updated 7/9/2007 11:57:55 AM ET 2007-07-09T15:57:55

Guests: Dan Froomkin, Dana Milbank, Shelly Cohen, Fouad Ajami, Paul Rieckhoff, Rep. Dan Burton, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz

DAVID SHUSTER, GUEST HOST:  Independence Day.  Republicans got an earful and are now breaking ranks with the president over the war.  Fireworks for everybody.

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

And welcome to HARDBALL, everybody.  I‘m David Shuster, in for Chris Matthews.

Just two days after the July 4th holiday, it‘s becoming increasingly clear what lawmakers heard this week while they were at home talking to their constituents, and now another powerful Republican senator, the third in the last two weeks, has abandoned the president‘s war in Iraq.  Six-term senator Pete Domenici is calling for an immediate change in strategy, saying talks with voters in his home state of New Mexico, especially family members of soldiers, killed, made him question his staunch support for the president‘s escalation.

For President Bush, who is turning 61 years old today, this is not the message from Congress that adds up to “Happy Birthday.”  In a moment, we will talk to two lawmakers on what Congress will do and not do when the House and Senate goes back into session next week.

But first, Scooter Libby.  The president‘s decision to keep Libby out of jail in the CIA leak investigation continues to polarize the president‘s own party.  And now a second controversy is gaining steam, thanks to a columnist who advocated for Libby‘s freedom by comparing Libby to U.S.  soldiers killed in Iraq.

Fouad Ajami is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and the author of “The Foreigner‘s Gift.”  Thanks for joining us.

FOUAD AJAMI, AUTHOR, “THE FOREIGNER‘S GIFT”:  Thank you.

SHUSTER:  Mr. Ajami, last month in a column in “The Wall Street Journal,” you wrote, quote, “In the soldier‘s creed, there is a particularly compelling principle, ‘I will never leave a fallen comrade.‘  Scooter Libby was a soldier in your—our—war in Iraq.  He can‘t be left behind as a casualty of a war our country had once proudly claimed as its own.”

Mr. Ajami, do you really believe that Scooter Libby is like the 3,600 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq?

AJAMI:  Well, I don‘t really need to be lectured on the soldiers killed in Iraq.  I spent enormous amount of time in Iraq.  I‘ve spent enormous amount of time with the American soldiers in Iraq.  And I don‘t want to personalize this.  I have a nephew serving with the American military as a...

SHUSTER:  Which makes all this even more...

AJAMI:  ... lieutenant in Iraq.

SHUSTER:  ... puzzling.  With all due respect...

AJAMI:  No, I think...

SHUSTER:  ... Mr. Ajami, to take somebody like Scooter Libby and to compare him to somebody like your nephew...

AJAMI:  No, I think...

SHUSTER:  ... or somebody who‘s actually wearing the uniform...

AJAMI:  Right...

SHUSTER:  ... raises a lot of questions.  And we‘re just trying to get at those questions.

AJAMI:  Well, I think you just—you have to—this was—this was

you‘re following in the footsteps of Paul Krugman, who had a column in “The New York Times.”  This is—you have to be able to handle metaphor.  It really was a metaphor that there was this war that we waged in Iraq, we wage with a congressional authorization.  The country...

SHUSTER:  Mr. Ajami, if it was a metaphor, why didn‘t you point out that it was a metaphor in your column?

AJAMI:  Why should I?

SHUSTER:  The word metaphor is never in your column.

AJAMI:  Why should I?  Writing—writing doesn‘t tell you this is a metaphor.  I just meant that this was—here was this man who was part of the decision-making process.  He was one of inner circle of the president, and people were walked away from him and they left him holding the bag.  And we know he hadn‘t been the one who leaked the name of Valerie Plame...

SHUSTER:  I got to stop you right there.  I know where you‘re going with this because you mentioned in your column something that was wrong.  You said, Oh, we know that Richard Armitage was the leaker, as if there was just one leaker.  But in fact, people who have followed this case, Mr.  Ajami, know that Richard Armitage would have only had this information about Valerie Wilson only because Scooter Libby asked the State Department for the information and it just happened to be given to Richard Armitage.

And in fact, it came out at trial that seven different people talked with Scooter Libby about Valerie Wilson, that Libby made requests of the State Department, that Libby made requests of the CIA, that Vice President Cheney told Scooter Libby about Valerie Wilson.

So for you to say that we know that Scooter Libby was not the leaker, that is simply wrong.

AJAMI:  Well, I think you‘re wrong in the sense, you know, we‘re—there had been no underlying crime.  This—if you had read the column...

SHUSTER:  And if you had followed the prosecutor, you would know there was no underlying...

AJAMI:  But see, I...

SHUSTER:  ... crime that he could charge.

AJAMI:  Right...

SHUSTER:  The whole issue was that because Scooter Libby lied and obstructed the investigation, prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was not able to make a call.

AJAMI:  But this should have never been criminalized to begin with.  This was part of the debate on the Iraq war.  Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame were protagonists in this debate.  And I think it should not have been a criminal enterprise.

For your information, for example, I actually happen to believe that Ken Starr was a runaway prosecutor.  I don‘t believe—I don‘t like these prosecutions.  I don‘t like criminalizing policy differences.  There was a huge debate in our country about the Iraq war, and the debate between the administration and Joe Wilson was a political debate.  It should have remained a political debate.

And if you want—if you really are looking for the road to perdition, the road to perdition began with the president, who said early on in this crisis anyone who had anything to do with this will be fired, and so on.  There should have never been an independent prosecutor looking into this.

SHUSTER:  But the fact of the matter is, Mr. Ajami, that Karl Rove had something to do with this.  We know that he leaked.  He is still working there.  We know that Scooter Libby left, but now he‘s had his prison sentence commuted.  Why do you believe that Scooter Libby lied to the FBI and lied to the grand jury if this was simply a matter of politics?

AJAMI:  Well, I think you—you know, you made again—I mean, when you are saying that Karl Rove was one of the leakers—I‘m not defending Karl Rove, I‘m only defending Scooter Libby.  I—I—I just—the principle that interested me was that we don‘t make one man responsible for this.  This was a calamity, if you will.  If the leaking of this name was wrong, then many, many people participated in this error, and the idea that Scooter Libby would be left alone to shoulder the burden of this issue was what drove me to write this column.

SHUSTER:  But Mr. Ajami, that is exactly the point, and that is prosecutors do suspect that, yes, there were many people involved in this, including the vice president.  But when Scooter Libby testified to the grand jury, as he did, and said, Yes, I had conversations about Valerie Wilson with the vice president, but, oh, I can‘t remember what the vice president told me—come on, Mr. Ajami.  You know better than that.

AJAMI:  Well, you know, Michael Kinsley is a very intelligent man, the former editor of “The New Republic,” among many things.  And he said something the other day in “The New York Times” which I completely endorse.  These were questions that were asked of Libby that should have never been asked, just as the questions that were asked of Bill Clinton some years ago should have never been asked.

SHUSTER:  But Mr. Ajami, these questions were asked in the fall of 2003, before Patrick Fitzgerald had even been named as special counsel.

AJAMI:  Right.

SHUSTER:  Scooter Libby was interviewed by the FBI, and one of the charges he was convicted of was lying to the FBI.  And again, why do you believe that Scooter Libby lied to the FBI?

AJAMI:  Well, I don‘t—I don‘t know that he did.  I don‘t—this is not—this is—my—the goal—my—the goal of this piece—the goal of—the purpose of this column was very simple, that our country engaged in this war in Iraq with a vast (ph) congressional authorization.  Then buyers‘ remorse settled upon this war.  And there was a war within the administration, the CIA and State on one side, the vice president‘s office on the other.  And then you have Joe Wilson is caught up in this debate.  And the idea that we just simply single out Scooter Libby and we leave Rich Armitage, for example, I found that deeply morally offensive, and that‘s why...

SHUSTER:  But a lot of people, Mr. Ajami, find it very offensive that you would dare compare Scooter Libby to soldiers who have had their limbs blown off in Iraq.  But in any case, we thank you for coming on.  We appreciate it.

We called Paul Rieckhoff, the founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, for a response.  And he asked to come on with us now, and Paul joins us now on phone.

Paul, what‘s your take on all this?

PAUL RIECKHOFF, IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN VETERANS OF AMERICA:  I think it‘s absurd, David.  I think it‘s a new low and act of desperation here to defend a man by comparing him to fallen soldiers.  I have friends who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I‘ve served in Iraq myself.  And the gentleman cites the soldier‘s creed.  Well, part of the soldier‘s creed is to say that you will uphold the Army values and live the Army values.  Those values include honor, integrity, personal courage.  They don‘t include lying and breaking the law.  So I think it‘s a really absurd analogy and comparison here to compare Scooter Libby to fallen soldiers.  I think it‘s ridiculous.

SHUSTER:  Mr. Ajami, your reaction?

AJAMI:  Well, once again, Mr. Shuster, once again, it‘s about the metaphor.  The country went to war, and the country went to war with a congressional authorization.  And if the debate about the Iraq war had to be joined, it had to be joined not in a court of law, it had to be joined politically.  And so the argument about Scooter Libby and the case for clemency for him, as far as I was concerned, rested on the ethic of not leaving this man to shoulder the burden of a big controversy in our country.  And that‘s the metaphor of the fallen soldier.  That‘s what it‘s about.

And like I said, I repeat for you, for your benefit, I‘ve spent enormous time—enormous amount of time in Iraq, seven trips, and visits with the military, sympathy for the military, support for the military runs through this book I wrote, runs through everything I‘ve done in the last few years about Iraq.  So I need no lectures from anyone about my support for the military.  I think that...

SHUSTER:  Mr. Ajami, though, we have somebody from the military who is on the phone.  And again, I‘d like to turn to Paul Rieckhoff.  And Paul, do you think that there are some soldiers who would find the comparison at all similar to say, Well, somebody spending 30 months in jail is somehow equivalent to losing their life in Iraq?

RIECKHOFF:  No, not at all.  I mean, I understand it‘s an analogy and a comparison, but it‘s a terrible one.  And I think it‘s an insult to people who are on the ground.  If you‘re going to use us as props for a political argument to defend Scooter Libby, you have to understand that we‘re going to push back.

And Scooter Libby does not embody the Army values.  He is not an honorable soldier by breaking the law and lying.  It‘s quite the opposite.  And I think the soldiers who are serving in Iraq are doing honorable service, and they continue to do that and they will going forward.  But I think it‘s an act of desperation to somehow pull our men and women who are fighting and dying into this convoluted argument.  I think it‘s ridiculous.

He has a right to make it, and that‘s why people serve in the military, to give him that right and protect that right.  But it‘s a bad one—it‘s a bad argument, and it doesn‘t hold much water, in my book.

SHUSTER:  And Paul, if somebody was convicted of four felonies, would they even be entitled to serve in the military?

RIECKHOFF:  No, they‘d be in military prison right now.  We saw that with Abu Ghraib.  And I think that we‘ve seen that people who break the law within the military are held to a very high standard.  They will continue to be.  And I don‘t think it‘s at all analogous to what Scooter Libby has experienced and will face going forward.  I didn‘t see any pardons issued for the people at Abu Ghraib or any type of clemency even considered.  And I think this is really a just a reach on the gentleman‘s part here.

SHUSTER:  Mr. Ajami, would you like to apologize for your position on the Iraq war, given that Iraq has created more al Qaeda than it had to begin with?

AJAMI:  No, not at all.  I think this is a noble war and I think it‘s still being fought and fought well by our military.  I think that the outcome of the war is not sealed.  Our country will judge this war, and if people defect from this war, if they think this war is not worth fighting, well, then the verdict will come in.

But I still believe that the war is being fought well.  I still believe in the mission of General Petraeus.  I still believe in what we‘re doing in Iraq.  And no, I don‘t think—and I think this simple argument that the Iraq war bred terrorism and bred al Qaeda—I have been studying Arab politics for many—for more than three decades.  I speak the language.  I know the material.  And the attacks of September 11 and the terror of trail (ph), the whole world of terror that came our way in the ‘90s predated the Iraq war.  So it‘s a kind of a desperate argument, but it‘s till...

SHUSTER:  Mr. Ajami, I‘m not going to let you end this with the idea that Iraq was part of 9/11, when everybody knows—everybody knows—Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.  But in any case...

AJAMI:  Well, but you can‘t...

SHUSTER:  ... thank you, Fouad Ajami.

AJAMI:  But you can‘t handle metaphor.

SHUSTER:  We appreciate you coming in.  And also thanks to Paul Rieckhoff for joining us.

When we return, Congressman Dan Burton and Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz react to our fight about Scooter Libby and the fight that is looming next week over Iraq.

And next Tuesday is another day of special super Tuesday coverage all day here on MSNBC.  And we want to hear from you.  Take part in our live votes and send us your e-mails at Gutcheck.msnbc.com.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  And welcome back to HARDBALL.  Democratic congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida is a member of the Appropriations Committee, and Republican congressman Dan Burton of Indiana is a member of Foreign Affairs Committee and led congressional hearings on President Clinton‘s pardons and commutations.

Congressman Burton, I want to start with you.  We just heard Fouad Ajami compare Scooter Libby to our soldiers in Iraq, and we heard from Paul Rieckhoff, who actually served in Iraq, who said, No way.  Do you consider Scooter Libby a soldier in the war in Iraq?

REP. DAN BURTON ®, INDIANA:  I‘m not going to get into that argument that you just completed.  What I‘m going to say is this.  Selective judgment and criticism is something I think is terrible.  Bill Clinton pardoned terrorists.  He pardoned people who broke the law.  He himself committed perjury and was never disbarred.  He had a temporary suspension, but that was it.  He never went to jail.  He committed perjury, told the American people lies!

SHUSTER:  But Congressman Burton, let‘s get this straight.  You supported Bill Clinton‘s impeachment for perjury and obstruction of justice, right?

BURTON:  Yes.  Yes, I did.

SHUSTER:  But now you support the commutation for Scooter Libby for perjury and obstruction of justice.

BURTON:  I think that Scooter Libby, being in the position that he was in, made a big mistake and...

SHUSTER:  But you don‘t think he should spend a single day in jail for that mistake, even though you were willing to impeach a president who was elected twice.

BURTON:  Was Bill Clinton—he did he serve any time?  Did Bill Clinton get  any penalty at all?  Was he disbarred?

SHUSTER:  Yes, history judged him pretty harshly.  But the point is...

(CROSSTALK)

BURTON:  It‘s going to judge Scooter Libby, as well.  But you know, don‘t be selective in your judgment.  You know, I know you‘re a strong Democrat and a liberal.

(LAUGHTER)

BURTON:  But be fair.

SHUSTER:  You should have seen my coverage...

BURTON:  But be fair.

SHUSTER:  ... of Bill Clinton during the pardons.  I was covering your hearings, Congressman, the fact of the matter is.  But let‘s get back to this point.  The point is that you believe that when it‘s perjury and obstruction of justice involving somebody who probably has information about the vice president, information that‘s no longer going to get out, it‘s fine for him not to spend a single day in jail, but it‘s fine when a Democrat commits perjury and obstruction of justice for them to be impeached, right?

BURTON:  Did Bill Clinton go to jail?  I don‘t remember that.  Did Bill Clinton...

SHUSTER:  You tried to impeach him!  You tried to throw him out of office!

BURTON:  Well, but he was not convicted of the impeachment!  He didn‘t go to jail!  He was prosecuted—going to be prosecuted for perjury and lose his license to practice law.  And you never said a thing about that.  And...

SHUSTER:  Actually, I did, as a matter of fact.  I covered every one of your hearings when I was working in my former job.

But let‘s go to Congressman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.  You believe that President Clinton should not have been impeached, is that correct?

REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ (D), FLORIDA:  Well, I was in the Florida House of Representatives when that impeachment was prosecuted, so you know, at the time, no, I didn‘t think that President Clinton should be impeached.

But I think the important thing to note that my colleague is conveniently leaving out is that President Clinton, unlike Mr. Libby, was not convicted.  He was prosecuted by the House, he was impeached, he was not convicted by the Senate, unlike Mr. Libby, who was prosecuted, and convicted by a jury of his peers, had a judge hand down the sentence, and then had the president of the United States swoop in and rescue him from that sentence in contradiction to his own Department of Justice‘s advocacy just two weeks ago for a similar sentence of 33 months for the same crime that a government official was convicted of.

Victor Rita was convicted of obstruction of justice and lying to prosecutors, and he got 33 months in jail.  The Department of Justice supported vehemently that conviction and that sentence in front of the Supreme Court, and instead—but the president for Scooter Libby, a different standard for the same crime.  There is apparently no amount of time in jail that‘s appropriate.  This is an example of hypocrisy of immeasurable proportions.

SHUSTER:  Congressman...

SCHULTZ:  It‘s obvious that this administration...

SHUSTER:  Congressman Burton, why don‘t you respond to that?

SCHULTZ:  ... has no shame, no shame at all.

BURTON:  Yes, my...

SCHULTZ:  And they continue to demonstrate how they have no shame.

BURTON:  My response is that Bill Clinton lied to a grand jury twice. 

He committed...

SCHULTZ:  You know, Congressman...

BURTON:  He committed—let me—go ahead.

SCHULTZ:  You desperately want to make this about Bill Clinton, and this is about President Bush and the fact that his administration has spent the last six-and-a-half years operating as if the law does not apply to them.  And...

SHUSTER:  Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz, let him go with this whole idea about lying to the grand jury because I‘m intrigued with where he‘s going here.

SCHULTZ:  You know what?  You‘re right.

SHUSTER:  Go ahead, Congressman Burton.  Go ahead.

SCHULTZ:  I‘m going to sit back and let him cook his own goose.

BURTON:  Bill Clinton committed perjury twice.  He was going to be indicted and he was going to be prosecuted, because of his position...

SCHULTZ:  Woulda, shoulda, coulda.

BURTON:  And he—he spent $25,000.  He lost his license to practice law for about six or seven months, and then he got it all back.  He didn‘t go to jail for perjury.  He didn‘t go to jail for lying.

SHUSTER:  So clearly, Congressman Burton, you would have preferred if President Clinton had been prosecuted.  So here‘s the question.  How much time should somebody spend in jail if they are convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice?  Should they spend one day?  Should they spend three weeks?  Should they spend three months?

BURTON:  I think the same rule of law should be applied to everybody, including President Bill Clinton, and it was not.  And he also pardoned...

SCHULTZ:  Really?  Well, the Senate didn‘t...

BURTON:  Listen...

SCHULTZ:  Really?  Well, the Senate didn‘t - let me remind you, the Senate didn‘t convict him.  So the same rule of law applies to him.

BURTON:  That was a different situation.

SCHULTZ:  Let me ask you a question.  Exactly, it was a different situation that you are trying to compare to this situation.  That‘s the only argument you‘ve made for the last two or three minutes.  It is not comparable.  President Clinton was not convicted by the Senate and what would have happened to him if he was?  He would have been removed from office, appealable to no one.  In this case, Scooter Libby was convicted.  Who rescued him?   The president of the United States.

BURTON:  The perjury.

SCHULTZ:  They were both accused of perjury.

BURTON:  Let me know when you want me to talk. 

SCHULTZ:  Both accused of obstruction of justice.  Feel free to go ahead.

BURTON:  The perjury charge was entirely  different from the impeachment  and you know that he was charged with perjury for lying  to a grand jury not once but twice, and to the American  people. 

He looked right in the camera and says I want to tell you something.  The American people know that.  Now let me just say one more thing and then you can say what you want to.

He pardoned terrorists, the Puerto Rican terrorists.  He pardoned people who were drug dealers, he pardoned Marc Rich, who was the No. 2 wanted by the FBI and who they tried to get for  years and he never even was allowed  to go to trial.  Clinton pardoned him.  He tried to pardon other people that his brother and his wife was trying to get pardoned.

SHUSTER:  But Congressman Burton, given that Marc Rich‘s attorney was Scooter Libby, I‘m even more surprised that you would support a commutation of Scooter Libby.

Furthermore, I think that there are going to be a lot of people in prison today in Florida and in central Indiana who also want pardons and commutations and were going to be wondering, why not me?  But in any case, Congressman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Congressman Dan Burton are staying with us.  Up next, we will talk about the war in Iraq as another Republican senator declares his independence.  How many more will follow and how long can President Bush ignore them?  You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We are back with Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Congressman Dan Burton.  Here is what Republican Senator Pete Domenici said yesterday, quote: “We cannot continue asking our troops to sacrifice indefinitely while the Iraqi government is not making measurable progress,” Domenici said.  “I do not support an immediate withdrawal from Iraq or a reduction in funding for our troops.  But I do support a new strategy that will move our troops out of combat operations and on the path to coming home.”

Congressman Burton, this follows on the heels of one of your colleagues, Congressman Doolittle who said today that he also supports the Iraq Study Group plan.  What to you make of all this?

BURTON:  Well there are two things that I would like to say.  First of all, I agree with Joe Lieberman.  I think he understands the situation very well.  He knows what the stakes are. 

If we pull out of there, that is going to create a vacuum that is going to be filled by Iran and the terrorists.  And it is going to be a bigger problem that we are going to have to face down the road.  We already know there are terrorists attacks that are taking place around the world.  That is not going to go away and if we create a vacuum over there, it‘s just going to give them a base of operations from which to launch attacks worldwide.

SHUSTER:  Congressman, your republican colleagues don‘t believe that now.  They believe we are making more of a mess of THE situation by saying there.

BURTON:  Don‘t generalize, you are talking about three senators.  I haven‘t seen an overwhelming number of Republicans in the House.  The surge will not be judged until September.  Congress gave General Petraeus until September and to give us a report.  I don‘t know why everybody is jumping the gun right now.  Let‘s wait until September and see what it looks like and then judge.

SHUSTER:  Did you ask your Indiana colleague, Dick Lugar about why he is making a judgment as early as next week?

BURTON:  I have great respect for Dick Lugar, but we don‘t always agree.  That doesn‘t mean I don‘t think he‘s a great senator, but on this subject, I have a different point of view.

SHUSTER:  Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz, a number of Republicans and moderate Democrats do seem to be lining up behind this idea of endorsing.  I think it‘s the Salazar proposal in the Senate, there will be something equivalent in the House—where you essentially back what the Iraq Study Group recommended, which calls for withdrawal of most U.S. troops by March.  I know that some Democrats like yourself want it to be sooner, but would you accept a withdrawal by March?

SCHULTZ:  Yes, I would and I have voted as such.  What we need to do is endorse what the Iraq Study Group said  at the time, which was to shift from a combat focus mission to a training mission and that is  the—those are the proposals  that the Democratic leadership  in the House and the Senate that have put forward. 

It is cheer that senior Republican leaders in the Senate are now beginning to sign onto that notion.  Unfortunately, the Republican leadership in the House continues to be politics for the administration and they continue to fail to see that this is a failed policy in Iraq, that the American people no longer and never did support it because it was prosecuted under false pretenses to begin with.

SHUSTER:  But Congresswoman, what‘s wrong with Congressman  Burton‘s point about that the escalation has only been  fully implemented for a month?  What is wrong with giving it another couple of months to see how it plays out?

SCHULTZ:  How many more soldiers have to die?  I mean, how many more tours of duty do we have to send them on?

I have been to Walter Reed, met with the soldiers who have had their arms and their legs blown off, completely not comparable to the prosecution and the work of Scooter Libby, although your prior guest would have liked to have made that comparison. 

These are real people that we are talking about.  They‘re not some amorphous blob of an army that we don‘t know who they are.  They are people with families.  We have got to make sure that we have a number of troops over there to train the Iraqis to stand up on their own, put pressure on the Iraqi government to begin to operate on their own and be able to function as an independent government and know that at they are not going to have a never-ending amount of support from the United States of America.  At some point, soon, we need to bring those troops home.  I voted in favor of the last.

SHUSTER: . Congressman, we‘ve got to wrap it up.

SCHULTZ:  We have to make sure we bring the troops home as soon as  possible. 

SHUSTER:  Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz from vacation in Manchester, New Hampshire and Congressman Dan Burton from Indianapolis, thank you both.

Up next, how many more Republicans will follow Pete Domenici and break from the president and how long can  President Bush ignore them?  You are watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET REPORT)

SHUSTER:  And welcome back to HARDBALL.  Time now to dig into the day‘s  hottest political stories and here to do it with us, Dan Froomkin from WashingtonPost.com, the “Washington Post‘s” Dana Milbank and Shelly Cohen of the “Boston Herald.”

First up, GOP jumping ship.  First it was Senate stalwart Dick Lugar, then Senator George Voinovich and now it‘s New Mexico‘s Pete Domenici.  What do they have in common?  They‘re all influential Republicans who have parted ways with the president on the Iraq war.  Will the president‘s party wait until September to call for a change if course or is the pressure mounting to do something sooner?

Dana Milbank, you wrote a hilarious piece today about some of the audio problems when reporters were patched into this news reporter yesterday and you couldn‘t hear.  The fact that not being able to hear Domenici was such a big deal to me indicates this was a big story.

DANA MILBANK, WASHINGTON POST:  Right, most of the time we wouldn‘t really care whether we heard Domenici or not.  But what is with these Republicans who turn against the war?

Lugar gives his speech 8:00 at night to an empty Senate chamber, barely noticed that it happened.  Then Domenici gives this press conference on short notice in Albuquerque.  We‘re trying to listen in from Washington.  He said I would like to announce.  Fortunately, enough of it got through to know that there is yet another blow to the Iraq policy.  And I actually think this one is more serious than the three prior.

SHUSTER:  And why is it so serious?

MILBANK:  Because he says he wants to  take it up now as part of the defense authorization bill, which will be taken up in the next week or two.  Now it‘s unclear what kind of vote he is going to get. 

He doesn‘t much care about the legislation in particular, he wants to get a negotiation going with the White House and he really thinks he can cause the president to cave on this.

SHUSTER:  And Dan Froomkin, a number of Democrats  have been demanding right now,  we want the troops out right  now.  It seems like what Domenici, Voinovich and Lugar are backing is this idea of  well, we will start getting out and have them out by March.  Is that acceptable to Democrats?

DAN FROOMKIN, WASHINGTONPOST.COM:  Well it‘s funny because the bloggers refer to the six-month period as the Friedman unit in honor of Tom Friedman, the columnist from the “New York Times,” that it‘s always going to be make or break in about six months, no matter when you‘re talking.

You know, it‘s hard to say what the timing is.  I think that the fact of the matter is that George Bush is not in the mood to compromise and it‘s going to take a large number of members in Congress to actually force him to do something and I‘m not sure the Republicans have it in them.  I‘m not sure that Democrats have it in them.

SHUSTER:  Shelly Cohen from the “Boston Herald” joins us as well.  And Shelly, are the Republicans though getting to close to the numbers where they can essentially ignore President Bush? 

SHELLLY COHEN, BOSTON HERALD:  Well, they are and they are also looking at the 2008  election come barreling down the pike. 

So they have got a couple very painful months ahead of them.  When they are back in the district as then—the story that Pete Domenici told about talking to the father of a dead Iraqi soldier was just heart rending. 

So, they are going to hear a lot of stories like that back in the district.  And they are not going to be eager to come back to the same old same old in Washington. 

SHUSTER:  And Dan Froomkin, the pressure especially on Domenici as he is tied up in this U.S. attorney‘s scandal and the pressure on Doolittle, the congressman who came out and said we need a change in Iraq is that he may be indicted soon in the Abramoff scandal. 

FROOMKIN:  Well, the big pressure behind all of this is the American public is against the warm.  I mean, it is overwhelmingly against the war now.

You haven‘t been hearing this come from Republicans too much because the focus has been on the Republican presidential candidate.  They are mostly playing to their base which itself is not necessarily in favor of war, but certainly more in favor of the war than the public at large.  So I think you‘re going to be hearing more and more of these voices coming out. 

SHUSTER:  Dana Milbank, how do the politics play out next week?

MILBANK:  Well, I think the real question is Harry Reid going to let these six Republican senators and the various  Democrats who have signed on with him get a vote on this?

I think certainly what it looks like is he wants to have a spectacle saying withdraw now, force them to be on the record, Republicans opposing it, thereby causing themselves more embarrassment.

Now this a potential middle road here, are they going to want to let that happen?  We saw this before when John Warner had a squishy little amendment in there and the Democrats were concerned about  that.

FROOMKIN:  I think the battle is a large way is going to be about the rhetoric.  Who is going to be the people supporting the troops? Is it going to be the president supporting the troops or the people trying to get the troops out of Iraq supporting the troops?

SHUSTER:  And Shelly Cohen, the president in his July 4th speech again talked about 9/11 and that the people who attached us in 9/11 are now in Iraq.  What do you make of that sort of rhetoric and does it help the president to sort of blur the distinction between 9/11 and Iraq?

COHEN:  I think most of the American public is far beyond that.  They are not—they are not thinking in the same terms  that George Bush is thinking in anymore. 

And certainly we see that here in New England.  But I think we are seeing that making its way to the heartland of this country.  That‘s why you have got, what, 21 Republican senators up for election in 2008 who are afraid of the policy and afraid of the politics.  And that is a reaction to George Bush‘s speech right now. 

SHUSTER:  Dana Milbank?

MILBANK:  Well, Dick Lugar is not  afraid of anything.  He can serve in the Senate for as long as he wishes. 

SHUSTER:  He was just elected last year. 

MILBANK:  Right.  So, I mean, there are—this is the John Sununu‘s of the world who are hiding and cowering as  anti-war activists, I believe it was yesterday, were marching outside his office in Manchester.

COHEN:  Well, I don‘t know that he was cowering.  I mean, he has signed onto this, Salazar proposal.

SHUSTER:  Yes, but he is very eager to issue press releases saying that he supports the Iraq Study Group, which says we ought to get most of the troops out of there by March. 

But in any case, we will be back with the panel right after this.  And don‘t forget, next Tuesday is super Tuesday all day here on MSNBC.  And we want to hear from you.  Take part in our live votes and send us your videos, text and e-mails at gutcheck.msnbc.com.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Days after the president‘s decision on Scooter Libby‘s sentence, the country is still debating whether the president did the right thing.  Does President Bush‘s decision have a little something for everyone, or nothing for anyone?  And how much attention has he paid to the political mistakes of pardons past?  HARDBALL‘s Jeremy Bronson has the report. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEREMY BRONSON, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  The last four U.S. presidents issued over 1,500 pardons or commutations.  But only a few pose the kind of controversy that President Bush faced over White House aide Scooter Libby.  Earlier this week, President Bush announced that he would commute Libby‘s two and a half year prison sentence.  Libby still had to pay a 250,000 dollar fine. 

Back in March, a Gallup Poll showed that 2/3rd‘s of the country opposed giving Scooter Libby a free pass. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I thought that the jury verdict should stand.  I felt the punishment was severe. 

BRONSON (on camera):  Why the touchiness?  Because history proves that presidents pay a pretty price for high-profile pardons. 

(voice-over):  According to “Washington Post” polls, after President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon—

GERALD FORD, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  A full, free and absolute pardon onto Richard Nixon—

BRONSON:  -- his approval reading tanked almost 20 points.  Ford went on to lose his job in 1976.  President Reagan heeded the polls in 1987 when he denied a free pass to John Poindexter in the Iran Contra scandal.  Three out of five Americans agreed.  And when president Clinton granted 11th hour amnesty to Mark Rich, his brother Roger Clinton and Whitewater felon Susan Mcdougall, 46 percent of the country wanted a criminal probe into the pardons. 

Of course, there are exceptions.  In 1987, three out of five backed a pardon for Oliver North after his televised testimony before Congress. 

LT COL OLIVER NORTH, USMC:  I don‘t want to leave anyone with the misapprehension that it was simply a matter of keeping it secret from Congress, as I have testified for nearly four days. 

BRONSON:  For President Bush, public opinion is at a critical point.  The latest NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll showed his approval at an all time low, just 29 percent.  And though he now stands to win support from his pro-Libby base, he could also faces his fiercest backlash yet. 

Jeremy Bronson, MSNBC, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  Thank you, Jeremy Bronson.  Great report.  Next up, who is winning the Libby fight?  Republicans argue that every president issues pardons.  Just look at President Clinton.  Democrats say the Libby commutation is different because it precludes a further investigation of Libby‘s bosses, including the vice president. 

Next week House Democrats will hold hearings to go after the Bush administration.  So who is winning?  Some of the fuel to the fire fir Democrats has been a column that Dan Froomkin from WashingtonPost.com wrote.  Dan is here.  Along with us Dana Milbank and Shelly Cohen.  Dan, you wrote this column saying that this could add up to obstruction of justice.  What did you mean? 

DAN FROOMKIN, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  Well, this commutation is like almost no other we have ever seen, in that it is, in fact, commuting the sentence of a high White House official who—and as part of a criminal investigation, that was actually looking at the White House, looking at the behavior of, arguably, this gentleman‘s immediate supervisor, the vice president of the United States, and the president of the United States. 

You covered that trial quite exhaustively.  You know that there was evidence that was shown that Scooter Libby—that the lies and the obstruction of justice that he committed, that the jury convicted him of, was related to things that the vice president was involved in.  The vice president, we know, was the first person to tell Libby about Valerie Plame‘s identity.  The vice president offered a series of talking points that Patrick Fitzgerald argued quite potentially set Libby and others out to talk to reporters about, among other things, Valerie Plame‘s identity. 

We saw a lot of evidence suggesting that Patrick Fitzgerald was actually looking into what Cheney‘s role was in all of this and that Libby‘s lies prevented that investigation from continuing. 

SHUSTER:  The question, Dana Milbank, is it better politics for Democrats to make the charge that this is some sort-cover up or is it better politics for Democrats to try to say Republicans are the law and order party.  Now they are the party of cronyism. 

DANA MILBANK, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  I don‘t think the Democrats have to do a whole lot to profit from this, simply because the country has some deal of outrage here.  The president has some luxury here, and that is in Jeremy‘s report, pointed out that Jerry Ford dropped 20 points.  Well, this president can‘t do that, because he is already at 29.  If he got down to nine percent, that is strictly family members and maybe a couple of college friends.

So I think the Democrats are in a position of—the best thing they can do is ride it out.  I suspect they will look like they are piling on with the hearings. 

SHUSTER:  Shelly Cohen, smart politics?

SHELLY COHEN, “BOSTON HERALD”:  Well, you know, I love you guys, but you are so creatures of the beltway.  Nobody outside the beltway cares.  People have been more concerned about slathering on the number 15 this week tan they were about a pardon for Scooter Libby.  And to the extent that no one outside the beltway really cares what happens to Scooter Libby, then the Republicans have won this round.  

SHUSTER:  Shelly, I agree that I think there are a lot of people out there who don‘t care specifically about Scooter Libby.  But to the extent that this suggests or the Democrats are able to make hay of the idea that this is a White House that blocks investigations, that takes care of its own—I mean, that gets back to the whole issue of corruption, which hurt the Republicans back in 2006, doesn‘t it? 

COHEN:  It reinforces that idea for those who already have that idea.  Does it convince one more human being who wasn‘t already in the big D column that something dreadful has gone on here?  I think not.  I don‘t think there are—real people don‘t understand this case.  Real people don‘t care about this case. 

(CROSS TALK)

SHUSTER:  Dana, go ahead. 

COHEN:  On the Republican right.  On the Republican right who are really furious that this wasn‘t an outright pardon and I‘m reminded of that old Texas expression, the only thing you find in the middle of the road are dead armadillos.  George Bush sort of finds himself in the world of a dead armadillo. 

MILBANK:  Right, you are talking about real Americans and those except for the Ds.  But you have to understand that we now have something like 71 percent of Americans in the other column, as you may be calling them, the big D column here.  So, obviously there are some real Americans who care about this to some extent. 

I think the significance of the events this west is that Bush is saying essentially look, I know I‘m not going to be a 50 percent president.  I‘m not even going to be a 35 percent president.  What I‘m going to do is reward the people who brought me and just solidify the base. 

COHEN:  Although, if he had done that, he would have done a full pardon.  I mean, why the commutation? 

FROOMKIN:  Well, the commutation gives Libby absolutely everything that Libby need.  I think the politics of this are actually a little bit of a distraction, because there are two things.  One is that the act of commutation, I think, simplifies this story in a lot of ways.  And I think it does make it reverberate a little more outside the beltway than the case had thus far. 

The other is that, you know, the—

SHUSTER:  Well, to pick up on your point right there, the reason that the commutation may make it a little easier is because you have the president who is defending what the jury did.  So the president can‘t suddenly say well, pardon.  The president is saying yes, the jury verdict was correct. 

So the issue now is, well, should anybody spend any time in jail when the jury comes back and finds that somebody committed perjury and obstruction of justice. 

FROOMKIN:  And second, journalistically, there are some outstanding questions that absolutely must be answered.  This story I don‘t think we‘re going to let go away until the president addresses some of these issues.

SHUSTER:  Well, we are going to come back with our panel with more on the fight between the Bushes and Clintons over the very issue of commutations and pardons.  And this Sunday, MSNBC‘s “Meet The Press” airs at a special early time.  Senator Chuck Hagel is Tim‘s guest.  You are watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  We are back with TheWashingtonPost.com‘s Dam Froomkin, “The Washington Post‘s” Dana Milbank, and the “Boston Herald‘s” Shelly Cohen.  So, is Scooter Libby hurting Hillary?  Bill and Hillary have been slamming the president‘s decision to spare Scooter Libby jail time.  They say it is part of a bigger flawed philosophy of power.  But the tough talk has also allowed Clinton foes to rip the scab off his controversial pardons, not to mention Bill‘s own tangles with perjury and obstruction of justice. 

All in all, is the Libby fiasco helping or hurting Hillary Clinton? 

Dana Milbank?

MILBANK:  Well, it is helping Democrats—many Democrats more than Hillary Clinton.  And I think she was going to ride this out pretty well until her husband happens to be asked by David Yepsen, prominent reporter in Iowa about this, and instead of just saying that‘s the president‘s business, he jumps in and starts criticizing it, thereby making it open season over at the White House and allowing Tony Snow to use the word Chutzpah, which is an excellent development. 

SHUSTER:  Dan, for the White House to be able to shift the focus away from Scooter Libby to the Clintons—

FROOMKIN:  What a treat for them, yes.  I credit it all to Dana Milbank, actually, who wrote a column Wednesday just eviscerating Tony Snow‘s performance at the Tuesday press briefing.  He was truly hapless.  And Dana, I believe you referred to it as an Alice in Wonderland moment. 

So, I think they regrouped and they said, what can we do to change the topic a little bit?  Let‘s go after the Clintons.  There‘s nothing wrong with that.  The Washington press corps cannot resist a Clinton story.  The base loves nothing more than beating up on the Clintons.

To be honest, the Clinton pardons were probably one of the most indefensible moments of the Clinton presidency. 

SHUSTER:  So Shelley Cohen, is this hurting Hillary Clinton then?  

COHEN:  Well, Both Clintons, let‘s remember, waded into this willingly.  They weren‘t exactly dragged kicking and screaming to this topic.  Of course it is hurting her.  There wasn‘t a news story that was written about their comments this week that then didn‘t mention the 140 pardons issued by Bill Clinton in the waning days of his administration. 

Now, on top of all of that, we still have Hillary‘s brother, who is up against a pardon-related scandal for having accepted a sum of money from someone getting a pardon.  So all of that—I mean, the B material at the end of those stories is devastating to Hillary Clinton‘s campaign. 

SHUSTER:  Shelly Cohen, I want to get back to something we started the show with, and that was Fouad Ajami, who wrote this column saying that Scooter Libby is like the soldiers who have died in Iraq.  What did you make of that? 

COHEN:  I think it is rather an astonishing sort of comparison right off.  I mean, it is one of those that I can‘t imagine—you should have seen the light of day, bizarre in the extreme. 

SHUSTER:  Bizarre in the extreme—if it is bizarre in the extreme, then that hurts neo-con defenders of Scooter Libby, right, to have some guy like Fouad Ajami this making the claim? 

FROOMKIN:  To some extent, although he really is on the edge there.  In general, just to pick up on the Hillary issue, I‘m not sure that this hurts Hillary in the long run.  I think the Democratic candidate who ends up being perceived as the anti-Bush is actually, in the large part, the most likely candidate to do well in the 2008 presidential race.  And if it is Clinton versus Bush, Bush versus Clinton, that‘s all you are talking about.

A, that potentially reflects swell on Hillary.  And B, Obama?  Obama, who? 

SHUSTER:  Dana Milbank, it‘s helpful for the Clintons to have people talking about the Clintons instead of Barack Obama, right?

MILBANK:  True, less helpful to have them talking about Mark Rich. 

Although Scooter was his lawyer. 

SHUSTER:  What about this whole claim though by the people who do want to support Scooter Libby—and there are some perfectly reasonable people out there who want to support him.  But to see this guy like Fouad Ajami saying he is a soldier, just like our soldier in Iraq, doesn‘t that sort of caricature the whole debate?   

MILBANK:  It does.  It‘s an odd remark unless he is suggesting, as many people do, that Scooter is something of a fall guy.  In fact, the one member of the jury who came out and spoke to us after that was saying it sort of looked like he was taking the fall for some other people. 

SHUSTER:  This is a story that I think is going to continue.  Dana Milbank, Dan Froomkin and Shelly Cohen, thank you very much.  Chris Matthews returns Monday on HARDBALL.  Don‘t forget to watch the next Super Tuesday all day long here on MSNBC.  Right now, 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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