updated 3/14/2007 4:57:39 PM ET 2007-03-14T20:57:39

Guests: Chuck Schumer, Dan Bartlett, Richard Ben-Veniste, Duncan Hunter, Mike Allen, Anne Kornblut

DAVID GREGORY, GUEST HOST:  Tonight, under intense pressure from Congress, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales admits mistakes in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.  But Democrats looking for blood, could more jobs be lost?  Let‘s play HARDBALL.  

Good evening.  I‘m David Gregory in tonight for Chris Matthews.   The Justice Department‘s purge of U.S. attorneys is putting intense pressure directly on the White House.  While the White House says the president did not call for the firing of any specific U.S. attorneys, former White House counsel Harriet Miers did suggest dismissing all of them back in 2005.  On Monday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales‘ chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, resigned.  Today, it was the attorney general who faced the press. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ALBERTO GONZALES, ATTORNEY GENERAL:  I acknowledge that mistakes were made here.  I accept that responsibility. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREGORY:  Did key members of the Bush administration play politics with law and order?  Will Congress force administration officials to testify?  And will the attorney general survive the scandal? 

Also tonight, 2008 presidential politics.  While campaigning in New Hampshire today, Hillary Clinton said political malfeasance in that state is evidence of a vast right wing conspiracy, a term she made famous during Bill Clinton‘s presidency. 

Plus, we‘ll talk to one of the Republicans candidates trying to break into the top tier, Congressman Duncan Hunter.

But we begin tonight with one of the Democratic Senators calling for Gonzales‘ resignation, New York‘s senator, Chuck Schumer. 

Senator Schumer, welcome. 

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK:  Hi. 

GREGORY:  Let us preface this by saying that any administration is within its rights to fire a U.S. attorney.  They serve at the pleasure of the president.  Former President Clinton got rid of the U.S. attorneys back in 1992 when he came into office in 1993.  That said, what is wrong here with what the White House and the Justice Department has done, in your view? 

SCHUMER:  Well, what is wrong is this.  While you can certainly fire a U.S. attorney for no cause or for good cause, you cannot fire a U.S.  attorney when they are in the middle of a political investigation and you want to cut it off.  At least, that has been the tradition for decades and decades and decades. 

The U.S. attorneys are the upholder of U.S. law in their districts.  They stand for justice without fear or favor, impartial justice, and if it is known that if a U.S. attorney steps on a hot little button that he gets fired or she gets fired, or stepped or doesn‘t step on a button because they want to politically manipulate them, that is very, very bad for the country. 

GREGORY:  All right.  So, Senator, what‘s the evidence, what‘s the specifics of this case that you are referring to here? 

SCHUMER:  Oh, there is so much.  It piles up every day.  But let me just start.  They called up seven of the U.S. attorneys on December 7th.  They said, please leave.  They then said that they had done—they had malfeasance, that they didn‘t do their jobs well.  We got to look at the records.  They got excellent reviews from their peers, from their superiors, all good reviews.

Then it comes out that in most of the U.S. attorneys who were fired, that they were looking at tough political case.  The U.S. attorney, for instance, in San Diego, who had actually indicted and convicted Duke Cunningham and was on the trail of others.  The U.S. attorney in New Mexico, who was called and asked to prosecute Democrats and said, I‘ll have to do this in the right way and not do something before Election Day. 

The U.S. attorney in the State of Washington who was asked to open up an investigation into voter fraud when he felt there was none.  So you put all of this together and it looks like the Justice Department and the U.S.  attorneys, for the first time under any administration, Democrat or Republican, is being politicized. 

GREGORY:  And in the case of the firing of these attorneys, if you go back to 2005, it‘s now revealed that then-White House counsel Harriet Miers suggests firing all of them all, all 93.  Again, on its face, not uncommon.  It‘s what follows there that has raised eyebrows and really... 

SCHUMER:  Exactly.  If they wanted.

GREGORY:  . brought this through.

SCHUMER:  . to fire all U.S. attorneys, if they wanted to have a set rule, four years and you‘re out, because they need new blood, no one would be complaining.  It is when they fire—the only people they seem to fire particularly are the people who are investigating Republicans or not investigating Democrats when somebody wanted them to. 

GREGORY:  So you think there was direct political influence by the White House. 

SCHUMER:  The evidence is just piling up.  The preponderance of evidence is quite overwhelming, that‘s what it looks like.  And frankly, don‘t ask me.  Ask the U.S. attorneys.  When they were called and asked—because it came like a bolt out of the blue that they were fired.  They were given no reason. 

And they were quiet.  They were good soldiers.  Remember, all of these U.S. attorneys are good Republicans that were appointed by the president.  It was only after they started, it seems to be, making up things that they were incompetent, that the U.S. attorneys started speaking out. 

GREGORY:  Alberto Gonzales testified on Capitol Hill that he would never remove a U.S. attorney for any political reason.  You are calling him a liar.

SCHUMER:  Well, you know, I haven‘t used that word, because it is strong and frankly, I like Alberto Gonzales.  He is a nice man.  But the bottom line is, his chief of staff has admitted firing U.S. attorneys for political reasons.  It‘s very, very hard to believe that the chief of staff did something so major, something that was never done before, and the attorney general didn‘t know it.

And frankly, if he did not know it, he shouldn‘t be U.S. attorney general anyway, because you should know what‘s going on in your department, something major like this. 

GREGORY:  Is it enough that he stood up today and said, mistakes were made, I took responsibility, Congress was not fully informed about the White House role in all of this, that was wrong, but let‘s move on? 

SCHUMER:  Well, just to say it‘s wrong is not enough.  The attorney general has to come before us.  He has to let us know exactly what happened, not so much for a point of vindictiveness, but to prevent it from ever happening again. 

He has to let us know who else was involved.  He has to let us know if there were other instances that we don‘t know where either U.S. attorneys were fired because they didn‘t do what the administration wanted them to do politically, or another factor, which we haven‘t even looked into. 

What about U.S. attorneys who might have been pressured politically who went along and are still in the job? 

GREGORY:  What don‘t you know now, in addition to those facts, that you think you need to learn and that you want to learn through hearings?  And who can tell you that information?

SCHUMER:  Well, it‘s a heck of a lot.  We want to know how these offices were so politicized, which really does damage on into the future.  When a U.S.  attorney indicts a politician who deserves to be indicted and their lawyer says, this is a political case, people are now going to believe it. 

So we have to find out everything.  We have to find out how many other U.S. was—did this occur in?  Was this hatched in the White House?  Why the Justice Department didn‘t resist it as it should have?  Attorney general—we have to know why Attorney General Gonzales should be allowed to continue in his job.  I don‘t think he should because he seems to see himself as a rubber stamp to the White House and the president. 

And the attorney general is the one cabinet office who has a higher responsibility, which is enforcement of the law without fear or favor, the rule of law.  And if you are just cipher for the president, you should not be attorney general. 

GREGORY:  The White House maintains that it did not influence but simply signed off on a list of names of U.S. attorneys to be fired last December. 

SCHUMER:  Well, that is.

GREGORY:  And even points out that even if Harriet Miers suggested a complete cleaning of house, it‘s two years later that only seven are fired, that that is hardly the kind of political influence that you and others have alleged. 

SCHUMER:  Well, that‘s a pretty weak read when the ones who were fired were involved in the hottest political cases in the land.  But let me just say this.  It is far more than that.  We know that Karl Rove interceded in two cases, and this morning, it was told to us that the president actually called Attorney General Gonzales about the New Mexico U.S. attorney. 

So this goes a lot higher up than simply Harriet Miers.  There seemed to be—there is clearly other White House involvement.  How deep it was, how effective it was, who was doing what.  We don‘t know that yet, but, believe me, we are going to find out. 

GREGORY:  And this isn‘t over as far as you‘re concerned? 

SCHUMER:  This is far from over. 

GREGORY:  Kyle Sampson is not enough of a sacrifice on this? 

SCHUMER:  You know, Karl (sic) Sampson is sort of like the Scooter Libby.  He is a fall guy.  Now he probably broke the law, as Scooter Libby did, and that doesn‘t mean he should be exonerated.  But to just find the fall guy doesn‘t solve this problem.  It means it could happen again and it means that people throughout the land will not trust our system of justice. 

GREGORY:  Senator Chuck Schumer, thanks. 

SCHUMER:  Thank you.

GREGORY:  Dan Bartlett is counsel to the president and he joins us now from Merida, Mexico.

Dan, thanks for being here.

DAN BARTLETT, COUNSEL TO THE PRESIDENT:  Good to be with, David. 

GREGORY:  Dan, you have heard the criticism from Democrats, including Senator Schumer, who accuses this White House of exerting political pressure over the Justice Department to get these U.S. attorneys fired.  Your response? 

BARTLETT:  Well, unfortunately, Senator Schumer doesn‘t have his facts, you know, correct in this case.  The decision to remove these seven U.S. attorneys was made at the Justice Department.  They were made on an individual basis based on a totality of evidence from a management standpoint.  And we stand by those decisions. 

Now we are more than happy to share information with the United States Congress.  The attorney general has come out and said that he would prefer that this happened and was executed in a better way, but the underlying decision to remove these U.S. attorneys was a proper one. 

The role that the White House played was not to approve—to craft a list or to add or subtract from the list, but the ultimately sign off on the list.  And that‘s appropriate role for.

GREGORY:  But, Dan, isn‘t it.

BARTLETT:  . the White House to play vis-a-vis the Department of Justice. 

GREGORY:  But isn‘t it true that this was just not signing off on a list?  Let‘s review the facts here.  In January of 2005, then-White House counsel Harriet Miers is suggesting and has a dialogue with the chief of staff to the attorney general, Kyle Sampson, about firing all 93 U.S.  attorneys.  That‘s rejected, but it begins a review process of these individuals. 

There are e-mail exchanges about individual U.S. attorneys.  There is a certain loyalty test that is ranked for these attorneys.  And the president of the United States even has a conversation with his attorney general about some complaints that he has heard about, about certain U.S.  attorneys.  So how is it that there is not political involvement in this process by the White House? 

BARTLETT:  Well, David, let‘s unpack all of those comments you just made and the facts there.  It‘s important to understand—is that each of these U.S. attorneys were removed for good reason.  And there is a totality of evidence, not any one specific issue. 

The fact that the White House, and including the president, were receiving complaints from people, from members of Congress or state or local officials, it is incumbent upon the president to share that information with the attorney general. 

The memo you are talking about—or the suggestion being made that Harriet Miers, after the ‘04 election decided to float an idea, to say, should we start with a clean slate, bring in 93 new U.S. attorneys?  Well, Kyle Sampson, to his credit, said that was not a good idea.  And people within the White House, when learning about it, didn‘t think it was a good idea. 

Twenty-two months later, a list of seven people come out who were removed for cause.  Now that is far different than anything that Democrats or other people are alleging.  And that‘s why it was very important for the attorney general and members of the administration to make that clear distinction. 

And we are happy to do that in our conversations with Congress.  I understand that because politics is going to get involved here that people are going to try to conflate the two.  It was appropriate to remove these two.  It is appropriate for the White House to receive the complaints about U.S. attorneys and share those complaints with the attorney general. 

GREGORY:  Dan, you have a chief of staff to the attorney general who is communicating with the White House counsel about preparing for political fallout from these decisions, and readying yourself from that.  It could be severe in some cases.  Is this appropriate? 

BARTLETT:  Well, I think that as a chief of staff and somebody who has dealt with personnel matters, Kyle Sampson has—did that at the Department of Justice as well as at the White House, understands that in Washington, there‘s controversy about every decision they make.  And the fact that he was taking note of that, I don‘t think is uncommon in Washington, that you know, politics is going to break out in Washington, particularly on Capitol Hill. 

He was just saying that to Harriet Miers.  I don‘t think that‘s any different than understanding that any decision were made, whether it be viewed as controversial or not, that there is going to be a political reaction to it. 

GREGORY:  What mistakes were made, as the attorney general said?  What does the president believe the mistakes were in this case? 

BARTLETT:  Well, the attorney general discussed what he was not satisfied with, was the fact that the chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, did not share a complete and accurate picture with other members of the Justice Department who then went up on Capitol Hill to give testimony about what had happened.  And he felt that that did not rise to the standards of the Justice Department, and not to the standards of the Bush administration.  And that is why he has accepted his resignation, and the president supports the decision the attorney general has made today.

GREGORY:  Does the president think this entire process was botched? 

BARTLETT:  Obviously he agrees with the attorney general that it could have been done better, but he also understands that the underlying reasons for why these U.S. attorneys were removed were the correct ones. 

GREGORY:  Dan, let me just ask you, if you look at this in the totality, first let me ask you, does the president believe that his attorney general should stay on, or should he resign? 

BARTLETT:  No.  He absolutely believes he should stay on.  And the reason why is from what he demonstrated today, that he is the type of stand-up guy who will say when things went wrong, the buck stops with him, he is accountable.  He is going to change methods within the Justice Department to make sure it doesn‘t happen again.  He does have the trust and confidence of the president and the president expects him to continue to serve. 

GREGORY:  You look at the totality of what has happened in the past couple of weeks: the Walter Reed conditions and scandal; the Libby conviction; the comments by Joint Chiefs of Staff Pace about homosexuality being immoral, which he had to clarify as not being U.S. policy; ongoing difficulties in Iraq; the firings of these attorneys.  Should the American people have confidence in the competence of this administration right now? 

BARTLETT:  Well, David, you are trying to connect a lot of dots that are not connectable.  A lot of things are happening in Washington.  They typically do.  And if you look at any snapshot in the presidency, whether it be this president or previous presidents, there are a lot of things that are happening. 

And the important thing that the American people want to know in each of these instances, that there are corrective actions being taken.  No one is immune from making mistakes or doing things improperly.  What they expect is us to live up to those mistakes and correct them.  And that‘s what we‘re doing with regards to very many of those issues that you just outlined.

GREGORY:  All right.  Dan Bartlett, joining us today from Mexico where the president is traveling.  Dan, thanks, very much.

BARTLETT:  Thanks, David.

GREGORY:  And coming up, how far will Congress go to find out what

happened?  Will Karl Rove be called to testify, among other White House

officials?   You are watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

                (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

                GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  U.S. attorneys serve at the

discretion of the president, but how much politics is too much when it comes to hiring and firing them?  Pat Buchanan is an MSNBC political analyst.  And attorney Richard Ben-Veniste is the former chief prosecutor for the Watergate Task Force and a former member of the 9/11 Commission.

Welcome both.  Pat, this is a complicated story.  And it‘s certainly not unusual to have U.S. attorneys fired.  But what happened here, as near as you can tell? 

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, first, it is not unusual for all U.S. attorneys—or almost all except some outstanding ones, to be replaced when a new party comes into power, say, in 1993 or 2001.  And it‘s not unusual for U.S. attorneys to be replaced.  And Mr. Schumer, for example, is dead wrong when he accused of a crime, right here on your show, Kyle Sampson. 

There‘s no evidence that Mr. Sampson has committed any crime.  What has happened here, I think, is political influence has come about from the White House to the Department of Justice, back and forth, on get rid of these guys.  We don‘t like them.  Some senators don‘t like them.  Our friends don‘t like them.  Some of them aren‘t doing what we want.  Let‘s get rid of these guys.

And following that—which is perfectly legitimate as long as you are not interfering with an investigation, following that, people hid the truth.  They didn‘t tell the truth what they had done.  And they apparently sent some people up to Capitol Hill who were not clear and candid about what was done and why. 

GREGORY:  Yes, about—the White House was involved. 

BUCHANAN:  The White House was involvement, so you have a political problem thus far and a credibility problem.  But I don‘t see—I mean, and I think Mr. Schumer ought to withdraw the accusation that a crime has been committed because this fellow, he might have made a—he might have—mistakes might have been made by him, but there‘s no evidence of that. 

GREGORY:  Senator Schumer is saying it is not just political influence, Richard, it is that they were actually interfering by firing U.S. attorneys who were in the middle of political investigations.  Does the evidence stack up that way so far?

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE, ATTORNEY, FORMER 9/11 COMMISSIONER:  Well, I don‘t know all of the facts of what investigations they had, but what we do know is certainly in some of these cases, and I can agree with part of what Pat said, there has been inaccurate information provided. 

First, the administration says these U.S. attorneys were fired because they were incompetent.  Then they took that back and now they seem to be back on that line again.  That is very surprising. 

But something that is very disturbing to me is reported in today‘s Washington Post, when the e-mails in this exchange between Mr. Sampson and others, this chief of staff—Mr. Gonzales‘ chief of staff, was considering the question of removing certain of these individuals and then replacing them without confirmation by the Senate under a provision of the Patriot Act; which was passed for the purpose of providing the attorney general the right in times of emergency—national emergency to make quick replacements of U.S. attorneys. 

Now this has been turned completely on its head.  They used this provision to test drive the right to appoint the new appointees once they push out the people that they don‘t want. 

GREGORY:  And a way to sidestep Congress is the point.

BEN-VENISTE:  They are sidestepping Congress.  They are sidestepping the courts, which before had the authority to appoint interim U.S.  attorneys.  And now they want to use the Patriot Act for overtly political reasons.  Now that is inappropriate. 

The second point that is extremely upsetting is with respect to the very capable people.  I think Senator Schumer mentioned John McKay, the former U.S. attorney in Seattle, who had a stellar record and now he is being accused of being incompetent, replaced for incompetence. 

BUCHANAN:  Look.

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Where is the president on this?  We know that he is having a conversation with his attorney general, passing on some of the complaints he has heard from Republicans on this voter fraud issue and investigations around the country.  Where is he on this? 

BUCHANAN:  Well, there is—first off, there is nothing wrong with that.  Let‘s take the case of Bob Dornan.  There was talk that they had illegal aliens voting in there.  You had a narrow race.  And it ought to be investigated.  And no one investigated.  The president should call the attorney general and say, look, we are getting all of these reports.  You have got enough resources to deal with that.  Deal with this issue. 

There is nothing wrong with that.  And I haven‘t heard anything from Richard yet which suggests, even if they use the Patriot Act, maybe they shouldn‘t have, that suggests illegality or criminality.  It does sound like a lot of politics in there.  There is a credibility problem.

GREGORY:  Is there a crime?  Is there any crime?  What is Schumer talking about?

BEN-VENISTE:  I don‘t know that there‘s a crime involved.  And perhaps he misspoke in terms of that.  But what is clear is that when you have a political officer, a United States senator from the district in which the U.S. attorney is sitting, and that senator complains to the U.S. attorney about the speed of an investigation against a member of the opposition party, and then that U.S. attorney is removed, that is interference with the independence of the United States attorney, which has an extremely.

BUCHANAN:  But.

BEN-VENISTE:  That is an extreme.

(CROSSTALK)

BEN-VENISTE:  That is an extremely serious thing to do. 

BUCHANAN:  All right.  He has got an ethical problem.  And if they interfered with the investigation... 

BEN-VENISTE:  Who has an ethical problem? 

BUCHANAN:  The senator who made the call.  But the Senate Ethics Committee will investigate that.  If they did not imbort (ph) the investigation, and they continue with the investigation, all of us in journalism and politics have yelled about U.S. attorneys, Fitzgerald is the latest to get hammered by everyone, and that‘s legitimate. 

I mean, they are political appointees, they have to take it.  As long as they are—and I have not seen a whit of criminality in this thus far, a lot of stupidity, and maybe some credibility problems... 

GREGORY:  All right.  We are going to pick up on that when we come back.  We‘ll be right back with Pat Buchanan and Richard Ben-Veniste.

And coming up later, Republican presidential candidate Duncan Hunter, who is just back from Iraq, you are watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We are back with MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan and former Watergate Task Force chief Richard Ben-Veniste. 

Richard, you wanted to make a point about, again, that the real harm here, the real damage? 

BEN-VENISTE:  Politicizing the Department of Justice and particularly the U.S. Attorney‘s Office.  You cannot have independent U.S. attorneys making judgments based on the facts and law when they know that their brethren in other districts are being fired because they have not issued indictments against members of the opposition party on the timetable that senators from their district want. 

That is not acceptable.  And you can‘t have people fired, people who are extremely competent—like the U.S. attorney in Little Rock, fired to make room for Karl Rove‘s pal. 

BUCHANAN:  All right.  But look, Richard, that‘s preposterous.  You say we cannot politicize the Department of Justice.  John F. Kennedy appointed his campaign manager, his brother to be the attorney general of the United States and to designate all the U.S. attorneys around the United States, which he, Kenny O‘Donnell and Robert Kennedy, decided on.  That‘s not the politicization of justice?  When a president.

BEN-VENISTE:  Pat, Richard Nixon appointed his campaign manager, John Mitchell, it was wrong. 

BUCHANAN:  Exactly.  Well, it is.

(CROSSTALK)

BEN-VENISTE:  Not a good idea.

GREGORY:  All right.  Let me do—Pat, where does this go now?  You hear Democrats talking about.

BUCHANAN:  It goes.

GREGORY:  . hearings and subpoenas, where does it go?

BUCHANAN:  It goes, they are going to have—I‘m sure they will have Senate hearings with Schumer and all of the folks in the Judiciary Committee.  And there is going to be real embarrassment for the administration. 

But as long as these guys at least this come up and tell the cold truth about why these guys were removed, I don‘t think they will be in trouble. 

BEN-VENISTE:  When you see somebody like Republican Senator Tom Coburn saying that the administration has acted with idiocy in doing this, you know there‘s more to the story. 

GREGORY:  All right.  We are going to leave it there.  Thank you, Pat Buchanan and Richard Ben-Veniste.

Up next, Republican presidential hopeful Duncan Hunter, just back from Iraq.  He is now on HARDBALL.  You are watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) 

(NEWS BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

As House Democrats hammer out the emergency wartime spending bill and seek to impose benchmarks on the Iraqi government, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Duncan Hunter of California, has just returned from Iraq.  He‘s also running for president.

Congressman, welcome.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R-CA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Good to be with you.

GREGORY:  You‘re just back from Iraq.  What are your observations? 

What have you seen?

HUNTER:  Well, we can be successful in Iraq if we continue to stand up the Iraqi military.  Right now, we‘ve got the three brigades that were promised by Maliki have come into Baghdad.  They‘re in the 10 sectors.  They are in a 3-to-1 ratio over American forces, moving through those sectors right now.  And of course, American forces are in a back-up role.

And out in western Iraq, in Anbar province, in those dangerous towns of Falluja and Ramadi, the U.S. Marines have put together a very interesting operation.  They‘ve actually brought together the Sunni national police and the Shiite Iraqi army, which is a very unusual alliance because, generally, those two groups are at each other‘s throats, as you know.  But they both have taken up cause against the al Qaeda, and the Marines have brought them together.  They‘re working inside the city in Ramadi and Falluja.

It‘s a hopeful development, obviously not conclusive.  But it‘s interesting that the United States Marines are finding a way in Iraq.  Overall, we‘ve got 129 Iraqi battalions that we‘ve raised and equipped and trained.  What we have to do is get each one of those battalions through a three-month military deployment, stand them up, get them into the battle.  And at that point, we‘ve set the stage for them to start rotating in...

GREGORY:  All right...

HUNTER:  ... and Americans to start rotating out of the battlefield.

GREGORY:  Congressman, let me ask you this.  Who is responsible for most of the violence inside of Iraq right now?

HUNTER:  Well, you‘ve got a—you‘ve got a combination, obviously, but if you go to the western AO (ph), you‘ve got—you‘ve got al Qaeda, and they‘ve been—they‘ve come in, brutalized a lot of the Sunni populations.  If you go to Baghdad, you‘ve got—you‘ve got al Qaeda and you‘ve also got a sub-mix of foreign fighters with some injection of Iranian extremists.

GREGORY:  Well, so—and if that‘s the case, then what is it that Iraqi troops backed up by Americans—what are they doing to target those groups?

HUNTER:  Well, what they‘re doing, in these various areas, you‘ve got

you‘ve got custom-made operations, for example, in Ramadi and Falluja. 

You‘ve got al Qaeda in there, and you have the national police, who are primarily Sunni, and in this case, they have joined together with the Shiite leadership of the Iraqi army, the 1st and 7th divisions.  And they are in forward outposts, so working those areas with the partnership of the United States Marines.

So you‘ve got a—you‘ve got a different enemy there, to some degree, than you have in the Baghdad sectors.  But obviously, you‘ve got—you have extremists from both the Shiite and the Sunni community.

The key for us is, is not to solve all the political problems because the political problems in Iraq are going to be solved over a long period of time, some of the solutions coming earlier than later.  But what we can do right now is stand up—we‘ve stood up a free government.  It‘s an inept government.  It‘s a clumsy government.  Most of them are when they‘re new.  And we need to stand up now an Iraqi military capable of protecting that government.

We‘ve formed 129 Iraqi battalions.  We‘ve trained them and equipped them, and we now need to get them each into the fight, and I think, build on the Baghdad plan of rotating these brigades in from the outside, get them a three or four-month tour in combat, so that you verify their chain of command, you develop unit cohesion, you develop...

GREGORY:  OK...

HUNTER:  ... combat effectiveness.

GREGORY:  But Congressman, if a certain measure of pressure by this administration has gotten the Maliki government to step up and not only confront insurgents but the Shiite armies, as well, the militias, then why not set benchmarks, the kinds of timelines or deadlines for troop withdrawal that the Democrats are talking about?

HUNTER:  Yes.  I think that—I think that deadlines send a message to the opposition that the United States is losing its will to fight, and I think you‘re going to see—I think it‘s predictable, just as we had before elections, you will see surges of violence before these deadlines...

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  But what‘s to say that the militias and the insurgents aren‘t just lying low right now, aren‘t just disappearing for a while why they know the surge is going on?

HUNTER:  Well, my whole point is, if, in fact, they‘re lying low, if they push back when the Americans and the—joined with the Iraqi military move in, then by standing up the Iraqi military—that is, by getting them combat tours, by turning them into reliable military battalions—when they move in to fill in these areas where Americans heretofore have had the presence and have undertaken the military operations, at that point, when the Americans rotate out, you know that you have a reliable military force that‘s moved into their place.

So what we need to do right now is stand up the Iraqi military.  And if we stand up the Iraqi military sufficient to protect the government and provide a modicum of stability in which this political process can take place, we have set the stage for the Americans to start rotating out of the battlefield.

Let me tell you, I‘ve looked at some of these program that the Democrats have...

GREGORY:  Right.

HUNTER:  ... in terms of having—having a straitjacket on our troops being able to be deployed.  That gives—that has much deeper problems.

GREGORY:  All right.  Congressman, I‘m going to cut you off.  Thank you very much to Duncan Hunter.

Up next: Can the White House afford another fight over presidential powers?

This is HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

The White House is facing tough scrutiny, as we‘ve been talking about, over the Justice Department‘s firing of U.S. attorneys.  Today Attorney General Alberto Gonzales admitted that mistakes were made.  We‘ll dig into all of that, plus 2008 presidential politics, with Anne Kornblut of “The Washington Post,” Howard Fineman of “Newsweek,” and “The Politico‘s” Mike Allen.

Howard, what is this story that we are dealing with, with these—with the dismissal of these U.S. attorneys?

HOWARD FINEMAN, “NEWSWEEK,” MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR:  Well, the big picture is the Bush administration, after being reelected in 2004, throwing its weight around politically, deciding it can clear out all or at least some of the U.S. attorneys, who they—that they have the right to change, but usually, it‘s done with a little diplomacy and a little decorousness.  This is the administration saying, You know what?  We got a lot of people we want to put in those positions.  We‘re feeling our oats politically, and we‘re not going to care about the niceties.

The other part of it is that the Democrats now control the Congress.  They have subpoena power and the money power.  And it‘s like they‘re using the crowbar to lift the lid on the administration‘s actions.

GREGORY:  But Mike Allen, what is the evidence that the White House went beyond what they‘re within their rights to do, which is to clean house when it comes to U.S. attorneys whose terms expire and to go that extra step and to actually politically interfere in the independent Justice Department‘s, you know, order of things?

MIKE ALLEN, POLITICO.COM:  Right.  Well, David, the point you‘re making‘s exactly why there‘s so much frustration over there today because they‘re all saying, We should have been able to kill this right way, say these are political jobs, we handled them politically.  Instead, there was this terrible mess where you have the attorney general going out and saying, Oh, it was an overblown personnel matter.  Don‘t even worry about it.

Then you start to pull on the threads of the sweater, and you see that the president was involved, you see there‘s an e-mail from one of his subordinates where the attorney general was saying that he wanted to kick butt and take names.  And you have the attorney general then out sounding like he‘s trying to save his job.  And you never want to be that guy, especially if you‘re the attorney general, who has as few friends on Capitol Hill as perhaps anyone.

FINEMAN:  Plus, if you‘re the Democrats, you have those magic two words, Karl Rove.

GREGORY:  Anne Kornblut, there‘s—when you talk to Republicans today who say this is just, if nothing else, gross incompetence on the part of Justice Department officials and former White House counsel Harriet Miers, who conservatives didn‘t much like anyway, none of whom have any prosecutorial experience.

ANNE KORNBLUT, “WASHINGTON POST”:  Oh, absolutely.  And you know, the Republicans I‘ve spoken to today said this is just further evidence it was good news that Harriet Miers withdrew her—or stepped back as a Supreme Court nominee when she did.  It really is remarkable what a bad couple weeks the administration is having, capped off with all this.  It seemed to be handing the Democrats victories on an almost daily basis.

GREGORY:  But so it does raise the question, Howard, but where does this really go.  There‘s talk about subpoenaing Karl Rove and others White House officials, maybe even Harriet Miers and others.  What do they need to nail down here to actually make something stick, beyond that this was botched in some way.

FINEMAN:  Yes.  Well, as Mike pointed out, part of the problem is Gonzales originally went up there to the Hill and dismissed all this.

GREGORY:  Right.

FINEMAN:  Now the Democrats are in charge.  I can‘t stress that enough.  They‘ve got the subpoena power and the control of the budget of the Department of Justice.  So I think if the Democrats are going to find anything more and make this more of a story, they got to show other examples than those we know of, where the administration was using frank, bald politics to yank people out in the name of poor performance, when politics was really the reason.  The irony here is...

GREGORY:  And not being frank about it.

FINEMAN:  And also not telling the truth about it, being up front about it.

GREGORY:  And the reality is, you have a couple of things going on here, for all of you here.  One is that you have Harriet Miers saying in ‘05, just been reelected, Why don‘t we get rid of everybody?  And the...

ALLEN:  Which is fine.

GREGORY:  Which is fine.  And actually is better than some of the other—then the Justice Department says, No, no, no.  That‘s too disruptive.  We‘re not going to do that.  But that gets this process going of individual evaluations of some of these—loyalty tests, in some cases.

FINEMAN:  Even Karl Rove said, No, no, that‘s too many, don‘t do it that way.  So ironically, according the White House, Karl Rove is in the position of being the good government guy here, at least on one level.  And you know things are out of whack if that‘s the case.

GREGORY:  Then, Mike, this goes back to the testimony last week.  David Iglesias, U.S. attorney in New Mexico, says, Look, Senator Domenici contacted me, pressuring me, in his view, to rush along these investigations into voter fraud targeting Democrats.  And these complaints about some U.S. attorneys not pursuing those kinds of cases vigorously enough reached the president of the United States because his own attorney general and the president discussed this.  Is that not political interference?

ALLEN:  Exactly.  And the bigger problem here is the attorney general‘s former deputy, Jim Comey, who you know, used to go around and when he was meeting people in the field, he always says, Credibility is our currency.  If you say, I‘m from the Justice Department, people will believe the next sentence that you say.  You cannot do anything to interfere with that.  and that‘s the problem for the attorney general now is He goes to Capitol Hill, and they say, Yes, what else?  Yes, what else?

FINEMAN:  What makes it politically explosive potentially, though, is this voter fraud business because if it‘s seen that the White House was changing these people because they weren‘t going after voter fraud hard enough, Democrats will scream about it and say these people were punished because they weren‘t trying to, quote, “suppress the vote.”  You can see the Democrats going in that direction.

GREGORY:  Anne Kornblut, you heard the White House say today, and Dan Bartlett, that the president has full confidence in his attorney general.  Does that last?

KORNBLUT:  Typically, in this administration, I would say yes.  He‘s not really one to fire people very quickly.  But in the current environment, I would say anything is possible.

ALLEN:  Right.  And David, as you know, the attorney general has been with the president as long as anyone...

GREGORY:  Right.

ALLEN:  ... going back to Texas and—but people on the Hill today, they definitely smell blood.  What they say is, This isn‘t something that‘s four years old.  This is something that people are actually interested in, they think.  They don‘t have any incentive to back off.  And I can tell you, the reporters covering it think that this may end with the attorney general departing.  Reporters are often wrong, but it tells you something about the likely tenor of the coverage.

FINEMAN:  They got greedy.  The White House got greedy.  They want to put their own staff in these U.S. attorneys‘ jobs from Justice, and so on.  Karl Rove had a guy he wanted down in Arkansas.  They had won the reelection, and they were getting greedy politically and now they‘re paying for it because the Democrats are in charge.

GREGORY:  All right.  We‘re going to take a break here.  Everybody‘s coming back.  We‘re back with Anne Kornblut, Howard Fineman and Mike Allen.

You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREGORY:  We‘re back with Anne Kornblut of “The Washington Post,” Howard Fineman of “Newsweek,” and “The Politico‘s” Mike Allen.  We‘re talking about this Justice Department story today and the attorney general saying that mistakes were made, he takes responsibility.  You know, he really seemed shaken today, even as he fended off calls for his resignation.

But Anne Kornblut, let‘s talk about kind of where things stand, the larger picture, where Congress digs in its teeth.  Look what‘s happened over the last couple of weeks—the Walter Reed scandal, you‘ve got the firing of the attorneys, you‘ve got the Libby conviction, you‘ve got Iraq, the anniversary of coming up on Monday, the comments by Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace about homosexuality being immoral, which he apologized for.  This is not an administration firing on all cylinders here.

KORNBLUT:  No, it really has not been a good week for them.  And I can tell you it‘s making the Democrats extremely happy, especially out on the 2008 presidential campaign trail.  I was out in Iowa this weekend, where Obama was campaigning, Barack Obama‘s been campaigning, and voters came out by the thousands to see him . And almost everyone I talked to said they wished the election were tomorrow, really reflecting what we‘ve seen in the polls, extreme dissatisfaction with the administration.  And they just seem to be making it worse almost every week.

GREGORY:  Howard, you and I talked about this a little while ago, the fact that they—a guy like Kyle Sampson, who‘s a chief of staff, who‘s getting involved in the nitty-gritty detail of what to do with U.S.  attorneys, who has never been a prosecutor—and I have talked to former prosecutors, Republicans and Democrats, who say this is the real bad rap on this administration.  They dislike lawyers so much that they‘ve got nobody with the proper experience when it comes to prosecuting cases.

FINEMAN:  Yes.  I mean, there‘s politics and there‘s politics.  The way it‘s always been done with U.S. attorneys is that they do serve at the pleasure of the president, but there‘s a certain diplomacy and majesty attached because a U.S. attorney is an incredibly powerful figure, having at his disposal investigative powers, choices over whether to prosecute.  You need somebody who has some measure of independence and fair judgment. 

It can‘t just be a political thing.

Here you had even the chief of staff in the Justice Department, who‘d never been a prosecutor, trying to get himself appointed to a U.S.  attorney‘s job and...

GREGORY:  In Utah...

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN:  ... Utah, and Orrin Hatch, the Republican senator, said, Hey, wait a minute.  I‘ve got my guy, who‘s an experienced prosecutor, and I want the job.  It‘s a story of getting politically greedy, is what it really is, and not telling the full story, and now Dan Bartlett, as Mike was point out, coming out and saying this was a Justice Department decision.  It wasn‘t, was it?

GREGORY:  Well, especially...

FINEMAN:  I mean, there was no White House involvement.

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Not completely.

FINEMAN:  Yes.  Right.

GREGORY:  Not completely, and yet the White House is involved at various stages in evaluating some of these individuals and communicating.  Karl Rove says that he communicated complaints that he was hearing from people about some of these U.S. attorneys.

ALLEN:  I think—Howard and I were talking about, the problem is, you have to pick something that you can say that you can stick to, and you can‘t go out and make statements, like they have in the last couple of days, and then have to keep elaborating on...

GREGORY:  Right.

ALLEN:  That‘s what frustrated the Hill with Gonzales before.  And they‘re gleeful.  They‘re, like, This is what (INAUDIBLE) that list you gave.  They said, That‘s what we have after six weeks of subpoena power.

GREGORY:  Right.

ALLEN:  Imagine after six months.

GREGORY:  So pull back little bit, then.  You go through that list of what the administration is facing, where does it go?  What does Congress do with it?

ALLEN:  Well, they‘ve realized that the war is not a good topic for them, so they‘re looking for other things.  And the White House is getting ready for it.  The new counsel is hiring some new people.  He‘s preparing for tough...

GREGORY:  Right.  Ed Fielding (ph).

ALLEN:  ... negotiations.  And the way they said it to me is, They‘re going to be getting up in our cupboards about a lot of things.  And Henry Waxman, Democrat of California on the House side, has made a list of what Republicans did during the Clinton administration, of all the e-mails they got, of FBI notes they got out of the White House, of testimony of personal advisers to the president, which as you saw in Dan Bartlett‘s briefing today, he was trying to fend that off.  But a nonpartisan group, The Congressional Research Service, has a long list, pages and pages of people, most of them from the Clinton administration, personal advisers to the president who were brought up to testify before committees and subcommittees.

FINEMAN:  Mike makes a key point.  It‘s not the war which is complicated politically.

ALLEN:  And they thought...

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN:  It‘s ironic.  They thought that was going to be the slam dunk.  It‘s too complicated and risky, whereas this stuff, you can get—you can subpoena, subpoena, subpoena, which is what they‘re going to do.

GREGORY:  I want to correct something I said a little while ago.  I talked about Joint Chief of Staff Pace—didn‘t actually apologize for his comments, but apologized to the extent that he communicated that as official government policy, saying that those were his own views.

But again, Anne, if you look at all of these things, if—it‘s not just Iraq—and even in this issue, if it‘s not all politics, if it‘s simply botched, if mistakes were made, if it‘s incompetence, that‘s not the label that this administration wants right now, either.

KORNBLUT:  Oh, well, and certainly, they would never want it.  I think, too, it gives Democrats another issue to run on in 2008.  We‘re seeing it already with Hillary Clinton.  Competence is one of her favorite words on the campaign trail.  And it‘s interesting.  She started talking today and over the weekend—she started using—reviving the phrase “the vast right-wing conspiracy,” and you can‘t help but wonder if that‘s not going to ring true with some voters, given the current context.

GREGORY:  Well, but before we go, Howard, I want to talk about the right-wing here, which seems as kind of unhappy as it‘s been in a long time, the new CBS/”New York Times” poll about the Republican being unhappy with their slate of candidates.  What‘s going on?

FINEMAN:  Well, I think Hillary‘s probably overstating how much of a conspiracy they are, at this point.  I‘m not sure they‘re capable of...

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN:  I‘m not sure they‘re capable of organizing a conspiracy.  They‘re divided among Libertarians and faith-based types and foreign policy types.  They don‘t have a candidate to call their own.  They‘re flailing around.  I mean, at the CPAC conference, Conservative Political Action conference we went to, the winner was—was who—Mitt Romney with 21 percent.  You know, there‘s no consensus candidate.  There‘s no conspiracy here.  And the White House, which used to be the point of the lance of the conspiracy, as we‘ve been talking about, can‘t seem to organize a two-car funeral, at this point.

GREGORY:  Quick thought, Mike?

ALLEN:  Yes, well, that‘s why you get so many Republicans who are putting their toe in because they say, Why not?  The ones who are there now could be in a Peanuts cartoon, and that‘s where you get people like Fred Thompson, who wants to run as a friendly conservative, someone that people know, a lot of Bush‘s biggest financial backers are still on the sidelines, still looking for someone.

FINEMAN:  (INAUDIBLE) “Law and Order,” too (INAUDIBLE)

GREGORY:  Right.  Right.  To be continued.  Thank you very much, Anne Kornblut, Howard Fineman and Mike Allen.

Play HARDBALL with us on Wednesday.  Our guests include Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters.  They‘re hosting a presidential forum tomorrow with candidates from both parties.  You can watch live coverage throughout the day on MSNBC.  And Tucker Carlson will be reporting live from the forum tomorrow.

I‘m David Gregory.  Have a good night.

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

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