In his first interview since reportedly calling a Democratic bill on lobbying and ethics "total crap," Rep. John Murtha told "Hardball" host Chris Matthews he meant it was "crap" to deal with ethics problems when there are more serious issues facing the nation such as the war in Iraq.
"It is total crap that we have to deal with an issue like this when we’ve got a war going on and we got all these other issues," Murtha said.
Matthews also asked Murtha about leadership in the House and withdrawal from Iraq.
You can read the full transcript of their conversation below.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR: Now that they’re in power, what can Democrats do about Iraq? Can they push for a timetable to leave? Can they cut off funding for the war? Who will be their leading voice in the fight? Will it be Nancy Pelosi’s rival Steny Hoyer or her friend Jack Murtha? We begin with the man who wants to be majority leader, Pennsylvania Congressman Jack Murtha. Thank you Mr. Murtha for coming here and nowhere else.
So let’s get to questions that everybody wants answered. First of all, it’s a secret ballot tomorrow, right?
REP. JOHN MURTHA (D), PENNSYLVANIA: Right.
MATTHEWS: Are you going to win?
MURTHA: We’re going to win, we’ve got the votes.
MATTHEWS: You’ve got them?
MURTHA: We’ve got the votes.
MATTHEWS: Eyeball to eyeball, you’ve got them?
MURTHA: Eyeball to eyeball.
MATTHEWS: OK, let’s go. What’s the difference here, for the average person watching right now. Whether you win, as you say you will, or Steny Hoyer wins for the race for majority leader in the House?
MURTHA: Well the difference is the policy question about the war. When I spoke out two weeks later, he said “It would be chaos if we left. If we reduced our presence in Iraq, it would be chaotic.” And he went on to criticize that policy, never signed onto my resolution. So there was a vast difference between what he did and what I said. I appeared 143 times on these national shows talking about Iraq, about the lack of progress and the need to redeploy our troops.
And then finally the White House has invited me down to talk to them about my recommendations about what needs to be done. So I think I’d be the strongest voice of what I consider the most important, single issue during the election campaign.
MATTHEWS: A lot of Democrats are sitting around on their hands saying, let’s wait for Jim Baker and his bipartisan commission and Lee Hamilton to tell us what to do. What do you think of that approach?
MURTHA: Well, I think we have to go forward. I think the public is demanding some action on this issue. I don’t think they’ll accept anything less, and I’m hopeful that the—I talked to Baker-Hamilton Commission, but whatever they say, they have to find a way to give a timetable to redeploy our troops. And we have to do it fairly soon, because the public wants something to happen.
I see these troops every week, Chris. I go to the hospitals. I get an opportunity to talk to them. I see them in hospitals all over the world, and the mission is completed for the military. We can’t win this militarily. We’ve got to redeploy our troops to the periphery and we have to force the issue with the president.
MATTHEWS: Well, what about General Abizaid today, the top guy at CENTCOM, coming on the Senate committee today, the Armed Services Committee, and saying I don’t want any timetables?
MURTHA: Chris, they keep saying this over and over again. They keep saying that we’ve made progress. We haven’t made progress. As a matter of fact, oil production, electricity production, all those things are below pre-war level. Every measure -- 60 percent unemployment. Violence has gone up, not down. We have 130,000 troops on the ground and it’s gotten worse during the last six months.
MATTHEWS: OK. Jack Murtha, imagine, for a second, you’re President Murtha. How would you get our troops out and how fast could you do it?
MURTHA: I would tell the Iraqis you’ve got to take over. This is your government. You’ve got 300,000 troops trained. You have to work this out yourselves. Give them the incentive to get our troops out of—they’re the targets.
MATTHEWS: OK, how fast can we get our troops out safely?
MURTHA: You could start right away. It’s a matter of planning to make sure of their safety and the troops. I said it might...
MATTHEWS: Right, strategic withdrawals, as you know as a fighting man—you were a combat veteran...
MATTHEWS: ... is the hardest thing in the world to pull off, because you’ve got to protect your rear the whole time you’re getting out. As you get weaker and weaker as you redeploy, you’ve got to make sure the last guys out aren’t attacked. Is that a threat?
MURTHA: That’s always a threat, but it’s much worse just to leave the troops there and the mission to be—deteriorate and the military to deteriorate, our strategic reserve deteriorate, and the whole world, the credibility of this country deteriorate. That’s the thing that’s happened.
MATTHEWS: OK, let me ask you the big question. We had a Civil War in ‘61, 1861. If a foreign power had come in and said we can stop this Civil War, they probably couldn’t have done it. It would have just delayed it. Is that the situation Iraq is in? If we—it doesn’t matter when we leave, whenever we leave, they’re going to have their war?
MURTHA: Yes, my great-grandfather fought in that Civil War, and you’re absolutely right. It didn’t make any difference what anybody else said, whether it was France or Great Britain. Whichever side they took, they couldn’t have stopped the Civil War. That Civil War is going to come about because we need to settle this ourselves. This is exactly the situation in Iraq.
Same thing with the British when they left India. They had not a civil war, but they had a lot of chaos. The same thing is going to happen. It won’t be any worse than it is now. I think it may be more stable. I think the first step to stability in Iraq is to start the redeployment and work diplomatically with the countries around her to solve this problem.
MATTHEWS: The president after the election, Wednesday, moved quickly. The president, he quickly said he had taken a “thumpin’.” I like the way he handled it. He said, look, we lost, they won, let’s talk. He invites you—he invites Steny Hoyer down to the White House with Nancy Pelosi. Were they trying to set up Steny, your opponent, for this leadership post by bringing him down with her, or is that just protocol?
MURTHA: No, I think that’s just protocol. I think the fact that I’ve been the one out front on this issue, I’ve been the one talking about it, I’ve been the one that knows the military, my background on the Defense Subcommittee, my background in the military, all those things make me the person to be able to challenge the White House, challenge the Bush administration. They will not be able to compromise on something that is unacceptable to the Democrats if I’m in charge.
MATTHEWS: OK, your tactic is to—as you’re running, what is your big pitch to members as you grab on the floor right now? You were up in the air. Guys who—women who haven’t made up their mind, what do you say to them right now? They’re watching, a lot of them, in their offices right now. What are you saying that makes you better than Steny as the leader?
MURTHA: I say I know more about the military, I’ve had more contacts with the military, I’ve talked to the troops more often out in the field, I’ve talked to them in the hospitals. I know we can’t win this militarily. I know we have to find a solution that has to be a diplomatic solution. I know we have to force the White House to acknowledge the fact that they lost this election.
I spoke on 143 shows last year. That didn’t mean anything compared to the election results. The election results showed that they understood something. They were going to get rid of an incompetent secretary of defense. But having said that, it doesn’t change policy. As I said to the national security adviser, look, I appreciate you getting rid of Secretary Rumsfeld, but that does not mean that you change your policy. We have to see a change in policy in Iraq.
MATTHEWS: Let’s talk about what’s being said against you. Not just by your opponents, but in the newspapers. Let’s talk about Abscam. Back 26 years ago, I went through the numbers. Five members of the United States Congress, a United States senator, Pete Williams from New Jersey were convicted of accepting money from these undercover FBI agents, posing as Arab guys trying to make an offer to congressmen so he’d cut a deal, put some money in the pockets of these people.
All these people are convicted, you weren’t. Does that mean you’re innocent?
MURTHA: Well, I’ll put this way. I had 24 percent unemployment, I was looking at investment. I told them I wanted an investment in my district, they put $50,000 out on the table. I said I’m not interested in that, I’m interested in investment. The ethics committee cleared me completely, unanimous vote.
MATTHEWS: When they said, when they offered you the envelope of $50,000, did you think that was a bribe?
MURTHA: It wasn’t an envelope, it was a drawer full of cash.
MATTHEWS: Was that a bribe?
MURTHA: No. As far as I was concerned...
MATTHEWS: ... No, what did you see that as? Why did you say I’m not interested?
MURTHA: Well, I said I’m not interested because I just didn’t feel like it was the right thing to do.
MATTHEWS: Why not?
MURTHA: Well, what the hell, I’m not going to take cash from some Arab sheikhs. They weren’t Arab sheikhs, they were FBI agents.
MATTHEWS: But you didn’t know that.
MURTHA: I just said this is not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in you folks investing.
MATTHEWS: I’ve heard you, I’ve seen this tape on YouTube now, everybody has seen it. A million people apparently have seen this tape. You said I’m not interested, and I assume you think it was something you shouldn’t have done, as you just said. It wasn’t the right thing to do, right, sir?
MURTHA: Well certainly, that’s exactly.
MATTHEWS: OK. Well then why did you say at this point, then?
MURTHA: Listen, I wanted to negotiate with them about investment in the district, that’s what I was interested in. It’s the only thing I was interested in.
MATTHEWS: But what do you mean when you said I’m not interested at this point. I’m not interested maybe at some point?
MURTHA: No, no, listen.
MATTHEWS: That’s on the tape.
MURTHA: I know, but what I said was I want to continue to talk to you guys, I want investment in the district. That’s all I was interested in.
MATTHEWS: But did you smell corruption in that conversation?
MURTHA: Sure. I saw these guys were trying to corrupt me and trying to...
MATTHEWS: ... Did you think they were legitimate emissaries for an Arab big shot or did you think they were...
MURTHA: They were the slimiest guys I’ve ever seen.
MATTHEWS: Well why didn’t you walk out of the room the minute you met them?
MURTHA: Well listen, they said they were going to invest in the district.
MATTHEWS: I understand the constituent service part of it. I understand that. But the tricky part of this is to say I’m not interested, which meant you didn’t want to have anything to do with these slime balls, as you saw them, but then you said “at this point.” Was that just a way of finessing your way out of the conversation?
MURTHA: Exactly, exactly. I deal with people like this all the time. I wanted to find a way to move towards a negotiation to investment.
MATTHEWS: Did you know they had already paid two other members off?
MURTHA: I had no idea.
MATTHEWS: Even when they were talking about we’ve give 50, the one guy, 50 to the other guy?
MURTHA: I ignored that completely. I paid no attention to that at all.
MATTHEWS: It didn’t mean anything to you?
MURTHA: It didn’t mean...
MATTHEWS: ... It didn’t mean Thompson and Murphy were involved? OK, you weren’t charged, right?
MATTHEWS: You weren’t reprimanded by the House Ethics Committee, so what do you think your record should be, all these years later, 26 years later, what do you think that should say to people about your attitude as a member of Congress today? What have you learned from that? What should they think about it? And thirdly, is this a legitimate issue in this campaign, as you see it?
MURTHA: Well, I’ve been elected 10 times since that happened. It has come up almost in every contested election, its come up. And I think the public...
MATTHEWS: ... you mean back home?
MURTHA: Back at home. They understand what I was trying to do. They’re the ones that didn’t have the jobs. They’re the ones that wanted investment in the district. They’re the ones that understand better than anybody else, and I think the people up here understand also, that this was something that was set up by the FBI in order to entice people and send them to jail.
MATTHEWS: Well, it worked in a lot of cases. They put five guys, six guys away, including Pete Williams.
MURTHA: They did put six guys away and I said I want investment. That’s what I wanted.
MATTHEWS: OK, let’s talk about the Congress today and I have—watching this and having worked up there, and we were old friends, we still are friends, I’ll admit that, I don’t mind admitting it. Let’s talk about the system today. When a congressman—when you pass a bill on the Hill that says you can’t take a lunch, a hamburger from, a steak, or a trip, whatever, do you think that makes the Congress cleaner?
MURTHA: Let me tell you. There’s a lot of crap going on in Congress all the time. Guys violate the law, some do. But the problem we have is a few people violate the law and then the whole Congress has to be changed.
MATTHEWS: Okay. Is it Mickey Mouse, or, as you said, apparently at this meeting with the Blue Dogs the other night, total crap to tell people you can’t take a lunch from somebody? Where do you draw—where is your position on ethics right now?
MURTHA: Let me tell you, I agree that we have to return a perception of honesty to the Congress. I agree with what Nancy’s trying to do. The crap I’m talking about is the crap that people have violated the law, the crap that the kind of things that have happened with Abramoff, the kind of things that have happened with some of the members—
MATTHEWS: But that’s not what you said. Didn’t you say it was total crap, what she was proposing?
MURTHA: What I said was, it’s total crap, the idea we have to deal with an issue like this, when—and it is total crap that we have to deal with an issue like this when we’ve got a war going on and we got all these other issues -- $8 billion a month we’re spending—
MATTHEWS: So when this came up in the Blue Dog meeting the other night, you felt that that was a ridiculous—you thought that wasn’t the right issue to be talking about right now.
MURTHA: Exactly. I—what I’ve been trying—
MATTHEWS: And that’s really what you meant when you said total crap, because this is all over the wires as if—it sounds to me like you’re saying, I think all this goo-goo, good government stuff, is a joke.
MURTHA: And I wonder—
MATTHEWS: Do you think that? You’re laughing; do you think it’s a joke?
MURTHA: No; I wonder who said that. That’s what I’m laughing about.
MATTHEWS: Oh, you’re wondering about which person it was—
MURTHA: I wonder—it was, I think, somebody that may not be in my camp.
MATTHEWS: No, it is—it was identified as a Steny Hoyer person, in fact, in one of the other wire services.
MURTHA: What I was—
MATTHEWS: What do you think—how do you like—here’s—you’re old school. We’re in the 21st century. How do we avoid Abscams? How do we avoid problems with people like Bob Ney, putting stuff in the Congressional Record for a client, things like, you got Duke Cunningham taking a million bucks and boats and all this other stuff—how do you stop that?
MURTHA: Transparency. I think that’s the only way to stop it. And I think the regulations that Nancy’s in favor of were very important. I don’t mean to imply that they aren’t. I’d say very clearly, the crap that goes on is the thing that worries me. The thing that worries me is, we’re diverted from the real issues.
MATTHEWS: You think it was wrong for the FBI to go into Bill Jefferson’s office and find the 90 k ($90,000) in cold cash in his refrigerator? Is that fair use of governmental power?
MURTHA: I don’t know enough about the circumstances. I know that it’s not fair—
MATTHEWS: Well, they caught the bad guy.
MURTHA: Well, let me put it this way: it’s not fair to go into congressional offices without going through the Speaker of the House, without going to the minority leader. This is a breech of the separation of powers.
MATTHEWS: But you think they were right to try to get that information about him?
MURTHA: Well, they should have gone to the Speaker, and they should have—
MATTHEWS: Would the Speaker have given the high sign to Jefferson to pull the money out of his refrigerator?
MURTHA: I think that’s beside the point. Going into their office is what I complained about. You know, going into the office of a member of Congress in the House of Representatives, which is a separate branch of government, that’s what’s wrong.
MATTHEWS: Okay, thank you. Jack Murtha. Good luck in your race.
MURTHA: Nice talking to you.
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