updated 4/23/2009 10:34:49 AM ET 2009-04-23T14:34:49

Guests: Howard Fineman, Jan Schakowsky, Jeff Stein, Michael Musto, Steve

Clemons, Margaret Carlson

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, GUEST HOST (voice-over):  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

The tortured logic over the torture memos: President Obama believes releasing the memos and banning torture is enough to uphold the rule of law.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRES. BARACK OBAMA, UNITED STATES:  Our nation is stronger and more secure when we deploy the full measure of both our power and the power of our values—including the rule of law.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  And Obama‘s chief of staff make it‘s clear the Bush administration masterminds of torture are off the hook, too.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS:  What about those who devised the policy?

RAHM EMANUEL, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STATE:  Yes, but those who devised policy, he believes that they were—should not be prosecuted either.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  But tonight, pushback from top congressional Democrats:

Senator Feinstein says, “Not so fast, Mr. President.  Don‘t go exonerating the Bush administration too soon.”

A surprising new twist on an old scandal: Representative Jane Harman, chair of the intel committee, allegedly caught on a wiretap saying, “This conversation doesn‘t exist.”  The reporter who broke the story joins us to explain what‘s going on.

Does this photo scare you?  Former Speaker Newt Gingrich says, “Feel the fear.”

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NEWT GINGRICH, ® FMR. HOUSE SPEAKER:  This does look a lot like Jimmy Carter.  Carter tried weakness and the world got tougher and tougher.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  President Obama demands his cabinet trim the fat.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  Line by line, page by page, $100 million there, $100 million here, pretty soon, even in Washington, it adds up to real money.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  FOX News calls it a Hollywood-esque stunt.

And the calculus behind Rudy‘s latest political move.  He‘s speaking out against gay marriage and talking about the sanctity of traditional marriage—this from a guy who‘s walked down the aisle three times, once with his cousin as his bride.  Michael Musto is in the house.

All that and more—now on COUNTDOWN.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

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SHUSTER:  Good evening from New York.  I‘m David Shuster.  Keith Olbermann has the night off.

Having promised to protect anyone at the CIA who carried out orders to torture terror suspects, President Obama has now been confirmed will also not hold accountable the Bush administration officials who devised the torture program, handed down the orders to torture, or wrote the memos justifying it all.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN: The United Nations‘ expert on torture says not pursing torture prosecution is illegal.  Didn‘t we learn with Watergate that the cover-up is always worse than the initial crime?

The president was greeted like a rock star this afternoon by employees of the CIA at agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia.  White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel stated over the weekend that, quote, “This is not a time for retribution or anger,” when he admitted that President Obama has no interest in going after Bush administration officials.

Today, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs confirmed that‘d the authors of the torture memos are not being held accountable because, quote, “The president is focused on looking forward.”  Except, looking forward by not pursuing torture prosecution is illegal.

United Nations expert on torture, Special Rapporteur Manfred Nowak, explained to the Austrian newspaper, “The Standard,” that the U.S. is obligated to investigate and prosecute any American citizens who are believed to have engaged in torture.  Not to do so would be a violation of international law—especially it would seem if a single terror suspect was tortured 183 times in one month.  The memos reveal that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in March 2003, that‘s six times a day.  Abu Zubaydah waterboarded 83 times in August 2002, an average of 2.6 times a day.

Senator Dianne Feinstein has written a letter to President Obama in which she asks him to hold off exonerating top Bush administration officials until the intelligence committee can hold hearings.

Meanwhile, back at CIA headquarters, President Obama reassured agency members that they‘ve got his full support and he gave his first explanation for why he released the memos.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I acted primarily because of the exceptional circumstances that surrounded these memos, particularly the fact that so much of the information was public, had been publicly acknowledged.  The covert nature of the information had been compromised.

I have fought to protect the integrity of classified information in the past and I will do so in the future.  And there is nothing more important than protecting the identities of CIA officers.  So, I need everybody to be clear.  We will protect your identities and your security as you vigorously pursue your missions.  I will be as vigorous in protecting you as you are vigorous in protecting the American people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  President Obama also emphasized that he has put an end to torture as a CIA job description.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I have put an end to the interrogation techniques described in those OLC memos, and I want to—I want to be very clear and very blunt.  I‘ve done so for a simple reason: because I believe that our nation is stronger and more secure when we deploy the full measure of both our power and the power of our values—including the rule of law.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  That rule of law absent any repercussions for anyone who might have broken the law.  And despite the get-out-of-jail-free card, President Obama with the desire to keep any CIA employees from feeling discouraged.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: So, don‘t be discouraged by what‘s happened the last few weeks.  Don‘t be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we‘ve made some mistakes.  That‘s how we learn.  But the fact that we are willing to acknowledge them and then move forward, that is precisely why I am proud to be president of the United States and that‘s why you should be proud to be members of the CIA.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Time now to call in our own Howard Fineman, senior Washington correspondent for “Newsweek” magazine.

And, Howard, great to see you as always.

HOWARD FINEMAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Hey.  Good evening, David.

SHUSTER:  Howard, if it is illegal not to pursue prosecutions as the U.N. special rapporteur on torture has made clear, doesn‘t President Obama run the risk of making himself a co-conspirator?

FINEMAN:  Well, that doesn‘t seem to be a question that the White House is really in a big hurry to answer—in theory, perhaps.  The problem that they‘ve got is the one you discussed at the beginning, and I was talking to a couple of lawyers about a little earlier, David.  It‘s pretty clear that both under the U.N. treaty and under the United States‘ own law, which was enacted to match that treaty, if you intend to and do inflict severe mental distress on people you have in custody, that‘s torture.  And the administration officials in this administration and indeed in past administrations have said that all that waterboarding was torture.

So, yes, based on the law and the treaty, people should be investigated and perhaps prosecuted for their actions.  The administration has said it‘s not going to happen and that puts them in the dilemma they‘re in.  I would say you‘re watching by the way out there at the CIA, David, President Obama now facing one of the first big conflicts between rhetoric and reality of his presidency.  It‘s been a lot of gravy until now.  Now, it‘s getting down to the hard stuff and it‘s beginning with the CIA.

SHUSTER:  Well, the timing is even stranger.  I mean, Rahm Emanuel and Robert Gibbs have effectively closed the door on any officials being prosecuted.  Why not leave that door open, just a crack for now, and say, “Well, we hope nobody is prosecuted but it‘s important to have an investigation first,” and then there can be a decision?

FINEMAN:  Well, perhaps, unrealistically, they‘re hoping to short circuit the Congress and Democrats on this.  David, I don‘t know that it‘s going to work.  If they leave the door open, they encourage investigations by the Congress.

And as you reported earlier, Senator Dianne Feinstein and others are saying, “Hold off, White House, don‘t make any firm statements until we investigate.”  That‘s exactly what the administration does not want, because they‘re trying to calm the CIA.  You saw the president out there doing it at Langley today.  And also, Obama has a lot of fights to pick with the Republicans as it is.  He doesn‘t want to go down this road and create yet another reason for partisan division at a time when he already has plenty.

SHUSTER:  Why didn‘t President Obama remove himself though from the decision from investigation and from the prosecution entirely?  And if he‘s going to make this decision, essentially have it made by other officials?

FINEMAN:  Well, it‘s very interesting.  He‘s changed his rhetoric here a little bit.  He announced for the first time today that actually a Freedom of Information Act Request suit filed by the ACLU was one of the reasons why he did it, then the White House backed up a little bit on that.

The main reason he didn‘t kick it to somebody else or down to, say, Attorney General Eric Holder, is that that‘s the kind of thing that George Bush used to do.  And once again, I think, Barack Obama is trying to prove that he‘s the guy who really knows the details of what‘s going on and will take responsibility for him.  It would be all-too easy a parallel to make if he stayed out of this decision and let Eric Holder make it on his own.

SHUSTER:  Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in one month, according to this memo.  If torture purportedly works, why would a single suspect need to be waterboarded six times a day?

FINEMAN:  Well, apparently, according to Dick Cheney, it did work.  But Dick Cheney is out there now, saying that, “Hey, wait a minute, the memos are out but what about the other side of the story?  We‘ve got all kinds of useful information out of this.”  I don‘t know whether or not it was on waterboard 120 or waterboard 181, but that‘s Dick Cheney‘s point, and he‘s going to press it and he has asked for the CIA and the government to release other memos that will purport to show all the great information that we got out of this.

Yes, it‘s interesting—the timing is interesting.  One was right before—the once period of intense waterboarding was right before the beginning of the sales launch of the run-up to the Iraq war, and the other intense period of waterboarding was right before the Iraq war, right around the time that the Iraq war started.  I bet you there‘s a connection there.  We‘ll find out as we dig into it more deeply over the coming weeks.

SHUSTER:  Indeed.  Howard Fineman of MSNBC and “Newsweek”—and Howard, thanks as always.

FINEMAN:  Thank you, David.

SHUSTER:  You‘re welcome.

At least one top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee has

dismissed President Obama‘s defense of CIA officials who tortured detainees

just because they were under orders to do so.  Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky

told the “Huffington Post,” quote, “This notion that ‘I was just obeying

orders‘ -- I don‘t want to compare to Nazi Germany.  But we‘ve come to

almost ridicule the notion that when horrific acts have been committed

people use the excuse that, ‘Well, I was just following orders.‘”

Congresswoman Schakowsky is chairwoman of the intelligence subcommittee on oversight and investigations, and she joins us now.

And thank you for your time tonight, Congresswoman.

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY, (D) INTELLIGENCE SUBCOMMITTEE CHAIRWOMAN:  Thank you.  I‘m glad to be on the show.

SHUSTER:  In addition to the “just following orders” defense, the Obama White House has also emphasized that it wants to be looking forward instead of back.  Does that argument defy logic as well?

SCHAKOWSKY:  Well, let me say about the people in the field who were conducting this.  There were people who were actually doing the torture, who actually called back to headquarters, particularly with Abu Zubaydah, who was also subjected to waterboarding and smashing against a wall and all kinds of—putting insects in a box by the people from the Bush administration who ordered it.  They called back to headquarters and said, “Look, we think he does not have any more information.  We‘d like to stop it.”  And headquarters said no.

So, I don‘t think that we ought to focus primarily on the actual grunts in the field, the CIA people who are doing their job, when we have architects of this program, people who even today from the Bush administration are going out and not only defending the policy, but suggesting that abandoning it—like Barack Obama has done, we don‘t do that anymore—saying that that policy makes us less safe.

I think it‘s really frightening that they would justify and say that we should continue to torture people.  They‘re still at it.

SHUSTER:  Rahm Emanuel—but let‘s talk about the architects.  Rahm Emanuel and Robert Gibbs said those architects at the CIA—in the administration, while they ordered the CIA to do this or wrote the memos justifying it, Gibbs and Emanuel said that they will not be held accountable either.  Is that even worse than the decision not to hold accountable the people who are actually—you may have disclaimed, oh, we were just carrying out orders?

SCHAKOWSKY:  Oh, here‘s my concern.  I think impunity is a problem.  That the fact that this policy may be 20, 50 years from now can be looked back at and said, “Well, you know, during the Bush administration, they did authorize torture of individuals.  This is a critical situation, and we ought to do it.”  So I do think that Congress has a duty, then, to look into these situations, to investigate it, and let the investigations lead us where, you know, where it may go.

I think we do need to have more information.  I think the release of the tapes is very important, and the very idea that nobody would have known unless the tapes were released is so ridiculous.  Everybody knew already, and yet you‘ve got former CIA Director Hayden saying that it‘s a danger that these tapes were released.  You know, the dirty secret was out.

SHUSTER:  What‘s the political calculation that you think President Obama is making here?

SCHAKOWSKY:  You know, I actually understand that we have so many issues to face with the economy, trying to get health care, and energy passed—and all the things that we want to do looking forward, and moving forward.  And this is, you know, not—this is a somewhat divisive issue.  So I get the politics, but I am concerned that we allowed this kind of hideous behavior to stand to some degree, even though, I‘m very grateful to the president that we‘re not going to do it anymore.  Thank goodness.

And that it‘s going to make our country safer not to do it.  And that in fact the torture was a great recruiting tool for al Qaeda and made it more dangerous.  But I still think that, even if we don‘t want to—that the administration doesn‘t want to focus on that, that the Congress needs to take another look.

SHUSTER:  Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois—and we thank you for your time this evening, Congresswoman.

SCHAKOWSKY:  Thank you.

SHUSTER:  You‘re welcome.

Coming up, a potentially damaging story for the Democrat in charge of the House Intelligence Committee, wiretaps promises and an ally in the Bush White House who may have gotten an investigation shut down in return for cooperation of America‘s domestic spying program.  That and the uproar from the right over Obama‘s interactions with Hugo Chavez over the weekend.

And how in the world does Rudy Giuliani, after his track record of dissolving his marriages, how does he think he can be the champion for the sanctity of traditional marriage?

All ahead on COUNTDOWN.

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SHUSTER:  The California Democrat who supported Mr. Bush‘s illegal wiretapping program.  The Bush administration wanted her help, so when prosecutors reportedly opened an investigation of her, what do you think Mr. Bush‘s attorney general did?  The reporter who broke the story joins us with answers.

And our fascist president—why are Republicans calling Mr. Obama a fascist, calling his policies economic fascism?  Thorough study of the economic policies of Benito Mussolini?  Nope.  One of them has now admitted the real reason and we‘ll tell what you it is.

You‘re watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

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SHUSTER:  When a free open democracy launches a secret, unauthorized spying on its own citizens, the consequences of that act ripple out in ways that are hard to imagine.  Tonight, in our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN:

One of those ripples is now revealing just how compromised our politics and justice have become.

In 2005, “Time” magazine later reported the FBI began investigating California Congresswoman Jane Harman.  The cause?  Suspicion that Harman had agreed to use her influence to get the Justice Department to back off two former Israeli lobbyists facing espionage-related charges.  In return, alleged, the powerful Israeli lobbying group, AIPAC, would put pressure on Nancy Pelosi to give Harman the chairmanship of the intelligence committee if Democrats won in 2006.

That story and the denials of Harman and AIPAC have been known since 2006.  But here‘s what‘s new in reporting from CQPolitics.com, that an NSA wiretap, not the illegal kind, but the kind with a warrant, actually got Harman on tape agreeing to the deal.  Unnamed former officials have told “CQ Politics” the transcript shows Harman telling an unnamed person, suspected by Justice of acting as an Israeli agent, that she would, quote, “waddle into the AIPAC case, if you think it‘ll make a difference.”

But that Gonzales would be difficult, because he, quote, “just follows White House orders,” including the call with, “This conversation doesn‘t exist.”  Here‘s where the Bush secrecy ripples into our politics injustice.  “CQ Politics” reports that Gonzales killed the investigation of Harman because Harman was a staunch supporter of the Bush administration‘s illegal wiretapping program, and Gonzales, quote, “needed Harman available and presumably clean and credible to voice that report, knowing ‘The New York Times‘ would soon reveal the program‘s existence.”

From her statement today, “Congresswoman Harman has never contacted the Justice Department about its prosecution of present or former AIPAC employees.”

With us now is Jeff Stein, the “CQ Politics” reporter who broke the story today.

And great work, Jeff, and thanks for your time tonight.

JEFF STEIN, CQPOLITICS.COM:  Thank you.

SHUSTER:  Congresswoman Harman denies that the original phone call happened, denies there was a transcript of it.  Anything can you tell us to substantiate your reporting?

STEIN:  Well, I have three sources that talked to me about that transcript and what‘s on it, to one degree or another.  Each official I talked to—former official I talked to had different parts of the story.  But they‘re all aligned.  And there are many officials, I should say, that know about this, at the Justice Department, the CIA, the FBI, the director of national intelligence, and other places—and I‘m told that Nancy Pelosi became very aware of this as well.

So, this is not—this is somewhat of a secret, but there‘s a wide circle of people who have known this for some time.

SHUSTER:  If Gonzales, the former attorney general under President Bush, if he killed the investigation for political reasons, A, does it put Gonzales in any kind of legal jeopardy, and, B, does Harman now face the prospect of a reopened case?

STEIN:  I think that‘s a—that‘s a very tough question.  If Gonzales, as I‘m told, asked the intelligence agencies to stand down for a moment with their investigation, to halt their impending investigation for the reasons that he told at least one top intelligence official, which is to say we need a clean Jane to help us on the—defending the administration on the wiretaps, then that‘s not necessarily illegal, you know?  He wasn‘t saying, stop the investigation, drop the investigation, as far as my sources are concerned.  But he halted it.

As it was reported, most prominently by “Time” magazine‘s Tim Burger back in 2006, the investigation was dropped.  What I‘ve been told lately is that there was no investigation, that the investigation never got started because of Gonzales‘ interference.

SHUSTER:  None of the transcript quotations in your story constitutes a smoking gun against Harman.  Do you have such quotations or was this simply the conclusion of a quid pro quo—was this just the assessment of your sources?

STEIN:  Well, it‘s possible, of course, that she never did call the Justice Department.  It‘s possible that she told this official, this—excuse me—this suspected Israeli agent of influence that she would call the Justice Department, she would call Gonzales for him.  But that she never did so.  I don‘t know the answer to that.

All we know, all I know, is that she did promise this official that she would make an effort, and this official was saying that he would help raise money for Pelosi and help her get the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee in exchange.  According to the Justice Department lawyers and the Public Integrity Section and elsewhere in the Justice Department who looked at that, that was what they call a completed crime.  In other words, she agreed to an exchange of services, if you will.

So, that‘s what the FBI was about to investigate.  She was not proven to be conducting any illegal activity, the Justice Department and the FBI was merely about to interview here about what was on that tape, and they were not allowed to do so because of the interference of Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general.

So, whether she committed a crime or not—first of all, there‘s no absolutely evidence of it.  There was an interpretation by the justice department that there was a “completed crime,” quote-unquote, and they wanted to take it further and question her.  And they were not allowed to do so.

SHUSTER:  And, Jeff, real quickly, real quickly—do you get a sense of—any sense there was any pushback against Gonzales over this?

STEIN:  No.

SHUSTER:  Interesting.

STEIN:  No.  I mean, it was a Republican administration, and they were

under fire, and there were officials who were dismayed by this.  These are

some of them were talking to me now.  They were very dismayed by what happened and remain bitter about it and say, this is the way justice goes in Washington, and it‘s rotten.

               

SHUSTER:  Well, Jeff, it‘s great reporting.  And again, Jeff Stein with CQPolitics.com.

STEIN:  Thank you.

SHUSTER:  And thanks for coming on.  Terrific stuff.

STEIN:  Thanks for having me, David.

SHUSTER:  You‘re welcome.

So, last week, Obama gets beat up for high taxes and wasteful spending.  Today, he challenges his cabinet to slash spending and it‘s called a “Hollywood gimmick.”  It‘s mixed message madness on the right.

And “Green is Universal”—tips to help you cut back on your electricity bill.  Oddball is on your side—next.

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SHUSTER:  On this date in 1937, the great George Takei was born.  Takei, of course, starred as Mr. Hikaru Sulu on the “Star Trek” television series and films, but he‘s also the official announcer for the “Howard Stern Radio Show.”  A committed gay rights advocate and this year, he became the only major “Star Trek” cast member ever to cross over for a role in “Star Wars,” working as a voice actor in the “Clone Wars” cartoon series.  Oh, my!

Let‘s play Oddball.

We begin with our Earth Week “Green is Universal” tip of the day.  This one comes from the Greek island of Chios.  After sun down, instead of flicking on street lights, think about declaring an inter-village rocket war?  Yes, they‘re sparking it up on 420, dude.  Actually, this is from Saturday.

And just like last year, the parishioners of two rival churches lined up the pyrotechnics and set off the rockets, trying to ring the other church‘s bell.  Villagers were warned to stay indoors, several fires were started and extinguished, but the churches remained intact.  So, there will be at least one more year of these two houses of worship trying to reduce the other to rubble.

To interstate 5 near  Seattle, Washington, where this morning traffic was bumper-to-bumper. That‘s the front bumper of a Lamborghini just about under the front bumper of a  minivan. Nobody was hurt here. The picture was taken by a fellow motorist. Washington state police confirmed the accident, so it‘s  not a fake. It‘s still not clear if the  Lamborghini failed to stop short or if the minivan was driving recklessly backwards. We‘ll keep you posted. 

Republican critics of the president say this handshake is the diplomatic equivalent of a car wreck but  others say it‘s just the latest evidence in a  bold new era of Obama diplomacy. 

A bold move for Rudy Giuliani despite three marriages  and a bad relationship with his  children, he thinks he can be  the lead man to defend  traditional marriage in New  York. Details ahead on “Countdown.”

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SHUSTER:  It was Republican Senator  Arthur Vandenberg who asserted  politics stops at the water‘s  edge. But when it came to President  Obama‘s first face to face  meeting with Venezuelan  President Hugo Chavez, Vandenberg‘s call  remained a distance memory. Our third story in the “Countdown,” the GOP didn‘t wait for the  president to return home before  launching an attack. At the heart of Republican ire,  the handshake seen round the  world. At this weekend‘s summit of the  Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, photographers first caught this  exchange between Obama and  Chavez. Then at a meeting of the Union  of South American Nations,  Chavez seemed to catch the  president off guard as he  presented Mr. Obama with a  book. The text, Eduardo Galiano‘s 1971 anti-American tome “Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of the Continent,” Spanish language edition of course, even though President Obama  doesn‘t speak or read it. Enter the Republican response machine. First out of the gate, Senator  John Ensign, calling Obama‘s actions with Chavez irresponsible. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN ENSIGN, CHMN, NATL REPUB SENATORIAL COMMITTEE: When you‘re talking about the prestige of the United States  and the presidency of the United States, you have to be careful  who you‘re seen joking around  with.  And I think it was irresponsible for the president to be seen  kind of laughing and joking with Hugo Chavez. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Next up, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich delivering this  partisan blow. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH: This does look a lot like  Jimmy Carter. Carter tried weakness and the  world got tougher and tougher,  because the predators, the  aggressors, the anti-Americans, the dictators, when they sense  weakness, they all start pushing ahead.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Then on “The Today Show,”  Gingrich said he had nothing  against President Obama talking  with Hugo Chavez but the  discussion should be done in a quote, cold and distant  way, you know, kind of like our  policy with the Russians. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GINGRICH: We didn‘t rush over, smile  and greet Russian dictators. We understood who they were. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  That‘s right. No smiling here at the first  meeting between Reagan and  Gorbachev or Kennedy and Khrushchev. And by the way, the book that  Chavez gave Obama, it‘s now the  number-two best-selling book on  Amazon. Amazon‘s number one?  “Liberty and Tyranny, A  Conservative Manifesto.”  Joining us now, Steve Clemons, senior fellow at the New America Foundation and publisher of the foreign policy blog, the Washington  note. And Steve, great to see you as always.

STEVE CLEMONS, THE WASHINGTON NOTE: Great to be with you David.

SHUSTER:  President Obama noted that  shaking hands with Chavez posed  no strategic threat to the United States. Are we so damaged from eight years of Bush foreign policy that a  handshake could create such an  uproar? 

CLEMONS:  It can, if your critics that are all caught up with mystique and have forgotten about the  substance of America‘s foreign  policy and positions are. What I find interesting is that George  Bush‘s swagger, the kind of  disdain for the international system that  we had at that time has really cost us  in the eyes of people around the world who just don‘t know America anymore. And I have to say that Barack Obama, while he has a lot of work to get the policy  right, is giving the world and I think a lot of Americans a real  sigh of relief that he‘s not—that he‘s surprising us and  capturing our imagination by not just falling into predictable  patterns of tit for tat and you  have to be this grumpy Gus in  dealing with Hugo Chavez. What matters with Chavez is  substance. And what matters for the rest of the world to see is  someone without swagger, who‘s got a little bit more  humility and who can deal with world leaders  in whatever form they come. 

SHUSTER:  The economy has tanked. We have wars on two fronts and the  GOP is talking about a  handshake. Is this the distraction they  were hoping for and do you think their tactics will backfire and what is the best way for the  Obama administration to counter  this kind of stuff? 

CLEMONS:  Look. I occasionally joke that we have replaced the housing bubble in  the United States with an Obama  bubble. And the Obama bubble is a pretty powerful thing, actually. There‘s a mystique about this  guy, an aura and just—in how  he approaches things, which is  very, very surprising. And I think what Senator Ensign  and Newt Gingrich and other critics are trying to do is try to deflate  that bubble and they‘re not  succeeding. And I think they‘re making  themselves look a bit silly in  the eyes of Americans who wonder, why did we have this  sort of crowd in place before,  when we‘ve got a couple of wars, we‘ve got sort of a national economic  tragedy that has spilled over into the  international economic system. We‘ve got serious stuff to do. And they‘re trying to tear down  our president. I think it will backfire on  them. I think it already is.

SHUSTER:  Is it possible though, the  White House is betting too much  on the hope that Americans want to see their president  engaging countries like Venezuela, like Iran, actually improving  relations, depends on those  countries cooperating. 

CLEMONS:  I think most Americans  realize we‘re at a turning point in

our history, sort of a  punctuation point where we need  to move from one

phase to  another. That means the kind of incrementalism, the way we used

to do things needs to be shifted. And to have a president who very  clearly

wants to change the game with Hugo Chavez, with Castro,  you know, there is

there is a criticism that could be made at  some point if he doesn‘t get the substance right. Is he an appeaser in chief or  does he have beneath the smiles and the open hands, which he‘s  saying, a real strategic change  and shift that will move America back into the position of achieving the results it sets out for itself.  And I think Americans welcome this  change in posture and are very eagerly anticipating to see the  change in substance. So they go hand in hand. And I‘m disappointed in our  friend, Newt Gingrich, for  trying to distract us with an  obsession over the surface of  things. 

SHUSTER:  And his rhetoric and the  rhetoric of others who are criticizing  this handshake, could that  possibly hinder progress that  the Obama administration is  trying to make with countries  like Venezuela? 

CLEMONS:  I don‘t think so. I think what‘s really important  is to ask ourselves what is the  fundamental new national  security strategy that we‘re  taking at a time when the world  doubts that we can achieve much.  They‘ve been seeing us with a  lot of pomp and circumstances and a  lot of assertion, a lot of  swagger. And so what Obama is doing is he‘s got  a strategy of engagement, a  strategy of listening, but  also a set of priorities that he thinks matters. And he‘s trying to essentially seduce other leaders to come along our way. I think that‘s what matters. And as long as we stay on that track we‘ve got a better than even chance I think of  moving things forward. 

SHUSTER:  Steven Clemons, with the New America Foundation and publisher of the foreign policy blog, The Washington Note and Steve, thanks as  always. We appreciate it.

CLEMONS: Thanks, David. 

SHUSTER:  You‘re welcome. Coming up, the right wing  say anything echo chamber from  attacks on Obama‘s new efforts to cut  spending to a real moment of  honesty about all the  socialism/fascism talk. 

Rudy Giuliani thinks  he‘s the man to stop gay  marriage from happening in New York. 

Coming up at the top of the hour on the “Rachel Maddow Show,” on the tenth anniversary of the Columbine shootings, new information that could  challenge what you thought you  knew about that day.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  President Obama puts his  cabinet on notice, slash your  budgets. All Fox news can notice is, gee, that sounds an awful lot like that movie “Dave.”  Maybe all that tea bagging cut off  too much oxygen to the brain  over there. 

That and Rudy Giuliani married  three times, including once to his cousin. Who better to defend traditional marriage? That‘s next. This is “Countdown.”

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  The Republican Party has  been one of the greatest institutions in political history, so when  its leaders, some of whom remember America‘s fight against fascism, begin to call an American president a fascist, you know they have good reason. And our number two story  tonight, that reason stands  revealed. They ran out of other names to call Mr. Obama. This is Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican party,  former contestant for the RNC leadership. In today‘s “New York Times,” he explains why he is now calling Obamanomics economic fascism. Quote, rhetorically, Republicans are  having a very hard time finding something that raises the  consciousness of the average voter. We have so overused the word socialism that it no longer has the negative connotation it had 20 years ago or even 10 years ago. Fascism, he says, everybody  still thinks that‘s a bad thing.

And if ad hoc ad hominem  attacks sound like the signature of a party  searching for a message,  consider this. After months of blasting President Obama for spending too much on government, today the Republican party mocked Mr.  Obama for cutting government  spending. Mr. Obama at his cabinet meeting today gave his secretaries 90  days to chop $100 million from  their budgets. Foxnews.com described it as what amounts to a scene out of  Hollywood‘s version of executive power, like the main character in  the fantasy “Dave.”  Obama appears to be trying to work the nation‘s books, though the $100 million figure amounts to a drop in $3.5 trillion bucket. A GOP talking point, Mr. Obama  addressed at today‘s meeting.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: A hundred million dollars, isn‘t that a drop in the bucket, sir?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  It is, and that‘s what I just said. None of these things alone are  going to make the difference.  But cumulatively, they make an  extraordinary difference because they start setting a tone. And so what we‘re going to do is line by line,  page by page, $100 million  there, $100 million here, pretty soon, even in Washington, it  adds up to real money. Thank you, guys.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Let‘s bring in Margaret  Carlson, a political columnist for Bloomberg news and Washington editor of  “The Week” magazine. And Margaret, thanks for joining us tonight.

MARGARET CARLSON, THE WEEK: You‘re welcome. Good evening. 

SHUSTER:  They complain when he spends, they complain when he cuts spending. We saw that with defense  spending too. One party criticizes both A and  not A, what message does that  send? 

CARLSON: Cognitive dissonance. When the president did his $100 million cut today, they called  it a Hollywood stunt and  therefore the movie “Dave,”  which by the way, didn‘t, when you were  watching that movie, David,  didn‘t people cheer when the guy came in, Charles Grodin and started cutting things out of the budget?  These gestures count, but Fox  News and Glenn Beck and the rest of them, they know a stunt when they see one after  the stunt last week with the tea parties in which they‘re  complaining about spending,  forgetting that President George Bush was a record breaking  spender without doing any  taxing. By the way, who last week was  standing in for King George?  Because nobody who was actually  affected by the tax increase,  which doesn‘t take place until  2011 and which is only the top  3 percent of people, if they come out,  there would be limos lined up  and the valets would be carrying the picket signs. It makes no sense. None of these people that I saw  at the rallies were actually  having their taxes raised.

SHUSTER:  I want to get back to this  fascism stuff. Is it just this simple that  Republicans who oppose Obama‘s  policies lost the policy battle last  November, so the only way they  can win now is to raise voter  consciousness by calling  President Obama names? 

CARLSON:  Sticks and stones will break  my bones and words will never  harm me. You know, the part of the  population that the Republicans  need to get back really don‘t  like the harsh rhetoric and they don‘t like the name-calling and  they know that. So it‘s not the road to go down. And Senator McCain and Governor  Palin both used socialism during the campaign, it didn‘t seem to  work. So the ratcheting up to fascism, I think people stop listening. It‘s just too harsh. It‘s too much. And nobody thinks of Mussolini  when they think of President  Obama. It cannot—I don‘t think it can gain any traction in the  dialogue and shouldn‘t.

SHUSTER:  It also seems to diminish the actual historical significance of what really happened, the horrific  nature of what fascism was. But putting that aside, what  happens when fascist looses the  impact the way socialist did. What do they call him next? 

CARLSON: David, I‘m going to leave that to you. Some expletive deleted?  I can‘t imagine what comes after fascism. There was a lot of fuss over  just touching the hand of Hugo  Chavez, which, you know, I can  see where, you know, you don‘t  want to be buddy-buddy with  Hugo and yet on the other hand, should he have taken the book?  I heard Steve Clemons, what do  you do?  Do you take the book and shove it back  in his hands?  I mean, I don‘t think Americans  want the swaggering, cowboy  non-diplomacy that we‘ve just had eight years of. They‘re ready for something  different.

SHUSTER:  The “Times” does quote some  Republicans dissenting, saying  fascist goes too far. If the party lacks message unity because it lacks a leader, how  does it go about picking that leader without  first achieving unity? 

CARLSON: Well, the person who brought up fascism, the former chair of  the Michigan party, who didn‘t make it to be RNC chair, whose name is Saul Anuzis—he by  the way has joined with Newt  Gingrich in his group. Newt Gingrich has emerged as  somewhat of the intellectual  leader of the party.  Rush Limbaugh is the person and  Glenn Beck, you know, calling  names. This doesn‘t strike me as the  way. Although maybe Newt Gingrich  is going to backwards to the days when he shut the Federal government down because he got the wrong seat on Air Force One.

SHUSTER:   Or maybe back to the days  when he needed help paying off  that little ethics, $300,000  bill that he was stuck with. In any case, Margaret Carlson of Bloomberg news and “The Week” magazine, Margaret, thanks as always for your time. We appreciate it. 

CARLSON: Thanks, David. 

SHUSTER:   In the war against gay  marriage, Rudy Giuliani answers  the call to arms. He wants to lead the charge for  defending traditional marriage  in New York City. Michael Musto will knock that  one out of the park next on “Countdown.”

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani has topped himself. He stood left of center on social  issues when he ran for president and badly lost the few GOP primaries  where he competed. Now as he contemplates a bid for  governor of New York, he‘s  playing up his opposition to same-sex marriage at a time  when voters are increasingly  showing that they favor it. Our number one story in the “Countdown,” Giuliani‘s ambiguously gay policy positions,  beginning with his latest insistence that same-sex marriage for New York state is wrong, telling the “New York Post,” quote, this, the same- sex marriage proposal by Governor David Patterson, will create a  grassroots movement. This is the kind of issue that in many ways is somewhat beyond politics.

To be fair, Giuliani held the same position pro-civil unions  but anti-gay marriage when he  ran for president. But his decision to speak out so specifically against the governor‘s  proposal has been viewed as a  forerunner to his running for the governor‘s job. Yet for former mayor is hardly the poster boy for the so-called sanctity of marriage. Since he himself has been  married three times and his  pals Howard Koeppel and Mark Hsaio with whom he lived for six months, are themselves planning  to marry in Connecticut. Mr. Koeppel says Giuliani told  him that if gay marriage ever became legal in New York, quote, he would marry us himself. Giuliani may be misreading  public opposition to marriage equality. The latest poll shows that 53 percent of New York voters favor legalization of same-sex marriage. Mr. Giuliani‘s office did not  respond to “Countdown‘s” request for a comment on this story. But for pure unadulterated  idiocy on this subject, we join the Miss USA pageant when Miss California was asked by Judge Perez Hilton about same-sex marriage.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it‘s great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land that you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And you know what?  In my country and in my family, I think that I believe that a  marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  (INAUDIBLE) Michael Musto, and good evening Michael.

MICHAEL MUSTO, THE VILLAGE VOICE: Hi, David. 

SHUSTER:  We‘ll get to Mr. Giuliani, but we got to start with Miss California. Unless she‘s thinking of the four out of 50 states that do allow same-sex marriage, what does she mean when she said we live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage?

MUSTO: I don‘t think she‘s thinking anything, David. Let‘s not forget this is a pageant of dumbos who parade their parts around  the stage while saying that they want world peace and a cure for  cancer and cheaper hair  products. This woman is so dumb, she told Perez Hilton she‘s only for straight marriage. That‘s like telling Susan Boyle you‘re for eyebrow waxing.

SHUSTER:  And seconds later she said, you know what, in my country, she may  be under the impression that  California is its own country. Is this Miss California‘s subversive pitch in favor of secession? 

MUSTO:  Have you ever been there David?  California is a separate  country. Every waiter‘s pitching a screen play, Angeline is a big star,  not Angelina. You drive three hours to a gym  for fitness. I don‘t think this woman has  ever heard of secession. She‘d be like, there‘s a lot of  unemployment out there. There‘s a big secession. Do my roots show? 

SHUSTER:  Should Mr. Giuliani meet with Miss USA because he‘s not quite as  confused on the issue as she is? 

MUSTO: I‘m sure he already has. Let‘s not forget that during his first marriage to  his second cousin, by the way, he was having  secret meetings with Donna Hanover, that during his marriage to Donna, he was having meetings with Christine Litigato (ph) and Judy what‘s her name, and that‘s why Donna  had to go and do “The Vagina Monologues” to get some satisfaction, but I totally agree that  Rudy should meet with the Miss USA runner-up just for fashion tips alone. I mean she‘s obviously trying for a kind of tranny look, and he‘s already  perfected that. 

SHUSTER:  Rudy Giuliani is not a stupid man. He must know that New Yorkers are  going to double over in laughter every time they hear him with his record talk about the sanctity of marriage. So what‘s he up to? 

MUSTO: I don‘t know, but I think he should probably go to Connecticut and marry those  two ex-friends of his. I don‘t know. He used to be sort of gay positive in a  way, though he‘s the guy who cleaned up Times Square and took away the sex and brought in Mary  Poppins, but now I guess he‘s amping up his kind of anti-gay marriage thing to  align himself with conservatives like Obama and Hillary. This is getting confusing. 

SHUSTER:  Can Giuliani have it both ways?  Pardon the pun. Can he win politically by opposing same-sex marriage while simultaneously crossing the border to Connecticut to officiate the marriage of his  gay friends or something? 

MUSTO: You mean the country of  Connecticut. No, I don‘t think he could do that. I think the polls show that people are in  favor of gay marriage and Rudy‘s counting on appealing to some  bigotry out there and getting  some guy who picks his scabs and cheats on his wife  but feels that marriage is sanctimonious and should only  be for the OJs and Eliot Spitzers and for the Giulianis and then Rudy and all the  other politicians like him go to their country homes and (INAUDIBLE).

SHUSTER:   Michael Musto of “The Village Voice,”  Michael, great, thanks for your time as always. And that will do it for this Monday  edition of “Countdown.”  I‘m David Shuster in for Keith Olbermann. Thanks for watching, everybody. Our MSNBC coverage continues now with  the Rachel Maddow Show.  Good evening, Rachel.

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

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