updated 2/21/2007 11:04:13 AM ET 2007-02-21T16:04:13

Guests: Claire McCaskill, Dana Priest, Mike Isikoff, Tom DeFrank, Mario Diaz-Balart, Chaka Fattah, Tony Blankley, Eugene Robinson

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Vice President Cheney didn‘t like us asking about his role in promoting the Iraq war. 

Mr. Vice President, that‘s our job. 

Let‘s play HARDBALL. 

Good evening.

I‘m Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL. 

Today Washington is still focused on this week‘s big “Washington Post” story, which detailed the negligent treatment of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital.  Patients recovering amidst filth, mold, rats and overall neglect.  Last night we brought you the expose, tonight the fallout. 

Since that report ran, the hospital has said that changes are underway.  Plus, Walter Reed Hospital has said that it will investigate the former chief responsible for fund-raising and patient care. 

But tonight, we ask who‘s really responsible?  Who let it go on?  Who needs to be held accountable? 

In a moment, we‘ll talk to newly elected Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, who‘s teaming up with Senator Barack Obama to introduce a new bill to fix patient care for wounded vets. 

And later tonight we look at Hollywood, where Obama is hoping to raise big financial backing for his presidential bid. 

Plus, closing arguments in the Scooter Libby trial began.  Tonight we‘ll get the latest from HARDBALL‘s David Shuster, who‘s at the courthouse. 

We begin tonight with Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri. 

Senator, McCaskill, When did you learn about the horror stories over at Walter Reed and the way our guys with amputated legs and arms and everything else being treated over there? 

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL, (D) MISSOURI:  I was actually in Washington Sunday morning because we had been there for the vote on Saturday afternoon and read the paper and physically felt ill.  And, you know, I don‘t think Americans should be distracted by this story that came out today about somebody in charge of fund-raising. 

Bottom line, if we can‘t get this right, then we‘ve got something terribly wrong.  These men have—and women have—have been seriously injured on the battlefield.  They‘ve fought a war for us.  They shouldn‘t have to come home and fight a war for care. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s an Army hospital, Walter Reed.  You‘d think the Army would be the best possible institution to look out for the Army. 

MCCASKILL:  Well, if you look at what happened...

MATTHEWS:  What happened? 

MCCASKILL:  Well, it‘s not the hospital that‘s the problem.  It‘s the outpatient.  And I think their system has been overloaded.  I don‘t think they were prepared for the number of outpatients that they have, the serious injuries that are occurring, the loss of limbs, the need for social workers, the reintegration.  They‘ve overwhelmed these men and women with paperwork and bureaucracy.  And they didn‘t have any place to put them.  So they start putting them places that they shouldn‘t have put them. 

And hopefully this will get fixed before any legislation will be passed.  Frankly, they ought to have helicopters in there today taking these men and women away to better places if these facilities are sub par. 

And I hope the president—you know, I am really tired of “Support the Troops” as a political slogan.  Every Republican and Democrat on the Hill ought to join together and say, “We must fix this, it‘s a moral imperative.” 

MATTHEWS:  Well, you‘re the new kid on the block.  You can‘t be blamed.  But aren‘t you amazed that all the senators working around you haven‘t done anything about this?  They go out there to visit, they‘ve got staff people hearing complaints.  Apparently, the names of staff—Senate staff people on the walls over there at Walter Reed of who to call up and get some action, and yet nowhere along the line did somebody come out and look at the place and tell the boss what it looked like out there at this Building 18, which is really sort of a one-star motel, where they‘ve put these people. 

MCCASKILL:  Well, you know, if there have been members of Congress who have toured Building 18 with mold and rotting ceilings and—and rodent and insect problems, I‘m disappointed. 

I know that a member of my staff will be out there on Thursday to look around.  And I will, you know, personally get out there when we get back next week. 

But it shouldn‘t take a member of Congress to tour a facility to get it right, Chris.  These are—these are valiant warriors.  They have left limbs on the battlefield for our country.  We shouldn‘t have to be hearing these horror stories.  This should be the highest priority within the military. 

And part of the problem here is you‘ve got so many bureaucracies, you‘ve got the bureaucracy that‘s ready to shut down Walter Reed because of base closings, then you‘ve got the bureaucracy that wants to move these people from active duty into the veteran system, and you‘ve got al of these bureaucracies swirling around. 

Meanwhile, these poor men and women and their families have just been left out in the cold.  Literally. 

MATTHEWS:  What I don‘t understand is everything‘s a surprise, senator.  The war in Iraq was a surprise.  It was supposed to be, you know, a cakewalk.  Then we faced insurgency and opposition to our involvement—our occupation.  What country wouldn‘t have opposed an occupation?  Then we had engaged in counter-insurgency with all of the torture and everything else.  That all comes with counter-insurgency. 

All this stuff has been done a million times by European colonial powers.  And one thing we know, if you go into a third world country, you‘re going to get shot at. 

And because of modern medicine, the guys are going to survive most of them, but with legs missing, arms missing, torsos basically there all alone.  And everybody acts like it‘s a damn surprise that we needed hospital space.  We have almost 40,000 wounded coming out of that war and it‘s a surprise.  Everything is a damn surprise.  That‘s what I don‘t get. 

And everybody knew when we went into this war that the chief—the decider says he decides everything.  Well, he decided to go into a war with this level of casualties predicted. 

And, by the way, what‘s with the surge?  That means more casualties coming.  Is that going to be a surprise out there at Walter Reed, more casualties?  That‘s a surprise?

MCCASKILL:  I would like the president to speak to the nation about this problem.  I would like him to explain how in his budget he‘s asking for the veterans of this country to give billions of dollars for their care while he‘s continuing to extend tax breaks for the wealthiest in America. 

There is an awful lot of explaining that needs to be done.  And, frankly, I—I am so disappointed that they have this story out there that supposedly—you know, and maybe this...

MATTHEWS:  Why did you bring up tax breaks?  That‘s irrelevant. 

MCCASKILL:  It is.  It‘s relevant because we‘re talking about veterans‘ care, Chris.  We‘re talking about...

MATTHEWS:  No, this guy‘s willing to run any size deficit.  You think

have you seen any evidence that George Bush won‘t borrow money if he wants to spend it somewhere?  Do you think he really would fight one less war because he didn‘t have the money? 

It‘s not about the tax base.  Democrats shift the topic to favorable territory. 

The issue here is treatment of the guys and women who fight for us and give their lives and limbs for us.  That‘s the issue.  Let‘s stay on it. 

MCCASKILL:  I couldn‘t agree more...

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s stay on this issue, senator. 

MCCASKILL:  I couldn‘t agree more...

MATTHEWS:  OK.  What are you going do to make sure this gets changed? 

Now, you say they‘re going to go to some better facility.  What‘s the name of that facility, other than take them over to Bethesda Naval?  Where are they going to take these guys? 

MCCASKILL:  This freshman senator is going to put legislation in next week to require more I.G. inspections, to require standards of care, to require more social workers, less paperwork.  This—this is somebody who agrees with you, Chris.  I am amazed at the lack of accountability within the Department of Defense, whether it‘s the way they spend money and within the veterans administration. 

And the point I was making was not about the tax base, it‘s about this president saying “Support the troops” while he gives the back of his hands to veterans and wounded Americans.  That‘s what this is about. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of the people on Armed Services Committee, people like McCain and Warner? 

I respect those guys.  They‘re guys who fought for their country.  You know, I respect them as people.  But isn‘t it the Armed Services Committee‘s job to look out for these people? 

MCCASKILL:  Absolutely. 

MATTHEWS:  What about the Veterans Committee?  These committees meet all the time.  They have field trips all the time.  How come they never had a field trip out to Walter Reed? 

MCCASKILL:  That‘s a good question. 

MATTHEWS:  I mean, these guys travel all around the world going to interesting places.  I don‘t blame them.  But they should have visited Walter Reed.  It‘s in Washington, where they work. 

MCCASKILL:  I agree.  And I think many of them have and I think in the “Washington Post” story, it talked about how fine the hospital was.  This was like the dirty little secret across the street. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

MCCASKILL:  This was a problem that was out of sight, out of mind.  And that was all these men and women that are outpatients—we‘ve got nine Missourians there right now.  I want to make sure that they get the best we can possibly give them. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, it‘s great having you on.  I‘m taking you on because you‘re the only senator I‘ve got in front of me tonight.  But let‘s face it, there‘s a lot of activity out there now that wasn‘t there three days ago.  And with all the bashing of the press, once again, it‘s the press that brings the news to the politicians so they can act because they have to at that point. 

MCCASKILL:  And by the way, my congratulations to the journalist who wrote this story...

MATTHEWS:  It‘s Dana Priest, she‘s about—I‘m sure she deserves it and she‘s coming on. 

MCCASKILL:  ... she deserves it. 

This is what this is all about.  This is what journalism is supposed to be about in this country. 

And we should have done this better and thank goodness we have a free press that—that points out how badly we‘re doing something so we hopefully can get it fixed. 

MATTHEWS:  Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, thank you very much. 

For more now on the administration‘s response to the problems at Walter Reed Hospital, we bring in Dana Priest, the “Washington Post” reporter who broke this story. 

Dana, I heard you on “Imus” the other morning. 

Let me ask you about the fallout think.  You saw a senator there, a brand-new one, very active on this, Barack Obama, relatively new. 

But the United States Senate, the United States House of Representatives work in Washington.  Some of the better members—and there‘s some good ones—obviously go over to Walter Reed and see the patients.  They see the people with arms and legs missing, and brain damage. 

How come they haven‘t seen what you saw? 

DANA PRIEST, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Well, I would say because they didn‘t really look hard enough.  A lot of people go over to, you know, give their greetings and heartfelt concerns.  It‘s really their staff that do the harder work. 

And on—working on the story, we did meet a small number of congressional staff who were being—their numbers were being passed around among soldiers up there because really they know what‘s going on. 

Now, the question is: why—and, you know, why is it that the staff cannot get action from committees, from their members after—after they find these problems? 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

PRIEST:  And...

MATTHEWS:  Well, you know thousand works on the Hill.  You get a shrewd service person calls up a staffer of a senator from his state or her state and gets them on the phone.  They‘re called caseworkers, constituent service people.  And they say, “I‘m having a problem here getting some paperwork dealt with,” or, “I‘m having some problem getting into a better hospital or a better bed or whatever.”   

And then they get a buck slip.  It‘s sent over to the V.A. or sent over to the Army.  And then there‘s action taken. 

But that‘s a particular action.  It isn‘t a solution to the overall problem. 

PRIEST:  Well, it‘s not been a priority.  No matter what they say now, it has not been a priority because this is not an—this is not an intelligence matter that‘s been classified that only a few people can see.  It‘s out there to be seen. 

And there will be a number of members of Congress going over this weekend.  Some high Army officials have already been there.  And I think they don‘t have a choice but to show them these things now.  And they‘ve—

I think the soldiers are feeling a little bit more emboldened to speak honestly about it.  But people were worried about talking about it, frankly. 

MATTHEWS:  Can you tell me where you got your tip on this story? 

PRIEST:  No, but I can say that it was really a classic journalism tip where someone called up and said, “You know, I‘ve heard some very disturbing things.  Can I talk to you about it?”

And then I did what, you know, we actually do do a lot of the time, which is hit the pavement and just work it hard and see if I could get enough people to talk and then enough people on the record who would make the story real.  And that‘s what took so long, because people were worried about any retribution to them. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I agree with Senator McCaskill, good work. 

Thank you very much for coming on HARDBALL, Dana, with this story. 

Dana Priest of the “Washington Post”, who broke the story. 

Coming up, HARDBALL‘s David Shuster will report on today‘s closing arguments—boy, they‘re something—in the Scooter Libby trial, which is about to be over.  It‘s going to the jury tomorrow. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

The prosecution and the defense presented their closing arguments today in the trial of Vice President Cheney‘s former chief of staff, Scooter Libby. 

And HARDBALL‘s David Shuster is at the courthouse right now with all of the details of those summations. 

David, what are the headlines coming out of this last day of the trial? 

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Chris, the headline is that both sides were very emotional.  Ted Wells at the very end broke down and had tears in his eyes, perhaps because of the emotional span (ph) in the case that a lot of people say was a tough one for him to begin with. 

And prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald finished with a flourish, getting very emotional himself as he said the defense wants you to think that you should be angry about this prosecution. 

And then Fitzgerald backtracked and talked about the eight government officials who all testified that Scooter Libby knew about Valerie Wilson in the weeks and days before Scooter Libby said he first learned about Valerie Wilson from a reporter. 

Fitzgerald talked about the testimony of Tim Russert and said that even if the jury doesn‘t want to believe Tim Russert, there‘s documentary evidence and another four witnesses that would prove that Scooter Libby lied to the grand jury in his testimony about the conversation with Tim Russert. 

Fitzgerald said that there were four witnesses that supported the charges against Scooter Libby for his testimony about his conversation with Matt Cooper.  It went on and on. 

At one point, Chris, the prosecution that said being in the grand jury with Scooter Libby‘s defense is like being in a house of mirrors.  At another point, another prosecutor said that regarding Scooter Libby‘s claim that he forgot about all these government officials and somehow learned or thought he was learning about Valerie Wilson for the first time from Tim Russert, the prosecutor said it is simply not credible to believe he forgot.  It is ludicrous. 

This issue was front and center.  The prosecutors repeatedly hammered Libby over what they described, Chris, as his obsession and the vice president‘s obsession over countering Joe Wilson. 

On the defense‘s side, the defense, Chris, did not argue much of the facts, they did not argue the evidence, they did not argue the law.  They complained about the process and said that the grand jury was beating up on Scooter Libby.  They said that Tim Russert was not to be believed, that NBC was not a friendly network, that Scooter Libby had no intent to lie. 

And one of the arguments they said was because even though the White House had said anybody involved in this would no longer be working for the administration, one of the defense arguments made today was that, well, nobody was fired.  So, therefore, you shouldn‘t believe that Scooter Libby was somehow worried about his job. 

The defense also that said there was absence of clear evidence that he lied.  They said there was no smoking gun, there was no witness that took the witness stand and said he lied. 

But again, the prosecution then, Chris, on their final summary came back and went through the evidence all again and said this is a clear case, it is clear that Scooter Libby lied to the grand jury, he concocted a story blaming reporters for his information when he knew that that might cause litigation, that it might slow things down, obstruct the investigation. 

The jury, Chris, will get this case tomorrow. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, let‘s go to Mike Isikoff. 

We‘ll be back to you in a minute, David. 

Let‘s go to Mike Isikoff. 

Mike, it seems to me that this defense has been all over the place. 

It first of all was bad memory defense, “He had big things to think about.” 

And then it was—now it is, “Don‘t trust any of the witnesses.” 

And then it‘s kind of this back drop of, “Oh, Karl Rove has got a secret conspiracy here against Scooter, his old partner.” 

And then there‘s this new thing, which is, “Give the guy a break. 

He‘s got some kids at home.” 

I mean, how many things are they going to throw against the wall to see if they stick? 

MIKE ISIKOFF, “NEWSWEEK”:  As much as possible.  But it‘s worth pointing out that what today‘s closing arguments really underscored is why the White House was so nervous about this trial, why they were so reluctant to talk anything about it. 

One thing Patrick Fitzgerald said in his closing arguments that kind of stunned me, he just laid it out there and because the defense had raised questions about vice president—had suggested that—that Scooter Libby might be unfairly portrayed as protecting Vice President Cheney.  Fitzgerald said there is a cloud on the vice president, but the cloud is there because Scooter Libby put it there.  We, the prosecution, didn‘t put it there.  Scooter Libby put it there by obstructing justice. 

And then Fitzgerald ran through everything that Cheney did: writing the talking points, tearing out those articles from the newspaper and making those notes on them.  Did his wife send him a junket?  Putting the sort of junket claim argument in play. 

All of that was done was because the vice president—Fitzgerald pretty much made it clear to the jury that Libby, in the prosecution‘s mind, was protecting the vice president of the United States. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, throughout this trial and before this trial, because of Joe Wilson‘s there‘s been three levels of accusations about three levels of cover-up. 

One is the initial charge of cover-up, that the president of the United States said there was a threat from Nigerian yellowcake, uranium yellowcake when there wasn‘t.  That was the first cover-up, in that State of the Union. 

Then there was the leak of the former CIA agent, which is basically—that will would be a cover-up because they‘re trying to discredit her and her testimony, and then the findings of her husband when he came back from Africa. 

And now more recently, the alleged perjury and obstruction of justice of Scooter Libby, covering the whole thing up. 

There‘s so much to this thing, I just wonder—I‘m going to go to Tom DeFrank.

This is tough for a regular non-political jury to try to accept, really.  There‘s a lot of information here. 

TOM DEFRANK, “NEW YORK DAILY NEWS”:  Well, yes, but, Chris, I‘m not a lawyer and I don‘t know how the jury‘s going to sort it out.  I would just say it‘s probably a very good week for the vice president to be in Asia right now because it hasn‘t been a good week for him. 

I mean, I think Fitzgerald and his fellow prosecutors put the vice president on trial, even though he was not charged with anything.  But he was very much front and center in this trial from start to finish. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, what happens here if Fitzgerald follows his normal pattern—I want to go back to David Shuster.  The normal pattern of Fitzgerald is get the underling, the No. 2 guy, whether it‘s somebody, you know, somebody in Conrad Black‘s organization, his press empire, or somebody in the Cook County organization, and then squeeze that person with the threat of a big sentence. 

Now, if this guy does get convicted on several counts and faces serious time, doesn‘t Fitzgerald follow his normal course of saying, you want to get off in six months, play some tennis, or do you want to go to Leavenworth for six years and meet some new friends?  I‘m telling you, doesn‘t that threaten the guy like Scooter and he says, well, wait a minute, maybe I will roll, I‘ll flip.  And if so, then if you have a pardon, then if a pardon comes in from President Bush, it is interfering with the wheels of justice, isn‘t it? 

SHUSTER:  Well, that‘s right.  And Chris, there is every expectation -

everybody who knows Patrick Fitzgerald, outside of his office, says that this is following the normal path.  He‘s at least trying to follow it, so that if he can get a conviction of Scooter Libby, they‘ve already developed a rapport with Libby‘s attorneys, they would then say, OK, there‘s still some question marks we have about crucial conversations that your client had with Vice President Cheney, conversations where Scooter Libby said he really couldn‘t recall whether the vice president really instructed him to leak Valerie Wilson‘s identity.  They want to jog his memory and then see. 

But there‘s no expectation, Chris, that Scooter Libby is going to do this.  And we‘ve also had one person say that even Fitzgerald is aware of the possibility of a pardon, essentially making all of this irrelevant. 

ISIKOFF:  Chris, I‘ve got to say, we‘ve got to be realistic here.  I don‘t think there‘s any realistic possibility that this is going to go to the next level.  This thing has dragged on for now in its fourth year.  There is an issue of proportionality here, as to whether enormous expenditure and investigative effort in this is, you know, justified by this. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think that...

ISIKOFF:  I don‘t think it‘s going there.  What‘s the most telling thing to me was that nobody—the defense ended up calling no witnesses from the White House who would—who had flagged it might call.  Not Karl Rove, not Dan Bartlett, not Vice President Cheney. 

MATTHEWS:  So what does that say to you?

ISIKOFF:  I think it was pretty much conceded that we‘re not going to rock the White House‘s boat too much, because the end game here is the pardon. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  So, Scooter...

ISIKOFF:  If he‘s convicted.  If he‘s convicted.

MATTHEWS:  ... fries and Cheney flies, right?  Is that what you‘re saying, Mike, that is the end game here? 

ISIKOFF:  Well, that‘s one way of putting it.  I should also point out, though, that Ted Wells didn‘t completely abandon the go after Karl Rove defense.  Remember...

MATTHEWS:  I heard that today. 

ISIKOFF:  He threw that in his opening—threw that out in his opening statement, and then never called Rove, never presented any evidence to justify his opening statement. 

MATTHEWS:  I know.  He‘s—he‘s fishing for one...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  I know. 

ISIKOFF:  But he did say in his closing, Wells did, Karl Rove lied. 

Scooter Libby did not.  Karl Rove talked to Novak. 

MATTHEWS:  I know.

ISIKOFF:  That was Ted Wells saying it.  Scooter Libby‘s defense lawyer. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, he‘s fishing for a nut on the jury.  Anyway, we‘ll be right back with Mike Isikoff, Tom DeFrank and David Shuster.  And later, we‘ll talk about the fight over Iraq and the 2008 battle in big cities with Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami, and Philadelphia‘s own congressman, Chaka Fattah.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re back with Tom DeFrank of “The New York Daily News” and “Newsweek‘s” Mike Isikoff.  I want to ask Mike—or Tom this question, then Mike. 

You know, this is all about weapons of mass destruction, this trial of Scooter Libby.  It‘s about whether the vice president and his office knew about the fact that there was no deal to buy uranium, yellowcake in Niger by Saddam Hussein before the war, which should have suggested to them to tell the president not to say there was some British intelligence report that there was such a deal. 

Do we know, have we ever known—one thing we learned at this trial, at least under sworn testimony, Tom, is that the vice president‘s query of the CIA did lead to that trip, even if he didn‘t know about the trip by Joe Wilson.  It led to the fact that they sent that guy over there to check it out. 

Did we ever find out whether the vice president was ever guilty—ever guilty—of getting a report back on that trip and therefore being guilty of telling the president there was no deal? 

DEFRANK:  I don‘t know the answer to that, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Boy, I‘d love to get it.  Mike, do you have the answer? 

(CROSSTALK)

ISIKOFF:  We dealt with it in “Hubris,” as you well know, Chris.  No, there‘s no evidence that the vice president ever got a report back, as we actually did see, because it was entered into evidence, a written copy of the—of the report that was done about Wilson‘s trip.  Wilson himself never actually wrote a report.  He gave an oral briefing.  A CIA briefer gave an account of it. 

And it‘s pretty inconclusive.  It did not substantiate the claim that Iraq was seeking Niger—was seeking uranium from Niger.  It gave strong reason to question whether such a deal could have taken place. 

MATTHEWS:  But did the vice president or Scooter get that report you‘re describing? 

ISIKOFF:  No.  There‘s no evidence that he did. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, then why were they so sensitive—then why did they go to such extremes, according to sworn testimony, to cover up the fact that it was the vice president‘s query that led to the trip? 

ISIKOFF:  Because they knew—because there was good reason to know this was flimsy intelligence.  Remember what came out—first of all, even before this, it came out, it emerged that the claim in the first place was based on forged documents.  Not known at the time, but by the summer—by the spring of 2003, it‘s clear to everybody these—this was a crude forgery that was the—the original source of this. 

Secondly, and more significantly, what came out right after this week,

in the days that followed this whole controversy, it began to emerge that

the CIA had been warning the White House not to use it.  Twice—two times

there are faxes from the CIA to the White House before the Cincinnati speech that Steve Hadley gets, telling him, don‘t use this; we don‘t trust this intelligence. 

Hadley at one point, as we reported in “Hubris,” actually offered to resign when this came out.  That‘s how serious a blow that information was. 

So there was plenty of reason to—to know well before it was used in the State of the Union that this was flimsy intelligence.  Yet the vice president‘s office was still pushing it. 

MATTHEWS:  What‘s the impact on the vice president, Tom? 

DEFRANK:  Well, I mean, his—his power has diminished.  He‘s still very powerful.  He‘s a very powerful consigliere with the president but he‘s not the only consigliere anymore, and I do believe that his policy clout, and especially the policy clout of his staff, is less, significantly less than it used to be. 

MATTHEWS:  We know that Scooter was a big lawyer in getting Marc Rich his notorious pardon.  Apparently—will the vice president get a pardon for his guy, for Scooter?  Tom DeFrank? 

DEFRANK:  I think the vice president will be smart enough to stay out of that.  If he ever got in the middle of it, we would never know it.  But.

MATTHEWS:  Ha!  You know him so well.  We would never know it. 

DEFRANK:  That‘s the conventional—that‘s the conventional wisdom that there will be some pardon—that a pardon is in the wind. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you very much, Tom DeFrank of The New York Daily News, Michael Isikoff of Newsweek. 

Up next, Florida Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, and Pennsylvania Congressman Chaka Fattah will be here.  I‘m in Philadelphia, by the way, that is where Chaka is from.  We‘ll be right back with the fight over Iraq, which rages on.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  NBC News can now confirm that British Prime Minister Tony Blair will announce a timetable tomorrow for the withdrawal of British troops in Iraq with 1,500 returning home in several weeks.  NBC News chief white house correspondent David Gregory joins us now by phone. 

David, that only leaves 3,000 Brits there, right? 

DAVID GREGORY, NBC CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Well, actually more than that.  In this quadrant, in Basra, the southeastern part of the country, they go from 7,200 troops to about 5,500.  And British officials I have spoken to tonight as well as White House officials are saying this is going to allow them to maintain a pretty robust combat capability but what it will allow them to do is to pull off the streets a little bit, allow Iraqis to take a greater role in controlling the streets in Basra, which, of course, has been a safer place relative to Baghdad, of course.  More stable. 

And so they‘re able to do what U.S. officials say and the White House

the U.S. wants to do, which is to just reduce its footprint. 

MATTHEWS:  What‘s the total number of British troops that will be in the country after this reduction? 

GREGORY:  Fifty-five hundred. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Across the whole country? 

GREGORY:  Well, that‘s in this sector.  I haven‘t nailed down the—

I‘ve been concentrating on what they‘re pulling out of this sector. 

MATTHEWS:  Is this part of Tony Blair‘s sort of slow fade from power, turning over the premiership? 

GREGORY:  Well, look, he‘s—I don‘t have to tell you how much pressure he has been under politically because of his support for the war.  And we‘re told that this is a draft of the speech that he‘s going to give to the House of Commons that he‘s still working on tonight, that will no doubt speak about the U.K.‘s goals overall in terms of its troop totals in Iraq going forward. 

But you can imagine the pressure he‘s under.  And you‘ve heard this president talk about the desire to get U.S. troops out of Iraq and put a more Iraqi face on it.  He‘s under those pressures as well in the U.K.  And you‘re right, I mean, just his own fade from public power is something that he wants to be able to accomplish before that becomes complete. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you very much, David Gregory, chief White House correspondent for NBC News. 

What is the U.S. Congress doing to help bring home U.S. troops?  What comes next in the fight to take on president—the president and the war?  U.S. Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican whose district includes big chunks of Miami in Florida; and U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah is Democrat who is running for mayor of Philadelphia.  And he is, I think, upstairs at this point from me right now in the same studio. 

Thank you, Congressman Fattah.  Thank you Congressman Diaz-Balart.  Let me ask you this question about this treatment of American wounded.  All of those tremendous numbers of amputees at Walter Reed, Congressman Diaz-Balart, your reaction when you heard the story? 

REP. MARIO DIAZ-BALART (D), FLORIDA:  Chris, there is—I don‘t care what anybody says, there is no excuse, there is no explanation.  It‘s totally intolerable.  I am outraged, like I think just about every American.  You know, despite partisan differences that we may have, I think the fact that some of our troops are not getting the best coverage or the best care and the best treatment is frankly totally unacceptable. 

And there is no reason for it and there‘s no excuse for it.  It cannot happen.  It had better stop.  And I understand there‘s even legislation already been filed to make sure that never happens again. 

MATTHEWS:  Congressman Fattah, your reaction when you read the story? 

REP. CHAKA FATTAH (D), PENNSYLVANIA:  Well, first of all, we need to get our young people home from Iraq.  Too many of them are coming home wounded and ending up at Walter Reed.  I visited there and I—you have to know that there‘s some great doctors and staff at Walter Reed and they‘re dealing with some very challenging wounds for our soldiers. 

But there are concerns that have been raised by this story.  And I know that Chairman Murtha and Chairman Young and others are working on this right now.  We have to have a commitment.  The worst wounded among our young people end up at Walter Reed, sometimes after a stopover in Germany. 

But these are young people—I met Cassandra Bryant (ph) there, a young lady who lost both her legs, 20 years old.  She deserves the best care that our country can provide.  And every one of the almost 20,000 who have been severely wounded deserve that. 

But the other thing we need to do is stop the—to stop putting our young people in harm‘s way.  The British are leaving.  The only person who has not come to the conclusion that we should get out of the way of this civil war in Iraq is George Bush.  And the Congress has now spoken.  The American people spoke last year in the November election. 

And I would just hope that since his only real partner in this effort, Tony Blair, is now taking a step back and going to announce, you know, a step-down of British troops, that finally this president would admit, as much as it may harm his ego, that this is a mistaken course.

And for the almost 3,000 dead, now, Chris, you‘re back home in Philly, you know, Celeste Zappala, Mrs. Jeffcoat, there are plenty of mothers in Philadelphia and throughout our state who have lost their loved ones in Iraq.  And we should not have another young person lose their life for this cause. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me hear congressman Diaz-Balart on that very point.  Do you think it‘s time to bring our troops home, Congressman, or not? 

DIAZ-BALART:  Chris, we need to bring our troops home the earliest possible moment that we can.  However, if we bring them home prematurely and that government of Iraq falls, we have to remember the consequences.  Think about what a small, little country with no wealth that fell into the hands of the terrorists was able to do to destroy a big part of an American city during 9/11. 

It should be I think relatively easy to understand for every American that it is not in our national interest for Iraq to either fall in the hands of terrorist groups or of a terrorist state like Iran.  So we need to bring our troops home but we need to make sure that first there is a government there that will not only not be a terrorist state but hopefully will help us fight those terrorist groups so they don‘t get a foothold in Iraq like they.

MATTHEWS:  But that is not what we‘re—but, Congressman, that is not what we are doing every day.  Every day our troops—we‘re watching pictures of them now, are fighting on behalf of the Shia government, the majority over there, against the Sunni insurgents.  Would George Washington ever have agreed.

DIAZ-BALART:  Chris, they‘re fighting on behalf of the democratically-elected.

MATTHEWS:  All right.  Just a minute, just a minute, the president of the United States yesterday was at Mount Vernon.  I respect him a lot for this.  He went there in back (ph) paid respect to George Washington.  George Washington made a final plea to the American people when he left office: don‘t get involved in these foreign entanglements.  How did we get in the job of supporting the power of the Shia over the Sunni in a civil war?  Why are we fighting that war? 

DIAZ-BALART:  Chris, Chris, the issue of why we are there.

(CROSSTALK)

DIAZ-BALART:  The issue of why we‘re there is something that has been debated and will continue to be debated.  But the reality is we are there.  So now, for example, you know, the president just—the commander-in-chief, after, you know, meeting with his leadership on the field, decided to send reinforcements to Baghdad. 

I hate to tell you this, but the 500 -- you know, the members of Congress are not Patton or MacArthur.  We are not generals who understand what exactly the right thing is to do on the—you know, on the field in Iraq.  Those who know what to do are the ones who are there.  And what I‘m telling you is, nobody is telling us that it is in their best interests of the United States to allow Iraq to fall in the hands of terrorists or of Iran. 

If that‘s the case, if we can at least agree to that, then the question has to be asked, what‘s the best way to stop that from happening? 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Just this word.

DIAZ-BALART:  That is what we need to be discussing.

MATTHEWS:  Just this use of the word “terrorism” every time we don‘t like somebody, they‘re on the other side of a war with us, we call them terrorists.  It doesn‘t help explain the situation in Iraq.  We did not go into Iraq to fight terrorists.  We went in to topple Saddam Hussein, who was a Baathist secularist who was not even Islamist.  We got into a situation over there.  The question is, how do we get out? 

Congressman Fattah, the last word? 

FATTAH:  This is it.  We‘ve been losing helicopters almost every other day.  We have had two major attacks in which—at our bases that have lost troops.  We‘re sitting ducks.  What we need to do is either—either do as Murtha has suggested, redeploy to neighboring countries, if there‘s a terrorist threat, go back in and handle it. 

Right now, our young people don‘t have anyone to shoot.  They can‘t tell who the enemy really is.  We‘re not providing them with the armored cars, the bullets they need.  They‘ve run out of bullets in instances over there.  They don‘t—they‘ve never had enough Kevlar vests.  Either let them win a war that‘s winnable or move them out of harm‘s way. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you both.  Congressmen Diaz-Balart, thank you,

sir.  And thank you, Congressman Fattah of Philadelphia 

Up next, it‘s a big Hollywood money night for Barack Obama.  Is he the electoral blockbuster the Democrats out in Hollywood were looking for?  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Barack Obama is out on the West Coast tonight trying to raise financial backing from Hollywood.  NBC‘s Stephanie Stanton is in California. 

Stephanie, what‘s the word? 

STEPHANIE STANTON, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, Chris, this is Barack Obama‘s first visit to L.A. since he announced his candidacy for president.  And he is receiving a very warm welcome here.  You can see thousands are in attendance.  And this is a chance for Obama to really connect with California‘s strong Democratic base as well as the black community here in south L.A. 

But I can tell you that this is a very racially diverse crowd.  Obama will be addressing this crowd, talking about some of his platforms.  Among those, of course, his strong stance against the war in Iraq as well as energy independence, and also being a catalyst for change. 

Basically, Barack Obama wanting to change the way that Washington politics are being done right now—Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  So I‘ve always thought of Santa Monica as being Bill Clinton‘s spiritual home.  Can people distinguish between Bill and Hillary out there? 

STANTON:  Well, you know, that is a really good question.  I can tell you that the Clintons have a very good relationship with the folks out here, especially in Hollywood.  And that‘s what‘s interesting, because this evening at the Beverly Hilton, there is going to be a star-studded fund-raiser for Barack Obama.  So this is his chance to basically rub elbows with Hollywood‘s elite. 

MATTHEWS:  What about the issues?  You say he‘s going to raise the war issue.  Anything else out there for Barack? 

STANTON:  Well, you know, he is going to be talking about energy independence and—as well as basically being a catalyst for change.  And this is an opportunity for these folks to get to know him a little bit better.  He‘s—they want to know more about him.  You know, he is a young candidate.  He‘s a freshman U.S. senator.  He‘s only 45 years old and they want to get to know him better. 

And so far, he‘s receiving a very warm welcome.  In fact, last night at a fund-raiser for Barbara Boxer, he was basically treated like royalty.  The crowd was cheering and chanting, basically treating him like a rock star. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Which movie stars have lined up for Barack and not lined up for Hillary?  Who‘s taken their move with—taken their stand with Barack Obama? 

(LAUGHTER)      

STANTON:  Well, I can tell you that at tonight‘s fund-raiser, $2,300 a plate and it‘s being thrown by Spielberg, Katzenberg and Geffen.  And SKG crowd has invited many heavy hitters, among those Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, even Jennifer Aniston signing up on the Obama bandwagon. 

So again, kind of an interesting scenario setting up here.  Will Barack Obama be Hollywood‘s new darling?  We‘ll have to wait and see. 

MATTHEWS:  I think he is already.  Thank you very much, Stephanie Stanton, out there in L.A.  Here now to talk about all things 2008 are HARDBALLers Tony Blankley of The Washington Times and Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post. 

Let‘s go to the couple of big stories around town.  First of all, this treatment of our wounded.  Tony Blankley, how does it strike you?  I know it‘s the opposition paper that broke it, The Post, but it is a hell of a—it is a Pulitzer Prize-type, but politically doesn‘t it raise questions about how serious we are in really defending the troops when they‘re really vulnerable? 

TONY BLANKLEY, THE WASHINGTON TIMES:  Look, this is a serious issue.  We at The Washington Times in a series of editorials last year on the current inadequacy of treatment for our returning vets, the traumatic brain injury.  There‘s a systems problem that exists the Veterans Administration is working on. 

This is getting attention and should get attention because there‘s a scandal component.  But when you work through the scandal, we have to reform the system in a fairly substantial way to properly treat our returning warriors. 

So I‘m glad it‘s getting attention.  It didn‘t get a lot of attention last year.  And it‘s going to require a lot more attention in the coming months to—and I know the Pentagon is working on.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, but, Tony, you know—you know the story.  I mean, it‘s not just systems.  I mean, they have taken all of these guys with arms and legs missing and send them across the street to this one-star hotel, the rat-infested place.  I mean, somebody made that decision.  Human beings did that. 

BLANKLEY:  Look, I‘m not disagreeing with you.  All I‘m saying is that once they fix that scandal, we have a more fundamental problem.  For instance, the traumatic brain injury vets coming back, after they‘ve had their surgeries, et cetera, they‘re being treated in the same wards with Alzheimer patients from World War II era.  We need to revamp the system in a lot of ways to properly treat the vets. 

MATTHEWS:  Gene, let me ask you about your story by The Post.  It seems to me that‘s one of those stories where nobody looked around the corner.  We have 535 members of the Congress and senators who all live—work in Washington, at least three days a week.  A lot of them have gotten credit, and they should, for having visited at least the main ward out there where the amputees are. 

I was out there.  I‘m not bragging.  That‘s all I did.  I went out there, went to Fisher House one time where they are staying with their families.  I also went out to see the—I went out there for a party one night to visit with the troops who were wounded so badly. 

But, you know, they didn‘t do the work of oversight. 

EUGENE ROBINSON, THE WASHINGTON POST:  No, they didn‘t do the work of oversight.  And it really is—those are shocking stories that ran in The Post.  I think Tony is right in that there is a systemic problem.  I would go even higher.  I mean, I—you know, not to blame everything on this one administration, but this is an administration that doesn‘t particularly care a lot for government. 

And, you know, they haven‘t paid any attention really to veterans affairs.  And this is the result.  And it really is scandalous, genuinely so. 

STANTON:  I really.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you—go ahead, Tony. 

STANTON:  I really think that that‘s a little unfair.  I know some of the administrators who are working on these issues and they‘re working very hard to try to—you know, they haven‘t gotten the job done.  They‘re working at it.  But the idea that the administration is ignoring this I don‘t think comports with what I‘ve been seeing in my reporting in moving about town. 

ROBINSON:  Well, yes, but now that The Post stories have run, you know, today we learn that they‘re now actually doing some work on this rat-infested, vermin-infested house where they‘re keeping these guys who have been injured and have served their country well.  So it can be done.  It‘s a matter of having the will to go do it. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  We‘ll be right back.  I want to talk about identity politics.  Is Barack Obama black enough?  That‘s your question, Eugene.  Then I want to ask Tony Blankley, does every Republican have to be a conservative evangelical to get—pass muster?  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We are back with Tony Blankley and Eugene Robinson.  Gene, thanks for coming back.  This is a tricky subject for a Caucasian like me to even get involved in, so I‘m going to—I really think I am stupid on this topic.  So take it up.  You wrote about it in your great column for The Washington Post today.  It obviously gets around.  Tell me what you feel has been the reaction by the African-American community in this country to Barack Obama. 

ROBINSON:  Well, you know, first, I can‘t speak for the whole African-American community, or—you know, and I don‘t know of a poll, but Obama went to spoke in my hometown of Orangeburg, South Carolina, on Saturday.  I went down to hear him.

And it was—you know, it was fascinating, he got the same kind of big crowds that he gets everywhere, a crowd I would say was 95 percent black, you know, at least.  And when I talked to people about the so-called issue, I heard bemusement, I did not hear anybody thinking that somehow he was not authentically black.  And they wondered what everybody was talking about. 

MATTHEWS:  I think you raised a point that you had one of your—one of the people down there make the point that when you go out and try to get a cab or you walk the streets, I mean, he is what he looks like. 

ROBINSON:  Exactly.  He—you know, ask him.  I mean, he says he is an African-American.  And, you know, it was—you know, I mean, look at others from Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima in New York, I mean, the police did not stop to check their green cards in those celebrated incidents. 

MATTHEWS:  They certainly didn‘t.

ROBINSON:  The experience of—you know, life as a black man in America is one that he has had. 

MATTHEWS:  And your community was so good in rooting for the Africans in South Africa all of those years, and nobody said they are not brothers.  I mean, I‘m speaking as an outsider here, but it seemed to me there was tremendous solidarity there on all of those fronts, around the world, and including in the Caribbean and everywhere where there is a racial problem. 

ROBINSON:  And that‘s a strain of African-American intellectual thought going back W.E.B. DuBois, and even earlier than that.  So, you know, I don‘t think this is an issue for him, really, in the black community. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Same kind of question, identity politics again, Tony Blankley, why does every Republican candidate for president have to bow down to the creationists, to the people on the cultural right?  Why do they have to pretend they are one of them if they are really not? 

BLANKLEY:  Well, they don‘t bow down, that would be worshiping false idols. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Well, depending on your religion, I suppose. 

BLANKLEY:  Which I think is one of the commandments not to do.  But look, obviously social conservatives constitute between 20 and 25 percent of the national electoral base, a larger percentage of the Republicans, so every party‘s candidates tend to pay due respect to the issues of the candidates (ph).  But I think we have a fascinating election coming up now because there is no true-blue social conservative running.

MATTHEWS:  That is right.  So it is.

BLANKLEY:  The question is.

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  It is like going to Filene‘s Basement and taking the shoes that maybe are close enough to your feet.  Anyway.

BLANKLEY:  Well, the question is.

MATTHEWS:  I have got to go. 

BLANKLEY:  OK. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘m sorry, Tony, it is my fault.  I ask you a great question and gave you no time.

BLANKLEY:  No problem. 

MATTHEWS:  Please come back and answer this question fully.  Thank you, Tony Blankley of The Washington Times, Gene Robinson of The Washington Post.  Time now for “TUCKER.”

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

END   

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