updated 7/14/2005 10:27:55 AM ET 2005-07-14T14:27:55

Guest: Ed Rogers, David Gergen, Mike DeWine               

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  President Bush takes questions about Karl

Rove's role in the CIA leak, but said he will not prejudge the investigation. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I will be more than happy to comment further once the investigation is completed. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Meanwhile, “TIME” magazine's Matt Cooper testifies before the grand jury investigating the leak.  And “New York Times” reporter Judith Miller remains in jail for refusing to reveal her source. 

Let's play HARDBALL. 

Good evening.  I'm Chris Matthews.  We'll have more on President Bush's comments about the CIA leak investigation and how battle lines are being drawn over Karl Rove in a moment. 

But, first, Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, who is suffering from thyroid cancer, was taken by ambulance to a hospital Tuesday night with a fever. 

NBC chief justice correspondent Pete Williams is at the Supreme Court. 

Pete, how is he doing? 

PETE WILLIAMS, NBC JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT:  Well, all we are told, Chris, is that he was admitted for observation and tests, and that they took him from his house by ambulance last night and that he has been there ever since for tests because he developed a fever. 

Now, that is all that they have told us.  We know nothing more about his fever or his condition otherwise, although I have to say the indications we have been getting from here are that this is not considered serious and that they don't expect at this point for this to be a long hospital stay.  But the simple matter is, Chris, we don't know. 

MATTHEWS:  Do we know what his standard will be, Justice Rehnquist, Chief Justice Rehnquist, in terms of deciding how long to persevere on the court? 

WILLIAMS:  That's the—that's the question.  That is the question that we have all been asking ourselves, that I suspect he has been asking himself, too. 

I think those who are closest to him, Chris, expect that he will remain as long as he thinks he can do the job.  And we have been told by court insiders that, in the always chaotic days, the last days of the term, as they head for the finish in late June, that he was getting his opinions out.  He was keeping the court moving.  He was presiding over the conference in his usual way, getting the job done. 

But this is also a justice who was here when William O. Douglas was in very declining health in his later days and was virtually functionless here at the Supreme Court.  The chief justice saw that and that has certainly got to be in his thinking.  But perhaps he thinks as Arlen Specter does, someone who has cancer himself, that the chief justice wants something to do when he gets up in the morning, something to look forward to.  And being chief justice is certainly that. 

MATTHEWS:  What about the intellectual rigor of it for a chief justice?  He has to engage or conduct oral arguments twice a week starting in early October. 

WILLIAMS:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  Is that the standard, his ability to stand up rigorously and participate in that very fast-paced give-and-take of the oral arguments? 

WILLIAMS:  I suspect that's not at the top of his list or any list on measuring the effectiveness of a chief justice. 

I think his participation in oral argument was diminished when he came back to the court in march.  You will recall he had—he was here for the first month of argument in October and then didn't come back again until March.  And because he has the tracheotomy tube, he doesn't speak as loud loudly; he doesn't speak as effortlessly as he did before.  So, I haven't gone back and actually done the checks, but I think if you look at the number of questions he's had, it's down some from what it was before. 

But the real test is, does he get the opinions assigned?  That's the real job of the chief justice.  Does he keep the closed-door conference moving along?  Does he prod justices to get their opinions done?  And, by that test, he appears so far to be functioning, you know, satisfactorily, certainly.

MATTHEWS:  OK, great report.  Thank you very much, Pete Williams, at the Supreme Court. 

Now we turn to the latest in the investigation over who leaked the identity of Ambassador Joe Wilson's wife.

On a day when “TIME” magazine reporter Matt Cooper testified before the grand jury about his source, President Bush refused to say whether Karl Rove has spoken with him about his role in talking to reporters. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH:  I have instructed every member of my staff to fully cooperate in this investigation.  I also will not prejudge the investigation based on media reports.  We are in the midst of an ongoing investigation.  And I will be more than happy to comment further once the investigation is completed. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  As Democrats call for Rove to be fired, Republicans have taken a cue from the Rove playbook and are rallying to his defense. 

Ken Mehlman is chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Ken, it's hard to believe that this whole rigmarole began with an Italian newspaper report that said that Saddam Hussein was buying uranium from a country of Niger.  The vice president showed some interest in that.  Somewhere along the line after that, a guy named Joe Wilson was sent down to look into it.  Somewhere after that, Joe Wilson said that the vice president and the president did not make use of his report.  What do you make of this? 

KEN MEHLMAN, CHAIRMAN, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE:  Well, Chris, I think you framed it very well.  And I think that the president's comments framed it very well.

The White House from the beginning and Karl from the beginning has said that they intend to comply entirely and cooperate fully with this investigation.  At the same time, unfortunately, we are seeing a lot of politics on the other side.  And you are exactly right.  This is a fundamental debate. 

Karl Rove said to a reporter that you ought not include the Joe Wilson report because it's inaccurate.  And Karl was right.  Mr. Wilson was wrong.  The report was inaccurate.  He was wrong in the sense that the vice president had not sent him down.  And it's rather amazing that right now we have got Democrat leaders, we've got the guy that ran for president, John Kerry, we've got Senator Clinton, former first lady, calling for someone to lose their job, smearing someone politically who is fully complying with an investigation over what you just described. 

MATTHEWS:  Let's look at what the vice president himself had to say on “Meet the Press” back in September of 2003.  This is about the question about uranium down there.  And whatever role he played, let him describe it. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “MEET THE PRESS”)

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I had heard a report that the Iraqis had been trying to acquire uranium in Africa, Niger in particular. 

I get a daily brief on my own each day before I meet with the president to go through the intel.  And I ask lots of question.  One of the questions I asked at that particular time about this, I said, “What do we know about this?”  They take the question.  He came back within a day or two and said, “This is all we know.  There's a lot we don't know,” end of statement.   And Joe Wilson—I don't know who sent Joe Wilson.  He never submitted a report that I ever saw when he came back.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, I guess that's the question.  If you believe the reports in “Newsweek” about the “TIME” magazine interview with Karl Rove, what the White House was simply trying to do was not trying to out the wife of somebody who worked at the CIA, but was trying to separate the vice president from this enterprise in Niger.  Is that is what was going on?

MEHLMAN:  Well, I think what was going on was that Karl Rove was in fact saying the facts.

And the facts were that the vice president had nothing to do with Joe Wilson being sent to Niger.  And what Karl was doing was simply trying to discourage a reporter from writing a false story based on a false premise.  And that's what he did.  That is what he said he did.  That is what the report from this past weekend indicate he did.

And the fact that folks are using that information to say someone ought to lose their job or be charged with a crime is remarkable, outrageous and it's a partisan smear. 

MATTHEWS:  Fair enough.

But let me ask you about the legal piece of this.  And none of us know what's going on, but doesn't it impress you that the president's prosecutor, the man he named, Patrick Fitzgerald, out in Chicago to investigate this two years ago, is still on the case, still calling witnesses as of today?  He called Matt Cooper in today.  Two years of investigating, it's hard to believe.

Well, do you think this guy is going for pay dirt or what is he up to, Fitzgerald?

MEHLMAN:  It's hard to know. 

As a former attorney myself, I am not going to come out and prejudge.  I don't have all of the information.  I know and you know what's in the public record.  And I think the president is right.  We shouldn't prejudge this.  Nor should John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean and others, who are more than prejudging this.  They are trying to use this for partisan gain with the angry left.

Look, MoveOn.org raises a lot of money off the Internet.  And, apparently, these folks have decided, notwithstanding their role as—supposedly as leaders, that they are going to try to raise that same money through partisan smears.  None of us know exactly what he is looking into.  Let's let his investigation go forward.  Let's respect him as an investigation.

Karl Rove and the entire White House is fully cooperating, which is what they should do.  And the folks on the other side of the aisle should stop the partisan smears.

MATTHEWS:  OK. 

MEHLMAN:  And stop trying to gain politically from an investigation. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let's close our ears to the Democrats for a while and think about the prosecution and the president and what he should do.

Do you think the standard here should be, if Karl is indicted or anybody in the White House is indicted, they should be dismissed from the White House?  Or the president might have a different standard, perhaps a higher standard, and say, even though someone has not been indicted, I don't like the way they played here.  It was too much rough, too much hardball.  They got to go.

What should be the president's standard?  Indict him, throw him out or some other higher standard? 

MEHLMAN:  Well, look, Chris, I'm not going to prejudge that. 

That's not my place to do.

The fact is, the president has the highest standard for the men and women that work at the White House.  I was his political director.  I know those standards.  Karl Rove meets those standard.  This is a good public servant.  He is a personal friend of mine.  And he is someone that, every single day, comes into work, works incredibly long hours with the highest ethical standards.

And the president has from the beginning established those standards.  Karl Rove and every single other people that works hard at this White House to serve this country meets those standards every single day. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think these reporters, like Matt and Judith Miller, have been right in keeping secret as long as they could these conversations? 

MEHLMAN:  Well, we know one thing about that.

And that is that, more than a year ago, they had the right to reveal their discussions, because Karl—at least with Karl Rove, because—more than a year ago.  And that's more the evidence that Karl Rove, from the beginning, has fully cooperated and has nothing to hide. 

From the beginning, he said to the world, anyone I have talked to about this, any reporter I've talked to about this, come out.  Talk about it.  I waive any kind of right I might have.

And that's further evidence I think that what we have got is, frankly, a bunch of folks trying to gain politically, a political smear campaign in what ought to be a serious investigation.

It's being treated seriously by Mr. Rove.  It's being treated seriously by the White House.  It ought to be by these Democrats, too. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you believe on the question of the merits of the charge, if it ever comes out that a member of the president's team did in fact purposely out the identity of a Secret Service or a—in this case, a member of the CIA who is undercover, outed their identity, let the public know they're undercover, is that a serious enough charge, if proven in court, to remove them from office? 

MEHLMAN:  Again, I'm not going to comment on—on—on the charges.  I know you have described the elements of the crime. 

Obviously, this is a president that has the highest ethical standards.  But I am not going to get into who the president should or shouldn't hire.  That's not my job.  That's—that's his job to be sure.  But one thing we know about him, and from the beginning, he has had men and women, including Karl Rove, of the absolutely highest ethical character.  And to suggest otherwise I think is—is—is wrong. 

MATTHEWS:  Joe Wilson has charged—I have read it somewhere.  Let me just say, I have read it somewhere that Newt Gingrich has been, according to Wilson, one of the advisers with the president in his inner circle from the beginning of this whole dispute back in 2003.  Do you believe that's the case, that Newt Gingrich has been advising the president on how to handle this or advising the vice president's office? 

MEHLMAN:  I do not. 

Newt Gingrich is somebody that obviously, all of us know and all of

us respect a great deal.  But the president is handling this, talking to

his legal counsel.  The White House staff is handling this by complying

with it.  Joe Wilson's comments on Newt Gingrich, like his comments on

so many other things, who sent him to Niger, the definitiveness of his

report, whether the vice president reviewed his report, all of these

allegations have been disproved by the Senate Intelligence Committee and

by others who have studied it who are objective sources.

Once again, what Joe Wilson said is not supported by the facts. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, Ken Mehlman, thank you very much for joining us from Iowa.

MEHLMAN:  Thanks a lot.  Thank you. 

MATTHEWS:  He's the chairman—you are the chairman of the Republican National Committee. 

When we return, President Bush gets closer to the time to pick a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.  But will his choice get an up-or-down vote?  Will there be a filibuster?  Republican Senator Mike DeWine of the Judiciary Committee is going to be with us.

You are watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, will President Bush's nominee to the Supreme Court pass muster with the middle?  We're joined by one of the 14 senators who made the filibuster deal, Ohio Republican Mike DeWine, when HARDBALL returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  As the debate over President Bush's nomination for Supreme Court justice heats up, the gang of 14, that bipartisan group of senators who came together in May to put an end to the filibuster on some of the president's judicial nominees, is meeting again tomorrow morning. 

What's behind the meeting?  One of the gang, Ohio Republican Senator Mike DeWine, joins us now to tell us what you're up to.

You guys are the peacemakers.  Can you do it this time? 

SEN. MIKE DEWINE ®, OHIO:  We are just having coffee and donuts, Chris. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Are you going to get us—get us a timetable?  Is that the goal, so there won't be one of these filibusters? 

DEWINE:  No.  You know, I don't think we are going to have a filibuster.  I really don't.

The whole idea behind this agreement was that we would lessen the use of the filibuster.  The filibuster has not historically been used for judges.  It's really never used for Supreme Court. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

DEWINE:  And I don't think we are going to have a filibuster. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, what happens if, two seconds after the president announces his pick, say a week-and-a-half from now, and—within two seconds, I should say, the People For the American Way will have an ad on the air...

DEWINE:  Well, that will happen.

MATTHEWS:  ... saying, this is a catastrophe. 

(LAUGHTER)

DEWINE:  Well, that will happen. 

MATTHEWS:  It will happen, right?

(CROSSTALK)

DEWINE:  Yes.  We know that. 

MATTHEWS:  And you are going to hear from Ralph Neas and you will hear from Barbara Boxer, perhaps, and people on the Democratic liberal side of things. 

(CROSSTALK)

DEWINE:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  And you are say that is all discountable? 

DEWINE:  I think certain things are predictable.  I think certain things are going to happen.  Certain senators we know are going to oppose the president, without mentioning names.  I won't. 

But I think the real key is where the senators, Democratic senators, in the middle are going to be.  Some of them were part of our, as you say, gang of seven plus seven.  Others are not.  But it's the more moderate senators, where they're going to be.  And I think they're going to say, we need to have an up-or-down vote.

And I think that's really what the key is.

MATTHEWS:  Well, the math is key here, to, because you have 55 Republicans.  And if your party stays strong for the president, with maybe one or two exceptions, you need five or seven Democrats to get your magic 60, to get a vote, right?

DEWINE:  Right. 

And, Chris, we have to keep in mind, there are two questions.  You might have a senator who says, I don't want to vote for this nominee, but I think this nominee should have an up-or-down vote.  You could even do that, too, and split some votes off as well.

MATTHEWS:  Let's take a look at what Senator Biden had to say last night about what he thinks the Judiciary Committee should look for—and you're on the committee—in a Supreme Court justice.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Well, what does that mean to you as a Republican?  He's a Democrat, Joe Biden.  What is he saying to you? 

DEWINE:  I'm not really sure.  I think the president...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  He's saying no ideologues.

DEWINE:  Well, I think, look, the president is going to pick a conservative justice.  I don't think there's any doubt about that.  We knew that.  You knew that on election night.  That is part of what the election was about. 

But I think the president is doing what he should be doing.  He's reaching out to the members of the Senate.  You know, Chris, one of the things that our group of 14 really talked about—Senator Byrd, Senator Warner were very much involved in this—is, they wanted to make sure and we wanted to make sure that president did consult with the Senate. 

That is taking place.  Calls are being made.  Senators have the opportunities to suggest names, to suggest whatever they want to, describe what type of a Supreme Court justice this should be.  There's a lot of open communication going on now.  And I think we are into this process.  And I think it's a good process. 

MATTHEWS:  So, bottom line, you think we will have a new justice on the Supreme Court by the beginning of the session in October? 

DEWINE:  I think we will and I think we should.  There's no reason we can't get this done.  I think the president will take his time.  I think he will go through the process.

But we are looking to try to have hearings right after Labor Day, I think is what Senator Specter said.  We can do that and we can move forward. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think we should outlaw abortion? 

DEWINE:  Chris, you know what my position is.  My position is that I think Roe v. Wade was poorly decided.  I think this is a matter that should have gone back to the states. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  So, you think we should leave it up to the states?

DEWINE:  I think it should have gone back to the states.  I think Roe v. Wade was not a good decision.  I'm pro-life.  You know that. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

DEWINE:  And that's just where I am.

MATTHEWS:  But you think the country would work OK where a country

·         a state like Utah would say no abortions; a state like New York would say fairly easy?  You would be comfortable in a quilt-like country like that, where it was different in every state? 

DEWINE:  I think Roe v. Wade was not decided correctly.  I think even liberal scholars look at that and say that it's really not a great decision. 

MATTHEWS:  I think Ginsburg said that. 

DEWINE:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Justice Ginsburg said that, yes.

DEWINE:  And—and—and I think it was just—it was poorly—poorly decided. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Let's talk about this hot thing with Rove.  Do you think Karl Rove has handled this whole matter with Joe Wilson situation correctly? 

DEWINE:  I know—I know Karl Rove.

And this is man of who—my personal experience with this man in the last few years, he is a man of great integrity, someone who is honest, someone—I'll tell you, he's the person who I call in the administration if I want to find out what really is going on, if I want to get a message to the president.  He will tell me, Mike, we can do this.  Mike, we can't do this. 

You know, he is blunt.  He is honest and he is straightforward.  I have had a great relationship with him. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Do you think he is smart to keep quiet like he's done all these months? 

DEWINE:  I think that, ultimately, the facts are going to come out.  There is a criminal investigation going on.  We've got—I am an old prosecutor.  I started as a county prosecutor almost 30 years ago. 

And the one thing I learned is, you wait until you get all the facts in.  This town, Chris, is going crazy.  It's kind of typical Washington.

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

DEWINE:  We saw it during the Clinton administration.  Republicans were doing the same thing.  Republicans were going crazy.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Excuse me, Senator.  Two years, he has been on this case calling witness.  You have got to wonder if something is up. 

DEWINE:  Well, it's also, part of the issue, sometimes, when you get a special prosecutor, they take a long time, which is maybe another issue that you and I could talk about for a long time.

But I won't criticize the prosecutor.  I think the prosecutor is, I'm sure—is—everything I know about him, he is very well-respected.  And he is going about his business methodically.

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

DEWINE:  I would assume that he is going to get his job done, and the grand jury will do their work and we will find out what the facts are. 

MATTHEWS:  Patrick Fitzgerald, sounds like a tough guy to me. 

DEWINE:  Well, yes.  It's a good—it's great Irish name. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Senator Mike DeWine, a member of the House—Senate Judiciary Committee, one of the gang of 14 in the middle.

When we return, what's the American public looking for in the next Supreme Court justice?  MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell is going to be here with the results of a new NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll on that very subject. 

You're watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

The latest NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll is out tonight.

And MSNBC's chief Washington correspondent, Norah O'Donnell, is here to tell us about it. 

Norah, I want to tell you some things.  I never have seen numbers like this, the lowest numbers we have seen for President Bush's entire term.  Only 34 percent of Americans now believe this country is heading in the right direction.  That's a third of the country.  The president's approval rating, 46 percent, I think it's the second lowest he's ever had.

His job approval on the economy, which is really biting some people, down to 39 percent.  What's behind these numbers?  What is—is there worse news here?

NORAH O'DONNELL, NBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  Well, our pollsters tell us that Americans are deeply dissatisfied with Washington and with politicians. 

The reasons the president's numbers are low is because there has been a drop-off in terms of blue-collar workers, seniors and independents.  It's all part of this negative mood that is out there in the country.  The president's numbers have been getting worse, not better.  The congressional numbers are really atrocious, the worse they've been since 1994. 

MATTHEWS:  Let's talk about the economy and how it goes together with blue-collar workers.  I mean, regular working people have to drive a lot to work.  Gas prices, Social Security questions, is that all a part of this? 

O'DONNELL:  It is all part of it, high gas prices.  People don't feel like they are making a lot of money in the market.  They also think that there is not a lot of substance coming out of Congress.

They hear a lot of bickering.  Our poll also found for the first time in the polling, the NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll, a net negative for both parties.  People don't like Republicans.  People don't like Democrats.  So, even though Republicans are controlling Congress and Congress is getting a bad rating, it doesn't mean the Democrats are doing any better.  The Democrats are not providing any alternative message.  And that may give us some clues about whether there will be a change in party in Congress in 2006. 

MATTHEWS:  What does it say to members of Congress?  Supposed you're a senator right now and you're reading the “Wall Street Journal”/NBC poll, a member of Congress, and you're trying to figure out, what does this tell me about how to behave the next couple months?

The bad smell coming from Washington, almost stinky-poo in a way. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  They don't like the way it looks.  And I don't blame them.  Is this going to encourage senators to be a little more calm, a little more thoughtful in the way they look at the Supreme Court nomination? 

O'DONNELL:  That is exactly what our pollsters say.  Look at the mood of the country. 

They think that those up on Capitol Hill are engaged in partisan sniping.  This is not a good environment to have a fight over a Supreme Court nominee.  It will make them look even worse if they don't handle themselves in a way that perhaps the country approves of, in a meaningful, thoughtful way. 

MATTHEWS:  So, filibustering and keeping the thing going and not getting to a decision probably won't—will probably work into the public sense that these guys are screwing up? 

O'DONNELL:  Exactly. 

And what is interesting about our poll, too, is there were lot of questions about the Supreme Court.  A majority of the American people say they care a lot about who the president appoints to the Supreme Court.  A majority say they don't want someone who would overturn Roe vs. Wade.  But a majority of them also say they believe that there should be religion in public life, like the Ten Commandments.  So, maybe some mixed signals, but the American people have weighed in, in this poll and showed what they want in a Supreme Court nominee.

MATTHEWS:  What about the question of the president's integrity?  I saw a bad number there.

O'DONNELL:  It's interesting.  For the first time, we have seen that the president's personal ratings have decreased, today, 41 percent.  It was 50 percent in January about whether the president is honest and trustworthy. 

Our pollsters, a bipartisan group of pollsters, say this is significant, because whatever you think of how the job the president is doing as president, that goes up and down all the time.  He's always been very strong on his personal ratings, whether he's tough, leadership, trustworthy.  This is the first time we've seen a drop. 

MATTHEWS:  And they have always liked—the public have always liked this president more than some of his policies. 

O'DONNELL:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Norah O'Donnell.

In a moment, President Bush refuses to comment on Karl Rove's involvement in that CIA leak case, while “TIME”'s Cooper testifies before a grand jury this morning.  What a day it's been here.  NBC's Andrea Mitchell and former adviser and guru David Gergen are going to be here together to talk about it from a wise perch.

You're watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.  

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

As we reported at the top of the hour, “TIME” magazine's Matt Cooper identified before a grand jury today in the investigation into that leak of a covert CIA operative's name.  And today, President Bush wouldn't comment on the investigation or the role his top political adviser, Karl Rove, may have played in that leak. 

HARDBALL correspondent David Shuster has this report. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  At the criminal grand jury investigating White House leaks about the CIA, “TIME” magazine reporter Matthew Cooper testified today for two hours, detailing a phone conversation two years ago with Karl Rove. 

MATT COOPER, “TIME”:  I testified openly and honestly. 

SHUSTER:  President Bush today, with Karl Rove behind him during a Cabinet meeting, said he will withhold judgment. 

BUSH:  I will be more than happy to comment on this matter once the investigation is complete. 

SHUSTER:  The president did not answer a question about whether Rove acted appropriately.  And some White House advisers said they were surprised President Bush didn't publicly express confidence in Rove.  As for a question about definitive statements two years ago from the presidential press secretary, who said Rove was not involved:

BUSH:  I have instructed every member of my staff to fully cooperate in this investigation.  I also will not prejudge the investigation based on media reports.

SHUSTER:  Many of those media reports, however, have been based on Karl Rove's own lawyer, who has told reporters Rove did speak with Cooper.  The issue is legality and whether Rove acted on his own. 

SOLOMON WISENBERG, FORMER DEPUTY INDEPENDENT COUNSEL:  There could be a question of whether or not anybody directed Rove to have the conversation with Cooper or other reporters and what if anything that person knew. 

SHUSTER:  Justice Department guidelines suggest that prosecutors should not seek testimony from reporters, except in highly unusual circumstances.  But MSNBC has learned Patrick Fitzgerald, the prosecutor in this case, submitted to the court classified briefs that stretched dozens of pages. 

WISENBERG:  There is a ton of stuff, I guarantee you,that the public doesn't know about. 

SHUSTER:  Meanwhile, the battle at the White House over Karl Rove's status erupted yet again today. 

DAVID GREGORY, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  In a previous administration if a press secretary had given the sort of answers you've just given, Republicans would have hammered them as having a kind of legalistic and sleazy defense.  I mean, the reality is that you're parsing words.  And you've been doing it for a few days now. 

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  I told you and the president told you earlier today that we don't want to prejudge the outcome of an ongoing investigation. 

SHUSTER:  By all accounts, this investigation is going to reach a conclusion soon.  Matt Cooper, according to prosecutors, was one of their final witnesses. 

I'm David Shuster for HARDBALL in Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  It's all so classic. 

We are joined right now with NBC's Andrea Mitchell, along with “U.S. News & World Report”'s David Gergen, who was an adviser to four presidents.

Mr. Gergen, this looks like a chapter in one of your books about to deal—or how not to deal with a scandal. 

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER:  I think it's been a classic case of mishandling by the White House right from the get-go about this. 

Two years ago, there is a 16-word sentence in the president's State of the Union address.  And, in trying to explain that sentence on Niger, four different officials have been hurt, George Tenet attention CIA, and Steve Hadley, who now runs the NSC, Condi Rice when she was NSC adviser, and now Karl Rove.  They've all been wounded by this report.

My basic sense is, Chris, that, based on the facts we know, Karl Rove doesn't have a legal problem.  I don't think he is going to be prosecuted.  I think that's the White House's current strategy, wait for Fitzgerald to act as the prosecutor and that will, they hope, dissipate this. 

But they do have a political problem and I don't think they are handling it well. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, Andrea, I think David has gotten to the heart of this thing, which is, we went to war on the basis of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein.  Everybody in the world was wrong about it.

But on one particular point, whether he had a nuclear deal with Africa or not, we do know he apparently did not, because of, among other reasons, Joe Wilson's trip down there.  And, also, it looked to be a bogus case in the first place. 

Why don't they just accept the fact that there was a mistake made, instead of continually trying to question Joe Wilson? 

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT:  Well, they seem to feel that questioning or attacking Joe Wilson, who has proved himself to be a partisan in this, is their best defense right now, to go on the offense. 

A couple of things come to mind.  First of all, there were other witnesses to the fact that the Niger case could not be made.  One of the generals, a top general, had gone there.  The ambassador had gone there.  There were a number of witnesses back to Washington.  And, in fact, those documents turned out to be fraudulent documents.  And everyone overlooked all of those facts. 

The facts didn't get to the president and that was a real failure at the NSC level.  But what you saw today was classic.  Who was sitting right behind Rumsfeld and the president in full camera view?  David Gergen knows this, as well as anyone.  If you are hiding someone or want to dissociate them from the president, you don't put them in a Cabinet photo-op, where he will be framed right behind the president. 

This was a vote of confidence today.  And you saw in all video that came through and the video in David Shuster's report just now.  The second thing about is that they are letting Scott McClellan—poor Scott McClellan—hang out there.  They are not giving him better talking points, because they think that this is not registering with the American public.  What is coming home to the American people is, this is an inside-the-beltway fight.  It's the press corps beating up on the White House, and nobody really cares out there. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, David back in the Korean War, they use to say, the Americans, that the Chinese were sent over the top, the first row of Chinese soldiers, without rifles.  They were just told to run forward.  Is that where Scott McClellan is right now?  The poor kid has got a job without a rifle.

(LAUGHTER)

GERGEN:  That's a heck of an analogy.  It never occurred to me.

(LAUGHTER)

GERGEN:  I'll tell you something.  He is—I—he is getting pummelled.

And to go to Andrea's point, which I think is quite right, this case is so complex that I don't think it has the sharp impact on the public that say a sex scandal would, which would be so clear-cut.  But, as Andrea and you both know, you know, if one of these things gets to be a bleeding problem—and that's where they are heading right now in the White House—Karl Rove also gets hurt in this over time.

And it hurts him inside Washington.  It distracts him.  They would be so much better off just to clear the air.  They said a long time ago that, we want to get—the president wants to get to the bottom of this.  And then McClellan comes out and says, two years ago, I talked to Karl Rove and he wasn't involved.  Clearly, they misled the press on that. 

And you know.  You guys know that, whenever you mislead the press, it's like holding a flag in front of—a red flag in front of a bull.  And the press is charging now.  They need to get their story out.  They need to get the facts out, not wait for the prosecutor.  I'm sure they can work that out with the prosecutor. 

MATTHEWS:  But, David, you are on the outside.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And, as the song goes, easier said than done. 

GERGEN:  It is easier said. 

MATTHEWS:  If there is a complicated situation here, whereby Karl

Rove did try to put the heat on Wilson, he did try to maybe punish him -

·         who knows—he is not going to come out and say, you're right.  You got me.

Is he, Andrea?

MITCHELL:  And—and, in fact, I have always have thought that Bob Novak's column back then said that there were two administration officials.  I have always thought that Karl Rove is the only one we know about, but that there was someone else, clearly, inside the administration, inside the White House, perhaps, who was feeding this information.  And this could have been in fact a higher-up or someone else that has not been identified. 

GERGEN:  But not only that.  It's also—everything we know so far suggests it was the second source who actually put her name out, not Karl Rove. 

MITCHELL:  Exactly.  Exactly. 

(CROSSTALK)

GERGEN:  And as long as he didn't put the name out, I don't think he has a legal problem.  And that's—so, I don't think he's going to get indicted, unless he lied to the grand jury.

MITCHELL:  No, I agree.

GERGEN:  And I just don't believe he would ever do that. 

And so, I don't think he has got a legal problem.  But they do have a political problem. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

GERGEN:  And if they leave it in the current posture, it's going to fester and he is going to get hurt.  And he is the president's right arm.  They can't afford to let this fellow get too wounded. 

MITCHELL:  Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, make that three for three, because knowing Karl Rove, as we all do, I don't think he would lie to a grand jury either. 

Anyway, Andrea Mitchell...

MITCHELL:  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much. 

David Gergen, thank you.

GERGEN:  Thanks.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  When we return, we will get reaction to Karl Rove's role in the leak case from two political strategists, Democrat Bob Shrum—he's a Democrat—and Republican Ed Rogers.

You're watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, what is behind President Bush's worst ever approval ratings on the economy?  We'll be back with strategists Bob Shrum and Ed Rogers when HARDBALL returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Bob Shrum is a senior fellow with the NYU's Graduate School of Public Service and a HARDBALL political analyst.  And Ed Rogers is a Republican strategist and former aide to the first President Bush. 

Ed, explain to me a conundrum here, a contradiction.  Joe Wilson has been taking a lot of shots from the administration.  Fair enough. 

ED ROGERS, REPUBLICAN CONSULTANT:  He has been giving a lot of shots.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  He has been giving a lot of shots.

He came back and said there was nothing to this uranium deal with Niger, that Saddam Hussein, whatever else he was up to, wasn't buying uranium down there. 

Why didn't the administration say it was a mistake to put in the fact in the State of the Union, after his trip, that there was some kind of deal to buy uranium?  If he was right, the administration agreed with him, why are they now trashing him? 

ROGERS:  Yes. 

Well, I'm not sure that Joe Wilson had all the facts and had all the facts right.  And his report has been critiqued pretty seriously by the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee and been pretty much debunked.  Nobody put a lot of stock in the Joe Wilson report that we know was now contrived by him and his wife in the first place.  And he was a Kerry guy, was a Kerry supporter.  Bob knows that.  Bob was probably in touch with him. 

So, nobody put a lot of credence in his report from the get-go.

MATTHEWS:  Bob Shrum, were you involved with the mission to Niger, as just—you were just accused of? 

BOB SHRUM, FORMER KERRY CAMPAIGN SENIOR ADVISER:  Actually, I never talked to Joe Wilson, never talked to him in my life. 

Number two, Joe Wilson voted for George W. Bush in the year 2000.  He is no partisan Democrat.  Number three, Ronald Reagan used to say facts are stubborn things.  And here are the facts.  There was no yellow cake.  Iraq was not running a nuclear program based on material from Niger.  There were no weapons of mass destruction.

But we are dealing here with the fruit of the poison tree, which is, we went to war on a false, intended or unintended, pretext.  And now, to get out of it and to try to protect Karl Rove, we are having a second attempt at character assassinating Joe Wilson and his wife, who is a CIA operative.

ROGERS:  No, we had—we just had an election about that.  We just had an election about Bob just said.  And Bob was one of the architects of the Kerry campaign, the architect of the Kerry campaign.  That was rejected.  We had an election that settled the claims that Bob just stated. 

MATTHEWS:  What do you make of the prosecutor...

(CROSSTALK)

SHRUM:  I don't agree with that at all, by the way. 

MATTHEWS:  I want to switch to some hard bedrock here.  We know—we have a special prosecutor here.  We know his name is Patrick Fitzgerald.  We know he's been on this case for two years calling witnesses, as recently as this morning, before the grand jury, a criminal grand jury, bringing Matt Cooper from “TIME” magazine.

We don't know if he's near the end of his investigation.  But this is a Republican appointee by the president.  He is not a partisan.  He is doing his job.  What is he doing, Ed, if it isn't—if there's not something here?

ROGERS:  You know, I don't think anybody knows exactly.  But you've got to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The man has a distinguished career.  He is a professional.  He is going about this in a methodical, organized, closed-lip kind of a way.  So, I give him the benefit of the doubt, just like the president did today in his statement.  Let's wait.  Let's defer to this professional investigation that's under way.  And all these people, Kerry and others and the partisans, the usual suspects sort of popping off, shouldn't drive anything here. 

MATTHEWS:  Bob, what is wrong with waiting until we get a verdict? 

SHRUM:  Well, first of all, it's sort of rich for Ed to be talking about partisanship, especially with respect to Karl Rove. 

Secondly, look—look what Ronald Reagan, Chris—and you remember this very well—did during Iran-Contra.  There was a legal process going forward, but he appointed an independent commission to find out who knew what in the White House.  This morning, “The Washington Post” reported that senior officials say no one has asked Karl Rove what really happened.  The president says he hasn't asked him.

Look, this is pretty simple.  It's a case of intentional ignorance. 

Why not get Mr. Rove in a room?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Why not get Mr. Rove...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  ... chance to respond.  Ed, you can respond...

(CROSSTALK)

SHRUM:  I'm going to finish, Ed.  I'm going to finish,

Why not get Mr. Rove in a room and ask him what happened? 

ROGERS:  Oh, come on.  That's unfair.

(CROSSTALK)

SHRUM:  Because the qualifications for being employed in the White House is that you can't be...

(CROSSTALK)

ROGERS:  He has been in front of a grand jury three times.  There is a process for this, Bob.  And you know it. 

ROGERS:  No, but the...

ROGERS:  And people like you trying to make this a partisan fight, you need to get over it. 

(CROSSTALK)

ROGERS:  The fact on the facts—and the fact are the facts on this.  And they are going to come out.  Take a breath. 

(CROSSTALK)

SHRUM:  OK.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  OK, we'll be right back after Bob takes a breath and Ed has a chance to think of another shot to take at him. 

(CROSSTALK)

SHRUM:  And there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We're back with Bob Shrum and Ed Rogers.

Bob, do you think that the president has a right to an up-or-down vote on his Supreme Court nominee when it comes? 

SHRUM:  It depends on who the nominee is. 

I think your new NBC/”Wall Street Journal” poll indicates that people don't want an extreme nominee.  If there is an extreme nominee, and I think Democrats are making a powerful case against that person, and some Republicans may join in making that case, I don't think the president automatically gets a right to an up-or-down vote.  The Republicans didn't give Lyndon Johnson an up-or-down vote on Abe Fortas' nomination to be chief justice in 1969. 

MATTHEWS:  But Abe Fortas didn't have 50 senators behind him either, did he? 

SHRUM:  Oh, yes, he did.  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  Really?

SHRUM:  This was—this was well before the problems he ran into a year ago.  This was whether he should be promoted from associate justice to chief justice.  He had the votes.  They ran a filibuster.  There was no vote held. 

MATTHEWS:  Ed Rogers, do you think the president deserves an up-or-down vote on whoever he nominates? 

ROGERS:  Of course he does.  Of course the process does.  Of course the American people do. 

I have a prediction.  Bob Shrum, nor any member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, will support the president's nominee, period, case closed.  They are too beholden to the groups on the left for fund-raising, for party discipline, for workers.  The groups are all going to be against the president's nominee.  So, all this consultation, all these Democrats saying these things about, oh, it depends on how magnanimous and what a big heart the nominee have, all that is a load of you know what. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  So, you predict that, no matter who the president proposes, you are going to lose all the Democrats on Judiciary? 

ROGERS:  All the—yes.  Yes.  The Judiciary Committee will be a party-line vote, plus Bob Shrum.

(CROSSTALK) 

MATTHEWS:  You better hold Specter's vote pretty tight, or you're going to lost that thing.

ROGERS:  He is solid.  He is solid. 

MATTHEWS:  Bob, do you think that is true, no matter who the other party puts up, the president puts up, that the Dems are going to go south? 

SHRUM:  You know, Ed is full of certitudes.

ROGERS:  I'm certain of that.  I'm certain of that. 

SHRUM:  He thinks there were weapons of mass destruction.

Ed, I am going to finish. 

ROGERS:  Please, finish.

SHRUM:  He thinks there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq because we had an election last November.

I think it's pretty clear that there are a number of nominees Democrats would vote for.  On this show, I probably got the attorney general in trouble by saying he was the kind of nominee the president ought to look at.  I think there are plenty of people that George Bush could nominate and Democrats could support.  I think there are a number of people Democrats will have a lot of trouble supporting.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the economy right now.  We never talk about it.  This town is so damn sophisticated.  We don't talk about real people. 

ROGERS:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  The lowest number the president has ever gotten in job performance on the economy and nobody is talking about it.  What is causing that number to drop, Ed Rogers? 

ROGERS:  I think the economy is fragile.  I think it is fragile in part because of gas prices.  I think it's fragile in part because of the stress that manufacturing is under. 

I do think it's underreported, under-talked-about here in Washington.  It's fragile, yet people are working, yet unemployment is coming down.  But nobody feels real secure about it.  And I think that is a burden on the Republicans for the next few months. 

MATTHEWS:  Have you seen anywhere where we can find out, except talking to real people, why they are worried, Bob? 

SHRUM:  Oh, I think that there are plenty of statistics that—actually, I agree with something Ed just said. 

People are working.  The problem is that, in many cases, they are working at jobs that pay them far less than the jobs they used to have.  So, people are feeling pressured.  They are feeling pressured in terms of their mortgage payments, in terms of saving, in terms of trying to get ready to send their kids to college.  I think that's all out there.  And I think it's in the statistics.

But I think you're right, Chris.  People in Washington live pretty good lives.  And most of the time, they are out of touch with what's happening to real people. 

MATTHEWS:  Because government is recession-proof, right? 

SHRUM:  Well, government is recession-proof.  And, you know, Chris, in the old days, under Franklin Roosevelt, journalists made about $5,000 a year.  They understood what was going on out there. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Five thousand dollars went a long way in those days, Bob Shrum.

Anyway, thank you, Shrummy. 

Thank you, Ed Rogers.

ROGERS:  I agree with Bob.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Join us again—don't agree.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Join us again Monday—tomorrow, rather—on -- 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL. 

Right now, it's time for the “COUNTDOWN” with Keith.

END

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

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