Video: Mehlman plays Hardball

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updated 11/2/2005 1:12:06 PM ET 2005-11-02T18:12:06

Democrats forced the Republican-controlled Senate into a closed session on Tuesday for over than two hours.

Spurred on by a surprise move by Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Democrats accused Republicans of ignoring Bush's pre-war intelligence and ordered an immediate investigation.

While Democrats claimed “victory for the American people," Republicans were furious. This was the latest political fire storm to impact the Bush administration in recent weeks. 

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman joined Chris Matthews to respond to these recent events.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, HARDBALL:  Ken Mehlman is the chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Ken, one of the reasons the Senate Democrats pushed for that odd secret session on Tuesday was to try to expose the role of the vice president.  His chief of staff was just indicted on five counts, 30 years in prison, and at the heart of it was his dishonesty, his lying under oath.  Should we know more about the vice president‘s role? 

KEN MEHLMAN, CHAIRMAN, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE:  Chris, what you saw today was the latest political stunt by the Democrats.  It‘s unfortunate, but it‘s actually not surprising.  If you think about it, unfortunately too often since the beginning of this war on terror the Democrats‘ first response has been politics. 

Think about it. 

After the 9/11 attacks when it came to a Department of Homeland Security, they delayed for more than 100 days creating that department because they were worrying about the public employee unions. 

Then in ‘04, he was for it before he was against it.

I think one of the reasons the Democrats lost in ‘02, the Senate, and lost the presidential election in ‘04, was because the public saw people who politics was their first answer in this very serious war on terror.

MATTHEWS:  One of the things we learned in this long investigation regarding the CIA leak was the way in which the vice president‘s office, Scooter Libby, in particular, was able to use the press. 

He leaked to the “New York Times” the story that there were aluminum tubes; there was, in fact, a case for a nuclear weapons program by Saddam Hussein.

And then the three major figures in the administration, the vice president, secretaries of state and defense, went on Sunday television, all pointed to that story that had been planted there by Scooter Libby. 

Isn‘t it fair for the Democrats, who had to vote in the aftermath of that story in the fall of 2002 to give the president the right to use force, isn‘t it fair now to revisit that now that we know how that story was concocted? 

MEHLMAN:  Chris, I don‘t think it is.  And I don‘t think that‘s what I got out of the indictment. 

MATTHEWS:  You didn‘t learn that?

MEHLMAN:  Pat Fitzgerald at his press conference was very clear.  He said if you‘re for the war or if you‘re against the war, this has nothing to do with that issue. 

MATTHEWS:  No, the indictment. But the information that came out during the trial—I never knew all that. 

MEHLMAN:  Well, this hasn‘t been a trial.

MATTHEWS:  Did you know all this?  ... the indictment, the investigation.  Look, you can argue over the words, but one of the stories that struck me was the way in which we all learned about the WMD.  We learned it through the “New York Times,” and we find out now that it was the vice president‘s office that had fed the story to the “Times.”

Don‘t you think we ought to know how these things are done? 

MEHLMAN:  Look, I think the last administration, the French, the U.N., our intelligence, the CIA, you name it, all believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. 

MATTHEWS:  Nuclear. 

MEHLMAN:  They all believed that he had all kinds of programs. 

And the fact is that because of that and because of a lot of other reasons, we removed Saddam Hussein from power.

Even if it turns out he didn‘t have the stuff, it was the right thing to do because would we be safer if we had waited until he had refilled his canisters?  Would we be safer today?  I don‘t think we would. 

One of the things that every report that‘s investigated this has found is, in fact, Saddam Hussein was more dangerous than we thought, he was more effective in evading the sanctions than people thought.  So I think we made the right decision. 

I think this is an attempt by the Democrats to have political football. 

As I said, they made a mistake when they did it before and they should stop doing it now. 

The American people want their leaders to respond to this war on terror with seriousness, not political stunts.

MATTHEWS:  The “USA Today”/Gallup Poll just came out yesterday. The people were asked by the pollsters, Was Vice President Cheney aware of Scooter Libby‘s actions in the leak matter?  And 55 percent say he was, only 29 percent say he wasn‘t. 

Doesn‘t he want to clear the air and show that he was not involved in this sort of underworld effort to sell the war and to bring down Joe Wilson? 

MEHLMAN:  Look, the fact is that I think the White House has responded to this investigation in a very admirable way. 

Scott McClellan, the vice president, Karl Rove and others, you know what they‘ve done?  They‘ve cooperated and they‘ve kept their mouths shut, unlike previous administrations. 

We‘re not going after the prosecutor, people aren‘t out there spinning their story.  What they‘re doing is they‘re complying, they‘re following the rules. 

Let‘s let this go forward.  That‘s the right approach and that‘s why what the Democrats are doing today is so outrageous. 

MATTHEWS:  Should the American people wait until there is an actual trial, if there is one, of Scooter Libby, and that could be a year from now before they know more about what happened? 

MEHLMAN:  I think the American people know a fair amount.

But I think that there‘s a reason that trials are conducted the way they are—with evidence, with proven innocent, with all of that stuff.  And the reason is because in an American system, it‘s not about what the polls show, it‘s about a system that gets to the facts and a system that presumes people being innocent until proven guilty. 

Let‘s let this investigation conclude.  Let‘s let this trial go forward, and then we can make sure we have all the facts. 

MATTHEWS:  Let‘s talk about the political implications, because there are those in addition to the legal matters which you‘ve talked about. 

When I asked your predecessor, Ed Gillespie, about the gravity of this charge that someone had released the names of an undercover agent.  I asked him "Don‘t you think it‘s more serious than Watergate if you think about it?"  and he responded by saying, "I think if the allegation is true, to reveal the identity of an undercover CIA operative is abhorrent and it should be a crime, and it is a crime. Yes, I suppose in terms of the real-world implications of it."

If you read the indictment put out by Mr. Fitzgerald, who we all respect, it has Scooter Libby leaking the information about Valerie Wilson to both Matt Cooper of TIME and to Judy Miller of The New York Times.

We‘ve got Karl Rove leaking it to Matt Cooper of TIME and also Bob Novak, the syndicated columnist.

So, the fact of leaking her role in the trip, the fact that she works at the CIA, while not at the heart of the indictment, is all now public record. 

Doesn‘t that raise this to the level that Ed Gillespie said it was? 

MEHLMAN:  I don‘t think it does.  First of all, I don‘t remember reading Karl Rove‘s name in the indictment.  But, the fact is—

MATTHEWS:  Just so we put this on the record. He‘s not official A?

MEHLMAN:  Well, I don‘t know who official A is, you don‘t know who official A is.

MATTHEWS:  OK, I just want to get that from you officially, now that he‘s not official A.

MEHLMAN:  I don‘t know.  I don‘t know the answer to that question. My point is, I think what you‘re doing is you‘re reading more into the indictment than Mr. Fitzgerald did.

He made that very clear at his press conference.  He said, if you think this is about the war in Iraq, for or against it, you‘re wrong. 

MATTHEWS:  But the questions—we learned a lot in this case.

Did you learn anything in this whole month of investigation?  Didn‘t you learn how stories were leaked?  Didn‘t you learn who was involved in leaking them? 

The questions of criminality of those are for Mr. Fitzgerald.  For the American public, they have to judge whether they think the national trust has been honored here by public officials. 

Remember when President Bush ran for president?  He said the standard shouldn‘t be just legality, it should be what the American people deserve. 

Isn‘t that a reasonable debate to have?

MEHLMAN:  I think it‘s a reasonable debate.  The question is, is it appropriate, what we‘re seeing today, which is a stunt to shut down the United States Senate and ignore the public.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think there ought to be a debate about the WMD case for war at any time?  Apparently the Intelligence Committee, which is a bipartisan committee, has made such a promise. 

I don‘t know if that‘s true, but the Democrats are contending that the promise was made to have a full-fledged debate on whether we into the war with accurate information or not.  Is that something the public ought to have, or is it too late for that?

MEHLMAN:  I think that the public having these kinds of discussions is fine. We had a debate before, we‘ve had a debate now, we had a debate in 1998, there was a debate at the United Nations, the French and other intelligence services all had debate. Do you know what they all said?  They all said he had WMD.

MATTHEWS:  But he didn‘t. 

MEHLMAN:  But, you know what? Would we be safer if we waited? 

MATTHEWS:  I know everybody agreed on that, but they‘re all wrong.  It matters whether they all agreed, it matters whether they‘re all right or not. 

MEHLMAN:  But this isn‘t about political gotcha.  This is about the big question. 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s about whether there was an honest case and an informed case for the war in Iraq. 

MEHLMAN:  There was an honest case and there was an informed case. 

MATTHEWS:  Was it informed?

MEHLMAN:  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  Well if it was informed, how come there‘s no WMD there?

MEHLMAN:  Well, would we be safer? 

MATTHEWS:  Why do you change the subject? 

MEHLMAN:  WMD wasn‘t the only reason.  The fact is, would we be safer if we waited until he had it?  In a world where 19 people can kill 3,000 Americans in 20 minutes with nothing but box cutters, does it make sense to allow a guy who‘s involved in terrorism, who invades his neighbors, who supports terrorists?  Is it smart to wait until he refills his canisters with WMD?

MATTHEWS:  Fair enough question.  That wasn‘t the accusation made before the White House.

Let me ask you about something you will like to talk about.  Yesterday, the Democratic party responded within minutes, or not the party I should say. 

Democrats responded within minutes to the nomination of Sam Alito by issuing a report that said that one of the things he has done wrong in his career was, he wasn‘t tough enough on the mob back in 1988 in a case involving a mob family in New Jersey. 

Do you think that‘s playing a little ethnic politics?  How would you size that up?  That they donned that as their No. 1 concern.

MEHLMAN:  I was pretty surprised to see that as the first thing they put out.  I‘m not sure what the motivation was.  One thing I know, they don‘t want to talk about Sam Alito‘s credentials. They don‘t want to talk about all the good things they said about him. 

In 1990, he was unanimously approved.  His philosophy hasn‘t changed since 1990.  You know what‘s changed?  The Democrat party has changed.  The Democrat party that Tip O‘Neill was involved in and other folks were involved in, that‘s not the folks that are leading anymore. 

MATTHEWS:  How has it changed?

MEHLMAN:  I think it‘s changed because it‘s become a lot more radical.  It‘s a lot more responsive to the angriest left-wing folks, the move-on crowd and the others. I think that it‘s hard to imagine—remember, Justice Scalia was unanimously approved. 

MATTHEWS:  Would we be better off if you just told these pressure groups, the conservative pressure groups and the liberal pressure groups to stay out of Washington while you debate this thing?

I‘m going to ask you a question.  Would you be better off?  If you just told the Tony Perkinses and the Ralph Neases, the People for the American Way and the conservative groups to just leave town and let the senators who represent the people vote. 

I want to ask you that question bluntly. Would we be better off if we had them out of town? 

MEHLMAN:  I don‘t think we would.

MATTHEWS:  Why?

MEHLMAN:  Because I think that they represent millions of Americans on both sides. 

MATTHEWS:  So it‘s OK to have the left-wing and right-wing pressure groups battling it out.

MEHLMAN:  It‘s OK to have people...

MATTHEWS:  And using the Senate as their surrogates? 

MEHLMAN:  This is too important of an issue for people not to discuss and debate.

MATTHEWS:  So we‘re better off having these pressure groups involved in this fight? 

MEHLMAN:  We‘re better off with having the American people sometimes by their own voice, sometimes by the voice of others.

MATTHEWS:  So you can‘t really criticize the lefty pressure groups when you say we‘re better off having all the pressure groups fighting.

MEHLMAN:  I think it‘s fine to have people involved. 

What I think we can do is we can discern whether what they‘re saying makes sense or not, on both sides.

MATTHEWS:  So, it‘s OK for senators to be accosted by these left-wing and right-wing groups, these pro-choice and pro-life groups, right before they vote.

Told if you vote against our issue on this, if you try to have an open mind and vote independently on this, you‘re finished in the next election.  That‘s OK with you? 

MEHLMAN:  I think it‘s OK for anybody to say whatever they want to a senator.  The senator has to make a judgment and the voters have to answer that.

MATTHEWS:  I think that I was hearing you come out against these pressure groups.

MEHLMAN:  Well, I think these pressure groups—as I said, the public has to consider what they‘re saying in context.  But, do I think they shouldn‘t be in Washington? They don‘t have a right to free speech?  Absolutely not. 

MATTHEWS:  So, you like the way it‘s done right now? 

MEHLMAN:  Well, I think it‘s unfortunate that you have some of the folks doing what they‘re doing.  But, I think the result is what you‘re seeing from the Democrats.  You‘re seeing the twisting of a Ted Kennedy.  You‘re seeing a Harry Reid.

MATTHEWS:  Are Republicans better off, is the country better off for having Sam Alito as the nominee, rather than Harriet Miers?

Objectively, has this turned out well?

MEHLMAN:  I think Sam Alito is a good choice. 

MATTHEWS:  Better than Harriet Miers? 

MEHLMAN:  I think Harriet Miers was a very good choice.  I‘m not going to go there to compare the two,  I think they‘re both good choices.

MATTHEWS:  Because that‘s what I want you to do.

MEHLMAN: Of course you do, that‘s why you get paid the big bucks.

MATTHEWS:  But why don‘t you say what you believe?  That‘s all I‘m asking, because you know he‘s a better nominee.

MEHLMAN:  I have worked with her for a long time.

MATTHEWS:  Does he have a better chance of getting confirmed than she did? How about that one?

MEHLMAN:  I think he has an excellent chance. 

MATTHEWS:  Does he have a better chance than she would have had?

MEHLMAN:  Anybody that‘s been confirmed before has a good chance of being confirmed again. He was confirmed before, so the answer‘s yes.

MATTHEWS:  Unanimously.

MEHLMAN:  Twice.

MATTHEWS: Ken Mehlman, you‘re a gentleman. Thank you, it‘s great having you on. You‘re a good sparring partner, even though sometimes you‘re wrong. 

Watch 'Hardball' each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC. 

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