updated 10/26/2005 2:04:48 PM ET 2005-10-26T18:04:48

Guests: Ron Christie, Stan Brand, Jim VandeHei, John Podesta, Byron York, Katrina Vanden Heuvel

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  The “New York Times” reports that Scooter Libby, the vice president‘s chief of staff, learned about Joe Wilson‘s wife‘s CIA role from Vice President Cheney himself.  Why has Cheney kept his involvement in the Wilson matter to himself these last 28 months?  Why did his staff chief not testify about his boss‘ role?

Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews reporting from my hometown of Philadelphia. 

A major new development in the CIA leak investigation as the “New York times reports today that Vice President Dick Cheney was the first person to tell his chief of staff Scooter Libby about the CIA agent at the center of the leak investigation and did so weeks before Valerie Plame‘s identity became public knowledge. 

Notes from a previously undisclosed June 12, 2003 conversation between Cheney and Libby contradict Libby‘s testimony that he got the intel on Plame‘s CIA role from a reporter. 

What was the vice president‘s role in this matter and why has he remained silent all these months?  And does this new evidence put Libby and possibly the vice president himself in legal jeopardy? 

We begin with this report from Hardball correspondent David Shuster. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  At the White House today, the reaction from the president‘s spokesman once again was brief. 

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  This is an ongoing investigation.  We‘re not going to comment on it. 

SHUSTER:  From the beginning, though, the vice president has been a central figure.  It was Mr. Cheney who in early 2002 first asked the CIA about an unconfirmed report Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa, and it was Mr. Cheney, despite strong skepticism from the CIA, who first ratcheted up public fears in arguing for war. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARD B. CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  The “New York Times” reports the vice president‘s chief of staff Scooter Libby turned over notes to prosecutors indicating he learned the wife of administration critic Joe Wilson worked at the CIA from Vice President Cheney. 

The timing of the meeting reported to be on June 12th is significant because it came before a crucial June 23rd conversation between Libby and “New York Times” reporter Judy Miller and before press reports in July, including one from Bob Novak, where Valerie Plame‘s CIA status was publicly revealed. 

And while legal experts say Libby faces possible legal jeopardy for testifying he learned about Plame from reports, the implications, they say, for Mr. Cheney could also be dramatic. 

JONATHAN TURLEY, G.W. LAW CENTER:  For the vice president to be the source of this name, it puts him at risk of being an unindicted co-conspirator or even an indictment. 

SHUSTER:  Legal analysts say it all depends on a series of questions that only prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald and the vice president may know the answers to. 

What did Mr. Cheney tell investigators about his alleged conversation with Libby?  Did the vice president encourage or counsel Libby to take any actions?  Did the vice president know Wilson‘s wife was undercover? 

There are also now more questions about the vice president‘s first public statements on this issue from September 2003 on “Meet the Press.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “MEET THE PRESS”)

CHENEY:  I don‘t know Joe Wilson.  I‘ve never met Joe Wilson. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  The vice president left the impression he knew nothing about Wilson or his trip to Niger. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “MEET THE PRESS”)

CHENEY:  And Joe Wilson—I don‘t know who sent Joe Wilson. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Based on the Libby notes, as reported by the “New York Times,” Cheney at least knew about Wilson and his wife months earlier and heard about the couple in a conversation with then CIA Director George Tenet. 

But Tenet and Cheney clashed repeatedly before the Iraq war, and Tenet has told former intelligence officials he never talked about Joe Wilson or Wilson‘s wife with the vice president. 

Tenet adds he was never asked about this while meeting with prosecutor Fitzgerald‘s investigators a year and a half ago and was never called to testify. 

It‘s not clear how this apparent dispute between Tenet and Cheney will be resolved by prosecutors.  In the meantime, legal analysts say the revelations about the Cheney-Libby meeting justify the growing fears among White House supporters. 

TURLEY:  Libby is so close to the vice president that to indict Libby, it would be hard not to nick the vice president.  You can‘t get a clean shot at Libby without coming a hair‘s breath from the vice president.  They are that close.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  The grand jury in this case is scheduled to meet tomorrow and again on Friday, if necessary. 

Earlier today, we asked Patrick Fitzgerald‘s office about the status of this investigation, the alleged meeting between Libby and Cheney, and also the apparent discrepancies with CIA Director George Tenet, and we were told, Chris, as you might expect, “No comment”—Chris? 

MATTHEWS:  David, we‘re learning all this now thanks to the “New York Times.” At least their report is that Cheney told Libby this whole thing about the role of—Valerie Plame‘s role, Valerie Wilson‘s role in sending him on the trip to Niger about—to check out the nuclear story. 

But do we know whether the special prosecutor hasn‘t known all this for months? 

SHUSTER:  Chris, we don‘t know that.

It‘s quite possible that the special prosecutor, who talked to Vice President Cheney early on in this investigation, heard that from the vice president, that the vice president learned it from somebody at the CIA. 

It‘s quite possible the prosecutor has known this all along. 

It is curious, Chris, that the prosecutor decided not to require George Tenet to come into a grand jury and testify and didn‘t even ask George Tenet about what seems to be a discrepancy between what George Tenet has told his friends about not saying anything to the vice president and the vice president, according to Scooter Libby‘s notes, and which the notes indicate that Cheney said he did hear this from George Tenet. 

It‘s a sort of a strange discrepancy, even stranger that at least it appears the prosecutors haven‘t resolved it by calling Tenet to the grand jury. 

But in any case, this may be, Chris, something that prosecutors have known all along.

And one thing to point out, a number of lawyers have suggested that they believe this information was part of the secret information that prosecutors submitted to the court over a year ago that convinced one judge to talk about the gravity of the case. 

A lot of attorneys, Chris, are now expecting and now believe that this kind of information was the stuff that was in that secret file. 

MATTHEWS:  You mean the involvement of the vice president is what gave it gravity? 

SHUSTER:  Or at least the evidence or the allegations or the suggestions that prosecutor Fitzgerald had about this very issue. 

MATTHEWS:  I have to agree with you.  I don‘t know why George Tenet hasn‘t been called into the same room with the vice president to confront each other on their various accounts. 

We don‘t know whether the vice president was ever informed of the original results of that trip to Niger back in 2002.  We don‘t know if he ever got a report. 

You can‘t get a straight answer from these people. 

Anyway, thank you, David Shuster. 

Ron Christie served as deputy assistant to Vice President Cheney from 2001 to 2002.  He also served after that as special assistant to President Bush. 

And Stan Brand was counsel to the clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Let me go right now, first of all, to Ron Christie.

Have you talked to anybody in the Cheney operation recently? 

RON CHRISTIE, FMR. BUSH ADVISER:  No, I haven‘t. 

MATTHEWS:  So you haven‘t talked to Scooter or any of the people over there you used to work with?  For how long?  When was the last time you talked to them? 

CHRISTIE:  Probably Scooter well more than a year.

But some of my other colleagues I have talked about a number of issues, but nothing relating to this ongoing investigation. 

MATTHEWS:  What do they say?  What‘s the mood like among your old colleagues right now? 

CHRISTIE:  The mood is pretty good.  Obviously, there are a lot of important issues that are going on before the American people...

MATTHEWS:  But on this question of his name in the paper today as possibly—“New York Times” reporting it as a fact—that he told Libby, his chief of staff, about Valerie Wilson‘s role in the CIA.  You don‘t have any vibes coming back from the vice office, concern about possible being named in this indictment or a report by the special prosecutor? 

CHRISTIE:  No, Chris, I don‘t. 

But I think it‘s a rather unfortunate and irresponsible piece of reporting by the “New York Times.” 

MATTHEWS:  Why do you say that? 

CHRISTIE:  Grand jury testimony—unless you are testifying before that grand jury you are not allowed to disclose the secret contents of that grand jury proceeding.

The “New York Times” has gone out in an unattributed report and said that, according to their information, there are notes that Scooter did something or said something or received information from the vice president or he didn‘t. 

This is irresponsible.  Let‘s wait for the facts to come out as opposed to people speculating. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, they‘re doing more than speculating.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Fair enough about speculation.

But this is a report from the “New York Times.” They‘re either right or they‘re wrong. 

(CROSSTALK)

CHRISTIE:  Well, we don‘t know whether they‘re right or they‘re wrong. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Of course we don‘t. 

They put it on the front page.  They say that the vice president was the one who informed Scooter Libby of the identity of Valerie Wilson.  That‘s at the heart of this matter.

My only question is if you don‘t get it from reporting, where are you going to get the information? 

Let me ask you this.  The vice president, according to this report, true or false—if true, the vice president not only knew about Joe Wilson back in June of 2003, he knew about his wife‘s role at the CIA and has remained silent these 28 months. 

Doesn‘t a public official owe the public an explanation of his conduct in office? 

CHRISTIE:  I think the special prosecutor that was empaneled along with the grand jury to look at whether or not crimes were committed when the covert identity of a CIA operative was leaked or not, I think that‘s the important thing, Chris. 

If there are people, if there are public officials who are held to account as a result of their actions, I think that they will be held accountable and they‘ll have to disclose that information to the American people.

MATTHEWS:  You‘re perfectly—look, you‘re totally right.  It‘s almost identical to truth.  I mean, you‘re saying something that everybody knows:  You‘re innocent until proven guilty.

CHRISTIE:  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  But it was the president of the United States who came out through his spokesperson and himself and said that anyone who has been involved in this matter, they are going to be dealt with. 

The president of the United States made a statement that his people were clean.  It‘s subsequent to that, that we‘ve got on the record reports of real testimony, not speculation—Judy Miller of the “New York Times” said that Scooter Libby told her about Valerie Wilson. 

You‘ve got Matt Cooper of “Time” magazine.  He has gone on the record publicly now because he was pressured to do it by the prosecutor, he has gone out publicly and said he told the grand jury under oath that Karl Rove was his source. 

So it‘s not like we‘re speculating here. 

I understand why you have to defend your old boss and I totally accept that. 

But this isn‘t all speculation.  I don‘t know why you keep saying speculation.

A lot of this now is public record, and it was not two years ago—there‘s been a lot of silence here until recently and now we‘re getting sort of a look at this elephant.  And I agree, it‘s come piecemeal.  But you can‘t keep calling it speculation when people with the credibility of Matt Cooper and Judy Miller are coming out on the record and testifying under oath.  That‘s not speculation.

CHRISTIE:  Well, Chris—and I absolutely agree with you.  What I said was “irresponsible reporting.”  What was speculative is the New York Times IS listing unnamed sources for their report that they had earlier today that the vice president said something to Scooter. 

Absolutely, Matt Cooper and Judy Miller are well within their rights since they testified before the grand jury to come out and discuss what they had discussed before the grand jury. 

That is not speculation.  I absolutely agree with you. 

But the “gotcha” politics that we keep getting in with this.  Chris, the 28th is coming.  All the facts of whether or not the prosecutor will return indictments or not will be known on Friday if not before—and I‘m just asking everyone to calm down a little bit and let‘s just wait to see what comes out from this. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, before we calm down, let‘s listen to the vice president—what he said in September of 2003.  This is two months after he was reported by the New York Times today to have gotten the information on Valerie Wilson‘s identity at the CIA. 

Here‘s the vice president of the United States on “Meet the Press” in September 2003. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHENEY:  I don‘t know Joe Wilson.  I have never met Joe Wilson. 

A question had arisen—I heard a report that the Iraqis had been trying to acquire uranium in Africa, Niger in particular.  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:  Stan, what kind of legal jeopardy might that put the vice president if it‘s determined that the New York Times story today is accurate, that he in fact knew not just about Joe Wilson‘s role in that trip, but he knew about his wife‘s role—whatever it was—in getting him that trip? 

BRAND:  Well, legally there‘s not enough information in the public domain to know that.  Certainly, the vice president would be entitled to talk with the CIA about the status of employees at the CIA.

What would not be proper would be a disclosure or dissemination of that information to the public or an instruction to do so contrary to statutes that limit public access to classified information. 

But we don‘t have the whole picture. 

MATTHEWS:  We don‘t have it all.  Here‘s what we have is a food chain.  If you want to follow the chain, let‘s take it from the Judy Miller testimony on the record.  She said Scooter Libby told her about Valerie Wilson‘s role in the CIA. 

We also have testimony—and this is admittedly reported testimony, and you can call it alleged, but it‘s reported—that Scooter said that he was given advice by the vice president on June 18th of 2003.  He went into his office and sought advice on how to handle these press matters—I think it was in June or July—and he asked for advice on how to handle it. 

We also are told by the New York Times, in addition to being told how to handle this story, he was handed the information that it was Joe Wilson‘s wife who sent him on the trip. 

Does that give us enough reasonable assumption that in telling him, “Hey, it was his wife that got him the gig and here‘s how I want you to handle it with the press,” that either Scooter Libby disobeyed his vice president‘s orders or be obeyed them.  If he obeyed them, it‘s the vice president‘s problem as well.  If he disobeyed them, it‘s only his problem. 

BRAND:  Well, based on what you‘ve outlined, we have the inferences.  We don‘t know is:  What else has been testified to in the grand jury?  What was George Tenet asked?  What did Dick Cheney say to Tenet with respect to that information? 

You‘re really going to have to get all of that testimony.  And that‘s what Fitzgerald is doing.  He is weighing all of that to decide whether he has a case against Scooter Libby and then, beyond that, whether the vice president is implicated beyond what he already has in the public domain. 

MATTHEWS:  All right.  But just as an attorney who‘s been in these cases of civil corruption or whatever, if you had the following evidence, if it turns out that—and I admit this is somewhat speculative and Ron‘s right—but listen to this. 

Judy Miller‘s on the record saying that she heard this from Scooter Libby, the vice president‘s chief of staff.  The vice president‘s chief of staff has said that he went into the vice president and sought his counsel on how to handle the press inquiries in this regard. 

We now get the new report today, capping it off, that the New York Times reports, top of the fold, right-hand column, that it was the vice president who told Scooter not only how to handle the matter with the press, he told him what the matter was, which was that Joe Wilson‘s wife worked for the CIA and helped get him this gig or got him this gig of going to Africa. 

Is that enough to build a criminal indictment—if that is all in the record, if they got all that stuff? 

BRAND:  Look, perjury, obstruction of justice are difficult matters to prove at best.  There would have to be corroboration of the vice president‘s role in a conspiracy or a substantive offense to violate a law of the United States. 

Based on what we have now, I don‘t know that we have that.  The special prosecutor may have that. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes, well we‘re going to find out.  As Ron points out quite clearly—and I think exceptionally—we may well know that tomorrow or the next day. 

Stan Brand, Ron Christie, stay with us.  They‘ll be with us in the next portion of the program. 

Later in this show:  Is the White House working already on a damage control strategy if things go bad this week?  Is it bracing for possible indictments?

You‘re watching “Hardball” on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with Democratic attorney Stan Brand.  He‘s a former House of Representatives counsel.  He worked for Democrats.  And former Cheney adviser Ron Christie.

New York Times reporter Judith Miller wrote about Fitzgerald‘s line of questioning—and this is Judy Miller on the record, guys. 

Quote, “He asked”—that‘s Fitzgerald—“for example, if Mr. Libby”

that‘s the vice president‘s chief of staff—“ever indicated whether Mr. Cheney had approved of his interviews with me or was aware of them.  The answer was no.” 

Ron, where is he going here?  I mean it seems to me Fitzgerald, we now know on the record, is trying to find out the degree to which Cheney was instructing his chief of staff on how to brief the press on this matter. 

CHRISTIE:  Well, Chris, I think what the special prosecutor is trying to do here is trying to find out what all the facts are.  Unquestionably, there are those in the press who are trying to make the link between Scooter and going up the chain of:  What did the vice president know and when did he know it?

MATTHEWS:  Well, what do you hear him doing there when you read that?

CHRISTIE:  I read that as the special prosecutor is trying to ascertain what all the facts are.  That‘s how I read it.

MATTHEWS:  He can do a million things.  He could say, “Did you ever talk to Humpty-Dumpty?”  Why at the ask whether the vice president told him what to say to the press.  That‘s a particular question.  That‘s a particular line of inquiry, isn‘t it?

CHRISTIE:  I think it‘s a particular line of inquiry to ascertain, again, whether or not the vice president would have had involvement with this.  I don‘t think it‘s a Humpty-Dumpty issue.  I think that there are those who want to figure out what all the facts are in this case and I think we‘ll find out by Friday. 

MATTHEWS:  The reason why Fitzgerald may have asked—and tell me if this makes sense, because Judy Miller apparently had three meetings with Scooter Libby, the chief of staff, and three different times he talked about the role of Valerie Wilson here in getting her husband on that trip rather than the vice president sending him on that trip.  That‘s why—well, let‘s ask Stan.  What‘s he up to? 

BRAND:  Well, what he‘s up to is trying to determine, as you pointed out, what is the vice president‘s involvement with the leak of this information, if any?  And the conversations between Libby and the vice president would obviously be material to that. 

MATTHEWS:  And this note.  When you read the “New York Times” today

about this note that apparently—well, actually, they claim in the lead

of the “New York Times” today—it‘s online, if anybody wants to check it

that it was the vice president who told Libby, according to a note Libby wrote to himself after the meeting with the vice president, that it was the vice president—his boss who told him about Valerie Wilson. 

That note is an amazing—how do you figure?  A guy writes a note like that about the boss.  Usually you don‘t put things in writing if they‘re even slightly dicey, and here is, according to the “New York Times” having kept a note of a conversation with his boss, telling him to do something that‘s at least political. 

BRAND:  Right.  Why did Dick Nixon keep tapes?  Why did Senator Packwood keep a diary?  I mean, in this day and age, why you would do this, I don‘t know. 

CHRISTIE:  And Chris, that‘s if it‘s true.  I mean, the important thing...

MATTHEWS:  Well, we‘ll hold you to that, Ron.  I‘m going to let you come back and I‘m going to give you a chance to dance on my grave if it‘s not true, that the “New York Times” has a good piece of information here about a piece of evidence that has been introduced to the grand jury.  And as—you‘re right and thank you for building our audience for this program.  Because I do think this is going to be a hell of a week.  Anyway, thank you, Ron Christie and thank you Stan Bran. 

Up next, how is the White House preparing for the possibility of indictments this week?  And they may come tomorrow or the next day.  Probably not Friday.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

By week‘s end, the special counsel investigating the CIA leak case will announce his findings.  And in the meantime, this White House is, by all accounts, very anxious, as you might imagine. 

And today, a grim marker.  Wire services report that the United States has now—we Americans have now suffered 2,000 deaths in Iraq.  I don‘t want to talk about the politics of that.  It‘s too important and it‘s too vital to lose people of our own country. 

But I do want to talk to Jim VandeHei right now about the White House and what‘s it—how it‘s dealing with its own sort of internal political crises right now. 

Jim, I just talked about the 2,000 mark.  And I don‘t want to talk about that with regard to politics.  But I want to talk about the sense of responsibility in this administration for how they deal with leading the country right now.  And maybe that‘s a different way of asking the same question.  But is there a sense of impending doom with regard to these indictments? 

JIM VANDEHEI, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  I think there‘s certainly a sense of uncertainty and I think a lot of people are very nervous that there‘s going to be indictments and it‘s going to be, you know, even darker days for the White House in the weeks ahead. 

I think people are always asking, how does President Bush sort of keep going and sort of stay optimistic, at least when we see him in public?  And I think it‘s because he takes the long view.  At that‘s what he tells aides.  He‘s always said from the beginning that he‘s going to be measured on, first and foremost, what happens in the Middle East and what happens with the Iraq experiment.  If we‘re successful there, if we‘re successful at all in nudging the Middle East toward democracy, which we probably won‘t know for many, many years, then this presidency, through history‘s lens, will be viewed as a success. 

So I think that‘s how he‘s sort of survives in the long view.  In the short term, I‘ve never seen these guys this worried, this nervous, because they have so many different political storms.  Not just the leak, but we have all these hurricanes and the response to those, what‘s happening over in Iraq, high gas prices, so on and so forth. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the story that ran in “The New York Times” today.  By the way, they seem to be back in action, don‘t they, “The Times”?  They‘re out in the world, trying to get the news as fast as possible.  Is that a stand-up story, do you believe?  That there‘s a note somewhere, written down, a scribble of some kind, by the vice president‘s chief of staff, that it was his boss that told him about Valerie Wilson? 

VANDEHEI:  I have no reason to think it‘s not true.  Nobody is waving us off that story today. 

MATTHEWS:  No one in the White House is denying it, particularly.

VANDEHEI:  I haven‘t heard anybody deny it all, in the vice president‘s office, the White House, anywhere, that this not true.  But again, every time that we‘ve talked, I think several times in the last couple of weeks, with every piece of evidence that we learn, it almost raises as many questions as it answers.  But this time, we do know definitively now that the vice president was certainly more engaged, if those notes are correct, in this whole process and aware of it than the White House let on. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me talk to you—maybe you can help fill in this chain of custody, is a phrase we used in the O.J. trial.  We know that Judy Miller has testified that she got this information about the CIA agent Valerie Wilson, the wife of Joseph Wilson, who went on the trip to Africa to check out the nuclear story.  She‘s testified that she learned about the identity of this agent, undercover agent, from Scooter Libby, the vice president‘s chief of staff. 

We know from other pretty sound reports, I think, that the vice president‘s chief of staff said that he had gone in the vice president during the midst of all this and asked for his counsel on how to handle this matter in the press. 

We now learn, thanks to the “New York Times,” your competition, that not only did she get information, not only did Scooter Libby get told how to handle the matter, he was handed the hot potato of the matter itself matter by being told by the vice president himself, his boss, that this is who we‘re talking about, the wife of Joe Wilson. 

Putting all that together, what more cement does it need to show a connection between the vice president and what may be wrongdoing here? 

VANDEHEI:  I mean, I think what we still don‘t know is A, where did the vice president get that information from?  And did he or Scooter Libby or whoever else they were dealing with now that she was covert at the time?  I think that‘s something that, from the beginning of the investigation, Fitzgerald has tried to prove. 

There are some reports on the wires and we‘ve made one phone call and I believe it to be true that FBI agents were, as recently as last night, were in Wilson‘s neighborhood, talking to neighbors to try to find out did you know if Plame was a CIA agent before the Novak column?  Which makes you think that he‘s still trying to figure out, you know, was she covert, was she perceived as covert?  And was she outed?  And how does that fit into this case?   

MATTHEWS:  Prima facie.  The vice president of the United States call the CIA director—it sets up the idea to me that that was the only way he could get the information.  In other words, it was top-secret.  Otherwise he would have just said, hey, Scooter, who had sent him on that trip?  He had to go to the top person.  He‘s kept this secret for 28 months.  Both of them have, if he got it from Tenet.  What‘s his motive for keeping it secret where Valerie Plame‘s name—from whom did it pop into his head?

VANDEHEI:  Right.  I don‘t know what that motive is.  And as far as getting the information from Tenet, we‘re getting mixed signals on that.  We‘ve not been able to confirm that that information came from Tenet to Cheney.  It‘s possible, if when Libby‘s scribbling down notes, he says Tenet, but may mean someone else in Tenet‘s office or someone over at the CIA. 

But as far as keeping that secret or they‘re telling there a different story—I don‘t—we don‘t know what the motive is.  I mean, hopefully we‘ll find out from Fitzgerald in the next couple of days and sort of whether he‘s going to bring down indictments, who it involves.  And sort give us, hopefully, the background on the case and what he‘s been looking at and what he‘s learned. 

MATTHEWS:  We could get the background in this case if Vice President Cheney would go on national television right now, sit next to George Tenet, the former CIA director, and answer questions honestly about the communication with regard to the trip to Niger, the whole thing.  And we would know it all.  So this—the people who know the answers to these questions are not telling us.  That‘s the problem.

Thank you very much, Jim VandeHei, “The Washington Post.” 

Up next, as the Bush administration waits, are they studying the second term scandals of other presidents in case they may need to devise a salvation strategy? 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, that was pretty terrible news about the war dead. 

Anyway, back to HARDBALL.

Ronald Reagan had Iran-Contra, Bill Clinton was impeached—we keep forgetting—and now George W. Bush has a possible ethical breach—that‘s one way to put it—in his inner circle.

Call it the curse of the presidential second term if you want.  Both Reagan and Clinton weathered their storms. 

So what does President Bush need to do now to salvage his second term?  He‘s got three more years as our president.  The question is:  Can he shake off this matter no matter how bad it gets later this week? 

MSNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent Norah O‘Donnell joins us now. 

Norah, the second term—what are we going to call it, the second-term curse? 

NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  Pitfalls, could be all of that.  Yes, exactly.

Well, it‘s interesting because, you know, tonight the White House did not deny that report that the vice president passed on to his chief of staff the identity of Valerie Plame.

And this leak case is hanging over just about everything at the White House. 

Republicans inside the White House, outside the White House, say these are the darkest days of the Bush presidency since 9/11. 

Tonight, a senior Republican tells MSNBC that the president‘s damage control handlers are preparing for, quote, “multiple scenarios to defend against potential indictments.”  And this adviser says, quote, “it would be foolish not to.” 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

O‘DONNELL (voice-over):  Facing a crisis threatening to undermine his presidency, Mr. Bush today tried to stay on message.  He addressed a joint armed forces officers‘ wives luncheon... 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  No one should underestimate the difficulties ahead.

O‘DONNELL:  ... and later in the day ignored a reporter‘s question about the vice president. 

QUESTION:  What does the vice president know and when did he know it? 

O‘DONNELL:  With the White House bracing for possible criminal charges against two powerful aides, sources say the Republican National Committee, led by Chairman Ken Mehlman, is prepared for a fight. 

ED ROGERS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  Every White House has their time in the dunking booth and this is clearly the Bush White House time in the political dunking booth. 

O‘DONNELL:  Republicans are developing a playbook from history after studying other second-term scandals. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RONALD REAGAN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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WILLIAM CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky. 

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O‘DONNELL:  One strategy emerging is to isolate the president from scandal... 

BUSH:  But the American people expect me to do my job and I‘m going to. 

O‘DONNELL:  ... and keep energy in the executive and the focus on his second-term agenda. 

Karl Rove earlier this year with NBC‘s David Gregory. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KARL ROVE, WHITE HOUSE SENIOR ADVISER:  Where second-term presidents get into difficulty is they are living on, if you will, the intellectual and the electoral capital of their first election victory. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  The president has struggled to move the agenda forward, but already his Social Security plan is on hold indefinitely. 

And in Iraq, the president faces increasing criticism.  Today, the number of American dead passed the 2,000 mark. 

And Harriet Miers‘ nomination to the Supreme Court is in jeopardy. 

Historians argue an indictment in the White House will only complicate Mr. Bush‘s agenda. 

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, NBC NEWS PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN:  Whenever a prosecutor gets into action, indicts people in an administration, that means that the focus to a great extent is going to be on that prosecution.  It‘s hell for a president in a second term trying to get things done. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O‘DONNELL:  That being said, the White House is trying to get things done. 

The president has a major speech coming up.  He‘s going to be going to Florida later this week. 

                Of course, the goal of the White House is to keep the president above

the fray, keep him focused on his agenda, et cetera.  While others, Chris,

are planning for potential indictments and about how they may fight this,

one adviser pointed out to me today that they are going to keep the focus

on Joe Wilson as someone who is not really a hero but has some problems of

his own.

So expect more battling to come not only from Republicans but from this White House if somebody inside the White House is indicted. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Thank you.

Dynamite reporting.  Thank you, Norah O‘Donnell.

Pat Buchanan was an aide to Presidents Nixon and Reagan, and John Podesta was President Clinton‘s chief of staff. 

Let me go to Pat.

You know, everybody always says—it‘s the cliche—it‘s not the crime, it‘s the cover-up. 

If that‘s the case here, explain to me why the president didn‘t just meet with Dick Cheney, his V.P. and strong partner, and sort of use body language back and forth and figure it out like, “Are we really vulnerable here,” and decide, “Look, nobody tried to out an agent here.  All we were doing was letting somebody know that there was a political intrigue going against here, some other way of explaining this trip to Africa besides the vice president‘s inquiry,” which turned out did lead to it. 

Why didn‘t they just come clean? 

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  You‘ve got me, Chris, because it looks to me like there was no original crime committed. 

Even this Cheney thing, it looks like he called up Tenet after hearing that Wilson or this ambassador says he‘s been sent to Africa by the veep.  He calls Tenet and said, “George, what‘s going on?”  Tenet tells him, “This guy Joe Wilson, we sent him down there at the instigation of his wife who works here.”  So Cheney says, “Well, clean it up.  I didn‘t send him.” 

And he calls in Libby and says, “Scooter, clean this thing up.  They got this report out there; it‘s false.  And clean it up.” 

There‘s nothing at all wrong with that. 

What I don‘t understand, Chris, is this:  How could Scooter Libby go over and testify under oath in contradiction of his own notes from a meeting with Cheney that he has already given to the special prosecutor? 

MATTHEWS:  And how could anybody be such a balloon head as to blame the press, knowing that the press is going to deny and it‘s going to come out that it wasn‘t the press; it was his boss that told him?

BUCHANAN:  Well, I know.

And here‘s what this looks like to me:  It looks like Fitzgerald has been holding this trump card and he is playing it to squeeze Scooter Libby, saying in effect through the “New York Times,” “You testified this way.  Here‘s your notes that contradict you flatly.  Do you have something you want to tell us?”

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to John Podesta.  John, what do you make of this, the news story today on the front page of the Times, right, top of the fold, that there is a note existing right now in the hands of the prosecutor—or the handwritten notes of the chief of staff that it was his boss that told him about Valerie Wilson‘s identity? 

JOHN PODESTA, FORMER CLINTON CHIEF OF STAFF:  Well, they must all be sweating over there.  This is just more drip, drip, drip.  But it started off in the summer of 2003 with them attacking Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame.  And if you listen to Norah, they‘re still doing it.  They don‘t seem to learn the lesson.  They just stay on the attack and I think that‘s a terrible and very bad mistake. 

MATTHEWS:  This reminds me of breaking into Daniel Ellsberg‘s psychiatrist‘s office again and again and again.  I mean, once was bad enough. 

PODESTA:  I think the reason they stay on this was because, underlying all of this is something very serious, which is the manipulation of intelligence that led us into war in Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you know that?  Do you know that, John?

PODESTA:  What? 

MATTHEWS:  Do you know that? 

PODESTA:  Well look, what did Joe Wilson do?  He went over and said there was nothing to this yellow cake uranium story.  Steve Hadley had been told three times by the CIA that they doubted that intelligence.  The president went out and sold the war on it. 

And I think that they saw that and said, “We‘ve got to do something about this guy and we have got to do something about this story.”  And that‘s why they overreacted and they continue to overreact.

MATTHEWS:  Well you know, when you ask Cheney about that very point—

I want to make sure we get the clarity here.  There‘s no clarity about whether the CIA ever reported to the Vice President‘s Office on the results of that trip. 

If Joe Wilson, the former ambassador who speaks French and knew those people over there—he was qualified—came back and said, “There‘s no deal; keep it out of the speeches from now on,” if we know that for a fact, we‘re ahead in this business.  But we don‘t know that for a fact. 

PODESTA:  The CIA told the White House on three separate occasions—even in the NIE—that they doubted this intelligence.  They took it out of his speech in October.  And the president went ahead and put it in the speech and they backed it up. 

BUCHANAN:  Wait a minute.  Wilson is authorized to go over there.  He goes over there.  He comes back and he reports—there‘s differences to what he reported, but he cannot confirm that they tried to buy this stuff. 

Then, however, here comes some forged documents out of Italy that say, indeed, that the Iraqis have gone into Niger and are trying to buy uranium. 

State knocks it down.  Some knock it down.  But there are reports today, Chris, that some of those documents may have been taken straight into the White House to Mr. Hadley. 

And so then it‘s back up and it‘s alive and it goes into the speech and then we‘ve got all to that point where they start denying it and the CIA tried to get it out. 

So this was a long, long process.  But the key question here is what you were talking about, Chris.  It looks like there‘s a clear divergence between the testimony and the recollections of Cheney and his chief of staff as to who told Scooter Libby.

MATTHEWS:  Try to get into the head of a Republican administration, John.  What were they so afraid of that they had to go through this elaborate effort to try to separate the vice president from this trip to Africa.  All these talks with reporters—you know, by Karl Rove talking to Matt Cooper of Time magazine and, of course, Scooter Libby talking to Judy Miller and all other kinds.

We‘ve heard half a dozen or a dozen cases where they are out pushing this story that Joe Wilson is no damn good, his wife put him on this junket. 

Why did they take that risk if they weren‘t protecting the vice president against something really serious?  I don‘t get it. 

PODESTA:  It‘s funny because it was a throwaway line.  Joe Wilson never said the vice president sent him to Niger.  He said that he was sent to Niger because the vice president requested more information about this. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s accurate.  That turns out to be accurate. 

PODESTA:  And so why they got so worked up, I think, goes back to the fact that they really were pushing this intelligence in a way that was unsubstantiated by the facts—probably as they knew them in February when the State of the Union was given.  And they just freaked out. 

The one thing we know for certain is that Scooter Libby and Karl Rove told Scott McClellan to go out and tell the American people they had nothing to do with this. 

They did that in September and October of ‘03.  We know that was a lie. 

MATTHEWS:  We also know that the vice president has remained silent for 28 months publicly on a matter in which he was involved, at least at the front-end—not criminally necessarily, but he was involved this transmitting that information from the CIA, according to the report today, to his chief of staff and then advising his chief of staff on how to handle the matter with the press. 

PODESTA:  The coverup‘s worse than the crime.  That‘s where you started, Chris.

BUCHANAN:  But taken in and of itself, that is purely benign and easily explained. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, it‘s hardball of politics.  That‘s what it is.

BUCHANAN:  But no.  Knocking down a phony story is normal politics, Chris.  The point you made earlier is critical:  Why would anyone go out and perjure themselves about what seems to be legitimate political hardball?

MATTHEWS:  Well that‘s right.  That‘s a great question:  Why the coverup.

Thank you very much, Pat Buchanan.  Thank you, John Podesta.

Coming up, more on the CIA leak case and what role Vice President Cheney may have played. 

This is “Hardball,” only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHENEY:  I don‘t know Joe Wilson.  I‘ve never met Joe Wilson.  A question had arisen—I‘d heard a report that the Iraqis had been trying to acquire uranium in Africa, Niger in particular. 

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:  That was Vice President Cheney three months after he reportedly discussed the identity of Joe Wilson‘s wife with his chief of staff, Scooter Libby.

Byron York is the White House correspondent for “National Review,” and Katrina Vanden Heuvel is editor of “The Nation.” 

Byron, is that a conflict in what he said with what‘s on the front page of the Times today?

BYRON YORK, “NATIONAL REVIEW”:  Well, the big problem is when he said I don‘t know Joe Wilson and—was he speaking in the I‘ve never met Joe Wilson or was he speaking in the I‘ve never heard of who the guy is sense?  If he was speaking in the I‘ve never met Joe Wilson, that‘s probably correct. 

MATTHEWS:  What meaning would he have in saying that?  Why would he say I‘ve never met the guy? 

YORK:  Well, because he was asked about Joe Wilson.  I mean, in the same sense that I could say I don‘t know Dan Rather.  I‘ve never met him.  I certainly know who he is.  So he said I don‘t know Joe Wilson.  Everything else, as far as I can tell, from what we know, is, indeed, correct.  Cheney didn‘t send him and there was no report that Cheney saw or anybody in his office saw.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, hold on to those thoughts, that association you just made.  I want to get back to that, because that‘s the heart of this matter.  Did he know, the vice president know, the case—the nuclear case with regard to Niger was undercut, to some extent, by this trip by Joe Wilson?  And did not report that back to the president? 

That‘s the assertion being made by the critics.  And I‘m sure Katrina buys that.  Katrina, do you buy the argument that the vice president knowingly kept under the carpet the knowledge he gained from a trip to Africa by Joe Wilson, disproving the case that there was a deal by Saddam Hussein to buy nuclear materials from Niger?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL, “THE NATION”:  Chris, could I just say, I can‘t believe I just heard Byron York sort of parse the meaning of what “is” means.  This is a day when we have learned the grim and tragic news that 2,000 soldiers, American soldiers, have been killed in a war of choice. 

I think we need to connect the dots to that video of Dick Cheney, the lead cheerleader for this war, who manufactured—who is out this with manufactured evidence to basically frighten, one might say terrorize the American people into a war which even Brent Scowcroft, George Bush I‘s national security adviser, is very clear—has undermined our security.  I think we need to connect the dots and keep connecting the dots.

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me ask you this.  Can you connect the dots in this way?  The assertion by Wilson—and the reason this is a big story—and you‘re right, it does connect to the war and the reasons given for it before we went in.  Is the assertion that the vice president of the United States was so determined to take us to war—because he is a hawk and that‘s not a knock, he just is—that he was willing to overlook, in fact dismiss, evidence that came back from the Wilson trip that may have made a case against evidence of any kind of nuclear deal or nuclear program by Saddam Hussein.  Are you saying you‘ve got evidence that the vice president knew about that trip and knew that it had come up dry? 

VANDEN HEUVEL:  I think what is clear, Chris, is that he was willing, Vice President Cheney, to suppress evidence to go to the...

MATTHEWS:  How do you know that? 

VANDEN HEUVEL:  There are people on the record.  I think one of the fascinating moments this American—in our history right now, is the intense division within the establishment, where you have a CIA and a State Department basically at war with what was the Iraq White House group.  The secretive cabal, as Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell‘s right-hand man, described it last week.

MATTHEWS:  Right.  You know what?

VANDEN HEUVEL:  And I think that is where we begin to see the revelation about...

MATTHEWS:  But we still can‘t nail the vice president down to the seat.  You can‘t—if you can give me the evidence now that he deceived the president, he let the president assert that there was a nuclear program under way in Iraq, and that‘s why we went to war, you would have had a hell of a news story.  But you don‘t have it, do you?

VANDEN HEUVEL:  I think we know that Vice President Cheney suppressed evidence and bullied—bullied intelligence experts who tried to provide level-headed evidence. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, if we had it, we‘d be reporting it here, I can tell you that.  We‘ll be right back with Katrina Vanden Heuvel and Byron York. 

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with Byron York at “The National Review” and Katrina Vanden Heuvel of “The Nation.” 

I want to, try this last segment of the program tonight, to try to put together what we know and what we might know.  One is we know that Judy Miller of the “New York Times” has testified under oath and has reported to the press, in her newspaper, that it was Scooter Libby who told her about the identity of Valerie Plame, the wife of Joseph Wilson, the ambassador. 

We know, through other reports, now that—including the new one today, that the vice president was the person who told Scooter Libby, his chief of staff, about the identity of Valerie Wilson.  And also, according to an earlier report last week, advised him on how to treat the matter with the press. 

It seems to me there‘s only two options now, if all those stories are true.  That is that either he obeyed the vice president‘s guidance on how to put the story—in other words, he was told to leak it—or he was definitely not told not to leak it, in which he disobeyed the vice president.  But if the latter were the case, I wonder why the vice president hasn‘t said something himself about how his staff disobeyed him.

Byron, am I missing something?

YORK:  Well, I think you‘re—what you‘re missing is that all of this could be entirely legal.  We just don‘t know. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes.  But logical?

YORK:  Well, first, it‘s absolutely logical.  Because all the reporting I‘ve done and all the reporting I‘ve read indicates that the vice president‘s office did not know that Joe Wilson had made this trip.  They did not know that Wilson had reported back.  They didn‘t know about Wilson until, I believe, May of 2003, when he speak anonymously in the Nicholas Kristof column.  And then in June of 2003, anonymously again in the Walter Pincus story in the “Post.” 

So we know, I think, that they didn‘t know what was going on and when they found out what was going on, yes, they wanted to knock the story down and they wanted to discredit Joe Wilson.  And that is politics. 

MATTHEWS:  By identifying his wife as the person who had...

YORK:  Well, they wanted to discredit Joe Wilson.  And when they found out—one the questions was, who is this guy and how did he get sent on this mission?  And when someone said, well, his wife did it, yes, they threw that down. 

MATTHEWS:  So the open question here, Katrina, is whether the vice president was told by his source that she was undercover.  And if so, he‘s in trouble. 

VANDEN HEUVEL:  Well, I think he‘s in trouble if...

MATTHEWS:  If.

VANDEN HEUVEL:  ... he learned of—if he didn‘t tell Fitzgerald when he was interviewing, acknowledged that he had learned of Valerie Wilson and her CIA employment and then passed it onto Libby.  If, in fact, he did not share that with Fitzgerald, even though Cheney was not under federal oath, he is in some serious legal trouble. 

And I would simply add, again, to connect the dots.  I think in this next period, we‘re going to see a lot of the standard operating procedure out of this White House, a lot of Republican National Committee talking points to lower the bar; if Fitzgerald comes back with perjury or obstruction of justice indictments.  These are serious matters of national security, of misleading the country into the gravest crime one could commit, an unnecessary war. 

MATTHEWS:  Did you believe that Bill Clinton—do you think Bill Clinton should have been kicked out of office for perjury and obstruction?

VANDEN HEUVEL:  No, I don‘t.  I think—I didn‘t like a lot of his policies.  However, I think the key thing is, no one lies to a special prosecutor, but if it‘s about national security, that‘s far more important than sexual relationships.

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Well, we‘re talking about the same charge, of perjury and obstruction.

Anyway, thank you, Byron York and Katrina Vanden Heuvel. 

Right now, it‘s time for “THE AMES REPORT” with Dan.

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