Nadler accuses Trump of witness intimidation. TRANSCRIPT: 5/21/19, Hardball w/ Chris Matthews.

Guests: Madeleine Dean, Donna Edwards, Sherrod Brown, John Yarmuth, CarlosCurbelo, Leon Panetta

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST:  But don`t go anywhere because "HARDBALL" with Chris Matthews is up next.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  Trump guides the star witness.  Let`s play HARDBALL.

Good evening, I`m Chris Matthews in Washington.  This was the empty chair you`re looking at in which former White House Counsel Don McGahn was supposed to sit in for today`s hearing with the House Judiciary Committee.  Instead, McGahn was a no-show, defying a congressional subpoena to testify today in public about the President`s order for him to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a brazen act to obstruct justice.

As the star witness against Trump, McGahn has already detailed numerous examples of likely obstruction, all of which are contained in the Special Counsel`s report.  Yet he`s now become a pawn in the presence game of chicken with Congress.  In an effort to guide the former Counsel, the White House issued a letter late yesterday, saying that McGahn is absolutely immune from any congressional subpoena for his testimony.  That move follows a public attack on McGahn led by the President.

And now, House Judiciary Chairman, Jerry Nadler, is accusing the President of witness intimidation and he`s vowing to enforce the subpoenas that the Trump White House is acting now to nullify.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JERRY NADLER (D-NY):  The President took it upon himself to intimidate a witness who has a legal obligation to be here today.  This conduct is not remotely acceptable.  Our subpoenas are not optional.  Let me be clear.  This committee will hear Mr. McGahn`s testimony even if we have to go to court to secure it.  We will not allow the President to prevent the American people from hearing from this witness.  We will not allow the President to block congressional subpoenas, putting himself and his allies above the law.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, as the Associated Press reports, President Trump has leverage on McGahn even though McGahn is now a private citizen.  According to that reporting, if McGahn were to defy Trump and testify before the Congress, it could endanger his own career in republican politics and put his law firm, Jones Day, in the President`s crosshairs.

In fact, Trump has mused about obstructing republicans to cease dealing with that law firm.  Well, today, the House Judiciary Committee issued two new subpoenas, one for Annie Donaldson, who was Deputy White House Counsel under McGahn, and another for Hope Hicks, of course, we know her, Trump`s former Communications Director.

NBC News is also reporting tonight that the committee has been unable to reach an agreement with Special Counsel Robert Mueller to secure his testimony.  Wow.

I`m joined right now by Democratic Congresswoman Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania, a member of the House Judiciary Committee.  Donna Edwards is the former Democratic Congresswoman from Maryland and Chuck Rosenberg is a former U.S. Attorney and Senior FBI Official and the host of MSNBC podcast The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg.

Congresswoman Dean, I am baffled.  Because it seems to me every time that Congress asked for something, whether it`s a piece of paper or it`s testimony from a current official or a past official, this White House has the moxie to say no and get away with it because they know that the Speaker of the House will not impeach this President, because she is afraid of endangering sits like yours.  That seems to be the conundrum right now.  Tell me where I`m wrong.

REP. MADELEINE DEAN (D-PA):  What I disagree with you on is the fact that we can do nothing about it.  We have lots of legal avenues left to us.  But you`re absolutely right.  You notice that today is a very grave day.  Yet again this administration and specifically this President had his counsel put out a 15-page letter that spewed a legal argument that made no sense, frankly, and was not upheld by juries prudence, that somehow there is a blanket immunity and that Mr. McGahn would not be able to testify in front of us.  That is simply not true.  So whether you call it nullifying or simply trying to silence the voice of Mr. Mcgahn who testified very cleanly to the Special Counsel that the President attempted to obstruct justice.

It is a grave day, and that`s why today I actually decided to make an important statement, to both my committee, to my Chairman and leadership that we must open an impeachment inquiry.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you for that.  I think that`s the right thing to do.  I just want to ask you, who do you think is more embarrassed by the empty chair, the White House, Mr. McGahn himself or the house?  That empty chair, I know it`s an old stage move.  It`s been done in politics for years, the guy who doesn`t show up for a debate.  I know how do it.  But you really think that hurts the President, that empty chair, as it just shows how nervy he is?

DEAN:  It is shameful on the part of the President.  That`s what it is symbolic of.  And for Mr. McGahn, I believe that Mr. McGahn is a man of credibility who testified in earnest, a very credible evidence of obstruction by a President whom he served.  He`s a public servant.  I hope he wants to come forward.  I hope he will ignore that immunity and serve his credibility, not his career, his credibility.

MATTHEWS:  Well, from what I know of your district, I grew up right near there and I went to school there.  Your district is going to love that statement you just made.

Anyway, McGahn`s decision to obey the administration`s wishes over a congressional subpoena stands in historic contrast, that`s the right word, historic contrast with the actions of another former White House Counsel.  Remember John Dean?  He`s still around.  John Dean will tell you what happened.  He had been fired by Nixon.  He broke up with the whole Watergate scandal with his compelling testimony in 1973.  McGahn, however, issued a letter through his lawyers last night saying he finds himself facing contradictory instructions from two co-equal branches of government and must decline to appear at the hearing.

Chuck, John Dean, if he got a letter from Nixon to say don`t testify because you`re my former counsel at the White House and you`re endangering privileged information, he would have shown up anyway before the Ervin committee.

CHUCK ROSENBERG, MSNBC HOST:  I imagine that`s probably right, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  And what would have happen?  What would Nixon have been able to do to him?

ROSENBERG:  Well, it`s not clear he wouldn`t have been able to do anything, at least not quickly.  But there is a difference here, right?  McGahn got that memo.  He literally got the memo.  And he is torn between two co-equal branches.

MATTHEWS:  From the Office of Legal Counsel and Justice Department, which is under the control of William Barr.

ROSENBERG:  Right.  But --

MATTHEWS:  But doesn`t that tell you something he`s under Barr.

ROSENBERG:  Well, hold on because I think there is an important point here, And I don`t want to be an apologist for this administration.  But in that 15-page letter, which I read, you know, there is a history presidents from all both parties and many administrations asserting a similar type of immunity to preclude Congress from talking to senior officials in the administration.

What McGahn has to do is abide by the law.  And what Congress has to do is challenge that blanket assertion of immunity.  It has to be adjudicated.  It has to be decided by the courts.  And then McGahn won`t be torn between two warring parties.

MATTHEWS:  How long that will take that?

ROSENBERG:  So that`s the good question.

MATTHEWS:  Congresswoman, did you want to say something?  How long will that last to get McGahn to be cleared of White House influence?

DEAN:  The opinions in case law are on our side.  All you have to do is take a look at the Meyers case, which is analogous, where the court said not once but twice there is no such thing as a a claim of a blanket immunity.  That is a claim that an administration can make, but it is not case law.  So that won`t hold up.

MATTHEWS:  A district court in D.C. which would probably hold it -- handle it.  Who are you confident over the courts these days that will deliver a decision which you consider just?

DEAN:  I hope the courts see that every institution of our government which has been framed over the course of hundreds of years through sweat, blood and giving of their lives will say that this is too important of a time to allow this amoral President to tear down, whether it`s judiciary or rule of law, the equal, co-equal branches of government.  So I hold out hope that the judiciary is sworn to uphold the law and to uphold the law against an out of control administration.

MATTHEWS:  He seems to be this President operating like a -- and I would do the same.  We all do.  if we were on death row now, we would used everything legal trick in the world to delay it.  And he`s going to challenge every single subpoena, every citation for contempt, every request for document, any -- whatever because he`s putting it off until the end of this summer, into the end of the fall and all of a sudden it`s 2020 and then the Congress gets cold feet because they can`t do this in an election year.

FMR. REP. DONNA EDWARDS (D-ML):  Well, this is exactly the reason, Chris, that I have said all along that Congress needs to do this in the context of impeachment proceeding because it changes the nature of the proceeding.  And I think that the President we know that he is going to buck up against every single opportunity.

And so when you are dealing with a bully like this and you`re dealing with somebody like this, you have to play hardball.  And right now, democrats look like they`re not willing to play hardball.

MATTHEWS:  Well, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Attorney General Bill Barr, that`s (INAUDIBLE) guy, said his belief in the President`s expansive power is not about Trump but the Presidency itself.  Quote, this is from Barr, I felt the rules were being changed to hurt Trump and I thought it was damaging for the presidency over the long haul.  Barr went on to say, if you destroy the presidency and make him an errand boy for Congress, we`re going to be a much weaker, a more divided nation.

You know, there might be some credibility coming from that, Congresswoman, if he were sort of an independent guy, but he made it clear, he`s very stronger in executive, to the point of really sort of, you know, pushing the envelope in terms of executive power and also to have the President chuckling afterwards, saying, my people say that`s for it to preserve the power of the Presidency for future office holders.  Chuck was laughing when he said that.

DEAN:  Well, to your point about A.G. Barr, my son Harry has an expression that I like.  And it is that you gain credibility in droplets and you pour it away in buckets.  In the case of Attorney General Barr, he has poured away his credibility in buckets.  Trump has surrounded himself with somebody who will just be a yes man and carry that water as he pours away his own credibility.

But I want to say that I and the other members of the Judiciary Committee, other member of my caucus, and you saw even that one member of the republican caucus have stepped forward to say an impeachment inquiry is necessary.  This is not an easy thing to say.  I don`t say it with any kind of joy.  It`s a very grave thing to say.  But I do want you to know that it is also met in my heart by a spirit of American optimism that this government of and by and for the people will not be thwarted by the most amoral, singularly, amoral President of our lifetime.  We have the mechanisms in place and we have people of good will who will do the right thing and this presidency will end.

MATTHEWS:  I have to ask you about -- I will go to Chuck in a second.  But I want to go back to the profound words you just said.  I was so taken with that.  And I am, of course, for the fact that you are holding office in a very, very sophisticated district.  Those people know what`s going on.  They read the paper out.  I know Montgomery County.  I won`t to tell you.

What struck me watching the Nixon impeachment hearing and how Peter Rodino, you know, an old ethnic guy from an old ethnic neighborhood in Northern Jersey, and a lot of those guys like (INAUDIBLE) and those people who were just regular politicians, they weren`t superstars.  When they got that and stood on national television, all of them, and they talked about the gravity of the impeachment and they`re taking they were going to, all of them scored well politically.  Every -- Congress had never gotten a higher rating with the public in terms of job approval that it has, then because they --

DEAN:  I was a little girl, but I remember watching.

MATTHEWS:  Well, that`s we -- I think that`s what happened again, so I`m so with you.

Chuck, you`re thoughts about impeachment.  I know you`re not from the body of Congress but that`s the first branch of government.  Does it have a role?  Robert Mueller`s job was to dig up.  He was the investigator.  Under the constitution, the House of Representative is the prosecutor.  The Senate is the judge, the convicting judge, if necessary.  I think the House has to do its role.

They keep thinking.  Well, Pelosi says today, well, we have to get some republicans in the Senate before we do anything.  Well, is that the cart before the horse?

ROSENBERG:  It may be.  Look, the Congress has the authority.  It`s perfectly clear and it`s perfectly constitutional.  And, by the way, there is not a thing in the world the president can do to stop the Congress`s impeachment inquiry.

MATTHEWS:  Will the courts go along with it?  Will they support them with evidence?

ROSENBERG:  So it`s interesting.  If an impeachment inquiry is open, and this gets a little technical, but I think I`ll make it clear, the grand jury rules that protect the disclosure of information would be waived.  You could then go to court and get the grand jury information and use it in the impeachment inquiry.  So not only is it a constitutional path, it`s a path that opens the door to additional information.

MATTHEWS:  Do the underlying evidence?

ROSENBERG:  To the grand jury information, right?

So, you know, that`s their game.  Donna knows more about this than me, but it does open -- it does unlock that door to evidence.

EDWARDS:  Yes.  That`s why I said it`s imperative because you have to put this in a framework that allows Congress to get the materials that they need to do the investigation.  And at the end of it, you could say, maybe there`re going to be ten articles of impeachment, maybe there are going to be three.  But you don`t know it until you begin the process.

And, you know, so the democratic base wants this and wants it now, not because they want the President, but because they want the constitution to be upheld and the rule of law.  And so democrats just have to do it.

MATTHEWS:  Okay, U.S. Congresswoman Madeline Dean, let me ask you a last question.  Hardly any time left, but what I want to ask you, do you think the majority of your committee, the House Judiciary Committee, is now for moving ahead with impeachment?

DEAN:  I haven`t taken a headcount, but there is a very strong movement in the committee.  After all, we are watching this day by day, subpoena by subpoena, empty chair by empty chair, obstruction by obstruction.  We`ve read the Mueller report.  We see the criminality that is evidence.  So I would say a tremendous number want to do this because we want to get at the truth.  And we have a President who is standing in the way of the truth because the truth will hurt him.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you so much, U.S. Congresswoman Madeline Dean of Pennsylvania, former U.S. Congresswoman Donna Edwards of Maryland and Chuck Rosenberg.

Coming up, have we reached the tipping point on impeachment?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. STEVE COHEN (D-TN):  I see a lot more people, believe that impeachable offense has occurred and we`d like to see an impeachment inquiry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Speaker Pelosi has said no to impeaching Trump, but now, she`s under increasing pressure from her democratic caucus to change her mind.  So what happens next?  Apparently there`s a meeting tomorrow morning at 9:00.  We`ll see.

Plus, the confrontation of President, his new belligerence abroad, is raising the risk of war with Iran.  I`ll get to that.  I`ll talk about that with former CIA Director and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.  What a great guest to have tonight.

Also with me tonight, Ohio Senator Sharon Brown on the fight for blue collar voters in 2020, they`re going to be critical.  Well, they were critical in Trump`s victory.  They could be critical to his defeat.  Are democrats floating their chance to win them back in `20 or not?

Much more ahead, stick with us.

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(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY):  I believe that the -- we have come to the time of impeachment.  I think that, at a certain point, this is no longer about politics.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The President is creating the circumstances that we may have to consider it.  I`m personally much more open to it now than I was four months ago.

REP. MAXINE WATERS (D-CA):  Each day is going to bring about new information.  We have members who are strongly talking about an impeachment inquiry.

COHEN:  I see a lot more people believe that an impeachable offense has occurred.  We`d like to see an impeachment inquiry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Those were just a few House Democrats on the drum beat calls you`re hearing for the President`s impeachment.  Now, something is going on.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has maintained control over her members and quieted impeachment talks so far, but the Speaker could be facing an inflection point as the course grows louder.

NBC News reports that during a leadership meeting last night, Judiciary Committee Members Jamie Raskin of Maryland, David Cicilline of Rhode Island and Joe Neguse, I should know that name by now, of Colorado, all argued for launching an impeachment inquiry if former White House Counsel Don McGahn failed to testify.  Well, guess what, he has failed to testify.

In a second larger meeting, Pelosi reportedly told members, quote, we`ve always said one thing will lead to another as we get information.  We still have unexhausted avenues here.  Well, the Speaker has stressed that any consideration of impeachment must be bipartisan.

In an interview with Morning Joe yesterday, it was taped yesterday, Pelosi was asked if Congressman Justin Amash, the first republican to signal support for impeachment meets that requirement.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA):  Well, a bipartisan support for impeachment has to be in the Senate.

MIKA BRZEZINSKI, MSNBC HOST:  So doesn`t it put more pressure on you that a conservative republican says the threshold for impeachment has been met?

PELOSI:  No.

BRZEZINSKI:  No.  Why?

PELOSI:  Well, we have -- we are not -- this isn`t about politics. It`s not about passion. It`s not about prejudice. It`s not about politics.  It`s about patriotism.  And it`s about the presentation of the facts, so that the American people can see why we`re going down a certain path. 

And it is -- I don`t know.  I feel very confident that the American people know that they deserve to know the truth, and that`s what we want to present to them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, Speaker Pelosi will hold a closed-door Democratic Caucus meeting tomorrow morning at 9:00, I believe I said, to give her members an update on oversight and investigations.

For more, I`m joined by Democratic Congressman John Yarmuth of Kentucky, who is chairman of the House Budget Committee.  Heidi Przybyla is NBC News correspondent.  And Carlos Curbelo is a former Republican congressman from Florida. 

Here`s the question.  I think it is about politics, in all deference to the speaker.  She`s one of the best speakers ever.  I recognize her ability to keep the caucus together.  But I think it`s about politics and her fear that Democrats will look too partisan if they act now. 

My question to you, Congressman, is the potential impeachment process of this president closer to Nixon`s or Clinton`s?  Does it look more legitimate if it occurs or less legitimate?

REP. JOHN YARMUTH (D-KY):  Oh, I think it`s..

MATTHEWS:  It`s more like Nixon?

YARMUTH:  I think it`s definitely more like Nixon, right. 

The Clinton impeachment was clearly totally partisan.  I don`t think this is.  I think -- I think the people who have looked at it seriously understand that the democracy -- the status of our democracy is at stake. 

And this is -- this is very serious business.  This isn`t about an illicit affair. 

And...

MATTHEWS:  What is the biggest thing?  Is it the potential testimony in public of Don McGahn that the president of the United States, under investigation by a special counsel named particularly to investigate him, tried to fire him ?

YARMUTH:  I think that`s a -- that`s a huge factor and a huge element of the case. 

But I think -- and this is where I do agree with Speaker Pelosi.  I think there is potentially a lot more in some of these investigations involving his financial situation, his finances.  He has connections to overseas interests.

And I think we do need to give that a chance to play out.

I don`t think there`s...

MATTHEWS:  Can you do that if the White House doesn`t cooperate?

YARMUTH:  Well, all you`re doing then is, you`re just adding ammunition to cause for impeachment, if they don`t cooperate.

MATTHEWS:  OK, then I`m asking you the question, the alternative. 

YARMUTH:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  B -- the B plan.  If the president stonewalls you from now until next August, when you`re going to act?

YARMUTH:  No, we have to act much sooner than that. 

I`m already on record saying I have been for impeachment.  I think he`s committed multiple impeachable offenses, and he does it on a daily basis.  And I would be fine with initiating an inquiry right now. 

But I do think there`s some value in going on with these investigations for a while.  How long?  Probably not past fall.  I think we have to do something by then.

MATTHEWS:  You know, Heidi, I was around.  I got to tell you, the members of Congress in the House -- everybody`s partisan to some extent, but the Congress never looked better than when it held the impeachment hearings in the House Judiciary Committee in 1974.

They were on in prime time.  People were very sort of old-school guys like Tip O`Neill, I mean, old ethnic guys, you might say, from big cities like Newark, guys like Rodino, and they all came up.  They rose to the occasion.  It was chilling.  These guys that are just regular street corner guys became statesmen. 

And the Congress looked good doing its job. 

HEIDI PRZYBYLA, NBC POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT:  But the problem here, Chris, is, in that scenario, you had a lot of investigations prior to that point where the Republicans essentially had to get on board. 

They were the ones who went to Nixon and said it`s time.  You`re not seeing that now, because, to the congressman`s point, the stonewalling is so utterly complete...

MATTHEWS:  But this...

PRZYBYLA:  ... you can`t even have the hearings.  You can`t have the hearings.  You can`t get Mueller up there.  You can`t get the star witness, Don McGahn, to come up there. 

And I do think all of these things combined, along with a principled Republican in Justin Amash from Michigan coming forward and saying, these are impeachable offenses, which, by the way, is also in coordin -- or not in coordination, but in agreement with 900 former federal prosecutors from both parties saying, yes, this is a pretty clear-cut case.  These -- this is obstruction of justice. 

But what you had here was William Barr putting out his note and giving a lot of Republicans cover, such that the -- this has not gotten through to the American people.  And that`s why Pelosi wants to have these hearings. 

That`s why we`re at a plan B, because the American public is not there yet in terms of the polling on impeachment, that 56 percent of them think the president is guilty of wrongdoing.  But then, when you ask the impeachment question, it`s notching up, it`s notching up.  And that`s why I think Pelosi before was saying, he`s not worth it. 

Now I think she`s just saying, hold on.  We`re getting there. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.

A story breaking just moments ago, "The Washington Post" reported, a confidential Internal Revenue Service legal opinion -- that`s from the IRS -- says tax returns must be given to the Congress, unless the president takes the rare step of asserting executive privilege. 

According to this report -- you`re laughing -- "The memo contradicts the Trump administration`s justification for denying lawmakers` request for President Trump`s tax returns, exposing fissures in the executive branch."

Well, that`s an easy one. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  That`s an easy one.  He`s just going to determine executive privilege here.

YARMUTH:  Of course he is. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  By the way, what has that got to do with -- I always thought of executive privilege as Nixon meeting with Kissinger in the backroom talking China policy.

What has this got to do with the matters of state, his tax returns?

YARMUTH:  Well, it has nothing to do with it. 

And, of course, this president doesn`t have any idea how government works.  He never stopped to learn it.  He obviously never took a civics course, doesn`t know what it says in the Constitution.  I`m not sure he even knows there are three branches of government. 

Obviously, he is ignoring...

MATTHEWS:  He didn`t need to, did he?

YARMUTH:  He is ignoring one of them. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

YARMUTH:  But, no, the tax returns have nothing to do with executive privilege.

MATTHEWS:  Let me go -- Congressman Curbelo, thank you about this. 

We`re talking about this sort of catch-22.  The Congress says, under the sober leadership of the speaker, we`re not going to act until we have all our cards. 

But the president -- this president basically is burning the tapes, like Nixon would have burned the tapes.  He`s making sure that evidence that Nancy Pelosi needs doesn`t get to her. 

So how do you get out of this catch-22?

CARLOS CURBELO (R), FORMER U.S. CONGRESSMAN:  Well, that`s the issue here, Chris, right?

We have the facts and the evidence and then the politics.

MATTHEWS:  Who has got them?

(LAUGHTER)

CURBELO:  And Nancy Pelosi -- Nancy Pelosi is in a difficult position.

This is going to be the greatest test of her speakership this term.  She has to balance the competing interests between members that represent deep blue districts, those members that are most motivated by the Democratic base, and then those members in her caucus who are the majority-makers, who represent the swing districts. 

Oftentimes, we saw John Boehner in this predicament.  Paul Ryan was certainly in it.  Now it`s Nancy Pelosi turn.  For now, it seems that she`s siding with those swing district members, being cautious, not wanting to be aggressive on impeachment.  A lot of people say that Pelosi has a no- impeachment strategy. 

We will see how long that holds.  That strategy right now is under deep stress.  But I do know for a fact there are a lot of swing district Democrats who want to put the brakes on all this impeachment talk, at least for a few months. 

MATTHEWS:  Where are they?  Who are these people saying, no, leave him alone, don`t impeach? 

CURBELO:  These are members who won tough races in the 2018 elections. 

MATTHEWS:  Where?

CURBELO:  They represent suburban districts in Florida, in Pennsylvania, in California.

MATTHEWS:  Well, we just had one from Pennsylvania, a suburban district, and she came out for impeachment.  So, Pelosi is not protecting her.

(CROSSTALK)

CURBELO:  I do think that the momentum in recent days is toward impeachment. 

But I do know also that there are a lot of swing district Democrats who aren`t ready to go there yet.

MATTHEWS:  Maybe it`s to -- the speaker`s still hoping to pick up Bucks County and a few more suburban districts.  And if you impeach, you don`t get them. 

But I think the -- never mind. 

But, Congressman, I think it is like Nixon burning the tapes. 

Anyway, thank you, John Yarmuth.  Congressman, thank you for coming in.

Heidi, as always. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And, former Congressman Carlos Curbelo, thank you for that. 

CURBELO:  Thanks, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Up next: the power of one.  Trump is flexing his presidential powers here at home and abroad, stonewalling the Congress here in Washington and ramping up tensions with Iran. 

Former CIA Director, Secretary of Defense and White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta joins us to talk about the limits, well, what should be the limits of presidential power, after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

As President Trump continues to test the limits of the power of his presidency, he has been stonewalling Congress at every turn.  According to "The Washington Post," the president and his allies are working to block more than 20 separate investigations, amounting to what many experts call the most expansive White House obstruction effort in decades. 

The latest act, blocking former White House counsel Don McGahn from answering questions in front of Congress.  The president`s defiant moves puts Congress and the Democrats into a tough position on what to do next. 

For more, I`m joined by Leon Panetta, former CIA director, secretary of defense and White House chief of staff. 

Mr. Secretary, your first role -- what I would like you to do is talk about the role of the White House here.  How do you assess these declarations of presidential power vis-a-vis Congress?

LEON PANETTA, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE:  Well, I can`t help but think that the president and the White House are just pushing themselves towards an impeachment by the way they`re behaving.

To take a blanket approach to absolutely no cooperation with the Congress, when the Constitution makes clear that the Congress has oversight responsibility here and does have the right to look at the presidency to make sure that the presidency is abiding by the law of the land, to take a position that you`re not going to cooperate on any front is a slap in the face to our whole Constitution and its system of checks and balances.

MATTHEWS:  Did you ever consider, as chief of staff or as secretary of defense or in any role that you held that the president of the United States enjoys executive privilege over his tax returns?

PANETTA:  That`s a -- that`s a new one. 

(LAUGHTER)

PANETTA:  I`m sure they`re going to try to figure out whatever excuse they can find not to reveal those tax returns. 

He`s obviously been trying to hide those for the last number of years.  He`s going to continue to do it.  And he will find whatever excuse he can in order to fight it. 

But I think, in the end, this is one where the courts have a pretty clear path here in terms of the right of the Congress to get a copy of those tax returns.

MATTHEWS:  Let`s hope so.

By the way, it`s not just Congress the president`s facing off with.  Tensions continue to rise in his standoff with the -- between the United States and Iran.  After the president appeared to soften his tone at the end of last week, he wrote this ominous tweet over this week -- excuse me.

"If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran.  Never threaten the United States again."

And, yesterday, had this to say:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  With Iran, we`ll see what happens.  But they`ve been very hostile.  They`ve truly been the number one provocateur of terror in this country and, you know, representing their country. 

We have no indication that anything has happened or will happen.  But, if it does, it will be met, obviously, with great force.  We`ll have no choice.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Mr. Secretary, it`s like some character in "Gunsmoke" that walks in the saloon and looks around for a fight, somebody -- just to challenge somebody, humiliate somebody into fighting him for a -- have a gun -- a shoot-out with him. 

Why is he -- here`s my first question.  Why would he accuse -- say to the Iranians, we`re going to turn you into whatever, a nothing country, with our firepower, unless he wants to incite them into a fight?  What do you think?

PANETTA:  Chris, I have been -- I have been struggling to figure out what the hell the foreign policy of this administration is all about.  And I can`t.  There is no strategy here. 

This is just a president who decides to bully and to tweet and to say whatever he wants, without any kind of comprehensive strategy about how you deal with all of these hot spots in the world.  I mean, this is a dangerous world we`re in.  We have got Russia that`s being more aggressive.  We`re in a trade war with China. 

We have got North Korea.  And there`s been no progress as a result of what this president has done in North Korea.  They still remain a threat.  We have failed states in the Middle East.  We have got ISIS continuing to be a terrorist threat.  And now we have got Iran. 

And I don`t see a basic strategy here that this president has put in place in order to deal with any of those threats that are out there.

MATTHEWS:  Well, I don`t know. 

Let me just ask you, because you`re an expert on this.  He -- he basically, through his son-in-law, who he has deputized as his foreign policy whatever, envoy, to basically screw the Palestinians out of a hope ever of getting a state of their own or any kind of government their own. 

He`s basically saying, well, we`re going to work with the Arab states, the Sunni states, like the Palestinians, against the Iranians.  Well, wait a minute.  You just screwed our allies.  You have given them nothing.  The Palestinians won`t even talk to you.  Even the business guys over there won`t talk to you.  They`re not going to be paid off. 

At the same time, they`re going to be his pawns in taking on Iran.  Explain.  I know that`s a ridiculous question, because you can`t -- nobody can explain that, but your thoughts.

(LAUGHTER)

PANETTA:  Look, this president loves to roll a grenade in the room, blow things up, scatter everybody, and then tries to figure out where the hell it`s going to take us. 

He did that with Iran.  He tore up the nuclear agreement without having any strategy in place for where we were going to go.  The only place we can go, very frankly, if you don`t want an all-out war, is to engage in negotiations. 

He ought to be working with our allies, because they have credibility with Iran, and the United States doesn`t.  He ought to be working with them to try to get us back to the table.  In North Korea, has done the same thing.  It was -- he was bullying North Korea.  Then he sat down with North Korea. 

But we have gotten nowhere with regards to denuclearization.  And so, area after area, we have got a lot of chaos, we have got a lot of uncertainty.  Most -- most countries abroad aren`t sure what our policies are. 

And, in the end, what that does is, it creates a more dangerous world.  This is a dangerous time for the United States, because our adversaries will take advantage of this uncertainty.

MATTHEWS:  How much I wish, Mr. Secretary, that people like you -- in fact, you -- and John Kerry were running the country right now.  We need sober leadership.  And we don`t have it.

Thank you so much, Leon Panetta, who served our country in so many top ways.

PANETTA:  Nice to be with you.

MATTHEWS:  Up next:  President Trump is looking vulnerable in parts of the Midwest, including Pennsylvania, further east.  Can Democrats win back enough working-class voters to put those key states back into reach? 

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown has some thoughts on that.  He`s coming here, right here, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

According to a new Quinnipiac poll out today, former Vice President Joe Biden has a commanding lead over his Democratic rivals right now.  At his rally in Pennsylvania last night, President Trump who`s campaigned has expressed concern about facing the former vice president, went after his working class reputation. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  And don`t forget, Biden deserted you.  He`s not from Pennsylvania.  I guess he was born here, but he left you, folks.  He left you for another state.  Remember that, please.  I meant to say that. 

This guy talks about I know Scranton.  I know the places better.  He left you for another state and he didn`t take care of you because he didn`t take care of your jobs. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, Biden in a string of tweets hit back at the president for that.  Quote: I never forgotten where I came from.  My family did have to leave Pennsylvania when I was 10.  We moved to Delaware where my dad found a job to provide for our family. 

Trump doesn`t understand the struggling working folks and what they go through.  He doesn`t understand what it`s like to worry he will lose the roof over your head. 

Well, Pennsylvania is one of the states that President Trump and his Democratic challengers will be fighting over.  You can bet that.  In fact, the path to victory runs through the Great Lakes states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. 

Ohio which voted for Barack Obama twice before, flipping to Trump, now appears to be a Republican stronghold however.  According to "The New York Times", despite continued economic challenges and recent General Motors layoffs in Lordstown, President Trump, quote, appears to have lost little of his blue collar support up there. 

One former Democrat who now votes Republican told the "New York Times" what I want from a president is for the rest of the world to look at him and go, don`t mess with that guy.  He will get even.  I don`t want some kinder, gentler, I don`t want some female that wants her agenda.  Whoa. 

Well, stay tuned.  After the break, we`re going to hear from one Democrat knows how to win those blue collar voters, Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio. 

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  They came in and sold us something in the Republican Party thinking they were for us.  The Democrats, Mr. Perez, the candidate has got to come here.  They have to talk about worker` rights.  You can`t have candidates only concerned about social issues.  A social issue is the ability to provide for my family. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

That was a union worker at our town hall near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, last Thursday night, urging Democrats to come to communities like Luzerne County there which swung for Trump in 2016 after Obama won it twice. 

I`m now joined by the Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown who represents the state that Trump won by eight points after Obama won the state twice before. 

We are trying to figure out on this show, especially the show, but our whole network, to try to figure out what`s the thinking of the people that will probably going to decide this election.  What are your thoughts?

SEN. SHERROD BROWN (D-OH):  When you talk about the dignity at work.  I know the chairman did and you have.  You go to people where they live and, obviously, you can`t get to every town, you can`t get to Zanesville, and Mansfield and Lima and Toledo, but you go to many of those places and you talk to them about their kids and their kids going to community college or going to Ohio state or getting an apprenticeship with the carpenters or working in whatever jobs. 

You talk to them about health care.  You talk to them about Republicans trying to take away consumer protection for preexisting conditions.  You talk about how the president of the United States has betrayed workers.  We have a president where the White House looks like a retreat for Wall Street executives. 

MATTHEWS:  Now, you are a politician, so you won`t probably answer this question.  But did you hear what the guy said?  He said stop talking about social issues and start talking about economic issues. 

BROWN:  Well, yes, but you don`t -- you don`t compromise on choice.  You see what Alabama did and even some Republican say that it`s such extreme, but they are scared of the politics.  And, you know, they use the word freedom, the Republicans, but to me, freedom is women getting to choose what they do with their lives and their bodies. 

But, you know, I mean, you don`t compromise on guns.  Don`t compromise on marriage equality or civil rights.  But you also talk about their lives in health care and education.  I mean, I don`t win every small city in Ohio, but you lose it by less because you are talking to them about their lives.  Some will never vote for me because I get an F from the NRA, but a lot of them will because I`m there for their families. 

MATTHEWS:  I think that`s important to travel to where you may not win the majority, but you will win some of the vote. 

BROWN:  Yes.  And that`s -- you can see this division now in Pennsylvania and Ohio and throughout the Great Lakes states.  I appreciate you calling it Great Lakes now.  I saw the -- what you call the chyron underneath your show last night said Rust Belt. 

I know that`s -- 

MATTHEWS:  I thought that in real time.

BROWN:  I know.  I appreciate you. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask about this, because our voters, I asked them about Roe v. Wade, leave them alone.  There was a big yell for that.  The women who really spoke strongly was for leaving it alone.  But they also asked, do you trust the Democrats on stopping illegal immigration or slowing it?  The people didn`t believe it.  They don`t believe in your party on that issue.

BROWN:  I understand they don`t because Donald Trump played to fear.  Republicans are -- 

MATTHEWS:  Well, is your party strong on stopping illegal immigration? 

BROWN:  Yes.   Our party -- yes, our party is strong. 

MATTHEWS:  How so?  What did you do?

BROWN:  Well, we voted lots of dollars for border security.  We don`t believe in a wall.  That doesn`t work.  But you pay attention to what you need to do with technology and border agents and -- 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You think Democrats are trusted on this issue? 

BROWN:  I didn`t -- 

MATTHEWS:  Well, then why is Trump -- 

BROWN:  I didn`t say they were trusted.  We are doing thing and I think we have done it better than they have.  But Trump plays to fear and hatred and calls immigrants names and plays to jingoism and plays to -- the Republicans have depended on fear since the McCarthy days, since around the time you were born, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  I was following stuff way back then, too. 

But let me ask you about the attitude of voters.  It`s not just this cultural thing.  Democrats are pretty good at talking about jobs, minimum wage, things like that, they`re good union people.  All the basics are there and yet, people say, you know, I think they are too elite.

BROWN:  Well -- 

MATTHEWS:  This guy said to me the other day -- I know I prompted some of the questions, I know that, but one of the things they said was stop looking down your nose at us, the working people, out in places like Wilkes-Barre.  You are too sophisticated. 

  BROWN:  I don`t -- I don`t -- I think most of our candidates don`t do that that are running for president.  I look at Bob Casey in your home state -- 

MATTHEWS:  Of course, Casey is great.  He`s like you.  You would never do that.  But there are Democrats --

BROWN:  Yes.  Of course there are, but the president of the United States, do you see him shake hands after his rallies?  I mean, the president of the United States looks down -- he looks at crowds and he sees voters, he doesn`t see people.  He doesn`t know their names.  He doesn`t know their life stories.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

BROWN:  I mean, talk -- to elect a billionaire with his history and his background as if he`s not elitist, I just think that you`ve got to show whose side you are on.  This president betrays workers, whether they`re in Lordstown or whether it`s his court nominees. 

MATTHEWS:  Look at these pictures.  This is his pictures.  He wants -- these people like they are dying to get pictures of the guy. 

BROWN:  Well, he`s -- 

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of a shot at Biden for deserting Pennsylvania when it turns out he left -- 

BROWN:  When he was 10. 

MATTHEWS:  It`s such a joke. 

BROWN:  It`s one thing -- before -- before we all pile on on working class voters voting for Trump -- 

MATTHEWS:  Not me.

BROWN:  I know you don`t.  But in 2012, of self identified Republicans, 92 percent voted for Romney.  2016 of self identified Republicans, 91 percent of them voted for Trump.  So --

MATTHEWS:  What`s going on with the water?  What are they drinking?  What are they drinking?

BROWN:  Well, I understand that, but -- 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I`m serious, why are they doing that? 

BROWN:  Well, they`re doing that because they believe in tax cuts and deregulation. 

MATTHEWS:  Is that it?  I`m talking about the regular middle class Republicans.  They don`t get big tax cuts from Trump.

BROWN:  They bought in to their lines about all things.  I mean, they vote Republican.  They vote Republican.  That`s not -- we don`t win the election by getting some of those 92 percent. 

MATTHEWS:  Somebody told, I`ve got to test this view.  Somebody told me that you know and I`m going to quote them.  He said, when you get a union endorsement, you have about a 30 of a rank and file.  The other third, the second third, you`ve got to got fight for it, campaign for it, win them over.  And third third will vote against just because union leaders went for you.

BROWN:  I -- 

MATTHEWS:  Is that tough? 

BROWN:  I understand that.  I don`t believe that.

MATTHEWS:  You don`t believe that?

BROWN:  I think you get the endorsement -- you get the endorsement because you`ve earned them, because you`re talking to workers, because you`re in union halls.  That brings half the votes and you have a chance to get another half and the other half.  You are going to lose 20 or 25 percent.  It might be abortion.  It might be guns, it might be you don`t like their union. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

BROWN:  By and large, if you`re going to -- you can win 75 percent of the union. 

MATTHEWS:  Is Ohio in play next time?

BROWN:  Ohio is absolutely in play.  I just was just at a -- just spoken to state Democratic dinner.  Nancy Pelosi was in town and you can see the energy especially of women.  Joyce Beatty, the congresswoman, Marcy Kaptur was there.  A lot of -- a bunch of new Democratic female state representatives -- 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

BROWN:  -- under the leadership of Emilia Sykes, the new African-American Democratic leader.  And you could see that -- you could feel the energy in that room, more than I use -- they are ready. 

MATTHEWS:  Are you glad you`re not running? 

BROWN:  I am glad I`m not running, yes. 

MATTHEWS:  I`m not. 

BROWN:  I appreciate you saying that.  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you so much, Senator Sherrod Brown.

Up next -- 

BROWN:  Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  -- what appears to be the ups and downs of the Democratic race to come against Trump.  What are they going to face?  There`s going to be obstacles and advantages coming into 2020.  We`re going to talk about in a minute.

You are watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  There are two ways for Democrats to look at this upcoming presidential election of 2020 based upon the new polling out just today.  One is for Democrats to take heart from Donald Trump`s abysmal 38 percent favorability rating.  It means that roughly three in five American voters don`t like the guy.  Worse yet, a solid majority of Americans, 54 percent of the voters polled say they will definitely not vote for Trump in 2020.  Fifty-some percent.  Well, Joe Biden on the other hand benefits from a 49 percent factorability, meaning less than two in five Americans based upon the same Quinnipiac Poll don`t like Joe.  Well, that`s not bad either. 

And two, the negatives for the Democrats looking towards November of next year is that the polling finds many of the Democratic hopefuls with the exception of Biden have unfavorable ratings that exceed their favorable ratings.  That`s not good news.  The Democrats also have to prepare themselves for what they`ll be facing between now and November of 2020, the sheer relentlessness of the assault from the White House. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP:  I`m here to see you, but I`ll be seeing a lot of you over the next year.  I will be here a lot.  You got to win this state.  Got to win this state.  We did great last time. 

(CHANTING)

Sleepy Joe said that he is running to, quote, save the world.  Well, he was.  He`s going to save every country but ours. 

We would lose everything if we go with the people that you see that you running for office.  You saw that.  Last night, I watched Alfred E. Neuman.  What`s going on with Fox, by the way?  What`s going there? 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  It`s hard to find commitment among voters for a single candidate.  The Republicans are deeply committed to that guy.  And all this suggests a close fight in the Electoral College between the Republican Party that`s united and a Democratic side that could well win if they can get through the next year and a half without killing itself. 

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

"ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now. 

  THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END