updated 7/13/2005 10:24:26 AM ET 2005-07-13T14:24:26

Guest: Dee Dee Myers, Tucker Eskew, Robert Hager

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  The White House press corps turns up the heat and grills Press Secretary Scott McClellan for a second day in a row on Karl Rove‘s role in the White House-CIA leak case.  And a possible setback for NASA.  Will damage to the space shuttle Discovery delay tomorrow‘s launch? 

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.

We‘ll get to the latest on the White House leak investigation in just a minute.  But NASA officials reported moments ago that a window cover on the space shuttle Discovery fell off and hit a thermal tile near its tail.  The panel that contains the damaged will be replaced.  And NASA says there are no indications at this time that this will cause a delay in tomorrow‘s launch of the space shuttle Discovery. 

We‘ll bring you NASA‘s press conference at 7:30 Eastern time. 

NBC analyst Robert Hager is at the Kennedy Space Center and joins us now—Robert.

ROBERT HAGER, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Hi, Chris. 

Well, let me take you through this carefully.  Follow along with me here.  This is all happening out there on pad 39-B, which is three-and-a-half miles away from me over my shoulder there.  But, this afternoon, the technicians were working around the shuttle.  They cover it.  While they‘re doing this pre-launch work, they cover all the windows of the shuttle cabin here with plastic, a protective plastic. 

And while they were out there working, they found a piece of this plastic down here.  And so, tracing it back, they discovered that it had come off this window right here.  It is called window number seven, one of the upper windows in the crew compartment that they can look out of during flight.  So, that plastic had fallen off of there, fallen down here.

And the problem comes—it wouldn‘t have been a problem except it hit right here and it knocked off some tiles.  Those are the heat protective tiles that shield the shuttle from heat on reentry.  So, when they looked at this, it is not a crucial area, not so crucial as this RCC that protects the wings, which was the problem in the last accident, or the tiles underneath.  But, nonetheless, it is an area that‘s tiled to protect it from heat on reentry. 

So, when they looked at it, they saw those tiles and they knew that they had to be replaced.  The early word—and they‘re still diagnosing all this and trying to figure it out and be sure.  But the early word is that the area that was damaged there not damaged badly, and all the tiles that go in that area are attached to one steel plate.  So they can just change out the whole plate, take the old plate off, bring a new plate in with all the tiles on it and bolt it back on there and they‘re good to go. 

Now, these are engineers who are diagnosing all this.  So, that‘s the early word.  I‘m sure that they‘ll to have chew all this over and they won‘t be certain that we‘re not facing a delay here. 

But, meantime, all it‘s done so far is delay the opening of some of the superstructure to prepare the shuttle for fueling the big liquid fuel tank.  And it has not, at the moment, caused any delay.  But stay tuned.  There is going to be a news conference at 7:30 Eastern time about all this, so very shortly—Chris.  

MATTHEWS:  OK, thank you very much, NBC‘s Robert Hager. 

We‘ll bring you NASA‘s press conference on the shuttle at 7:30 tonight, just at half-past—half-past the hour.  And we‘re going to have the latest on the shuttle on the MSNBC special at 8:00 with Chris Jansing. 

Meantime, today in Washington, it was another contentious White House press briefing, as Press Secretary Scott McClellan refuses to answer questions about Karl Rove‘s role in the investigation into the leak of a covert CIA operative‘s identity. 

We‘ll talk to NBC chief White House correspondent David Gregory, plus veterans from both the Bush and Clinton White House press offices. 

But we begin with this report from HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  For the second day in a row, presidential Press Secretary Scott McClellan tried to dodge.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  The best way to help the investigation come to a successful conclusion is for me not to get into discussing it from this podium. 

SHUSTER:  And the White House press corps continued to hit hard. 

QUESTION:  A difference between what‘s legal and what‘s right.  Is what Karl Rove did right?

MCCLELLAN:  I know you all want to get to the bottom of this.

SHUSTER:  And the bottom line is that Karl Rove‘s own attorney

acknowledges the president‘s top adviser tried to discredit

administration critic Joe Wilson by leaking that Wilson‘s wife worked at

the CIA

QUESTION:  You have said to the public, dating back to 2003, affirmatively “Karl Rove was not involved,” and now we have evidence to the contrary.

MCCLELLAN:  I remember well the comments that were made. 

QUESTION:  on the record 21 months ago.  You very confidently asserted to us and to the American people that Rove told you he had nothing to do with it.  Can you stand by that statement now?

MCCLELLAN:  Yes, and I responded to these questions yesterday.

SHUSTER:  On this day, there was also a question about the McClellan-Rove relationship. 

QUESTION:  Has he apologized to you for telling you he was not involved?

MCCLELLAN:  I‘m not going to get into private discussions.

QUESTION:  I mean, he put you on the spot.  He put your credibility on the line. 

SHUSTER:  McClellan refused to answer, saying he did not want to slow down the grand jury proceedings. 

MCCLELLAN:  I also remember going and testifying in this investigation. 

SHUSTER:  And legal analysts say McClellan‘s testimony could be crucial.  If and he Rove, they pointed out, had conversation two years ago, then both went to the grand jury and offered the denial that McClellan stated publicly. 

MCCLELLAN:  I‘ve said that it‘s true.  And I have spoken with Karl Rove. 

SHUSTER:  The analysts say Rove could be in serious trouble, because “TIME” magazine reporter Matt Cooper, who got a leak from Rove, is testifying to the grand jury about that on Wednesday. 

Today, President Bush, who vowed to fire anybody who leaked classified information, was asked about his pledge at the end of a photo-op as aides were trying to clear the media from the room. 

QUESTION:  Rove (OFF-MIKE)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Thank you. 

QUESTION:  Are you going to fire him?

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  All of this, of course, follow the fireworks on Monday, one of the most contentious briefings in the history of this administration. 

QUESTION:  In June of 2004, the president said that he would fire anybody who was involved in the leak—in this leak of the classified information.  I just wanted to know, is that still his position? 

MCCLELLAN:  Our policy continues to be that we‘re not going to get into commenting on an ongoing criminal investigation from this podium. 

DAVID GREGORY, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Did Karl Rove commit a crime? 

MCCLELLAN:  Again, David, this is a question relating to an ongoing investigation. 

SHUSTER (on camera):  But today, what is hurting the White House is the appearance of rolling disclosures.  It is an old Washington term that refers to the people only telling the truth when it is dragged out of them. 

I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  David Gregory is NBC‘s chief White House correspondent and was at today‘s press briefing.  Tucker Eskew was a deputy assistant to the president, to President Bush, in the White House Office of Communications.  And Dee Dee Myers was President Clinton‘s first White House press secretary. 

David, what did the vice president know about this effort to clear him from involvement in that trip to Africa and when did he get involved? 

GREGORY:  I don‘t know the answer to that.  And it may be an important subject of this investigation.  Karl Rove may be related to that.  But I just don‘t know the answer. 

What I do know is that, at the time of the Niger trip that Joe Wilson, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, took, there were questions about what he found.  He disputed the claims that were made according to British intelligence that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium for a nuclear program that now we know didn‘t exist. 

And then it got cleared for the White House State of the Union.  Director Tenet at the CIA ultimately claimed responsibility for letting that information go forward.  And there were questions about the vice president‘s role in all of that.  Did he know about Joseph Wilson‘s trip?  Did he authorize it?  He claimed he didn‘t. 

So, certainly, there are questions surrounding all of this.  I don‘t know the direct answer to that one. 

MATTHEWS:  So, the big question here involves the whole question of whether we went to war under false pretenses.  We‘ve been arguing about that.  But this gets to it.

Today in the meeting today, in the briefing today, what situation does Scott McClellan, the president‘s young press secretary, find himself in right now? 

GREGORY:  A difficult political situation and one where his credibility is on the line. 

I think Helen Thomas, the old pro around here, asked a very important question, which was, what‘s your relationship like with Rove now?  It is still fine.  I mean, I know that for a fact. 

But, nevertheless, what McClellan said two years ago was, I personally have spoken to Karl Rove.  And he told me that he was not involved in this.  Now, politically, that‘s difficult because involved in what?  Now we find out that he did talk about Wilson‘s wife.  He didn‘t name her.  Presumably, what he meant at that time and still means now is that Rove assured him that he didn‘t commit a crime, that he wasn‘t involved in the leaking of classified information or of outing Valerie Plame.  And so it is a very narrow, very specific legal answer. 

Veterans of the Clinton administration have been through this before.  And they‘ve also been through the attacks from the Republicans during the impeachment story, that now the Republicans in power are getting on this one as well.  But your point, Chris, about what this all really has to do with ultimately going to war and under what pretenses we did, certainly, that—that is all related here.  And this is a small part of a much larger conversation and debate about why we went to war. 

But this issue is a very specific legal one involving the grand jury about who blew Valerie Plame‘s cover. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the role of the president here.  The president may not be running day-to-day operations.  This may have been a press operation here by the White House to try to get the heat off the vice president. 

If the operation that McClellan was involved in, that Rove made have been involved in, the whole effort to try to make the administration look better with regard to that whole trip to Africa, where is the president on this?  Was he checking in day to day with these people?  And, even today, he didn‘t take any questions.  Is he above the battle here?  Or is he questioning Karl Rove every day, saying, Karl, I thought you told me you weren‘t involved in this leak?

GREGORY:  Well, it‘s not clear.  I can‘t tell you for certain.

I‘m told by White House officials he sticks by previous statements that anybody who leaked anything that was classified, therefore committing a crime, would be fired.  We don‘t know if that‘s the case here.  Certainly, we don‘t know if that‘s the case legally in the case of Karl Rove. 

We do know that, from top to bottom, there was an effort at that time to discredit Joseph Wilson, the former ambassador who went on the trip, who came back from Niger and said there‘s nothing to these claims that Saddam wanted uranium from Niger, and then went on to criticize the White House.  He became an enemy of the White House.  This White House is aggressive.  They tried to shut him down.  They tried to discredit him.  This conversation with Matt Cooper was part of that. 

And, by the way, nobody is denying that.  They said, at the time, that‘s what they were doing.  They felt that they had a right to do that, that, if there was an administration critic out there, that they could fight back and try to put his claims into context.  And that was done at every level, at the vice president‘s level and on down through Karl Rove.  And I‘m hard-pressed to believe that the president didn‘t know about that. 

MATTHEWS:  So, there‘s nothing illegal in a top aide to the president calling up a reporter like Matt Cooper or anybody else and saying, look, this guy is a bozo out there.  He‘s not to be believed.  Trust me.  The vice president had nothing to do with this trip to Africa.  He never got a report on it.  This guy is out there freelancing with his wife, who works over there.  Is that illegal, what I just said, David?

GREGORY:  I‘m not a lawyer, but, as far as I know, it‘s not. 

You‘d have—according to the statute, which I have read, it‘s never been prosecuted before, you would have to know that the person was a covert agent and you would have to intentionally disclose that with the intention of outing that agent.  And based on what you‘ve just said, I don‘t know if that fits.

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Dee Dee Myers.

What‘s wrong with doing your job as a top political kick for the president and blasting away at a critic of the president, Dee Dee? 

DEE DEE MYERS, FORMER CLINTON WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  Well, I don‘t think that—I think that people would find moral objections to that, but it‘s certainly been a part of game.  Both sides engage in it every single day. 

The problem I think for Karl Rove was the question of, was it classified?  Did he do harm to somebody working inside the government, trying to protect the country, and then did he tell the truth about it?  And, certainly, the White House‘s statements are now in conflict.  I mean, on the face of it, certainly, there‘s nothing wrong with trying to sort of put your enemies‘ statements in context. 

And, in fact, the Republican are doing that today.  They‘re out there attacking Joe Wilson again, trying to discredit him, although what that has to do with Karl Rove‘s statements at this—I mean, at this point, I don‘t know.  But, nonetheless, they‘re out there doing it. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Tucker.

What would be wrong, if you know that the enemy, your enemy has been criticizing your policy, Joe Wilson, that he got this gig to go to Africa because his wife got it for him?  He didn‘t get it from the vice president.  He didn‘t get it from the head of the CIA.  What‘s wrong with saying that? 

TUCKER ESKEW, BUSH CAMPAIGN SENIOR ADVISER:  I‘m glad you said it. 

Let‘s repeat it. 

And, in fact, it was Joe Wilson who speculated publicly, Chris, that the vice president sent him.  So, it was important to correct that record.  He said in that story that the office of the vice president was responsible for his selection.  So, when, in fact, you say that Karl Rove or someone at the White House might have called a reporter to straighten it out, please note, what I understand is that Matt Cooper called Karl Rove about another topic and, at the very end, asked about this.  And Karl set the record straight.

GREGORY:  Well, but, Tucker...

(CROSSTALK)

ESKEW:  Wait a minute, David.  Let me finish. 

GREGORY:  Well, let‘s just correct one part of the record. 

(CROSSTALK)

ESKEW:  Hold on, David.  Hold on, David.   This isn‘t the White House press room.

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Well, I‘m not arguing with you.  I‘m just saying you should be accurate here about... 

ESKEW:  You can take a shot at it.  I‘ll come back on a couple things you said in a second. 

GREGORY:  OK.  All right.     

ESKEW:  But it is also clear from Karl‘s lawyer that this was not for him to use.  It was to get him off of an inaccurate story. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s Karl lawyer.

ESKEW:  That‘s Karl lawyer‘s point.  And I think that is very important.

MATTHEWS:  He was not in on the conversation. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  His lawyer was not in on the conversation.  Let‘s go to

·         let‘s go to David.

(CROSSTALK)

ESKEW:  David indicated that it wasn‘t clear whether the vice president had something to do with this. 

The Senate panel, bipartisan, impaneled to look into this, said in fact the vice president had nothing to do with it.  And the British government report on the Niger uranium claims made clear that the president‘s claims in the State of the Union speech were well-founded. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, look, I just read an interview that Tim Russert—you can follow up here, David.  I got an old transcript of “Meet the Press.”  Tim Russert asked him.  The vice president said, he—he‘s saying this on television—I asked about that Niger deal.  I asked the CIA to check on it. 

ESKEW:  Nothing wrong with him asking about it. 

MATTHEWS:  I asked the CIA to check up on it. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Go ahead.

GREGORY:  I just want to make two points.  I‘m not here to debate Tucker Eskew here or—or take—you know, or, certainly say anything on behalf of the administration. 

I—two points.  One is, the correction I was trying to make here for Tucker is that that‘s the Matt Cooper conversation.  There were other conversations that Karl Rove had that were germane to this topic.  I don‘t know the substance of those.  And I don‘t think Tucker does either.  That‘s point number one.

Number two is, I was not suggesting that the vice president was involved.  What I‘m suggesting is that I don‘t know, nor do I think you, what—what role the vice president or people in his office have in terms of this leak investigation.  We don‘t know.  I just don‘t know the answer to that. 

ESKEW:  Correct.  And so, we can all speculate for a long time about who was involved and who wasn‘t.  But that‘s really what it is.  It is speculation in the summer silly season.  We‘ve got a very political set of attacks here.

(CROSSTALK)

MYERS:  Except that it is not speculation about what Karl Rove said, Tucker.

ESKEW:  Please don‘t forget Joe Wilson is a Kerry supporter, a Kerry donor.

And now he‘s got Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton and John Kerry all today at his side defending the Joe Wilson argument.

MYERS:  Tucker, what does that—what—what does the fact that Joe Wilson was a Kerry supporter have to do with whether or not Karl Rove disclosed the name of his—not the name, but the fact that his wife was a CIA operative?  I don‘t understand what his political affiliation has to do with Rove‘s now proven statements. 

ESKEW:  Dee Dee, you can convict Karl, but we‘ll let the prosecutor carry that out.

MYERS:  I‘m not convicting.  I‘m just saying...

ESKEW:  And I think it is pertinent to see kind of what a man‘s inclinations are.  And he is a partisan, a very political partisan, who has been proven wrong, really, by a bipartisan group, not a partisan...

(CROSSTALK)

MYERS:  He‘s been proven right, too, Tucker.  Let‘s not forget that there was no nuclear program in Iraq, which is one of the things I think the administration is trying to distract from. 

ESKEW:  That‘s another...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re going to come right back with David Gregory, Tucker Eskew and Dee Dee Myers. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And later, police in England say at least one bomber died in last week‘s explosion in London.  And they suspect the attacks were the work of suicide bombers.

We‘ll get a latest from HARDBALL.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with NBC chief White House correspondent David Gregory, Tucker Eskew, who was a deputy assistant in the Bush White House‘s Office of Communications, and former Bill Clinton Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers. 

Let me go right now to David—David Gregory at the White House. 

You have to watch this professionally every day.  Looking forward, the next several days and weeks, how does Scott McClellan get off the skillet?

GREGORY:  Well, look, I mean, at some point, we‘re not going to get an answer and it is sort of pointless to keep trying. 

I think we‘re in a mode now.  We know that Matt Cooper is going to testify before the grand jury tomorrow.  There are questions about whether Karl Rove faces any legal jeopardy.  We don‘t know.  And then there‘s the political aspect of this.  And what you‘re seeing, Tucker debating Dee Dee on some of the points here, Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the RNC, being put out.  He talked to Karl Rove today.

The White House wants Karl Rove defended.  And you‘re seeing that.  He‘s in a tricky spot.  He can‘t do anything.  But, politically, they want to try to beat this back.  And we‘re back to sort of the same debate over the war and the leak and all of the issues surrounding it once again. 

MATTHEWS:  What‘s the best White House strategy, Tucker? 

ESKEW:  Well, first of all, I will note, Karl is incredibly successful, Chris.  That has a lot to do with this.  So we‘ll—some of his friends will remind people of that. 

MATTHEWS:  It makes him a target, too.

(CROSSTALK)

ESKEW:  It makes him a target.  No question about it.  This is Washington.  It is summer.  It‘s the thriller summer season.  But this is fake blood in the water, just like “Jaws” 30 years ago, Chris.   

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Richard Nixon resigned in August. 

ESKEW:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Things happen in August. 

(CROSSTALK)

ESKEW:  That August, yes, ‘74.

GREGORY:  I don‘t think it is the silly season. 

(CROSSTALK)

ESKEW:  I think it‘s—how do you move forward?  The march of news.  The president is working on things that matter to the country, Supreme Court nomination, the economy, the war on terror certainly above all else. 

MATTHEWS:  So this, too, shall pass? 

ESKEW:  This, too, shall pass.

MATTHEWS:  You really think so, huh?

ESKEW:  Although we‘ll let a prosecutor do his job.

MATTHEWS:  OK.

ESKEW:  And that is what Scott is doing.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me go to Dee Dee.

Dee Dee, this issue puts McClellan in a terrible position.  He doesn‘t apparently know what‘s going on.  And yet, he has to act like he does. 

MYERS:  Right. 

I think it is clear that he‘s been put in a terrible position.  Somebody told him something that he either—either that misled him or that he misunderstood.  Either way, he went out and communicated inaccurate information to the White House press corps. 

And there‘s a tremendous price to pay for doing that.  I watched the briefings the last couple days.  I feel very sorry for him.  I know how it feels to stand there and have your credibility questioned.  And it happens a lot.  I think he sort of sowed the seeds of this problem two years ago, when he started answering questions very definitively, very—in very strong language, without being able to really know all the facts. 

And you do that once and you figure out that you can‘t really do... 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, they put them out, Dee Dee, there like a Schwarzwald clock figure, like a little cuckoo.

MYERS:  Absolutely.  But you know what?

MATTHEWS:  That comes out there and says, it ain‘t true, it ain‘t true, not knowing whatever as to what is true and what is not.

MYERS:  Right.  Right. 

ESKEW:  And you don‘t know either, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  I don‘t know.

MYERS:  But that is the point.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But I know he says, everything I said two years ago is inoperative, which is exactly...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... parroting what Ron Ziegler had to say during Watergate.  It‘s inoperative?  In other words, don‘t believe what I used to say. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  David, isn‘t that the problem, that McClellan is now having to say he was wrong? 

MYERS:  He hasn‘t said anything...

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY:  Well, he‘s having to say that he can‘t talk about it anymore. 

I mean, but the bottom line is that he may have been—he may have accurately said something that was politically problematic, even if accurate or legally true. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David Gregory, Tucker Eskew and Dee Dee Myers.

Up next, the latest in the investigation into the bombings in London. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Five days after the terror attacks in London, British officials now believe they have a break in the case.  Police have uncovered evidence that indicates the attacks may have been the work of suicide bombers.  And they arrested one suspect in connection with the attacks in a raid in the northern city of Leeds. 

NBC‘s Ron Allen is in London. 

Ron, big break, huh?

RON ALLEN, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Yes, it sounds like remarkable police work as well, Chris. 

They have video pictures of these four bombers, who they think are the four bombers at least, at King‘s Cross station.  They discovered personal effects that included things like driver‘s licenses and credit cards.  They think they have a route.  They think that three of the guys left Leeds in rent-a-cars and they all converged at a station in Luton, just north of London, got on the train system there together and then came to King‘s Cross.

Remarkable that they were able to do this.  And it seems that the key was at the bus.  The bus was the most wide open crime scene, because, of course, the debris scattered everywhere.  But that seems to be how they broke the case.  And then that led them to the other bombers. 

This morning, when they went to Leeds to carry out a number of raids at about six homes, they apparently had names in mind.  They had addresses and they knew who they were looking for.  That operation continues.  They‘ve carried out a number of explosions up there, controlled explosions.  There are reports they apparently found explosives in a house in Leeds.  They‘ve evacuated some 600 people from the neighborhood. 

There are also reports that they found explosives in a car.  And there are two cars that they‘re looking at the Luton railroad station.  So, again, a lot of detail that we‘re learning today.  And the most disturbing thing I think to the British population and to the police here is that these are homegrown terrorists, apparently, young men, age 22, 30, one as young as I believe 19, who are of Pakistani descent, but they are British citizens. 

And there was, of course, a lot of concern as to whether or not these terrorists have come into the country and carried this out.  One other important thing is that the type of material that they apparently used has been described as military-grade explosives.  So, that suggested some level of professionalism. 

But we‘re now hearing that these guys apparently are homegrown terrorists from right here in London, right here in the community here.  And that of course leads to one to suspect that there might be more people like them very close to home—Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Are these members of the group that took credit for the attack right afterwards? 

ALLEN:  I have not heard that link, no.  I have not heard that link. 

But the first group was something called Al Qaeda in Europe.  And it was something that authorities had not heard of yet.  They have not made that connection.  So, I don‘t know, is the short answer to that, but perhaps. 

MATTHEWS:  The four men that have been identified, are they dead? 

ESKEW:  Yes. 

We think that three of them are dead.  The fourth one has not been confirmed to be dead.  They think that his remains are perhaps under the wreckage of the train that exploded between King‘s Cross and Russell Square.  That was the Piccadilly line, the deepest subway line.  And the authorities have described just a horrific process of trying to get to that train to remove bodies and to conduct a full forensic examination. 

It is a deep tunnel.  It is dark.  It is dusty.  It is rat-infested.  They‘ve described these as very aggressive rats.  So, you can imagine the horror of what they‘ve been trying to go through to get to the bodies and get to the crime scene.  That‘s where they think the fourth guy is. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you for that great report, Ron Allen, who—NBC‘s Ron Allen, who is London.

When we return, will President Bush choose a Supreme Court nominee both sides will embrace, Democrats, as well as Republicans?  We‘ll talk to a key Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

NASA officials are about to hold a news conference on the status of the space shuttle Discovery.  The shuttle was damaged when a window cover fell off and damaged some thermal tiles. 

NBC News has learned that NASA says it can easily fix the problem and tomorrow‘s launch, scheduled for 3:51 p.m. Eastern time tomorrow, will go off as planned. 

MSNBC analyst Bob Hager is back with us. 

Bob, it looks like a go then. 

HAGER:  Yes, absolutely.  NASA says that, officially, at least it wouldn‘t be a delay because of this reason.  In fact, they say now that they‘ve already fixed it.  The problem we were talking about at the top of the hour, it was—it amounted to a single plate with three tiles on it that had been damaged. 

They took that whole plate off and then replaced it.  I‘m not sure whether they glued it back in or bolted in it with a replacement patch of tiles.  But it is a done deal now.  And they said that at least this has been fixed, that the launch wouldn‘t be delayed for that reason.  Weather or some other last-minute unexpected problem could be a factor. 

We‘ll review for you, while we‘re waiting for that NASA news conference, which is expected in just a few moments, review for you what it is that happened. 

The technicians were up there on the launch pad three-and-a-half miles back that way this afternoon, late this afternoon.  And the—all the windows of the shuttle, this crew compartment area here, are covered with a protective plastic coating to protect it while they‘re preparing it for launch. 

And a single plastic coating that covers that window there had come off.  And they didn‘t see it come off.  They found it when they were down here working, and they found the covering.  And so then, when they went back and diagnosed what had happened, they looked right here.  They were able to diagnose that it had fallen this way, hit the tiles there, and damaged that one plate with three tiles on it. 

This area, by the way, is not that crucial, not so crucial as the front of the wings, which were involved in the Columbia accident, not so crucial as the underside of the tile, which needs to be really protected, because it presents itself right up against the atmosphere and gets 3,000 degrees on reentry. 

This is the top of not even one of the shuttle‘s main engines, which are these engines down here, but this little side engine.  There‘s one on either side.  And that‘s what they maneuver with in orbit.  So, it is called an orbiter maneuvering engine.  And so, that‘s the top of that, not the business end down here, but the top of it, where those heat tiles were and where they were damaged. 

So, they moved in there with a new plate full of the three tiles and put them back on the top.  And they‘re about to say officially that they fixed it now and that this at least wouldn‘t be a factor in the preparations for launch tomorrow—Chris.

MATTHEWS:  These tiles, of course, have been identified with tragedies before.  Are they very fragile, these surface thermal tiles? 

HAGER:  You know, you would be amazed if you handled one, because you imagine the space shuttle and all its big heavy hardware and you hear about 3,000 degrees.  But everything has got to be extremely light, because it takes so much to get this shuttle up through the heavy atmosphere. 

So, everything is made to be light.  The tiles, they do the job, but they‘re very light.  I mean, it is almost like foam you buy at the hardware store.  You could dent it with your fingernail if you touch it.  It is silicone, so it is great at insulating.  And it is great, too, at preventing the cold from the shuttle tank, for instance, from getting out. 

So, it‘s a great protective material.  But it‘s not a heavy protective material—Chris.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Bob Hager.

Let‘s listen now to NASA‘s news conference. 

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

STEPHANIE STILSON, DISCOVERY VEHICLE MANAGER:  What happened was, we currently had what we call soft covers over all the windows.  And we had an occurrence where the soft cover off of window seven, which is one of the overhead windows here, fell off.  And we‘re not sure exactly at what point—at what point it fell off. 

But it fell off and was discovered down on the floor of the payload change-out room, which is in this level of the vehicle.  Now, we did, upon investigation, determine that it did hit the leading edge of the left hand OMS pod, which is this area here, the leading edge of the OMS pod, and did do damage to two tile that are on a carrier panel. 

And what Bruce here is an example of a carrier panel.  This is off Enterprise.  So, this is not flight hardware, per se.  But the carrier panel obviously is made out of aluminum that has tile premounted on the aluminum structure.  What that allows us to do is bolt in the whole panel at once, as opposed to having to bond the title onto the vehicle, like we do on the underside. 

Panels of this type are used in locations where we have major components attached to the vehicle, where you have an OMS pod connected to the main structure of the vehicle.  So, it is around the edges of the OMS pod.  The carrier panel that we‘re talking about, actually, does not look exactly like this, but it did have three tile on it. 

And two of those three tile did have damage.  Each tile have two bolt locations in them as well.  So, when we discovered the damage, we went ahead and pulled a spare carrier panel, because the pods are interchangeable on the vehicles.  Therefore, carrier panels are as well.  So, we do have spares.  And we took a spare panel out to the pad and—for a quick fit check.  And, sure enough, it fit perfectly. 

And changing out carrier panels for us is something we do on a daily basis.  This is a minor repair for us.  So, we went in and did the replacement, got that carrier panel torqued down in place, did the step-in gaps that are required, measuring the step-in gaps between the surface of the vehicle, the tile surfaces.  And everything looks good there. 

We were slightly out of tolerance on our step.  However, engineering community that would approve that has fully analyzed that and said that that‘s acceptable.  They have given us a go for launch.  They have given us a go for rotating the RSS.  And so, we‘ll press ahead with that. 

Now, I do want to say that any time something like this happens.  We need to make sure we do all the analysis that we need to do.  And with a soft cover, even though it less—weighs less than two pounds, with that falling approximately 65 feet and hitting the vehicle, we want to make sure, from a loads perspective, that we don‘t have any damage to the internal structure of the orbiter. 

So, the folks out in Houston will be working on that tonight.  And they fully expect that, in the morning, they will be able to give us the full go that there‘s no issue with loads, but we‘re going to go ahead and do that just to make sure.  We‘re very confident that there will be no concern tomorrow morning.  But we have to do the right thing and run all the numbers all the way through the system and make sure.  So, right now, RSS rotation is back in...

MATTHEWS:  Anything new there in that report from NASA?  Bob, Anything new there from that report?

HAGER:  Chris, no, nothing. 

It essentially says the problem is fixed.  And that clears the way

·         this superstructure now is covering up the shuttle.  That clears the way for a preplanned maneuver, where they take the superstructure away from half of the shuttle.  It clears the way, so, in the early morning, they can begin filling this liquid fuel tank and keeps them on schedule now toward a 2:51 launch Eastern time tomorrow afternoon—Chris.  

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Bob.  You‘re the best in the business. 

At the top of the hour, we‘ll have all the latest on the shuttle launch in an MSNBC special, “Return to Flight,” with MSNBC‘s Chris Jansing, live from Cape Canaveral. 

When we return, we‘ll talk to a key Democrat on the Judiciary Committee about who President Bush might choose to replace Sandra Day O‘Connor on the Supreme Court.  Senator Joe Biden of Delaware is going to join us. 

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, should President Bush fire Karl Rove over his role in the CIA leak case?

We‘ll be back with Senator Joe Biden when HARDBALL returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  President Bush began discussions today with Senate leaders from both parties on the vacancy left by Sandra Day O‘Connor in the Supreme Court.  Both sides say they‘re hopeful the president will nominate someone who they consider will be a uniter, not a divider. 

We‘re joined by a key Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware. 

Senator, what is the thing you‘re looking for in a court nominee for the president? 

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D), DELAWARE:  I think we‘re looking for somebody that doesn‘t come with an ideological brief, someone who has an open mind, whether it‘s a person like the Justice Powell or Blackmun or someone like—and they were conservative Republicans—or someone like Sandra Day O‘Connor. 

And, by the way, it doesn‘t have to be Sandra Day O‘Connor, doesn‘t have the same views, but someone who, Chris, comes to the court without a brief, in effect, with—with—with an open mind and not a closed ideology. 

MATTHEWS:  If someone who the president nominates has made a statement that they don‘t like the Roe v. Wade decision, which gave a woman a right to an abortion back in ‘73, would that be a disqualifier? 

BIDEN:  Not—no, not in and of itself.

I want to know how they view—and I‘m going to sound like a lawyer now—but how they view the liberty clause of the 14th Amendment, which was the basis upon which that decision was made in part.  You know, look, all the important elements of the Constitution are—that remain in controversy—are all those phrases that don‘t lend themselves to an easy definition, like liberty in the 14th Amendment, like the takings clause of the 15 Amendment. 

And what I want to know is what their sort of—their constitutional methodology is.  When they‘re dealing with those vague sometimes phrases, or (INAUDIBLE) phrases, how do they go about deciding what it means? 

MATTHEWS:  Is it essential, Senator, that the nominee, for you to vote to confirm, believe in the role of precedent? 

BIDEN:  No. 

It is useful for me to know—for example, when we had that—that was a major issue in the Bork nomination.  Bork came along and argued that there were a half-a-dozen fundamental decisions, from the incorporation doctrine to the Griswold case that—Connecticut vs.  Griswold—that were wrongly decided and should be overturned or he would consider overturning. 

That is pretty radical departure from the previous 70 years of jurisprudence.  Someone like that, with those kinds of judgments that would take us back to the pre-Lochner era, would be a disqualifier for me. 

MATTHEWS:  The Griswold case was the beginning of the belief that there‘s a constitutional right to privacy.

BIDEN:  Correct.

MATTHEWS:  If a nominee were to sit before you on the Judiciary Committee and say, I don‘t really believe there‘s a constitutional right to privacy, would that be a disqualifier? 

BIDEN:  Probably.  But let me—let me—this is—you‘re asking some very important and difficult questions. 

If in fact they argued that, there was no—that there could be—there are no rights that were constitutionally guaranteed that were not articulated, stated explicitly in the Constitution, that would be a disqualifier for me.  Most of—if 99 percent of all the—well, 95 percent of the justices over the last 70 or 80 years have argued that there are some unenumerated rights, like the right to privacy, like the right of privacy. 

But the school of thought that Mr. Bork, who is a brilliant fellow, argued was, there can be no constitutionally guaranteed right unless it is enumerated, stated in the Constitution.  That is a cabined view of the Constitution, inconsistent with what I believe a correct reading of the Constitution is and what our founders intended. 

MATTHEWS:  Would you be equally tough on a liberal nominee who believed that the state, in the words of Justice Stevens, I believe, should not take—the government should not take a position for or against religion or religion, in other words, to be totally, utterly agnostic? 

BIDEN:  Well, no.  That wouldn‘t—because, look, here—let‘s put it this way. 

The separation of church and state doctrine has guided this country the past 225 years, which hasn‘t changed in any fundamental way from Thomas Jefferson‘s time to now, has served this nation incredibly well.  Just look around the world to all those nations that decided to infuse religion into their political and governmental discourse.  It‘s not a very good track record. 

So, I—you know, what Ronald Reagan used to say, if it ain‘t broke, don‘t fix it.  I say my rosaries.  I care about my religion.  It is important to me.  It is—I‘m a practicing Catholic.  But the notion that my religious rights and my view are best protected by the Supreme Court of the United States of America and the government not getting involved in choosing religion, one religion over another. 

We are a—as a nation, we‘ve always been able to recognize the existence of a deity, just not pick sides. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, what about under God in the Pledge of Allegiance? 

BIDEN:  Not a single problem. 

MATTHEWS:  Would you support a judge who wanted to get rid of it? 

BIDEN:  I would find—no, probably not. 

And the reason I wouldn‘t, it wouldn‘t be because of that particular decision.  It would be because I think he—I would wonder about how he could have arrived at that reading of the Constitution.  Where does it say in the establishment clause of the Constitution that this nation does not recognize a deity? 

I believe the establishment clause, which is the one that said you can have no established religion in the First Amendment, I believe that means just that.  You cannot favor one belief or nonbelief over another belief.  And—but the notion that recognizing the existence of a deity is totally consistent with, in my view, a proper reading to the Constitution and has been for, as I said, two centuries. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, fortunately, Judge Stevens doesn‘t have to go before you for confirmation, because, in his dissent the other day, in one of those cases involving the Ten Commandments, he said, the government should not take a position for religion against irreligion in the most general sense.  He sounds like wants...

BIDEN:  Well, that‘s true.  But it is religion.  It is not a deity.

MATTHEWS:  And—no, religion per se. 

BIDEN:  Per se.  Religion per se means a specific belief, not whether or not there is a supreme being.  That‘s a different deal.  That‘s spirituality.

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s come down on the—let‘s come down on the more mundane question of the president‘s chief political adviser in the White House.

BIDEN:  OK.  I‘m just glad I‘m not him today. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, do you believe that he‘s done something wrong? 

BIDEN:  Well, I know he‘s done something wrong, based on what he stated. 

It is totally inappropriate.  Whether it is criminally wrong is another question.  I‘ll let the Justice Department make that judgment.  But for him to make the distinction that it has no difference, to say, I never mentioned Valerie Plame‘s name.  I did mention, as I understand it from the press accounts—I may be wrong—from the press accounts I‘ve seen, he has indicated that he said Ambassador Wilson‘s wife is a member of the CIA.

That to me is a distinction without any difference, Chris, any difference, whether he states her name or not.  It is like saying, you know, that guy who does HARDBALL, the guy with that full shock of hair who knows what he‘s talking about, that guy out there is the guy I think that works for the CIA. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, suppose...

BIDEN:  I didn‘t mention your name.

MATTHEWS:  Suppose you were the president‘s top political adviser and you heard that the vice president was being blamed for sending somebody off on a trip to Africa and ignoring the results, which came back negative, and therefore was responsible for getting something in the State of the Union about nuclear that shouldn‘t have been there.  And you wanted to make it clear to the opposition and the press that this wasn‘t vice president.  This was some middle-level person at the CIA that sent Joe Wilson to Africa.  How would you have done it without saying it was his wife? 

BIDEN:  It‘s not his role to do it, period.  Let the president and the vice president figure that out.  It‘s not his role to make that judgment.  As my grandfather Finnegan would say, who died and left him boss? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, he‘s a staffer. 

BIDEN:  He‘s a staffer.  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  And he may have been carrying out the will of the people there.  Who knows.

BIDEN:  Well, that may be.  Now, that is a different deal. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

BIDEN:  That‘s even more consequential to me.  If he was carrying out the request of the president of the United States or the vice president, we have got a real problem. 

MATTHEWS:  The—the—one of the results of the last election is that the Congress is in the hands of the president‘s party, Senator, as you know so well, having been through these cycles. 

BIDEN:  I‘ve noticed...

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  You have noticed.  So, you don‘t have subpoena power in the opposition. 

BIDEN:  No.

MATTHEWS:  If you folks on the Democratic side had subpoena power now, the ability to call witnesses under oath, would you be calling up Karl Rove and finding out what happened? 

BIDEN:  Sure.  Sure.

And it seems to me any responsible legislative organization would do that.  Look, this is a Republican United States Senate.  But it is worrisome to me that there is very little oversight here.  Where are all the hearings on the issues that are of great consequence to the American people, from foreign policy straight through to matters like this?

I mean, look, we do not work for the president, Chris.  I admire the president.  I have respect for the president.  But the presidency is a co-equal, not more important, co-equal branch of the government.  The reason why those founders were talking about in terms of the court, the reason why they set it up this way is so no one outfit could have so much power.  And we have an obligation. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll be back with Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, ranking Democrat on Judiciary and Foreign Relations, when HARDBALL comes back, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with Senator Joe Biden of the Judiciary Committee.

Senator, just to get back to the point here with the Karl Rove issue, it all centers on the question of whether Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons and whether he was trafficking in nuclear materials to build those weapons.  And Joe Wilson, the ambassador, was sent down there to the government of Niger in Africa to find out whether there was a deal going on.  And he came back and said there wasn‘t.  Somehow, that didn‘t get to the president, that information, because it showed up in his State of the Union that they were, in fact, that Saddam Hussein was in fact buying nuclear weapons, nuclear materials from this government down there. 

Do you think this is a big deal? 

BIDEN:  Well, I mean, the big deal he released the name—or the identity, or a big deal it didn‘t get in the State of the Union? 

I think it is a big deal it didn‘t get in the State of the Union, because the idea that no one else who scrubbed that speech, from the national security adviser to the chief of staff to all the people there, didn‘t know that.  Now, look, this administration prides itself on its discipline and on its rigor and on the president being a delegator, a la corporate style.  It does surprise me.  And I think it is a big deal that false information got into the State of the Union. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, this is where it gets tricky, because the vice president himself, Dick Cheney, was the one who raised the issue with the CIA.  He said this on “Meet the Press.”  He was the one that raised the issue with them about this possible trafficking in nuclear materials with the government of Niger. 

They subsequently send the ambassador on that trip.  He comes back and reports.  And the vice president himself gets to review the State of the Union and he and his people left it in.  They left in the nuclear piece. 

BIDEN:  Surprise, surprise. 

MATTHEWS:  How do you explain that?

BIDEN:  Surprise, surprise. 

He‘s the same guy, Chris, the vice president, that is, who said that Saddam Hussein had reconstituted his nuclear weapons.  He said that on “Meet the Press.”  And I was on a sister show at the time.  They asked me at the time.  I said, I saw no evidence, zero evidence of that. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, he did say—to correct you, Senator, he did say

·         he corrected himself subsequently and said he meant their nuclear program, not the nuclear weapons. 

BIDEN:  Well, let me tell you, he did not say that that day. 

MATTHEWS:  No.

Let me ask you about Karl Rove and the president of the United States.  Do you think the president was wrong to say he would deal with anybody who leaked and then not deal with him? 

BIDEN:  Well, I think—I assume the president hasn‘t finally decided not to deal with him yet.  Look, the president is a strong guy.  One of the president‘s greatest suits is that he not only stands by his friends, but he stands by his word. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, there‘s a conflict here, isn‘t there? 

BIDEN:  Well, so far. 

But, again, in fairness to the president and Karl Rove, this thing is only breaking now.  I don‘t know.  I—I‘m not being solicitous.  I probably don‘t know as much about this as you do, Chris, at this moment. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  I don‘t know much. 

Let me ask you this, Senator.  Do you think the Democrats wish they had a guy as good as Rove? 

BIDEN:  Oh, yes, absolutely.  But I—hopefully—yes.  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Senator Joe Biden. 

Tomorrow, we‘ll be joined by the Republican Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio.  He‘s also a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

And, in one hour, join Tucker Carlson for “THE SITUATION.”

Right now, stay tuned for Chris Jansing‘s live MSNBC special from Cape Canaveral, “Return to Flight: The Space Shuttle Discovery.”  She‘ll have all the latest news on the damage the shuttle suffered today, damage NASA says will not delay tomorrow‘s launch.  Chris Jansing is next.

END

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