updated 4/1/2011 12:31:28 PM ET 2011-04-01T16:31:28

Guest Host: Chuck Todd

Guests: Mark Halperin, Richard Wolffe, Tyler Mathisen, Jenny Beth Martin, Mark Meckler, Bob Baer, Steve Clemons, Todd Harris, Steve McMahon

CHUCK TODD, GUEST HOST:  A game of Washington chicken?

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good Thursday evening.  I‘m Chuck Todd in Washington, sitting in for Chris Matthews, who‘s on assignment in Israel.

Leading off tonight: The Democrats blink.  As we wrote in “First Read” this morning, if the budget battle were a game of chicken, the Democrats would already be in the ditch.  Democrats keep caving and caving to the point where they appear to be (ph) to the Republicans‘ initial proposal.  Still, the Democrats somehow managed to make the Republicans look like they‘re the obstructionists today.

Plus, one group making sure the Republicans don‘t blink in this game of chicken, the Tea Party.  They rallied in Washington, urging the Republicans to hold the line.  But it comes as a second poll in two days shows the Tea Party steadily losing some popularity in the middle of the electorate.  Is that party ending?

Also, let‘s face it, in one week, Donald Trump has transformed himself into the nation‘s leading birther—which he doesn‘t like that term, by the way.  He‘s jumping into a cesspool where a lot of Republicans office holders and voters have been lurking.  We‘ll ask the HARDBALL “Strategists” what the party can do to climb out of that mess and what Democrats do, if they want to, to try to exploit that madness.

And here, one right out of the James Bond file.  While it‘s true there are no U.S. ground troops in Libya, “The New York Times” and a lot of news outlets are reporting that the CIA has placed clandestine operatives inside the country.  We‘re going to talk to a former CIA officer about just what they‘re trying to do in Libya, how they‘re trying to do it, and whether they can succeed.

And finally, which member of Congress fears the fighting in Libya could spread to—wait for it—more fighting in Africa?  Think about that for a moment.  And then think about this.  The congressman sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  He‘s landed himself in the “Sideshow.”

And we start with the battle over the budget.  “Time” magazine‘s Mark Halperin is an MSNBC senior political analyst and Richard Wolffe is an MSNBC political analyst, and he joins me now, a seatmate, usually, over at the White House.  And we‘ve got Mark over at the White House.

So Mark, I‘ll start with you over there.  When you look at the numbers, Vice President Biden told reporters last night, quote, “There is no reason why we can‘t reach an agreement to avoid a government shutdown because the bottom line is here is we‘re working off the same number.”

That number, Mark Halperin, is $33 billion.  Now House Speaker John Boehner said today they weren‘t operating off that number.  But let‘s put this number in perspective.  The original Paul Ryan proposal was $32 billion.  Biden is saying $33 billion.  And of course, the current House number is $61 billion.  It‘s a game of chicken.  Democrats keep caving.  But is it now all eyes on the Republicans?

MARK HALPERIN, “TIME,” MSNBC SR. POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, I think they‘re caving less on the question of the amount, although they have caved somewhat on that—the bigger caves are tax increases aren‘t on the table, something a lot of Democrats would like to see, and they‘re not—they‘re digging right deep into the discretionary—non-defense discretionary spending that Democrats think will hurt the economy and hurt less fortunate Americans.  So they‘ve lost the PR battle on the terrain, and now they‘re giving inch by inch on the actual number.

TODD:  But for the first time, Richard Wolffe, we actually did see at least the White House try to play the PR game.  Last night, Joe Biden goes out there and said, Hey, we‘re working off the same number.  And it led to this today.  John Boehner had to say this.  Take a listen.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE:  Now, here‘s the bottom line.  Democrats are rooting for a government shutdown.  We‘re listening to the people who sent us here to cut spending so that we can grow our economy.  There is no agreement on a set of numbers, and nothing will be agreed to until everything is agreed to.  I‘ve said it and I‘m going to continue to say it because that is the fact.


TODD:  So Richard Wolffe, they got job Boehner to say there‘s no agreement.  That‘s actually something they‘ve been trying to do because now it looks like he‘s standing in the way of the deal.

RICHARD WOLFFE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Right.  Here‘s the different dynamic.  The White House is playing for independents.  It wants to be reasonable, look reasonable, no matter what the number is, and that‘s going to annoy the base because they‘re giving up too much.  They are caving to a greater degree than Republicans.

But the Republicans are not playing for that same group.  They‘re playing the body-building game for their base, for the Tea Party folks.  And so when you‘ve got one side wanting to look tough and the other side looking reasonable, well, you know who wins that argument in the short term.  That‘s the number game.  But the bigger game that the White House is playing, the bigger audience is those independent voters that moved away from them in the last couple of years.

So yes, this is a small skirmish over this particular phase, and maybe Democrats are going to have to be very unhappy because they‘ve given up so much here.  The problem here is the next round.  What now—

TODD:  Right.

WOLFFE:  -- can the White House do when they go into the spending limits, the next budget?

TODD:  Right.

WOLFFE:  What else can they give up here and still look reasonable?

TODD:  And you know, Mark Halperin, what I found fascinating today is this contradiction between what Biden said last night and Boehner said today.  It was all fodder for the Jay Carney briefing.  And Jay Carney said, Oh, no, no, no, we agree with John Boehner.  We know that there‘s—we know that when you have a deal, it‘s a deal for all of it.  We just think that we all agree.  We‘re pretty close on the number.  We‘re just working out the details.

The White House doesn‘t want to throw John Boehner under the bus publicly, do they.

HALPERIN:  He‘s their negotiating partner, and Boehner has been in private in these talks, from all reports, pretty reasonable.  And he recognizes that he has a balancing act to do.  He must get support from some Republicans, but in the end, this deal is likely to be like the tax deal they passed during the lame duck session and like the other—the last CR was.  This is likely to be a deal that gets passed only because it gets sufficient votes from both Republicans and Democrats, the kind of bipartisan compromise that the president said he would put through on a range of issues as president.

This is a challenge for John Boehner more than anyone else, but it‘s clear he knows from the comments he made today he can‘t deliver what the Tea Party wants.  Even if he wanted to, even if he was willing to take the political risks Richard was talking about—

TODD:  Right.

HALPERIN:  -- he can‘t deliver that because it can‘t pass the Senate.

TODD:  And Mark Halperin, very quickly, do you imagine a deal where John Boehner votes for it and Eric Cantor, the number two, votes against it, where there‘s a little bit of a split there?

HALPERIN:  I think that‘s absolutely possible, and it would be—it would be representative of the two strands of thought and strategic thought within the party right now.

TODD:  Richard Wolffe, I want to play some back-and-forth that we—that was over this issue of riders.  So the White House actually has backed off of it.  They‘ve now drawn a line, I think, in the air.  Biden last night—these amendments, these riders—this is the defunding of Planned Parenthood—

WOLFFE:  Right.

TODD:  -- for instance, defunding of NPR—this is what Biden said last night.  “The president and I are not really big on riders at all.  We‘ve made it clear that we think they are the non-starters, both the numbers and riders, but I‘m not going to negotiate out here.”  He didn‘t draw the line in the sand.

Here‘s Michele Bachmann today about this issue of riders.  Take a listen.


REP. MICHELE BACHMANN ®, MINNESOTA:  Cutting off funding to groups like Planned Parenthood has to be one of those issues that we‘re just not going to back down from!


TODD:  So it seems the White House is basically saying, Look—to John Boehner—we‘ll give you some riders, if you need it.  You just can‘t send us over the Planned Parenthood and NPR riders.

WOLFFE:  Right.  I think there are some red lines around this.  They‘re not saying explicitly which riders are the worst for them, but all of them are going to be difficult to swallow.  And in this kind of negotiation, what you give up—the problem is they‘ve already given up their number—

TODD:  Right.

WOLFFE:  -- and in trying to look reasonable, they‘ve already had to move where the goal post is, as they moved with the Republicans.  I don‘t know that there are many of those riders that the base will accept for the Democrats.  So you know, to give up one and maybe get less in terms of cuts to some of these discretionary spending programs, maybe that‘s a compromise that they‘ll take.  But they‘re really looking for that next game, which is, What do you do on the next round of cuts?  This is not—the Republicans are not going to stop here with a couple of riders.  This is just a temporary—

TODD:  Right.

WOLFFE:  -- a temporary point right now.

TODD:  Mark Halperin, Newt Gingrich was speaking today to the House Republican freshmen today, right?  And these—this is a group that, for the most part, they want to fight a little bit harder, it seems, than the leadership.  You get a sense the Republican leadership says, Hey, let‘s—we have a debt limit fight we got to do, all these extra fights that Richard Wolffe was just pointing out.  What advice was Newt Gingrich or what do we think the advice Newt Gingrich, who went through before in the ‘90s, was giving to these freshmen?

HALPERIN:  To stand by their principles.  This is the popular position.  And anyone who‘s thinking of running for president—you talked before about perhaps Eric Cantor being against a final deal but John Boehner being for it.  I can almost guarantee you that every Republican presidential candidate, like Newt Gingrich, is going to be against it.  They‘re going to side with the Tea Party, with the base of the party, and say, This deal isn‘t good enough.  We need to fight for more.

The reality is, though, again, the shutdown risk that Gingrich might be willing to take, even though he says he‘s not for a shutdown—he might be willing to take it.  I don‘t think John Boehner wants it.  I know the president doesn‘t want it.  They would prefer to avoid that shutdown, avoid the risk that comes, both substantive and political, with taking that on, going into the unknown.

TODD:  What‘s the likelihood of a shutdown?  I mean, it seems as if all the leadership doesn‘t want it, but is there a point of no return?

WOLFFE:  No.  Eight out of ten voters don‘t want it.  If the leadership wanted to go down the shutdown route, they‘d have done it already.  So I think we‘re beyond that point now.

TODD:  That sort of—that‘s the cable (ph) candidate (ph) game.

WOLFFE:  Yes.  And also, there—look, I think the Republicans are playing quite a clever game here in saying, Democrats want the shutdown.

TODD:  Right.

WOLFFE:  They have the Schumer stuff.  You know, they—they want—everyone‘s trying to make each other look unreasonable.  But Boehner‘s compromise with the Tea Party folks is not that different from what Pelosi had to do in terms of holding onto her group and saying, I‘m fighting as hard as I can.  If I have to lose some people, and they look like they‘ve pushed me as hard as they can go—

TODD:  Right.

WOLFFE:  It works out for everyone.

TODD:  I had somebody say he needs the theatrics a little bit.

WOLFFE:  He does, and—


WOLFFE:  -- Tea Party folk can need (ph) to vote against this.

TODD:  Very quickly, Mark?

HALPERIN:  Chuck, we could have a shutdown because, remember, in these budget things, particularly when you need votes from both the Democrat pot and the Republican pot of votes, you go to the floor without the votes, the leadership might say, yes, we got a deal—

TODD:  Right.

HALPERIN:  -- but that doesn‘t mean you get to the majority on the floor.

TODD:  Look at the TARP—the original TARP vote.  Anyway—

HALPERIN:  That‘s right.

TODD:  -- Mark Halperin, Richard Wolffe, MSNBC contributors both of you, thanks very much, Mark at the White House, Richard here.  I‘m very confused!  Anyway, thank you both.


TODD:  All right, coming up next, we‘re going to talk about the Tea Party and this issue of whether they‘re going to be holding John Boehner‘s feet to the fire to the point that he could face a primary challenge?  We‘ll see what happens.  That and more straight ahead.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.


TODD:  Oh, this is good stuff for junkies!  A 2012 primary calendar fight is brewing within the Republican Party.  Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina are scheduled to hold their contests in February 2012 -- one, two, three, four.  But Florida already has a primary date, and it‘s ahead of all of them in January 2012.

Well, now South Carolina and Iowa Republicans are fighting back, urging the Republican National Committee to punish Florida to the point where they would move the entire convention out of the state and get it out of Tampa.  Well, the RNC issued a statement today, saying, Look, the convention will stay where it is, but at the same time, it will enforce the rules agreed to by all states with respect to the primary and caucus calendar.  So if Florida even tries to do a beauty contest or any of this stuff, they will lose half their delegates and be in a hotel room somewhere in the Everglades.  To be continued.

We‘ll be right back.



BACHMANN:  I think that you have made it abundantly clear!  Stop spending money you don‘t have!  Right?


TODD:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  That was Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota speaking at the Tea Party‘s “Continuing Revolution” rally today.  She and fellow Republicans urged their colleagues to hold firm on cutting that $61 billion from the budget that the House Republicans passed a month earlier.  Here‘s more from the rally.


BACHMANN:  I think it‘s time to get serious, don‘t you?




BACHMANN:  And cutting $61 billion, in my opinion, is a starting point, it is not the goal!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I stood in front of my colleagues this morning and I said, If you choose to fight on the $61.5 billion, I‘ll stand and I‘ll fight with you!

REP. MIKE PENCE ®, INDIANA:  And if liberals in the Senate would rather play political games and shut down the government instead of making a small down payment on fiscal discipline and reform, I say shut it down!

REP. JOE WALSH ®, ILLINOIS:  The president and the White House has no clue!  He doesn‘t get it!  The Senate Democrats are in denial!  Your House Republicans understand!  Your House Republicans understand!


TODD:  Well, Jenny Beth Martin is the national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots and organized today‘s rally, and Mark Meckler is co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, and he‘s out—I thought you were in California—out from Sacramento.


TODD:  But let me start—let me start with you, Jenny, on these poll numbers that we‘ve seen of late in this Tea Party.  And every pollster asks it a little different, but generally, it‘s sort of supportive of the Tea Party, favorable, unfavorable.  Here was the CNN poll.  Now the favorable rating‘s at 32 percent, unfavorable at 47 percent.  The unfavorable number is growing.  And when you look inside the numbers, among independents, it‘s a net negative.  Among Republicans, it‘s a net positive.

Do those numbers concern you, that you‘re losing the middle.  The independents who were with you in 2010 -- are you concerned that you‘re losing them now?

JENNY BETH MARTIN, TEA PARTY PATRIOTS:  I‘m not concerned about it.  What we‘re seeing—we‘re growth within the movement.  I talked to people today from West Virginia who started, like, eight months ago, and they had four people at their first meeting.  Now they have 2,000 people in their group.  People in Massachusetts who—their groups are less than a year old, and they have 450, 500 people in their groups.  We‘re growing.

TODD:  Is the growth, though, inside the Republican Party, when you‘re basically rebranding conservative Republicans while not gaining independents?  Is that a concern?

MARTIN:  I think that today‘s rally shows that we‘re hard on Republicans and Democrats, so hopefully, the people who are independent, who maybe have lost that messaging, will realize we still—we‘re still non-partisan.

TODD:  Mark, how do you win back these independents that are drifting away from you in this poll?  It‘s not a full-fledged evacuation, but they‘re drifting away.  These numbers are getting lower.

MARK MECKLER, TEA PARTY PATRIOTS:  You know, I‘m really not worried about it.  First of all, let‘s remember this is a single poll.  I don‘t trust any single poll.  So you got a CNN poll that‘s been touted by Harry Reid as the demise of the Tea Party movement.  But you‘re talking a 32 percent favorable even in a CNN poll, when Harry Reid himself has a 13 percent favorable in Congress.  I‘ll take those comparative numbers any day.

The American people are with us, and they are against people like Harry Reid in Congress that are spending away the future.

TODD:  All right, now, there‘s obviously a debate.  There was talk of a deal last night.  Vice President Biden came out, said that they‘ve agreed on a number, the $33 billion number that‘s been floated out, actually, a billion higher than the original Paul Ryan number.

Mark, let me go to you first.  John Boehner, apparently, behind the scenes, it sounded like—that number, he‘s, like, All right, we can work with that number, we‘ll figure out where the cuts go.  I had talked to John Cornyn today.  Here‘s an exchange I had with him about these reports and here‘s what he said.


SEN. JOHN CORNYN ®, TEXAS:  I hope he‘s right because the American people want us to solve problems.  They don‘t want the gamesmanship and business as usual.

TODD:  So you—meaning—hope he‘s right?  That number‘s OK with you?  That sounds like a good number?

CORNYN:  I‘d like more, but you know, really, this is kind of small ball compared to the big issues like the debt limit.

TODD:  Sure.


TODD:  John Cornyn‘s point, Mark, is, like, Look, we‘ve got to get past this issue, it sounds like.  And if this is the best we‘re going to get, get it, get it done, and then start having the bigger fights down the road.  Are you OK with that?

MECKLER:  Absolutely not.  John Cornyn represents politics as usual.  I can tell you from talking to people in his home district, he is not popular there now.  He‘s in serious trouble.  And people like him who are out of step with the American people are in trouble. 

Right now, 69 percent of Americans say they‘re angry with government and they‘re angry with government policies.  They stand with the Tea Party, not with people like John Cornyn that just want to get it done in the old style. 

TODD:  But, Jenny, when you look at this, there‘s also a lot of the public that they‘re tired of all the Washington games.  And if you shut down the government, that looks like a Washington game. 

MARTIN:  It does look like a Washington game.  And it‘s too bad that Congress and the White House are—are willing to let that happen. 

We haven‘t had a budget passed since 2009.  This budget, the continuing resolution we‘re talking about, is for this fiscal year that started in October of last year, October 1 of 2010.  Why haven‘t they done what they‘re supposed to do? 

TODD:  Well, what about this issue of compromise?  Here‘s—here‘s where this started.  OK, Democrats started it.  Obviously, they had a budget.  They that didn‘t cut anything that you guys wanted to have cut.  Then it got moved and it got up to $33 billion.  They have come out to $33 billion, which is halfway of the $61 billion. 

Why not—you got that deal—you got it done—this—you‘re

going to get President Obama to sign that, where you‘re cutting $33 billion

take that as a victory and move to the next fight? 

MARTIN:  Our job is to push as hard as we can and push and stand up for the American people. 

TODD:  Is there a point, though, that you say, OK, we will get to the point, but not shut down the government, or do you have got to go all the way—


MARTIN:  You know, we will have to see what happens.  We haven‘t seen anything yet.  We haven‘t seen any bills that indicate this.  We have seen a couple of press releases.  Let‘s see what they actually put on the table. 

All we‘re asking for is 2.6 pennies less being spent out of every dollar, 2.6 pennies.  And they‘re saying that‘s extreme. 

TODD:  And, Mark, let me have you wrap this up. 

If—if there is a compromise—look, there‘s going to have to be compromise.  Democrats control the Senate, and there‘s a Democrat in the White House.  You‘re not going to get everything you want.  At what point do you say, OK, I can accept the compromise, we have pushed them?  Like I said, you guys have pushed them a long way from where you started three months ago. 

MECKLER:  So, we have pushed them from pathetic to anemic.  And that‘s not acceptable. 

The reality, like Jenny Beth said, we‘re asking for 2.6 cents off of every dollar of federal spending.  The nation is at risk.  My children, your children, our grandchildren are at risk.  These guys have to get serious.  No, $33 billion is not enough.  It‘s not even a start. 

TODD:  But if you‘re only talking about these—this small part of the budget anyway, and you need to tackle the bigger parts, you have got to get this out of the way politically before you can even tackle the real drivers of the deficit and the debt.  

MECKLER:  Well, look, if there is a government slowdown, which is what it would be, we will lay it squarely at the feet of those to whom it belongs, President Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi.  These guys had absolute control of the levers of government.  They could have passed any budget that their hearts desired.  They could have—


TODD:  It takes 60 votes in the Senate .

MECKLER:  They wouldn‘t—

TODD:  It‘s going to take—it took Republican support, too. 

MECKLER:  They wouldn‘t even try.  They never even proposed a budget.  It‘s outrageous.  They‘re irresponsible, and they‘re the ones to blame for this situation. 

TODD:  All right, Jenny Beth Martin, Mark Meckler of the Tea Party Patriots, I have got to leave it there.  Thanks for coming in. 

MARTIN:  Thank you for having us. 

TODD:  All right. 

Up next: the comic stylings of Brooklyn‘s very own Mr. Comedy, Anthony Weiner.  He‘s at the Catskills tonight, I hear.  At last night‘s big Washington, dinner he wasn‘t—he was pretty funny.  That‘s in the “Sideshow” right here on MSNBC.


TODD:  Back to HARDBALL.  Time for the “Sideshow.” 

First up: amateur night.  While three lawmakers did routines at last night‘s congressional dinner, there was only one star performance. 

Without further adieu, the congressman from Brooklyn, Anthony Weiner. 


REP. ANTHONY WEINER (D), NEW YORK:  This is really a huge thrill for me.  This is all being broadcast on C-SPAN3, so tens of Americans will see this. 


WEINER:  You know, down at the C-SPAN—down at the CNN table, they‘re saying:  Tens.  What‘s their secret?  You know, they‘re like—



WEINER:  And Michele Bachmann, I don‘t know if she is here.  I want to welcome her.  If she‘s not—she‘s probably not.  You know, she‘s—she‘s campaigning in Iowa and organizing in that important caucus state because she‘s running for president. 

That‘s really all I have for that joke. 


WEINER:  By the way, I—I do the Weiner jokes around here, guys. 


WEINER:  And, really, like, who is Boehner fooling.  What am I, like “Anthony Waynor”?  What am I?  Like—


WEINER:  Like, who are—I‘m serious, brother.  Just embrace it.  You know?  I mean—



TODD:  Weiner had the comic timing last night.  As for poor old Ben Quayle and Rand Paul, Cedric Richmond, guys, get the writers.  Trust me.  Anthony Weiner found the joke-writers.  There are a few of them in Washington.  Get help with those speeches. 

Anyway, next up: the domino effect. 

Republican Congressman Tom Marino has concerns about military intervention in Libya.  Why?  He thinks it could spread to Africa.  That‘s right.  Marino told a local paper—quote—“The bottom line is, I wish the president would have told us, talked to Congress about what is the plan.  Where does it stop?  Do we go into Africa next?  I don‘t want to sound callous or cold, but this could go on indefinitely around the world.”

Well, Libya, of course, is in Africa.  Congressman Marino sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  Not so good.  Remember, when you‘re a member of Congress, you‘re held to a little bit of a higher standard when it comes to geography. 

All right, finally, who‘s the boss?  Bruce Springsteen is taking on New Jersey‘s head honcho, Governor Chris Christie.  Springsteen wrote a letter to the editor, to “The Asbury Park Press,” of course, responding to its story about Christie‘s program cuts. 

The Boss wrote—quote—“The article is one of the few that highlights the contradictions between a policy of large tax cuts on the one hand and cuts in services to those in the most dire conditions.  Your article shows that the cuts are eating away at the lower edges of the middle class, not just those already classified as in poverty.”

What makes this even more interesting, Chris Christie, of course, is a big Springsteen fan.  How big?  He‘s been to over 100 concerts.  Some might call that stalking. 

Anyway, now for tonight‘s “Big Number.” 

The journey came to an end today for the Bronx Zoo‘s infamous missing cobra.  The snake was found alive and well inside a non-public part of the House of Reptiles.  How many days of freedom did she enjoy, if you want to call it that?  Six, not even a full week.  The Bronx cobra had six days on the run.  It all ended today.  But it was 180,000 Twitter followers later. 

Anyway, tonight‘s “Big Number,” six.  The cobra is back.

Up next:  CIA agents in Libya, what are they up to?  What do they do?  We‘re going to actually talk to a former agent to tell us what goes on in these covert operations. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  


TYLER MATHISEN, CNBC CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m Tyler Mathisen with your CNBC “Market Wrap.”

Stocks ending mixed, as falling financials offset rising materials. 

The Dow Jones industrials skidded 30 points.  The S&P 500 fell two.  Nasdaq,  however, eked out a fortunately-point gain.  And that‘s it for the quarter.  The markets looked downright bulletproof this quarter, posting their best quarterly results since 1998, despite all the global crises and catastrophes. 

The energy sector was the biggest winner, surging 16 percent, boosted by rising oil prices and renewed interest in alternative forms of energy. 

Looking at stocks today, we had agriculture companies surging on a report showing more crops will be planted this year, especially corn.  Retail stocks slumped on concerns about rising inflation.  And a lot of investors were scratching their heads about the surprise resignation of David Sokol.  He‘s Warren Buffett‘s—or was Warren Buffett‘s potential successor at Berkshire Hathaway. 

And that will do it from CNBC, first in business worldwide—now back to HARDBALL. 

TODD:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

President Obama has said he won‘t put U.S. troops on the ground in Libya.  That doesn‘t mean he‘s not already sending the CIA there.  Many news agencies are now reporting, including NBC News, that operatives are gathering intelligence and aiding the rebels as part of sort of a shadow force in Libya. 

These activities come after the president signed a secret finding a few weeks ago that authorizes the CIA to do this on the ground.  And it‘s the start of what could be a potential way for them to actually arm the rebels.  But the White House says it actually hasn‘t decided whether to provide direct arms support, and they‘re not even confirming this signing of this directive. 

So does a CIA presence in Libya mean we‘re now engaged in a clandestine war?

Steve Clemons is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.  And Bob Baer is a former CIA field officer.  And he is author of the book “The Company We Keep.”

Steve, I want to first start with—there was a lot of briefings on the Hill today.  And, obviously, the big focus right now for the Obama administration and for a lot of hawks and a lot of questions on Capitol Hill is the search for Gadhafi and getting Gadhafi. 

Here‘s an exchange between Lindsey Graham and Secretary Robert Gates on that very issue. 


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM ®, SOUTH CAROLINA:  Is Gadhafi the legitimate leader of the Libyan people, in your eyes, legally?  And, if he‘s not, would it be unlawful for some nation, including ours, to drop a bomb on him to end this thing? 

ROBERT GATES, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE:  Well, President Reagan tried that. 

GRAHAM:  Well, that doesn‘t mean we shouldn‘t try again. 

I believe he‘s an international terrorist, unlawful enemy combatant.  Then we‘re within our bounds as a nation and our coalition partners to take the fight to him and his cadre of supporters.  Is that on the table or not? 

GATES:  I don‘t think so, because I think it would probably break the coalition. 


TODD:  Steve Clemons, is Gates right—


TODD:  -- that it would break—break the coalition if that were the purpose of the mission? 

CLEMONS:  Absolutely break the coalition, and it would morph into a narrative of, again, very flamboyant Western intervention yet again and concerns about what our real intentions were in the region.  There would be no way to do it.

You have to allow the Libyan people to make that kind of decision. 

That can‘t be a bomb from—a bomb from us. 

TODD:  All right.

Bob Baer, we know the reports now.  There is some—there is some CIA presence in Libya.  Frankly, it was one of those things—there‘s probably been CIA presence in Libya for 40 years, but let‘s not go there.  But there‘s presence there right now actively trying to assess the situation with the rebels and potentially lead us to a point where they could actually arm the rebels. 

Explain what this means.  The president signs this directive, allows CIA operatives to do some things in there.  What are they doing now in this reconnaissance, and how are they moving forward? 

ROBERT BAER, INTELLIGENCE ANALYST, TIME.COM:  Well, I think they were there before the covert action finding was signed.  And it was a smart move. 

We don‘t know who these rebels are.  We don‘t know who their leaders are.  We don‘t know if they were trained.  We don‘t know if we can do anything with them.  So, sending CIA intelligence officers into Libya, it was smart, necessary, and I‘m sure it was done. 

Now, the question is, if there really is a covert action finding in the works, is, do we arm these people?  I would say that‘s going to be a tough one.  The Libyan rebels are not a fighting force.  They‘re not cohesive.  A couple of them are defectors, but that‘s not enough to make a unit. 

And do we want the United States in a covert war in Libya?  And they can‘t stay covert, as we have seen with this—these reports, these leaks. 

TODD:  Right. 

BAER:  So, it‘s—we might as well have troops on the ground. 

TODD:  You know, Steve, what I found interesting today is, Jay Carney at the briefing admitted that they vetted the opposition folks that have been trying to be the leaders, you know, showed up to London, vetted to see if they had an al Qaeda background, all this, because this has been one of the concerns:  Who are these people?

Do we—we don‘t want to get into a situation like Afghanistan in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and we were arming the mujahedeen, who then turn out to be the Taliban of today.  So, if we‘re doing that, is that also one of the things these operatives are doing now right there, is simply vetting some of these opposition -- 

CLEMONS:  Well, I‘m sure they‘re there trying to sort it out, just like Bob Baer said.  But I don‘t think that there‘s a way to look at a Libyan opposition group that doesn‘t have some of these elements that we would be concerned about in it. 

In fact, I would doubt that any successor administration, successor regime to Gadhafi could survive if it didn‘t have some of these—these folks in it.  We have in the case—we have—you know, I have talked to Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch, who is a big advocate of the opposition council, convinced that there are many sincere and genuine human rights advocates on there. 

And I told him personally that—I said, unless they have got some thugs around them as well, I would worry about their ability to survive. 

But, in the case of—one of the groups that Gadhafi really harassed was the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which has now, you know, changed its name, but, nonetheless, these were jihadists out to fight Western intervention in areas like Iraq and Afghanistan.  They were fellow travelers of the mujahedeen in the past.

And they were for a brief time associated with al Qaeda.  They are not al Qaeda today.  Most of the leaders have repudiated the al Qaeda connection.  But they are allied with some of the youth leaders, some of the—

TODD:  Right. 

CLEMONS:  -- others that are—that are part of the equation. 

So, we‘re not going to be able to make a neat, clean cut away—

TODD:  Right. 

CLEMONS:  -- from these groups. 

TODD:  And, Bob Baer, history has shown the “enemy of our enemy is our friend” policy never works out for the United States in the long run. 

BAER:  No, there will be blowback from Libya for a very long time. 

And as Steve said, there‘s—the Muslim Brotherhood, if there‘s any organization that can bring it together, it‘s them.  And we‘re going to expect them to be showing up a lot more.  And Gadhafi emptied his prisons out and a lot of these people have run to Benghazi and are joining the opposition.  So, he‘s absolutely right, it‘s not going to be a neat break.

TODD:  All right.  Let‘s talk about what may be the biggest development of this uprising so far, and that‘s a defection of Moussa Koussa.

Steve Clemons, explain why the defection of this guy, Gadhafi‘s right-hand man, is so big.  And I‘m curious, how did he defect without getting shot?

CLEMONS:  Well, one wonders what that is, but I think he was so trusted within the Gadhafi regime, they never thought he would leave.  I mean, Moussa Koussa has been part and parcel of every major decision Gadhafi has made for years, former head of the intelligence, involved in everything.  This is one of the closest members of the Gadhafi close-knit cabal, if you will.

And so, for him to go is far more important in my book than the skirmishes of the 50, 60 people we see moving from town—

TODD:  Sure.

CLEMONS: -- back-and-forth, and whether that matters or not.  His defection is a signal about where the winds are blowing around Gadhafi.

I still think Gadhafi is incredibly resilient and we should not underestimate him.  But this is a huge loss to the regime.  I don‘t know how he got out of there, but he is a storehouse of intelligence about who matters, who doesn‘t, where they tilt and who Gadhafi has either so seduced or so threatened so that Gadhafi can continue to operate without real concern.  Because one of the questions is: why aren‘t one of these guys turning a gun on him?

TODD:  On Gadhafi, right.

CLEMONS:  And they‘re all worried about themselves.  But this is—this is a huge, huge boost for the United States.

TODD:  And very quickly, Bob Baer, when you hear this guy is able to get away scot-free, essentially, does that set off any alarm bells in your head?

BAER:  No.  I think he was disaffected with the regime.  You know, after two years, he‘d been removed as intelligence chief.  He didn‘t like Gadhafi‘s sons who didn‘t like him.  Gadhafi liked him, kept him around, and so, he was really wary of the regime early on.  What I‘d like to see is other defections following his and that would be the head of the major tribes, like the Magriha.  If they leave or go over to the rebels, Gadhafi is done.

TODD:  All right.  Steve Clemons, Bob Baer, I‘ve got to leave it there.  Thank you both for your expertise.  Good stuff as always.

All right.  On deck, there really is no such thing as bad publicity, is that right?  Donald Trump has become the nation‘s leading birther.  How does he and the Republican Party crawl out of this PR mess?  We‘re going to ask the HARDBALL strategists.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.


TODD:  Look, we‘ve been telling you that Chris Matthews is on assignment in Israel.  By gosh, he was, OK?  Here he is sharing his wisdom about the 2012 race at the International Tourism Conference in Jerusalem.  Watch.


CHRIS MATTHEWS, HARDBALL HOST:  This Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi—watch this guy for one key reason.  He appeals to the Tea Party people but isn‘t one of them, and that is the combination to the lock.  To win a general election in America, you must appeal to the right without looking like one of the cultural right.


TODD:  There it is.  Chris is back on Monday.

And we‘ll be back in a moment.


TODD:  Well, we‘re back.

Donald Trump said today that he‘s, quote, “embracing” and he‘s proud of the birther issue, he just doesn‘t like the word “birther,” as he contemplates a run for the presidency.

So, is the Donald really serious about a bid or just serious about stirring up some attention?

We‘ll bring in the HARDBALL strategists: Republican Todd Harris, Democrat Steve McMahon.

Gentlemen, earlier this morning, I got to interview—Savannah and I interviewed Mr. Trump and we litigated this issue yet the umpteenth time.  Here‘s the exchange.


DONALD TRUMP, CEO, TRUMP ORGANIZATION (via telephone):  It‘s not that much of a conspiracy.  It‘s very simple.

TODD:  It‘s an incredible conspiracy.

TRUMP:  It‘s really not, Chuck.  Chuck, it‘s really not.  If you look at what‘s taken place, it‘s really not.  He came in.  He was—we all agree he was born, OK?  We‘re all so happy that he was born.  OK, now, the ad was put in—


TODD:  The birth notices and death notices are standard.

TRUMP:  It was three days later, three days after the fact.  Many things could have happened.  And he doesn‘t have a birth certificate.  And his family is arguing over which hospital he was born in.  The family doesn‘t even know the name of the hospital.  No nurses, no doctors, nobody ever came forward.


TODD:  Todd Harris, here‘s—let me ask you.  He was born.


TODD:  He was born.  This is not some sort of like—he wasn‘t a creation, not alien apparently and he‘s not a UFO or anything.

But, Todd Harris, a serious question.  You‘re Reince Priebus, you‘re

chairman of the RNC, and you‘ve got this bigger-than-life personality who -

if he gets into the debates and passes as a candidate, he‘s going to get

he‘s going to qualify for every debate and he‘s making this the issue. 

This is a problem for the Republican Party, is it not?

TODD HARRIS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  It is a problem.  It‘s not just a problem when he‘s talking about it.  I frankly think it‘s a problem across the board.

You know, we are in an economic environment right now where two-thirds of the country thinks that the president is doing a poor job handling the economy.  His approval ratings are upside down among independents, and we‘re talking about birth certificates?  We have real issues that we can—you know, lay real licks on the president with.  And in the more oxygen that this birther issue sucks out of this debate, the better it is for Democrats because it makes Republicans look like nuts.

TODD:  Do you go—I mean, if you‘re Mitt Romney, do you go to Donald Trump and say, “Dude, cut it out, talk about your business acumen”?

HARRIS:  I wouldn‘t, because Donald Trump would then go on TV the next day and talk about how Mitt Romney just came to him.

TODD:  Obviously, for Democrats sort of sit there and going, you know, it‘s like a gift.  And, in fact, one of my favorite—forget the conspiracy theories that Donald Trump is buying into, one of my favorites is that I heard a Republican say to me, oh—say on air Trump is an Obama plant.  You know, he‘s just bringing it up just to embarrass the party.


HARRIS:  That was also—during those three days, that also was worked out.

TODD:  It‘s all part of the conspiracy that Trump is really secretly working for Obama.

STEVE MCMAHON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  That‘s right.  In fact, Trump actually placed the ads and—


MCMAHON: -- so that 49 years later, he could come back and do this.

Todd is absolutely right.  This is the problem for the Republicans because every time a Republican gets up there and makes this argument, the American people and independents in particular roll their eyes and go what are they doing?  What are they talking about?  There are real issues here.

And I don‘t agree with Todd‘s characterization with where the president is on these issues because the public actually is beginning to understand how difficult and intractable some of them are, and he‘s getting a lot of credit for trying to solve them.  The Republicans, on the other hand, are talking about the birther movement.  And you look at Michele Bachmann and the Republican nominating process that begins to resemble a circus, and we‘re just sitting there and going, this is great, this is really great.

TODD:  Todd Harris, watching Trump do this and talking to him offline, this—it feels like a publicity stunt.  He says, no, it‘s not.  It really isn‘t.

But he has succeeded in at least getting the conservatives, some of the conservative base to listen to him.  He‘s getting conservatives to say nice things about him.  And this was a guy that I don‘t think anybody was going to mistake for a social conservative.

So, has he—has he actually been smart about going about this if he really is trying to say do well in Iowa?

HARRIS:  I think he‘s a brilliant marketer.  We‘ve talked before on this show about, you know, for example, with Governor Palin, you know, there are two different paths she could have gone down after the ‘08 campaign.  She could have gone down the path that points towards the White House, or one that points towards entertainment, celebrity and frankly making a lot of money.  And that‘s the path that she‘s going down.

It‘s the same thing with Donald Trump.  I don‘t think that he is seriously going to be schlepping through New Hampshire and Iowa, going door to door, going to town hall meetings, doing all the things you would have actually have to do to win the Republican primary.

TODD:  Well, it‘s interesting.  I brought up the bankruptcies.  And he said, they weren‘t bankruptcies, they‘re Chapter 11s, which is reorganization.


TODD:  Where you get to cut down some of your debt and stuff like.


TODD:  Exactly.  But he was very sensitive to that.  And that seems to

you know, do you think he‘s going to be able to handle the business scrutiny when it comes—you know, the birther stuff, it‘s become an entertainment side show.  The business stuff would be a whole new ball game.


MCMAHON:  The short answer is no.  He‘s not going to be able to handle it—which is one of the reasons he‘s not going to run.  The other reason is he‘d have to take the show off the air, which is making I presume for him quite a bit of money and getting him and the show a lot of attention that he so desperately craves.

He will not—he will not ultimately run because he will not want to fill out the disclosures, and he will not want all the people who—when he was reorganizing ended upholding bad Trump debt out there talking about what a bad Trump businessman he is.


TODD:  And, Todd Harris, you worked with a lot of self-funding candidates.


TODD:  Talk about the difficulty.

HARRIS:  The fiscal piece is always a nightmare.  Unraveling the—divesting, blind trusts, you know, across the board, you know, having a—

TODD:  That‘s if you‘re not involved in casinos.


HARRIS:  That‘s right.  Being a self-funder has a lot of advantages, a lot of disadvantages.  But he did raise one important point this morning that Americans are wondering about, which is whether your kids were born in this country.

TODD:  He seemed to raise a little bit of doubt.  He‘s taking my word for it.

Anyway, Todd and Steve, stay with me.  We‘re going to talk a little bit about unions and Ohio.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.


TODD:  We are back with our strategists: Republican Todd Harris, Democrat Steve McMahon.

Let‘s talk about some blocking and tackling politics.  It‘s this deal in Ohio.  John Kasich is about to sign the collective bargaining.

It‘s going to be a tougher bill than Wisconsin.  But there‘s a difference in Ohio.  You‘ve got 90 days, if you don‘t like the legislation, to get it on the ballot as a referendum.

Steve McMahon, I‘ll start with you.  If you‘re the labor movement, are you almost licking your chops?  Great, sign the bill, Governor Kasich.  Let‘s go to November.

MCMAHON:  Yes.  And if you look at Governor Kasich‘s numbers right now, there was just a poll that came out about four or five days ago that has his approval rating at 30 percent, which is lower than George W. Bush‘s approval rating, I think, ever gotten in eight years in office.  And he‘s got a real problem out there because he‘s overstepped on this thing.  I think—you know, he may recognize but he‘s going to plow ahead and assume that, in four years, people will forget.

But you‘re right, Chuck, if they can get this on the ballot in the next 90 days, which they can do -- 

TODD:  Which is labor.  They‘re already organizing.

MCMAHON:  They got the capacity to do it.  It‘s going to be something where independents are going to go with labor on collective bargaining because independents are like Democrats in the way they view that.

TODD:  Todd Harris, watching John Kasich handle this, it‘s been interesting, he—I feel like he did try to learn PR lessons from Scott Walker.  He really toned it down, did not take a front and center role.

But, boy, you get this on the ballot in November, this is Ohio.  This is our media environment.  This will become—this will define the Republican primary for a while, won‘t it?

HARRIS:  It will be all-consuming, but, you know, I don‘t think anyone assumes just because labor is loud that the public—


TODD:  Right.  They‘ll get it on the ballot.  The question is can they



HARRIS:  Right—are going to be on their side.  You know, SP-5, this bill, you know, Governor Kasich had the audacity to tell government employee union workers that they have to cap their annual vacation at six weeks.  No more than six, that they can‘t have more than two weeks on top of that of sick days.

MCMAHON:  That has nothing to do with—


TODD:  But I was just going to say, this is the message war.  If that‘s the message, Republicans can win that argument.  The Democrats and labor want to turn it into—

HARRIS:  They‘re going to say, you know—

TODD:  This is about taking away somebody‘s rights.

HARRIS: -- it‘s an assault on middle class, which is absolutely absurd, because federal government workers don‘t have the right, right now, that they do in Ohio.  What he‘s trying to take—

MCMAHON:  You‘re right, it‘s the message war.  The folks in Wisconsin actually got it right because the public is concerned about the rising salaries and benefits of public employees.  And the pensions in particular because they read about those things bankrupting communities in California.  One other hand, the public, by a margin of about two-to-one, supports collective bargaining for public employees and for unions.

So, this is going to be one of those things where the messaging is going to make all the difference.  If this is about whether government employee benefits have gotten out of control, then the governor out there has a chance to win.  But I don‘t think—

TODD:  Oh, I know.  As a political junkie, come on, we all kind of want to see this election.  It‘s going to be a big fight.


HARRIS:  Don‘t beat against—

TODD:  Todd H and Steve McMahon, thank you both.

That‘s HARDBALL for now.  Thanks for being with us.

More politics ahead with Cenk Uygur.





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