updated 2/17/2006 4:12:46 PM ET 2006-02-17T21:12:46

Guests: Joe Biden, David Ignatius, Kate O‘Beirne, Dana Milbank, Craig Crawford

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Unsolved mysteries.  Dick Cheney took two days to tell President Bush what happened down there in Texas.  He took four days to answer some questions.  President Bush says all this is just fine.  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL.

Wednesday night, the vice president of the United States did one thing he hates to do: He answered some questions.  Four days after shooting a fellow hunter, the vice president broke his silence saying, I‘m the guy who pulled the trigger.  And with that, he accepted responsibility for the shooting, but insisted he had no regrets for waiting until the day after to publicly disclose the incident.  Today, President Bush spoke out for the first time about the shooting.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I thought the vice president handled the issue just fine.  He went through—and I thought his explanation yesterday was a powerful explanation. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  But will the vice president‘s appearance move the story up to front pages, or will this attempt to manage the news draw more press scrutiny to the vice president, who openly disdains public disclosure? 

More on this later. 

Plus, Senator Joe Biden with his judgment on Cheney‘s behavior, and his stance on the Bush administration‘s NSA domestic spying program.  But first, David Shuster with this report on new developments in the Cheney shooting. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  In Texas today, authorities released the Cheney police report.  The vice president told the sheriff‘s deputy, quote, “there was a single bird that flew behind him, and he followed the bird by line of sight in a counter-clockwise direction, not realizing Harry Whittington had walked up behind him and positioned himself approximately 30 yards to the west of him.  Mr. Cheney told me that if Mr.  Whittington was on the same ground level, the injuries might have been lower on Mr. Whittington‘s body.”

The report says Whittington was interviewed in the hospital on Monday.  Quote, “I asked Mr. Whittington if we could record our conversation, and Mr. Whittington requested not to be recorded due to his voice being raspy.  It was then I requested a written affidavit be done, and Mr. Whittington gladly agreed to do one as soon as he returned back to his office.  Mr.  Whittington did speak of the incident, and explained foremost there was no alcohol during the hunt, and everyone was wearing the proper hunting attire.”

The report comes on the heels on new details about who Vice President Cheney did and did not speak with after the shooting, and what steps were taken by local police.  The accident happened in the county with a population that is the fourth smallest in the country. 

And indeed, it seems everybody knows everybody else.  When the sheriff first learned of the shooting, he called a ranch hand he knew that worked there.  The ranch hand confirmed the shooting was an accident.  The sheriff took the initial count at face value.  Quote, “we have known these people for years.  They are honest and wouldn‘t call us telling a lie.” 

The sheriff then spoke to the Secret Service, and said a deputy sheriff would come to the ranch the next morning to interview the vice president, and that‘s what happened.  At 8:00 a.m. Sunday morning, Cheney was interviewed by a sheriff‘s deputy for 45 minutes. 

Quote, “Mr. Cheney cooperated with me and explained everything.  I could tell he was still upset.  He was very, very upset.  He came, shook my hand, and told me he was willing to cooperate with whatever I needed.”  The next day, the sheriff‘s deputy and a lieutenant went to talk to Whittington at the hospital, and found the stories consistent. 

Meanwhile, in Washington, tensions were rising in the White House press briefing room over the vice president‘s decision to leave it to Katharine Armstrong, whose family owns the ranch, to disclose the shooting to the public. 

JIM AXELROD, CBS NEWS:  I just want to clarify one thing.  Is it appropriate for a private citizen to be the person to disseminate the information that the vice president of the United States has been—has shot someone? 

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  That‘s one way to provide information to the public. 

SHUSTER:  But the information was not provided until Sunday afternoon, 20 hours after the shooting.  “TIME” magazine reports the vice president had prepared a statement for Sunday morning, but Mary Matalin, a Cheney confidante, talked him out of it.  The statement didn‘t say much of anything, she told “TIME” and would have invited hysteria.  And this morning Matalin told “The Today Show” ...

MARY MATALIN, CHENEY CONFIDANTE:  By the time I spoke with the vice president Sunday morning, I had gotten four different accounts of what happened, so I know from personal experience in dealing with Cheney press that just putting out a statement does not make any story just be humdrum. 

SHUSTER:  Vice President Cheney said he left the issue to Armstrong because she was in one of the vehicles the hunting party was riding in, would be a credible witness, and had a connection to a local reporter. 

But Armstrong told the Associated Press that the first thing she saw was Cheney‘s security detail running towards the scene.  Quote, “the first thing that crossed my mind was he, Cheney, had a heart problem.” 

Cheney‘s management of the story included not just who spoke on his behalf, but who he would eventually speak to.  It was Cheney who selected Brit Hume and called the Fox anchor Wednesday morning. 

The president‘s staff appeared to be out of the loop.  On board Air Force One Wednesday morning, press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters Cheney had no plans to do an interview.  Fifteen minutes later, rMD+IN_rMDNM_McClellan reappeared in front of reporters to say Cheney would be doing an interview later on Fox. 

During the interview, Vice President Cheney called the shooting one of the worst days, worst moments of his life, and yet the vice president never called President Bush to explain what happened, and the president did not call Cheney to see if he was OK.  Today, for the first time, President Bush addressed publicly the shooting, and how the vice president handled things. 

BUSH:  I thought yesterday‘s explanation was a very strong and important explanation to make to the American people. 

SHUSTER (on camera):  All of this, however, raises profound questions about Vice President Dick Cheney‘s power and status in the White House, and about his relationship with President Bush, behind the scenes. 

I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL, in Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David Shuster.  We‘re joined right now by NBC White House correspondent Kelly O‘Donnell.  Kelly, watching the president there, he didn‘t look that satisfied.  He said he was.  He said everything was just fine.  But he didn‘t look it.  What‘s your take? 

KELLY O‘DONNELL, NBC NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Well, I think the president was trying to help out his friend and his partner in running this administration, by trying to really put a period at the end of the sentence, to close the book, in effect, on this whole distracting week.  The president has been hoping to be talking about his own initiatives, his own agenda.  And while he‘s done that, there‘s been very little attention given to those subjects.  So I think some of the irritation you may have seen in the president‘s expression had something to do with knowing those questions were coming and not being particularly happy about them. 

The president typically does not like when there are questions about how this White House runs, and in recent days, there have been divisions exposed between decisions from the vice president‘s quarter of things and the president‘s circle of closest advisers.  We‘ve seen that play out, and today they are trying to put that to rest.  Scott McClellan, the press secretary, describing the unit here as one team, trying to say that whatever may have happened, disagreements earlier in the week, that that has been put aside now.

MATTHEWS:  Was it put aside because Karl Rove pushed Cheney into holding the interview with Brit Hume yesterday?

O‘DONNELL:  Well, there was increasing pressure that something had to be said, and that the nature of what would be said had to bring about some emotion, some personalizing this. 

What you heard the president talk about tonight is not the facts of what happened, the who did what when, but the impact, the trauma for both Mr. Whittington, his family, and the vice president himself.  The president said that he could see how deeply concerned Cheney was when they met in the Oval Office.  So trying to move this from a political story about who had the power and how they conducted themselves to a more human story about how real people have been affected by this.  And if they do that successfully, and if the American people listen to these comments and feel satisfied, they believe they can move on. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about news management.  The vice president went looking for a favored reporter down at the Corpus Christi neighbor.  They couldn‘t get the right reporter, but they got the right newspaper.  Then he made a call to Brit Hume the other day.  This is cherry-picking, this is saying who you want to have interview you, what kind of press do you want by picking the press people.  How is that going over in the press room? 

O‘DONNELL:  Not very well at all.  And I know there has been a lot of criticism of the White House press, and people have perceived it as jealousy—the vice president even suggested that—that there was envy that those of us who cover the administration didn‘t get the story first. 

I think we can all stipulate we all would have liked the interview, we all would have liked to have had the story first.  The issue, though, is broader than that for many of us who follow the White House.  There‘s a longstanding practice in how the government communicates with the American people, and we are a conduit for that.  It goes administration to administration, and there‘s a system for how they get the word out instantly, and there is a press pool, people who are on duty.  We rotate that duty, and we work collectively for all reporters.  So if I‘m serving as a pool reporter, I would share what I learn with other members of the media.  It‘s a way to move very quickly. 

When the White House doesn‘t follow its own system, one we all agreed to participate in, it does break down some trust between those who cover the White House and those who are really there to provide this information.  So that‘s been a lot of the question.  If they didn‘t follow standard procedure on a matter like this, it raises questions about will they tell us other things, as we deal with various topics. 

This, of course, had a different dimension to it, because of the personal nature of it, but it certainly plays out in some of the policy and some of the other news that comes out of this White House. 

MATTHEWS:  I think the press did a great job this week.  Anyway, thank you, NBC‘s Kelly O‘Donnell at the White House. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Joining me now is Senator Joe Biden, Democrat of Delaware.  Senator, I want to ask you a couple of questions about this vice presidential affair this week, which continues, and then I want to talk to you about this National Security Agency issue, which is apparently developing as a news story.

First of all, if you were president, would you expect to hear from your vice president if he shot somebody on Saturday, before Monday?

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), DELAWARE:  I think so.  Yes, I think so, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the whole question, the accountability and the relationship between the president and the vice president.  Do you find it extraordinary, the relationship these two have developed?

BIDEN:  You know, it‘s hard to figure.  I don‘t have it fully figured.  I‘ve spent time in the Oval Office with both of them there.  I have spent time with the president, without the vice president there, and I‘ve watched what is alleged to be the vice president‘s influence.  And it really is the most unusual relationship in the seven presidents with whom I‘ve served.

MATTHEWS:  The vice president was head of the selection committee for his own selection.  Do you think that began the process of the relationship, the way in which he was influential in steering the decisions towards him?

BIDEN:  I don‘t know.  Look, he‘s a—he‘s a very powerful personality, he‘s very self-assured, he‘s very smart, and I think maybe in the beginning of the administration, with a fellow who comes along like all former governors—I don‘t mean this as directed at Bush—who haven‘t dealt with foreign policy, I would think that he started off with a considerable amount of influence, by the nature of what was happening in the president‘s first term and disparity in their experience.

MATTHEWS:  Do you understand why the president‘s poll numbers, his approval numbers have been plummeting again?  They were very low in November, he conducted a very extensive public relations campaign through Christmas and then into the new year, very, you know, well put together State of the Union address.  And all that advantage has now been lost.  Do you think it‘s going to get worse because of what happened this past week with the vice president?

BIDEN:  Well, I don‘t know so much the vice president will make much difference, Chris, except to sort of reinforces the notion of secrecy and a cloistered kind of operation.

But I think that old Saxon expression, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.  The president made very good statements and a very significant public relations offensive in January.

But then they saw the budget.  They looked and you see the war going on now.  You don‘t see anything happening.  You have al-Jaafari rMD+BO_rMDNM_being supported by al-Sadr, a radical cleric.

You have the budget being a bit of a sham.  They‘re finding out now that there‘s very little being done for homeland defense.  So I think as the story comes out, as to the difference between the president‘s assertions of what he‘s doing and the reality, I think things are going to continue to be difficult for the president.

MATTHEWS:  The cartoon notion of the war in Iraq, in terms of its politics so far have been the mainstream supports the war, patriotically, the president leads the fight.  He‘s the commander-in-chief and his policies are accepted by the majority of the people. 

And people over to the left, that‘s the term used, like Michael Moore are Cindy Sheehan, are the odd ducks.  But in reality, when you look at the latest Gallup poll, Senator, it just came out, 55 percent of the country think the war in Iraq is a mistake.  They‘re the majority.

How is it that the media portrays and the country has this notion that if you‘re against the war you‘re some sort of odd duck, when in fact the absolutely majority of the people don‘t like this war, they don‘t think we should have gotten into it, and the president still enjoys the notion that he leads the American mainstream, when in fact he doesn‘t?

BIDEN:  Well I think it‘s because of the bully pulpit the administration has.  I mean, they promote that every, single day.  But people turn on their televisions, Chris.  They turn on their televisions and they see what‘s happening in Iraq. 

The American people are not stupid.  And the one thing they understand, they understand how incredibly mismanaged and bungled this war has been by the civilians in this administration.  And—I mean, you can‘t paper over that, any more than you can paper over Katrina.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s talk about—I want to get to the NSA story.  First of all, what do you think should be done here?  People have heard this story that the president has gotten around the law and simply said “I‘m going to intercept messages, data transfers involving Americans.  I‘m going to do it because I‘m commander-in-chief.”  What do you think needs to be done there?

BIDEN:  Chris, I‘m going to—no, I‘m going to be presumptuous here.  Think—go back to you old neighborhood or go back to my neighborhood in Claymont.  You‘ve got to just say it straight. 

Hey look folks, we want everybody to be spied on who‘s a terrorist.  We want to know what they‘re saying, who they‘re talking to.  But guess what folks, we don‘t have any idea who these guys are spying on.  All we‘re doing is taking their word.  So why don‘t we go to the secret committee of senators that are sworn under oath in both political parties. 

They can‘t reveal what they‘re told, and tell them what exactly is being done.  And if you need more authority to spy on the bad guys, we‘ll give it to you.  And if you‘re doing more than spying on the bad guys, we‘re going to stop you.  But right now, after 52 months of this program we‘re being asked to say trust me.

MATTHEWS:  Right.

BIDEN:  Trust me.

MATTHEWS:  But doesn‘t the law require the president...

BIDEN:  ... With all due respect, I don‘t.

MATTHEWS:  But doesn‘t the law already, Senator, require that the administration notify all members of the intelligence committees?

BIDEN:  The answer is in my view, yes it does.  But what I‘m trying to do to put pressure quite frankly on the intelligence committee and have this oversight responsibility responsibly exercised, it‘s kind of cut through the legalities of it.  Just go to the common sense of it.  Can anyone imagine that the founders sat around one day and said once we‘re at war, the Congress and the courts don‘t matter anymore, and the president can do whatever he wants, for as long as he wants, without telling anybody what he‘s doing.

MATTHEWS:  Does the guy at the Claymont fire house care about this?  Are you hearing from regular people, Senator, they care about being spied on?

BIDEN:  No.  What they do care about is they want to know whether or not—they don‘t trust the judgment of this outfit.  They don‘t trust their judgment.  So they want to know something‘s actually being done.  So the kind of questions I get asked, Chris—I wasn‘t literally at the fire hall.  But at the fire hall is the following.  “Hey, Joe, how many terrorists have they listened in on?  Who many have they gotten?  Who have they arrested?  What impact has it had?  What‘s going on?  Is it working?”  And the truth of the matter is we have no idea.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.

BIDEN:  We have no idea.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll be right back with Senator Joe Biden of Delaware.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re back with Senator Joe Biden.  You know, Brit Hume last night with the vice president got into some interesting territory beyond the shooting incident.  He asked him if the vice president, you sir, have the right to declassify information, materials from the federal government, and he said yes, I‘ve been—an executive order gives me the right to declassify.  Is that your understanding, Senator, that the vice president of the United States has that authority? 

BIDEN:  Yes.  Five days after we invaded Iraq, the executive order was changed to include the vice president being able to declassify.  My lawyers on the Judiciary Committee tell me that that is probably—that is constitutionally and appropriately written and that he does have the right to declassify. 

MATTHEWS:  But under the Constitution, the vice president of the United States, as I often like to remind people, has only two duties and authorities.  One is to preside over your body, the Senate, as a legislative officer, and the other is to replace the president in grave circumstances.  Since when does the vice president have executive authority of any kind?  I mean, is this a new Constitutional development here? 

BIDEN:  Well, it is in one sense that up to now, there‘s been an executive order going back to the Clinton administration saying departments‘ heads have the right to declassify information that was otherwise classified.  So that would include the national security adviser, the head of the CIA, et cetera.  

It was amended and based on what my lawyers tell me, it probably is appropriate that he could declassify.  The real question is, what did he declassify?  Did he selectively declassify things in order to create an impression about the war, about the rationale that, in fact, was inaccurate? 

So what I want to know from the vice president, is not did you have the authority, Mr. Vice President, did you, in fact, authorize Libby to declassify and did you specifically tell him what he could declassify, or did you try to say to him use your judgment, which would not—which would not—be lawful? 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s what I was going to ask.  In other words, you believe—and you are saying so—that there‘s a distinction between saying I have the authority from the president under an executive order to declassify formally a set of documents.  I don‘t have the authority simply to pass out documents, and by the fact of passing them out, declassify them. 

BIDEN:  That‘s correct.  That‘s my understanding of the law.  And it seems only rational that would be the case.  You cannot, it seems to me, based on—and we‘re literally briefing this right now. 

You cannot give the vice president the authority to declassify specific information and then turn around and say he can just give carte blanche to an assistant of his to declassify whatever he wants.  But the thing that bothers me the most about—I‘m sorry.

MATTHEWS:  If this goes to court, Senator, and this becomes an issue, we have got Scooter Libby who‘s going to court facing 30 years imprisonment because of felony charges, if he gets convicted.  His defense will be, according to what‘s leaked out of this case, my superiors authorized me to pass out classified materials. 

Well, by my count, he‘s got one definite superior, the vice president of the United States.  And you‘re saying if the vice president says to Scooter, Scooter, put out whatever would make the case that I was right about nuclear weapons and the al Qaeda and whatever else—whatever helps our case and blows away Joe Wilson, you‘re saying that‘s not legal? 

BIDEN:  I don‘t think that‘s legal.  If he said you can declassify this piece of information here that says the following, Scooter Libby, I believe, under the law would be able to declassify that, because he had gotten permission to do so. 

And it‘s not only—by the way, we asked Secretary Rice, who was before my committee, our committee, the Foreign Relations Committee, the day before yesterday or yesterday, and said are you—were you in the chain of command, Scooter Libby‘s superior?  Could you have authorized Scooter Libby to declassify, and did you do that?  She said I refuse—I will not answer that, because it‘s a case in controversy now and I will not get involved in it. 

But this—look.  You know, I‘ve had this discussion on your program before.  I believe, still believe, that from the get-go this administration has cherry-picked intelligence information to justify and build a rationale to go to war when they did, when the facts didn‘t warrant it at that moment, to create a threat, an imminency, that did not exist.

And now it seems to me that Scooter Libby‘s admitting that, you know, the vice president said declassify selective information.  I would like to know what did he say could be declassified. 

MATTHEWS:  The vice president said there was a nuclear threat from Iraq, that threatened us.  He said there was a connection with 9/11.  He said that we would be greeted as liberators.  When are you in the Senate going to hold this man to account for what he says? 

BIDEN:  Well, I‘ve held him to account every day, including in the Oval Office, with the president of the United States, with him sitting there, when the president asked me why I was, quote, “trying to call for Rumsfeld‘s resignation.”  This was a year and a half ago.

And I said, Mr. President, I think he does not serve us well, and in all due respect, vice president, were you not a constitutional officer, I would call for your resignation.  The president asked me, in effect, why and I said name me one piece of significant advice you‘ve gotten about Iraq that has turned out to be correct.  They‘ve been flat wrong on every major piece of advice they‘ve given the president. 

MATTHEWS:  And you‘ve been right most of the time.  Senator, it‘s great to have you on, and by the way, for people that want to get a really profile about Senator Biden—I mean, seriously, it‘s a great article so far, everything I‘ve read.  It‘s in “Gentlemen‘s Quarterly,” an unusual venue for the senator from Delaware, but I think it‘s a nice way to see a nice, colorful piece about a great guy.  Thank you, Senator.  Thanks for coming on.

BIDEN:  Thank you very much.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Up next, does the vice president of the United States have the authority to declassify information?  NBC News senior investigative reporter Lisa Myers joins us after this. 

And later, vice president Cheney‘s P.R. strategy.  We‘ll talk about that.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Vice Presidents Cheney‘s talk with Fox News on Wednesday included information related to controversies that preceded the shooting incident.

NBC News senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers joins us now with an exclusive HARDBALL Report.

LISA MYERS, NBC NEWS SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT:  Hi, Chris.  Yesterday the vice president briefly touched on the case of his former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, who resigned last year after being indicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. 

Now, as your discussion with Senator Biden underscored, the Libby case has raised questions about whether the vice president told Libby to leak classified information to help justify the invasion of Iraq. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MYERS (voice-over):  The vice president praised his former chief of staff, calling him a great guy, but would not say whether he ever authorized Scooter Libby to leak classified information to reporters. 

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I may well be called as a witness in some point in the case, and it‘s therefore inappropriate for me to comment on any facet of the case. 

MYERS:  According to court documents, Libby has testified he was authorized by his superiors to disclose information from the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq to reporters starting in June 2003.  The White House has said the NIE was declassified on July 18th of that year, suggesting it was still classified when Libby says he was told to leak it to defend the case for war. 

The vice president would not say whether he unilaterally declassified this information, but claims he has the power to do so. 

CHENEY:  There‘s an executive order to that affect. 

MYERS:  Jeffrey Smith, once the CIA‘s top lawyer, says the vice president does have the authority, but...

JEFFREY SMITH, FORMER CIA GENERAL COUNSEL:  Prudence and good judgment suggest strongly that he should have checked with the CIA before declassifying any information. 

MYERS:  A critic of the secrecy of this administration says there are serious unanswered questions. 

STEVEN AFTERGOOD, PROJECT ON GOVERNMENT SECRECY:  It appears that the vice president was engaging in some kind of gamesmanship in authorizing the selective release of classified information. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MYERS:  Now, since Libby is charged with lying to investigators, not with leaking classified information, the vice president‘s actions may not make all that much difference in terms of Libby‘s legal case.  But clearly all this does matter politically, as your conversation with Joe Biden indicated. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about definitions here, Lisa.  For the vice president, it‘s clear that under the executive order, he‘s allowed to say this pile of material here in front of me is declassified as of this moment and sign a paper or something to that effect.  But can he tell his chief of staff, Scooter, whatever you want to put out to defend our policy, go do it? 

MYERS:  Well, most of the people we spoke with said this area is murky.  Generally, the way declassification works is, it‘s a very detailed process, it‘s exacting.  There are pieces of paper, there are procedure.  That it would be very unusual and probably questionable for someone to say, all right, you can go out and selectively leak various pieces of information.  But frankly, we don‘t know exactly what the vice president did in this case, because he‘s not answering these questions. 

MATTHEWS:  Good point.  Thank you very much, Lisa Myers, chief investigative reporter for NBC News. 

When we return, “The National Review‘s” Kate O‘Beirne and “The Washington Post‘s” David Ignatius.  And later, Dick Cheney‘s PR strategy.  It‘s fascinating to watch.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  The vice president has spoken, but five days after he shot a man, big questions still remain.  Do we know why he waited a day to report the incident?  Do we know why he didn‘t call his boss, the president of the U.S., for four days—for three days.  Is Cheney carefully and cleverly managing the coverage of this story? 

Here to dig into these questions is “The National Review‘s” Kate O‘Beirne and “The Washington Post‘s” David Ignatius. 

Well, Kate O‘Beirne, it‘s time to put the laurel around your shoulders.  Was it not you online at “The National Journal” (sic) that called upon the VP, Mr. Cheney, to get this over by sitting down with someone like Brit Hume? 

KATE O‘BEIRNE, NATIONAL REVIEW:  We did have an editorial up on Tuesday, saying we thought the vice president could really help himself by...

MATTHEWS:  Wednesday morning, who did the vice president call? 

O‘BEIRNE:  Wednesday morning, he apparently contacted Brit Hume and said he‘d like to sit down for an interview.  And Brit Hume, I think, asked all of the questions people would expect any newsman to ask, and gave him enough time to answer all of them.  And then it was available to everybody else to use as they saw fit. 

I think the vice president did do himself a lot of good. 

MATTHEWS:  By responding to your request? 

O‘BEIRNE:  By responding to the questions that were clearly out there. 

MATTHEWS:  David, have you been able to determine—I‘ve been trying to get to this—CBS News reported last night that it was not of his own volition that the vice president even chose to meet with even a reporter from FOX, like the way he did, a selected reporter, but he was pushed to do so by Karl Rove.  Do you know if that‘s that true? 

DAVID IGNATIUS, WASHINGTON POST:  I don‘t know...

O‘BEIRNE:  I know it‘s not true. 

MATTHEWS:  You know it‘s not true.  How do you know? 

O‘BEIRNE:  Because the vice president—it was his decision to meet. 

MATTHEWS:  How do you know this?  What‘s your source? 

O‘BEIRNE:  The vice president‘s staff. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  And you think they‘re going to put out the full story here? 

O‘BEIRNE:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Why?

O‘BEIRNE:  I have no reason—why wouldn‘t he be willing to meet and answer these questions?  He was. 

IGNATIUS:  Well, why wasn‘t he willing to immediately discuss the fact that he‘d shot a man?  Why did he wait a day to have somebody in his name tell a small Texas newspaper?  I mean, I‘m sorry, if he was so eager to talk about it, he would have done it immediately. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, what do you think of that? 

O‘BEIRNE:  They thought on Sunday morning, which is not an unconscionable delay, his top priority was not reporting it to the media.  His top priority was caring for this injured individual that he felt so terrible about having shot, calling the law enforcement authorities, which they did, and the next morning, releasing a statement.  Mary Matalin has explained, he had a statement in his own words, but...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

IGNATIUS:  We‘ll never know whether—if that—the owner of the ranch hadn‘t decided on her own to notify the Texas paper, whether this would have been disclosed at all.  We will never know that. 

O‘BEIRNE:  Well...

IGNATIUS:  We will not know it.

O‘BEIRNE:  If you want to—if you want to engage in conspiracy theories that the White House and the vice president intended no one to ever know—like “The New York Times”—we would have been kept in the dark forever.  I just think that‘s completely irrational.  Of course they were going to release information about it.  And she spoke to—the woman who hosted him, who did talk to the local media, spoke to the vice president about talking to the media.

MATTHEWS:  Why did the president wait until Sunday to at least allow someone to put out the story?  Why did he wait until the next day?

O‘BEIRNE:  Because there were, as Mary Matalin has explained, there were conflicting accounts on Saturday night.  What would they have put out?  Nobody was exactly sure what the medical condition of the victim was. 

There was no independent corroboration. 

They are—I think when Mary Matalin explains—having worked for the vice president for so many years and dealing with the media, what it‘s like with respect to having to explain everything thoroughly, which they‘re used to doing—the vice president can‘t just visit a doctor and issue a simple straightforward statement.

You have to get practically the entire AMA to verify whatever the medical news is.  They thought it was better to have a sheriff‘s report, if possible, a corroboration if possible, another eyewitnesses if possible.  Now the media is saying no, if the vice president issued a straightforward statement on his own, with his own explanation, that would have been fine.

That is completely contrary to the experience this vice president has had with the media over the years.

MATTHEWS:  Well we know—I‘m just going by the fact, I‘m not a conspirator at all.   In fact, I don‘t like conspiracy theories because they‘re generally not proven over time.  I don‘t mind if they‘re proven, but they rarely are.  What I do know as a fact, this will probably down in the Encyclopedia of Britannica for one reason.  The vice president didn‘t call the president the whole weekend to tell him what happened.  That is a question I put to you.  Why didn‘t he call the president, tell him what happened?

O‘BEIRNE:  Why would he have to personally discuss this with the president?  I just don‘t understand.

MATTHEWS:  David, your thoughts?

IGNATIUS:  If I accidentally shot somebody, I‘d call my boss.  I‘d do that right away.  I mean, I‘m sorry, but just on its face, common sense.  If the vice president of the United States accidentally shoots somebody, you don‘t know how serious it is, you don‘t wait until the next day to disclose that to the public.  It just doesn‘t work that way.  That‘s not how our system works.  I‘m sorry.  You can talk all you want about AMA and the medical reports, but that misses the basic point.  This was allowed to pass much beyond any reasonable timeline.

MATTHEWS:  You know, a reporting relationship is generally a reporting relationship, quite literally.  You have to report to the boss when something important happens.  Shooting a man—I mean, this is the first time the vice president shot anybody—and obviously it was an accident—since Aaron Burr.  I mean, it is a news story.

O‘BEIRNE:  The president was notified Saturday night.

MATTHEWS:  By whom?

O‘BEIRNE:  By the state.  The president knew.

MATTHEWS:  Who called the president?

O‘BEIRNE:  Presumably, either...

MATTHEWS:  ... No, you know all this, tell us who called him.

O‘BEIRNE:  No, no, no, I mean, we do know that the president knew on Saturday evening that this accident had taken place.

MATTHEWS:  Maybe the Secret Service called the chief-of-staff.  We don‘t know the—we never got the...

O‘BEIRNE:  ... We know the president knew, is what we know.

MATTHEWS:  Because Karl Rove called Katharine Armstrong.

IGNATIUS:  We are told that Karl Rove called...

O‘BEIRNE:  Well, however, he knew.

MATTHEWS:  But you don‘t have any problem if this was Al Gore, you wouldn‘t have—if Al Gore shot a guy in a hunting accident, had never called the president for two days, that wouldn‘t bother you?

O‘BEIRNE:  I don‘t know what‘s being—given that the president knew as of Saturday evening, I don‘t know what is implied by the fact that the vice president did not speak directly to the president until Monday.  I don‘t know what the implication there is.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s what I‘m trying to figure out.

O‘BEIRNE:  I know, why would they have had to speak directly about it?

MATTHEWS:  It‘s a reporting relationship and the entire identity of this White House is on the front page.

IGNATIUS:  I mean, isn‘t that the normal...

O‘BEIRNE:  ... and it had been reported to the president.

MATTHEWS:  OK, we obviously have a different point of view.  I understand your point of view.  I don‘t think I share it, I think I‘m closer to David here.  We‘ll come right back.  Jack Abramoff, another guy nobody knows, is bragging a meeting he says he planned between the prime minister of Malaysia and George Bush.  More with Kate O‘Beirne and David Ignatius.

And read about how Vice President Dick Cheney plays by his own imperturbable, enigmatic rules.  Fascinating reporters and political adversaries, alike.  MSNBC‘s Tom Curry has more on that on our Web site, MSNBC.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with the “National Review‘s” Kate O‘Beirne and David Ignatius of “The Washington Post.”  It seems to me that all of us in public life or watching public life, I should say, are aware of what‘s going to be in the obit, the big part of the story of our life.  Kate O‘Beirne‘s, your suggestion is the media overkill here.  I‘m just ask you.  Do you think any obit will ever be written of Dick Cheney that doesn‘t include this episode?

O‘BEIRNE:  I think at some point, not featured way up top, it will say he was involved in a shooting accident that became a controversy.  Chris, there are two competing stories.

MATTHEWS:  In other words, is it a story?

O‘BEIRNE:  It‘s always a story.  It‘s technically newsworthy, the vice president of the United States accidentally shot a man is newsworthy, it‘s a big story.

But there has been a total overreaction.  There are two competing storylines.  One, this White House is overly secretive and short changes the public‘s right to know by not respecting the media enough, is one storyline.

The other storyline is the Washington Press Corps—White House Press Corps, in particular, is arrogant, self-absorbed, conspiracy-minded, likes causing political trouble and is hostile to the Bush-Cheney White House.  I submit that the latter storyline has an awful lot of currency with the public and does not in any way hurt this White House.

IGNATIUS:  You know, everything you just said about the press may be true, but it still doesn‘t make sense.  I‘m sorry.  Not to disclose for almost 24 hours the fact that the vice president accidentally shot someone.

O‘BEIRNE:  Eight in the morning.

IGNATIUS:  It just doesn‘t make sense, Kate.

MATTHEWS:  No, they didn‘t go to the press until noon.

O‘BEIRNE:  He contacted the press at 8:00 the morning. 

MATTHEWS:  It ran in two in the afternoon that story.

O‘BEIRNE:  She contacted the media at 8:00 in the morning.

(CROSSTALK)

IGNATIUS:  You know, this is not the biggest thing that ever happened.  We could leave to it to Jay Leno, if it wasn‘t for the other indications that this White House—Bush and Cheney—really have jumped the tracks in terms of how they‘re controlling information, in my mind how they‘re beginning to manipulate information. 

I think that‘s why this story has legs.  It‘s not the story, you know, on its own.  This is the essence (ph).  It‘s a hunting accident, it‘s obvious that Cheney felt awful watching him being interviewed by Brit Hume.  He‘s deeply affected by it, traumatized you could say, but there are all these other things that it fits with, and that‘s why I think it has traction. 

MATTHEWS:  I think it‘s going to have traction because it‘s not an extraordinary event.  It fits into the pattern of this administration.  It will be used as an episode to demonstrate the problem they had from the beginning. 

Thank you, Kate O‘Beirne.  I like the way you laid these out at these two tracks.  That gives us a choice, right, which one to believe.  David Ignatius of the Washington press corps and the “Washington Post.”

When we return, Cheney‘s disdain for public disclosure.  What‘s the strategy?  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  The White House and their allies have been quick to criticize the Washington press corps, reporting on the Cheney shooting.  Two reporters who know how things work are “The Washington Post‘s” Dana Milbank and Craig Crawford.  He‘s also an MSNBC analyst and columnist for “Congressional Quarterly.”

Dana, you first.  The allies are out there, people are out there defending him—the Cheney performance this week.  What do you make of it? 

DANA MILBANK, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Well, I wasn‘t overwhelmed by the president‘s defense of him.  He was quite careful in his wording, saying he was comfortable with the way he handled it, but not necessarily comfortable with the timing of it.  So I think that‘s one thing that needs to be said.

What‘s really happening here is I think people are jumping into this story to the extent they are, not because of the story itself, but because it‘s a metaphor for other things that the White House press corps has not been able to get at in this White House—the secrecy, potential tensions between Cheney and Bush, a general view that the White House is operating by a different set of rules from everybody else, a variety of storylines, and this just is a way, in a very stark picture, to look at those things. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, we‘ve been asking why the vice president never told the boss what had happened.  Of course, that raises the question of who‘s the boss, to be blunt about it, and I don‘t intend to ask that question, because we know its the president.  But this question:  why didn‘t Bush call him? 

CRAIG CRAWFORD, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  And why ...

MATTHEWS:  Why didn‘t he say, Dick, what the hell is happening down there?  I‘m hearing all these crazy—are you all right?  Is he going to make it?  Is Huntington (sic) going to make it?  Why wasn‘t there that kind of communication?

CRAWFORD:   Because I think we do have a White House here where the president isn‘t always calling the shots—no pun intended ...

MATTHEWS:  But how do we know?

CRAWFORD:  And I think ...

MATTHEWS:  How does that show?

CRAWFORD:  ... every turn we see Dick Cheney operating as an independent operator more so than any vice president I‘ve ever seen.  I mean, I don‘t understand what we had here when a vice president could shoot someone and is allowed a free hand to handle how it‘s told to the public. 

I mean, the president has gotten off the hook here because the president—it took us three days to find out when the president knew and when the president—and we finally have learned that—you know, the official word now is the president knew Saturday night. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.

MILBANK:  Now, Saturday night, why didn‘t the president take command of the situation, put his own press staff in charge? 

MATTHEWS:  Start taking charge.  Hey, by the way ...

MILBANK:  And his own press secretary wasn‘t called until the next morning.  The president knew Saturday night and his own press secretary wasn‘t called until the next morning?

MATTHEWS:  Dana, the president gave a State of the Union this year which had mixed reviews, but it had some powerful points.  He said we in the United States have to lead the world on the economy and on fighting terrorism.  Does the president look like he was leading his own White House this week? 

MILBANK:  Well, it does get at that, and I think Craig‘s point about Scott McClellan finding out at 6:00 a.m. about something—about the vice president shooting somebody about 12 hours earlier. 

So you saw those scenes of sort of this massacre in the press room there with the inimitable David Gregory going after Scott.  A lot of it was that.  Now, this undermines his credibility.  If he doesn‘t know something that significant in that period of time it makes—the press is going to feel frustrated that he doesn‘t really know what‘s happening elsewhere. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the president—or the vice president was trying to humiliate the president for some grievance he‘s got against him?  No, because that‘s what it looked like.  It like he‘s ...

CRAWFORD:  There has been a lot of stories lately about some supposed rift between them, waiting so long to talk to the president. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But let‘s move on here, as the president would say, to the question.  He must have known the vice president, who‘s a very shrewd politician, that what it would look like over the weekend is he was in charge, not the president. 

He must have known by not calling the White House he was sending that signal.  Was that—and he must have known that was going to bother the president, but he didn‘t care.  Was it a purposeful humiliation or just I don‘t give a damn? 

CRAWFORD:  I‘ve heard stories about the president dismissing Cheney in meetings, sometimes even with just body language being dismissive with him.  There have been stories about this.  And Cheney has gotten this administration into more trouble that he might be worth. 

Peggy Noonan today wrote in the “Wall Street Journal” suggesting that maybe Republicans would be better off with a new vice president, someone who might be a successor to the president.  For his agenda in the long run, that might be the best thing. 

I think we‘re going to hear some of that talk, not because of this one incident, but the pattern of things, not to mention the story about the CIA leak case and the growing role that at least the federal prosecutor thinks the vice president has in it. 

MATTHEWS:  Quick question.  Are there are two different camps out there?  Is there a Cheney camp out in the press—not in the press but people who are friends with Cheney?  Obviously Mary Matalin is a very close confidante, and there‘s a bunch of Bushies out there that don‘t have common ground now? 

MILBANK:  Well, yes.  I mean, what‘s remarkable here is you have a lot of White House officials fairly openly saying they don‘t like the way this was handled, showing some disdain for the Cheney operation here.  You certainly didn‘t see that sort of thing going on a year ago.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s come back.  More coming back with Dana Milbank of “The Washington Post.”  In fact, we‘re done.  We‘ll come back some other night.  Craig Crawford, Dana Milbank—they‘re both great.  Thank you for joining us. 

Join us again tomorrow night at 7:00 Eastern for the HARDBALL “Hotshots.”  That‘s Friday, coming up tomorrow night.  “COUNTDOWN” with Keith starts now.

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

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