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Trump escalates shutdown standoff. TRANSCRIPT: 1/17/19, Hardball w/ Chris Matthews.

Guests: Joyce Vance, Jonathan Swan, Stacey Plaskett; David Jolly; BenRhodes

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  Get off my plane.  Let`s play HARDBALL. 

Good evening.  I`m Chris Matthews in Washington. 

Tonight, a startling picture of divided government.  President Trump has escalated the shutdown fight with speaker Pelosi.  In a letter today, the President told the speaker she couldn`t use a military plane for congressional overseas trip that would have taken off this afternoon. 

Trump wrote, I`m sorry to inform you that your trip to Brussels, Egypt and Afghanistan has been postponed.  We will reschedule the seven-day excursion when the shutdown is over. 

Well, the President went on to write, postponing the public relations event is total appropriate.  It would be better if you were in Washington negotiating with me. 

Well, the President added, the speaker could fly commercial if she chooses to Afghanistan.  It is the first public response from the President to the speaker after more than 24 hours of silence after her suggestion that Trump delay his state of the union address or deliver it in writing due to the shutdown. 

In a statement, a spokesman for Pelosi said the stop in Brussels was for pilot rest and to meet with NATO officials.  And the trip didn`t include a stop in Egypt. 

Well, the statement added the purpose of the trip was to express appreciation and thanks to our men and women in uniform for their service and dedication and to obtain critical national security and intelligence briefings from those on the front lines. 

Well, the effects to the President Trump`s move, played out in real time, the air force bus, there it is, carrying members expected to accompany Pelosi on the trip returned to the capitol shortly after it was scheduled to depart from joint base Andrews this afternoon. 

At the Pentagon this morning, President Trump accused the speaker of preventing moderate Democrats from working with him to end the shutdown. 


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  While many Democrats in the House and Senate would like to make a deal, speaker Pelosi will not let them negotiate. 


MATTHEWS:  The "New York Times" reports he has told a different story inside the White House.  According to report in the Times, he told acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney quote "we are getting crushed."  While watching news coverage, he added why can`t we get a deal? 

Well, joining me right now is Representative Stacey Plaskett of the U.S. Virgin Islands, a Democrat who sits on the House oversight committee.  Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for the "New York Times."  Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security adviser to President Obama.  And David Jolly is a former Republican congressman from Florida who is no longer affiliated with that party. 

I want to start with Peter Baker. 

Peter, the way that major papers are playing this is a power struggle between the President and the speaker.  All using the shield of concern for the federal employees.  But this is politics, isn`t it? 

PETER BAKER, CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES:  well, of course, it is, you know.  I mean, the speaker would making a point yesterday when she says maybe you shouldn`t come up and give the state of the union while the government is partially shut down.  That`s her power perks, you know.  She owns that chamber, the House chamber.  And it is up to her whether she has the President come down or not. 

He then responds, of course, with the power perks that he has.  He has the - in controls of military air fleet and basically pulled it out from under her as she decided - as she was going to go over to Afghanistan. 

And so, you know, I think that, you know, Senator Lindsey Graham, who has been mostly an ally of the President said that both sides were being sophomore.  And certainly, they are not getting any closer to any kind of genuine negotiation.  It`s hard to see how it`s, though that is the last 418 hours, have gotten us any closer to a deal. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Ben Rhodes. 

Ben, you know the facts here.  A lot of these facts must be jumping out at you like the nature of this codel (ph), the fact it was going to Afghanistan.  Hardly a pleasure trip for the Paris air show or something like that.  They weren`t bringing their spouses with them.  You know a real codel (ph) verses a junket.  This was not a junket. 

BEN RHODES, FORMER DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR:  No, absolutely not, Chris.  I mean, this is actually really an insult to the American taxpayer.  Because keep in mind that Congress has to fund to the tune of billions of dollars our efforts in Afghanistan.  And Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House, it is part of her job to go there on front lines, to get those briefings from generals, to survey what is happening on the grounds as she makes decisions because she holds the power of the purse in Congress. 

And so what President Trump is doing here is not canceling a photo-op, it is canceling a really critical part of her responsibilities as Speaker of the House to check in with our men and women on the front lines, to show our support for them but also to try to understand the nature of the war in Afghanistan.  And to pull the plug on I think is deeply irresponsible and abuse of his powers as commander-in-chief. 

MATTHEWS:  Let`s talk about the cheap shot part of it.  They were in the bus heading to joint base Andrews.  He made them look like fools coming back sitting there at the capitol in the drive way.  They are basically trying to figure what is coming nest.  He caught them in the act as if they were sneaking out of town and made them look stupid.  I mean, it clearly - well, it looked like a political dirty trick to me.  Your thoughts. 

RHODES:  Yes, absolute, Chris.  I mean, I`m trying to - I mean, when we were in office, we would never, ever have thought of interfering with a congressional delegation, particularly one to a war zone that`s critically important.  All kinds of Republican critics travelled to war zones while President Obama was in office and you thought that was an important part of their responsibilities. 

I`m just trying to imagine the conversation in the White House where they decided we have to get Pelosi back for what she did and then someone is scouring the schedule of congressional delegation and somehow thinks it`s a good idea to embarrass the speaker of the House and to deny our troops that expression of support from the third ranking person in line to the presidency in our system. 

It`s really sophomoric and it sends a horrible message to the world that is already watching the shutdown and thinking what is going on in the United States of America.  And now they see the President of the United States literally blocking the speaker of the House and the representatives from going to Afghanistan. 

MATTHEWS:  It looks bad. 

Anyway the White House insisted Trump`s letter was not a response to Pelosi`s state of the union letter yesterday.  And indeed his letter did not mention of Pelosi`s call for delaying the state of the union. 

"Politico" reports that day-long lapse in response was intentional.  Quoting a White House official who said, "Trump decided to hit back on his terms and timeline."  Defending the decision to wait for more than a day to respond.  The official said, why dies it merit an immediate or serious response?  It`s her suggestion. 

Well Pelosi said this morning her concerns were not about security capabilities for the event.  Here she goes. 


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), HOUSE SPEAKER: They are professionals.  They trained for this.  They should be paid for this.  The date of the state of the union is not a sacred date.  It`s not constitutionally required.  It`s not about president`s birthday.  It is not anything.  It is a date that we agreed to. 


MATTHEWS:  Congresswoman, this doesn`t looking good for our country.  But I don`t know, whose fault is it? 

REP. STACEY PLASKETT (D), U.S. VIRGIN ISLAND:  Well, I think that, you know, Speaker Pelosi`s letter was to tell the President that this may not be a good time for us to have it unless we come to an agreement.  And because of security issues related to having a state of the union while many people are furloughed, while security is being stretched.  And she, if you can remember, has given the President time. 

I mean the state of the union was not really set for a set specific date.  And so the President had time.  All members of Congress will be back on Tuesday, will be able to continue the negotiations and it`s not as if the President has called us into a meeting to continue the negotiations. 

At the same time the President, less than 24 hours specifically on the same day that travel is occurring decides how inadvertently or coincidentally to drop this letter on her the day after her letter goes to him is not lost on anyone. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  As the plane was about to take off. 

By the way, the top Republican in the House, Minority leader Kevin McCarthy of California backed up the President`s maneuver today. 


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY, HOUSE MINORITY LEADER:  Well, I think government is shutdown right now.  I think it would be an opportune time we can work and get government back open.  Yes, I think it was appropriate.  Why would she want to go overseas with government shut down, with people missing their paychecks? 


MATTHEWS:  The pity of this guy. 

Anyway --. 

PLASKETT:  The one thing I was saying is just the hypocrisy of that is there has been Republican codels (ph) in the same time period --

MATTHEWS:  Trump has been to Iraq during this shutdown. 

PLASKETT:  During the shutdown, the President has been in war zones.  Republicans have gone on codels.  The speaker, Nancy Pelosi, did not stop them from going on codels which she could have done by calling us and making sure that us stayed in.  So this is totally partisan on their part. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, one of the President`s top allies in the U.S. Senate blasted both the President and the speaker of the House in his statement today. 

Lindsey Graham wrote, one sophomoric response does not deserve another.  Speaker Pelosi`s threat to cancel the state of the union, well she is not canceling it, is very irresponsible and blatantly political.  President Trump denying military Speaker Pelosi`s military travel to visit our troops in Afghanistan, our allies in Egypt and NATO is also inappropriate. 

David, what do you make of this?  It is -- the Congress seems to have lost some of its class since you have been there.  I don`t know what to make of it but I think Pelosi looked smart yesterday.  I think the President looks a little cheap today.  But clearly, this looks like carry-on government, some old British comedy, you know.  It doesn`t look good for our country. 


Look, Pelosi`s decision yesterday had a bit of a historic impact, if you will.  It`s a big deal to postpone a state of the union.  Donald Trump`s decision today did look petty. 

 But I would say this, Chris.  You know, I have been involved with Congress the last 25 years-worth of government shutdowns, starting in 1995.  There comes a point in which you are low in medium intensity voters across the country.  Just look at Washington and say they are all a bunch of children.  They are behaving like idiots. 

I think this is that week.  You know what?  There is no urgency to the state of the union address, nor is there urgency to speaker Pelosi`s trip to Afghanistan.  They are simply is not. 

Nancy Pelosi can wait until February to go to Afghanistan.  Donald Trump can wait until February to give the state of the union address.  The urgency is around reopening the government.  And at some point, people across the country stop looking at the two parties and just say they are all behaving like children.  Get to work and solve this.  Settle your difference.  We get you don`t like each other.  We don`t pay you to like each other.  We pay you to solve problems.  I think this is the turning point this week for the American people. 

MATTHEWS:  Peter, let me talk to you about the record her and how the good news, the hard news is going to report on this.  President Trump is chief executive on the United States.  He is responsible for the government to work.  And in the end, he proved that today by saying I can stop you from flying on any air force plane I want to.  I am running the government.  Therefore, isn`t there a (INAUDIBLE) he is responsible for the government being shut down?  Isn`t the heat on him? 

BAKER:  Well, in fact, you know, most polls show that people do in fact blame him more than congressional Democrats.  I think Congressman Jolly is right.  There is sort of pock (ph) and all their house kind of an attitude about Washington in general.  And that that may, you know, be the ultimate result of this. 

But if -- when there are parceling out blame among all the people who should be pocks, whose houses should be pocks, that is mostly majority to President Trump as opposed to congressional Democrats at the moment.  He said himself early on he would own this shutdown. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, he also said in your paper - your paper, I`m sorry.  Your paper reported today that he says I`m getting crushed. 

BAKER:  That`s right. 

MATTHEWS:  He seems to have acknowledged to Mick Mulvaney, according to your paper`s reporting, he told his chief of staff, hey, we are losing this thing. 


MATTHEWS:  Just to Peter first.  Go ahead, I`m sorry. 

BAKER:  I think he miscalculated in the sense that he thought that he could pressure Nancy Pelosi into caving in earlier than we have seen.  That you know, that there would have been a relatively quick shutdown that would have been resolved and once the speaker -- new speaker came in and took power and they would come to a deal.  She has not done that.  Both sides now are locked in to their position.  Neither sides is moving.  And you know, doesn`t even seem to be any imperative to move at this point. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, Congressman.  Who can explain when something goes wrong?  Government has a lot of responsibilities in this country over safety, over security, over food, safety, all kinds of things, the airplane travel.  We have air traffic controllers, federal employees, we got all those people under stress now financially, in addition to the stress that comes with being an air traffic controller or TSA officer. 

PLASKETT:  Exactly.  Or any of the position that where individuals are on furlough.  And the Democratic House has voted nine times since the shutdown to get government open. 

One person that we have not discuss in this time is the person who is hiding under a blanket and that is Senator Mitch McConnell who has not taken the bills that Congress passed to reopen government and brought them to the floor of the Senate to then bring them to the President. 

He is being the stop gap right now for the President and the man standing in the way of having a directly in front of the Presidents the bills that Congress has passed that say, listen, let`s open a government and let`s have a serious discussion and debate about border security. 

We want to solve border security.  That`s in everyone`s interest.  How much it costs and where it goes is the debate.  But let`s not hold the American people hostage while that happens. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, Ben.  You have been inside, really inside.  Let me ask you about this.  If you were the great mediator, the great decider, could you sit with the President and Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell and work out a deal in border security in this heat?  Could you do it in this heat? 

RHODES:  Well, Chris, I think everybody knows, you know, that there is some compromise to be had on border security.  The fact is Trump`s proposal doesn`t make any sense because $5 billion is kind of an arbitrary number. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, Pelosi is zero. 

RHODES:  Yes.  No. 

MATTHEWS:  Pelosi`s proposal is zero.  So, I don`t know if the math works here or not.  It doesn`t seem like the math works.  You can`t compromise. 

RHODES:  Because why give $5 billion which is real money for come wall when that seem to build a wall and we don`t think a wall is the right answer as Democrats.  So I think what she has put forward --. 

MATTHEWS:  But you do believe in border security and you don`t believe in open borders.  There is this statement out in the party all the time.  You are not for letting the wall just fall down not to have a border.  So what`s the right way to police the border?  What`s the democratic way to do it? 

PLASKETT:  We have also give $.6 billion already that we have authorized, right? 

MATTHEWS:  And Ben, what is the right thing to do the whole thing so we stop talking about the border for the next 300 years? 

RHODES:  I think the point here, Chris, is there is not a crisis there.  Actually, border crossings are way down over the course of the last decade. 

MATTHEWS:  I know that.  But that is only because of the cycle.  What are we going to do so we can stop arguing about this? 

RHODES:  You take the bill that already passed the Senate unanimously and has now passed the House.  You pass that, you reopen the government and then you have a negotiation about how much to put to new border security, to technology, to the coast guard, to different approaches to spearing the border. 

What you don`t do is have a President who is chosen to manufacture a crisis to keep a political promise that he said originally was going to be paid for by Mexico and is holding 800,000 workers hostage.  Let`s get those people paid again, get them back to work and have a discussion like rational adults about how we are going to fund border security.  You don`t take the funding for the entire government and make that hostages, especially when the American people voted for divided government.  They voted to have a Democratic House of Representatives.  Donald Trump had two years with Republicans in charge of both chambers and didn`t pass this funding for the wall. 

So people can see this for what it is.  It`s a political stunt.  We need get it out of the way, get the government open and then have this discussion about border security and I think Democrats can say to Donald Trump, look, we are willing to compromise but we are not willing to compromise on the backs of those 800,000 American. 

MATTHEWS:  You are strong advocate, Ben Rhodes.  Thank you for that well analyzed and well presented.  I mean that. 

And U.S. Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett of the Virgin Islands.  I love that place. 

PLASKETT:  Thank you. 

MATTHEWS:  Peter Baker, Ben Rhodes and of course, David Jolly and who have I forgotten?  No one. 

Anyway.  Coming up, this is a Rudy Giuliani event.  Let`s watch Rudy. 


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Is it still the position of you and your client THAT there was no collusion with the Russians whatsoever on behalf of the Trump campaign? 



MATTHEWS:  Wow.  We got them with the prompter right now and this is Rudy Giuliani right now. 


RUDY GIULIANI, PRESIDENT TRUMP`S LAWYER:  I never said there was no collusion between the campaign. 


MATTHEWS:  And how does he explain that massive flip-flop?  He said there is no - he ever said there was no (INAUDIBLE).  And from months, there has been no collusion.  And does it indicated another shoes about the drop in the Russian investigation?  Is Rudy anticipating that they have the goods on trump`s people in collusion? 

This is HARDBALL where the action is. 


MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

In a stunning reversal last night, the president`s lawyer Rudy Giuliani acknowledged the possibility that members of the Trump campaign did collude with the Russians in 2016, did collude. 


RUDY GIULIANI (R), FORMER MAYOR OF NEW YORK:  I never said there was no collusion between the campaign or between people in the campaign.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN:  Yes, you have. 

GIULIANI:  I have no idea if -- I have not.  I said the president of the United States. 

There is not a single bit of evidence the president of the United States committed the only crime you could commit here, conspired with the Russians to hack the DNC. 



MATTHEWS:  Well, the truth is that, on numerous occasions, both Giuliani and the president clearly and categorically denied that anybody in the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians. 


QUESTION:  Is it still the position of you and your client that there was no collusion with the Russians whatsoever on behalf of the Trump campaign? 

GIULIANI:  Correct. 

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  There has been no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians or Trump and Russians, no collusion.

GIULIANI:  I know, from having been on the campaign, that there was no contact with Russians, no discussion with Russians. 

TRUMP:  The entire thing has been a witch-hunt.  And there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign. 

GIULIANI:  Three main issues, right?  One is, was there collusion?  Come on.  Nobody believes anymore there was collusion. 

TRUMP:  There was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian people. 

GIULIANI:  Stop with all this nonsense about collusion, which didn`t happen. 

TRUMP:  There was no collusion between me and my campaign and the Russians.


MATTHEWS:  Well, this is the latest in a series of evolving denials from team Trump.  And it`s the first time Trump`s own lawyer, Giuliani, is acknowledging the possibility that someone in the campaign might have actually colluded with Russia. 

And, today, Giuliani tried to clean up his disastrous remarks in that interview.  Well, now with NBC News, he says: "I can speak only to the president, not the campaign.  I only speak to the president."

He added that: "I have no knowledge that anyone in the campaign colluded, but, obviously, I cannot speak for everyone in the campaign."

Well, that`s new. 

I`m joined right now by Joyce Vance, a former U.S. attorney, and Eugene Robinson, a columnist with "The Washington Post."

I want to start with Joyce on this, because I keep thinking RICO time.  I mean, if they`re going to basically say, oh, he never had a phone call with anybody -- by the way, the same guy, Rudy, who says he didn`t do it personally, somebody may have done it for him, they`re also -- he and the other lawyers are saying, well, we really can`t talk about what the president said to somebody, because that`s privileged information.

So, they have basically blocked out, blotted out the mere possibility that they could ever catch the president in the act, because they`re not going to talk about what he said to somebody, because that`s executive privilege.  And if somebody else did it without the president formerly saying to do it, it`s not his fault.

They seem to have explained away and defined away the possible guilt of the president.

JOYCE VANCE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY:  And, of course, they`re wrong here.

This is the same defense that every guy at the top of the chain in a drug case tries:  I never actually sold drugs, federal government, so you can`t prosecute me.

And, of course, prosecutors are very skilled at getting phone conversations and understanding who`s giving the orders and who`s benefiting from whatever`s going on with the criminal activity.  And that`s how these cases are made.  And that`s how the guy sitting at the top of the organization gets prosecuted every time.

Giuliani knows this.  So it`s very disingenuous for him to say Trump was sitting in a little box at the top of the campaign and didn`t know what his underlings were going on.

That runs contrary to everything that we have heard from Trump, who tells us that he was very hands-on and knew absolutely everything that everyone was doing. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, Giuliani has prosecuted mob cases.  He knows the essence of this, doesn`t he?  That`s how it works.  The top guy doesn`t give the orders, because he doesn`t want to have anybody testify against him ever. 

VANCE:  Yes, that`s absolutely right. 

That`s what these guys, that`s what the mob bosses do.  They insulate themselves, or so they think, from liability.  And that works really well until one of their lieutenants turns on them and testifies or until it turns out the feds have a wiretap and have been listening to their phone calls, or, in this day and age, that they have e-mails, text messages, or maybe even now tweets. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I don`t know whether it depends what time of day you talk to Rudy Giuliani, but you get different voices after 9:00 and different voices this morning. 


MATTHEWS:  So, the night before doesn`t sound the same the next morning. 

But the big news here, from a reporter`s point of view, from a journalism point of view, is, they have changed their story. 

ROBINSON:  Yes, they have changed the story. 

I mean, Rudy Giuliani can be all over the map.  But just sort of randomness can`t explain that big a departure from the story, right?  The official line is, there was no collusion.  How could you think there was any collusion?  You are a bad person for imagining that there could have been collusion.


ROBINSON:  And now it`s like, oh, I never said there wasn`t collusion.  Of course there might have been collusion. 

MATTHEWS:  Are they cutting people loose?


MATTHEWS:  Are they cutting people loose?

ROBINSON:  Well, I think they`re preparing to.

I mean, now, who?  I mean, that`s the question, because who are the people...

MATTHEWS:  Manafort.

ROBINSON:  Who was in the meeting?  Who was in the Trump Tower meeting?  Donald Trump Jr., Manafort, Jared Kushner were in that meeting.


MATTHEWS:  Flynn, Gates, the whole crowd.  Anyway -- Papadopoulos.

Anyway, Giuliani`s reversal on collusion comes just days after Mueller filed a heavily redacted memo in the Manafort case, speak of the devil, detailing what he knows about Manafort`s outreach to a Russian intelligence operative.

That filing was accompanied by a 150-page series of exhibits, nearly all which were entirely redacted.  Look at them.  They`re all blocked there.  Only the special counseling and Manafort`s lawyers know what`s contained in those documents.

However, we know that "The New York Times" has reported in November that Manafort`s legal team had long kept Mr. Trump`s lawyers abreast of developments in his case under a joint defense agreement. 

The supposition here is, Rudy got the word what they got on Manafort, et cetera.

ROBINSON:  Well, you have to have -- that has to be a question.

I mean, does he know what`s in those redacted portions of those documents?  Even if you don`t know what`s in the redacted portion of those documents, of the main document that was filed the other day, you can -- just reading what you can -- what we`re allowed to read, you can kind of fill in the blanks, I mean, and you can conclude that Manafort is up to his eyeballs with the Russians.

And he was the chairman of the campaign.  So maybe it is time to change the story. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I want to go back to Joyce on this.

In terms of your experience here, the trouble we have here, the political overlay, two politicians involved, Rudy Giuliani and the president.  Both are politicians.  I don`t think they`re likely to share delicate information. 

I can`t see Trump saying, well, I may be exposed here and there to Rudy Giuliani.  I`m just wondering.  But isn`t that what you have to do to your lawyer and tell him or her what your trouble might be?

VANCE:  You know, that`s the usual relationship, Chris.

It`s -- that`s why the attorney-client privilege exists, so that the client can tell the lawyer absolutely everything that they have been involved in, including criminal conduct.  And the lawyer can come up with the best defense strategy for them.

But the way that Giuliani and Trump operate, I think, drives home the fact that this is not a legal strategy.  It`s a political one.  It`s designed to hang on to the base, so that there won`t be a powerful enough voice out in the country calling for impeachment.

I think that`s really Giuliani`s whole goal.  And we have seen him do this before.  Every time there`s a new big shoe about to drop, Giuliani somehow shows up on a television show someplace and fronts out the news.

And we have gotten into the habit of thinking that he`s nuts, that he`s just making these crazy statements. 


VANCE:  I have started to believe that, in reality, what he`s doing, he`s immunizing folks.

He`s sort of giving this inoculation, so that, by the time the story does drop, people have heard it before, they`re a little bit numb to it, and there`s not a widespread outcry.

MATTHEWS:  He`s like the -- in the Spanish bullfight, he`s the steer that goes into the crowd to calms things down.

VANCE:  Exactly. 

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, meanwhile -- exactly.  I like that. 

And, meanwhile, "Vanity Fair" reported yesterday that the mounting pressure has also strained Giuliani`s relationship with Trump.  That`s according to a Republican briefed on Giuliani`s thinking, who says: "Rudy hates the job.  Trump is very hard to deal with."

Big surprise there, Gene.

These personalities are something.  Reading into the personalities and the behavior right there, here`s Rudy out -- Rudy coming out.  Last redoubt is just protecting the president.  Forget the outer walls.  We`re not defending all the other characters in this.  We`re not -- that`s a hell of a statement, if you`re one of those guys out there like Manafort.

I`m not defending anybody out there, just me.


ROBINSON:  Exactly.

It`s all about his client.  His client is the president, as far as he is -- I mean, that`s very clear for what he said yesterday, is that his concern is the president.

I think Joyce is absolutely right.  This is a political strategy.  It`s not a legal strategy.  It`s -- if he holds on to 80 percent of Republicans or whatever, then he holds on to enough Republican senators to save his job, in the event that he`s impeached, right?

I mean, we`re down to that. 

MATTHEWS:  It looks like that.

ROBINSON:  He`s got keep the Republican senators.

MATTHEWS:  I remember a phrase, both of you, from reading about the Alamo and how Davy Crockett and the others, that, in the end, when they were overwhelmed by thousands of Mexico soldiers on the Santa Ana, they retreated to what was called the last redoubt, which was a powder magazine. 

It was just like one little room they could defend.  That`s all they could defend.  I think that`s where this case has gone. 

Thank you, Joyce Vance.  You`re a pro.  And it`s great to have you on.

And, Eugene Robinson, the same with you in the world of journalism. 

Still ahead:  Did Donald Trump tell Michael Cohen to pay someone to manipulate online polls in Trump`s favor ahead of the election, so it looked like he was a winner?  That`s a dirty trick, don`t you think?  It fooled a lot of conservatives.  They thought, well, here`s the guy.

Cohen says he did.  He`s admitting this stuff.  Chuck Colson, salute. 

This is HARDBALL, where the action is. 


MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

As Donald Trump`s private lawyer, Michael Cohen was Trump`s personal fixer as well.  He carried out his boss` orders.  And, today, we got another example of that. 

According to "The Wall Street Journal," Cohen paid a digital firm roughly $13,000 in cash delivered in a Wal-Mart bag to try to help rig online polls to help boost Trump`s popularity before the launch of his presidential campaign. 

And after the story came out, Michael Cohen confirmed the reporting by tweeting: "What I did was at the direction of and for the sole benefit of Donald Trump.  I truly regret my blind loyalty to a man who doesn`t deserve it."  That`s Cohen speaking on the record. 

Cohen also helped Trump strike a deal with David Pecker and the American Media, the parent company of "The National Enquirer," to catch and kill any negative -- negative information about the president, while circulating and amplifying negative stories about Trump`s opponents.

And he helped Trump pay adult film star Stormy Daniels $130,000 to keep her allegation that she had an affair with Trump quiet.

For more, I`m joined by Ken Dilanian, NBC News intelligence and national security reporter. 

I`m not sure that`s under the heading of national security, but it`s certainly under the area of intelligence. 

He -- $13,000, apparently part of a payoff of more, and Trump wanted to do what with digital?  What was he up to in the beginning? 


Well, it`s not clear that Trump ordered this.  Cohen says that Trump knew about it.  But what Cohen was trying to do was manipulate online polls, not really credible polls that NBC News use, but these little online vanity polls.  And he wanted to try to boost Trump`s image.

And it was supposed to be $50,000.  Cohen got expense reimbursements for $50,000, and he only paid the guy, apparently, $13,000.  And there`s there`s a potential that some of this was an undisclosed campaign contribution and it could have been illegal.  But prosecutors...

MATTHEWS:  So Trump was paying for fake news?

DILANIAN:  Yes, essentially.

MATTHEWS:  Creating it. 

DILANIAN:  And prosecutors in the Southern District are aware of this.  They haven`t charged a crime.  So, we can assume they took -- taken a...


MATTHEWS:  Wait a minute, that $13,000 in cash in a bag, a Wal-Mart bag, that wasn`t Michael Cohen `s money, was it?  That was Trump`s money. 

DILANIAN:  Trump later reimbursed Cohen, and they called it legal services, which seems really shady.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Well, I think Trump knew what he was doing.

Anyway, in the last hour, Lanny Davis, an adviser to Michael Cohen, told my colleague Ari Melber that his client -- that would be Cohen -- is considering whether to go forward with this plan to testify.  Take a look. 


LANNY DAVIS, ATTORNEY FOR MICHAEL COHEN:  He`s considering whether to go forward, in light of the concerns about his family. 

My guess is that he won`t let a bully silence him.  But I can tell you that he is still considering whether to do this or not. 


MATTHEWS:  What do you think Trump`s worrying about tonight, as he looks forward to Michael Cohen testifying in public?

DILANIAN:  Well, first of all, Michael Cohen is going to testify that Donald Trump ordered him to commit a crime, essentially, and he said that in court. 

It`s one thing to say it in court, but this is under the klieg lights of a televised congressional hearing.  I`m not sure that this has broken through to the American public.

And then he`s going to talk about...

MATTHEWS:  You mean the -- the payoffs to the women?

DILANIAN:  The payoffs to the women.

MATTHEWS:  Which were campaign contributions.

DILANIAN:  Which were illegal campaign contributions, ordered, according to Michael Cohen, by Donald Trump. 

MATTHEWS:  What about wide-open questions?  I mean, if I remember Congress -- that`s a big if.


MATTHEWS:  I might ask, any other dirt you got on him? 

DILANIAN:  Well, absolutely. 

And you can -- we can assume they have been doing business like this for years.

MATTHEWS:  How many other women?

DILANIAN:  Exactly. 

Now, prosecutors only care about the stuff that happened around the campaign, because it`s not illegal to pay off women.

MATTHEWS:  Prosecutors are not members of Congress. 

DILANIAN:  Exactly. 

So now we`re going to get into -- and also we have never had an intimate of Donald Trump come openly and talk about how he does business, what his priorities were, what his idiosyncrasies are.

I think this could be a devastating hearing next month with Michael Cohen.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Well, during the campaign, President Trump -- now President Trump -- frequently boasted about online polls.  They would get -- in turn get picked up by conservative media. 

You put it online, then shows up in a better media.  Alternatively, Trump bashed any poll that showed him behind.  Let`s watch.


TRUMP:  You know, they give you phony polls, folks, phony polls.

I don`t believe the polls anymore.  These polls, these are called dirty polls.  You know what that is.  These are false.  I don`t think so. 

I don`t believe those polls, by the way, because both of those pollsters do not like me.  I`m telling you.  Now, I`m not saying anything that goes on illicitly with polling, OK?  I would never, ever say that.


MATTHEWS:  So there he is admitting it.


I mean, it looks like kind of a dirty tricks campaign.  And you can extrapolate this to all the microtargeting they were doing on social media. Where did they get the information for that?

This is exactly some of the things we think that Robert Mueller is investigating.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Before Trump falls asleep at night, that last moment of worry, OK, what`s he worried about from Cohen? 

DILANIAN:  Well, I think it`s the secrets, the women and other things that Michael Cohen paid to make go away.  That`s clearly the pattern of behavior.

MATTHEWS:  To make it go away. 

DILANIAN:  Exactly. 

MATTHEWS:  And now it ain`t going away. 

DILANIAN:  No, it`s not.

MATTHEWS:  It`s coming back. 

Thank you, Ken.  You`re the best.  Thank you, Ken Dilanian of NBC News. 

Up next:  Trying to figure out Trump`s approach to foreign policy is not easy.  We`re going to give you our best shot.  Is he working for, well, John Bolton, or he`s working for Rand Paul, or he`s working for Erdogan of Turkey?  You can`t tell.  Your head gets dizzy trying to figure out where we`re going. 

I do remember he said no stupid wars.  So let`s hope we`re not going to war with Iran. 

You`re watching HARDBALL. 


MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

It took 24 hours, but today, President Trump responded to Nancy Pelosi`s suggestion to delay his State of the Union.  However, the president did not respond directly to that request.  Instead, he informed the speaker he was grounding her military transport to Afghanistan. 

Despite the brinkmanship between the two leaders, "The Washington Post" reports that Trump has pulled back his punches.  When he pulled his punches because, quote, the president believes she would help protect him from impeachment and considers her more reasonable than other Democrats. 

We`re joined by HARDBALL roundtable.  Jonathan Swan, White House reporter for "Axios", Heidi Przybyla is a notational political correspondent for NBC News, and Jonathan Allen is national political reporter for NBC News Digital.

Thank you.  What a group.

And I want to start with you, Jon.  Let me ask you this: who`s winning? 

JONATHAN SWAN, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, AXIOS:  Sorry, who`s winning what? 

MATTHEWS:  This fight. 

SWAN:  The shutdown? 


SWAN:  The polling suggests Trump is losing support, even among some of his own voters.  His approval rating is down, even the Rasmussen poll, which is usually heavily weighted towards Republicans, has been slipping. 


SWAN:  It`s real concern sign for them. 

But, you know, this question of winning or losing, I`m not sure there was stories speculating this slight crater in Trump`s base might change his calculus.  I`m very skeptical of that, because if he caves, he depletes support among the only people left who still love him, and I just -- that is at the forefront of his mind. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go with Nancy Pelosi -- she`s as tough as they come.  She`s old school.  She`ll use whatever power she has, like the speaking of the State of the Union.  And he`s using his power back against her.  Who`s winning that one? 

HEIDI PRZYBYLA, NBC NEWS NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESONDENT:  Here`s what`s different, though, Chris?  He`s not used to it.  This is the first time he`s had a member of -- or a congressional leader push back on him in punishment and use those powers.  She`s shown him from the very beginning when she would correct him in the Oval Office.  She compared the wall to his manhood.  She`s embarrassed him. 

And now, she`s taken away something that was really important to him.  He wanted to use that State of the Union Address to punish Democrats and berate them over the wall. 

MATTHEWS:  To their face.

PRZYBYLA:  And she took that away from him.  It`s unclear what his end goal was other than just rote retaliation in terms of taking away this CODEL trip, because it doesn`t get him any closer to what he wants on a negotiating front.


PRZYBYLA:  It`s clear she took a piece out of him in terms of taking away the State of the Union.  Doesn`t leave us any closer to a resolution. 

MATTHEWS:  He`s facing a two-front war, Jonathan.  He`s got Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter coming out from one side, Pelosi from the other.  As Kelly O`Donnell said she just said this is existential with Trump.  If he loses the wall, he loses the presidency. 

JONATHAN ALLEN, NBC NEWS DIGITAL NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER:  Absolutely.  And it`s easy for people to forget when they`re looking at this that basically his administration signed off on keeping the government running last year.  Vice President Mike Pence led the Senate to believe that`s what was going to happen and when Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter said he was going to pay a political price, he turned around and said, no, I`m not going to sign the bill. 

He cannot abandon that base and expect to survive.

MATTHEWS:  It`s like World War II.  Now, he faced a new enemy, Michael Cohen.  Michael Cohen is going to testify in a couple of weeks in public.  It seems that`s going to rock a lot of evangelicals, the people that trust him on moral grounds, on pro-life grounds.  They`re going to hear about his life.  This is his fixer talking. 

All those women, whatever who`s done in his last 20 years, 12 years, this guy knows all the dirt. 

SWAN:  He does know all the dirt.  I mean, are you really thinking, Chris, that it`s going to shake his evangelical support? 

MATTHEWS:  I`m asking, you need to look.

SWAN:  I think after "Access Hollywood", when drove out in record numbers, after they heard Trump himself on tape say those things, I don`t think a Michael Cohen testimony is going to affect Trump`s evangelical base.  They had made peace with the voting bloc largely of --


MATTHEWS:  Faking polls.  That`s to the heart of democracy.  Who`s buying cheap, lying polls. 

PRZYBYLA:  Right, and that is an addition to other, you know, kind of circumstantial elements we`ve seen on collusion, ranging from everyone from Roger Stone to Rudy Giuliani now previewing WikiLeaks.  We don`t know everything.  We don`t know the big question, which is what did Trump know?  Was this his campaign and everyone underneath him potentially had some kind of communications with the Russians that he didn`t know about? 


PRZYBYLA:  And so, that is the big --

MATTHEWS:  Cohen would know -- Cohen I thought all along --

PRZYBYLA:  This is campaign manager. 

MATTHEWS:  Cohen sits next to the president -- I worked in politics.  You do listen to the boss all the time.  You listen to his constant worries, almost his Popeye worries.  Worries about things.

Cohen was there for all those worries.  He would have heard everything -- you`re giving me the surmising look, Jonathan, but I think politicians talk around their staff. 

ALLEN:  For sure not only was he listening, he was taping. 

MATTHEWS:  Go on. 

ALLEN:  I mean, we know.  We know that Michael Cohen was taping his conversations with President Trump.  We don`t know how many tapes he has.  We don`t know what all of the things he has will say and what Mueller has and what the members of Congress are going to find out about. 

But not only does Cohen have testimony, but we know he has at least some back up of testimony.  I think this show under the klieg lights of Congress is going to be very fascinating because Michael Cohen`s entire strategy since he turned is a public relations strategy, basically.  He wants to be seen as the guy throwing Trump under the bus.  He wants to be seen as the person who turned on him and did something just. 

He wants to live in Manhattan as somebody who is something other than guy who went along with Trump the entire way.  And so, for him, this is an opportunity to do that. 

MATTHEWS:  This is Chuck Colson going to prison reform as his cause.  Seriously.

ALLEN:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  This isn`t like John Dean.  This is the inside bad guy turning completely 180 saying now I`m a good guy because I`m going to screw this guy. 

Anyway, meanwhile, yesterday`s attack in northern Syria that took the lives of four Americans has underscored the concern people have with the president`s plan to pull our troops out from Syria.  As "Foreign Policy Magazine" writes: Inadequate policy coordination, incoherent presidential tweets and discordant remarks by senior advisers have created confusion across the Middle East. 

And speaking of confusion, even as Trump talks about pulling out of Syria, we`re learning that back in September, his national security advisor, John Bolton, raised the specter of attacking Iran.  According to "The Wall Street Journal", the National Security Council asked the Pentagon to provide the White House with military options to strike Iran last year, generating concern at the Pentagon and State Department. 

Jonathan, the one reason I looked kindly on Trump as a candidate was he talked about no more stupid wars.  And I have to wonder why he brought Bolton in, Mr. Neocon, who likes -- who`s been saying we have to go to Iran for years, if not, you know?  That`s what he`s doing. 

Who`s his boss now?  Is it him?  Is it Erdogan?  Is it Rand Paul?  Is it John Bolton?  Is it Trump?

SWAN:  I think you put your finger on something which is Trump`s foreign policy is contradictory, OK?  So, on one hand, he is withdrawing ground forces from Syria. 

And I spoke to Rand Paul after he left the White House last night.  He sounded like Trump.  He`s very keen on getting them out of Afghanistan as well. 

At the same time, he has a different point in our report on the weekend.  One of the early disputes he had with Mattis was Trump kept asking for plans to blow up Iranian boats in the Persian Gulf, Iranian fast boats, and Mattis vehemently disagreed with that.  And I can confirm "The Wall Street Journal" report that Bolton did request targets inside Iran for strikes, as retaliation for this Iranian proxy group.  Mattis had concerns about that because he thought it would escalate what was a non-state conflict to a state conflict. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, and Iran is a real country.  It`s not a country carved up by the Brits after World War I.  It`s Persia.  It`s a real country with real history and an Israeli supported military going way back, a U.S. supported military way back is still there. 

PRZYBYLA:  And to your point, though, I think one of the most striking parts of the reporting in that story to your point about contradictions and also who`s in charge was that president may not have even been aware in the beginning that it was with Bolton, that the president, at least in the initial stages, wasn`t even aware of it. 

MATTHEWS:  Jon, very quickly, do you think this president understands going to war with Iran is not the same as Iraq? 

ALLEN:  No.  And I think there`s no policy process and that`s the big problem that not only people outside the administration, but inside the administration.

MATTHEWS:  He`s going to war with the real country.

Anyway, the round table sticking with us.  And up next, these three will tell me something I don`t know. 

You`re watching HARDBALL.


MATTHEWS:  We`re back with the roundtable.

Jonathan, tell me something I don`t know. 

SWAN:  Two sources tell me that Tony Blair visited the White House quietly early this week and met with Jared Kushner.  Tony Blair, famously, he tried to work on the Middle East problem unsuccessfully, and Jared is trying to get a deal between Israelis --

MATTHEWS:  The quartet. 

SWAN:  The quartet. 

MATTHEWS:  I bumped to him at the American College once.


PRZYBYLA:  Chris, I am proud to announce that I actually got the exclusive that every reporter in this town has been looking for, with the former Defense Secretary James Mattis. 



PRZYBYLA:  In the most obvious of places where you would expect to find him.

MATTHEWS:  What`s your scope?

PRZYBYLA:  In between the women`s racks at Nordstrom. 

SWAN:  Wow, that`s good.  What did you ask him?

PRZYBYLA:  I was there this week, I looked up and there was James Mattis. 

I`ll tell you, he was surprised.  Well, I asked him a number of things, but the one thing I can share with you is that even though he did pen that letter that I think raised expectations that maybe he`s ready to dish some time soon about his experiences in that White House, he assured me that is not happening anytime soon and I`m talking potentially years.  That was the word he used to me. 

MATTHEWS:  Jonathan?

ALLEN:  Nancy Pelosi not going to Afghanistan.  This is a long running fight.  Democrats have been upset that the White House has been restricting them from going to warzones.  We can look at it as a tit-for-tat with the State of the Union, which is much bigger. 

Stephen Lynch, one of the members that was going on this trip, put up an amendment to defense authorization bill last year to force the Pentagon to assist members that wanted to go to Iraq, Syria, et cetera.  It got killed in the House Rules Committee which was then under Republican control.  Again, the president is pulling troops out of Afghanistan right now.  The speaker of the house wanted to go there and was not able to. 

MATTHEWS:  Lynch represents in Boston, a lot of fighting men there, a lot of people in the service from there. 

Jonathan Swan, thank you.  Heidi Przybyla, and, thank you, Jonathan Allen. 

HARDBALL back after this.


MATTHEWS:  Let me finish tonight about a thought about this contest of wills between the president and speaker of the House.  It began with Trump closing down the government over his wall.  The speaker responded by saying building a wall on the Mexican border would be an immorality.  That made it a war of unconditional surrender. 

And then the speaker escalated the fight, suggested Trump take a rain check on the State of the Union, or just sent out a written version or, she later said in the Oval Office, do it at the Oval Office since the last one was such a rip roaring success.  Don`t you think? 

And then today, Trump grounded Nancy`s airplane just as it was headed out to Brussels and Afghanistan. 

So, what do we make of this national staring contest?  Well, I for one suspect that Trump will blink.  That`s why he spent today messing with Nancy`s airplane.  It`s because the same chief executive`s power he showed in grounding the speaker`s plane is the same chief executive power he showed in grounding the American government. 

He is the one getting blamed and he is the one the buck stops with. 

And that`s HARDBALL for now. 

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now.