Guests: John McKay, Bud Cummins, Tony Blankley, Eugene Robinson, Jay Carney, John Harris
DAVID GREGORY, GUEST HOST: The Senate rejects a plan to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq. But a key House Committee approves a different plan to withdraw by August 2008. And in the middle of it all, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales tries to persuade Congress to let him keep his job. Let‘s play HARDBALL.
Good evening. I‘m David Gregory, in again tonight for Chris Matthews. And welcome to HARDBALL. The Justice Department‘s firing of eight U.S. attorneys has exploded now into a full blown Washington scandal with the president‘ men caught right in the middle.
Congress is beating the drums, calling on President Bush to fire his attorney general, Alberto Gonzales. The Senate Judiciary Committee today voted to clear the way to subpoena five Justice Department officials and six federal prosecutors. But delayed a vote on authorizing subpoenas for President Bush‘s top aides, including Karl Rove, until next week. We will talk to two U.S. attorneys who were fired in the purge in just a moment.
Plus, Senator John McCain is jumping back on the Straight Talk Express. But can he muster the steam to come back to frontrunner status? We are going to talk to NBC‘s Chip Reid who is with Senator McCain in Iowa tonight.
Also tonight, the debate over Iraq. The war rages on in Congress with the Senate rejecting a plan to withdraw troops and a major House committee approving another plan to withdraw by August of 2008.
But first, should Gonzales go? HARDBALL reached out to Republican members of the Senate, but none agreed to appear tonight. We‘re going to begin our coverage turning to our justice correspondent, Pete Williams, who joins us from here in Washington.
Pete, thanks for being here. That is really the question, which is, is there enough Republican, not just Democrat, but Republican opposition to Gonzales to force the president to force his attorney general to step down? What is your take?
PETE WILLIAMS, NBC JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: I think the answer is not yet. One senator, John Sununu of New Hampshire, has said that the president ought to fire Mr. Gonzales. But today things seemed to notch just back a little bit. Arlen Specter, the Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said, let‘s not rush. Let‘s show at least a modicum of objectivity, he said here today.
So there seems to be more of a wait and see attitude. It is interesting, David. The president, when he was in Mexico, seemed to send instructions directly to his attorney general to get right up to Congress and answer the questions.
But so far, Congress isn‘t—doesn‘t seem to be in an interest to get immediate answers. They want to try to let this play out some. The next step will probably be more e-mails tomorrow from the Justice Department and then possibly some resolution tomorrow to the question of whether the White House will just freely turn documents over and freely allow access to people like Harriet Miers, the former counsel, and Karl Rove, the political adviser, or whether they‘ll exert executive privilege on some of this.
The statements today from the White House seem to say, we want to give them what they need.
WILLIAMS: And the Congress may have a different perception of what they.
GREGORY: What is the big issue here, Pete, that Congress wants to unearth, beyond what we have already been talking about out of these e-mails?
WILLIAMS: Two questions, which is, was politics in any way involved in the decision to let eight of these U.S. attorneys go? One in the middle of the year. Seven in December. Was partisan politics, I think is probably the best way to say it, a factor? Was it a feeling that they weren‘t going after—tough enough, after Democrats or too tough on Republicans? And then secondly, David, the big question is, why was Congress misled about this?
Why were they told, for example, the White House wasn‘t involved when it turns out this whole plan originated in the White House? That is what they want to know.
GREGORY: Final point here, Pete. A lot of people in this debate are talking about the fact that this is certainly within the president‘s right to get rid of U.S. attorneys. Nobody disputes that.
GREGORY: But they keep pointing back to President Clinton, who got rid of all 93 U.S. attorneys when he came into office. Is that a valid comparison here?
WILLIAMS: Well, there are several differences. First of all, the criticism that Clinton and Janet Reno, his attorney general, got at the time in ‘93, was that they told all of the U.S. attorneys to pack up and leave before they had successors in place to nominate and confirm. So it was very disruptive.
The two differences here are, is there was no question then of politics—partisan politic—political influence on those U.S. attorneys. They just turned out to be the wrong party after the president got elected. So they all had to leave. And secondly, there was no indication, no suggestion that Congress was misled about it.
Those two factor weren‘t there. They are here now. And that‘s the big difference.
GREGORY: And the other aspect here is that the Justice Department was trying to essentially end run Congress by allowing the U.S. attorneys to be either removed or put into place as part of the Patriot Act, which is just the president‘s prerogative without getting Congress‘ OK.
WILLIAMS: Right. Certainly can be removed without Congress‘ OK. But what they wanted to do was use a provision of the Patriot Act to put in a replacement with—while confirmation for someone else was pending. Normally the practice is you take somebody else in the office like a first assistant U.S. attorney, someone who is a career person, make them the acting.
The Patriot Act gave them the ability to put somebody in without confirming them while the confirmation proceedings were pending. And that rubbed Congress the wrong way.
GREGORY: All right. Pete Williams in our Washington bureau. Pete, thanks very much.
GREGORY: Joining us now, two of the fired U.S. attorneys at the center of this political storm. John McKay is the former U.S. attorney in Seattle, Washington. And Bud Cummins is the former U.S. attorney in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Welcome to you both.
JOHN MCKAY, FIRED U.S. ATTORNEY, SEATTLE, WASHINGTON: Thank you.
BUD CUMMINS, FIRED U.S. ATTORNEY, LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS: Thank you, David.
GREGORY: Mr. McKay, let me start with you. The attorney general, since you have testified last week, comes out yesterday and says, mistakes were made. What mistakes do you think were made here?
MCKAY: Well, first of all, it is obvious, David, that the Justice Department was not forthcoming. They were not telling all of the truth when the attorney general and the deputy attorney general testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. They needed to come clean with this. And apparently, they haven‘t done that.
And we got different stories about why we were being forced to resign. We all know we serve at the pleasure of the president. And so I asked for no explanation. But when they went up under oath and said that politics wasn‘t involved, it appears that that‘s not accurate.
GREGORY: Mr. Cummins, what is your response to that? Again, mistakes were made, the attorney general says. What were they?
CUMMINS: Well, in my view, the mistake that they made was to—when they found themselves in a situation where they wanted to explain, where they were asked to explain these decisions to Congress, instead of entering into some explanations of what may have been some embarrassing reasons for these decision, they chose to throw my seven colleagues under an umbrella of performance problems. And it didn‘t seem to make sense then, and it certainly doesn‘t seem to make any sense now. In fact, I just don‘t think it is true.
GREGORY: So what did—what was the real—if you look at these e-mails between Kyle Sampson, the attorney general‘s chief of staff, and Harriet Miers, the White House counsel, where there is a loyalty test put on certain U.S. attorneys, and potential replacements, where they are talking about—I mean, in your particular case, gumming the works here to try to get a replacement for you who was Tim Griffin, who had worked with Karl Rove. When you look at all of that. What was at work here?
CUMMINS: Well, in my case. You know, they asked me to leave. I left. And they told me that it was not about me, and it was about putting this other person in my spot. And that is what they told the Congress. So in my situation, they are pretty well squared away.
What I note is that in the other cases, in John‘s and the six others, they have offered specific reasons to Congress. Now if you examine those e-mails, you don‘t see any discussion of those reasons there. And what there is a great absence of is any documentation of this deliberative performance review process that they‘ve describe to Congress.
The fact is they didn‘t do a performance review, Congress—or performance review to make these decisions. They made these decision for other reasons. And your guess is as good as mine about why they were made. But performance wasn‘t on the table. And they need to retract those statements. They need to apologize to John and the six other people.
And they need to—and also concede that these people were high-performing, loyal, excellent United States attorneys for five years. It is completely the president‘s discretion to go in a different direction, but and he the attorney general and the deputy attorney general do not have the right to slander their professional reputations, and that‘s the bottom line.
GREGORY: Bud, just to put a fine point on this, it didn‘t strike you as untoward, inappropriate at all that Karl Rove, the president‘s top political adviser was—seemed to be heavily involved in getting someone who worked for him in to replace you? It was a patronage job, essentially.
CUMMINS: You know, my opinion about that isn‘t really particularly important because I did serve at the pleasure of the president. You can have an opinion about that and obviously Congress has an opinion about it. But I‘m not really in a position to quibble about that. They asked me to leave. They were entitled to do that. And I did that. And I didn‘t complain and neither did John or any of the others.
We were all going away quietly until these statements were made to Congress about these seven others, about performance. And they‘re just simply not true.
GREGORY: All right. John, recount why you think you were fired and what you were told.
MCKAY: Well, I was told on December 7th when I got a phone call out of the blue one morning in Seattle that I should tender my resignation by the end of January. I asked the reasons and the person making the call couldn‘t give me any reasons. I asked if I was the only one, and I was not given any information about that.
It was only later I found out that six of my colleague had received a call on the same day. Later, in testimony before the Congress, a Justice Department official said that we were asked to resign because of performance reasons. In other words, we performed poorly on the job. That turned out to be untrue by their own documentation that we had received outstanding reviews.
Then they said there were policy reasons. Only they can‘t document the policy reasons. Now we see that there were e-mails being exchanged between the department and the White House. And that‘s the problem because it looks like a political process, political reasons. And that is a real shame.
GREGORY: And what were the political reasons in your case?
MCKAY: . because it puts a cloud on the Justice Department.
GREGORY: What were the political reasons in your case?
MCKAY: I don‘t know—I really don‘t know the political reasons. They haven‘t explained their—the political reasons. They said there was a process, the process appears to be people sitting around in a conference and deciding who was most loyal to the president.
GREGORY: All right. But talk about the particular case that you were investigating some outreach that you got from members of Congress that struck you as inappropriate.
MCKAY: Yes. The 2004 governor‘s election in the State of Washington, the closest in the country. Very controversial. About 128 votes I think being the final margin for the Democratic incumbent now, Christine Gregoire. Very controversial in Washington State. Many people pressing for either state or federal criminal charges to be brought.
I led a preliminary investigation with the FBI in Seattle and we determined that there was no evidence that would justify a continuing investigation. In other words, we didn‘t go to the grand jury because there was no evidence. That was very controversial. I believe I made the right call. It was a unanimous decision among the investigators. And frankly, David.
GREGORY: But were you questioned about that? Were you questioned about that conclusion?
MCKAY: I was not. I‘ve never been questioned.
GREGORY: But did you get any.
MCKAY: I was not questioned about—I wasn‘t question about that until I applied to be federal judge a year later and then I was questioned about it in the White House.
GREGORY: A question about the conclusion you made in that case.
MCKAY: Yes. And I was told in fact that people in the State of Washington were unhappy with me. And you know, I think that‘s an appropriate question. But in the end, it appears that I—my resignation may have been required as United States attorney. And that‘s a problem, because all of us that are federal prosecutors, we expect to be insulated from politics by the senior people at the Department of Justice and at the White House. And it appears they didn‘t have—not only did they not have our back, it looks like they may have done us in for political reasons.
GREGORY: All right. Gentlemen, stay where you are. We are going to come back, discuss this further. Talk about your views of Alberto Gonzales, his experience, his role as attorney general. We‘ll be back with John McKay and Bud Cummins in just a moment.
And coming up later, more on the reaction in Congress with some members calling on President Bush to fire his attorney general. You are watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.
GREGORY: Welcome back to HARDBALL. We are back with former United States attorneys John McKay and Bud Cummins.
John McKay, let me start with you. What is your view and your knowledge of the extent of the role of the attorney general in this process of firing the seven or eight of you?
MCKAY: Well, all I know is what he has said publicly. Typically the attorney general, of course, would absolutely be involved before the resignation of a United States attorney was requested and received. I believe he said that he asked Kyle Sampson, his chief of staff, to commence a process of review.
None of us, by the way, were informed that such a review was ongoing. And so it is a little surprising. I mean, clearly, he received a list. We don‘t know the extent of his participation and the development of the list. And really I think the first thing that ought to be done is the Justice Department and the attorney general need to inquire into how this came to him in that fashion.
There has to be an internal Justice Department investigation. And I think that probably needs to be done by the inspector general.
GREGORY: Bud, let me ask you, you know, the legal community is a tough group on both sides, Republican and Democrats. And one of the things they do is stand by fellow prosecutors in the field if they have come out of the Justice Department. And I‘ve talked to a number of them who say, look, the problem with this Justice Department, and this attorney general is that there is very little prosecutorial experience.
There is not a culture that necessarily respects prosecutors out there. And you have an attorney general who is both too inexperienced and too close to the White House to be effective. Do you agree with any or all of though criticisms?
CUMMINS: I don‘t really necessarily think that there is any set level of experience required to understand the principles involved in this business. But I do think there are important principles involved and they‘re pretty straightforward.
I was a political person before I became U.S. attorney. I came to be U.S. attorney through a very political process. But I was made to understand by Attorney General Ashcroft in a one-on-one conversation that he had with every U.S. attorney, that I had to have the ability to set that aside, leave the politics at the door to do this job well. And if I didn‘t understand that, and I had trouble with that, I wasn‘t going to be U.S. attorney very long.
And there are important reasons for that. The public cannot perceive that there are political considerations behind any of the important decisions we make as United States attorney. If you.
GREGORY: John McKay.
CUMMINS: Go ahead.
GREGORY: . is this attorney general an overly political attorney general? Has he had a problem separating those two things and creating independence at the department?
MCKAY: Well, I don‘t think that this attorney general, Judge Gonzales, is overly political. I think he is a fair man and a careful man. I think that the structure around him and some of the people that he has around him do suffer from that problem. And that is apparent now.
I think there is a general feeling among current United States attorneys that there is a shortage of experienced prosecutorial hands around the attorney general.
GREGORY: In the end now, as Congress proceeds, the overall question is just how political was this? Bud, you said it, you came to the U.S. attorney through a political process. And other political analysts have said, this was just a political process that got exposed and was handled in such a clumsy way.
Is there any difference between the circumstances of this case, and the way previous administrations and previous presidents have handled the issue of replacing U.S. attorneys?
CUMMINS: Well, I think it is an important distinction. And the way I understand it, in modern history, new presidents have wiped out the slate of U.S. attorneys and appointed their own people. And rightfully so. They‘re entitled to have people they can rely on that are on the same page to implement their priorities.
But once they‘re put in place, it is kind of a quasi-judicial position. And it is not for that U.S. attorney to keep his eye back on the political party bosses for signals about who to prosecute or what to prosecute. We have—they have to have a hands-off attitude and we have to go forward without any consideration for what politicians, even the politicians that put us there want us to do.
We just have to follow the cases where they lead us and follow the law. And if there is any perception that that is not taking place, that is a problem.
GREGORY: Right. All right. We are going to leave it there. Thanks to both of you, John McKay and Bud Cummins for coming on tonight.
And up next, New Hampshire Senator John Sununu is the first Republican in Congress who says fire Attorney General Gonzales. Will there be more? You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
GREGORY: Welcome back to HARDBALL. High tensions today up on Capitol Hill as Congress takes on the U.S. attorney general scandal, and the war in Iraq, in particular three new resolutions on the war. MSNBC‘s Mike Viqueira has the latest up there for us.
Mike, let‘s start with the U.S. attorney business and the subpoenas that have now been cleared by the Judiciary Committee.
MIKE VIQUEIRA, MSNBC CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that‘s right. The Senate Judiciary Committee met today and they cleared the way for subpoenas to be issued by tomorrow or perhaps next week for five DOJ officials, as well as six of the fired U.S. attorneys.
They have not yet issued those subpoenas, it should be mentioned. But they will keep those arrows in the quiver, David, if you will. They have deferred the issue of whether to subpoena Harriet Miers, Karl Rove, and Harriet Miers‘ deputy, Bill Kelley, until next week.
Meanwhile, both the House and the Senate judiciary committees, tomorrow a pivotal day. If we recall, it was the White House counsel, Fred Fielding, who met with staff and members from both those committees yesterday, said he promised an answer about who and what was going to be available to those committees as they undertake this investigation.
More documents are expected tomorrow here on the Hill. The rumor all afternoon is that they will implicate Karl Rove to a greater extent than has been previously known. We do not have confirmation of that at this moment however. But things moving very quickly here on Capitol Hill in this Department of Justice investigation—David.
GREGORY: Is the idea, Mike, that there might be a compromise that Fred Fielding, the White House counsel, can strike with Pat Leahy and, on the House side as well?
VIQUEIRA: Well, people are leaving all of the options open in that regard. And the members of the Judiciary Committee have—so far, have been quick to point out that the White House has been relatively forthcoming so far.
However, Tony Snow and other White House officials have been on the record over the past few days as saying that there is a long tradition of keeping congressional aides who are, after all, not confirmed by the Senate or Congress as a whole, from appearing and testifying before committees of Congress.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, others responded, in recent time, as
many as 74 administration aides have come up here and testified. John
Boehner, the Republican leader on the House side, says that there is a long
tradition of separation of powers of course enshrined in the Constitution,
executive privilege, and that it is unlikely that some of these people will
be freed up by the administration to come and testify in this investigation
GREGORY: All right. Let‘s turn the page then to Iraq. What has Congress said today about the war and what is likely to pass?
VIQUEIRA: Well, today, the Senate finally got around to debating a binding resolution and at this auspicious occasion, the Senate Democrats could not keep that caucus together. They lost two senators. A binding resolution that said that within 180 days of the resolution, that the administration had to start to withdraw American combat forces and transition them to a support and training role.
That vote failed 48-50. They lost a couple of senators. One was David (sic) Pryor and of course, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. Pryor, of course, from Arkansas. He is up for reelection in 2008. He is known as a moderate. Gordon Smith, another person up for reelection in 2008, he is from Oregon, he crossed party lines to vote with Democrats. Of Tim Johnson from South Dakota is still out and ailing, David.
On the House side, a big hurdle leaped by House Democrats. They got their measure out of the Appropriations Committee. This measure, of course, would require all American troop to be withdrawn by the fall of 2008. You know, there are 12 members of the Out of Iraq Caucus that were on that committee today. All 11 of them, only one voted against the resolution. Democrats see that as a positive sign, David.
But on the House floor next week, it is going to be one heck of a fight. They cannot lose too many Democrats, 218 is the margin that they‘re going to need, the total that they‘re going to need. Democrats say they are right at it right about this point. It is going to be a real nail-biter. All of it—what in the end is going to happen with all of this? Both these bills have veto threats anyway. The House bill unlikely to make it to the Senate.
But still, high stakes politics, a lot of passion in the House and the Senate on Iraq these days, David.
GREGORY: All right. Mike Viqueira on Capitol Hill for us tonight.
Mike, thanks very much.
GREGORY: Up next, The Washington Post‘s Gene Robinson and The Washington Times‘ Tony Blankley will talk about the firestorm over what the attorney general knew about the firing of U.S. attorneys and when he knew it. You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
GREGORY: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
Should Gonzales go? That is the big question swirling around Washington tonight. Here to debate it are the HARDBALLers, Tony Blankley of “The Washington Times” and Eugene Robinson of “The Washington Post.”
Before we start, guys, here is what Karl Rove said today in Alabama when asked about the uproar over the dismissal of the U.S. attorneys. Watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KARL ROVE, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF: Now, we‘re at a point where people want to play politics with it, and that‘s fine. I would simply ask that everybody‘s who‘s playing politics with this be asked to comment about what they think about the removal of 123 U.S. attorneys during the previous administration and see if they had the same superheated political rhetoric then that they‘re having now. And my suspicion is that we won‘t be able to find that they had that same kind of approach back then.
And look, every president‘s entitled to do it. President Clinton was entitled to come in, and if he wanted to, as he did, ask for the immediate resignation or removal from office of all 92 U.S. attorneys. We didn‘t do it that way. We came in, and even if we were going to replace that individual, we said, We‘d like some time to identify a potential successor. We‘d like you to stay on the job.
So this, to my mind, is a lot of politics. And I understand that‘s what Congress has a right to play around with, and they‘re going to do it. And I just ask the American people and ask Congress to look fairly and carefully at what‘s being said and done now.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: Tony Blankley, on its face, of course, what Karl Rove is saying is true, that previous administrations have removed U.S. attorneys. But it is the way that this group has done it that has invited the scrutiny, not just of Democrats, but of Republicans, too.
TONY BLANKLEY, “WASHINGTON TIMES”: Yes, look, I was in the Reagan administration. The political shop cleared every judicial and Justice Department appointment. So here‘s the confusion I think Gonzales maybe suffering under. It‘s perfectly legitimate to use politics to hire and fire political appointees, like U.S. attorneys. It is not appropriate for U.S. attorneys, once they‘re in place, to act politically over people to influence while they‘re performing their duties.
I think Gonzales confused those two and then was embarrassed that there was obviously a political decision to fire these people, and then the misrepresentations came up. And now the problem for Gonzales and his people are the misrepresentations to Congress. The actual decisions to do it on any reason was perfectly legitimate, but he‘s now got in trouble because I think he tried to pretend that appointments decisions or the firing decisions weren‘t political, even though they‘re entitled to be political.
GREGORY: And that they were in many cases overtly political. I mean, Kyle Sampson is talking about a loyalty test for the U.S. attorneys around the country, and in other cases, is talking about an appointment of Tim Griffin down in Arkansas that was important to Karl Rove. So it was all out in the open.
EUGENE ROBINSON, “WASHINGTON POST”: Yes, I think—I think the big problem, really is, you know, you come into office, you replace all the U.S. attorneys. It‘s a political process. That‘s kind of understood. But to single out, you know, these eight, these guys, you know, when you‘re not getting rid of everybody else, the suggestion being that, Well, gee, we thought they were on our side. We thought they were loyal. We thought they would do what we wanted them to do politically, but they‘re not doing it. That‘s the suggestion, at least, or the inference you can draw. I think that‘s the problem of appearance here and maybe of substance. I mean, we‘ll find out.
GREGORY: Tony, let‘s take a break for just a minute. Senator Chuck Schumer is just appearing on the floor of the Senate to speak about this matter. Let‘s listen to him now. He‘s in the gallery, actually.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: ... but evidently, he hasn‘t succeeded in that part of it yet. OK. Let me start. All right.
The new e-mails—the new e-mails show conclusively that Karl Rove was in the middle of this mess from the beginning. It is now imperative that he testify before Congress and give all the details of his involvement both in the proposal to fire the 93 U.S. attorneys at the beginning of George Bush‘s second term and his involvement in the firing of the individual eight U.S. attorneys who were fired throughout 2006.
The bottom line is, if the White House prevents Karl Rove from testifying, it will be thumbing its nose at the American people and at the rule of law. And the reason it‘s so imperative that people testify under oath is that every time new information comes out, it proves that the White House was not telling the truth in their previous statements. White House press secretary Tony Snow told people on Tuesday that Miers had suggested the 93 -- firing the 1993, and quote, “It was her idea only.” Now it‘s clear that Karl Rove is involved.
So statements from the White House press office and from others involved have proved to be false, false, false, time after time after time. The only way that we can get to the truth and clear up this sorry mess is when the White House and the Justice Department release all the documents involved in the firing of the U.S. attorneys and when the parties who were involved testify under oath before Congress. Ready for your questions.
GREGORY: You‘ve been listening to Senator Schumer over in the Senate talking about a report by ABC News indicating that new e-mails indicate that Karl Rove, the president‘s top political adviser, was actually the one who originally came up with the idea of firing all 93 U.S. attorneys before eight of them were eventually fired. That‘s news because what we‘ve been led to believe before now was that it was Harriet Miers, the White House counsel, who originally had that idea back in early 2005 and that it was dismissed by the White House. The first indication from the White House was that Karl Rove thought that was a bad idea and that idea came from Harriet Miers and not him.
NBC News doesn‘t have confirmation of this yet, Eugene, but you hear Senator Schumer talking about it as a reason now to really compel Karl Rove to testify about the level of his involvement. What does it mean?
ROBINSON: Well, it means that somebody at the White House is not doing a very good job of getting this story out in an expeditious manner that might bring it to an end, or at least send it into a different stage. But if it keeps leaking out e-mail by e-mail, you know, this is very good news for the Democrats, I think, politically.
GREGORY: And Tony, White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters on Tuesday that it was—again, it was Miers who suggested the firing of the 93 attorneys and it was her idea only. So again, on its face, the idea of getting rid of all the U.S. attorneys is not unusual. It‘s hardly unprecedented. But it just feeds into a pattern here of not getting the story straight.
BLANKLEY: I mean, this is almost an unforced error for the White House and the Justice Department. There was nothing wrong with Rove and the political shop making all those decisions, recommendations to the president. But once you start misrepresenting the facts...
Now, I used to be a press secretary. I was Newt Gingrich‘s press secretary for seven years. And I know that sometimes, you‘re forced—people want you to give an answer before you know the facts. And then you got to be careful and say, I don‘t know. And you don‘t like to say, I don‘t know.
And obviously, Tony got out ahead of his database on that. He was probably told—I‘m guessing—Oh, this is it, and he didn‘t—he didn‘t have time to go back and check it. That‘s his job, to make sure he‘s got it right. If he got it wrong, as it now appears he did, he probably wants to apologize to the press corps.
The more serious issue is whether anybody at Justice Department misrepresented facts intentionally to Congress.
BLANKLEY: Then you get into a zone that requires inquiry. But the underlying event, Rove doing it, there‘s nothing wrong with, and I don‘t think they need to call him up to testify because there‘s no question that he‘s entitled to do it.
GREGORY: And Fred Fielding now is trying to strike some kind of deal with the Judiciary Committee. Is he playing a losing hand here to keep the likes of Karl Rove from testifying?
ROBINSON: Well, as it goes on, I think it becomes more likely that we might see some sort of testimony. I thought at the beginning it was highly unlikely that Rove or Miers would have to testify. I thought, you know, the principle of the executive privilege probably extended that far and—you know, and that that was pretty settled. But again, drip, drip, drip. You‘re going to have to come out and say something.
GREGORY: But the bottom line is you‘re saying is what Rove‘s actions, his level of involvement, whether he was out there suggesting that they were all fired, is not appropriate. What‘s inappropriate is what the Justice Department officials told Congress.
BLANKLEY: If they said something that wasn‘t true and they knew it wasn‘t true, then that has to be looked into and either apologies have to be made or further sanction. But it has nothing to do with the underlying charge. I mean, there‘s a deep insincerity from Senator Schumer in being shocked that politics is going on in the political appointments.
BLANKLEY: I mean, that is what goes on in this town.
GREGORY: Tony, how—can Alberto Gonzales keep his job?
BLANKLEY: I think he should. I think the White House needs to have a real tough, stiff spine on this...
BLANKLEY: ... because if they cave in on this, one, they‘re just—they‘re going to have to go through a confirmation process. There‘s going to be blood in the water. And the next person they would have to get confirmed probably wouldn‘t be a true Bushite...
BLANKLEY: ... because they‘d have trouble going through confirmation. Unless Gonzales has committed a crime—I see no evidence of that. If he simply used poor political judgment, they should stick by him despite the fact that, obviously, the team hasn‘t politically performed very well.
GREGORY: All right. Well, a lot more to come on this. Thanks to both of you, to Tony Blankley and Gene Robinson.
Up next, we switch gears, John McCain back on the “Straight Talk Express.” Can he get his campaign back on track to being the frontrunner?
This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC.
GREGORY: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
Senator John McCain today fired up the “Straight Talk Express” bus from his first presidential campaign in hopes of getting his second bid for the presidency on track. McCain toured Iowa. And joining us now from Ames, Iowa, is NBC‘s Chip Reid. Chip, good evening. So he‘s got the bus back. What‘s that doing for him?
CHIP REID, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Well, he‘s trying to get that mojo back, David. He‘s trying to get the energy that the bus tour, the “Straight Talk Express” bus tour gave him in New Hampshire back in 2000. but I tell you, it‘s tough this time around for a couple of reasons. Number one, Iraq. Most of his straight talk is about Iraq. About 75 percent of the time he spent on remarks before Q&A at an event here earlier today in Ames was on Iraq, and there was no applause until he asked the veterans in the audience to stand up.
I mean, it‘s a tough topic. You know, Hillary Clinton comes out here and Barack Obama comes out, and they talk about Iraq from the other point of view, and it is just explosive in the audience. But it really is a tough issue for Republicans. If you‘re trying to energize a campaign, it‘s not a very good way to do it.
Another reason it‘s tough right now is that McCain, of course, ran as a maverick, as an insurgent, an outsider, last time around, and that‘s what gave him this kind of “happy warrior” image. But this time around, he really is an establishment candidate. And one reason some people believe his polls are low and Rudy Giuliani is surging is he‘s seen as an inside Washington guy, and he wasn‘t last time around.
GREGORY: He was kind of dismissive of some of these polls that have him behind Giuliani, right?
REID: He was. He really was. He kind of waved it off, said, There‘s plenty of time, and he‘s absolutely right. We all know from past experience that early campaign polls are frequently very wrong. And there are certainly people in the campaign and all through politics who believe that this little boom that Giuliani is having now is something that will dissipate once Republicans, conservative Republicans, realize just how liberal his positions are on everything from abortion to gun control to stem cell research. And they believe that McCain will be seen as the “steady as he goes” kind of guy, building support both within the Republican establishment and also trying to appeal to this—to the people who want somebody who‘s a little bit more of an outsider because he still is...
REID: ... a bit of an outsider on some issue.
GREGORY: All right. Chip Reid in Ames, Iowa, today with the “Straight Talk Express” and McCain, thanks very much.
We‘re joined now by John Harris, editor-in-chief of Politico.com, and Jay Carney, Washington bureau chief of “Time,” where this week‘s cover story is titled “How the right went wrong and why the Republican candidates need to reclaim the Reagan legacy.”
Jay, let me start with you and this cover story and how it feeds into what John McCain is going through. I guess, first of all, this is not the same candidate who was on the “Straight Talk Express” in 2000.
JAY CARNEY, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, “TIME” MAGAZINE: No, it‘s not at all. And what—we talk—we spent a lot of time on McCain in this story and I interviewed him, I think, on Monday and/or Sunday. And what the candidate‘s aides say, and what the man himself says, is that, I‘m the same, it‘s just I‘m—this campaign—what‘s different about this campaign is that we want it to be a winning campaign. Republican insurgents, Republican outsiders, don‘t win nominations. McCain came close in 2000. But by—you know, history says that the establishment candidate is the candidate that ends up with the nomination. And so they set out this plan a few years ago, when they decided that McCain would run again in 2008, and said, We‘re going to be the establishment. What do we have to do?
Now, his critics would say that he‘s twisted himself in a pretzel on some issues to placate certain, you know, special interest groups within the Republican Party, cozying up to Jerry Falwell, voting to extend the president‘s tax cuts that he had originally voted against, that sort of thing. But they would say that he has simply reached—you know, he‘s become more inclusive, he‘s reached out to some of the people who were critical of him, some of Bush‘s fund-raisers, to build a bigger base and to raise more money and to be viable this time around.
But he‘s having a hard time. It‘s not—John McCain—we all know him here. He‘s not comfortable being, A, the frontrunner or being the guy who, because he‘s a frontrunner, is sort of in a straitjacket, watched more closely and criticized frequently.
GREGORY: It‘s interesting. I mean, he said back in 2000, after New Hampshire, The establishment is against us—you write about that in the piece—and that, We‘re an insurgent candidacy.
But John, the problem is that the Republican right really can‘t decide what it wants at the moment, which is exemplified by the fact that Rudy Giuliani is ahead, McCain is trailing, and you‘ve go the likes of Fred Thompson, who‘s putting his toe in the water as the real conservative alternative here.
JOHN HARRIS, POLITICO.COM: Right. I think Jay is right. But if McCain actually was the establishment candidate, that‘s not a bad place to be. The old cliche is Democrats like to fall in love, Republicans fall in line. And so the problem is, McCain has got a certain class of professional politicians, Washington insiders, a lot of the Bush aides, who are, indeed, falling in line behind him. It‘s not clear that actual, authentic grass-roots conservative will ever fall either in love or in line with him. There‘s great misgiving about him.
For the moment, there is not anybody in this field that conservatives really like, including John McCain. So I mean, that makes the field still very fluid, in my mind, if somebody can come in and claim that space.
GREGORY: But more generally, what does that say about, again, where the right has gone wrong and what they‘re feeling?
CARNEY: Well, what—what‘s—what‘s fascinating about the Republican Party and the conservatives is that—is that what was once a movement, you know, a big—you know, with some big ideas attached to it that began with—you know, began politically with Goldwater and traced through Reagan, and in some ways, all the way through Gingrich, has now become, much as the Democratic Party was in the 1980s, a party that is basically servicing its constituent groups, its special interests groups. You‘ve got, How do we placate the social conservatives? How do we placate the fiscal conservatives?
Meanwhile, the leader of the party, George W. Bush, has blown up some of the three legs of the stool that supported conservatism. Strong on national defense? Oh, what about Iraq? Fiscal restraint—biggest-spending president we‘ve seen, in some ways. And then moral authority, when you have things like Terri Schiavo and that sort of thing. It‘s really undermined the movement and the cause.
GREGORY: All right, we‘re going to take a quick break here. We‘re going to come back with John Harris and Jay Carney.
You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.
GREGORY: We‘re back with “The Politico‘s” John Harris and “Time‘s” Jay Carney. Let‘s visit an issue that we‘ve been reporting on throughout the hour, Senator Chuck Schumer in the Senate gallery talking about a new report about additional e-mails that the Justice Department will be releasing indicating that Karl Rove originated the idea, according to the report and according to Chuck Schumer, of replacing all 93 U.S. attorneys.
Previously, we had heard it was Harriet Miers, White House counsel, then why counsel, back in early ‘95, who had initiated that idea. The White House is saying tonight that it‘s not really a fair interpretation. They‘re pushing back. They‘re going to see if they can get some of these e-mails released tonight, so a lot more to come on all of this.
But the larger issue, Jay, is whether Alberto Gonzales is really going to be able to keep his job. And do you think this president was really standing by him in Mexico?
CARNEY: Well, I was surprised by—given the amount—you know, the strength—the strong words they used to stand by him prior to the president‘s statement, and then the president, who came out and said, I wasn‘t happy with how this happened and basically pointing the finger at Gonzales running a—you know, a not-tight ship, even if he wasn‘t directly responsible. I think Gonzales is in a lot of trouble. And you know, when—when this White House is putting out word that Fred Fielding, the current White House counsel, is looking into the issue of whether or not Gonzales can stay...
CARNEY: ... I think that‘s a very bad sign for the attorney general.
I would not be surprised if his tenure is shortened.
GREGORY: But the issue there, though, is who would they replace Gonzales with in this environment?
HARRIS: Right. And just—and obviously, we don‘t know, but just another possible interpretation—this actually comes from Mike Allen of “Politico,” regular at this table—he‘s saying that may have been the public punishment, Bush, you know, with that very tepid statement. And the best insurance for Gonzales might be that the administration does not want to go through a nomination battle at this point.
Can you imagine the kind of person that they would have to put forward to get Senate approval?
HARRIS: It would probably not be their choice as attorney general.
HARRIS: And that may be the—the sort of the—the best chance Gonzales has.
GREGORY: The other thing is, where are Republicans on this? John Sununu came out, but I talked to a Republican today who said, Look, the feeling is—nobody‘s really doing a lot of cheerleading for Alberto Gonzales, but they‘re not necessarily going to push—Republicans aren‘t going to push...
CARNEY: I mean, it‘s probably...
GREGORY: ... to get him out.
CARNEY: We‘re probably not going to see a tidal wave of Republican support for the idea of overthrowing him, even though Gonzales—remember, he was not well loved by conservatives. It was not a popular appointment, and the president made it out of loyalty.
And here‘s what‘s—to me, what‘s interesting about this scandal is the, you know, sort of intensely familial—that the characters involved here are Alberta Gonzales, Harriet Miers, Karl Rove, all of them from that web of Texans whom Bush brought to Washington and who owe their entire careers to George W. Bush. And what this shows, once again, with Miers‘s involvement, Rove‘s and Gonzales‘s, is that a president who places loyalty over competence pays a price.
GREGORY: And that‘s really the rap from Republicans and Democrats and the legal community in Washington, is that this has been an incompetent, you know, White House counsel‘s office and Justice Department.
HARRIS: Sure, and it‘s been almost a textbook way of how not to handle yourself when you get in hot water, with the drip, drip, drip. You know, during the Clinton years, Lanny Davis made a whole industry about how to handle congressional inquiries, how to handle press inquiries and get the information out. They‘re basically following the exact opposite rule. They‘ve never had to play this game. For six of the eight years, there‘s been nobody with the power to sort of force out into the open e-mails. This is the first time we‘re seeing a window into the process.
GREGORY: I‘ve got about 20 seconds left, but I don‘t want to let you guys go without talking about California moving up its primary to February 5. Jay, are we going to know who the nominee is next February?
CARNEY: I think we‘ll know by the end of February, certainly. I think if—if other states, other big states follow suit and that becomes just a hyper-Tuesday primary day, then—then, you know, it will all be over. What we don‘t know is does this help moneyed candidates, establishment candidates, or does it help the—the supernova who suddenly takes some of those early primaries and then, boom...
GREGORY: Has a chance, really...
HARRIS: Right . I agree with that. I mean, it does turn super-Tuesday into super-duper Tuesday, unquestionably. It makes California relevant for the first time in decades.
GREGORY: All right. We‘re going to leave it there. Thank you to John Harris and Jay Carney.
Play HARDBALL with us again on Friday. We‘ll have all the news from former CIA agent Valerie Wilson‘s testimony under oath to Congress. It‘s the first time we‘ll hear her talking about the leak case.
Right now, it‘s time for “TUCKER.” I‘m David Gregory. Have a good night.
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