the house, Senate and White House. Get a grip and learn how to govern the country.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Wow! It`s like network. I mean, I think you had a great stream of consciousness there, it`s all logic and it is happening in the last, three four days. All this hell.
RYAN: Yes. No doubt about that.
MATTHEWS: The market kept crawling down. It`s down again today. And even with the 401K is dying. And the President is flipping the cabinet secretaries like. I don`t know, like pancakes, again another reference to pancakes. I don`t know why. I mean, it is all -- no, it`s all bad. And he seems like Peter to the Hermit as Phil points out hiding in the White House, quaking his boots in a tailspin.
MATTHEWS: I once had a flight attendant say we are in a tailspin and I believed her. And the President of the United States. What do we say about a President tailspin, congressman?
RYAN: Like he had all these plates, you know, that he was spinning.
RYAN: And at some point you knew it was not going to stay that way and this week seemed like the week it all came to a head, they started crashing down. And I think the big piece was Mattis. I mean, there was international support, bipartisan support for what Mattis is doing. It`s the only part of the government that actually has a long-term strategy moving forward against Russia, against China, what we need to do over the next 30, 40 years. That`s the only piece of the government. Now he has gone and basically said he has no respect for the President of the way out the door.
MATTHEWS: He has won the argument, Mattis. He won the argument going out the door. That letter was power. And again, he obviously had a lot of money -- mental effort into it. He spent all night writing it, probably. And he nailed the President.
PRYZBYLA: And I think what`s different about this departure, Chris is, first of all, he is the last one in this circle of three, General Kelly, who were surrounding him, surrounding Trump and who we were all told from the very beginning who Senator Corker, himself, said, these are the people who are going to surround this President and make sure that even though he has no experience in the military, he has no experience in government, that he is going to make good decisions.
Well, they are all gone now. And Mattis is the first one who said, I`m so disturbed that I actually want to go out in flames and tell the American people what`s really going on in my letter.
MATTHEWS: So, Heidi, stay with this. Where does the President go without his trainer wheels? Will the bike (ph) without the trainer wheels? All of a sudden you got to ride. Can he ride without these three?
PRYZBYLA: By definition, whatever follows is not going to be of the same caliber and of the same standard as what preceded it. And we have seen that with some of the other, I won`t go into names but with some of the other replacements, because it spooks the next round of candidates who might be in line for this position.
MATTHEWS: What scared me today beyond all this market stuff, it does scare me. Where are going to hide money even today. They are saying the best way to hide your money is under your mattress. That`s I bet it is done. Actually, the experts are saying, but when you see Jared Kushner going to Capitol Hill, representing the President and goes back to what I have been warning about for two years, the Romanoff`s. This crazy thing where the only people to have any power in this White House are family members, Jared Kushners is going to tell the leaders of Congress how to agree to the President of the wall. That`s scary.
RUCKER: Well, Chris, Jared Kushner told the leaders of Congress to pass that criminal justice reform bill and Mitch McConnell did and the President signed it.
MATTHEWS: What do you make of that?
RUCKER: Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump are ascended in the White House. There was a period for a while under General Kelly where they were kind of pushed out and did not have full power. And they are taking advantage of these vacancies in the building and then in the administration to assert power with the President, you know. They are behind the new selection of the chief of staff, in part.
MATTHEWS: You know, hey, Ron, don`t you miss the fact that your dad could have made you in charge of Middle East policy, criminal justice reform? Don`t feel you were left out in the family? Did you have any toys at Christmas?
REAGAN: I do. I could have had a huge portfolio. But then my father was sane.
MATTHEWS: I know he was that.
The President by the way, this President, tried to link his wall demand to President Reagan today. But as "the Washington Post" accurately reported, President Reagan said, back then, rather than talk about putting up a fence, why don`t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems and make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit. And then while they are working and earning, they get to pay taxes here. That`s what your father actually said, bad try. No, not even a cigar for the President this time.
REAGAN: No, just some Pinocchios. I mean, whose version of Ronald Reagan are you going to believe? Donald Trump`s or Ronald Reagan`s? I think we know the answer.
MATTHEWS: I`m with you. I`m with you, sonny. Thanks so much. You didn`t get nothing under the Christmas tree.
Anyway, what a joke. Anyway, I did say from the beginning that this is a royal family. It`s a joke.
Anyway, the President isn`t here but the congressman is, Tim Ryan, great leadership yesterday and today.
Thank you, Heidi, as always, great reporting.
Phil Rucker, you are inside the head of this President and Ron Reagan who doesn`t want to be.
Coming up, does Trump really think he can win the blame game if the government shuts down? Well, it`s shut down by night -- by midnight. He is no longer proud to shut down, isn`t he? Well, he won`t make American taxpayers pay for his wall? What? I thought the Mexicans were paying for wall.
And another stabilizing force makes a dramatic exit from the White House? Is there anybody left to check Trump`s more dangerous impulses.
Plus, a closer look at Trump and Republican lawmakers, could they end up turning on him after all?
Finally, let me finish tonight with a reminder of the competent joy our political ears can give us.
This is HARDBALL where the action is.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
President Trump has spent the past two days stewing over the chaos that he has unleashed in Washington. Angry and frustrated that his base sends weak inside, he is now trying to rebrand the fight.
In a series of morning tweets, the President began blaming Democrats for the (INAUDIBLE) saying they owned the shutdown of the government. Later this afternoon the President`s party controls all three branches of the government, still, repeating that message.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: It`s up to the Democrats. So it`s really the Democrat shutdown, because we have done our thing.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: It was just ten days ago, however that the President proudly proclaimed the Democrats and the world that was watching, that he alone would assume the responsibility of a shutdown over the wall.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If we don`t get what we want one way or the other, whether it`s through you, through a military, through anything you want to call, I will shut down the government, absolutely.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: OK.
TRUMP: I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck.
I will take the mantle. I will be the to shut it down. I`m not going to blame you for it. The last time you shut it down it didn`t work. I will take the mantle of shutting down.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: "I`m not going to blame you for it."
For more, I`m joined by Zerlina Maxwell, director of progressive programming for SiriusXM, and Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist.
This is a -- I don`t know. This is probably a gimme for Zerlina.
But go ahead. Here`s your chance, because he basically said it in that quote 10 days ago, that Chuck will not be blamed, which means the Democratic leadership will not be blamed for the fact that what`s happening this midnight, which is the shutting down of the United States government.
ZERLINA MAXWELL, SIRIUSXM RADIO: Well, when the president is the most desperate, he lashes out and he makes the lies bigger and bigger.
I mean, everybody watching knows that Mexico was supposed to pay for the wall. So I don`t even know why the president is launching into a debate with Democrats about how much funding American taxpayers will put towards this wall that Mexico was supposed to pay for in the first place.
And if the president is not going to cop to the lie that Mexico is going to pay for it, he needs to tell us so, because, right now, what he`s doing is just flailing around and trying to blame everybody but himself for the lie that he told the American people to get elected.
MATTHEWS: I think, Rick, everybody in America -- this doesn`t take science -- political science. Everybody in America now knows the issue who reads any newspaper, who watches television, knows that this is over the wall.
Is that OK with you? Is that a way -- OK with Republicans, that that`s what it`s about, the wall?
RICK TYLER, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, it`s about the wall, but, look, the wall -- walls makes sense in certain places. They don`t make sense in all places.
And, remember, this started out that -- as Zerlina said, that Mexico was going to pay for the wall. Then it was a $25 billion request from the president. And then Chuck Schumer actually gave him $20 million (sic) in exchange for DACA. That`s the deal he should have taken. He didn`t take that deal.
And now he`s down to $5.7 billion. He will ultimately get nothing. So there`s your -- there`s your great deal-maker. And in that meeting that we just watched, at the beginning of that meeting, Chuck Schumer pointed out that Donald Trump had said he wanted a shutdown 20 times.
By the end of that meeting, he had said it 27 times. So it`s pretty clear -- and the whole purpose of the meeting was to get Donald Trump on record as soon as the cameras turned on is that he was going to take the blame for the shutdown.
MATTHEWS: That may be one time, Rick and Zerlina, that the Democrats won a tactical fight. I mean, they`re standing there. They`re all in the room, and it`s for television, that camera.
Reagan -- not Reagan -- Trump brought in the cameras, Zerlina, brought in the cameras, so he could win the fistfight.
MATTHEWS: And Nancy was very strong, the future speaker, and Chuck wouldn`t even give the president eye contact, if you watched. He looked straight ahead. He wouldn`t let it be the boys against the girl. He wouldn`t let -- play that game, which Trump was trying to play.
And he`s there with his widespread legs, the whole number Trump`s doing of being big Mr. Macho. You saw what he was doing there.
MATTHEWS: And the other guy was imitating him, his V.P., who is always imitating, was doing the same thing.
But it was a play, a vignette, if you will, that didn`t work. All it ended up doing, it was like Chuck -- Chuck got him into saying, OK, blame me. I mean, I have never seen -- it was a better play than I have seen those guys play, the Democrats, in a long time, maybe because they won the election.
MAXWELL: I agree with you, Chris. Well, I agree with you, Chris.
And I think that what the Democrats have learned by watching Trump in the position of being the minority party all this time is that you have to get under his skin. And the way to do that is to sort of rib at him.
And what Chuck Schumer did was, you know, he`s probably dealt with many times as a senator from New York. And so he knows that, if you don`t look at Donald Trump, you give him just a slight modicum of disrespect in a moment where he`s trying to perform for the cameras because he`s convinced that he`s the best deal-maker, and he`s the art of the deal, he`s the mastermind -- but when it is all plain as day for the American people to see, I think that the con that he really fed the American people is exposed.
He said Mexico was going to pay for the wall. So why are we even debating the amount the American taxpayers are going to pay?
MATTHEWS: You`re not going to give him up on that Mexico thing, are you?
MAXWELL: I`m not giving up, because that is a major problem.
MATTHEWS: That is another Trump tactic.
MAXWELL: That`s the big lie.
MATTHEWS: Like, he won`t give up on what`s her name and the Indian background thing.
MATTHEWS: He will never give up.
MATTHEWS: Pocahontas. He will never give -- people learn now. They`re learning the tactic.
I`m wondering, Rick. You`re an expert on this. Could it be -- I didn`t think I would ask this question tonight -- that Democrats are learning how to debate Donald Trump, and the candidate who runs next time, in less than a year, we will know who it is, pretty much, are going to learn how to stand up to him?
You think that`s what seeing here, standing up the Trump, in the TV camera way?
TYLER: It`s all of these things.
And, remember, Chris, the wall that he`s now proposing is made out of steel. They`re tariffs on steel. So whatever wall he builds out of steel is going to be substantially more expensive than it would have been, because -- it just goes on and on with this guy.
MATTHEWS: By the way, if there` a steel wall that`s 100 feet long, people who want to come in this country will walk around that wall.
TYLER: They will figure it out.
MATTHEWS: Like, they`re not going to climb over a wall that is only a couple hundred week.
That`s the craziest thing I have ever heard of. What good is a 100-foot wall, and there`s a multi-multi-hundred-mile border?
TYLER: The most often quote the Republicans used to make in speeches was quoting Ronald Reagan, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.
TYLER: And now we are trying to build a wall. And the reason we`re building a wall is because we don`t want people who are not white coming across the southern border. And that`s what this is about.
MATTHEWS: You have said that well, haven`t you?
Anyway, well, maybe sensing he was losing the P.R. war, "The Washington Post" reported that Trump urged aides to go on TV on Thursday night -- that`s last night -- and defend the administration after a brutal day politically.
Almost immediately, his aides and allies blanketed the airwaves and have not stopped. Here is some of the show they put on.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
STEPHEN MILLER, SENIOR ADVISER TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: If Democrats don`t want the government to shut down, support border security. It`s that simple.
MERCEDES SCHLAPP, WHITE HOUSE DIRECTOR OF STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS: This is keeping to a promise. And this is something that the president has been very clear on from day one. We need the Democrats to come on board.
And if the president -- if the Democrats continue to put politics over country, politics over the safety of the American people, they`re going to -- they will end up losing. They will pay a political price.
KAYLEIGH MCENANY, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE SPOKESPERSON: So I do think the Democrats will own. This will be a second Schumer shutdown. This president has compromised. Democrats haven`t even taken -- taken one step towards the president.
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It`s a sad day in America when the Mexican government is doing more to protect the American people than Senate Democrats.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: I don`t know, Zerlina. I don`t think that is selling beyond the 40 percent mark right there.
And, by the way, if I were a Democrat, I would beg them to put Steve Mueller on a lot. Keep putting Miller on.
MAXWELL: I know. Please put him on the time, with the hair, please.
MATTHEWS: Well, whatever that.
I just think he`s just hard, too hard, just too nasty.
MATTHEWS: And, by the way, these people that come on TV and ignore the person`s questions, everybody knows they`re doing it. It`s not a game. It may have worked 30 years ago.
MATTHEWS: Thank you, Zerlina Maxwell, who is an expert at such things.
MAXWELL: Thank you.
MATTHEWS: And I mean it, the good stuff.
Rick Tyler, both of you, merry Christmas.
TYLER: Merry Christmas.
MATTHEWS: And up next: The dramatic departure of Trump`s secretary of defense sends shockwaves across our country and, guess what, around the world. The whole world saw this, and their hearts sunk.
Is there anybody left to rein in Trump`s impulses?
This is HARDBALL, where the action is.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: I think Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mattis and Chief of Staff Kelly are those people that help separate our country from chaos.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
Those were candid remarks made last year by retiring Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee about the voices of restraint inside the president`s Cabinet.
And now Tillerson is long gone, Kelly`s leaving this month, and Mattis has resigned with a strong rebuke to the president.
As "The New York Times" put it: "Mattis` resignation letter was the sharpest and most public protest from inside the Trump administration. It condemned Mr. Trump`s approach to the world as destructive to American influence and power."
According to numerous accounts, Mattis served as a check on the president`s worst impulses.
For instance, when Trump questioned U.S. military strategy in Korea, according to Bob Woodward`s book "Fear," Mattis had to remind the president that, "We`re doing this in order to prevent World War III."
Mattis reportedly told associates that the president acted like and had the understanding of a fifth- or sixth-grader.
Today, the abrupt news of his resignation is raising alarm overseas. According to "The Washington Post," the foreign affairs chairman in Germany`s Parliament said: "Now we have an unrestrained Trump, which is a dangerous signal for the year ahead."
The former prime minister of Sweden called it "a morning of alarm in Europe."
And a Chinese former colonel commented that "The worry is that the world becomes even more unstable."
I`m joined right now by Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell of California.
Congressman, your thoughts? I mean, this is really blowing around the world, as we would if another major power`s defense minister walked and attacked the leader like this guy just has.
REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D), CALIFORNIA: Yes.
And it`s affecting everyday Americans who I think were giving the president the benefit of the doubt.
Got a text message today from a buddy who`s a Marine, went to Dublin High School with me in California, a working class town. He said: I have never talked to you about politics before, but for the first time, I`m worried about our national security.
People saw Mattis as a stabilizing force. He knew who our friends were and he knew who we should stand against. And that`s lost now.
MATTHEWS: If we ever -- well, I don`t want to think about it, but I will just bring it up as the topic, because it`s important to bring it up.
The chain of command with regard to nuclear weapons, the football with the codes in it...
MATTHEWS: That has to go through a secretary of defense.
SWALWELL: That`s right.
MATTHEWS: So, that has a constitutional check on what might be the impulses of a president even. That`s now gone right now.
SWALWELL: And he has said no before. He`s been tested before.
The president wanted to assassinate Bashar Assad, and Mattis shelved that idea. And you just worry, is he going to put someone in there who won`t say no?
And, Chris, I also -- this is like watching your kid at school go from hanging out with the honor roll kids and now associating themselves with the detention crew. We are drawing ourselves closer to Turkey, to Russia, to the Philippines, all the people who aren`t on our friends.
MATTHEWS: Erdogan. Erdogan.
Anyway, Mattis resigned over the president`s sudden decision to withdraw troops from Syria. Now the Associated Press is reporting that Trump made that decision in a phone conversation with Turkey`s President Erdogan last week. Trump was supposed to advise Erdogan not to launch an attack on Kurdish rebels in Northern Syria.
However, Trump ignored the script. Instead, the president sided with Erdogan. And then the Turkish president questioned the need for us having forces remaining in Syria and -- quote -- "The president quickly capitulated by pledging to withdraw, shocking both National Security Adviser John Bolton," who`s a real hawk, "and Erdogan himself."
So Erdogan didn`t even think he would be able to make the case. And Trump said, OK, I will put my troops out.
SWALWELL: Yes, he`s probably....
MATTHEWS: What is the motive here? Can you fathom why the president -- and, look, I`m a dove, but why did he pull them out overnight?
SWALWELL: Yes, I think you have to look at whether there`s a financial interest here.
He has properties in Turkey. He also, I think, owed Erdogan...
MATTHEWS: Really? You think it`s that bad?
MATTHEWS: You think it`s that base?
SWALWELL: This guy, I think everything is -- I think follow the money with this guy first, for starters. Assume that that is driving it.
This doesn`t match up with John Bolton and how he views the world. But I also believe that we have to go back to Helsinki, where we don`t know if this was a deal that was made with Putin and Trump, and Putin made this request of Trump.
I will say, I am happy that we`re leaving Syria, but not under these circumstances. I think we should reopen the authorization of use of military force. Same thing with Afghanistan.
MATTHEWS: By the way, what is our justification, just to -- because I want to make sure everybody knows where I stand on this.
I don`t think Ronald -- Donald Trump is the only danger we face in the world. I think we face dangers from the neocon crowd, who always want to push the button for the next regime change. That preceded Trump.
But what do you think was the -- is the justification for our having 2,000 troops in Syria right -- is it still going back to 9/11?
SWALWELL: It`s going to the 2001 authorities.
SWALWELL: And it has us all over the world.
And we should debate...
MATTHEWS: We can go anywhere in the world via a president`s order now based upon what was done on 9/11?
SWALWELL: And Congress has completely abdicated its responsibility to have a say. We are supposed to dictate the time, the terrain and the troop count. We`re not doing that.
But, again, he`s doing it the wrong way. And I`m afraid he`s doing it for the wrong reasons.
MATTHEWS: So, if you lose a kid, a son or daughter, in harm`s way in a place like Syria, you can say to yourself, why they died, because the president thought we should be there? That`s it? That`s all you got right now?
SWALWELL: That`s right, not a congressional authority.
But, also, he didn`t tell our allies. That`s what`s most concerning. Now they`re going to start to wonder, in other alliances we have, especially I worry over in Korea, where, as you alluded to, he doesn`t understand why it`s in our interest to be in South Korea, to protect -- again, that was...
MATTHEWS: He doesn`t understand the idea...
SWALWELL: It`s an important footing against China.
MATTHEWS: I know, the 38th Parallel trip wire.
Anyway, in his letter of resignation, Secretary Mattis notably did not say it was an honor to serve the president. Catch this.
Instead, he wrote -- quote -- "I very much appreciate the opportunity to serve the nation and our men and women in uniform."
Well, that language mirrored what he, Mattis, told the president in a 2017 Cabinet meeting. Mattis was mindful the people he truly served, as most other officials used their time to praise Trump personally.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REINCE PRIEBUS, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: We thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you have given us to serve your agenda.
TOM PRICE, FORMER HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: I can`t thank you enough for the privilege that you have given me and the leadership that you have shown.
ELAINE CHAO, U.S. SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION: I want to thank you for getting this country moving again and also working again.
JAMES MATTIS, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: It`s an honor to represent the men and women of the Department of Defense. And we`re grateful for the sacrifices our people are making in order to strengthen our military, so our diplomats always negotiate from a position of strength.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: What is it about Republicans? I`m sorry. There is a difference in the parties. There is as an asymmetry.
I don`t think Democrats behave like that. But they acted like they`re talking to Haile Selassie or somebody, or Mengistu in Ethiopia, some dictator, and you have to go through that every day.
SWALWELL: Yes. Who`s going to be the one to stand up to him in Congress now?
Because, right now, if you have just been holding back and just hoping things would get better, that Kelly and Mattis would be moderating forces, they are gone. And now it`s going to shift to, I think, Mitch McConnell. And is he up for this and this new Congress, as he adds to his majority?
Are there going to be patriots in Congress who are going to put up a wall against these worst instincts?
MATTHEWS: Well, what`s it going to be a world we live in when John Bolton becomes secretary of defense, worst-case scenario?
Thank you, U.S. Congressman Eric Swalwell.
Up next: President Trump`s most steadfast allies in Congress aren`t looking quite as steadfast these days.
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MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
According to Axios, what President Trump should really worry about is that lots of different Republicans have been turning on him over different topics, particularly when it comes to Secretary of Defense James Mattis` resignation.
In a statement yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that he was distressed that Mattis was resigning over -- quote -- "sharp differences with the president," noting that -- quote -- "We must maintain a clear-eyed understanding of our friends and foes and recognize that nations like Russia are among the latter."
Well, that sounds, by the way, like Mattis.
And some Republicans weren`t happy with President Trump`s last-minute decision to veto any bill without the money for his wall.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio tweeted: "On Wednesday, the White House said they were open to the Senate bill. They should have just told us they opposed it before we wasted time voting on it."
And Alaska Senate Lisa Murkowski told "The Washington Post" that the House Republicans who passed the legislation with $5 billion for the border wall were "really horrible hostage-takers," whatever that means.
Let`s bring in tonight`s HARDBALL Roundtable, Amanda Terkel, Washington bureau chief for The Huffington Post. Sam Stein is political editor of The Daily Beast. And Jonathan Allen, who is in the middle, is national political reporter for NBC News.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you a minute, because why aren`t the hawkish Republicans -- and it is a hawkish party -- going nuts over his decision to yank all the troops overnight out of Syria and apparently more than half out of Afghanistan, again overnight, in what seems like an impulse?
What happened to the hawkish Republicans?
AMANDA TERKEL, THE HUFFINGTON POST: I mean, they`re not going to do anything.
The Axios report that Republicans are suddenly going to get mad and break with Trump, they`re not going to do it. You might see a few strongly worded statements, but they are going to defend him, because it is most important that they defend the president, because he`s a Republican.
So they`re -- they`re just not going to break with him. He was treating Jeff Sessions poorly. They really liked Sessions. They liked Mattis. He`s gone. But they`re going to stick with him.
MATTHEWS: Has Trump represented a regime change in the Republican Party? It seems like he is Trump, and there is no more Republican philosophy.
JONATHAN ALLEN, NBC NEWS POLITICAL REPORTER: He destroyed the Republican Party and became it.
I mean, it`s a little bit of an apotheosis, the rising head of the new Republican Party, sort of the continuation of the Tea Party. But all these guys are afraid of Donald Trump`s base.
ALLEN: The fastest way to lose a Republican primary is to get on the wrong side of Trump.
MATTHEWS: If Obama had yanked 2,000 troops out of Syria, the entire complement of troops overnight, at the behest of Erdogan, the head of Turkey, what would they -- what would the Republicans have done then?
They would have gone crazy.
SAM STEIN, THE DAILY BEAST: I think that`s a rhetorical question, yes.
STEIN: There`s two things here.
One is tribalism, which Amanda talks about. I think the other thing is, for a little while now, Republicans have kind of drifted away from the neoconservative plank. You saw...
MATTHEWS: Everybody had, let`s say, conversions.
STEIN: Yes, post-Iraq conversions.
MATTHEWS: Post-Iraq conversions.
STEIN: And you saw this a lot when Ron Paul and then Rand Paul would go to these CPAC conventions, and they would talk about retrenchment almost, getting America away from being the global policeman.
Trump really took that and ran with it. And I think to a degree that is where the Republican ethos is. Of course, the big talkers and the senators are, of course, still neocons and hawks. They`re mad at him, but I`m not totally sure where the party actually is ideologically.
TERKEL: I mean, this was a campaign promise by Trump. I mean, he`s not getting the wall he wanted, but he said, end the wars, pull them out.
MATTHEWS: And, look, I agreed with that one. That and infrastructure were the two babies I liked about his campaign.
ALLEN: It`s not just the Republican ethos.
The country is -- the American public is weary of war. Barack Obama got elected twice as somebody who the public thought was not going to be into foreign engagement with our troops.
Donald Trump got elected that way.
ALLEN: This is a huge political moment.
STEIN: But it`s also a big gamble, right?
I mean, Trump basically -- he didn`t basically -- he said, ISIS is defeated. what happens a week from now, a month from now, if there is a terrorist attack, God forbid?
MATTHEWS: Do we get back in, if we have to? Will the Russians let us back in?
STEIN: I mean, that`s above my pay grade. I`m just speaking politically. That looks pretty problematic from the president`s perspective.
MATTHEWS: OK, you start on this one, the psychological condition of this president.
The reporting we`re getting from "The Washington Post" is that he`s in a tailspin, he is isolated, he`s sort of like in the bunker there mentality, almost like Nixon in the last months of Watergate.
Does that scare Republicans, that their leader looks a little off?
STEIN: Yes, of course it does.
And Trump basically feeds off of two things, the news cycle, which he loves, and the stock market. And both have been pretty bad for him in recent days. I mean, it was very striking this morning to watch him get pilloried on "FOX & Friends." That must be deeply unnerving for Trump.
And so, as he`s lashing out, as he`s doing all these sort of random things, Republicans are noticing. And they`re certainly noticing as the stock market tanks, because what was holding them all together, even through all the craziness of the first two years, was the sense that the economy was doing well.
If that starts dissipating, then you could really see people jumping ship.
MATTHEWS: That`s my religion. We`re not sure the economy is going down with the market, though, do we?
STEIN: We`re not.
ALLEN: We`re not. I mean, obviously, none of us have a crystal ball. But there are a lot of reasons to think the economy has been riding a sugar rush for a long time.
MATTHEWS: Yes, I`m basically -- when it comes to this, I think of sort of the Marxist analysis, although I`m no Marxist. I do like the idea of economic determinism, Amanda.
And if you look at what happened to Nixon, the economy was in bad shape, all that. But Clinton got through all his problems because the economy was zooming. It`s always in the background of your thinking politically, and it drives you.
You don`t know it`s driving you, but it is how -- you got to provide for your family. And if you`re doing OK, you don`t really get mad and angry about things.
If you`re not doing well, you`re looking for somebody to blame.
TERKEL: Mm-hmm. Right. And the president gets the blame. Whether or not they deserve it, the president gets the blame.
But Trump is going to get more and more desperate. And he`s going to do things like pulling troops out without talking to anyone or...
MATTHEWS: You think that was a distraction, he was trying to get off the problems he had this week by saying, well, let`s do something really -- glistening object here?
TERKEL: I think he wanted to do something that he felt good about. If he wasn`t going to get the border wall, he was going to do this.
And, sure, I mean, has it been a distraction? A little bit, but not completely.
MATTHEWS: Let`s me talk about a guy who is politically weak.
The Senate wouldn`t be in the situation today if House Speaker Paul Ryan hadn`t agreed to bring up the border wall legislation. Here he was yesterday after meeting with the president.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: We just had a very long, productive meeting with the president.
The president informed us that he will not sign the bill that came over from the Senate last evening because of his legitimate concerns for border security.
So what we`re going to do is go back to the House and work with our members. We want to keep the government open. But we also want to see an agreement that protects the border. We have very serious concerns about securing our border.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTHEWS: And Charles Sykes wrote in "The Washington Post": "It seems almost superfluous to point out that the GOP is Trump`s party now, because it has been Trump`s party since 2016, but, in a sense, also Ryan`s party, because his decision to make a Faustian bargain with Trump has also shaped conservatism`s trajectory."
He continued: "Perhaps it`s naive to think that Ryan could have stemmed the tide of the GOP`s capitulation, but it remains a tantalizing what might have been."
Sam, do you think this guy could have stood up to Trump?
STEIN: Oh, to say the least.
MATTHEWS: I mean, could he -- is it about being about Fredo, or is it about -- what -- what`s -- is it personal weakness or is it institutional weakness?
Let`s -- obviously, he`s on his way out, so it`s not like he has to worry about his next election or the base coming after him. So it is a little bit of personal weakness.
And I was just struck by...
MATTHEWS: And he was going to be president someday, this guy.
TERKEL: I was struck by the fact that he gave his goodbye speech this week.
He called for two -- he said he regretted two things, one, that he couldn`t get deficit reduction under hand, and, two, that he didn`t do comprehensive immigration reform.
And then he goes out and he pushes $5 billion, unpaid for, for a border wall that doesn`t have immigration reform.
MATTHEWS: How about the $1.5 trillion tax cut?
STEIN: It`s ridiculous, all of it.
TERKEL: And it`s different to what John Boehner did. When John Boehner left, he cleaned house. He did a two-year deal on spending. He said, look, I`m going to get this all out of the way. I know I`m going to make conservatives mad, but I`m going to clean it up.
Paul Ryan`s not doing that. He`s going out, honestly, a disgrace. He`s not living up to anything that he promised he would do. And he`s going to be known for capitulating to Trump.
MATTHEWS: Well, the Roundtable is sticking with us.
And, next, these three kids will Tell Me Something I Don`t Know.
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MATTHEWS: We`re back with the HARDBALL Roundtable.
And time for Amanda to tell us something I don`t know.
We got some time, so go ahead at it.
TERKEL: So, the Trump administration is going around Congress on food stamps. Basically, they`re making it harder for the states to exempt childless able-bodied adults from getting around some of the work requirements.
And this is pretty bad, because Congress just passed legislation that didn`t have that waiver. But Trump is saying, you know too bad.
MATTHEWS: OK, let me ask you a conservative question. Why don`t people who are childless, why don`t they want to work?
TERKEL: They want to work, but it`s hard to get a job sometimes. They want to work.
But just because you don`t have a kid, you`re healthy, it`s not always possible.
MATTHEWS: Even though there`s like a 3 percent unemployment rate right now?
TERKEL: It`s not always possible, depending on where you live.
ALLEN: We`re starting to see the opening war of the Democratic presidential primary for 2020. Allies...
MATTHEWS: I love it.
ALLEN: Who is your favorite? We got time.
MATTHEWS: You can tell me now, Jon.
ALLEN: I don`t have favorites.
MATTHEWS: Not you for the person. Who`s the best bet to be the nominee right now?
ALLEN: It`s too early. It`s too early.
MATTHEWS: Against the field?
TERKEL: It`s early.
ALLEN: I`m going to give you -- I`m going to give you the one with the excitement.
STEIN: What cowards.
MATTHEWS: OK. I`m listening.
ALLEN: The excitement right now is with Beto O`Rourke. And that`s why the war is happening.
Bernie Sanders` allies have been attacking Beto O`Rourke online and in print and basically saying...
MATTHEWS: Who is this woman Bruenig, who just pounds him in "The Washington Post" every day? Who is this person? She just goes directly at him, at Beto.
ALLEN: And the key here is that the Bernie people, they -- Bernie Sanders` whole base is millennials, right?
Like, if you look at polling of anyone over 35, his unfavorable are higher with them than favorables. Under 35, Bernie does all right. Beto O`Rourke, very popular with millennials.
So the Bernie people are trying to suggest very hard, very early that O`Rourke isn`t really progressive, trying to distance him from the millennials. That`s the fight that`s going on right now. The O`Rourke people aren`t responding to it, but that`s the opening salvo.
MATTHEWS: I want O`Rourke to run, although I`m not sure he`s ready. But he should run. What the heck.
STEIN: Boy, that is some juicy stuff, man.
What you don`t know is that, for the past month, the RNC and the Trump reelect campaign have been running ads, paid-for ads on Facebook, attacking fellow Republican senators over the border wall.
Talked to people who worked in the Obama administration. They said this would have been unheard of, to spend party money attacking members of your own party over a signature legislative issue. But that`s what Trump does.
He is a singular person within the party apparatus. And he`s crafting the party to be all about him, basically.
MATTHEWS: By the way, on the other side, you have got Ocasio-Cortez, who is about rebuilding the party her way.
MATTHEWS: So we see this polarizing matching up. It`s pretty interesting and sometimes frightening.
Anyway, Amanda Terkel, thank you, and Jonathan Allen and Sam Stein.
Happy holidays to everybody.
STEIN: Thanks, Chris.
MATTHEWS: When we return, Let Me Finish Tonight with a reminder of the comfort and joy our political leaders are capable of bringing us.
Stay around for the inspiration for the holidays.
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MATTHEWS: Let Me Finish Tonight with a different model for the American presidency.
Wanting to do something for Christmas, former President Barack Obama this week visited Children`s Hospital here in Washington. Try to measure the joy and unforgettableness of this scene. Look at that girl. Just look at the face. Look at her.
Whatever problems they face melted at the sight of this man coming to see them, this man right out of the history books.
Yet it struck me as the most natural, nicest thing I have seen in years, a man who was president comfortable playing Santa Claus, and children who were truly thrilled to have him so close, so near, another person stopping by for a visit.
You know what it reminded me of? It reminded me of the humanity and joy in this country. There was nothing awkward about it, nothing especially presidential. It was just nice.
And in this spirit of that American Santa who just visited those kids, let me leave you with a sincere merry Christmas.
And for some fun, by the way, join us Monday, Christmas Eve, for our holiday show, as we shower the year 2018 without outrageous awards for the most outrageous public behavior I have seen in my lifetime.
That`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us.
"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.
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