updated 3/21/2007 2:01:03 PM ET 2007-03-21T18:01:03

Guests: Mark Pryor, Wayne Slater, Jane Mayer, Jenny Backus, Ed Rogers, Christopher Shays, Diane Watson

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  President Bush ready to return fire in the battle over his purge of federal prosecutors.  He says Karl Rove will only testify in a back room and not under oath.  Let‘s hear the president defend the man they call his brain.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Welcome to HARDBALL.  The White House is going to the mattresses in the Senate investigation into the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.  This morning the president called his embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to offer his support.  And late today the White House announced it will make Karl Rove, Harriet Miers and others available to congressional investigators, but only in private, not under oath, and without a verbatim record. 

And coming up in 45 minutes, President Bush will speak about the dismissal of the U.S. attorneys.  And we‘ll bring that you live here on MSNBC.  Meanwhile, the Senate voted to take away the attorney general‘s power to replace prosecutors without Senate confirmation. 

We‘ll get to all of this in a moment.  Plus 2008 presidential politics.  A new Gallup poll shows Rudy Giuliani trouncing John McCain even among conservative Republicans.  We‘ll talk about why Senator McCain is still having trouble with the right and why the tough New York mayor is passing muster.

And a new anti-Hillary YouTube clip has captured the attention of the Internet.  We‘ll get more on that with you later in the show.

But first, let‘s then bring in Senator Mark Pryor, a Democrat from Arkansas who is calling for the resignation of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general. 

Senator Pryor, make you case, why should this man, the president‘s close friend, resign from office? 

SEN. MARK PRYOR (D), ARKANSAS:  Well, I have a couple of strong reasons.  One is I had some telephone conversations with me and there‘s no real polite way to say it other than he lied to me about Tim Griffin, the person he appointed in Little Rock.  But in a broader sense, I think it‘s time for him to go because it‘s the best thing for the Justice Department, and I think really it‘s the best thing for the administration. 

So he is very damaged here on Capitol Hill.  People have lost confidence in him.  Their trust level on him is just very low.  And he just needs to go.  It is the best thing for Justice.

MATTHEWS:  Is he carrying water for Karl Rove in the case of Tim Griffin, the guy he wants to put in there as U.S. attorney, in your area? 

PRYOR:  Well, you know, it‘s a little mysterious about all that happened because lot of the e-mails do shed some light, but the whole story has not been told there.  What has happened in Arkansas is they fired a popular and very competent U.S. attorney, a fellow named Bud Cummins, and they replaced him with a fellow named Tim Griffin.

And Tim Griffin had really only spent about one year out of maybe 15 of his professional life in Arkansas.  He is from the state, went to college there.  But basically went off and did political things after that. 

By its nature, in and of itself, there‘s not a problem with someone doing political things, but when you have someone like that who really hasn‘t lived in the state hardly at all during his professional live and someone who has been so overly politically.  I think it‘s important that they go through a confirmation process to make sure that they can check their political views at the door and do justice. 

However, one of the things we learned in the e-mails is the administration wasn‘t interested in them doing justice.  They were interested in people who could do their political bidding for them down at the state level. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  That brings the point, Senator, are they sending in Griffin to do some dirty work on Hillary Clinton?  More digging up dirt on her in Little Rock?

PRYOR:  Well, you know, there‘s a conspiracy theory about that.  I have no idea if that‘s what they want to do or there‘s another equally possible scenario that they were just rewarding him.  He had been a loyal soldier for a long time.  Wanted to move back to Arkansas and make a name for himself as U.S. attorney.  I really don‘t know what the thought process was. 

MATTHEWS:  So what we do know is they put in Karl Rove‘s buddy, his assistant into a job that you say he is totally unfit for, has no courtroom experience, and they did it to pursue a political agenda, that‘s your point?

PRYOR:  Well, that‘s kind of my point.  But let me be clear.  He has been in the JAG corps.  And so he does have some courtroom experience.  I‘m not saying he is totally unqualified.  But the point I‘m making is he has no standing in the Arkansas legal community.  In fact, I had never met him, never talked to him until this process started.  I had no idea who he was.  And that is very common for lawyers in the State of Arkansas.

I‘m former attorney general, not that I know every lawyer in the state, but I know most of them.  But every lawyer I talk to has really no idea who this guy is.  So it was little bit like putting a square peg in a round hole.  And you know, I just wanted him to go through a confirmation process.  That is the main thing. 

There are certainly some things that the Senate Judiciary Committee should ask him about, political activities.  But nonetheless, sitting through a confirmation, they had no intention of ever doing that. 

MATTHEWS:  As a former attorney general of Arkansas, as a U.S.  senator, you have just said that the attorney general of the United States lied to you over the telephone.  That‘s serious business.  Can you give us the particulars? 

PRYOR:  Sure.  You know—and by the way, speaking of that, I mean, you know, there are different ways to put it, but I don‘t know a better way to say it than he just lied to me.  You can say deliberately deceived me, he purposely misled me. 

I mean, I‘ll use whatever phrase you want.  But basically, what I asked him to do is to please send him through a confirmation process.  He told me he would.  He told me that was the intent.  But when you look at the e-mails.  There is no question about it, as the e-mail says, they want to gum this thing to death.  They want to run out the clock. 

They had no intention of ever nominating Tim Griffin.  I think they knew that from the very beginning.  I think they were trying to play a delay, a four corners offense with me.  And that‘s what they were trying to do.  And it was just very, very misleading.  And I asked very directly if they were going to nominate him.  He said yes. 

He basically followed the script in one of these e-mails.  I mean, it was almost like he had a memo in front of him and he reading down the memo on the points he needed to make with me.  And he was just following a script. 

MATTHEWS:  So he was going to exploit the provision in the Patriot Act which allows the attorney general to place someone in a vacancy and never really get around to getting confirmation for a new appointment? 

PRYOR:  That‘s exactly right.  They used the Patriot Act to do an interim appointment on Tim Griffin, and by the way, when I called Alberto Gonzales the first time—I also called Harriet Miers, talked to both of them twice about this.  But when I talked to them, I said, please do not recess appoint this guy.  I had no idea at that time that the Patriot Act provision had been slipped in there.  I don‘t think anybody in the Senate realized.

MATTHEWS:  Well, now that has been fixed.

PRYOR:  . that that was going to be misused.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, when you say that the attorney general of the United States seemed to be reading to you from talking points, it sounds to me like you are—well, let me ask you.  Who wrote those points, if it‘s not the attorney general?  He reports to the president technically.  Do you think he really reports to Karl Rove? 

PRYOR:  Well, that‘s a great question.  And I think that‘s one reason why they would like to see Karl Rove, Harriet Miers and others go before the Senate Judiciary Committee to ask them about the inner workings of this. 

How is that chain of command really working?  And it does appear that Alberto Gonzales was more of a friend of the president than an attorney general that wants to pursue justice.  And I‘ll tell you this, the U.S.—the attorney general of the United States is in the Constitution.  It‘s a unique office in the sense that even though it is political by nature, they get appointed, just like these U.S. attorney do, they need to be above politics, they need to be better than politics. 

MATTHEWS:  Are you satisfied with the White House offer of Karl Rove without taking an oath in the back room without a transcript?  Do you accept that offer?

PRYOR:  I‘m not on the Senate Judiciary Committee, so it‘s not for me to accept it.  But if I were, I would say no.  Because we need him under oath.  Their story has changed many, many times.  All they have sent over is redacted e-mails.  There are a lot of gaps in these e-mails.  We don‘t know if we have all of the e-mails. 

We need to get him under oath.  We need to have it in open forum, allow Democrats and Republicans to ask questions.  Let‘s let it be very bipartisan, put him under oath, ask questions. 

MATTHEWS:  Where did you hear this theory that Hillary Clinton might be the target of Tim Griffin? 

PRYOR:  Well, there‘s just kind of a conspiracy theory about that.  I mean, some people have pointed to that and said, isn‘t that strange that here is putting in maybe a highly political U.S. attorney in Hillary Clinton‘s backyard, isn‘t that odd, right before the presidential race.  Frankly, I‘m not sure I buy into that.  I probably subscribe to the theory more that he wanted to come back to Arkansas.  Maybe he wants to run for office. 

I don‘t know.  Heck, you know, he may run against me at some point, I

don‘t know.  Because he is not very happy with me right now.  But I think -

I buy the theory that he really wanted to come back home, get himself established probably in politics but maybe just in practicing law and do that.  So I don‘t know what the motivation was. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you very much, Senator Mark Pryor.

PRYOR:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  . Democrat of Arkansas.  Let‘s get the latest on the day‘s events, the attorney general firings from HARDBALL‘s David Shuster. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  In a bipartisan backlash against President Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the U.S. Senate voted today 94-2 to stop the administration‘s ability to bypass Congress in appointing federal prosecutors. 

SEN. PAT LEAHY (D-VT), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE:  This is the first step in restoring the people‘s confidence, Republicans and Democrats, in our law enforcement system. 

SHUSTER:  The Senate bill now heads to the House.  Meanwhile, more came out today about the administration actions thanks to the latest 3,000-page document dump.  And there is new information damaging the credibility of Karl Rove. 

Rove has publicly declared that all of the prosecutors dismissed were fired for performance or policy reasons.  And twice in the last in the last two weeks, Rove has cited the case of U.S. attorney Carol Lam. 

KARL ROVE, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF:  There was a principled decision by the woman who was the U.S. attorney for San Diego, the Southern District of California, that she would not commit resources to prosecute immigration offenses.  She made a decision that that was not going to be her priority of office.  The U.S. Justice Department asked her to make it, so she did not.   

SHUSTER:  Nobody else has made that charge.  And Lam has testifying under oath the Justice Department never asked her to change her policy.  Newly released documents show the Justice Department last year actually praised Lam on this very issue in response to a Senate inquiry.

Quote: “That office is presently committing half of its assistant United States attorneys to prosecute criminal immigration cases.” The letter added, quote: “Prosecutions for alien smuggling are rising sharply in fiscal year 2006.”

Some Democrats charge that Rove‘s statements about Lam are a deliberate lie intended to hide his own role in her dismissal.  E-mails show Rove discussed firing federal prosecutors with former White House counsel Harriet Miers and former Gonzales chief of staff Kyle Sampson. 

Carol Lam had gotten their attention for a Republican bribery investigation that prompted Congressman Duke Cunningham to resign and plead guilty. 

RANDY “DUKE” CUNNINGHAM, FORMER CALIFORNIA CONGRESSMAN:  I know that I will forfeit my freedom, my reputation, my worldly possessions. 

SHUSTER:  Last May, after Lam notified the Justice Department her investigation was expanding to other Republicans, including defense contractor Brent Wilkes and CIA officials Dusty Foggo, Gonzales chief of staff Sampson sent an e-mail to the White House the next day that referred to, quote, “the real problem we have right now with Carol Lam.” 

Last December, Lam was dismissed with no explanation.  And Democrats are eager to put Karl Rove under oath.  The latest documents are also challenging the credibility of Attorney General Gonzales and his deputies.  Last week Gonzales defended the dismissal of the U.S. attorneys by referring to a review of weak performers. 

ALBERTO GONZALES, ATTORNEY GENERAL:  I stand by the decision and I think it was the right decision. 

SHUSTER:  But one new e-mail released shows that Gonzales‘ top deputy, Paul McNulty, had no idea whether U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden, who was particularly loyal to the Justice Department, actually had performance issues. 

McNulty quote: “I‘m a little skittish about Bogden.  He has been with the DOJ since 1990 and at age 50 has never had a job outside the government.  I‘ll admit, I have not looked at his district‘s performance.”

SHUSTER:  Other newly-released documents show some of the prosecutors tried to fight back.  Margaret Chiara asked McNulty, quote: “Why have I been asked to resign?  I respectfully request that you reconsider the rationale of poor performance as the basis for my dismissal.  It is in our mutual interests to retract this erroneous explanation.”

SHUSTER:  Another document shows administration fears if the fired

prosecutors spoke out publicly.  Bud Cummins was removed and replaced with

Tim Griffin, a Karl Rove aide with virtually no courtroom experience.  Kyle

Sampson, the attorney general‘s chief of staff, referred to Cummins

testifying to Congress and wrote, quote: “I don‘t think he should.  How

would he answer ‘did you resign voluntarily?  Who told you?  What did they

say?  Were you asked to resign because you were underperforming?  If not,

then why?‘”

SHUSTER:  Despite all of this, Attorney General Gonzales got a boost today from President Bush.  They spoke by phone early this morning and according to White House officials, quote: “The president called him to reaffirm his support.” 

(on camera):  The president is also moving to protect Karl Rove and Harriet Miers.  Today Congress was told those officials would only testify in private and not under oath.  Democrats said that‘s not enough.  And they are preparing to issue subpoenas as early as Thursday. 

That sets up a controversial decision for the White House, whether to try and shield Rove and Miers though executive privilege and send this battle to the courts. 

I‘m David Shuster, for HARDBALL, in Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you, David Shuster.

This is this kind of thing that happens when a president is weak.  Coming up, will top Bush aides have to testify under oath?  We‘ll talk to The New Yorker magazine‘s Jane Mayer.  And Wayne Slater, he is the author of “Bush‘s Brain,” a biography of the great Karl Rove, The Dallas Morning News author will be with us in just a moment.  You are watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Today, President Bush called embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to reaffirm support for his friend, but just long will he stick with the AG who is under fire for the purging of eight federal prosecutors?

And the White House has offered Karl Rove and Harriet Miers to be interviewed by Congress behind closed doors and not under oath.  But will Congress force them to testify in the open?  Wayne Slater is a reporter with The Dallas Morning News. He is author of another book, “The Architect:

Karl Rove and the Dream of Absolute Power.” And Jane Mayer is a staff write for the great New Yorker magazine. 

Let me start with Wayne.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Is that your theme here? 

WAYNE SLATER, REPORTER, THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS:  Absolutely.  It seems to be what happened.  At the very beginning, Karl thought that he could be part of not only electing George Bush president, but as you know, establishing a long-standing, enduring Republican majority.  And in the end, you see a whole bunch of folks getting into trouble. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let me go to Jane Mayer while they fix the mike.  I think there is something wrong with your mike, Wayne.  Let me go to Jane Mayer. 

And, Jane, put this together for me as a journalist.  Explain, is this just the kind of thing that happens when a president is down in the dumps that the Congress feels they can pressure him on these U.S. attorneys and his right to play politics with these positions?  Which is not a brand new idea, by the way.

JANE MAYER, STAFF WRITER, THE NEW YORKER:  Certainly, this is the kind of thing that happens towards the end of a second term of a presidency.  You often see, you know, the president in a weak spot like this.  You know, I think that in this case, though, you really saw an effort by the White House to overreach, and now it‘s coming back to bite them. 

They tried to get the U.S. attorneys in by sidestepping Congress.  And of all things it is going to get the Senate mad.  It is going to be people from the White House trying to go around their advising and consenting and the confirmation hearings.  So they are kicking back.  And they are—I don‘t think they are going to accept this offer from Fred Fielding to just give them the.

MATTHEWS:  Well, it‘s an offer from Bush, right? 

MAYER:  Well, yes, but I think crafted by Fred Fielding, who is a master at the trade and I think he is one of the sort of wise old heads that they have brought in to the White House to try to help them at this point when they are really reeling, I think.  But... 

MATTHEWS:  Well, wait a minute, wait a minute, he‘s negotiating for his boss, which is the president of the United States.  If he says, we are not going to let Karl Rove and Harriet Miers testify under oath, we are going to let you talk to them in the back room with no recording taken and not under oath, who made that call?

MAYER:  Well, you know, I think there is probably a power struggle going on about this inside the White House where you would have someone like David Addington, who the counsel to the vice president, who takes a completely hard line and says, absolutely no advisers go up to the Hill ever.  He believes in kind of the unitary executive and the idea that the president should not have to kowtow to Congress on any of these kinds things. 

So meanwhile, you have got Fred Fielding in there trying to I think negotiate what he saw as a middle course.  I don‘t think that Congress is going to take it, but they are going to try to set it up in this press conference in about 25 minutes I think—I mean, in the remarks from the president to make it.

MATTHEWS:  Hold on, Jane.

MAYER:  Make Congress look like they are not cooperative. 

MATTHEWS:  I wonder, let me go back to Wayne.  I want to ask you about the philosophy of Karl Rove.  Is his job to do what Cheney has always wanted to do, recreate the imperial presidency, bring back all of the authority lost during the Vietnam War, lost during the Watergate scandal, make the president the number one guy without question in Washington?  Is that the Karl Rove job mandate?

SLATER:  Well, that sounds grandiose and I actually think that the mandate is even larger than that.  It is not only to establish an imperial presidency, a very strong executive—chief executive, but to make sure that this strong chief executive is supported by an enduring Republican majority in the House and Senate, so that you have a period of 30 to 40 years, not just five or 10 years, but a generation or two of Republican domination of American politics, much like we saw between the McKinley to Roosevelt years last century. 

MATTHEWS:  Is he writing the talking points for Gonzales? 

SLATER:  Yes, look, look, he is, to be honest with you.  With respect to politics, he absolutely is.  Remember Gonzales‘ first job when was named by George Bush to be general counsel here in Texas, just across the street in the capital—as governor in 1995, his first job was basically to get rid of an Ann Richards appointee who had been a problem early on in the Bush administration.  Karl wanted to purge government of Democrat Ann Richards appointees, and Gonzales, within minutes, on the job of taking up that task. 

MATTHEWS:  Jane, let me get back to you on this question, we just heard Senator Mark.

MAYER:  Pryor.

MATTHEWS:  Mark Pryor from Arkansas came on a moment ago and he said that Gonzales lied to him over the phone.  He said that Gonzales said that this appointment by Tim Griffin, who is Karl Rove‘s number one guy, was supposed to be confirmable by the Senate when in fact they had a plan to get him through without a confirmation at all by the Senate.  Just sort of pick the guy and keep him in there.  A patronage appointment. 

Do you think that‘s serious business, this lying to a senator? 

MAYER:  Well, I do think what happened was—I mean, I‘m sure it‘s not the first lie that has been told by the—any White House to a senator, but I think the problem for them is that there‘s an e-mail trial here that has now come out that shows that they—like nails them for lying. 

And so it‘s all there for people to see.  I think, you know, a lot of this is—was unnecessary.  They could have just said, this is our pick, we want to put him in.  We like him.  But instead what they did was they lied about it.  And there‘s a lot of subterfuge.  And they went behind the back of Congress.  And now Congress is going to just nail them for it.

MATTHEWS:  Is he targeting Hillary Clinton down there?  Are they going back to the billing records at the Rose Law Firm, et cetera, et cetera, go after her again?

MAYER:  Well, I heard Mark Pryor, the senator from Arkansas say that he thought that was a conspiracy theory.  I can say this about Tim Griffin, who I interviewed last week, who is now the sitting U.S. attorney down there.  He—I remember, you know, encountering him in various presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004. 

He is a killer researcher.  The guy is an absolute master of opposition research.  If anybody could dig out dirt, it‘s Tim Griffin, because that‘s his specialty. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you very much, Jane Mayer, of The New Yorker.  And Wayne Slater, The Dallas Morning News, I‘m sorry about that technical problem from Dallas. 

Up next, the Senate strips power away from the attorney general today. 

Can they force him out of his job?  You are watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Can Gonzales weather the storm?  Can top Bush advisers avoid testifying under oath?  Jenny Backus is a Democratic campaign consultant.  Ed Rogers is a former adviser to the first President Bush.

Jenny, do you think the United States Senate is going to let Karl Rove come up there and testify without TV cameras, without a microphone, without a recording of anything he says, without a transcript and without taking an oath?  Do you think they will go for that? 

JENNY BACKUS, DEMOCRATIC    CONSULTANT:  In one word, no.  It‘s a no-go. 

No oath, no go.  And I just don‘t understand what the White House is doing.  Right now, this is a political gift that keeps on giving.  I mean, they are extending the story on and on and on.  They are protecting Rove and it‘s turning out to be a big mess that is of their own making. 

MATTHEWS:  Is this—Ed Rogers, are they wheeling out the old Judge Stennis plan that Nixon had where it led to old Stennis from down South listening to the tapes and tell us if there is anything naughty in there?  I mean, really this is an indirect requirement—I mean, to say not under oath, no transcript, no real recorded notes.  No cameras.  I mean.

ED ROGERS, FORMER BUSH 41 AIDE:  Hey, just for a minute.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  . dark, why not put him in the witness protection program? 

I mean. 

ROGERS:  Just for a minute, give the White House the benefit of the doubt. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, I‘m asking you, why do you think they are doing it?

ROGERS:  And I am going to sincerely answer you.  Go ahead—do you want the information or do you want a political issue?  The president can fire these people for every reason, no reason, any reason.  And so if they want to talk about it, OK.  Send Karl Rove and Harriet Miers up there to talk, but only if you want to play gotcha politics put them under oath. 

BACKUS:  It is not gotcha politics.  They have to put them under oath.

ROGERS:  And I‘m against it.

BACKUS:  . because they lied.

ROGERS:  . I don‘t think they should send them at all.  They didn‘t—nobody told a lie.

BACKUS:  They lied.  Yes, they have.

ROGERS:  I don‘t think they ought to send them up at all.

BACKUS:  They have changed their story.

ROGERS:  I say executive privilege, do not have..

BACKUS:  They have changed their story time after time. 

ROGERS:  Do not have White House staff people go up there, period. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  In other words, your point is—your point is.

ROGERS:  But they are making a gesture. 

MATTHEWS:  . you are not for this middle.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  You don‘t buy this gesture.  You think it‘s futile and you think they are giving it away by offering up this back room deal. 

ROGERS:  Well, I am hoping cynicism doesn‘t override this gesture. 

And if they want to talk, this White House is willing to talk.

BACKUS:  But why did they.

ROGERS:  Good for Bush.  But having said that, I agree with Jenny on the point that we are sort rubbing the spot on the wall here.  It‘s as if the White House is having a meeting saying, what can we do to keep this story alive? 

(LAUGHTER)

ROGERS:  Well, maybe we could have the president take about it.

MATTHEWS:  Let Jenny talk here.  Jenny.

ROGERS:  They should stop that.

MATTHEWS:  Jenny, isn‘t this true that the Democrats know they have got the poll numbers on their side?  We have got a president beaten down by a war that is unpopular, and it is going very badly or (INAUDIBLE) with great difficulty, and they are saying, here‘s a chance.

ROGERS:  Well, this isn‘t about the war...

MATTHEWS:  . to pounce on this guy. 

ROGERS : This isn‘t about the war. 

MATTHEWS:  Oh, it isn‘t?

BACKUS:  But here is deal, the bottom line, I think this is about credibility.  And I don‘t think the Democrats are using any poll numbers here.  The people—the reason why this problem started in the first place was the Republicans.  It was the Republicans in the Senate who were outraged that Gonzales lied to them.  They are outraged about them going around.

(CROSSTALK)

ROGERS:  . legislate—they can‘t do anything but they can investigate. 

BACKUS:  No. 

ROGERS:  And that string is going to run its course here pretty soon.

MATTHEWS:  We are about out of time, Jenny.  First of all, I‘m going to give Ed 30 seconds, then you 30 seconds. 

BACKUS:  OK.

MATTHEWS:  What is the best case you can make, Ed, for the way in which the president and Gonzales handled this thing?  The whole thing of knocking off eight U.S. attorneys, selecting them out.  And all of—many of them involved in controversial cases, what do you think about the smartness of what they did? 

ROGERS:  It has been clumsy.  A U.S. attorney is a big deal.  A U.S.  attorney is a hybrid between state, local, and federal politics.  This was clearly discussed in the White House.  But they need to end it now and just stay with the notion that these people are not tenured.  The president can fire them for any reason, no reason.  Leave it at that.  Put Gonzales out there.  Let him talk about this.  He‘s not a good bad guy.  Let him deal with this, and make him deal with this, and don‘t throw him over the side.  We won‘t get any credit for that.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let him play defense.  Let me ask you, Jenny, what should the Democrats do?  Should they push until they‘ve broken this guy, Gonzales?  Should that be their goal?

BACKUS:  I think they—one of their goals was hit when the Senate voted 94 to 2 to take away Gonzales‘s ability to do this.

MATTHEWS:  What were the two?

BACKUS:  I don‘t know who the two were.  But going forward on that—it was probably two Republicans, but the rest of them voted with us.  But going forward, I do think that—I think that Gonzales is in trouble.  I think the White House let him hang out there over the weekend.

ROGERS:  No question.

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you...

BACKUS:  Gonzales is in...

MATTHEWS:  ... the question—should—I‘m going to put it to you again.  Ed was...

BACKUS:  OK.

MATTHEWS:  ... bottom-lining this.  He said, Put Gonzales out there to play defense.  He‘s a good defender.  He doesn‘t look like a bad guy.  Do you say the Democrats should go for the kill here?  Yes or no.

BACKUS:  I think that they should go for Gonzales and ask him questions because it‘s not just the U.S. attorneys that Gonzales has problems with.  You had that study coming out last week that the FBI was misusing their rights under the Patriot Act to listen in on the privacy—private conversations of American citizens.  He‘s got problems...

(CROSSTALK)

BACKUS:  I think they have a big problem with the administration...

MATTHEWS:  Well, now we got clarity here.

BACKUS:  ... of the Justice Department.

MATTHEWS:  I love clarity.  Jenny, you made it very clear you think the guy ought to have his head chopped off, and you say...

ROGERS:  Put him out there.

MATTHEWS:  ... he ought to be allowed to speak in his own defense.

ROGERS:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  He‘s quite qualified.  Thank you, Jenny Backus.  I love clarity.  Ed Rogers.  Thank you both.  Up next...

ROGERS:  Thanks, Chris.

BACKUS:  Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS:  ... can House leaders pass a bill to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq by September 2008?  That seems to be the new deadline.  Can they get their colleagues to support it?

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Back to the war, and welcome back to HARDBALL.  House Democrats are trying to pass an Iraq war funding bill that calls for getting U.S. troops completely out by September of next year.  Can they do it?  Democratic congresswoman Diane Watson and Republican congressman Chris Shays both sit on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Congresswoman, I have to ask you, do you have the votes, the 218 votes needed to pass a time limit on this war?

REP. DIANE WATSON (D-CA), OVERSIGHT AND GOVERNMENT REFORM COMMITTEE: 

I think that we can get 218, even more.

MATTHEWS:  Have you got a—have you got a whip count?  Does Jack Murtha have that number, or how do you—how do you know?

WATSON:  I think the surveys show that most of the members on the Democratic side are compelled to vote for it, and it only takes 218.  I think we‘re going to get somewhere around 222, from the surveys that I know of.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Well, that‘s four votes for safety.  That‘s about—that‘s a close call.  Let me go to Congressman Chris Shays.  How does your count look?  Can the Democrat majority win a vote that puts a time limit on the war in Iraq this week?

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (R-CT), OVERSIGHT AND GOVERNMENT REFORM

COMMITTEE:  I don‘t know.  I‘m just not part of the Democratic conference.  But whatever they could do, it should be a conscience vote.  If members believe in it, they should vote for it, whatever party they‘re in.  If members don‘t, they should oppose it.

MATTHEWS:  And where will you vote?

SHAYS:  I‘m a strong no.  I‘m a strong no because I think the timeline is simply too quick.  I think it is micromanaging the war.  I think we do need timelines.  I think the president should come to Congress with timelines and state when we remove first our combat troops and then when we remove our support troops.  But I don‘t think we should be the ones setting that timeline.  Based on what?

MATTHEWS:  Well, let me ask you on the outside.  How long a war will you support?  It‘s a four-year war so far.  Will you support a war that goes right to the end of this presidency?

SHAYS:  Well, let me ask you this.  If it‘s a war where we‘re starting to make progress, obviously, it‘s easy to support it.  If it‘s a war where Petraeus‘s plan is not working out well, then obviously, it‘s going to be very difficult to want to support it.  I think the only other alternative is to move our troops to the perimeter and let them fight it out.  And if that—if they don‘t resolve it, then we‘re going to get out, and we will have had a huge loss, and the insurgents would have won.

MATTHEWS:  Congresswoman, I just saw a new report.  It‘s on the front page of the “USA Today” newspaper, right on the front page, a new Gallup poll.  A majority of even the Shia community that we‘re in there to help, because we‘re for majority rule over there, and an overwhelming majority of 94 percent of the Sunnis say it‘s OK to kill American servicepeople.  They don‘t like us.  They think we‘re fair game over there.  What do you make of that?

WATSON:  Sending one more military person into that war zone is sheer death.  It‘s like sending them into the gas chambers because now they‘re using chlorine on us.  How can you fight a conventional war, guns and bullets, when it‘s IEDs that are killing our service personnel, when it‘s gas that‘s killing our service personnel, when we are caught in the middle of a civil war and we‘re catching the bullets?  We have paid too great a cost, and I will not spend another penny except to protect those that are there and to withdraw the others because as long as we‘re there, we‘re incurring the fire of those radicals...

MATTHEWS:  OK...

WATSON:  ... way on the far left (ph), and we are catching the bullets.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask Congressman Shays the same question.  The number is 51 percent—well, actually, a third of the Shiites and 94 percent of the Sunnis—now, here‘s another number, 83 percent of the Shiites and 97 percent of the Sunnis oppose our being there.

SHAYS:  Yes, and—but you didn‘t finish, but a majority don‘t want us to leave until we get the job done.  I mean, there are...

MATTHEWS:  Well...

SHAYS:  No, but there—Chris, there are...

MATTHEWS:  Well, what does that mean?

SHAYS:  What that means is that we came, we abolished their army, their police and their border patrol.  We‘ve left them totally defenseless.  And is it going to be the United States policy, having come in, that we will leave before we get the job done?  Now, I have an amendment to the—and I would like the Democrats to allow it to be in order, and that‘s to have a plebiscite in Iraq and if 60 percent of the Iraqis don‘t support our being there, then we just leave and get out.

But we do have an obligation, in my judgment, to finish what we started, I believe.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you very much, Congressman—very much—

Congressman Shays and Congresswoman Watson.

SHAYS:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you both for joining us.

Up next, President Bush comments on the attorney general (SIC) firings.  It‘s coming up right now.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  In just a moment, President Bush will make remarks on the firing of those eight U.S. attorneys.  We‘re joined by—right now by Jill Zuckman of “The Chicago Tribune,” Matt Continetti of “The Weekly Standard.”  But we begin with NBC‘s Andrea Mitchell.

Set this up, Andrea.  The president‘s about to get into this fight personally.

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  He is about to reiterate his support for Alberto Gonzales after he signaled his displeasure with Gonzales back when he was having a news conference in Mexico last week and after Tony Snow, his press secretary, came out yesterday and issued a statement which was hardly a ringing endorsement.  So they realize that they‘ve to come back and make it clear that Gonzales is not about to be pushed out the door, not when they‘re in this kind of fight with the Senate, including Republicans in the Senate.

And Chris, what‘s really interesting is that the president is only doing this after there were leaked reports that White House officials were already making lists of successors.

MATTHEWS:  So why does the president have to talk?  Is it because of the concern that he—the rumor out there, the story that he may be already ready to dump Gonzales?

MITCHELL:  Absolutely.  There were already rumors that Fran Townsend, his homeland security top terror expert, who would be a woman, a former prosecutor, was one of those being considered, or Judge Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security, who had been a prosecutor and a judge in New Jersey and had worked with Rudy Giuliani and others in previous White Houses, previous Justice Departments.

So there were long lists of people, or rather even short lists of people, who were being considered, according to reporting.

MATTHEWS:  OK.

MITCHELL:  Not any reporting that we have...

MATTHEWS:  Andrea...

(CROSSTALK)

MITCHELL:  ... confirmed.  Here‘s the president...

MATTHEWS:  I‘ll have you right back after the president.  Here he is right now, speaking to the press.

GEORGE WALKER BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  ... congressional leaders about the resignations of U.S. attorneys.  As you know, I have broad discretion to replace political appointees throughout the government, including U.S. attorneys.  And in this case, I appointed these U.S.  attorneys and they served four-year terms.  The Justice Department, with the approval of the White House, believed new leadership in these positions would better serve our country.

The announcement of this decision and the subsequent explanation of these changes has been confusing, and in some cases, incomplete.  Neither the attorney general nor I approve of how these explanations were handled.  We‘re determined to correct the problem.

Today, I am also announcing the following steps my administration is taking to correct the record and demonstrate our willingness to work with the Congress.  First, the attorney general and his key staff will testify before the relevant congressional committees to explain how the decision was made and for what reasons.

Second, we‘re giving Congress access to an unprecedented variety of information about the process used to make the decision about replacing eight of the 93 U.S. attorneys.  In the last 24 hours, the Justice Department has provided to Congress more than 3,000 pages of internal Justice Department documents, including those reflecting direct communications with White House staff.  This in itself is an extraordinary level of disclosure of an internal agency and White House communications.

Third, I recognize there‘s significant interest in the role the White House played in the resignations of these U.S. attorneys.  Access to White House staff is always a sensitive issue.  The president relies upon his staff to provide him candid advice.  The Framers of the Constitution understood this role when developing the separate branches of government.  And if the staff of a president operated in constant fear of being hauled before various committees to discuss internal deliberations, the president would not receive candid advice and the American people would be ill served.

In this case, I recognize the importance of members of Congress having

the importance the Congress has placed on understanding how and why this decision was made.  So I‘ll allow relevant committee members, on a bipartisan basis, to interview key members of my staff to ascertain relevant facts.  In addition to this offer, we will also release all White House documents and e-mails involving direct communications with the Justice Department or any other outside person, including members of Congress and their staff related to this issue.

These extraordinary steps are offered today to the majority in Congress to demonstrate a reasonable solution to the issue.  However, we will not go along with a partisan fishing expedition aimed at honorable public servants.  Initial response by Democrats unfortunately shows some appear more interested in scoring political points than in learning the facts.  It will be regrettable if they choose to head down the partisan road of issuing subpoenas and demanding show trials when I have agreed to make key White House officials and documents available.  I have proposed a reasonable way to avoid an impasse.  I hope they don‘t choose confrontation.  I will oppose any attempts to subpoena White House officials.

As we cut through all the partisan rhetoric, it‘s important to maintain perspective on a couple of important points.  First, it was natural and appropriate for members of the White House staff to consider and to discuss with the Justice Department whether to replace all 93 U.S.  attorneys at the beginning of my second term.  The start of a second term is a natural time to discuss the status of political appointees within the White House and with relevant agencies, including the Justice Department.  In this case, the idea was rejected and was not pursued.

Second, it is common for me, members of my staff and the Justice Department to receive complaints from members of Congress in both parties and from other citizens.  And we did hear complaints and concerns about U.S. attorneys.  Some complained about the lack of vigorous prosecution of election fraud cases, while others had concerns about immigration cases not being prosecuted.  These concerns are often shared between the White House and the Justice Department, and that is completely appropriate.

I also want to say something to the U.S. attorneys who‘ve resigned.  I appreciate your service to the country, and while I strongly support the attorney general‘s decision and am confidant he acted appropriately, I regret that these resignations turned into such a public spectacle.

It‘s now my hope that the United States Congress will act appropriately.  My administration has made a very reasonable proposal.  It‘s not too late for Democrats to drop the partnership and work together.  Democrats now have to choose whether they will waste time and provoke an unnecessary confrontation or whether they will join us in working to do the people‘s business.  There are too many important issues, from funding our troops to comprehensive immigration reform to balancing the budget, for us to accomplish on behalf of the American people.

Thank you for your time.  Now I‘ll answer a couple of questions.  Deb?

QUESTION:  Mr. President, are you still completely convinced that the administration did not (INAUDIBLE) any political pressure in the firings of these attorneys?

BUSH:  Deb, there is no indication that anybody did anything improper.  And I‘m sure Congress has that question.  That‘s why I‘ve put forth a reasonable proposal for people to be comfortable with the decisions and how they were made.  Al Gonzales and his team will be testifying.  We have made available people on my staff to be interviewed, and we‘ve made an unprecedented number of documents available.

QUESTION:  Sir, are you convinced (ph) personally...

BUSH:  There‘s no indication whatsoever after reviews by the White House staff that anybody did anything improper.  Michael?

QUESTION:  Is today‘s offer from Mr. Fielding your best and final offer on this?  Are you going to go to the mats in protecting the principle that you talked about?  And why not—you know, since you say nothing wrong was done by your staff, why not just clear the air and let Karl Rove and other senior aides testify in public under oath?

BUSH:  Well...

QUESTION:  There‘s been a precedent for previous administrations doing that.

BUSH:  On some (INAUDIBLE) my choice is to make sure that I safeguard the ability for presidents to get good decisions.  Michael, I‘m worried about precedents that would make it difficult for somebody to walk into the Oval Office and say, Mr. President, here‘s what‘s on my mind.  And if you haul somebody up in front of Congress and put him under oath and, you know, all the klieg lights and all the questioning, it—to me, it makes it very difficult for a president to get good advice.  On the other hand, I understand there is a need for information sharing on this, and I put forth what I thought was a rational proposal.  And the proposal I put forward is the proposal.

QUESTION:  (INAUDIBLE) go to the mat?  You‘ll take this to court...

BUSH:  Absolutely.  I hope the Democrats choose not to do that.  If they truly are interesting in information—in other words, if they want to find out what went on between the White House and the Justice Department, they need to read all the e-mails we released.  If they‘re truly interested in finding out what took place, I have proposed a way for them to find out what took place.

My concern is they would rather be involved with, you know, partisanship.  They do this as an opportunity to score political points.  And anyway, the proposal we put forward is a good one.  I mean, it really is a way for people to get information.  We‘ll just find out what‘s on their mind.  Kelly (INAUDIBLE)

QUESTION:  Sir, in at least a few instances, the attorneys that were dismissed were actively investigating Republicans, in San Diego, in Arizona, in Nevada.  By removing them, wouldn‘t that have possibly impeded or stopped those investigations?  And sir, if I may also ask about the attorney general?  He does not have support among many Republicans and Democrats.  Can he still be effective?

BUSH:  Yes, he‘s got support with me.  I support the attorney general.  I told you in Mexico I‘ve got confidence in him, and I still do.  He‘s going to go up to Capitol Hill and he‘s going to explain the very same questions you asked.  You know, I‘ve heard all these allegations and rumors, and people just need to hear the truth, and they‘re going to go up and explain the truth.

QUESTION:  In San Diego, Nevada, Arizona, Republicans were the targets of investigations, and those U.S. attorneys were removed.  Does that not give the appearance...

BUSH:  Why don‘t—why don‘t—it may give the appearance of something, but I think what you need to do is listen to the facts and let them explain to you.  That‘s precisely why they‘re going up to testify, so that the American people can hear the truth about why the decision was made.

Listen, first of all, these U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president.  I named them all.  And the Justice Department made recommendations which the White House accepted that eight of the 93 would no longer serve.  And they will go up and make the explanations.  That‘s what—I‘m sorry this, frankly, has bubbled to the surface the way it has for the U.S. attorneys involved.  I really am.  These are—I put them in there in the first place.  They‘re decent people.  They—you know, they serve at our pleasure.  And yet now they‘re being held up and there‘s—and to the scrutiny of all this, and it‘s just—it‘s—it‘s—what I said in my comments I meant about them.  I appreciated their service, and I‘m sorry that the situation has gotten to where it‘s gotten, but that‘s Washington, D.C., for you.  You know, there‘s a lot of politics in this town.

And I repeat, we would like people to hear the truth.  And Kelly, your question is one I‘m confident will be asked of people up there, and the Justice Department will answer that question in open forum for everybody to see.  If the Democrats truly do want to move forward and find the right information, they ought to accept what I proposed.

And the idea of dragging White House members up there to score political points or to, you know, put the klieg lights out there, which will harm the president‘s ability to get good information, Michael, is—is—I really do believe will show the true nature of the—of this debate.  And if information is the desire, there‘s a great way forward.  Scoring political points is a desire, then the rejection of this reasonable proposal will really be—will really be evident for the American people to see.

Listen, thank you all for your interest.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s the president of the United States.  Let me go to Andrea.  I have never seen the president so loaded for bear—“klieg lights,” “show trials”...

MITCHELL:  Right!

MATTHEWS:  ... “partisan fishing expedition.”  He‘s more colorful than I‘ve ever seen him tonight!

MITCHELL:  “Show trials,” “score political points”—he was on message!  This is basically him saying, We‘re going to fight this thing out.  We‘re going to tell the American people that this is all politics.  That‘s the way they want to frame it.  And they‘ve decided to stand and fight because they probably have figured out that it would be more damaging to go up there and testify and then have to potentially face another confirmation for an attorney general.

MATTHEWS:  And they can win a long, dragged-out fight in the courts, too.  At least it would stretch for two years or so, wouldn‘t it?  It would just go on and on, wouldn‘t it, a fight over contempt?

MITCHELL:  Well, very interesting.  Our buddy, our guy, Pete Williams, has pointed out that if there were a charge or if there were a vote of contempt and it went all the way to a U.S. prosecutor, who would then indict an official for refusing to testify, being in contempt of Congress, it could go to trial.  This happened once before.  And who is pushing the defense of the White House?  Fred Fielding...

MATTHEWS:  Right.

MITCHELL:  ... the Reagan White House counsel.

MATTHEWS:  It sounds like he...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Andrea, it sounds like the White House is willing to pay the thousand bucks fine...

MITCHELL:  Exactly.

MATTHEWS:  ... and keep the case going.  It did remind me, however, of the great phrase, the infamous phrase “Bring ‘em on.”  He does feel he has the fight in his hands here.  Is it because Gonzales is a popular figure in the Latino community?  Is this about Texas loyalty?  What are the fighting terms here for the president?  Why is he saying, I‘m going to the mattresses over this guy, you guys are going to lose?

MITCHELL:  I think it‘s Texas loyalty.  He‘s his guy.  And I think they also decided, risk-benefit, that there was more to risk by putting him up there and by getting rid of him.  But I do think this White House was divided.  You cannot misread the signals coming from Tony Snow and others in the White House as recently as yesterday.  So there were those in the White House who wanted to let him go, but obviously, the president has now made his decision.

MATTHEWS:  God, he was Jim Bowie at the Alamo tonight!  I‘ve never seen him like that, at least in a long time.  Thank you very much, Andrea Mitchell.

MITCHELL:  You bet.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Matt, and we‘ll talk to you later, Matt Continenti.  And of course, Jill Zuckman, thank you for hanging in there.

Play HARDBALL with us again Wednesday.  Our guests will include former House Republican leader, “the Hammer” himself, Tom DeLay.  And boy, does he have a list of scalps he‘s out for!

Right now it‘s time 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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