updated 7/22/2009 11:01:01 AM ET 2009-07-22T15:01:01

Guests: Jonathan Alter, Lawrence O‘Donnell, James Risen, Chris Kofinis, Michael Ian Black

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

Full-court press: Ahead of Wednesday night‘s prime-time news conference, President Obama is still on offense—pushing his health care plan and stressing his self-imposed deadline.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  If you don‘t set a deadline in this town, nothing happens.  And there‘s a reason why we haven‘t had health care reform in 50 years.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  It could have something to do with this leaked internal RNC memo.  Quote, “The Republican National Committee will engage in every activity we can to slow down this mad rush.”  They think they can control the clock?  They don‘t even have possession of the ball.

New fraud charges at the CIA.  A federal judge rules CIA officials were not honest in protecting the actions of a covert agent facing an illegal eavesdropping lawsuit - it‘s the abuse of the state secret defense.

Crank calls gone wild.  The brash cranksters who dupe hotel guests into destructive acts all for the enjoyment of their Internet followers.  But have the jokes gone too far?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  You need to break a window, ma‘am.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Baseline hysteria: All the range among the GOP‘s most conspiratorial constituents, the legitimacy of the president‘s birth record.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Why are these people ignoring his birth certificate?

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  He is not an American citizen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  And the other great fight within the GOP: RNC Chair Michael Steele says Joe the Plumber helped the GOP get its groove back, yet Meghan McCain called him “a Dumbass.”  The polarizing power of Joe Wurzelbacher with our guest, Comedy Central‘s Michael Ian Black.

All that and more—now on COUNTDOWN.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SAMUEL WURZELBACHER, JOE THE PLUMBER:  I have lots of issues.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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

As the old saying goes, “There are two things you never want to see being made, laws and sausages.”

In our fifth story on THE COUNTDOWN: The making of laws and sausages have collided tonight in the Republican Party‘s effort to delay and defeat President Obama‘s health care plan.

Another full day of events in which the president pushed for his health care overhaul.  From the Rose Garden of the White House, President Obama said that critics of this plan are sticking to a familiar script.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  I know that there are those in this town who openly declare their intention to block reform.  It‘s a familiar Washington script that we‘ve seen many times before.  These opponents of reform would rather score political points than offer relief to Americans who have seen premiums double and costs grow three times faster than wages.  They would maintain a system that works for the insurance and the drug companies while becoming increasingly unaffordable for families and for businesses.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  In an interview with Meredith Vieira on the “TODAY” show, President Obama said that his opponents seem to be more concerned about defeating him than in helping Americans who don‘t have health insurance.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA:  This is absolutely important to me.  But this is not as important to me as it is to the people who don‘t have health care.  I‘ve got health care.

This isn‘t as important to me as the family that‘s going bankrupt, because they got a bunch of medical bills that they thought the insurance companies would cover.  It turned out they weren‘t covered.

So, yes, absolutely—I am deeply invested in getting this thing done.  But this isn‘t Washington sport.  This isn‘t about who‘s up and who‘s down.  This is about solving an enormous problem for the American people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Helping Americans without health insurance, said Mr. Obama, is why he has put reform on a fast track.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MEREDITH VIEIRA, “TODAY SHOW”:  Before this August recess, why is that deadline so important to you?  Why even set a deadline?

OBAMA:  Well, because if you don‘t set a deadline in this town, nothing happens.  You know, the default in Washington is inaction and inertia.  And there‘s a reason why we haven‘t had health care reform in 50 years.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Missing the August deadline would appear to be the entire plan of the Republicans who don‘t seem to have an actual health care plan of their own—other than to defeat President Obama‘s.

The Republican‘s message man, Alex Castellanos sent out a list of instructions for party members in a memo this month.  Among them, quote, “If we slow the sausage-making process down, we can defeat it and advance real reform that will actually help.  Key message point, we‘ve got to slow down the Obama experiment with our health.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer dismissed Republicans who would suggest that the Democrats are rushing health care reform through Congress.  Quoting him, “In the last 18 months, we‘ve been discussing extensively. 

This is not a rush to judgment.”

This afternoon, President Obama summoned conservative blue dog Democrats to the White House for a meeting.  Some blue dogs in the House have indicated they would like to see negotiations on health care reform continue into the fall.

Earlier tonight, Congressman Baron Hill of Indiana said that important strides were made today in regards to health care reform, but he did not give specifics.

In the Senate, one of the key blue dogs is Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus.  “The Washington Post” reports on its front page that health-related companies and their employers gave the Democratic chairman‘s political committees nearly $1.5 million in 2007 and 2008 when Baucus began holding hearings and making preparations for this year‘s reform debate.

Lots to talk about with our own political analyst, Jonathan Alter, also a senior editor at “Newsweek” magazine.

Jonathan, good evening.

JONATHAN ALTER, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Hi, David.

SHUSTER:  It no longer seems to be just Senator DeMint.  President Obama is now pitting all Republicans.

ALTER:  Yes.

SHUSTER:  . against Americans who don‘t have health insurance.

Might the Republicans come to regret turning health care reform into a political fight with the president?

ALTER:  Well, you know, they don‘t seem to regret much of anything, as they‘re on the way over the cliff.  What DeMint said, where he said that this would be Barack Obama‘s waterloo, that they would “break the president” on health care, this was music to the White House‘s ears.  This is just what they were hoping for.

The Republicans have walked into a big trap, where—by seeming to politicize it, by trying to make it about making Barack Obama fail—they‘ve gotten on the wrong side of the American people.

Does that mean that this is all a shoo-in now?  Of course not.  There‘s a lot of tough sledding ahead, tough negotiations.  But the president caught a break this week in the way the Republicans handled themselves.

SHUSTER:  Well, on that point, since the Republicans have made it clear that defeating the plan is their only goal, and as you point out, that plays into the president‘s hands.  Does the measure then only have to pass for President Obama to win politically?

ALTER:  No, I think it has to be a fairly decent bill.  It can‘t be cosmetic reform.

But will it be a bill that pleases all progressives?  Of course not.  Everybody is going to have to compromise.  And we might end up with something like the energy bill that just came out of the House the other week—a kind of a big, hairy, ugly piece of legislation that nobody really likes, but that does advance the debate and that can then be amended some.

You know, Ted Kennedy wrote a cover story in “Newsweek” this week where he says, “Look, you don‘t get it all right necessarily, the first time.”  When they did SCHIP, for instance, people were not happy with the bill.  Here we are, several years later, and it‘s insuring 7 million kids.

So, you don‘t want—as the president says—the perfect to be the enemy of the good.  It‘s not going to be a perfect bill.  But if he puts some points on the board, if he gets something through—which I think is quite likely—there will be huge political benefits for him.

SHUSTER:  Jonathan, what happens if the legislation does get pushed back until after the August recess?

ALTER:  Well, it is—it was always going to get pushed back until then, because September was always when there was going to be what they called the House/Senate Conference Committee, where the House and the Senate come together and try to reconcile the differences in the two bills.  They‘d hoped to get the first part of the process completed by August 8th, where the House passed their bill and the Senate passed their bill.

It now looks like that probably won‘t happen until the beginning of September.  But the basic timetable of having about six week where the House and the Senate resolve their differences in September and early October is pretty much the same as it‘s always been.  You‘re going to see very, very intense lobbying in August and in September, as everybody weighs in on this.

But I think this thing is far enough down the tracks right now that it‘s going to be hard to derail.  The only ones who can do it are the conservative Democrats.  The Republicans simply don‘t have the votes to do so.

SHUSTER:  And on that point, Jonathan, if Democrats in Congress cannot get their act together to pass effective health care reform in the next few months, with the overwhelming support of a Democratic president and the control of both houses of Congress, will it ever happen?

ALTER:  Well, “ever” is a long time, but this is the best chance that there‘s been for a substantial health care reform since 1912 when Theodore Roosevelt first put national health insurance in a major party platform, in the “Bull Moose” platform, and it‘s come up over and over again in the years since.

The American Medical Association was totally against it.  This time, the AMA has come out for it; a number of the other interest groups are for it.  So, the odds are pretty good, David.

SHUSTER:  Jonathan Alter of MSNBC and “Newsweek”—Jonathan, thanks as all for coming on.

ALTER:  Thanks, David.

SHUSTER:  You‘re welcome.

The lack of a Republican plan to actually reform health care, not just defeat the president‘s effort to do so, perhaps best embodied by party chairman, Michael Steele.  Yesterday, Chairman Steele seemed to follow the “sausage-making memo” from Alex Castellanos word-for-word, if not step-by-step.

And on MSNBC this morning, when Steele gave four suggestions for bringing out health care costs, Joe Scarborough tried to point out that those suggestions would not be enough to contain exploding health care costs.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC HOST:  Those four issues will not cut costs.

MICHAEL STEELE, RNC CHAIRMAN:  You‘re absolutely wrong.

SCARBOROUGH:  We cut costs.

STEELE:  Joe.

SCARBOROUGH:  Are you here telling me that if we do those four things.

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Hold on a second.  Hold on.

STEELE:  Please.

SCARBOROUGH:  If we take those four steps.

STEELE:  Spare me.

SCARBOROUGH:  Spare you?

STEELE:  Yes.  Come on.

SCARBOROUGH:  Give me a CBO estimate of that then.

STEELE:  Do you mean to tell me if you don‘t if you do tort reform, you‘re not going to cut costs?

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes, you‘re going to cut costs, you‘re not listening to my question.

STEELE:  You just said—you just said those four things won‘t cut cost.  They will.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Except the four things cited by Michael Steele will not cut health care costs nearly enough.  Chairman Steele did admit yesterday that policy is something he does not do.  Also, how can you really trust someone on health care who does not even know what kind of health care insurance he actually has?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  What type of health insurance do you have?  Do you get that through the RNC?

STEELE:  Yes, through my employer.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  What company is it?

STEELE:  BlueCross BlueShield, I believe.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  All right.  Chairman Michael Steele.

STEELE:  Or maybe not.  I‘m not—I‘m not.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Not sure?

STEELE:  I think it‘s BlueCross BlueShield.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  For more on the effort to block health care reform, let‘s turn to Lawrence O‘Donnell, contributor to “Huffington Post” and former chief of staff from the Senate Finance Committee when it was chaired by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

And, Lawrence, good to see you.

LAWRENCE O‘DONNELL, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Good to be here, David.

SHUSTER:  Would the Republican‘s launch have more credibility on this issue if: A, it‘s party chairman knew what kind of health insurance he had, and B, if he did policy?

O‘DONNELL:  Wow.  It reminds you of a time when the first President Bush was caught campaigning for election in 1992 and not knowing the price of milk in America.

For Michael Steele, he couldn‘t have appeared more out of touch with people who are worried about preserving their health insurance, people who don‘t have it, people who have fought hard to get it and know exactly who their carriers are, and what their deductibles are, and how much they spend every year.  I mean, that was as bad a moment as you could ask for.

And watching Joe Scarborough take him apart was a unique pleasure.  Watching a Republican like Joe go after that party chairman better than I think any of us could have.

SHUSTER:  Lawrence, there‘s also an RNC Party memo that says the entire goal of the exercise is to slow this sausage-making process down in order to defeat it—not fix it, defeat it.  Is that the ugly truth that there is no actual Republican health care plan?

O‘DONNELL:  There isn‘t one that has any kind of consensus within the Republican Party.  Certainly, Chuck Grassley, the lead Republican in the Senate Finance Committee, is in favor of all sorts of the Obama plan elements, but just not all of it.  And there are others, Ron Wyden, Democrat on the finance committee, has a bill that no one‘s paying any attention to that does have real bipartisan support.

But there isn‘t something that Republicans are rallying around, saying this is our alternative.  And they are now in a tactical position, where they don‘t really need one, because the Obama plan is on a curve downward in popularity in the polls.  Everyone‘s noticing that in both parties.

And so, the Republicans really can stand back and watch Obama, in effect, campaign for health care against himself.  That‘s what happened to Hillary Clinton last time around.  What happened was: Hillary Clinton was unable in her campaign to sell the plan to the public.  She was unable to do that.  And the more she tried, the more the popularity of her plan went down.

So, we‘ve seen this before.

SHUSTER:  And on that point of resistance also coming from Democrats - as we mentioned, “The Washington Post” reports that Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus has received nearly $1.5 million from health-related companies and their employees.  As a former chief of staff of the Senate Finance Committee, does that seem to you to be a huge conflict of interest?           

O‘DONNELL:  Well, look, he was running for re-election in this last election, in Montana, which is not an easy state for Democrats to hold on to.  I‘ve worked with him when I was at the finance committee, worked closely with him.  His integrity has never been questioned in this area.

And you cannot simply—in my experience—match up someone‘s campaign contributions and think you then know what they‘re willing to do legislatively.  Charlie Rangel, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, the counterparts of the finance committee, he represents New York City, where the number one industry is actually health care.  Not a lot of people quite realize that.  He has a lot of health care contributions, and he has gotten a bill out of his committee which a lot of people in the health care sector don‘t like and some do like.

You know, and Chairman Baucus is now in favor of things that are far to the left of what Barack Obama campaigned on: like an individual mandate

Obama campaigned against that; an employer mandate—Obama campaigned against that; taxation of benefits, health care benefits—Obama campaigned against that.     

So, Baucus is actually out to the left of Obama on a few things.  It‘s very hard to tell how those campaign contributions affect that.

SHUSTER:  Great point.  Lawrence O‘Donnell of MSNBC and “The Huffington Post”—Lawrence, thanks, as always.  We appreciate your coming on tonight.

O‘DONNELL:  Thanks, David.

SHUSTER:  You‘re welcome.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has put off its vote on Supreme Court nominee, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, for one week.  Meanwhile, support for Sotomayor among GOP moderates is growing.  The committee vote is now scheduled for July the 28th, after Republicans requested more time to study Ms. Sotomayor‘s record.

Democratic Chairman Patrick Leahy says he‘s confident Sotomayor will win confirmation by a bipartisan vote of the full Senate in time for the first Supreme Court‘s session.  This, as Susan Collins of Maine becomes the fourth Republican to break with conservative leaders and publicly support Sotomayor.  Collins joins Republicans Richard Lugar of Indiana, Mel Martinez of Florida, and fellow Mainer, Olympia Snowe.

Coming up: A judge adds fuel to the fire that the CIA is less than honest when it comes to claiming state secrets.  In fact, its actions could be so egregious that fraud charges—fraud charges could be coming against even former CIA Director George Tenet.

The conspiracy theorists who think President Obama isn‘t an American, they show themselves to be a big problem for the GOP.

And, the big Joe the Plumber debate.  Michael Steele and Meghan McCain are not exactly seeing eye-to-eye on Samuel Wurzelbacher.

All that and more—ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Amid the politically charged atmosphere in D.C. about whether the CIA misled Congress, a judge in a separate matter steps into the fray and says the CIA misled him—so much so that it could rise to the level of fraud.

And the surprising YouTube video of a citizen questioning a Republican congressman about whether President Obama is even American.  Why the birth certificate conspiracy theory is a bigger problem for the GOP than it is for the White House.  That‘s next.

This is COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  When Republicans claim that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi must have known about waterboarding in 2002 because the CIA would never have misled her, they staked their credibility on the CIA‘s credibility.

As we told you last night, newly released documents in a separate case now strongly suggest that the CIA was willing to lie at almost exactly the same time about something far less politically charged.

Our fourth story tonight begins in 1993 when drug enforcement agent Richard Horn clashed with the CIA and State Department over how to fight drugs in Burma.  Horn, seen at center here in ‘93, filed a lawsuit against the State Department official—to his right here—Franklin Huddle, and a covert CIA operative named Arthur Brown, claiming they bugged his home.

Why did Horn think his home had been bugged?  On August 12th, he called a coworker from there.  On August 13th: Huddle seen a cable quoting Horn‘s call from the U.S. embassy in Burma to the State Department.  On August 14th: A friend of Horn‘s in the State Department told Horn about it.

Horn was soon transferred, thereby losing his beef with the CIA.  After returning home, though, he recalled his earlier puzzlement over why the U.S. officials who maintained his Burmese apartment had suddenly decided they had to get in to replace an upstairs lamp and a downstairs coffee table that matched his furniture with an oval one that did not.  He suspected a bug, and he sued.

In 2000, CIA Director George Tenet invoked the state secret privilege because Brown was covert.  In 2004, Tenet got the case dismissed because neither party could discuss anything about it—anything about Brown.  Horn continued his fight and what he did not know until 2008 was that Tenet‘s CIA had lifted Brown‘s covert status in 2002 and no one told the courts.

Last March, Acting CIA General Counsel John Rizzo—a player in waterboarding, too—told the court that Brown alerted one CIA lawyer in 2005 that he was no longer covert, but that the lawyer kept it to himself, leading the government filings—and in Rizzo‘s words—quote, “incorrectly indicated that Brown was still covert.”  Rizzo apologized profoundly.

Judge Royce Lambert, quote, “Not only was this false submission intentional, it was also material.”

Twelve days later, Brown sent the court a filing of his own, saying, in effect, Rizzo‘s full of it.  Quote, “I recall notifying in person two attorneys in the CIA legal office about the change in my cover status in 2002.”  In other words, Rizzo, the CIA‘s legal chief, admitted one of his attorneys withheld the truth from the court.  And then a former CIA agent accused not only two more attorneys of knowing the truth, he also accused Rizzo of lying about it.

The judge, a national security veteran, has ruled the CIA committed fraud against the court and is considering sanctions against Tenet, Rizzo, and others.  And in a secret hearing, this may—this May, he referred to, quote, “all these lies.”

With us tonight is James Risen, author of “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration,” also an investigative reporter for “The New York Times.”

And, James, good evening.

JAMES RISEN, THE NEW YORK TIMES:  Thanks for having me.

SHUSTER:  James, first, can you give us a brief sketch of Judge Lambert?

RISEN:  Well, he is—the interesting thing about him is that he was also the judge—the chief judge of the FISA court, the secret court that handled warrants on wiretapping, and he was the only judge on the court who was told by the Bush administration that they were approved that they were going around the FISA court with warrantless wiretapping.  So, he has a lot of history now with the Bush administration and with the issue of intelligence and what‘s properly notified and what‘s not.

SHUSTER:  In that May 13th hearing this year, the judge said about the government‘s secrecy, quote, “I am sick and tired of getting the runaround.”  And, quote, “you handcuffed the court this nonsense.”  And that the Justice Department was, quote, “saying the U.S. is not accountable for their own lies.”

What is he really saying?

RISEN:  Well, the interesting thing to me is, I looked into this case a several years ago as a reporter.  I tried to report on the Horn case before it became public.  And it was very difficult to get any real information and it kind of boiled down to a “he said/he said” issue.  And so, I was never able to actually publish a story about it.

And then when I saw this latest from Judge Lambert, now I realized what was really going on behind the scenes at the CIA.  And it gives a lot more credibility to the Horn case than I think anybody realized at the time.

SHUSTER:  This case began under President Clinton and current CIA Director Panetta also gets called out by the judge.  So, this is certainly bigger than politics.  Is this about the CIA or perhaps even a culture of using secrecy as a shield?

RISEN:  Well, I think that‘s—the issue is that the CIA has always, you know, they‘re just as credible as—they‘re human.  They‘re just—some people at the CIA lie just like at every institution.  And to say that they‘ll never lie or that they will always tell the truth is just silly.  I mean, every organization has people who lie or people who, you know, are honest.

So, you know, they‘re just like everybody else.  The only difference is that they kind of hide behind a—you know, a veil of secrecy.

SHUSTER:  What happens now, both with this case and the Republican claim that the CIA does not lie?

RISEN:  Well, I think that was a silly argument to say that the CIA never lies.  You know, this case does not mean that Nancy Pelosi is telling the truth about waterboarding.  I don‘t think you can say that.  It just means that the people at the CIA are human and that they‘re not superman and that they‘re not—you know, that they‘re no different from the rest of us, except that they have secrecy to protect them.

SHUSTER:  But then, does it also say something about the Republicans who claim that the CIA would never lie, they would never mislead anybody?

RISEN:  Yes.  I just think—I mean, that‘s just kind of a silly argument.  You know, and I—I think, frankly, Nancy Pelosi has made a mistake in trying to go down this road of saying that she was lied to, when it was probably true that there was some kind of briefing.  I think it was a much more nuanced story than either side wants to say.  But I think it was also silly of the Republicans to make it such a political deal.

SHUSTER:  James Risen of “The New York Times”—James, thanks, as always, for your times.  We appreciate it.

RISEN:  Sure.

SHUSTER:  Beware summer travelers.  Your rooftop luggage is not safe in the animal park.  “Oddball” on your side after the break.

And another danger on vacation, prank calls to your hotel room.  They are so real and so scary, the FBI is getting involved.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  On this day in 1925, an anniversary of note if your name is Sam Brownback.  High school biology teacher John T. Scopes was found guilty of breaking a Tennessee state law, teaching evolution.  Scopes was fined 100 dollars for telling his students about Darwin.  The conviction was later overturned. 

Meanwhile, the GOP has since acknowledged that evolution as an important scientific theory, since they have evolved from Abraham Lincoln to Joe the Plumber.  Wait, wrong direction!

And on that note, let‘s play Oddball.

We begin at the Nosely (ph) Safari park in England, where we join the Scopes monkey trial riots, 84 years overdue.  Yes, it‘s just another relaxing afternoon drive at the old animal park, until your station wagon is attacked by 140 wild baboons. 

These mammals like their cars rooftop luggage.  The largest ones pry open the suitcase locks.  Then it‘s monkey-see, monkey-do.  And before you know it, your underwear is being worn as a hat.  Take your stinker paws off my pants, you damn dirty ape. 

The park issued this reenactment of what could happen on your family vacation, but warns that baboons have graduated to more serious crimes, such as hot wiring your car with a monkey wrench. 

To Rio di Janeiro, where one man is taking on a city-wide blight one life sized manikin at a time.  Sick of the crater sized pot holes in his neighborhood, a local tire repairman, who must not like getting work, created pothole John.  The doll is placed in front of the roadblock and, low and behold, city workers show up to patch up the holes and repave streets. 

For added effect, the mannequin brings along his fishing gear.  So far, he‘s been able to rescue one boat, two tin cans, and a mid-sized SUV. 

And finally, to Japan, via the Internets, with this video of man‘s best friend out for a stroll.  The camera zooms in.  We get a closer look and it‘s Groucho Bark.  What pouch wouldn‘t the gift of comically slanted eye brows?  The dog‘s name is Panda and he was born with dark patches of fur right above his eye. 

For the most part, Panda is a happy little fella, except on weekends when his owners drag him to all those Eugene Levy look-alike contests. 

Live by the conspiracy theory, die by the conspiracy theory.  Why cries that Obama is not really an American citizen are a bigger problem for the GOP than it is for the White House. 

And the great Joe the Plumber debate.  Is he a guiding prophet for the Republicans, or, in the words of Meghan McCain, a dumb-ass?  Could he be both?  Analysis ahead on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Hawaii‘s Republican governor says he is.  The director of that state‘s health department says he is.  His birth certificate says he is.  But our third story in the COUNTDOWN, some people still say President Obama is not an American citizen.  Take a look at this recent encounter during a town hall meeting on health care between Republican Mike Castle and one angry conspiracy nut. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Congressman castle, I want to know; I have a birth certificate here from the United States of America saying I am an American citizen, with a seal on it, signed by a doctor with the hospital administrator‘s name, my parents, my date of birth, the time, the date.  I want to know why are you people are ignoring his birth certificate? 

(CHEERS)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  He is not an American citizen.  He is a citizen of Kenya.  I am an American.  My father‘s fought in World War II, the greatest generation, in the Pacific theater, greatest country.  And I don‘t want this spy to change.  I want my country back!

REP. MIKE CASTLE ®, DE:  I don‘t want to comment.  You‘re referring to the president there.  He is a citizen of the United States.  He is a citizen of the United States. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Just yesterday, Rush Limbaugh on the radio, “I have to prove to New York City and state tax authorities where I have been every day for the past three years.  Barack Obama has yet to have to prove that he‘s a citizen.  All he has to do is show a birth certificate.”

And Army Major Stephan Frederick Cook, who challenged the legality of his deployment, claiming that “based on the birth issue, the president wasn‘t really the president.” 

But let‘s get real.  MSNBC‘s own website, “First Read,” asks, if Mr.  Obama weren‘t a United States citizen, don‘t you think, first, the Clinton camp or then the McCain camp would have said something during the two-year presidential campaign? 

And if you were to believe Mr. Obama was not born in America, you would have to believe that not only the present governor and the health department were lying, but that it began back in 1961 with the Hawaiian newspapers that printed his birth announcement in 1961, and the Capialoni (ph) Hospital where he was born, all so Mr. Obama could become President Obama 48 years. 

Let‘s bring in from Washington, DC, Democratic strategist, Chris Kofinis.  Chris, thanks for coming on. 

CHRIS KOFINIS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  Thanks, David.

SHUSTER:  This citizenship stuff is not idle chatter in the GOP.  What does it say about the intellectual integrity or lack thereof in the GOP when so many Republicans believe this canard? 

KOFINIS:  It suggests that there are a lot of Republicans out there with some disturbing beliefs, and I think too many have gotten in the car and driving fast to crazy-town.  What‘s interesting about these conspiracy theories—there are conspiracy theories out there that say we never landed on the Moon.  There are conspiracy theories out there that say Elvis is still alive. 

There are conspiracy theories—and this is my personal favorite—that the royal family are actually reptilian animals from the planet—or solar system Draco.  I don‘t know where that is.  That may be true, I don‘t know. 

But the notion here is that you have Republicans basically falling into these kind of crazy conspiracy theories.  I just didn‘t know that so many conspiracy theorists are apparently registered Republican. 

But here‘s where it actually gets a little bit more disturbing for me.  There seems to be a pattern of behavior when it comes to certain Republicans with every administration.  If you remember back with the Clinton administration, there were people making the despicable conspiracy theory that somehow Vince Foster was murdered instead of committing suicide. 

And this I think is a pattern, where they tried to sully and discredit a Democrat, in this case, obviously, President Obama, his rightful win in November.  And it just—again, I think it‘s a very scary statement about where the Republican, or at least some factions of the Republican part are.

SHUSTER:  There are a group of Republicans in Congress sponsoring a bill that would require presidential candidates to prove their birth certificates.  Some of these lawmakers claim we aren‘t talking about President Obama.  But that‘s what their wing nut constituents are focused on.  So what are the lawmakers doing? 

KOFINIS:  What they‘re doing is wasting time.  They‘re wasting the time of their constituents.  They‘re basically wasting their rightful place in terms of dealing with the problems the country faces. 

This notion of somehow President Obama is not an American citizen—anyone can go to FactCheck.org and actually see the evidence that makes it very clear that he is an American citizen.  But the problem with conspiracy theories is you can‘t disprove them, because these people will never believe any of the facts. 

And what‘s scary to see is that members of Congress, any member of Congress, would directly or indirectly give this credence.  You would think they would actually spend more time coming up with a health care proposal instead of wasting their time with these kind of useless pieces of legislation.  But, again, that‘s not too surprising. 

SHUSTER:  The bigger picture seems to be that if President Obama was not born where the evidence shows he was, the right wing can validate their feeling that Mr. Obama‘s not one of us.  He‘s not really an American.  To his credit, Congressman Castle, who we saw in the video, condemned that thought and those who go there.  But don‘t other Republicans, for the good of the party, have a responsibility to also say President Obama was born in the United States and he is an American citizen? 

KOFINIS:  They do.  And, unfortunately, I‘m not sure how many are going to.  Some may choose not to because they don‘t want to give this kind of crazy theory any credence.  Some may not because they actually are afraid of what you saw in that Castle town hall, a just riled up group of people who believe this.  And these conspiracy theories are disturbing on multiple fronts. 

One of my old professors said to me that conspiracy theories are the easy answer for the weak minded.  And there‘s a weak mindedness to Republicans when it comes to solving the major problems that the country faces.  And now you‘re seeing these dangerous, I would say, elements that are basically trying to discredit President Obama‘s victory and suggest that he didn‘t win and didn‘t win rightfully. 

And the problem with that is it takes us down a very dangerous path.  And for me, it‘s not only discrediting it, I‘m starting to get—you know, starting to get the sense that there‘s some real racial undertones to that.  And that is not only sad, but it‘s disturbing.  I would hope that Republicans, when they hear this, do more than just what Representative Castle said, which he obviously said that President Obama is a citizen.  They need to be more forceful in condemning this. 

SHUSTER:  Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis, thanks as always. 

Great to see you tonight. 

KOFINIS:  Thanks, David. 

SHUSTER:  You‘re welcome. 

From his birth certificate to his choice of blue jeans, President Obama taking a hit on his fashion sense at last week‘s All-Star game.  Comedian Michael Ian Black join us. 

Preying on hotel guests.  Prank calls in the middle of the night with some very dangerous consequences. 

And when Rachel joins you at the top of the hour, the backlash against the C Street Crowd.  Congressman who pray together inside the secretive house in DC are now facing a problem with voters back home.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Prank calls have been around for decades.  No one is immune from them.  Prime ministers, queens, even Sarah Palin have fallen victim to them.  But in our number two story tonight, a disturbing new type of prank call has law enforcement very concerned.  The goal isn‘t to leave the recipient a little red faced.  It could leave the person on the other end of the phone seriously injured or even dead. 

NBC‘s Kerry Sanders explains. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KERRY SANDERS, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  The trail of damage at hotels runs from Florida to Arkansas, to Nebraska, to California.  Victims say the prank calls seem so believable. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We have a major gas leak occurring in the hotel. 

SANDERS:  The pranksters are so brazen, some have posted their calls on the Internet. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We need you to break a window, ma‘am. 

SANDERS:  In this fake emergency call, the guest is suspicious there‘s a gas leak.  But after someone else joins the call, it all seems so real. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Are you serious about this? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We‘re serious, right. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I‘m the general manager and we‘re verifying that it is a serious gas leak, and we do at this time need you to break that window, so that you can get air—

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I‘m overlooking the pool.  You know that? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  That‘s fine.  We‘re not worried about anything but your safety at this time. 

SANDERS:  As the guest tries to smash the window open with an iron, the callers, who don‘t sound like teenagers, stay on the line. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Get away, lady.  You don‘t want to get hurt. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  She‘s on a mission. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  She just told me to do it.  Get away!

SANDERS:  Police say the ringing phone scam usually comes when a guest is asleep, groggy, when street wits seemingly are not sharp.  That was the case with the deputy suckered in Orlando. 

BARBARA JONES, ORLANDO POLICE DEPARTMENT:  There‘s a guy on the second floor of a hotel.  Hotels can be pretty high up.  He breaks the window, been told to throw the mattresses out.  Imagine if he was on the 10th, 15th, 20th floor and that‘s the only way out. 

SANDERS:  In another variation of the prank, guests were told to pull fire alarms or smash sprinklers, setting them off.  Eleanor Brown, also a hotel guest, didn‘t know what was going on. 

ELEANOR BROWN, VICTIM:  I just heard the man in the room next to me, where it all happened, yell. 

SANDERS:  Hotel managers Samir Patel called police after his hotel was targeted. 

SAMIR PATEL, HOTEL MANAGER:  Someone called the hotel and convinced one of our guests to bust out the window, throw the mattresses downstairs. 

We weren‘t the first hotel targeted.  Supposedly not going to be the last hotel targeted. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  NBC‘s Kerry Sanders reporting. 

This is no prank.  Joe the Plumber helped get the GOP its groove back.  The latest wisdom from RNC Chair Michael Steele.  He obviously hasn‘t talked to Meghan McCain lately.  You‘re watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  You may have heard that Meghan McCain called Joe the Plumber a dumb-ass.  And yet RNC Chairman Michael Steele actually praised Mr.  Plumber for getting the Republican groove back.  So in our number one story in the COUNTDOWN, let‘s put it nicely.  The Republican party is like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you‘re going to get. 

Meanwhile, the president of the United States addresses the flak he‘s catching over his mom jeans.  But first Joe the Plumber Wurzelbacher.  It was not too long ago that Mr. Wurzelbacher said that he did not want, quote, queers anywhere around my children.  So when Meghan McCain, Senator McCain‘s daughter, was asked about that in her interview with “Out Magazine,” she said, quote, “Joe the Plumber, you can quote me, is a dumb-ass.  He should stick to plumbing.” 

Enter RNC Chairman Michael Steele, who without any prompting from “HARDBALL‘s” Chris Matthews, paid Mr. Wurzelbacher a huge compliment just yesterday. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL STEELE, RNC CHAIRMAN:  We couldn‘t even argue the basics of the economy in the last election, effectively.  And it took a happenstance conversation with a plumber before we could really begin to get that groove. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Yes, Chairman Steele, Joe the Plumber really turned things around for your party. 

But the leader of the free world has his own problems.  The jeans he wore at baseball‘s All-Star game roundly criticized as ill-fitting, kind of like mom jeans.  But when “The Today Show‘s” Meredith Vieira asked President Obama about it, he said, “I‘m a little frumpy,” and also, quote, “those jeans are comfortable.”  In other words, get over it. 

Finally, there‘s Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill and what she Twittered late last night about the health care debate.  “I support the pubic option on health care reform, but must make sure private market can compete.”  But just nine minutes later she Tweeted again, correcting her mistake, “public option.”

Let‘s bring in actor and comedian Michael Ian Black, currently starring in the new comedy on “Comedy Central,” “Michael and Michael Have Issues.”  Good evening, Michael. 

MICHAEL IAN BLACK, “MICHAEL AND MICHAEL HAVE ISSUES”:  Good evening, David. 

SHUSTER:  Let‘s start with Joe the Plumber.  A pretty wide range of opinion about him, even among Republicans.  Care to offer yours? 

BLACK:  Well, first of all, I‘m a huge Joe the Plumber fan.  Everything that he says, I‘m fascinated to hear it.  I love his opinions, his insightfulness, and his craziness.  But it‘s interesting that on one hand he said, I‘m, quote, not just a dumb plumber.  But he also said—no, he said he was a dumb plumber, but then he also said, I‘m not some ignorant redneck who doesn‘t have anything to say about anything. 

So it seems like he was maybe contradicting himself a little bit, but that‘s the genius of Joe.  He can talk out of both sides of that plumbing mouth. 

SHUSTER:  Turning to the president and his jeans, he also said that, quote, “here‘s my attitude.  Michelle, she looks fabulous.  For people who want a president to look great in jeans, I‘m sorry.”  So the president is sticking with frumpy? 

BLACK:  I guess he is.  But by the same token, nor do we need a president who shops at Annie Says.  We don‘t need a president who necessarily looks great in tight jeans, but would it kill him to get a pair of Levi‘s?  Would it kill him? 

I understand they‘re comfortable, but Levi‘s make some excellent products, Mr. president.   

SHUSTER:  Then there‘s Senator McCaskill, who almost turned the health care debate into a soft-core porn dialogue.  Thankfully, she didn‘t let that spiral out of control. 

BLACK:  Well, this is a typo.  We‘ve all made typos before, but it did inspire me to wonder whether or not the Brazilian would be covered under President Obama‘s health care reform plan. 

SHUSTER:  Of course, on the other side of the aisle, Senator Chuck Grassley loves to Tweet, particularly when complaining about President Obama, like this now-infamous Tweet.  “When you are a hammer, you think everything is nail.  I‘m no nail.”  Are senators, generally speaking, simply, out of their element on this whole Tweeting thing? 

BLACK:  Here‘s the problem; Twitter is designed for people who can speak in short, succinct sentences.  That‘s not necessarily a senator‘s forte.  They‘re not necessarily good at confining things to 140 characters or less.  It, frankly, worries me if they can‘t get out two sentences without making a gaffe.  I think that should be concerning for all Americans. 

SHUSTER:  There‘s the growing dramatic narrative about whether Republicans will be able to kill President Obama‘s health care reform.  Would you like to venture a guess as to who is going to win that one? 

BLACK:  I don‘t know.  On one side, you‘ve got 45 million uninsured Americans.  On the other side, you‘ve got a handful of very rich lobbyists.  I‘m going to go with the rich lobbyists.  Historically, that seems to be the group that wins. 

SHUSTER:  And speaking of winning, Meghan McCain, fair to say that her description of Joe the Plumber is one that probably, I don‘t know, most Americans agree with? 

BLACK:  Meghan McCain is my favorite Republican.  I absolutely adore her.  Every time she speaks, I‘m think,  why aren‘t people like her running for office?  I really think she‘s great.  And I think she‘s correct.  Joe the Plumber is—and you can quote me on quoting Meghan McCain—a dumb-ass. 

SHUSTER:  Is there any doubt? 

BLACK:  No.  Look at the man. 

SHUSTER:  Look at him?  What does that mean? 

BLACK:  I take that back.  Listen to the man. 

SHUSTER:  OK.  Comedian Michael Ian Black, also starring in “Michael and Michael Have Issues” on Comedy Central.  Michael, always a pleasure to talk with you.  Thanks for coming on. 

BLACK:  Thanks so much for having me. 

SHUSTER:  You‘re very welcome. 

That will do it for this Tuesday edition of COUNTDOWN.  You can usually catch me weekdays on MSNBC at 3:00 p.m. Eastern along with my colleague, Tamryn Hall.  Thanks, everybody, for watching.  And now to discuss the backlash against Congressman and senator who prayed inside the secretive organization called the Family, here is Rachel Maddow.

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

END   

Watch Countdown with Keith Olbermann each weeknight at 8 p.m. ET

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