updated 6/14/2006 3:15:40 PM ET 2006-06-14T19:15:40

Guests: Joe Biden, Trent Lott, Jim VandeHei, Michael Isikoff, John Dickerson

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  So what‘s the president‘s game?  We kill Zarqawi, Bush heads to Baghdad.  The president offers realism and hope in Iraq, then reverts to an old argument that says we‘re fighting terrorism there rather than here.  And Karl Rove escapes indictment in the CIA leak case.  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

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

President Bush secretly snuck out of Camp David last night and flew to Iraq for a surprise visit to meet the new Iraqi prime minister Maliki, and address the American troops.  Vice President Cheney and a few White House officials were told of the trip of beforehand, but the only members of the bush cabinet knew ahead of time were Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. 

Dangerous times call for dangerous missions, but just how dangerous was it for the president to go to Iraq just two days after, or several days after, U.S. troops killed al Qaeda terrorist leader Zarqawi?   And was Bush‘s real mission a political one to send a message to the American people that this country is in this war for the long haul? 

The bravado of visiting Baghdad helps Bush, but does it hurt Iraq‘s new prime minister, who had the American president look like a boss on an inspection tour?  Other questions.  Will the trip move Bush up in the polls?  What does this mean politically for the president and his party in the midterm elections this November?  Will it sell to the American people?  Will this whole thing work?  Answers to these questions later from senators Joe Biden of Delaware and Trent Lott Of Mississippi. 

The other major news story out of Washington, Karl Rove, President Bush‘s top political aide, will not be indicted in the CIA leak case.  We‘ll talk to the top investigative reporters who tracked Rove‘s role in this case from the beginning. 

But first, we go to Baghdad where NBC‘s Richard Engel is waiting to talk.  Richard, I was flabbergasted like everyone else to read or hear today the president has flown around the world to Iraq to the major trouble spot in the world.  Why did he go? 

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  The White House aides say the primary goal was to give support to Nouri al Maliki, to try and build momentum here.  Last week, we had Abu Musab al Zarqawi killed by U.S.  special forces.  Al Maliki is about to begin a major security plan in Baghdad tomorrow.  Tens of thousands were told of Iraqi troops and police on the treats. 

Now the Iraqi government is also fully complete with a defense and interior ministry.  The U.S. wants this to continue and wants to lend a lot of political support, as much political support as possible to Maliki. 

MATTHEWS:  Does this make it look like the big boss is coming to check out on the lieutenant? 

ENGEL:  It looked like at one stage.  Maliki wasn‘t told until five minutes before the visit that he would be meeting President Bush.  He was left standing alone in one of Saddam Hussein‘s former palaces for about two or three minutes, waiting for Bush to arrive.  Bush was being treated like a rock star throughout this visit, meeting with troops in this former palace. 

He spoke to the troops, was signing autographs, there was band music playing.  So, to a degree, it did make him look like a small player who was meeting a much larger world figure.  That is effectively the case, but in the eyes of the Iraqis, this could help Maliki. 

The Iraqis really want a normal government.  They want a state that is recognized internationally, that is strong, that has powerful allies and that is capable of carrying out this security plan.  That is what Iraqis are going to be more focused on, what can happen on the streets and if President Bush‘s visit can help Maliki and give him the kind of support that he needs to bring stability here and get the power running, then power to him. 

MATTHEWS:  How much a role did Zarqawi play in our troubles over there?  I‘ve often heard from generals that the outsiders led by Zarqawi, the al Qaeda people, the real terrorists, constitute only a small minority, small percentage in fact of the overall troubles we face over there from insurgents, from the Shia militiamen, from the Sunni holdouts.  How big a role did they play and therefore how big a role did killing him play? 

ENGEL:  And you forgot to mention that list, there‘s Iran and Syria and Saudi Arabia and the Kurdish parties.  There are a lot of factors here contributing to the overall level of instability.  Abu Musab al-Zarqawi however was a major one. 

He may not have participated in the vast majority of attacks, but he was certainly igniting sectarian violence here.  It was his group that was behind the bombing of the mosque in Samarra, that led to a whole series of sectarian revenge attacks, so there are hopes that Zarqawi‘s network will be weakened by this airstrike that took out Zarqawi and other members of the top leadership, at least his religious leader. 

Certainly the sectarian violence will continue, and—but I wouldn‘t underestimate the role that Zarqawi played.  Even if he was responsible for a small number of attacks, they were also terrifying attacks, he was responsible for a lot of the car bombings and beheadings that had a tremendous psychological effect on the Iraqi people as well. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s great to see you every time.  Richard Engel in Baghdad. 

David Gregory NBC‘s chief White House correspondent.  He is at the White House.  Thanks for joining us.  Did you have any sense this was coming, this surprise around the world trip by the president. 

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  No, none. 

MATTHEWS:  Why do you think it was held so secretly, not even our prime minister, our ally over there, Maliki was told ahead of time. 

GREGORY:  It says something about the secrecy of the White House.  They‘ve done it before, they did it in 2003 on Thanksgiving Day.  There‘s a lot of operational security that is necessary for a trip like this.  Bare in mind that unlike the 2003 trip where he just went to the airport, this time the president went right in to the Green Zone, so it was a lot more dangerous, difficult really to camouflage the president coming all the way in to the Green Zone.  They did a god any job of it and certainly the secret held for quite a while. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go into some of the politics and try to get your sense on it from the White House.  It seems to me the president was pushed smart in two directions in the last several days.  One is realism, he‘s not talking pie in the sky anymore, he‘s talking about facts on the ground, about the realities. 

Number two, he‘s offering us today a measure of hope, because by putting that hot potato in the pocket of Maliki, he‘s basically saying to the American people, sooner or later these people are going to have to break it, it‘s not us.  We‘re going to get out of there sooner or later, they have to make it work.  We are not a permanent force over there.  That all seems positive.  But then he reverts back to this we‘re going to fight the terrorists over there, rather than here, which is the old conflation game of confusing and conflating 9/11 with the war in Iraq. 

Is he playing both games, a positive game to get the base together and an attack on the Democrats at the same time? 

GREGORY:  Yes.  I think on that point the president wants to reinforce the same message that he has been using to go varying degrees, as you point out, which is that he believes that Iraq is a front in the war on terror, as part of that theater. 

Now he emphasizes that in various ways at various times.  And he‘s been kind of de-emphasizing that lately, but he did it again today where he talked about how important it is to consider Iraq as worth it, worth the sacrifice, because we‘re fighting the likes of Zarqawi and others who have this kind of dead end vision and anti-American vision and anti-moderate Arab state vision.  So that message he continues to apply. 

And yes, I think there was a bit of a shot at Democrats today by the president saying, look, there is a ray of hope here.  We‘ve had a week where you have a new government that is complete, that is our best step forward in terms of having an Iraqi government govern itself and we got Zarqawi.  One of the toughest guys to get, we finally got him after three years and what do the Democrats say?  That we should pull out. 

So they want to go back to the same message they had in about 2004 that the Democrats are about cutting and running and the president and this party are about staying the course, especially when some of that vision bears some fruit. 

I think the bottom line is the subtext of this trip today was even if the president can‘t promise the American people the troops are going to come back any time soon, he wants to try to convey the idea that we, the United States, want to go to a supportive role rather than a leading role.  Its for the Iraqis to really shape the future of their country. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, David Gregory from the White House.  Senator Joe Biden is the ranking Democrat in the United States Senate on the issue of foreign relations.  Senator Biden, thank you for joining us. 

What do you make of this, is this pyrotechnics, is this PR. 

Propaganda?  What is this trip all about.

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D-DE), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE:  It could be but I hope not.  I hope when he went over, he went over and talked with Maliki about what the plan is, that is that they got. Look, everyone agrees on three things, Chris.  One, in order for them to be able to provide security, they have to get rid of the thugs in the military and they have to get rid of the sectarian violence and so if he went over and said look, are you on the same page with us, we‘re going to in fact deal with the militias and you‘re going to deal with us, stick with us, then that‘s good. 

The second thing everybody knows, you have to get the Sunnis to buy in, give them a piece of the action.  You have to amend the constitution as the constitution calls for and you have to give the Sunnis some of the revenue from the oil. 

If they said that to them as well that‘s a good thing.  And the third thing is you have to keep the neighbors out and that‘s I hope he said look, you‘d better support us when we call for a regional conference whereby the major powers sit down and say stay out. 

If he did those three things, then he is turning lemons into some lemonade.  We‘ll be able to leave in the next 18 months and leave something behind, but if he didn‘t do those things, mark my words, we‘re going to be back here in September with the same carnage on your program and it is going to have been for naught.

MATTHEWS:  A little trouble I don‘t mind, senator.  I am not worried about having the carnage here.  I am worried about there.  Let me ask you about the politics of this trip.  You might have noticed there is a political piece to this.

This Thursday, the House of Representatives, led by John Boehner, their new leader over there, is going to have one of these up or down votes that‘s made to basically cut the Democrats off by saying do you support the president‘s war on terrorism over in Iraq, conflating the issue of terrorism with fighting in that war in Iraq, which the American people don‘t really buy anymore, that connection.

And at the same time, the president said today to set up that vote, he said we‘re going to fight the terrorists over there rather than here.  It seems like he‘s leading the Democrats to a slaughter on the House floor this Thursday, two days from now. 

BIDEN:  Well, I hope—you know, look, Chris, I think you‘re right, he has conflated the two things.  Lately, he‘s talked more reasonably.  Lately, he‘s talked about the need for the Iraqis to be able to take control and all these other things you mentioned. 

Everybody in America knows that this had nothing to do with 9/11, that there wasn‘t massive terror infiltration before we went in and so on, so I hope he doesn‘t do that, because he‘ll lose guys like me he and he‘ll lose people who want to see us succeed. 

I want him to succeed.  He succeeds in Iraq, America succeeds for Lord‘s sake, and there‘s a willingness now to make sure that we take this one shot to get it right.  And I hope he doesn‘t do that.  I really do. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I think he‘s setting up another nut cutter, to use a street expression.  I think he‘s out there to prove the Democrats—to separate them from their interest. 

Let me ask you about this Rove guy.  He‘s back in action.  He‘s not going to be indicted, but the president said three years ago when this thing started about this leak of the identity of an undercover CIA agent, Valerie Plame, the president said this guy—anybody who dealt with leaking is going to be dealt with. 

And now we found out that Karl Rove leaked twice, we found out that Scooter Libby leaked twice.  He‘s facing the judge.  Don‘t you think the president—well, let me ask you an open-ended question.  Does the president still owe an accounting to us about Karl Rove? 

BIDEN:  Are you kidding me? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, is he going to do anything about it?  He said there‘s nobody leaking, and then we found out he leaked. 

BIDEN:  Oh, he‘s not going to do—I know he said it.  He‘s said a lot of things he‘s not going to do.  As my mother would say, God love him. 

You know, look, you know, the federal prosecutor said he didn‘t break the

law.  That‘s good enough for me in terms of the law.  The second question

MATTHEWS:  How about the politics?  How about the responsibility of the president?

BIDEN:  ... is does the president keep his word.  He‘s not going to keep his word on this.  I mean, look, it‘s not going to happen. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, he was into this see no evil, hear no evil thing.  Oh, I can‘t believe somebody around here might have been leaking and now he finds out the guy has leaked, and since he‘s not going to jail, he‘s a fine guy.  I don‘t get the connection.

BIDEN:  He‘s OK now.

MATTHEWS:  Most of us aren‘t in jail, we‘re not all fine guys for not being convicted of felonies.  

BIDEN:  Well, look, I just think—so far, Karl Rove‘s advice on the war, Karl Rove‘s advice on energy, Karl Rove‘s advice on the rest is just fine by me, politically. 

MATTHEWS:  How do you see November shaping up?  Since the president is being political, I‘ll ask you.  This November, the Democrats talk a lot about taking the House back, they talk about an outside shot at the Senate.  When Zarqawi got caught, did that give the president enough of a boost so the people have this debonair attitude about this war for a couple of weeks.  Will it last until November? 

BIDEN:  Well, you know, it‘s going to—look, that old Saxon expression, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.  If the president doesn‘t change direction, like he did in Iran—he did change direction.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, he did.

BIDEN:  There‘s division in the administration in Iran.  He finally picked the right course.  If he doesn‘t do the same thing in Iraq, there‘s going to be chaos in the streets in Iraq.  There‘s still going to be the same problem, and this momentary victory—tactical victory with Zarqawi will be a little bit like capturing Saddam. 

It will be a nice memory, good thing to have happen, but not affect the safety and well-being of anybody in the United States of America or any troop on the ground. 

And think about what you said before we came in with David Gregory.  Here the president of the United States tells it‘s better off if Iraq and yet, everybody talks about—and I‘ve been there six times.  Every single time I go in, it‘s more dangerous. 

They‘re talking about the president taking the dangerous trip inside the Green Zone.  So much for it being better.  If it‘s better if September, he‘ll do better.  If it‘s like it is now or worse, it won‘t matter. 

MATTHEWS:  Great.  Thank you very much, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on Foreign Relations. 

Coming up, while President Bush went to Baghdad today, Secretaries Rice and Rumsfeld went up to Capitol Hill to talk about Iraq.  What‘s the mood among Republicans up there?  We‘ll have Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi.  He‘s coming here in just a minute.

And later, Karl Rove is cleared of the CIA leak probe.  What does it mean for the White House?  What does it mean for Scooter Libby? 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

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MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

President Bush is on his way back now from a surprise visit to Iraq.  But does bringing the U.S. troops home depend now more than ever on what that new Iraqi government is able to accomplish from here on out? 

Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi is a former Republican leader in the Senate and a member of the Intelligence Committee.  Is that about it, Senator Lott, that he really went over to that fellow, our ally over there, Maliki, the new prime minister, and said it‘s in your hands? 

SEN. TRENT LOTT ®, MISSISSIPPI:  I think he wanted to meet him in person and he wanted to see how things were going.  He had indicated he wanted to meet with him again after they got the new interior minister and the defense minister in place.  I thought it was a brilliant move, quite frankly. 

I think he needed to go over there to affect the dynamics here and over there, and the fact that he went over there and met with him I think will help instill a lot of confidence in them that we‘re watching them, that we‘re going to continue to be supportive.  They‘ve got a lot more to do but there‘s been some good news for the last couple of weeks, and we want to build on that, we want to keep it moving. 

I‘ve said all along that in terms of what we do in the future, should depend on milestones, not timelines.  When certain things are achieved in terms of ability to do things for themselves, then we can respond in kind, and I think that‘s what the president was telling him.  He says now is the time.  This is a moment in history.  It‘s, you know, in your hands.  You‘ve got to step up, you‘ve got to do more, we‘ll help you. 

MATTHEWS:  Does this all depend now on the success of the new government that‘s now duly elected to lead that country now? 

LOTT:  A lot depends on that.  We‘ve made that progress.  You know, they have gotten the government organized, they do have a constitution.  It‘s probably not perfect.  Neither was ours at the beginning.  They do have a government in place, a prime minister that has shown some savvy. 

He didn‘t respond immediately when he got a lot of pressure to put a Sunni there or put a Shiite there.  He said no, wait, I‘m not going to—this is not going to be a political hack position.  I‘m not going to try to find the right people.  He took his time and a lot of us—people there and people here—were saying, my goodness, you need to get this government organized.  Well, they‘ve done that. 

They are making progress in the capability of their defense forces.  They have more progress they‘ve got to make or need to make in the interior or the local police departments, and we still have infrastructure things we‘ve got to work on, like the electricity grid.  But the opportunity is there now, and it is going to depend on how this government does.

MATTHEWS:  Is this going to be a partisan issue this fall, that the president says that we‘re fighting the war on terrorism over in Iraq, still conflating 9/11 with Iraq, saying it‘s all one front and the Democrats and a lot of the American people saying no, this war in Iraq was a war of our choice, it‘s a sectarian battle over there between Sunni and Shia.  They‘re not threatening us, we‘re just trying to make sense of that country.  Is it a war on terrorism that we‘re fighting in Iraq, Senator?

LOTT:  I think it is a war on terrorism that we‘re fighting in Iraq now.  It may not have been at the beginning.  You can argue that, but there is no question that there are terrorists there now, that there‘s Taliban there, that some of the Osama bin Laden people have been there. 

It has for better or for worse, become a magnet for those elements and as we take those elements down one by one or in groups, you know, it is in Iraq, it‘s not somewhere else in the world or here at home.  As far as what the impact will be on the election, Iraq will be a factor.  Exactly what that factor will be in the election, depends on what happens between now and then. 

If we make progress, if things appear to be getting better, better than they are now, then I think, you know, it could wind up being a positive thing for the president, particularly if the Democrats appear to be saying, you know, to use the phrase cut and run, you know, just get out, you know, and let‘s move on.

I think that could wind up once again hurting them.  But a part of it will depend on the overall mood and how people feel about how we‘re doing in Iraq and frankly how we‘re doing in the world in terms of foreign and defense policy.

MATTHEWS:  I want to ask you about Karl Rove.  He‘s not going to be indicted, but let me ask you about the politics in this case.  The president said three years ago when this sting first happened about an undercover CIA agent being identified publicly in her role, that‘s Valerie Plame—that whoever leaked it from the White House, her identity, would be dealt with. 

We now that Karl Rove will not be criminally charged, but we do know that he leaked twice to Matt Cooper and to Bob Novak.  Is this the end it, since he‘s not going to be indicted, we don‘t hear another word about this case?  Is he just he‘s free to walk and serve in the White House?

LOTT:  For all intents and purposes, I do think it‘s the end of it.  It is good news for the president, and an aide that obviously has been involved in his previous races when he was governor and as president for five years.

It was a distraction.  You can let on like it wasn‘t, but I can guarantee you that, you know, making those multiple appearances before the grand jury and having him prepare for questions, it was at least a distraction.  Now they should be able to move on.  I don‘t think he‘s going to revisit it further.  You can—you know, you have your own opinion about that, and you know...

MATTHEWS:  Well what do you think?  What‘s your opinion about Karl Rove, he‘s out there leaking the identity of his CIA agent?  We know that, it‘s in the facts of the case.

LOTT:  Well, you know very well, Chris, that I‘ve had had some reservations about his opposition to things on occasion.  But I think that we‘ve been through this now, he‘s not indicted, his position has been changed, he‘s not trying to set policy now.  He‘s back over in a political advisory position, and I think that‘s where he ought to stay.

MATTHEWS:  So ruthless behavior is OK as long as he doesn‘t get indicted and charged and convicted.  Ruthless behavior is OK?

LOTT:  I don‘t think ruthless behavior—no, it‘s not OK.  I don‘t that‘s good.  I don‘t like it, I don‘t like it here, I don‘t like it when it involves me.  I don‘t like it when I do it.  Ruthless behavior is not OK.

But when you go through that kind of meat grinder and you‘ve been through the grand jury process, when they do come to a conclusion, you know, there is a demarcation point.  You move on.  Maybe that will affect people‘s conduct in the future, and maybe, you know, we all have to learn to be more careful in what we say and do in the city, because it can come back to haunt you.

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you very much, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi.  Thank you very much for joining us tonight, Senator.  Up next, Karl Rove is off the hook in the CIA leak case, leaving Scooter Libby as the only person charged in the case.  Does good news for Rove mean bad news for Libby?  Let‘s get in to that one.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

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MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  The Bush White House got more great news today with the announcement that senior White House political adviser Karl Rove will not be prosecuted by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald in the CIA leak investigation. 

To date, only Vice President Cheney‘s former chief-of-staff Scooter Libby, has been charged with perjury, obstructing justice and making false statements.  NBC‘s Lisa Myers has been reporting on this case from the beginning and she is here this evening with the latest.  Good evening, Lisa.

LISA MYERS, NBC NEWS SR. INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Chris.  Well today Rove was described as elated and relieved and I am confident having appeared before a grand jury five times, that is an understatement.  Here‘s how Rove‘s team says the decision came down yesterday.  At about four o‘clock yesterday afternoon, they say special prosecutor Pat Fitzgerald called Rove‘s lawyer and told him Rove will not be charged.  A letter to that effect arrived shortly there after. 

Rove‘s lawyer then has trouble finding Rove, but finally they connect around six o‘clock.  Rove gets the news as he was en route to a political appearance in New Hampshire.  Now today Fitzgerald‘s office, which shed no light on why he decided not to prosecute.  The issue legally was whether Rove deliberately lied when he initially failed to tell prosecutors about a conversation with “Time” magazine reporter Matt Cooper, that at one point touched on CIA operative Valerie Plame. 

Now Rove claimed he simply forgot the conversation.  Fitzgerald appears to have either accepted that explanation or did not have enough evidence to prove otherwise, but bottom line, Chris, Ambassador Joe Wilson, the husband of Valerie Plame, is not going to get his wish to see Karl Rove frog marched out of the White House in handcuffs.

MATTHEWS:  That was always a famous image for everybody, the frog marching, a term I‘d never heard before.  I guess it has to do with the shackles and the orange suit you tend to wear in those situations. 

Let me ask you about the president‘s position on this from the beginning.  The president, when this first broke three years ago, the president was saying, we‘re going to try to get a handle on this, and whoever guilty of leaking from the White House will be dealt with.

But during the course of this otherwise sultry investigation, certain facts have come to light.  One is that at least at the indictment, Scooter Libby, the chief of staff to the vice president—the former chief of staff, has been charged basically in the indictment with having leaked to a couple of reporters, Judy Miller and of course Bob Novak.  And—no, not Judy Miller and Matt—Matt Cooper.

And of course during the course of this, Karl Rove has been accused in the media and in all of these discussions about having leaked to Matt Cooper and also to Bob Novak.

So there was leaks from senior officials at the White House.  As initially suggested, as initially suspected.  The president said they will be dealt with.  Politically, has this sort of right of passage or a trial by fire, that Karl Rove has gone through, basically got him through this? 

MYERS:  Well, it certainly taken a toll and the president‘s position quickly became this is an ongoing investigation, therefore, I will not comment.  Today, the president‘s spokesman actually praised Patrick Fitzgerald, not by name, but praised the investigation, saying it had been a fair one.  Not surprising, given it came to this outcome. 

MATTHEWS:  So is it fair with regard to Scooter as well or just with regard to Rove? 

MYERS:  Well they have not pronounced it fair in that respect.  I think what‘s important to remember here is that the initial investigation had to do with whether someone leaked Valerie Plame‘s name.  But to make that a criminal offense, someone had had to know he that she was a covert operative and know that it was a felony to leak her name.  That‘s a very tough thing to prove and so far clearly Patrick Fitzgerald has not been able to prove it. 

MATTHEWS:  How to be true in both cases, the knowledge and the knowledge the law?

MYERS:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  So ignorance of the law was an excuse? 

MYERS:  No. 

MATTHEWS:  Huh?  OK.  Thank you.  In other words, if you don‘t know it was against the law, you weren‘t breaking the law, only if you knew it was against the law it is breaking the law. 

MYERS:  You had to know she was covert to begin with and there‘s nothing on the record to suggest that Karl Rove knew that Valerie Plame was a covert agent, at least not in anything that is showing right now about his conversations with Bob Novak or with Matt Cooper. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s my view of the whole thing as well.  Thank you very much.  Lisa Myers been covering this case since day one.  Up next, could Rove‘s release be a morale booster for the Bush administration?  Does the architect, as the president calls him, have a plan for victory in these coming elections in November now that he‘s Scot free?  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

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MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  The White House and Republicans are breathing a sigh of relief now that President Bush‘s top political kick, Karl Rove, has escaped indictment in the CIA leak investigation.  Rove testified five times before the grand jury, and last night, his lawyer informed him of the good news shortly before he gave a speech in New Hampshire, where he attacked key Democrats who criticized the war. 

How did Rove escape indictment and how much does all this help the president and Republicans potentially in the upcoming elections in November? 

Michael Isikoff is an investigative reporter been all over the case, breaking most of it.  John Dickerson has been trying to keep up with him from “Slate,” he is the magazine‘s top political correspondent, and Jim VandeHei popping up over there at “The Washington Post” news room. 

Let‘s talk about this.  I will go back to square one.  Three years ago, with you started bothering me a lot, Isikoff, with questions, the president said, we‘re going to make this guy—this guy is going to be dealt with.  Whoever leaked from the White House is going to be dealt with. 

It took three years to establish that there were two leaks out this guy, two leaks out of Scooter, they were leaking and the president said he was going to do something about it.  He‘s not done a thing about it. 

How has he escaped the political wrath?  What happened to the Democratic opposition?  Why aren‘t they raising Hell?  This guys escaped the judge, why shouldn‘t he escape them? 

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, NEWSWEEK:  Arguably, one of the best things that happened to the White House was having a criminal investigation because it allowed them to stop talking about it and allowed them to give the line, well, it‘s being investigated by a special counsel. 

MATTHEWS:  They can‘t say that anymore.

ISIKOFF:  Sure they can.  Scooter Libby is coming to trial, so they

can still say this is still a matter under investigation, that‘s been the -

MATTHEWS:  So Karl Rove is freed from any interrogation by the press, any questions of how he covered up this thing, if he may have led the coverup at the White House for all we know.  Nobody at the White House spoke, everybody was under silence, the code of Omerta there.  And now we find out that they were leaking like sieves over there, not that that‘s illegal necessarily but that‘s only because the prosecutor didn‘t prosecute. 

JOHN DICKERSON, SLATE MAGAZINE:  A couple of things.  We can still ask the question, but as Mike said, they hide behind this notion that there‘s a trial happening.  This is selective, because there was a period when there was an investigation going on, but they said no, Karl Rove wasn‘t involved, so of course—

MATTHEWS:  Now that Karl Rove is free of prosecution, is he fair game for press investigation? 

DICKERSON:  Of course he is, but the question is, how far can you get?  and of course, we know really what‘s up here, as he said, he wasn‘t involved.  He was.  The president said not only in the specific case was he going to do something, but also remember when he ran for office, the president talked about a higher standard for his White House.  This doesn‘t meet that standard. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go over to Jim VandeHei  Former President Bush, the father the current president, was an old spook.  He was the head of the CIA, he‘s a strong believer in the privacy or rather the need for the security of these agents who are undercover. 

When Joe Wilson was first involved in this case, he got a letter from

former President Bush praising him and apologizing for the fact that his

wife had been outed as an undercover agent.  What happens here in terms of

the basic—I hate to use the word ethics, it sounds like an office issue

profound ethics of uncovering (ph) the identity of an agent.

JIM VANDEHEI, WASHINGTON POST:  Nothing, as far as we know.  As far as Rove is concerned, this is done for him.  Everything we‘re hearing is that the investigation is basically done, other than the ongoing trial with Scooter Libby and whatever details from that in the court filings.  I mean, for Karl Rove, this is a huge day.  I mean, think about the flipside this.

MATTHEWS:  Did they turn him, did they flip him, to use your word, flip.  Did they flip him, is he going to play any role as official “A” in the Scooter trial?

VANDEHEI:  Oh, I don‘t think so.  I don‘t think so at all.  And I think the White House is now going to try to just move beyond this on the Rove side.  Think about had he been indicted, this would have been huge news, both politically and practically. 

You would have had the top right-hand man for the president indicted and then you would have had him removed from the equation, from the politics of this hearing.  Think of it.  Who else in the city is more important for Republicans as far as devising a campaign strategy to win House and Senate elections in a very tough political environment?  It‘s Karl Rove, so now he‘s back doing what he needs to do and what Bush wants him to do.  We can belly ache all we want, reporters can belly ache or you can belly ache, but the fact he‘s back.

MATTHEWS:  But he‘s not just back, he‘s back bigger because he‘s got another notch on his belt.  This guy has proven that ruthlessness works, that you can out a person‘s career, end a person‘s career because their husband blew the whistle on this administration and WMD, you can punish somebody with impunity and walk.

VANDEHEI:  That‘s right.

MATTHEWS:  John Dickerson?

DICKERSON:  He‘s both tactically important but he‘s also now a symbol for people on the right who thought all this business, they don‘t like Joe Wilson, they think we‘re just nipping at their ankles.

MATTHEWS:  We don‘t have to like Joe Wilson.

DICKERSON:  Right, but the point is they get energized by the notion that Karl Rove beat up Joe Wilson, got away with it and now he‘s a symbol they can all give a standing ovation to because he got away.

ISIKOFF:  But it is worth pointing out, they did—the White House

did pay a political price for this.  And in terms of credibility and when -

well I think the biggest surprise came last summer when it was disclosed that Rove was Matt Cooper‘s source at “Time” magazine and he was directly and also a secondary source for Bob Novak. 

None of that was known before the election, it obviously was known to Karl Rove and it was known to Patrick Fitzgerald before the election.  But the fact that it took until July of 2005 for that to come out, I think people will remember that and I think that you can see that in the polls, that the president—the White House took an enormous hit to credibility when the facts that we know today finally did come out.

MATTHEWS:  I know who‘s going to win here, it‘s the lawyer.  Luskin is going to win here, right?  Jim, isn‘t Luskin going to be the big hero, because he got a guy off who looked like he was in trouble for at least three years?

VANDEHEI:  Absolutely.  I mean, the guy got off the cook.  I mean, I think the price that Rove did pay was in the last year or so, there‘s no doubt he was distracted, there‘s no doubt he piled up a very high legal bill, and there‘s no doubt that there‘s people inside this White House, aides who no longer trust him.  I think that relationship with Scott McClellan was very much tattered because of this.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, McClellan‘s gone and Rove‘s still there.  Who won that one?

VANDEHEI:  Right.  I‘m saying long term, moving forward, he certainly is a winner.  But there‘s no doubt that he paid a big price for a year and a half.

MATTHEWS:  This is unbelievable.  This is amazing.  If you don‘t get indicted for a felony, you‘re clean as a whistle and you stay on.  The president makes an absolute commitment that people are going to be dealt with who leaked this thing.  We now know four leaks, the spigot‘s been running and nobody is paying a price except poor Scooter.  This is how things work, bottom of the line.  They get the lowest guy and they screw him, leave him to the wolves.

ISIKOFF:  But it is worth saying, there are still a few acts that could be played. 

MATTHEWS:  Are we going to get a pardon here?  Are we getting a pardon for Scooter in this whole thing?

ISIKOFF:  Well certainly Scooter is going to make a big push for a pardon in the last days of the Bush presidency.  But remember, there is a trial, Rove could get called as a witness in the Scooter trial.  So we may still learn a bit more at that one.  And the two other acts that play out here.  One is Joe Wilson could file a civil suit, and there‘s an indication today from his lawyer that he may well do that.  How far it gets, hard to know, but he could.  And also...

MATTHEWS:  ... How does Joe do it?  Doesn‘t his wife have to file?

ISIKOFF:  Well, yes, they could do it—she could file it.  And then secondly, there‘s always the possibility the Democrats may get control of one or two Houses of Congress this fall, and they could hold hearings on what happened here and that would be one way in which we could learn more about what really went on...

MATTHEWS:  OK, who leaked to Novak?  Who was the prime leaker here, do we know yet?  Or is that in your book that‘s coming out?

ISIKOFF:  Oh, that will be in the book.

MATTHEWS:  Anybody else want to venture who the prime leaker was that leaked to Novak and started this mess back July 14th of 2003?  Do you want to give me the name, Jim?

VANDEHEI:  I don‘t want to give you the name.  I‘m going to read it in his book or you‘ll read it in our paper.

MATTHEWS:  OK, nobody‘s going to talk.  All this about, we can‘t tell who the original—it wasn‘t Richard Armitage, was it?  Anyway, thank you Mike Isikoff, thank you John Dickerson, thank you Jim VandeHei.  Still ahead, Pat Buchanan and Bob Shrum to talk about how Republicans are getting back to basics with their conservative base.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  George Bush goes to Iraq, Tomorrow Condi goes before the Southern Baptist.  What‘s it all mean?  To tell us, Andrea Mitchell is NBC‘s chief foreign affairs correspondent.  Well I‘m going to ask you to do some domestic corresponding here too.  But what‘s this trip the president pulled off?  He surprised—he shows up in Baghdad.  Ten minutes before he shows up, the president—the new prime minister al-Maliki finds out he‘s coming.  Does that help al-Maliki?

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT:  It does help al-Maliki.  I checked with Richard Engel, with our Baghdad expert there, because I thought maybe there is some backlash to have the president who is obviously unpopular with a lot of the anti-American insurgents.

But in fact, it does help al-Maliki, because he needs credibility, he needs to be internationally respected.  The Iraqis want to be taken seriously.  They now finally have a government and for the president of the United States to fly for 11 hours under complete secrecy, using a Camp David two-day summit as cover to sneak out and take an unmarked helicopter to Andrews Air Force Base and come over there, it‘s a big stunt politically.

But it is a very helpful thing for al-Maliki, and of course, it has a big political impulse here domestically at home.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, it keeps the string of victories going for another couple of days.  Let me ask you about Condoleezza Rice.  You study her all the time.  What is she doing speaking for the Southern Baptist Convention?  I always thought Southern Baptists were basically white conservative southerners as a group, evangelical of course, they‘re Baptists.  What is her connection, the secretary of state, to that group? 

MITCHELL:  Well, this is a big push to shore up the base on unpopular foreign policies, unpopular with the conservatives.  If you look at the polling—and you do better than anyone—you know what his problem is, what Bush‘s problem is, going into these mid terms, that he‘s losing the Republican base.  And they are concerned.

If you look at human—“National Review,” rather, online, you see concerns and criticisms from people from AEI, from the Cheney stronghold of the Iran initiative, of the Libyan normalization and of the continuing war in Iraq. 

So she is going to give a foreign policy address but she‘s giving it to a political audience and, you know, this is the kind of venue that politicians go to, not diplomats.  I can‘t recall another secretary of state going to the Southern Baptists.  You‘re going to have upwards of 20,000 people there. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s a very political role, isn‘t it. 

MITCHELL:  Absolutely. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Andrea Mitchell.

When we return, reaction from Pat Buchanan—he‘s right here with me

and Bob Shrum up in New York. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan is here, along with HARDBALL political analyst Bob Shrum. 

Well, you two fellows, I want you to go at this question.  The president‘s trip to Iraq, overnight, is it of value to American interests, Pat Buchanan?

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  It‘s a brilliant stroke.  It‘s of value because he‘s going over there and he‘s solidified that new regime which just got a new interior secretary and defense secretary.  He‘s gone over there and told the troops you did a great job taking down this terrorist.  We‘ve now got momentum in this war. 

It is dramatic, and as—I agree with Andrea.  It was just—I mean, when you fly out of Camp David and you go out there and you fly into that airport and take a chopper into the Green Zone, and you‘re the most powerful man in the world, that is saying to the Iraqis we are with you to the end. 

MATTHEWS:  Bob Shrum, was it good for American interests that the president took this rather hectic trip over there?

BOB SHRUM, HARDBALL POLITICAL ANALYST:  I don‘t think that was what it was designed to do.  I agree with Andrea, and disagree with Pat.

MATTHEWS:  But was it—I‘m asking you a question.  Was it good for America that he did it? 

SHRUM:  I don‘t think it matters.  I think it‘s irrelevant.  I think it was a photo-op.  I think it was a way of announcing mission half accomplished.  I don‘t think it will make any more difference to what happens in Iraq than Lyndon Johnson‘s visits to Vietnam made what happened in Vietnam. 

What counts is facts on the ground.  Look, this place is so dangerous that the president of the United States flew there and we did not tell our best friend, our closest ally, the head of the government that he was coming because it was so unsafe to go from Baghdad airport to the Green Zone.  Now, what kind of security have we established in Iraq?  What kind of progress are we taking? 

BUCHANAN:  But that‘s the very reason why it‘s dramatic.  Of course, it‘s a deadly situation over there, but we‘ve had an excellent week.  rMD+BO_rMDNM_Let me tell you, Chris, the American people are desperate for good news.  We wake up every morning.  Somebody has blown up, there are bodies, this has happened, Americans get—you know, some alleged atrocity, and so we get this good news.

And let me tell you, politically, seeing these Democrats like Brother Shrum and Pete Stark running out and just poor mouthing everything is one of the reasons the Democratic Party loses. 

MATTHEWS:  You‘re shaking your head, Bob.

SHRUM:  Yes, listen.  I am surprised Bush did not show up in a flight suit, because the truth is, a five or six hour fly-by does not give life back to any of those people who lost their lives today.  Sixteen blown up in a suicide bombing, two American soldiers killed.  Right now this war is headed in the wrong direction, Bush is persisting in a failed policy, and if it doesn‘t change, we are not going to win this thing. 

BUCHANAN:  Well, Chris, I heard you talk earlier, and they are putting these resolutions up on the floor, and the Democratic Party is ...

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  You‘ve got Kerry out there, as some of us predicted.  He is moving all out dove.  Others are predicting Hillary might get there.  You‘ve got the Democratic Party dividing again as it did during Vietnam, around ‘66 and ‘67. 

OK, you get to the point where certain things happen, and the president plays the patriotism card, and it can be very, very strong.  And so I think the Democrats are making a mistake with all this poor mouthing.  Even when—I mean, everybody had to get up and say they got Zarqawi. 

It‘s good news for America. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Bob, you think catching Zarqawi was important?

BUCHANAN:  You didn‘t like that either? 

SHRUM:  No, I think it‘s good.  No, listen, I hate the ideology of these people.  I think they‘re awful people, but I think we ought to talk about whether the policy works.  And when Pat talks about playing the patriotic card, that‘s cynically what is going on here. 

People like John Murtha and John Kerry who were there when the shooting was going on 30 years ago are being accused of running away from the shooting by people who never defended their country. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the key question here.  I agree—look, there‘s been a lot pyrotechnics, a lot of theater, obviously.  The president went over there as theater.  Let‘s face it.  You say good theater, and he says bad theater, but the question is, are we on the right course over there?   

SHRUM:  I give it a high rating as theater.

MATTHEWS:  Are we on the right course?  You start, Bob.  The simple question is this:  Can we rely on this guy Maliki to put together a government that has a decent chance of bringing stability to that country with out help? 

SHRUM:  Chris, we keep doing this over and over.  We pick another moment, we say we‘ve had another turning point.  Joe Biden is right.  Unless you disarm the Shiite militias, unless you reform the whole police process, unless you get this thing politically working in the right direction so that we can actually trust Iraqi units to go into the field, we‘re going to see things continue to get worse.

And General Casey, let me remind you, has said that the presence of our troops fuels the insurgency. 

BUCHANAN:  Oh, I think that it does.  I do believe this:  I believe this government is our last best hope.  I do agree they have got to pacify Baghdad.  The good news is Zarqawi and the terrorists have been knocked for a loop.  What they‘ve got to do is tell the Baathists and the resisters and the anti-Americans and the insurgents don‘t keep fighting because we will kill a lot of you and in the end, you are not going to win.  Get into the political process.

MATTHEWS:  Bob, and then Pat, both of you, quickly, Karl Rove has done it again.  He‘s beaten the judge.  He is clean as a whistle, he‘s scot-free, and he looks tougher than ever because he got away with what he did.  He leaked the names of that undercover agent and beat the band.  What do you make of it, Bob?  What is the message to America? 

SHRUM:  Well, he‘s dodged three howitzers:  first, if this had come out before the 2004 election; second, now; and third, we‘re not going to hear the details of the trial until after this election.  Look, the president lied about Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  Bob, we‘re out of here.  We‘ll do it again.  More on ...

SHRUM:  He‘s obviously lied about whether or not people would be held responsible.

MATTHEWS:  Hey, hey.  The guy‘s fair game.  We‘ll be back to hit Rove later.  Thank you Bob Shrum, thank you Pat Buchanan.

Play HARDBALL again with us, 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern tomorrow night. 

Right now it‘s time for the “ABRAMS REPORT.”

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

END   

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