updated 6/16/2006 11:42:03 AM ET 2006-06-16T15:42:03

Guests: John Harwood, Wayne Slater, Tom Schatz, Michael Musto

BRIAN UNGER, MSNBC GUEST HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

The presidential press conference, fresh off his Camp David summit, his whirlwind tour of Baghdad, President Bush says there is steady progress in Iraq, with one minor caveat.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If people say, well, there has got to be no violence in order for this to be a successful experience, then it is not going to happen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

UNGER:  And his swagger is back, there is pep in his step.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  I trust Karl Rove and he is an integral part of my team.

UNGER:  Bush‘s brain, back in action.  Karl Rove‘s been cleared, now can he help Republicans on Capitol Hill keep their jobs?

Need some spending money for a vacation?  Want to visit a strip club but you‘re strapped for cash?  Need to settle your tab at Hooters?  Call FEMA.  They have got plenty of money.  Plenty of your money, that is.  A new GAO report out says FEMA is doing another not so heck of a job.

Is Uncle Sam telling you you are a bad mother.  A new string of shock ads claims moms are actually harming their children if they give them a bottle.

And it‘s Vaughniston.  Or is it Vinnifer?  Who cares?  They might be engaged.  Hollywood‘s in love with itself again.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VINCE VAUGHN, ACTOR:  My baby wants, my baby gets.  You know that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

UNGER:  All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

And good evening.  I‘m Brian Unger in for Keith Olbermann.  Thanks for being with us.

It was a singularly appropriate venue to hold a presidential news conference on Iraq or better, to try to sell the idea that everything is better to come up roses than the Rose Garden.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, a decidedly upbeat President Bush emphasizing solidarity with the Iraqi government and highlighting American efforts to stabilize Iraq, all the while avoiding the issue of when it is mission accomplished for American soldiers.

Our White House correspondent David Gregory had a front row seat for the hard sell.  David?

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Brian.  They do feel a certain momentum swing around here about Iraq, but the president appeared mindful of the fact that he‘s boasted of turning points before in Iraq only to have events there prove him wrong.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GREGORY (voice-over):  The president bounded out of the Oval Office this morning unusually eager to meet the press.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT:  Good morning.  Thank you.  I have just returned from Baghdad.

GREGORY:  His spirits about Iraq were clearly uplifting after a burst of good news.  The death terrorist Zarqawi and the formation of a new unity government.  But Mr. Bush repeatedly resisted the temptation to oversell.

BUSH:  I hope there is not an expectation from people that all of a sudden there is going to be zero violence.  It‘s not going to be the case.

GREGORY:  The president even chided himself for predicting the new Maliki government would quote, “turn the tide in Iraq,” saying progress would be slow in areas like security, oil production and electricity output.

In fact, the list of goals today, securing Baghdad, ending sectarian violence and inspiring Iraqis to trust their government was a reminder of how much has gone wrong for the U.S. in Iraq.

BUSH:  The challenges that remain are serious and they will require more sacrifice and patience.  And our efforts are well worth it.

GREGORY:  Mr. Bush defended the secrecy of his Baghdad trip.

BUSH:  It‘s a security concern.  Because I am a high value target for some.  And Iraq is a dangerous place.

GREGORY:  And eagerly jumped into campaign mode by attacking Democrats arguing for a deadline for troop withdrawal.

BUSH:  If the United States of America leaves before this Iraqi government can defend itself and sustain itself and govern itself it will be a major blow in the war on terror.  Al Qaeda will benefit.

GREGORY:  Mr. Bush warned that American politics will not determine when U.S. troops come home.  On another topic Mr. Bush dodged several questions about Karl Rove eluding prosecution in the CIA leak case.

BUSH:  And obviously along with others in the White House took a sigh of relief when he made the decision that he made and now we are going to move forward.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GREGORY (on camera):  Top advisor Karl Rove secure.  Another top advisor to the president is leaving tonight.  Mike Gerson, who is one of the most trusted aides to President Bush, going back to 1999, formerly his head speechwriter is stepping down, saying he wants to pursue other opportunities.

He not only was so instrumental in forming Bush‘s words over these past seven years, but Brian, was also a key advisor, putting together what Bush has called his compassionate conservative agenda.

UNGER:  David Gregory, thank you very much.

More on the reinvigorated Rove later.  First the return of the commander in chief, clearly hoping that the appearance of a turning point in Iraq will help foster a turnaround in public opinion here.

The latest NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll suggesting it might at least is a little bit.  Sixty one percent still think the country is on the wrong track.  But that‘s down from two months ago.  The president‘s approval rating got a point bump, up to 37 percent from 36 percent back in April.  And his approval ratings in Iraq are also up, 35 percent now approve of the job he is doing, up two percentage points.

But unchanged, the public perception of whether removing Saddam Hussein was worth the human and financial cost to the war.  Fifty two percent still say it wasn‘t.  Now to put the polls and the politics in perspective.  I‘m joined by CNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent, “Wall Street Journal” senior contributing writer, John Harwood.  Thank you, John, for joining us.

JOHN HARWOOD, “WALL STREET JOURNAL”:  Hey, Brian.

UNGER:  The poll was taken before President Bush went to Iraq but after the death of Zarqawi.  He seems to have gotten a slight lift in his approval ratings for that.  Is it safe to assume he is going to get another bump from his five hours in the Green Zone, too?

HARWOOD:  He might get a little, Brian, but I think Americans are going to be watching, waiting and seeing what actually happens on the ground before they decide how much of a bump to give him.

This bump he got in our survey show that the death of Zarqawi made people feel a little more optimistic.  His approval did tick up one point, but so did his disapproval.  So far, the American people are taking a cautious approach to interpreting this news.  We should say this was before he got the good news about Karl Rove.

That may not be reflected in the polls, either, but certainly it is a good substantive development from the standpoint of Republican politicians.

UNGER:  With these approval ratings in the 30s, what do you think would give it a little uptick here?

HARWOOD:  I think the only thing, Brian, that is going to make a big, big difference in the president‘s ratings and in the overall mood of the country is if there is enough progress that the president could credibly go to the country and say, because things are going so well in Iraq, we are going to be able to bring a lot of American troops home.  Until that happens, people are going to realize the costs of this war, that they are continuing, they have been going on for a long time, a lot of guard and reserves and soldiers, regular soldiers are on their second, third, and fourth tours.  People are very tired of it.

UNGER:  Let‘s talk about that in real terms.  The president‘s upbeat demeanor in the Rose Garden markedly different than his somewhat humble appearance with Tony Blair last month.  But beneath this hoopla, the conditions on the ground seem to be unchanged that there was no announcement of troop draw downs, no sense of when this mission will be accomplished, no indication of when this new Iraqi government might stand up so our soldiers can stand down.  Despite the enthusiasm from the president, if - let‘s look at it this way, if you are a soldier on the ground, what is changed today?

HARWOOD:  Nothing, really, although there were reports, of course, that Zarqawi was not only directing the insurgency in Iraq, but he was also training foreign terrorists to be sent out and dispersed to other countries and attack the United States.

To the extent he‘s gone, let‘s make no mistake, that is a positive development, but it doesn‘t solve the problem the president alluded to today with continued sectarian violence.  They have got to do something about the militias and make sure that that doesn‘t overwhelm the resources of the new government.  But we have got an awfully long way to go before people can feel like we are winning there.  And that‘s the key point that White House officials have understood for a long time.

As long as the American people think we are not winning the war, they are going to be downbeat about it.  If the president can use some of that upbeat mood to convey a sense of optimism, and we can really do it, and we are doing it, that could make some difference, but not until large numbers of troops come home is it going to make a huge difference.

UNGER:  Let‘s take a political angle here, John.

The president‘s emphasis on solidarity with the Iraqi government, we heard this mantra, we are with you.

Is this the first step in laying a political foundation or plan to extricate U.S. soldiers from this war gradually without it appearing he is making the decision based on polls, which as you know, consistently point to the fact that most Americans don‘t want to be there?

HARWOOD:  Well, it could be, but I think that‘s a fascinating question and double-edged sword perhaps.  First of all, the president has a good track for not pulling out troops when it might have helped his 2004 reelection.  He hung in there.

And I think it was striking in his remarks in the last couple of days how determined he is to stay the course and try to convince the American people that it‘s worth it, that we have an important, long-term national security reason for staying there, apart from whatever happens to the Iraqi government per se, or the Iraqi people themselves.  It matters to the American people.

And it‘s possible to see in the president‘s remarks, him getting in deeper, if you will, personally committing himself to helping al-Maliki, making it more difficult to respond to pressure if that comes later in the year from Republicans saying, Mr. President, we just can‘t tolerate this anymore.  He certainly doubled his bet, if you will, on remaining in Iraq and making this work and it‘s plain that it is something he believes in, has bet his presidency on.

UNGER:  Quickly, here, in all the talk of self-governance, self defense, these are terrific topics that should have been best discussed three years ago.  By talking about them now are we sort of admitting that there is no policy as we went into this war?

HARWOOD:  I think everybody agrees that there were a lot of mistakes made in the planning.  People argue on different sides.  The president alluded to that.  Some people argue that a lot more troops should have been sent in the first place.  But I think what the president is trying to do now is move the debate forward and not back.  He knows if it‘s looking backwards he will lose that debate.

UNGER:  CNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent and “Wall Street Journal” senior contributing writer John Harwood, thank you so much for your time tonight.

HARWOOD:  My pleasure.

UNGER:  Even though the president was upbeat and confident throughout his question and answer session with the press, it wouldn‘t have been a presidential news conference if he hadn‘t uttered some trademark Bushspeak.  This time it happened when Peter Wallsten of “The Los Angeles Times” stood up to ask a question.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  Peter, you going to ask that question with shades on?  I‘m interested in the shade look.  Seriously.

PETER WALLSTEN, “LOS ANGELES TIMES”:  I‘ll keep it then.

BUSH:  For the viewers, there is no sun.

WALLSTEN:  I guess it depends on your perspective.

BUSH:  OK.  Touche.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

UNGER:  Oops.  There is actually a very good reason for Peter Wallsten wearing shades on a cloudy day.  He is legally blind.  Wallsten has a retinal condition called Stargardt‘s disease, a form of macular degeneration that makes him sensitive to glare.

But he says he wasn‘t offended by the presidential faux pas, because, quote, “I never advertised it to him, I‘ve never told him.”

The president apparently called Wallsten late today and apologized for the gaffe, saying he likes to needle people from time to time.

Another presence felt at today‘s news conference, Bush‘s so-called brain, Karl Rove back and badder than ever.  With the cloud of controversy lifted, what impact will a rejuvenated Rove have on D.C. politics?

And a fleecing of America of epic proportions.  More than $1 billion of your taxpayer dollars spent not on rebuilding post Katrina, it goes for strippers and booze and clothes.  Who is getting your money back?  You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNGER:  Much of the hot air coming from the White House over the past two days can be attributed to a giant sigh of relief with Karl Rove now unindictable in the ongoing CIA leak investigation.  The man whom the president himself has referred as turd blossom has a fresh, clean scent.

In our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, Mr. Bush and his new and improved brain.  The president admittedly delighted to have the pesky issue of Mr. Rove‘s involvement in the CIA leak behind him after the constant pronouncements about not discussing an ongoing investigation, the president praised special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald and reiterated Rove‘s place in his administration.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  The decision by the prosecutor speaks for itself.  He had a full investigation.  Karl Rove went in front of the grand jury like - I don‘t know, a lot of times—where they took a hard look at his role.

I appreciate the job that the prosecutor did.  Thought he conducted himself well in this investigation.  And obviously, along with others in the White House, took a sigh of relief in the decision he made.  I trust Karl Rove.  He is an integral part of my team.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

UNGER:  And joining me now, the senior political writer for the “Dallas Morning News”, Wayne Slater.  He is also co-author of “Bush‘s Brain” and co-author of the soon-to-be released, “The Architect: Karl Rove and the Master Plan for Absolute Power.”

Thanks for your time, sir.

WAYNE SLATER, “DALLAS MORNING NEWS”:  Good to be with you, Brian.

UNGER:  President Bush appears relieved that Karl Rove will not be indicted.  On his way back from Iraq the president told reporters that quote, “It is a chapter that has ended.”  Is this wishful thinking?  Is this chapter finished?

SLATER:  Well, it sure is the close of a chapter that Bush likes to have closed, but there are more chapters ahead.  Karl Rove is still a person who most likely will be called as a witness in the Scooter Libby trial.  Joe Wilson, the man whose wife was outed in this whole matter, in outing a CIA‘s agent identity says he is still considering filing civil charges.  He might or might not do that.

And we still don‘t know who the initial leaker was in the Bob Novak column.  So I think there is a lot more, many more chapters to come.

UNGER:  Does that just go the way of Jimmy Hoffa‘s corpse?

SLATER:  It might.  It might absolutely.  We may never know some things, but one thing we do know, that Karl Rove himself has been declared officially this week apparently an unindictable person, unindicted and innocent of everything.

UNGER:  Let me ask you because you are familiar with Mr. Rove‘s work, from managing the death of Zarqawi to the Camp David summit to the surprise trip to Iraq, to today‘s Rose Garden press conference, do you see the hallmarks here of the classic orchestration of the conductor, Mr. Rove?

SLATER:  Oh, you do.  You really do.  You see this sort of clearer presentation by George Bush, who what most clearly at ease, the cloud has lifted for the first time in a year, at least a few things has gone his way.

So when you saw the idea—And the idea of going to Baghdad had been in the works for some time, but the idea he would be there and show up today in the Rose Garden and look so confident and revel really in the disclosure that Karl Rove, his chief political guru, would not be indicted and Zarqawi being dead and maybe, just maybe things had been turned around.  This was presented very nicely and it had all of Rove‘s earmarks.

UNGER:  Wayne, I want to talk about Mr. Rove‘s fundraising speech in New Hampshire Monday night.  It was probably planned before he found out he was off the hook, but his attack was vociferous, he went after John Kerry, he attacked John Murtha and he painted anyone who opposes the war as weak, as in cowardly, a confident blast from a free man, perhaps?

SLATER:  Well, it was.  And I‘ve got to say, I had lunch about a week ago, week-and-a-half ago with a close Rove confidant who told me that Rove was pretty increasingly confident he had escaped the indictment, he couldn‘t be sure.  But he was increasingly confident.

So as he put together his speech in New Hampshire, I think he knew and then ultimately had been told before he made the speech that he was of the hook legally.

Look, this is a guy that whatever you say about him, knows how to win campaigns and knows how to frame campaigns in a decisive way.  And in 2002, that was the issue that Rove said the Democrats would lose on and the Republicans could go to the voters on, the war on terror.

2004, that was the key issue that was framed.  And Karl Rove put it together in his kitchen with his kitchen cabinet of political advisors to the president before the 2004 race.  This was the president, the war on terror was it.  Those who aren‘t with us are against us, and by implication, you see the same argument clearly today for the 2006 race.  You‘re going to hear what you heard in New Hampshire, again and again between now and November.

UNGER:  Wayne, if Ronald Reagan was made of Teflon what is Rove made of?

SLATER:  He is made of kryptonite.  He isn‘t just Superman, he levels Superman.

UNGER:  Wayne Slater, author of “Bush‘s Brain” and the soon to be released book, “The Architect.”  Thank you for your time.

SLATER:  Great to be with you.

UNGER:  Who is the architect of this punishment?  Little kids mutton busting.  Sure, they say it‘s supposed to be fun but let‘s ask the sheep what they think.

And there is nothing funny about this, the new ad campaign pitting bottle feeders against breast feeders, all in an effort to produce healthier, smarter children.  All that and much more ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNGER:  And once again, we step away from the so-called real news of the day for a brief segment of the really necessary news, like lamb-chop rides and Bigfoot sightings.  Let‘s play “Oddball.”

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNGER (voice-over):  And we begin in North Platte, Nebraska, where the men are men and the sheep are being ridden around by little kids in helmets.  Yes, it‘s the big annual Nebraska-land Days Mutton-Busting contest.  It‘s peewee rodeo with soft fluffy sheep and cute as a button little cow pokes.  The rules are simple, grab some wool and hold on.  Thousands turn out for the event to see Little Suzy‘s first rodeo ride and little Mikey‘s first broken arm.  It is an all-around good time for pretty much everyone involved except the sheep, who always end the day feeling a little humiliated and used.

Now to Deep River, Minnesota, where Bob and Nancy Olson (ph) have discovered what they believe to be proof that the legendary Bigfoot has been hanging around their home, giant footprints that don‘t look at all cartoonish found in the woods near the Olson home.  He‘s made casts of the prints.  And finally, Bigfoot enthusiasts have what they needed, real evidence from people who only seem slightly crazy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Wow, look at that.  Finally.  Good prints in good soil.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Where are they?  How come we don‘t see him?  Are they really out there?  And where‘s the women?  Is this a woman?  Where are the children?  There has got to be more than one.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘d say 75 percent of the reaction is yeah, we know, we know it‘s up here.  And that‘s what it is.  This just solidified it more, because to me this is concrete evidence.

UNGER:  Yeah, I used to be on the fence.  Well, these are not concrete, more like plaster of Paris.

And finally to Mississauga, Canada, home of the Lakeview Power Station and its four 500 smoke stacks, known as the Four Sisters.  Part of the local landscape since 1961.  And if you get a chance to see the three chimneys I would highly recommend I recommend you doing it very soon.  They are two of the most striking chimneys—well, one.  It really is a fabulous chimney.  Too late.  There go the Four Sisters.  Bye bye.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

UNGER:  The hurricane of hurricanes, leads to the rip-off of all taxpayer rip-offs.  Almost $1.5 billion has been misappropriated by FEMA.  Divorce lawyers, Hooters tab, alcohol?  Sound like we are billing you.  Who is getting your money back?

And sure, they are all about to break up on the big screen but in real life wedding bells, rumors are ringing for Vinceifer and Vanniston—those two are the ones.  The details are ahead.

But first here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of this day.

Number three, Junichiro Koizumi, prime minister of Japan.  He is due to leave office in September, but has one final trip to the United States planned for the end of the month.  By special request he will be meeting with President Bush in Washington.  Then the two of them are going to Graceland to visit Elvis.  We are not making that up.

Number two, mother of the year, Judith Weidner of Pennsylvania.  She has been sentenced to one to three years in prison after she made her six year old daughter steal a charity jar from a convenience store counter.  Security video showed Weidner distracting the cashier while the daughter snatched a fireman‘s boot with $1.85 in it.

And number one, Wilfred Spencer of Wheeling, West Virginia.  Police say he was seeking revenge for being fired, so he got really drunk and broke into the local dollar store to grab up as much cash as he could.  And then broke into the local wellness center and stole $2,000 from there because they are the ones who fired him.

Spencer told cops he was so drunk and broke into the dollar store by mistake, thinking it was the wellness center.  I can‘t imagine why this guy was ever fired.

A resume .

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNGER:  Well, in the latest installment of when FEMA attacks, it‘s your tax dollars ridiculously not at work.  This time, it‘s your tax dollars absurdly at play.  Where has $1.4 billion in disaster dollars gone?  For a dream home in the Caribbean, a hotel room in Hawaii, adult erotica and “Girls Gone Wild” videos, naturally.  For who‘s pain did some disaster relief money elevate?  Prison inmates and someone‘s divorce attorney.  What kinds of aid did your tax dollars provide?  Dom Perignon and NFL season tickets.  These, the lovely cash prizes, courtesy of FEMA. 

In our No. 3 story in the COUNTDOWN, FEMA, what a waste.  The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress says that 16 percent of FEMA aide money for hurricane‘s Katrina and Rita went to fraudulent need cases and now a House subcommittee is investigating, with the rest of the mess our correspondent Chip Reid. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHIP REID, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  As requests for emergency assistance powered in after Hurricane Katrina, one applicant listed this as his address, this Greenwood Cemetery in New Orleans, FEMA promptly issued a check for $2,358.00 for rental assistance.  That‘s just one of thousands of examples of alleged fraud and abuse described in a new report by the investigative arm of Congress.  Cost to taxpayers about $1 billion. 

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS ®, HOMELAND SECURITY COMMITTEE CHAIR:  The examples are so egregious that what they tell us is that FEMA didn‘t perform even basic checks to safeguard taxpayers‘ money. 

REID:  One person applied for aid 13 times using 13 bogus addresses and received $139,000. 

(on camera):  The report says FEMA didn‘t even try to verify the identities of people who applied for aid by phone and it says FEMA‘s fraud controls are weak or nonexistent. 

(voice-over):  More than 2,000 people applied for aid from prison and received about $12 million.  The report also finds that FEMA debit cards, which were supposed to be used for necessities, were used for a week-long Caribbean vacation, a $600 tab at a gentleman‘s club and a visit to Hooter‘s that included a $200 bottle of campaign.  Former FEMA official, John Koppenhaver, says that in the rush to get money to victims, mistakes are inevitable. 

JOHN KOPPENHAVER FORMER FEMA OFFICIAL:  The bottom line is that any time that you try to balance speed of assistance with accuracy, you‘re going to have problems. 

REID:  In a statement, FEMA says it‘s already reforming capabilities for how it will serve disaster victims this storm season.  But Senator Collins says the fraud is so pervasive she doubts FEMA will be ready for a hurricane season that‘s already here. 

Chip Reid, NBC News, the Capital.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

UNGER:  And joining me now, the president of Citizens Against Government Waste, Tom Schatz. 

Tom, thanks for your time.

TOM SCHATZ, CITIZENS AGAINST GOVT.  WASTE:  Thank you.

UNGER:  Tom, wow, this is pretty astounding, I mean, “Girls Gone Wild” videos?  Talk about natural disasters.  Are you kidding?

SCHATZ:  This is another example of the federal government handing out money and not really caring what happens.  When FEMA originally talked about debit card, it was clear that this was a situation that was right with fraud and abuse.  Seventy percent of the debit cards were converted into cash.  Now, there was a time that food stamps, for example, were limited to certain kinds of purchases in the future, if this is going to occur, and we hope it doesn‘t, there must be limits on what the debit card can be used for. 

UNGER:  Well, then how are they going to have any accountability if they‘re handing out these debit cards that can be converted to cash?  I mean, how do you sort of monitor that? 

SCHATZ:  Well, the first thing is not to let them be converted into cash.  The second is to require individuals who are in the face of a disaster, for example with Katrina, although it was obviously unprecedented, people in the area had some general idea they may have to evacuate at some point.  They should be at lease required to try to remember their social security numbers or bring some form of identity and at least try to verify who these people are and verify addresses.  There‘s computers, we think, all over the place, although the governments are pretty inept, that should be able to find these people.  And there‘s no excuse for sending money to prisoners.  They are all in the federal database. 

UNGER:  Tom, congressmen on the subcommittee investigating this are already saying that these are crimes that should be prosecuted, but how realistic is that?  I mean, aren‘t many of these people using so much phony information that it would be almost impossible to find them? 

SCHATZ:  If you take the government‘s priorities, there are billions of dollars being defrauded and in other programs like Medicare, Medicaid that are a higher priority and all of this has to go through the Department of Justice, which is a little bit overworked on these kinds of cases.  And you‘re talking about thousands of individual cases that need to be brought and need to be prosecuted.  Hopefully if you get a threatening letter from an inspector general, or some other authority figure at the Department of Homeland Security, you might want to return the money. 

UNGER:  Does it seem like common sense that you would not just hand cash out to people and say, you know, you need to pay for an apartment, say in Hawaii, go ahead with this, here‘s the money?

SCHATZ:  Well, this is a logic-free zone here in Washington and it certainly applied in the case of these debit cards.  The lack of controls are inexcusable, FEMA has been through numerous disasters, it‘s certainly one of the many problems that taxpayers will be stuck with if they do this again in the next disaster. 

UNGER:  I really want to get to this before we leave, Mike Leavitt, the secretary of Health and Human Services today, we find out, has been using a private jet leased by the CDC, the Centers of Disease Control to promote the new Medicare prescription drug plan.  Now, this according to the “Atlanta Journal Constitution.”  The plane is supposed to be used for emergencies only.  Leasing the plane has cost taxpayers $2.1 million so far this year going out on this Medicare promotional campaign across the country.  Mr.  Leavitt has taken the jet on 19 trips to visit more than 90 cities and a spokesman said that use was appropriate.  How can that be?  Aren‘t most public officials required to travel on public airlines, public transportation? 

SCHATZ:  Certainly if it‘s not an emergency, they should be traveling on normal coach transportation.  And if it is legal to do that under the Health and Human Services rules, Congress needs to change that law immediately. 

UNGER:  This—is this just the tip of the iceberg of waste at the CDC?  Do they need to look into them as well, these agencies just hemorrhaging funds like this? 

SCHATZ:  Well, Congress has to do more oversight and taxpayers need to hold our elected officials accountable for their money, and more would be done to stop the waste. 

UNGER:  Well, Tom.  Tom Schatz, president of the Citizens Against Government Waste, thank you so much for joining us tonight. 

SCHATZ:  Thanks.

UNGER:  And the government weighs in on the debate over the breast or the bottle, as moms get a real big guilt trip, the controversial ad campaign on what‘s best for baby. 

And one of the most chastised mothers in the media, Britney Spears, talks about the swirling rumors, exclusively with NBC‘s Matt Lauer.  We will have a sneak peek ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNGER:  Well, the government is taking sides over the breast-feeding debate in an eye-catching controversial ad campaign.  Brittany Spears weighs in on all the problems she‘s faced in the headlines.  And Brad Pitt‘s women.  Is Jennifer walking down the aisle?  Is Angelina joining Scientology?  All that and more ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNGER:  Are you struggling with quantum physics?  Can‘t seem to shake a nasty cold?  Well, blame it on your mother.  That‘s the government‘s stick in the eye to moms everywhere and our No. 2 story on the COUNTDOWN. A new battle brewing over breast feeding, courtesy of the Department of Health and Human Services, an ad campaign, enough to make a mom cry every time her child gets a demerit or sneezes.  The ad states, “smarter, healthier children come from moms who breastfeed” and offers warnings for mothers who don‘t.  The guilt and the story from Lisa Daniels. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER:  Recent stories show that babies who are breastfed are less likely to develop ear infection, repertory illnesses, and diarrhea.  Babies were born to be breastfed.

LISA DANIELS, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  It‘s the latest spark grunted to ignite new fire in the breastfeeding wars.  Shock ads from a public health campaign, showing pregnant women doing outrageous stunts.  Not just urging moms to breastfeed, but warning them about not breast feeding. 

ADAR GERVICH (ph), MOTHER:  It makes me feel like I definitely made the right choice in breastfeeding him.  I think that he‘s gotten the best that I could offer. 

DANIELS:  Adar Gervich (ph) has changed her life so she can breastfeed 9 month-old Dadith (ph).  She‘s given up her job, but has no regrets. 

GERVICH:  It‘s really important, and it‘s the best gift you can give your child. 

DANIELS:  Gervich firmly believes studies that show breastfed babies grow up healthier, even smarter.  She stocked up in case her son decides he only wants a bottle. 

GERVICH:  Even when I stop breast feeding, I‘ll have enough milk and I won‘t have to give him as much formula.

DANIELS:  But the ads aren‘t sitting well with other new moms, like Amada Pimm. 

AMANDA PIMM, MOTHER:  It makes me feel terrible and it really angers me, because I know that women are going to take that to heart. 

DANIELS:  Pam is like many new moms who tried to breastfeed their babies, but couldn‘t.  They‘re angry that the government is the latest voice telling them they‘re bad mothers. 

PIMM:  I think it‘s terrible and I think it‘s reckless, because women should do what they want do, what they can do and it‘s not going to work out for everyone. 

DR. SUZANNE HAYNES, HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICE:  We‘re not trying to create guild, what we are trying to do is reach the first-time moms who are out there who are making the decision whether to breast feed or not. 

DANIELS:  Most experts agree that breastfeeding is the ideal method to feed babies. 

DR.  NANCY WIGHT, SHARP MARY BIRCH HOSPITAL FOR WOMEN:  Research now is absolutely undeniable that those babies who are not breastfed have an increased risk of different infectious diseases. 

DANIELS:  (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the ads have run their two-year course, they could be just a first step in the aggressive outreach. 

(on camera):  Some lawmakers have proposed having a warning label on baby formula, like those required on cigarette cartons stating that breast milk is better for babies than formula. 

(voice-over):  While few support that measure, the idea is enough to make Amanda finally breakdown. 

PIMM:  I wish I could tell you I don‘t have any guilt, that I‘m confident in formula feeding, but I‘m not.  It would be a lie.  I feel very guilty about not giving her breastmilk. 

DANIELS:  Leaving others to wonder if the ads will help more babies or just make some moms feel worse? 

Lisa Daniels, NBC News, New York. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

UNGER:  Difficult segues into “Keeping Tabs” and then there is this segue for “Keeping Tabs,” we go from breastfeeding to Brittany Spears.  It‘s time for another sliver of NBC‘s exclusive Matt Lauer/Britney Spears sit-down interview.  In this episode, Matt shows Mrs.  Federline some magazine covers and asks the questions:  Does K-Fed still live at home?  What about that sexy manny?  And what happened to the rest of your shirt? 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATT LAUER, “TODAY”:  Let me show you some magazines.  OK, these are all current, all right.  I don‘t have to show you them all, but we got one here, “Brittany moves on without Kevin.”  “Brit‘s new man.” 

BRITNEY SPEARS, SINGER:  Oh, no.  That‘s my security guard.

LAUER:  “The final days.  Fed up with Kevin‘s lies, he‘s sleeping in the basement.”  We‘ll get to these individually, but basically, this is the tone, that this marriage is over, there are problems in paradise, and it‘s not going to last. 

SPEARS:  You know, I need to create my own magazine.  These people, I mean they want stories to sell and they‘re very good.  You know, I need to come up with my own magazine and say the real deal. 

LAUER:  Well, set the record straight.  I mean, first of all, can I, in an effort of full disclosure when I came through the gate today, the first person I saw was Kevin. 

SPEARS:  Yeah. 

LAUER:  So he‘s living here? 

SPEARS:  Oh, definitely.  Oh, he‘s working very hard.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

UNGER:  Oh, he‘s in the house.  He‘s definitely there.

More from Ms. Spears on a special “Dateline” Thursday.  Now turning to the nation‘s other favorite blonde, sometimes a train wreck, Paris Hilton.  Just days after she was caught on camera crashing into another car and then driving away without leaving a note, comes word of another car related whoa for Ms. Hilton.  She‘s now being sued, a lawsuit, claims she caused a multi-car pileup in Los Angeles two years ago, even though she wasn‘t even in the car at the time of the accident.  It was her cousin that was driving.  Paris people‘s say they won‘t comment on the suit.  This proves that some don‘t like her or her car. 

And back to the ever popular celebrity baby news.  Begs the question, is Hollywood at risk of being overpopulated?  Uncertain, but it‘s a boy for “Tenacious D” front man/actor Jack Black and his wife.  The star of the upcoming Mexican wrestler movie, “Nacho Libre” told the magazine “Us Weekly,” that “I‘m going to be the best daddy on the planet.”  With the current “best daddy” benchmark having been set by Kevin Federline, it shouldn‘t be hard, Jack.  Black and his wife, Tonya Haden confirmed the birth of their son to a publicist on Tuesday, but they have yet to release the name of the boy.  If he‘s going to be a Mexican wrestler like his dad we suggest a (inaudible), that‘s from the COUNTDOWN baby name hand book and there are more in that book.  We can get that to Jack.

Will, a hunt for baby names be in the cards for Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn?  It seems a wedding planner may be if the latest rumors are to be relieved.  Michael Musto joins us on that and host of other celebrity headlines when COUNTDOWN continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNGER:  It‘s a disturbing Hollywood trend, seen since the dawn of the moving image on the Big Screen.  From Brad and Angelina to Ben and Jen, to Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, all the way back to Fay Wray and King Kong.  Actors shoot a film together, there‘s a little hanky-panky, and then they all take a trip down the aisle and then of course they get divorced and end up wishing the other person were dead.

In our No. 1 story, we‘ll run through all the Hollywood hush-hush we can‘t seem to get away from with Michael Musto, but first love blooms in Hollywood Hills, again.  Looks like wedding bells for Vaughniston.  The always reliable “Life and Style Weekly” is reporting in this weeks‘ issue, that Jennifer Aniston has accepted Vince Vaughn‘s marriage proposal.  The were reportedly in Paris in the middle of their publicity tour for the movie “The Break-Up” when Vince popped the question. 

While Aniston is reportedly in wedding planning mode, a representative of hers has denied the engagement saying, “Jennifer is past the point of denying these ludicrous rumors.”  Love is never having to say you‘re ludicrous. 

Jennifer Aniston‘s handlers are denying there‘s and engagement to actor, Vince Vaughn.  One possible reason for the denial?  To keep Tom Cruise away.  The “Enquirer,” and they‘re never wrong, is reporting in their most recent issue that Tom Cruise is so many for new parents Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, that he personally called them on the telephone in Africa.  He called to offer his congratulations, he called to invite them over to his Beverly Hills pad, he called to convert them to Scientology.  Mr.  Pitt apparently declined.  I guess Mr.  Cruise hung up and had a good cry.  That last part is definitely not true.

Now, for his take on these stories and more, let‘s call in a professional celebrity gossip wrangler, the one and only, Michael Musto.  So, welcome.  I feel have to apologize to you right off the bat, here.  I was in my “Nacho Libre” Spanish mode and called you Moosto, I do apologize.

MICHAEL MUSTO, “VILLAGE VOICE”:  I‘m sure you look better than Jack Black in a wrestling outfit. 

UNGER:  Thanks man.  Let‘s cut to the chase here, Michael.  American people need to, you know, they need these answers.  Are Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston getting married or what? 

MUSTO:  I actually think so and I think this will enable them to eventually do “The Break-Up 2:  This Time it‘s Personal.”  And I think their relationship is a nice fit, there‘s no disappointment this time. 

He‘s kind of a self-proclaimed schmo, but nice enough, and you know, she

could leave the lights off and pretend it‘s Brad until he belches, and the

really the best thing about this is that even Angelina doesn‘t want to steal this guy.  So they‘re safe.             

UNGER:  Hey Michael, let‘s talk about the phenomenon that goes on, on movie sets.  OK, Vince Vaughn, I guess, allegedly, shoots a movie, no he did shoot a movie with Jennifer Aniston, now he ends up landing one of the hottest women in Hollywood.  What‘s going on on these sets?  Is there like Spanish fly at Kraft Services? 

MUSTO:  No, but there are tabloids and I think Jennifer picked one up, read about Brangelina and said, oh by, OK who do I have on this set that I can bed:  Jon Favreau, Judy Davis, Ann-Margret, so she went for Vince Vaughn.  She settled, but it‘s fine.  But they should have rename the movie, in stead of  “The Break-Up” it should have been “The Rebound,” I think. 

UNGER:  Michael, I mean, this whole thing that happens on these movie sets, if Aniston were making a movie with say, Carrot Top would we be talking about them getting married instead? 

MUSTO:  Absolutely.  She‘d be married now.  She‘d be Jennifer Top.  If she did a movie with Larry the Cable Guy, she‘d Jennifer the Cable Guy.  If she did a movie with, I don‘t know, George Lopez, she‘d be Jennifer Lopez.  How do you like that?  There‘s something about proximity of co-stars on movie sets that make them want to kind of do the dirty with each other and get married and I have a great example of that, “Mr.  And Mrs.  Smith—ouch. 

UNGER:  There‘s something sexy about those trailer, I guess, that they have to live in.   They—Vaughinston, the were—Vaughniston.

MUSTO:  Even I‘ve never heard of that. 

UNGER:  Yeah, I don‘t know.  They—the rumor is they were engaged in

Paris and that‘s at same city that Tom and Katie got engaged in.  Now, if

you‘re a Hollywood superstar, is Paris the place to sort of make it

official after, you know, you‘ve hooked up in your trailer on a Hollywood

back lot

MUSTO:  I think after most guys have gone in Paris Hilton they don‘t want  to make it official.  They don‘t even want to admit it.  You‘re talking Paris, France.  It‘s romantic, come on.  They have that phallic Eiffel Tower, and you don‘t even have order French fries, you can just say, “I want fries,” you know, and nobody bathes, so if you find somebody who actually did you want to mount them and you want to engage them.  You can sit around and order toast instead of French toast. 

UNGER:  Let‘s—I want to go to this Tom Cruise religion thing, quickly.  There were rumors that he‘d been recruiting celebrities to sort of cross over to Scientology.  And he set his hopes very high, here, with Brangelina.  I mean, couldn‘t he have started sort of smaller, you know, with Hasselhoff or someone like that? 

MUSTO:  Well, he tried for “Mini Me” and Linda Hunt, but they kicked him to the curb, so he went for the big gets, he went for the Brangelina baby.  Tom works on commission.  He‘s going to get a big commission on this.  He‘s going to get like, show lifts and a step ladder, so he can be bigger than “Mini Me,” but I don‘t do short jokes. 

UNGER:  Yeah, you know, when we talk about religion in Hollywood, Scientology always seems to be at the top of the list, and Kabbalah a also on that list.  There is a rumors, please help us with this, that they‘re losing some of their celebrity cache, as it were.  Britney Spears is apparently stepping off, she‘s done with it, and she and Madonna were very involved in this together.  Is there any truth to that? 

MUSTO:  I actually don‘t believe Madonna duped her for that reason.  If Madonna only hung out with Kabbalah people she‘s be hanging out with Demi Moore all day, saying, so tell me about your craft and the making of “Strip Tease.”  I think Madonna mixes it up, I think she and Britney were never actually that close.  Britney was a little mad at Madonna after that kiss.  Madonna had razor stubble.  But it was Madonna who dumped Britney, if you‘re following me, because basically Britney‘s really dumb.  Madonna can‘t take it.  She has this whole thing like, you‘re Britney, but I‘m British.  She got that accent touring France.

UNGER:  Michael Musto, you‘re always so helpful.  Thank you so much for sharing your celebrity with us. 

(CROSSTALK)

MUSTO:  Adios.

UNGER: That does it for this edition of COUNTDOWN. I‘m Brian Unger in for Keith Olbermann.  Thank you for watching.  Our MSNBC coverage continues now with a view from “Scarborough Country,” Good evening, Joe.

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

END   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2006 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2006 Voxant, Inc. ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

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