updated 2/16/2006 11:34:28 AM ET 2006-02-16T16:34:28

Guests: John Barletta; Tom DeFrank; Tony Blankley; Byron York; Bernadine Healy

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Cheney speaks.  Four days after the vice president shot a man, he appears on FOX television.  Cheney says he was the guy who pulled the trigger.  But the big question still remains.  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL.  Four days after the shot, he shot a fellow hunter in Texas, Vice President Dick Cheney responded to growing Republican pressure for more answers about this past weekend. 

Today the vice president chose FOX News to break his silence.  The vice president‘s television appearance comes at a critical time.  Cheney‘s victim, a 78-year-old Texas lawyer suffered serious injuries as bird shot lodged in his heart.

Today doctors said his condition remains stable.  But Cheney‘s four-day silence has brought on bad blood among Republicans facing an election year.  Will what Cheney said today curb the political damage from this bizarre shooting incident?  HARDBALL‘s David Shuster has the report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Under pressure from Republicans across the spectrum, Vice President Cheney told FOX News he takes full responsibility for shooting his hunting partner and longtime acquaintance Harry Whittington.

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  It was not Harry‘s fault.  You can‘t blame anybody else.  I am the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend.  And that‘s a moment I‘ll never forget.

SHUSTER:  Cheney said the accident happened after Whittington went into tall grass to retrieve a bird.  Cheney moved positions and said he didn‘t realize Whittington had rejoined the group.  Another covey of quail rose up, and the vice president took aim and pulled the trigger.

CHENEY:  The image of him falling is something I‘ll never ever be able to get out of my mind.  I fired, and there‘s Harry falling.  And it was, I would have to say, one of the worst days of my life at that moment.

SHUSTER:  The vice president said he rushed over to Whittington, who was on the ground conscious and bleeding.  Cheney said he told his friend, “Harry, I didn‘t know you were there.”  Whittington, Cheney said, did not respond.  Cheney said he decided that Katharine Armstrong, the witness whose family owned the ranch, should handle disclosing the incident herself because the shooting happened on her property, and because she knew a local reporter who could put the story out on the wires.

CHENEY:  And I thought that made good sense because you can get as accurate a story as possible from somebody who knew and understood hunting, and then it would immediately go up to the wires and be posted on the Web site, which is the way it went out.  And I thought that was the right call.

BRIT HUME, FOX NEWS ANCHOR:  What do you think now?

CHENEY:  Well, I still do.

SHUSTER:  But the incident was not disclosed to the local paper until the next day at noon, 18 hours after the shooting.  And several Republicans, including some who work with Cheney, said the vice president‘s decision and the resulting delay were bad calls.  Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, quote, “It would have been better if the vice president and or his staff had come out last Saturday night or first thing Sunday Morning and announced it.  It is beyond me why it was not done this way.”

Former press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, who spoke for George H.W.  Bush‘s administration when Cheney was secretary of defense, said Tuesday, quote, “The vice president ignored his responsibility to the American people.”

Fitzwater added he was “appalled by the whole handling of this.”

Former GOP Congressman Vin Weber, a close White House confidant said Cheney‘s silence for four days, quote, “Made it a much bigger issue than it needed to be.”

Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, quote, “I don‘t know what their thinking was in not saying anything about it.”

And the “National Review,” a favorite magazine for conservatives, said quote, “It was a mistake not to alert the national press of the incident immediately.  Not talking only feeds speculation.”

Cheney said in his interview on FOX he had a beer at a picnic before the accident, but said alcohol was not a factor for anybody.  That was more information than Harry Whittington‘s doctors were willing to disclose today when the issue came up at a hospital news conference.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Was there ever a point where his blood alcohol was tested?

PETER BANKO, CHRISTUS SPOHN HOSPITAL:  Again, that question was asked, no comment, thank you.

SHUSTER:  Despite the vice president‘s comments today, some questions about accountability remain.  Cheney was not asked, nor did he explain, why he waited until Monday morning, 36 hours after the shooting, before discussing it with President Bush.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  And on top of issues about managing the news, the fact that the vice president and president did not talk to each other about the shooting for a day and a half, that‘s raising more questions.  In any case, it‘s clear now the vice president is unapologetic about how he handled the disclosure at every level, and that‘s raising concerns even among some Republicans about the vice president‘s judgment.  I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you David Shuster.  We‘re joined right now by NBC News chief White House correspondent David Gregory.  That word judgment, I think, is appropriate here, David. 

So much of this—in fact, this whole choreography from Saturday night through Sunday to Monday, now to Wednesday, has been at the direction of the vice president.  He decided who to give the story to, in the local press—a reporter who was going to blame it on the other guy. 

He decided not to give it to the national press.  He decided not to give an interview until Wednesday, today, and he selected obviously the person to give the interview to.  This has been news management, it has been cherry-picking of the media like I have never seen.  Has it been smart?

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Well, I won‘t get too far out there in pining on that, but I do think it is striking that the vice president was under a great deal of pressure to speak out about this. 

The rest of the White House—a lot has been made about the sparring between the White House Press Corps and the vice president‘s office and Scott McClellan. 

Let‘s not overlook the real fact here, and the real fact is that the White House was at odds over this.  The president‘s own staff was not happy with the way this was handled.  This has created a distraction.  The president‘s out there today trying to sell key elements of his agenda from the state of the union, and nobody is talking about that.  Nobody‘s paying attention to that because they are paying attention to this.

That‘s not the way the president wants it to go.  And yet top presidential advisers are sort of saying, “Look, there‘s nothing we can do to change this right now.  We are obviously focused on Harry Whittington‘s condition.”  But they leave the impression, and the question, about who is running the rodeo, as one person said to me over the past couple of days.  And on this matter, it certainly appears to be the vice president.

MATTHEWS:  Well why is that the case?  Why hasn‘t the president, who -

and his people, who you say don‘t like the way this has been handled by the vice president, why didn‘t they intervene until today, and did they intervene to force this action today of going to FOX News for this appearance?

GREGORY:  It‘s clear that the White House—when I say the White House, I mean the president‘s staff is distinct from the vice president‘s staff—communicated this desire that the vice president had to speak.  There was some talk about him waiting until Friday when he had an event out in Wyoming to speak to the legislature there.  That that was not enough. 

That he had to address this himself, personally talk about it, appear as I think he did on FOX News in a very personal way, talking about such a terrible accident, that he would shoot his friend.  He is obviously pained by that, as I think anybody would be.  And so we saw all of that from the vice president, directly, personally, rather than hearing it from an eyewitness, the owner of the ranch, Katharine Armstrong.

And you hear the vice president today taking responsibility.  And the truth of the matter is that the person that he hand-picked to deliver this news to the American people, the ranch owner from Texas, Ms. Armstrong, and the White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, both of them made it very clear that they were placing the fault here with Harry Whittington.

That he didn‘t follow the protocols for hunting by alerting the vice president when he was coming back up into the hunting line.  The vice president put an end to all of that, three days of it, by saying, “No, no, no, I was the trigger man.  You can only blame me.”  And so it‘s the first time he‘s done that.

MATTHEWS:  Well, is this a public relations move to try to do what Jack Kennedy did back during the Bay of Pigs where he said, “Blame me.”  Well nobody was blaming anybody else and nobody—the only people being blamed here was Huntington (sic) the victim, by the person, as you said, the vice president designed to put the story out.  So was he in fact, correcting his own storyline?

GREGORY:  It appears that way to me.  I mean, it wasn‘t directly challenged on that point, but I and I think others have perhaps pointed out that there has been some evolution in their position on that.  But let‘s be clear.  For those people who will see the interview in its entirety, the vice president is unapologetic about how he handled all of this.

Nevertheless, there is a great deal of pressure out there, political and public relations pressure, for the vice president to have addressed this.  This is a big story.  Whether those watching us right now think it‘s important, that‘s another matter and whether we pay too much attention to it.  I mean, there‘s always that debate that goes on. 

It‘s a big story.  The vice president was under pressure, political and otherwise, so he had to buckle under that pleasure and give this kind of interview.  It doesn‘t change the fact that he would do it all the same way again.

I can‘t tell you with certainty whether the president called him up and said, “Dick,” as I think he would say, rather than “Mr. Vice President, what are you doing?  You‘ve got to get out there.”  I can tell you that they were not happy throughout the West Wing with how this was handled.

MATTHEWS:  Well, I thought there were a lot of good elements in the Brit Hume interview.  I think he covered a lot of territory, but one thing I don‘t know yet, and I don‘t know if he‘ll tell us.  Did he ever talk to President Bush over the weekend?

GREGORY:  Well, no, he did not.  As a matter of fact, he goes through that in the transcript that I read, presumably that‘s aired in its completion—in its entirety on FOX News.  He spoke to the White House Andy Card on Sunday.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, he said “I think on Sunday.”

GREGORY:  Yes, but he did not speak to the president about this at all over the weekend and not until Monday morning.  By then, I mean, everything had been handled.  All the decisions had been made.  The vice president‘s position is, “Look, my first concern here was not press relations.  My first concern was taking care of a friend.”

MATTHEWS:  Well, OK.

GREGORY:  I think people understand that, but I think the larger context here is that I don‘t think I‘m opining here when I say, I don‘t think the vice president‘s first priority is ever press relations as a member of the press corps that covers him. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I think—OK, let‘s sift through the three points before we leave you, and it‘s great to have you on tonight.  Number one, did he ever make an effort to reach the president? 

Do we know he ever initiated a call to Andy Card?  Did he initiate a call to Karl Rove?  Did he initiate a call to the White House in any way, or was all of that responding to the Secret Service or someone else notifying the White House? 

GREGORY:  Well, we know that Karl Rove was speaking to Katharine Armstrong independently.  They are friends.  Karl Rove is a hunter as well.  He has been down to the Armstrong ranch there in South Texas.  So there was that dialogue that was going on.  I don‘t know independently, but it appears not to be the case that the vice president reached out. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, so that‘s what‘s interesting, because most people think you call the boss when you cause noise and make a big news story.  You call the boss and say, here‘s what happened, boss.  I‘ll tell you more on Monday morning.  That never happened.

GREGORY:  That appears to not have happened.  But, you know, I think they would say they have large staffs too, that can communicate that as well. 

MATTHEWS:  But we don‘t know he ever initiated such a conversation, even through the staff. 

GREGORY:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  And we don‘t know why he do it—didn‘t submit himself to police questioning on Saturday, do we? 

GREGORY:  Well, the vice president‘s office and the Secret Service maintain that the vice president was immediately available, that there was no delay.  That it was Sheriff Salinas in Kenedy County, Texas, who said to the Secret Service, OK, thank you for informing.  They were informed. 

The Secret Service informed the sheriff‘s office within an hour of this happening.  And the sheriff, according to the Secret Service and the vice president‘s office said, OK, we‘ll come by and talk to the vice president tomorrow morning at 10:00 a.m. 

According to the vice president‘s office, the vice president said no, come earlier.  I have been trying to reach Sheriff Salinas for two days now, and we have crews down there trying to get some clarification on this.  He won‘t talk to us. 

MATTHEWS:  Who made the decision to hold the story until the next day?  Saturday evening after this occurred, pretty much people knew what had happened.  Someone was accidentally shot by the vice president.  They were at the hospital.  They were being treated. 

But the decision was made, apparently, not to call anyone to the local press, in fact—the Corpus Christi press—until noon the next day so it would miss all the morning talk shows, it would miss the Sunday newspapers, which are the biggest papers of the week.  Does anyone know who timed that out and said don‘t do anything until noon tomorrow? 

GREGORY:  Well, we know it had to come from the top, and we know the vice president has said that his priority was his friend, his condition, not in alerting the press.  And so presumably, their version is that they wanted to let all of that be sorted out and they weren‘t really eying the clock. 

We also know that the president of the United States knew at 8:00 Saturday night.  He is a pretty influential guy.  The president could have said let‘s make sure we get this out.  He has got plenty of people who could have done that. 

His press secretary, Scott McClellan, didn‘t know that the vice president was the shooter until 6:00 a.m. Sunday morning.  So, you know, the people who were responsible for informing the American people on behalf of these top leaders were not kept in the loop.  So ultimately, that decision goes right to the very top, to the president and the vice president. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, it‘s an amazing four or five days—we‘ll see if it works—of news management, of the vice president of the United States in an extraordinary, it seems to me, David, example of how a top figure in the government can still, even in this day of the Internet and the blogging and all of this electronic communications, be able to control a story basically his way for now four days and counting. 

GREGORY:  True.  True enough.

MATTHEWS:  He‘s cherry-picking the media he wants to talk to.  He‘s setting up the interviews he wants.  He‘s saying which medium he wants to have the story go through, whether it‘s the local print press or its Fox News.  He is deciding everything, even as he speak.  It‘s a lot of power there.  Thank you, David Gregory. 

Let‘s bring in MSNBC‘s analyst and former director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Bernadine Healy.  Thank you, doctor, very much.  You know, I was reading the paper this morning, once again trying to figure out this wound to this poor guy, Mr. Whittington, age 78, a very prominent attorney.  This pellet -- 7.5 inch whatever pellet from that .28 gauge shotgun—how did it get into his heart? 

DR. BERNADINE HEALY, FMR. DIR. NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH:  Well, first of all, it clearly went in by going through his jacket, through his vest, through his shirt ...

MATTHEWS:  Part of the blast.

HEALY:  ... you know, through the pellet pad.  It sounded like many pellets, actually—he was sprayed—actually got through his clothes, through usually the hunter‘s vest, penetrated the skin, and got through the pericardium of his heart.  I mean, that‘s a lot of power to get into the heart.  So it‘s not an easy thing to do. 

And I think the fact that it‘s lodged somewhere in the muscle of the heart—not precisely where, and if you notice, they have not told us exactly where it is—it is still a question mark as to how this patient is going to do.  It not a question of him hanging around the hospital for six days and then going home and riding his bicycle. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, how did this story get so distorted?  First of all, it was that he was sprayed and he was OK.  He was yucking it up in the hospital.  And then we got a separate story the other day that he had a heart attack, as if there‘s some other independent event. 

And then I read the “New York Times” this morning where they point out you can‘t have a pellet travel through the vein.  It‘s too big.  It had to have lodged in the heart as part of the shotgun blast.  In other words, this fellow was shot in the heart, and yet the press coverage for two or three days was oh, he had this heart attack. 

I know what a heart attack is.  It‘s caused by physiological factors.  It‘s not caused by bullets or pellets or shotgun blasts.  In this case, they managed to spin this story, and it‘s still spun.  About half of the people watching right now think he had some sort of—you know, he was fragile, old, and he had a heart attack because of this trauma when in fact he was shot in the heart. 

HEALY:  Correct, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  And this story has not gotten out. 

HEALY:  He was shot in the heart.  He had traumatic injury to his heart that is potentially consequential.  We don‘t know the full story there and we don‘t know the end of the story.  We don‘t know how this is going to resolve. 

He also was clearly shot in the lung and may have been shot in the liver, according to one report.  And we have never gotten those answers.  We don‘t even know if it were five pellets or whether there were 150 pellets.  And there‘s a big difference. 

You know, there‘s an interesting aspect here that also wasn‘t brought out this morning.  They would not tell us what medicines he is on.  There were stories that he was on anti-coagulants, which are important if you have that heart rhythm—atrial fibrillation—because of the risk of blood clot.

You often anti-coagulate a patient before you cardiovert them, or put them into normal rhythm, which would be what he had this morning.  Anti-coagulants, if your body is riveted with little pellets in your liver, in your lungs, in your arm, in your neck, you know, that has a side effect as well in terms of bleeding. 

So this is becoming a complicated case.  Hopefully everything‘s going to work out fine, but I think to present this as a little facial laceration or a little problem, you know, in the arm—it was really not forthcoming. 

MATTHEWS:  This has been through a glass darkly, a lot of this stuff.  That‘s why I like the fact we are pushing this, because it seems like it‘s a controlled news story rather than spontaneous news story we get to cover.  Anyway, thank you, Dr. Bernadine Healy. 

Coming up, did Vice President Cheney say enough?  Plus the vice president‘s shooting incident leads to rising questions between tensions actually between the president‘s White House staff and the vice president‘s staff.  But is there a rift between the two men personally?  That‘s ahead.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, does Dick Cheney answer to the president?  Why didn‘t he call his boss after Saturday‘s shooting, the whole weekend?  Tonight the question remains unanswered.  HARDBALL returns after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Why did it take four days for Vice President Cheney to come forward and accept responsibility for accidentally shooting a fellow hunter?  Did he have a good enough reason for bypassing the White House and allowing a personal friend to disclose the incident to a local Texas newspaper? 

Tom DeFrank the Washington bureau chief of The New York Daily News, Byron York is the White House correspondent for The National Review. Tom, how did this all stack up with you in terms of the vice president?  We‘ve all been studying this guy for years.

TOM DEFRANK, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS:  Chris, I have been dealing with him professionally since he was the deputy chief of staff in the Ford White House.  And in those days, there are two things—

MATTHEWS:  Under Tim Jones? 

DEFRANK:  No, under Don Rumsfeld.  And in those days, there were two things that were clear about Cheney that we didn‘t see in the last several days.  One, he had very good relations with the press.  And two, he was very good at damage control.  I mean, I will always remember the day after that second debate in San Francisco where Ford botched that line about Poland not—

MATTHEWS:  He liberated Poland a little soon there. 

DEFRANK:  Exactly right.  And Cheney was in the vanguard of White House aides trying to get Ford to issue a clarification and it took 24 hours.  And Cheney was in his face and was arguing with him, and I was in a pool where I saw from afar Dick Cheney hand President Ford a piece of paper with something circled and point to it, and I discovered later that was the paragraph where Ford had said what he said.  Because Ford kept saying, that‘s not what I said.  So Cheney had a really keen sense of when you had to do something—deal with it, and that doesn‘t seem to be the case here. 

MATTHEWS:  Is this the hundredth time we have seen somebody who is not so good at their own PR, but good at somebody else‘s? 

DEFRANK:  Maybe that‘s true, but I think there‘s a couple of factors here.  One, I think the vice president has a real passion for privacy. 

MATTHEWS:  Then why does he want to be the vice president of the United States? 

DEFRANK:  I don‘t think he wanted to be vice president.  I don‘t think it was his idea to be picked.  Remember he was head of the search committee, and Bush picked him anyway.  I think the privacy issue is very important to the vice president and it has gotten more important to him since 9/11.  And I think basically he doesn‘t give a damn what the press or anybody else writes or says about him. 

He has gotten to that point in his career.  He is not running again, and I think he really doesn‘t care.  Somebody very close to him said, you know, I have known a lot of politicians who say they don‘t care what‘s written about them.  This guy really doesn‘t.  I don‘t think there was any impetus on the part of the vice president or anybody else—

MATTHEWS:  He has a lot of people around him who do care what is said about him, as we all know.  He‘s heavily flacked in this town.  Let me ask you this.  I want to talk about the accountability of the vice president to the public.  Does he owe an accountability to the public or merely to his boss? 

BYRON YORK, NATIONAL REVIEW:  Absolutely to the public here and to his boss too.  It‘s inexplicable that this whole thing wasn‘t straightened out earlier.  And it‘s inexplicable that he didn‘t make a better announcement on Saturday morning.  I spoke to—

MATTHEWS:  Saturday night? 

YORK:  Excuse me.  Sunday morning.  Or Saturday night.  I spoke to Catherine Armstrong.  I think it was on Monday morning.  And she told me that she did not coordinate this with the vice president‘s office.  This announcement.  And then she later said that—she later said that he agreed with it.  And in The Washington Post, she also told The Washington post that she had made this announcement of her own volition.  And it leads to you think, what was really going on here? 

MATTHEWS:  You mean the vice president of the United States never said to his host, we better get this story out? 

YORK:  The story later is that they discussed it and that he agreed that this was what they should do.  She has said on two occasions she did not coordinate the decision. 

MATTHEWS:  Do we know if he ever called the president the whole weekend? 

YORK:  I don‘t know.  I think David Gregory just reported.  He wasn‘t aware of that and I‘m not aware of it either.   

MATTHEWS:  The whole weekend, basically, if the vice president had his druthers, he wouldn‘t have put the story out to anybody and wouldn‘t have called the boss? 

YORK:  First of all, the president did know about this.  But as far as a one-to-one conversation, we don‘t know. 

MATTHEWS:  We don‘t know if he ever initiated a call to the staff of the White House. 

YORK:  We know that his detail after the incident.  His detail got in touch with the White House  that there had been a shooting incident. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, they felt the responsibility to tell the White House.  We don‘t know if he did.  We‘ll be right back with Byron York and Tom DeFrank.  That will be interesting.  They‘ll be joined by Tony Blankley of The Washington Times. 

And a reminder, the Fallen Heroes Fund needs your help to build its new hospital to treat wounded servicemen and women injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In the last two weeks the fund has raised $1.3 million dollars and there‘s still another three million to go.  You can donate online right now at fallenheroesfund.org. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with Tom DeFrank of The New York Daily News, National Review‘s Byron York and we‘re now joined by Tony Blankley, the editorial page editor of The Washington Times.  We only have three minutes, I want to give you all the same question.  That is this. 

From the beginning of this fandango, the vice president has called the shots.  He chose how to put the press story out to the local press in Corpus Christi, a friend of his host.  He chose as of this afternoon to give an exclusive interview to Fox.  Tony Blankley, you first.  Is this smart to cherry pick the media?  Will it help end the story going about this way? 

TONY BLANKLEY, THE WASHINGTON TIMES:  By definition, it‘s not smart because this is a big press story when there‘s no story there.  So if I had been advising him on Saturday, I would have said, have the White House press office put it out properly. 

But having said that, I can‘t—I am stunned by the nonsense of three days of frenzied White House press corps reporting on a question in which all of the information was reported promptly to the police and by the next day to the media in the form of the Corpus Christi newspaper. 

MATTHEWS:  Tom DeFrank?

DEFRANK:  Well, I think it is still an open question weather all the information has been transmitted.  There is no way to know.  I mean, I accept the vice president‘s explanation.  I take him at his word in the interview.  But there are still gaps in people‘s knowledge.  And I don‘t think this is just a creation of the media when you have senior Republicans on the record talking about how this is bungled.  That‘s not just the media stirring the pot.

YORK:  I thought the interview was very good.  He did the—the basic thing he had to do was the stand-up guy thing of, “I was the one who pulled the trigger.  I did it, it‘s my fault.”  He had to do that.

MATTHEWS:  It wasn‘t the fault of the guy for walking in my line.

YORK:  Exactly.  But he didn‘t back down on the press strategy, which I think was calculated on his part because he realizes that his supporters and the president‘s supporters don‘t think much of the White House Press Corps, so he didn‘t back down or apologize.  And as far as his relations with the president, I don‘t think he‘s ever going to say a word about that.

MATTHEWS:  He‘s never going to talk to the president?

YORK:  No, no, no.  He is not going to tell the public why or when he talked or didn‘t talk or what he said with the president.

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll be right back.  Wait, you know, I‘ve been studying this almost like with calipers, the front pages of the newspapers for the last two days, and I want to challenge Tony a little bit here.  Although Tony‘s a smart guy.

That when I start to look at the papers on Monday morning after this thing first broke, I noticed that all of the stories about this incident were below the fold of the front page.  They weren‘t being jacked up at all.

Then the next day got—everything got a little spooky about this thing.  It crept up above the fault and then today it‘s the top story in “The New York Times,” I think the second top story over in the left in “The Washington Post.”  This story has moved up, I would argue because of the behavior of the vice president, after the fact.  We‘ll be right back with Tom DeFrank with other views, Byron York and Tony Blankley.  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Today Dick Cheney broke his silence over the shooting incident this weekend, but big questions remain.  We‘re back with Tom DeFrank, Byron York, and Tony Blankley.

Tony, I want you to respond to that.  This press, if you blame the press, the problem with that is that the press didn‘t start to play this story up on their own.  It was the response—or I would argue the choreography of the vice president in terms of how they handled this, that jacked the story up to where it was today where they had to respond.

BLANKLEY:  I have a different recollection.  I thought that Monday at the White House press briefing, the entire White House Press Corps went nuts, led by I believe the White House correspondent of this network, shouting and getting all fan dangled over the fact that the story came out in the Corpus Christi paper and wasn‘t spoon fed to the White House Press Corps. 

And then they kept going on yesterday in the press corps and again today, and there‘s no story here.  I mean, you can criticize a president for having bad P.R. instincts and that‘s fine.  But it‘s such a tremendous overreaction to the fact that the White House Press Corps got scooped by the Corpus Christi, whatever the name of the paper was.  And so it started immediately by the press corps Monday and hasn‘t stopped now for three full days.

YORK:  Well, first of all, it was a big story to begin with, but what happened...

MATTHEWS:  ... The vice president of the United States shot somebody. 

Yes, hard, I mean, it‘s an accident, but...

YORK:  ... It‘s self-evidently a big story.  But what happened on Monday, actually, was I think the press corps actually did go over the top, and that was a good thing for Bush and Cheney, I think. 

They had temporarily made the story almost as much about themselves and their anger over this than it was about the story.  And what happened was the next day, Whittington‘s health took a turn for the worse and we learned there was a pellet in or around his heart.  And the story just took on a whole new level of seriousness, and that‘s one of the reasons Cheney had to talk.

DEFRANK:  I agree with that, Chris.  And also by this time, reporters were being spun by White House officials or people close to the White House that poor Mr. Whittington had screwed up, it was his fault.  A lot of reporters were told that, and I was glad to see the vice president knock that down in his interview.  But the White House was kind of feeding this by saying the guy that got shot was the guy who messed up here.  And that kind of gave the story a little bit of legs.

BLANKLEY:  Look, this—the story obviously was interesting.  It was a hunting accident between friends.  And the whole story has been over press protocols for the last 72 hours.  And, yes, we don‘t know every single fact, and we don‘t know every single fact about anything.  But all that we need to know is that it was a hunting accident between friends, and all the rest of the debate is over press—I think a self absorbed and self-important press corps that‘s harrumphing all over this town today.

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you, Tony.  You weren‘t on the beat out there, but it seems me—well, let me just ask you this.  Do you think it‘s the responsibility of the White House Press Corps to cover the behavior of the vice president?

BLANKLEY:  Yes, proportional to the event.  If this was the Cuban Missile Crisis and he was keeping undercover, of course they should go nuts.  But this is not the Cuban Missile Crisis.  It‘s a private hunting accident.  Yes, he has to be forthcoming and he has been forthcoming to the Corpus Christi newspaper.

All the rest of this is just disproportionate.  The value of the time getting a hold of the White House press spokesman is so valuable, you look at all the issues going on in the world and today.  The Iran breaking on the nuclear issue Monday, and all they do is focus on whether they should have been called earlier.  I just find it a reflection and a defining moment for a White House Press Corps out of control.

DEFRANK:  Well, Tony—if Tony was right, in every respect, the vice president would have had no need to do what he did today.

BLANKLEY:  Absolutely not.  Because the press corps can force it into the kind of event that we now have.  But the fact that they can jack it up into something doesn‘t mean that there was anything there intrinsically to jack up in the first place. 

YORK:  In defense of the press corps, the story was about informing the public.  The vice president did not have to call David Gregory personally.  But it was about informing the public.  And that‘s what didn‘t happen. 

BLANKLEY:  He informed the paper in Texas.  They put it on their Web site and everybody knew about it by Monday morning.  The public is as informed as it wanted to be. 

YORK:  But Tony, it was a funky way of doing it, don‘t you think? 

BLANKLEY:  Yes, it was funky.  I did press for a long time in this town. I wouldn‘t have done it that way because you don‘t want to get into a fight with the networks and the big newspapers.  I understand it was weird P.R. but the fact that the press has responded to it so disproportionately is what I think is in fact, largely, the bigger issue. 

MATTHEWS:  I think one question, Tony, you can answer it as well as anyone, do you think it‘s healthy in a democracy that a vice president of the United States elected by the country, just like the president, he has the whole country behind him, that he can exercise this kind of discretion? 

He selects a local reporter, who is a friend of his host, they put it out the next day.  It gets out around noon.  It hits the Web page around 2:00 in the afternoon, the following day.  Then he waits until Wednesday, four days later to give it to someone they select in the television medium.  They select maybe the interviewer for all I know. 

Do you think that‘s healthy to have this kind of cherry picking of the media where you get to select the interviewer as well as give the interview yourself?  Is that healthy? 

BLANKLEY:  Well, healthy for the nation.  If this was involving government—important government policy, you have some obligation if it‘s not classified information to get it out promptly and broadly.  This is an issue that is so small. 

John Kerry spent days before he announced he had some health problem when he was a candidate, I didn‘t think it was a big deal.  I didn‘t make a big deal about it then.  Harry Reid spent days before he announced his health problem.  Two major leaders.  I didn‘t think it was a big deal.  And I don‘t think a hunting accident is a big deal. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘m not making any accusations here because I couldn‘t care less in a way.  But I guess I should care.  The big story came up in the interview today, Brit Hume asked him about drinking, and I have never been hunting so I don‘t know what the protocol is with people drinking or not or weather they‘re careful not to. 

I have seen “Deer Hunter,” and that is about as much education as I have on the topic and that doesn‘t make me very confident.  Apparently they had some beer at lunchtime.  This was several hours later.  If the deputies had been allowed to interview all involved and had some beer on their breath, they might have been hit with breathalyzers. 

Isn‘t that reasonable to ask why the vice president and his party were exempt from that kind of police questioning?  Because they simply had the Secret Service to corral them and protect them. 

BLANKLEY:  That‘s not true.  I thought, as I understand the facts, the Secret Service immediately called law enforcement in Texas.  And they were available.  The fact that the local sheriff didn‘t come by until the next morning wouldn‘t have been affected by anything that was reported in Washington. 

MATTHEWS:  That story, by the way, keeps changing.  The initial story was they couldn‘t get through the Secret Service men.  That story is also developing, as is the condition of the victim which is developing, as is who is responsible for this happening. 

Tony, if we don‘t report these stories, we‘ll never get it straight. 

Every fact seems to be changing.  Every day. 

We‘ll be right back with Tom DeFrank, Byron York, and Tony Blankley.  And a hot fight between Republican Senators and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on whether Democratic elections around the world have made America safer.  Tom Curry‘s got the story.  Just go to our Web site, MSNBC.com. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with Tom DeFrank of The New York Daily News, The National Review‘s Byron York, and Tony Blankley of The Washington Times.  Let‘s look at something that no one expected to be in this interview, good work by Brit Hume, he asked Vice President Cheney about his indicted former chief of staff Scooter Libby and the CIA leak case. 

The vice president says, quote, “It‘s nothing I can talk about.  This is an issue that has been under investigation for a couple of years.  I‘ve cooperated fully, including being interviewed as well by a special prosecutor.  All of it is now going to trial.  Scooter is entitled to the presumption of innocence.  He‘s a great guy.  I‘ve worked with him for a long time, have enormous regard for him.  I may well be called as a witness at some point in the case.  It is therefore inappropriate for me to comment on any facet of the case.”

What do you think of this?  These are little tidbits, but they would be news normally.  The vice president expected to be called as a witness in a case of his—you know, Scooter Libby. 

YORK:  This is the first time he has come out and said I may be called as a witness.  Everything else he said was kind of boilerplate.  But this is new, and I think it just makes you—one of the things it tells you is how glad the administration is that the trial of Scooter Libby has been scheduled for January of 2007.  And not before the elections. 

MATTHEWS:  So the Scooter story is worse than the shooter story?  Was that awful enough? 

YORK:  That was terrible. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me move on here. 

DEFRANK:  Theoretically it‘s worse than the shooter story but it still remains to be seen.  Byron is right.  Politically, they have won a temporary victory because they have slid it past the November 2006 elections. 

MATTHEWS:  What about the V.P. himself?  So his testimony would come next year?  Where it wouldn‘t do much damage, except to whoever is running as the Republican nominee for president.

DEFRANK:  Let‘s face it.  No matter how the trial comes out, vice president‘s are not usually in courtrooms giving testimony on things like this.  That can‘t be a plus politically. 

MATTHEWS:  Here is something really consequential about our republic.  Brit Hume then asked another great question, whether the vice president thinks he, the vice president, has the authority to declassify information.  The vice president‘s answer is, quote, “There is an executive order to that effect.”

And then Hume asked Cheney whether he‘s declassified information himself, and Cheney‘s answer, “well, I‘ve certainly advocated declassification and participated in declassification decisions.  The executive order,” pause.

And then Hume asks whether he‘s ever done it unilaterally, and the vice president‘s answer:  “I don‘t want to get into that.  There‘s an executive order that specifies who has declassification authority, and obviously focuses first and foremost on the president, but also includes the vice president.”

Tony, that‘s hot stuff.  That‘s a claim of executive authority at the highest level that he shares with the president.  He says because of an executive order that he has the right to declassify, to give to Scooter Libby, his chief of staff, classified information, which of course has come up in the last week because Scooter, according to the court records, has said that his boss had—his superiors, had been telling him that he could declassify it. 

BLANKLEY:  Yes, I don‘t know about that executive order.  I assume the vice president is right.  He usually is on those things.  Regarding the other point you mentioned though, about he can‘t talk about it because he may be a witness, I‘m not sure exactly that that‘s correct. 

A witness to a grand jury is entitled to come out if they want to and speak on the steps of the grand jury as to everything they have testified to.  He may have made a commitment or the president may have asked everybody in the White House not to talk, but I don‘t think there‘s any legal or ethical obligation for witnesses to events to keep silent. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, it got him through the night, didn‘t it? 

BLANKLEY:  Yes, it did that. 

MATTHEWS:  Tom? 

DEFRANK:  I don‘t think ...

MATTHEWS:  I mean, I meant to say it got him through the interview. 

You know, who‘s going to say but you have the discretion if you choose to

talk about what you‘re telling the grand jury, and he didn‘t get to that

DEFRANK:  Well, -- and I frankly, Chris, I don‘t think the president would have to call up the vice president and say, Dick, why don‘t you not talk about this.  I think that was a given from the start.

MATTHEWS:  I thought it was powerful for him to say that as vice president of the United States, with no executive authority under the Constitution, except the pardon authority given to him by the president, has the authority to release classified information, declassify it.  That‘s a powerful authority on the part of the vice president I didn‘t know existed.  We‘re learning something here if it‘s true. 

Tom DeFrank, thank you.  Thank you, Byron York.  Thank you, Tony Blankley. 

Up next, what‘s the protocol for how the Secret Service should handle situations like the Cheney shooting matter?  I‘ll ask a former Secret Service officer who protected President Reagan.  This is HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Got a real expert joining us now.  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  What is the Secret Service protocol?  What are they supposed to do when something like the vice president‘s shooting incident occurs?  John Barletta was a Secret Service agent for Ronald Reagan and he guarded the president when he went horseback riding out in the ranch in those days.

He joins us from his home, appropriately enough, in Santa Barbara.  John, thank you for bringing your expertise here tonight.  Suppose—let‘s just set this up.  You are covering the vice president, you‘re protecting him.  He‘s out shooting in a big, 50,000 acre ranch in Texas.  He‘s got two other members in the party with him.  What‘s your job? 

JOHN BARLETTA, REAGAN SECRET SERVICE AGENT:  Well, the job is to protect him first.  He was constantly in sight of the detail that was working him that day. 

The situation probably called for—the agents probably went to the aid of the—Mr. Whittington as other agents stayed with the vice president to find out exactly what the situation was.  Was it, in fact, from the vice president‘s shotgun or was there anybody else involved? 

MATTHEWS:  Should they have intervened ahead of time and stopped that gentleman from getting in the line where he could be shot by the vice president? 

BARLETTA:  That‘s a very good question.  It depends on how knowledgeable that agent was about hunting parties.  I certainly am not.  But if the agent had seen him coming up and knew that, he certainly would have said, sir, you realize, of course, that you are getting in the line of fire of the hunting party, which my understanding, with all those people out there, were expert hunters. 

MATTHEWS:  What about the question of local sheriff‘s offices and police?  Does the Secret Service have the duty, the protocol, to stand between a local sheriff trying to do his job in any way if this is what happened.  We don‘t know what happened.  We have gotten two different stories, one that they agreed to meet the next day—the vice president and the sheriff‘s deputy or the sheriff himself.

And the other story I heard earlier, which may well be true, which was they sort of waved them off and said, you know, come back some other time.  Is Secret Service ever allowed to tell local authorities to come back and talk later? 

BARLETTA:  I have never come across that situation in my career.  Normally, just about every time a protectee, and certainly the vice president, goes into a district, the local law enforcement officers are notified and we want them. 

We want them on the scene, not specifically with the protectee, but we like that uniformed president and jurisdictional presence at all times.  So they were there.  They weren‘t close, but they were there. 

MATTHEWS:  Is it the duty of the detail to notify their home base, the presidential protection detail back at the White House, if something like this happens? 

BARLETTA:  Absolutely.  I‘m sure that the detail leader or the agent that he assigned notified Washington immediately that there had been an incident with the vice president. 

MATTHEWS:  Does the detail—does the person on duty, the desk officer of the Secret Service detail back at the White House have the duty to inform the highest level officials there? 

BARLETTA:  He would in turn call the Secret Service headquarters and advise the director of the Secret Service about what was going on. 

MATTHEWS:  Would he call Andy Card, the chief of staff at the White House? 

BARLETTA:  That would be strictly up to the director.  It‘s not something that is mandatory that he has to do. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, because we‘re trying to figure out—we‘ve never even figured out if the vice president himself ever initiated a call back to the White House.  All we know is that somehow Andy Card got wind of this, told the president that someone had been shot, didn‘t say it was the vice president who was the shooter.

And a few minutes after that, it seems that Karl Rove made a call to Katharine Armstrong, one of the hosts of the hunting party and got more details from her and found out only then that the vice president had been the person shooting.  So I guess that‘s—go ahead. 

BARLETTA:  If the Secret Service called any staff member of the United States president, they would have their facts straight, or would say we don‘t understand 100 percent what‘s going on, but this is what we know up to this point.

MATTHEWS:  Great.  Thanks.  Former Secret Service agent John Barletta, thank you very much for joining us.  “COUNTDOWN” starts right now.

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

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