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updated 4/14/2004 12:44:03 PM ET 2004-04-14T16:44:03

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Well, that‘s the president of the United States. 

And I have to say, we have Howard Fineman of “Newsweek.”  And he is, of course, an NBC News political analyst joining me right now.  I have to say, I sensed a smidgen of humility tonight we hadn‘t seen before.  Even though he was asked to apologize in a way he is clearly not going to do, I sensed statements that suggested, things haven‘t gone great, it is a somber mood tonight, and he expressed it. 

HOWARD FINEMAN, NEWSWEEK:  Well, he described it there it himself just there at the end.  It was somber.  It wasn‘t an upbeat assessment.  He said, this is a long war, that it‘s costly.  And in a phrase that was perhaps a little too sharp for his own good, he said that nobody likes to see dead bodies on TV. 

MATTHEWS:  Dead people. 

FINEMAN:  Dead people on television.

MATTHEWS:  That was so strong.

FINEMAN:  That was very strong, very stark, almost startling. 

MATTHEWS:  That was not on anybody‘s talking points, I can tell you that.  That was so frank. 

FINEMAN:  No.  By my count, there were 15 questions.  Ten of them were about Iraq.  He was somewhat defensive on the topic of weapons of mass destruction, at first saying, well, I would have gone into Iraq even knowing what I know now, then catching himself and saying, well, maybe we‘ll still find them. 

MATTHEWS:  He said that a couple of times.  I think he‘s not willing to give up on that argument.

FINEMAN:  He‘s not government up on that argument.

MATTHEWS:  That there are weapons in that country. 

FINEMAN:  But he spent the first 20 minutes of this extraordinary night making his case once again for why it was not only the morally right thing to do, but the strategically smart thing to do for America‘s safety to go into Iraq. 

Right now, the polls show that the majority of the American people don‘t think that that move has made us safer.  But, as he said, that‘s going to be the key to the election.  And he used the word that comes out during an election year.  And that word is appease.  That word is appeasement. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

FINEMAN:  And, as he said at the end here, either people are going to do it my way and they are going to believe in my message and they are going to believe that we did the right thing in Iraq, or they are going to shirk American leadership and, as he said earlier in the night, be appeasers. 

Those are very strong words to say, but that‘s the line that he‘s drawing in what is going to be a really tough and nasty election year. 

MATTHEWS:  And the most eloquent, of course, was probably well crafted here.  Now is the time.  Iraq is the place.  We must not waiver. 

Let me ask you about the iron fist and the velvet glove. 

FINEMAN:  And that‘s the headline.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  The velvet glove.

When he talked about if—those who mention Vietnam as the situation we‘re facing now, those who compare the two are sending the wrong message to our troops.  They are sending the wrong message to our enemy.  He‘s talking about Ted Kennedy, who this past week said, this is Bush‘s Vietnam. 

FINEMAN:  He reacted viscerally to that.  That‘s on the cover of our magazine this week at “Newsweek.” 

MATTHEWS:  Maybe he was reacting to you guys. 

FINEMAN:  I don‘t know.

(LAUGHTER)

FINEMAN:  But I‘m sure he saw the cover. 

But what he‘s saying is, dangerously close to arguing that, if you question in any deep and profound way the commitment in Iraq, if you say that it‘s a quagmire, if you make the historical comparison, you‘re undercutting support for the troops and you‘re giving comfort to the enemy. 

There is a fine line between making your case in strong fashion and saying that you stand for strength in world affairs and basically accusing your enemies of lacking patriotism and will.  I‘m not saying he went there yet, but that‘s something that you‘re going to see in the surround of this whole presidential campaign from here on. 

MATTHEWS:  I think, that‘s the wrong message to our enemies gets awfully close. 

FINEMAN:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s go to NBC White House correspondent Norah O‘Donnell. 

Norah, the hard news tonight, he‘s backing up this call for a total increase or a net increase in U.S. troops through this change in rotation. 

NORAH O‘DONNELL, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  That‘s right, the president saying that the United States will stay the course and that the troops on the ground, the commanders on the ground in Iraq, will get whatever they need. 

We know that General Abizaid has requested more troops, but we have also learned through our sources here at NBC News that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is looking at about 20,000 more troops on the ground, clearly an indication that this is not over for the United States.  There is no exit strategy on the horizon.  We will still turn over power on June 30.  The president was resolute about that, making that point today. 

And I think this is all very, very important because this is the reason the president had this press conference tonight.  This is the reason that Republicans were urging the president to come forward and speak to the American people, to explain what is next.  He tried to do that today.  I think there were just several other very interesting points, just to add on what you and Howard have been talking about, that I noted. 

Certainly, this press conference made in the midst of an election year, and the president was asked about whether he may lose his job on this.  And he responded, I don‘t plan on losing my job.  I plan to tell the American people, I have a plan to win the war.  Nobody likes to see dead people, that bite quite a very candid moment from the president and also an indication of how closely he links the two, linking his own reelection to the prospects of success in Iraq. 

And one other note, too.  This president has described Iraq as the central front in the war on terror.  Tonight, he changed.  He said Iraq is a part of the war on terror.  He said it is a theater in the war on terrorism.  Why the retreat in that rhetoric on that particular issue is certainly something that will be discussed over the next several days. 

MATTHEWS:  There is another point I thought everybody here, Norah and Howard, is this.  He said something for the first time.  He recognized for the first time the nationalistic sentiment of the people in Iraq.  For the first time, he seemed to resonate the truth in terms of our own national experience and our sensitivity about anyone telling us what to do.

He said, nobody is happy—they are not happy they are being occupied.  I wouldn‘t be happy if I were occupied.  That was a powerfully candid moment, if you were in Iraq or anywhere in the world today. 

FINEMAN:  Yes, I agree, because he called us an occupying force and he acknowledged the fact that people wouldn‘t be happy about it, which is one way of underscoring this handover on June 30.

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

FINEMAN:  However theoretical it really is.  He was asked at another point, well, to whom are we handing over the power?  What is this new authority going to be? 

MATTHEWS:  This entity. 

FINEMAN:  Yes, this entity.  And he said, well, you will find out soon.  That was a little too cavalier probably for those who are wondering exactly what that government is going to be like, since we are going to have to be protecting it, apparently with more troops than there are there now and that we plan to have. 

So he‘s saying, look, I recognize the costs are going up in terms of blood and treasure, but I‘m telling you, American people, I know what I‘m doing and it‘s worth the risk for us. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

FINEMAN:  And that‘s what this election is going to be about.  There wasn‘t a question about the economy, Chris, or anything else. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

Norah, did you notice that tonal change?  I did watching the president.  You‘re there every day talking to the White House press people, but—people who speak for the president.  Did you sense a more humble approach tonight, a more practical admission of the costs and the somberness of this war? 

O‘DONNELL:  I think so. 

And I think, as you noted from some of the questions, the president was asked repeatedly, does he acknowledge that perhaps mistakes were made?  He was, of course, stumped by one correspondent who asked and reminded him that during the past campaign he used to say that his biggest mistake was, of course, trading Sammy Sosa.  What would he say is the biggest mistake of this term? 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

O‘DONNELL:  And he was stumped.  He could not think of one mistake.  And he clearly stumbled at that point.  And I could see from what we call the cutaway camera the pictures of the president‘s closest advisers, Karl Rove, Condoleezza Rice, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card.  And their reaction was also quite stoic and stunned, clearly watching as their boss stumbled over that particular question and unable to sort of answer it. 

So, yes, I think that, while the president was more humble, he was unwilling to sort of communicate where he thinks there may have been mistakes in this administration. 

FINEMAN:  I actually think he indirectly did so, but then he caught himself.  That question by John Dickerson of “TIME,” which was a great question, elicited a long statement from the president about weapons of mass destruction. 

O‘DONNELL:  Right. 

FINEMAN:  And at first he was sort of, I thought, hinting that, well, maybe there was a mistake in the intelligence. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

FINEMAN:  I thought he was walking right up to the edge of that, then decided it was the better part of wisdom or politics to step back from it and then starting say, well, maybe, we‘ll still find the weapons of mass destruction. 

But I thought that was in the most indirect fashion coming up to the edge of saying there may have been a mistake in intelligence. 

MATTHEWS:  But let‘s be clear.  He has yet to say on the record or

with any clarity that he doesn‘t expect to find any weapons of mass

destruction.  He still doesn‘t

(CROSSTALK)

FINEMAN:  I‘m just trying to read his mind. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Let me—here‘s another interesting point he made tonight.

Norah, the president said—and this is a little bit cloudy because apparently this—the August 6 memorandum, which has been talked about so much, the presidential briefing given to the president down at his ranch in Texas five weeks before 9/11, so much talk about that in the last week, the president said tonight that he triggered that report.  Wasn‘t that report the result of internal work by the CIA for a number of weeks before that? 

O‘DONNELL:  Yes, the CIA had been working it.

But this White House has maintained and the president again tonight said that he specifically requested that presidential daily brief, because he had heard about many threats overseas and wanted to know what the latest information was.  What‘s noteworthy is, will that author of—will the White House allow the author of that August 6 memo to be interviewed by the 9/11 Commission to find out why some of the things were in that report, why some things were not in that report, and also why there may have been some mistakes in that report.

It was revealed today that perhaps there were some errors in terms of the number of field operations that were going on to root out al Qaeda cells or persons of interest in the United States.  It probably was not as high as 70, as has been indicated, according to some reports.  And so that‘s going to be a story that will be followed closely.  Clearly, the president indicating tonight he needs to have the right information. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘d like to know why the FBI acting director had no idea that his agency was, in fact, briefing the president in August.  That to me is an astounding development today in the hearings.  The FBI director, Thomas Pickard, didn‘t know right through 9/11 that his agency had been responsible for briefing the president on the dangers from al Qaeda.  Didn‘t know it.  Amazing stuff. 

Anyway, thank you very much, Norah O‘Donnell. 

When we come back, NBC News senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers, plus, reaction from Capitol Hill from U.S. Congressman Duncan Hunter, Republican of California, and Congressman Rahm Emanuel, Democrat of Illinois.

You‘re watching HARDBALL‘s coverage of the president‘s news conference on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s get some political assessment of what the president had to say.  He had a lot to say about the war in Iraq, about the 9/11 hearings, and about his presidency. 

Congressman Duncan Hunter is a Republican from California. 

Congressman Rahm Emanuel is an Illinois Democrat.

Let‘s go to Congressman Hunter. 

The president‘s message tonight, as you heard it, what was it? 

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER ®, CALIFORNIA:  You know, I think the president gave us the big picture tonight.  He talked about the war against terrorism.  He gave purpose.

And I think the purpose for this press conference was to give purpose to our activities in Iraq.  And I think he did that very well.  I think he walked down the line, starting with 9/11 and going around the world in all the terrorist activities that have taken place up to 9/11 and then what happened after that.  And he put—he made Iraq if not the centerpiece of the war against terror, a major theater. 

And I think another thing that he did, in kind of taking on those that would equate this to Vietnam is, he sent a good message.  I think the president always—he always understands that he‘s also the commander in chief.  Lots of people in uniform are watching him.  They are watching to make sure that he is confident of what he‘s doing and that there is a strong American purpose in what he is doing. 

I think he conveyed that well tonight. 

MATTHEWS:  Why would a soldier in the field in Iraq, who knows the situation on the ground, and what it is and what it is not, be affected in any way by what—something Ted Kennedy or somebody says about it being like Iraq or being like Vietnam, when Ted Kennedy is obviously not in Iraq? 

HUNTER:  Well, I think the thing that made everybody somewhat upset about that—and I put myself somewhat in that class—is, within about 10 hours after Teddy Kennedy said, this is George Bush‘s Vietnam, that cleric, al-Sadr, made the same statement, parroted that statement. 

And that‘s always, I think, a demoralizing thing for folks that are in the field, because what that conveys is a message of a quagmire, no purpose, no legitimate purpose.  And George Bush—and I think all of us, now that we‘re in a shooting war, we‘ve got troops in the field, they have to have a strong commitment to our country.  And the idea that we drag this thing into the political forum at this point makes no sense.  We all have to pull together at this point. 

And I think that‘s one thing that Teddy Kennedy didn‘t do.  And the fact that al-Sadr followed his comment very quickly, repeating it, I think was a legitimate point for concern and upset. 

MATTHEWS:  Congressman Emanuel, did the president tonight tie his reelection to this war, saying, basically, if you quote against me, you‘re voting against U.S. troops in the field, you‘re voting against America?  Did he do that tonight? 

REP. RAHM EMANUEL (D), ILLINOIS:  Chris, I don‘t think—he did say -

·         he said it in his own words that his own election is very much tied to the success of the war on terror.

But let me say one thing.  He—you know, this press conference was about showing the American people after the last two weeks that:  I firmly have my hand on the wheel and I‘m steering it.  And I think what he explained was, this is why we‘re at war in Iraq.  What he didn‘t explain is how we‘re going to win the war in Iraq. 

And when you say we‘re making progress, I‘m not sure the American people are going to handle another month of this type of progress.  Saying that we‘re making progress was not where I think you want to go.  You want to say here is one, two, three, four, what we‘re going to do.  And to say you have had now a war on terror, a war in Iraq, a war in Afghanistan, and to the—the question by David Gregory about, is there any one place that you have made a mistake, and he could not think of one place.

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

EMANUEL:  Right.  And I think that‘s going to come—it is constantly the problem.  I‘ll tell you, he is going to have to literally—if you‘re going to enlist the U.N. and you‘re going to enlist NATO, we‘re going to have to tell him, listen, we may have made some mistakes, but this is all our task now. 

And to say—take General Shinseki.  It could have been 250,000 troops.  I shouldn‘t have disagreed.  I should have gone along with what the Pentagon was saying up front.  Not one mistake?  And I also think—I really do think those words that, we are making progress, this is, in fact, been a very, very bad week.  I think he was clear about why, but not about how we‘ve got to do this. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me ask—let me ask Congressman Hunter. 

Do you believe President Bush has proven himself to be a good communicator in terms of the war with Iraq? 

HUNTER:  You know, I think he has communicated well. 

Nobody communicates in parity with an explosion going off or a truck burning, Chris.  You know that. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.  Pictures are loud. 

HUNTER:  And the president‘s job is not to put himself on the analyst‘s couch and say, here is why I have messed up and here is where I have messed up. 

He‘s got 135,000 people in uniform following him as the commander in chief.  You have got to lay out your objectives, and you have to win.  And I disagree that there is not a plan here or somehow we‘re not going anywhere.  We are going somewhere.  And that‘s why that June 30 handoff is very important. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Congressman.

EMANUEL:  Yes, nobody asked for self-retrospect, but that you‘d be—an honest assessment of the task ahead and being honest with people and leveling with people.  That is essential for garnering trust and making the troops know who are there.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you both, gentlemen.  Congressman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, thank you very much for joining us. 

HUNTER:  Good to be with you.

MATTHEWS:  Congressman Duncan Hunter of California.

When we come back, NBC‘s senior investigative correspondent, Lisa Myers, is going to join us. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL‘s coverage of the President Bush‘s news conference on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re joined right now by NBC News senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers. 

Lisa, the president, what kind of damage control do you think he managed tonight with regard to the 9/11 hearings? 

LISA MYERS, NBC CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT:  Well, there certainly were a lot of questions about 9/11 and an invitation to acknowledge whether he made any mistakes or to accept personal responsibility.  He dodged both of them, basically saying:  Look, I‘m incredibly grieved by the loss of lives.  I asked myself many times what I could have done differently. 

He did admit that, if he were to look back, there are some things he wished he had done.  He wished he had created a Department of Homeland Security beforehand.  He wish he had done the Patriot Act.  He wished that we had been on a war footing.  But he did not actually say that there was anything specifically that he did or didn‘t do before 9/11 that he thought was a mistake. 

The other thing that was interesting to me was, he continues—the White House continues to separate itself from the FBI.  Today, the president was asked a number of times about this August 6 presidential daily briefing, which is given to him by the CIA.  Most of the information was historical about the threat of bin Laden attacking inside the U.S.  But there were a couple of paragraphs from the FBI, one about a pattern of suspicious activities, but also another mention where it talked about the FBI had 70 full-field investigations going on that were bin Laden-related. 

Now, the president said today that he was comforted by that reassurance from the FBI in the PDB.  Well, we learned at the hearing today that that 70 number was a gross exaggeration, that, basically, that included every individual in every investigation that even remotely might touch on Osama bin Laden. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

MYERS:  And the president said—clearly was not very happy to hear that today.  He said, look, I expect to get valid information.  I can‘t make good decisions unless I get valid information. 

I assume the FBI may hear from him tomorrow. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think the president is going to put the hot potato in the hands of the FBI for 9/11? 

MYERS:  I think it already has. 

I mean, one of the things that Dr. Condoleezza Rice did last week when asked, all right, after July 5, after you tasked the FBI to go to the field offices and shake the trees and get all these things, what else did you do?  And she said, look, if the FBI didn‘t follow up, it‘s the FBI‘s responsibility. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

MYERS:  And, clearly, the acting director at the time today, Tom Pickard, was trying to make the case that he did follow up, that he had a conference call with all the field offices.  But this 9/11 Commission doesn‘t find any evidence that most field offices were on full alert before 9/11. 

MATTHEWS:  Lisa, we have to go right now to David Gregory, who is at the White House. 

David, your thoughts on the press conference tonight.  You were right in the middle of it. 

DAVID GREGORY, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  I don‘t think it revealed very much new.  I think it did reveal the president‘s thinking.  We knew that all along.  I think he did provide a little bit more detail. 

MATTHEWS:  Was he humbler tonight, David? 

GREGORY:  I don‘t think—no, not in the greater scheme of things, not certainly on the question of whether he feels he made any misjudgments or any mistakes.  He‘s not going to give any quarter.  And this administration does not do that.  He acknowledged that the country wasn‘t on a war footing before 9/11.  That seems rather obvious. 

I thought what was an interesting moment, Chris, was when he acknowledged what everybody knows.  And that is the deaths of American service men and women on the battlefield is really tough to take back home when you watch it on TV and it may have political implications.  He made a forceful argument that people have got to stay with him. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think he was too rough with that?  Was he too rough with that by saying nobody likes to see dead people on television, when in fact, they‘re not just dead people on television?  Those television pictures are pictures of people dead. 

GREGORY:  I think it was one of the more real moments of the night, whether it was good, bad or indifferent.  And you don‘t get a lot of these in these overly scripted press conferences.  So it gave us a sense of where his thinking is at, politically speaking, of course.

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you very much, NBC‘s David Gregory at the White House.

GREGORY:  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  And Lisa Myers, NBC‘s chief investigative reporter. 

And thank you, Howard Fineman, my pal.  You‘ve been with us most of the day.

Join me in an hour, by the way, at 11:00 Eastern for a live edition of HARDBALL, an added edition to talk about what happened today.  We‘ll have plenty of analysis of the two big events in Washington today, the president‘s news conference, and, of course, the 9/11 hearings, which were so full of information today. 

Right now, it‘s time for “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY” with Pat Buchanan.

END   

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