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Hardball with Chris Matthews, Transcript 01/22/15

Guests: John Riggins, Richard Haass, Glenn Thrush, Richard Haass, JonathanMartin

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Political football. Let`s play HARDBALL. Good evening. I`m Chris Matthews, on a night when the word Super Bowl isn`t a break from political intrigue, but an invitation to more intrigue. Someone deflated the footballs used in that New England Patriots big win over Indianapolis on Sunday. And whoever did it made those footballs just the way star quarterback Tom Brady likes them. We know that because he said that late this afternoon at a press conference. But if he didn`t deflate the footballs, who did? After listening to Brady, I realize there are four stages in getting a football onto the field. Stage 1, the NFL checks the ball`s pressure to see if it`s up to regulation. Stage 2, equipment managers, in this case for the New England Patriots, engage in some sort of process with the balls. Stage 3, Brady himself engages in a process with the balls. That was the term he used. Stage 4, the equipment managers get the footballs finally out onto the field. Well, question -- at what of stage of this chain of custody, if you will, did the pressure in those footballs get dropped below the regulation level? And why hasn`t the NFL, which says it`s investigating the matter, even spoken to Brady yet? What is the story here? Joining me right now is the great John Riggins, former star running back for the Washington Redskins, who was the Super Bowl MVP, most valuable player, back in `83, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in `92. I`m also joined by Rob Simmelkjaer, senior VP of sports at NBC. Gentlemen, thank you for joining us. Let`s take a look right now, here today, Patriots quarterback, as I said, Tom Brady, said he`s not a cheater -- he said those words -- and that he had no knowledge that the footballs had been tampered with. Here he is. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)   QUESTION: Are you comfortable within yourself that nobody on Sunday on the Patriots side did anything wrong? TOM BRADY, PATRIOTS QUARTERBACK: I have no knowledge of anything. I have no nothing of any wrongdoing, of... QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) anything wrong. BRADY: Yes, I`m very comfortable saying that. I`m very comfortable saying that nobody did -- as far as I know. I don`t know everything. I also understand that I, you know, was in the locker room preparing for a game for (INAUDIBLE) I don`t know what happened over the course of the process with the footballs. I was preparing for my own job, doing what I needed to do. (END VIDEO CLIP) MATTHEWS: Well, let me go -- John Riggins, this "process" is a word he used about 50 times in that half-hour press conference -- does that surprise you, how much work goes into -- equipment managers doing some kind of process with the football, as I mentioned, and then somehow, it gets to the quarterback, and he has to do a process, and then he finally says OK, and he sends it out to the field. The balls show up out there, and then he gets the balls in his hand again one at a time, obviously. What`s this all this processing about? JOHN RIGGINS, FMR. WASHINGTON REDSKIN: First of all, Chris, did you get the feeling you were watching Andy (sic) Haskell right there? MATTHEWS: Eddie Haskell? RIGGINS: Eddie Haskell. MATTHEWS: The one the parents like and the kids don`t?   RIGGINS: Exactly, that he, you know, says all the right things, but Eddie`s always got something going on on the side. You know, to me, at this point in time, I mean, I understand really what`s at stake here, and it`s something that -- you know, it`s all about the shield, the NFL shield, which is its integrity. At the same time, from having been a former player, I would say this. And you haven`t heard any of them say anything yet, and I don`t think they will. But if you`re an Indianapolis Colt, the last thing you`re going to look at somebody and tell them is, if they would have had two more pounds of air in that ball, we`d have won that game. So ultimately, my take on this is it`s the NFL`s problem, and it`s something that they obviously didn`t think was a big deal because they didn`t guard the balls. And they allowed whoever (sic) happened. I also would say, at this point in time, I`m surprised that they don`t have a full explanation of what happened because they know who the equipment people are. They know who the ball boys are. They know everything, Bill Belichick, and most of all, Robert Kraft. He employs everybody there. He is setting on information I`m sure that he is not ready to release yet, and they`re putting together their press release, and so on and so forth, but that`s what I see. And I don`t really see -- ultimately, what I`m trying to say is I don`t think it`s a big problem. I think that a quarterback, if he wants two less pounds in the air, did he -- did he really cheat? I look at it like this. You`re going to a stop sign. There ain`t nobody coming. You can see for 50 miles. You`re the only person there. You go through the stop sign. Well, you technically broke the law, but what did you hurt? MATTHEWS: Well, in this case, there was somebody coming in on the right, other way. It was the Indianapolis Colts, and that`s the question you raise. RIGGINS: Well, no, not at all, because I think Colts, they had the same -- they could do the same thing. I mean, what we`re talking here, in my mind... MATTHEWS: But they called them on it. Some player, a safety, a guy who intercepted the ball, called the Patriots on it, said, Look, there`s something wrong with this ball, turns it over to a ref, turns out the ball`s deflated below regulation. In fact, almost all the balls, 12 out of 13, whatever, are all below regulation. So they called them on it. It bothered them enough to call it. RIGGINS: Well, that`s the one thing I would say. First of all, if I ever rob a bank, I`m going to have Bill Belichick be my accomplice because I know when we get caught, and we will get caught, he`ll never roll over on me. (LAUGHTER) MATTHEWS: Well, we`ll see. I don`t know.   (CROSSTALK) MATTHEWS: I`m not sure he didn`t throw his quarterback under the bus and that the quarterback today didn`t throw some of those equipment handlers under the bus. Let me go to you, Rob. I don`t know about you, but I`m watching this chain of custody thing here. If the quarterback didn`t do it, if Belichick didn`t know about it because he didn`t give any orders for anybody to do it, then this thing about -- Brady denied it. He comes across really swell. And he says, basically, I got the football I liked. And when I got it in the -- wherever, in the training room, wherever they get the -- the locker room, and he`s looking at he balls, picking the ones he likes -- he liked it! So he liked the way the ball was pressurized. So what`s that tell you, that the equipment managers know what he`s like -- what he likes and they give it to him. Your thoughts. Because I`m just trying to figure this out. ROB SIMMELKJAER, NBC SPORTS: First of all, I feel like I`m back in law school with the chain of custody. This is like evidence class. I feel like I`m at law school here... MATTHEWS: Well, I just... (CROSSTALK) MATTHEWS: Yes, but I just watched the O.J. review on CNN last night, so I`m thinking like that. SIMMELKJAER: Yes, I mean, it`s crazy. But listen, I saw, obviously, Tom Brady`s press conference. Think the lady doth protest too much when it comes to Brady because I just can`t believe that Tom Brady does not have regular communications with the equipment people about how he likes the ball. He likes it scuffed up a certain way. He likes it inflated a certain way. He has said in the past in an interview in 2011 that he liked the ball to be a little bit on the less inflated side. And I`m sure he tells the equipment managers that. And so this is clearly something that he has communicated. Now, he should know, and probably does know, that there`s a limit below which you can`t go, and... (CROSSTALK)   SIMMELKJAER: ... he`s not saying -- exactly -- and I`m sure he`s not saying, Hey, guys, let`s go below that limit. I doubt he`s doing that. But you know... MATTHEWS: Well, then he`s lying because he said today, I like 12.5. So what is it? He says... (CROSSTALK) MATTHEWS: Well, that`s not -- that`s -- that is regulation, but the question is, the balls came in, the ones that were picked out in the game, all of them, except for one, were below that. SIMMELKJAER: Right. So the question is, how did they get below that? And that`s something that we just may never really know the answer to, Chris. That may be the frustrating conclusion to this is that no one ever figures out how the balls got below 12.5. One thing that really surprised me that Brady said today is that the NFL -- here we are Thursday, and the NFL still hasn`t spoken with him. So I`m trying to... MATTHEWS: What kind of an investigation... (CROSSTALK) SIMMELKJAER: ... investigation is going on when they still haven`t spoken to the quarterback, the only guy who touches the ball other than the center on every play, and here we are on Thursday. I`m confused about that. MATTHEWS: Well, you`re the lawyer, sir. Isn`t the rule in the courtroom don`t ask a question unless you know what the answer is? And maybe they don`t want anybody to say, I did it. Maybe they don`t want anybody to say, I did it. SIMMELKJAER: Yes, maybe they`re working their way up -- maybe they`re working their way up from the ball boy to the center, to who knows...   MATTHEWS: I don`t think so. SIMMELKJAER: ... and they`ll get to Brady last. I don`t know, but they`re going to have to talk to him if they really want to get to the bottom of this. MATTHEWS: OK, on Tuesday, the NFL`s executive vice president, Troy Vincent, said he hoped the investigation would take a few days. That was earlier this week. But today, Brady said that he had yet to be contacted even by the league in connection with this investigation. Let`s hear him. This is weirdly slow. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) QUESTION: Have they talked to you yet? The league has not spoken to you, contacted you and gotten your side of the story (INAUDIBLE) BRADY: No, but I -- you know, they may. They may. I think that`s their -- I think that`s obviously their choice. QUESTION: Tom, don`t you find that odd, though. If they wanted to, like Tom (ph) said, put this behind us and get ready for the Super Bowl, they would have contacted you (INAUDIBLE) BRADY: Sure. Yes, they might. QUESTION: I think it`s odd they haven`t at this point. You know, you`re the quarterback and you`re the center of the story right now, and the league`s officials investigating haven`t talked to you. That indicates to a lot +of people that they`re letting this drag on, twist in the wind. BRADY: I`m not sure. QUESTION: Have you been told that they will contact you?   BRADY: I`m not sure. (END VIDEO CLIP) MATTHEWS: When asked, actually, to verify whether or not Brady had been contacted, an NFL spokesman said they are not commenting on details of the review at this point. John Riggins, you`re a superstar for all of us... RIGGINS: (INAUDIBLE) MATTHEWS: No, you are. You are. And so -- is this going to screw the whole -- you know, on Super Bowl Sunday, you know that the first two or three hours of pre-game, which goes on forever, and everybody`s eating their guacamole or whatever, it`s all going to be about this. RIGGINS: You would think that. But I -- you know, and here`s the thing, like I said, getting back to some of the other comments I made earlier, is that the NFL -- this is a situation that they brought upon themselves. And ultimately, if you leave those footballs to whomever, and now you end up with a situation after somebody detects this, I mean, where do you go with this? What are you really trying to say here? Because I think 90 percent of the people that played this game would tell you that they think that the effect of the game is negligible. So... MATTHEWS: Not to Brady and not to those who want it a certain way. RIGGINS: Advantage -- I don`t -- I don`t see that. MATTHEWS: OK, here`s the question, John. Two hours before the game, they check the balls, all the balls to be used in the game, to make sure they fit between that -- between 12.5 and what, 13.5 in pressure. So they take it seriously. But then, as you point out, two hours passes, you know? A lot of things can happen. What -- are they -- obviously, people can change the pressure in that two hours. RIGGINS: Of course, they could. But here`s my -- here`s what I`m trying to hammer home here, is that if it is so important, why aren`t these balls guarded once all this process takes place? The other part of Tom Brady`s press conference that I found a little bit of a stretch was the fact that he talks where he goes in -- it sounds like he`s very intimate with these footballs, that he wants to know if they got the right feel (INAUDIBLE) I get the impression of a guy here who`s Type A, and he`s checking the pressure on these things. He says he likes 12.5, but the balls were 11. He`s got to tell somebody that, Hey, they`re low on air, I want a 12.5 ball. I would think he would know that. I would have to consider him, along with the other 20 -- or I guess it`s 31 quarterbacks -- they`re experts at what they do.   MATTHEWS: Yes. RIGGINS: If anybody knows it, it`s them. MATTHEWS: Well, let me go back -- let me go back to Rob. Can you scuff up a bay enough to take a pound of pressure or a couple pounds of pressure off it? Can you do that? Can you just rub it (INAUDIBLE) make this ball a little -- a little softer to the touch, give it -- have a little more give to it for the quarterback and the receiver? SIMMELKJAER: Listen, I`m not a physicist, but I mean, I don`t see why scuffing the surface of the ball should cause the air pressure to change. I mean, there`s a bladder inside the ball. That`s what holds the air. The surface, the so-called pigskin, is not what`s holding the air. The only thing I can really think of, and it`s been mentioned, is, listen, it was a cold day. I mean, I don`t know that the temperature can cause that much, you know, depressurization, if you will, of the ball in a couple of hours, but you know, I guess we need a scientist to figure that one out. MATTHEWS: Well... RIGGINS: Actually, I think he brings up a great point, Chris, because -- and that was something I was going to add, is the fact that the balls were probably -- the air pressure was probably checked where it was 70 degrees. Then you go out on the field, and I don`t know what the temperature was... (CROSSTALK) MATTHEWS: ... in the 40s. RIGGINS: I`m sorry? (CROSSTALK)   MATTHEWS: It wasn`t freezing. RIGGINS: Well, that`s a considerable drop in temperature, and you`re going to have -- you know, the molecules are not as excited in the air... (CROSSTALK) MATTHEWS: All I know is that the player on the Colts complained about it, gave it to the ref, and they found out that all the balls were wrong. Something`s wrong here. Anyway, thank you, John Riggins. And Rob Simmelkjaer, thank you, sir, for coming here. Coming up: Sabotage? Boehner declares war on the president`s nuclear negotiations with Iran. The speaker`s invited Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to slam the president during a joint meeting of Congress. That`s coming up. Netanyahu obviously has accepted the invitation. Plus, Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney square off. "The New York Times" is reporting that the two men, the two 2016 heavyweights, are meeting in a secret meeting today out in Utah to try to avoid a mutual battle of destruction. Also, Republicans have a rebellion on their hands. A group of women lawmakers have derailed the leadership`s bill to restrict abortions because it contained an all too familiar GOP skepticism about -- you won`t believe it -- allegations of rape. They got that problem again. And a new poll shows numbers with Hillary up double digits over Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush. Does that surprise you? Not me. This is HARDBALL, the place for politics. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)   MATTHEWS: Breaking news tonight out of Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah has died, according to Saudi state television. The king has ruled since 2000 -- or actually, 2005, previously running the country as a de facto regent when his half-brother who preceded him had the debilitating stroke. The official three-day mourning period has already begun in Saudi Arabia, and the king will be buried on Friday. He was 90 years old. And we`ll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Well, the White House is obviously stunned by the spectacle that John Boehner has orchestrated on Capitol Hill. Speaker Boehner stuck it to the president`s eye, directly in his eye, by inviting Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a fierce critic of Obama`s nuclear negotiations with Iran, to actually address a joint meeting of Congress come March 3rd. Speaker Boehner arranged the whole thing without ever consulting the White House. Netanyahu obviously accepted. The White House reacted with a statement saying President Obama will not even meet with Netanyahu when he comes to Washington. This is something I`ve never seen before. By the way, during yesterday`s briefing with reporters, Speaker Boehner made no apologies for the confrontation he is staging. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I did not consult with the White House. The Congress can make this decision on its own. I don`t believe I`m poking anyone in the eye. There is a serious threat that exists in the world, and the president last night kind of papered over it. And the fact is, is that there needs to be a more serious conversation in America about how serious the threat is from radical Islamic jihadists and the threat posed by Iran. (END VIDEO CLIP) MATTHEWS: Anyway, it`s going to be about Iran, it`s not going to be about jihadists. Anyway, behind closed doors, Speaker Boehner told Republicans, quote, "The president expects us to stand idly by and do nothing while he cuts a bad deal with Iran. Two words. Hell no. We`re going to do no such thing." Anyway, Glenn Thrush is senior writer with Politico, and Richard Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations.   Glenn, thank you for joining -- I have seen a lot of politics in all these years, and I`ve never seen anything so in your face as this, bringing a -- all right, a friendly foreign leader, or a friend of this country, but a man of the right, a Likud Party leader, the head of the Likud block with his own ideology and brand of politics, which is adversarial to that of this president. Bringing him to the Congress to address this country in the middle of a political debate, in fact, in the middle of very sensitive negotiations with Iran trying to avoid a war with Iran, and yet bringing him in here to put his thumb on the scale is to me ferocious hardball politics by Boehner. And I don`t even know where it came from. It`s hard for me to believe he thought of this, but maybe he`s getting just cranky in his politics. What do you make of it politically? GLENN THRUSH, POLITICO: Two words -- immigration reform. This is payback for President Obama acting, in Boehner`s view, unilaterally. I mean, there`s been howls for blood. Remember, Boehner faced a revolt from 24 of his own people during his leadership vote because he was perceived as being too weak in responding to the immigration stuff. This has everything to do with payback for having absorbed that. MATTHEWS: Well, Richard Haass, I want you to respond to this because it gets even tougher here from the Senate side. Democratic senator Bob Menendez, who`s the top Democrat on Foreign Relations -- he attacked the White House, calling it a mouthpiece for the Iranian government. This is Senator Menendez going after two White House officials at a hearing just yesterday. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. BOB MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: You know, I have to be honest with you. The more I hear from the administration and its quotes, the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran. And it feeds to the Iranian narrative of victimization, when they are the ones with original sin, an illicit nuclear weapons program going back over the course of 20 years that they are unwilling to come clean on. (END VIDEO CLIP) MATTHEWS: OK, Richard Haass, I know you know this well, better than I do. I am stunned by this kind of political performance. These -- any time you`re dealing with Israel, it`s tricky business politically. We all know that. You`ve got to be sensitive. But to go right in there, these two voices, accusing Tony Blinken of being a mouthpiece for Tehran, for the ayatollahs? Isn`t that a little beyond the usual politics we engage in in this country? RICHARD HAASS, PRESIDENT, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: You know, Chris, you and I both grew up in an era where politics was meant to stop at the water`s edge. I don`t think we live in that era anymore. That said, I don`t know who is going to be more unhappy with this, whether it`s the White House or the Israeli opposition... MATTHEWS: Yes.   HAASS: ... because this statement to the Congress will come literally days before the Israelis go to the polls in a critical election. (CROSSTALK) MATTHEWS: Are we`re going to hear from Tzipi Livni and the others, or just from Netanyahu and the Likud bloc? How about a little balance here once in a while? Just a thought. HAASS: I expect in this case we will only hear from the prime minister. MATTHEWS: Yes. HAASS: Look, I`m not sure what the question is right now. Should Mr. Boehner have done this? In my view, essentially not. Yes, he has the right to do it, but it`s tough enough carrying out a foreign policy in this world when the United States speaks with one voice. To try to do it when we speak with many voices, I think, is -- it just makes a difficult situation rougher. There`s lots of ways Congress can weigh in on Iran policy. And I`m just not sure this is necessarily the best way to do it. MATTHEWS: OK. If we`re looking at this in sharp partisan terms, which we might as well do at this point, because it`s a fait accompli, Glenn, this puts the Democrats behind the eight ball. I mean, we all know the politics, the role of the Jewish community and the Christian right, which is very much enamored of Israel. We all know the politics and the sensitivities. For any Democrat to come out and complain about what Netanyahu says is trouble right there. It just is because of what he represents, not who he is, but what he represents. Anyway, how do they deal with this, Glenn? What are they going to do, except snub him, which doesn`t make the president look good? Apparently, John Kerry has announced tonight he`s not going to meet with Netanyahu. That`s not very positive politics to just say, I`m not going to talk to him.   THRUSH: Well, the one thing about it is, Netanyahu`s behaved badly before, right? He was perceived -- and there was some -- there were either rumors or there were tapes, I forget which, in 2012 of saying incredibly nice things about Mitt Romney and then coming to the country not long before the 2012 election. So, this is not the first time that he`s sort of dived into the American political waters. MATTHEWS: Yes. THRUSH: I think the calculation the White House is making is that Netanyahu is going to overshoot the runway, that he`s going to appear ingracious. Remember, this is the guy who did -- do you remember the bomb thing at the U.N. with the sort of cartoon bomb scenario? (CROSSTALK) MATTHEWS: I can give you a couple of Netanyahu-isms, like you guys can give me back. Let me go to Richard on this, a couple ones. I was over there with Vice President Biden, who is a very strong 40-, 50-year friend of Israel`s. And what do they do? They announce a big housing settlement thing right while he`s there in his face. Netanyahu goes to France as a guest of France. What`s he do? Invite Jewish people to come leave France because it`s not a safe place to be and come to Israel. Graciousness is not his -- well, his normal behavior. What do you think he will do? Will he overshoot the runway or will he be Mr. Charm? HAASS: Well, he`s an extraordinarily capable politician. That`s the reason -- a reason he`s been in office as long as he did, but he`s going to make a powerful, powerful case, as he sees it, about why Iran is the greatest strategic threat not simply to his own country, but to countries of the region and to the world, and either implicit or explicit in his arguments is going to be that the United States is not taking a sufficiently robust stance vis-a-vis Iran.   He will argue for more sanctions. He will also argue for an outcome in the negotiations that`s probably unachievable. He essentially wants Iran out of the nuclear business. That`s beyond what could ever be negotiated. So, what he is because I think going to try to do is set the stage for opposition to any conceivable accord that would emerge from the talks. MATTHEWS: And then what? HAASS: Well... MATTHEWS: Is the administration right in saying that means war? HAASS: That`s not -- no. That could also mean more sanctions. And, look, Chris, what really matters more than whether we get an agreement with Iran is what Iran does in its laboratories and how well we can monitor it. So, you could have an agreement that could be a lousy agreement or you could have a situation without an agreement that could actually be acceptable, again, depending upon what Iran does and what kind of tabs we can keep on it. So I think this question of the agreement in the narrow sense is probably not necessarily the right place to put the entire focus. MATTHEWS: You mean they might stop in their march toward a nuclear weapon without a deal? HAASS: Exactly. Indeed, there`s a lot of diplomacy which often suggests that it`s less difficult to get outcomes short of formal agreements because the conversation we`re having, imagine if a formal agreement had to be debated in our Congress or in the Iranian political system. That would give the hard-liners on both sides a target to go after. It might actually be easier to finesse this without a formal agreement. MATTHEWS: Well, I always feel better after talking to you, Richard.   (LAUGHTER) MATTHEWS: Let me go back to Glenn on the hard-ass politics here. It seems to me that the Republican leadership had a problem until a few days ago. What we thought about them in terms of Jewish people generally, which we are really talking about the Jewish state over there, is this question -- and there are security concerns which are obviously real. They have Scalise over there, who is now notoriously known for having gone to a meeting organized by neo-Nazis. THRUSH: That`s right. That`s right. MATTHEWS: And that was the -- poor Matt Brooks over there at the Republican effort to -- outreach for Jewish people, I was thinking of him the other day, what a miserable job he has. And now he has got the greatest job in the world. We`re going to host Netanyahu here, our Republican leadership. So how much of that is playing around here, this sort of to sort of fix the wagon after they got caught with Scalise hanging around with David Duke? THRUSH: Yes, I think the DNC is printing up the Scalise T-shirts as we speak. No, you`re absolutely right. But it`s such -- whenever you talk about Israel and Jewish politics -- and I grew up in New York, so I have stewed in this stuff. It`s immensely complicated. And despite Mitt Romney really wrapping himself in the Israeli flag in 2012, they didn`t do substantially better with Jewish voters than they did in the previous cycle. MATTHEWS: I agree, not since Reagan. (CROSSTALK)   THRUSH: Yes, it`s going to be sloppy, but I also think it`s not going to be particularly consequential in terms of domestic politics. MATTHEWS: Yes. We will see. We will see, as they say in the movies. We will see. Hey, Richard, thank you so much from coming from the Council on Foreign Relations. And, Glenn Thrush, thank you for coming from Politico. Up next: Can Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush avoid a campaign of mutual destruction as they march into 2016? "The New York Times" reports the two elders of the party are meeting in private -- or secrecy is a better word - - today to chart a course for the White House. I don`t see how these two guys can get together. They`re against each other. It`s one or the other, guys, and I think Mitt Romney knows that most. And this is HARDBALL, the place for politics. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Well, a secret meeting took place today out in Utah between two big- time front-runners for the Republican nomination come 2016, Jeb Bush, of course, and Mitt Romney. While the meeting was originally scheduled before Mitt Romney announced his desire to run for president for a third time, their dueling presidential bids have already complicated an increasingly tense relationship between the two men. As Jonathan Martin reported this morning in "The New York Times," the original idea was for Mr. Bush, who announced his presidential ambitions in December, to show his respect for Mr. Romney. The meeting stayed on both men`s calendars, even as Mr. Romney took steps to test the presidential waters himself, moves that could make the meeting a tad awkward today.   Anyway, joining me right now is the man who broke the story, Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for "The New York Times." Jonathan, Mitt Romney ran one of the most rotgut campaigns I have ever seen in my life, totally, utterly negative, carpet-bombing. I don`t really particularly have to worry about Mitt Romney -- or, rather, Newt Gingrich`s feelings, but I have never seen such a devastating Dresden-style bombing campaign, both he and Rick Santorum. Now he`s sitting there making nice with Jeb Bush? I don`t think so. I get the feeling Romney is going to run this third time with a much nastier ends-justify-the-means sort of approach than we have ever seen before from him. Your thinking? JONATHAN MARTIN, SENIOR POLITICAL WRITER, POLITICO.COM: Well, that`s what the Republican donor elite is worried about, Chris. And that`s why I think you have a lot of Republicans at the senior level of the party who are happy that this meeting has taken place, because to them it`s at least some indication there`s a possibility that these two party elders, as you put it, could work out a deal and one of them could perhaps step back. I`m not saying that`s going to happen. MATTHEWS: Mitt ain`t going to step back at this point. MARTIN: But at least that possibility exists out there if the two of them have enough of a relationship to actually meet one another privately. So, look, it`s still very much an open question as to whether or not both of them are going to run. It increasingly looks like they will. But there`s still a possibility that Romney especially does not go forward. MATTHEWS: When I look back at people, you can`t get too many examples, other models, but it seems to me when politicians lose the first time they run, they always run more aggressively the second time. They don`t say, I was too aggressive the first time.   MARTIN: No. MATTHEWS: They get nastier. They get to the point of, I`m not losing again. MARTIN: Right. MATTHEWS: And this guy, going for the third, it doesn`t look like he`s going to give too much quarter in that meeting today to Jeb and say, well, maybe, Jeb, you ought to get in this race, and it`s going to be like a couple guys, a fraternity guys together, Ivy Leaguers, we will be sweet with each other. It`s not going to be -- there`s no 11th commandment. By the way, that was George Romney`s idea, the 11th commandment, his father`s. Say no evil of fellow Republicans. That ain`t happening. MARTIN: Yes. Yes. Both of these fellows have been through some tough races, and I don`t think they`re afraid to throw some punches. But I think they also want to see the party take back the White House. And I think there`s pressure on them from senior people in right party to avoid a bloodbath come 2016. MATTHEWS: Yes. MARTIN: So, even if they both do wind up running, I think there`s going to be some pressure on them to not carve up each other too much to allow somebody else who perhaps would have a harder time winning the general to get nominated. But, Chris, the secret nature of the meeting between the sort of two formidable figures reminds me of a moment in history that I know you`re familiar with, and that`s when Nixon and Rockefeller got together in Manhattan, and sort of talked about, you know, cutting a deal. That was a long meeting, and it ultimately worked out. Rockefeller didn`t run. Nixon got the nomination and the presidency.   MATTHEWS: Yes, well, it made Nixon look like a wimp. (LAUGHTER) MATTHEWS: Anyway, let me show you something right now. This is an attack ad that Romney had ready for the 2008 campaign, his first run, and didn`t run, but it was linked to McKay Coppins of BuzzFeed, posted today, and it was aimed squarely at Romney`s former Republican opponent Mike Huckabee. But the ad never actually aired. But here it is. It just happened to leak today, showing that Mitt Romney does have bullets in his gun. Here it goes. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, MITT ROMNEY CAMPAIGN AD) MITT ROMNEY (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I`m Mitt Romney and I approve this message. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is my daughter. She was pregnant with her first child. She was murdered by a serial rapist, released early from prison in Arkansas. It was Mike Huckabee`s intent that Wayne DuMond be released from prison. It`s a pattern of bad judgment, very bad judgment. I don`t know how you could trust that person with the highest power in our country. (END VIDEO CLIP) MATTHEWS: I think it was Lee Atwater that said, I`m going to make Willie Horton the running mate of Mike Dukakis. MARTIN: Right.   MATTHEWS: They are -- isn`t this showing, at least by the memory of this terrible ad that they didn`t run, the fact that it just happened to leak today -- was this a signal from the Romney people, look out, I`m coming in shooting this time and I`m going to kill Huckabee in his bed and I`m going to get rid of Jeb Bush too if I have too. This is a tough ad, accusing... (CROSSTALK) MATTHEWS: ... Willie Horton release. (CROSSTALK) MARTIN: Yes. It`s a really tough ad. And, yes, I think it`s very possible that that could be a message being sent. But I also think that if the Romney folks wanted to send a message today after our story in the paper, they would have leaked something about Jeb Bush somewhere, I think they want to send a clear signal about his intentions. MATTHEWS: Yes, but then you get him ticked off and he won`t quit. MARTIN: Well, that`s possible, but I think it`s unlikely that Jeb pulls back at this point. He`s moving around really aggressively, and I think Romney is still figuring this thing out. MATTHEWS: Yes.   Well, it`s a great race. Some said today, one of our producers, 16 candidates that seem credible running? (CROSSTALK) MARTIN: It could be more than that, Chris. MATTHEWS: What`s your count? MARTIN: It could be even more than that. Look, I think right now you have got enough prospective candidates to fill out a football team on both sides of the ball. MATTHEWS: Wow. (CROSSTALK) MARTIN: It could be over 20. It could be over 20. Now, who knows who actually runs when all is said and done, but I think you have got a really big Republican field, all kinds of candidates. It`s like Noah`s Arc, you know, two of everything. MATTHEWS: Yes, all the way from libertarian to Ted Cruz. It`s a pretty wide field. Thank you so much. Great reporting. Congratulations on the scoop, Jonathan Martin.   MARTIN: Thanks, Chris. MATTHEWS: Up next: Republicans pull back their own -- pull back their own abortion bill today, by the way. The party is again haunted by that issue of rape. This time, a group of Republican women have scuttled the party`s bill over its proposed treatment of female victims of rape. You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Well, Both Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock were Republican Senate candidates in 2012 and both men lost largely due to their comments on the matter of rape. That`s right, rape, creating a cautionary tale for the Republican Party. Just to refresh your memory, here they are. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. TODD AKIN (R), MISSOURI: It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that`s really rare. If it`s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. RICHARD MOURDOCK (R), INDIANA SENATORIAL CANDIDATE: I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen. (END VIDEO CLIP)   MATTHEWS: Well, you would think the party would learn a lesson, avoid talking about rape, specifically whether or not it`s legitimate or not. Well, last night, House leadership abruptly pulled a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks. That bill measure included an exception for rape, if the rape had been reported at any time prior to the abortion to an appropriate law enforcement agency, in other words, if somebody had gone to the law over this, in other words, proof it was a legitimate rape. A group of women and moderate Republicans led the charge to pull the built. Anyway, "National Journal" reports Representative Marsha Blackburn, who has been on this show may times, a lead co-sponsor of the bill, gave an impassioned speech in conference noting that, because of the rape clause, the GOP was again fumbling over the sensitive subject, instead of talking about other issues, according to sources in that meeting. MATTHEWS: Joining me right now, the HARDBALL roundtable tonight. Former RNC chairman Michael Steele, spokesperson for Emily`s List, Marcy Stech, and Howard Fineman, global editorial director, of course, of "The Huffington Post". Marcy, I`ve got to start with you, obviously. But this is really politics, not exactly values. So, these are argument choice and life, the usual debates. You know, Franklin Roosevelt, one of our heroes, my hero, I think Howard`s, once said, don`t mention the word "rope" in a family where there`s been a hanging. Now, why did the Republicans go back to the word "rape" when they lost two Senate races over it, because men especially, especially men of a certain age sound like idiots when they say, well, legitimate rape, in other words, was she really raped? You know, and that kind of stuff. Women don`t like the sound of that. MARCY STECH, EMILY`S LIST: Yes, it`s clear that Republicans have not learned a lesson. I mean, we saw this happen in 2012. In 2014, we saw them blur their records and get by without a Todd Akin moment. Last night, while they pulled the bill, they were still able today to get to a place where they passed a bill that was also equally as dangerous. So, it`s not just about this particular issue. It`s not just about the politics of this. This is their agenda, they`re dead set on it, and they`re moving forward with it. MATTHEWS: Well, I know the Republican Party platform, because unlike most Republicans, I read it occasionally, and it does say, you`re for the 14th Amendment rights of an unborn child, a fetus, if you will. So, you`re basically saying against abortion in principle. MICHAEL STEELE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.   MATTHEWS: That`s pretty clear. But why about -- what`s this thing about rape and why does your party get into this yucky thing of saying, well, if she really was raped? Let`s see some legal documentation to prove it, because we don`t want to go by her word. A woman`s word that she`s been raped, almost a capital offense should be enough. STEELE: You thank God for Marsha Blackburn and the women inside the caucus who said, gentlemen, shut up, pull the bill and let`s start over. This is not the conversation we should be having. The politics of this, to your point, is today is the March for Life in Washington. So, you have -- this is an homage, a bill to the base to this core constituency of the GOP. I find that in and of itself offensive -- as a pro-life Catholic, I find that offensive that you`re just going to -- oh, pass a bill on pro- life day. Oh, I feel so much better now, you`re doing so much for us. But at the end of the day, the women of the GOP inside the House are asserting themselves. And that`s a good thing. They`re putting the men in check. Now, look, you may not like what ultimately came out. And that`s your position, that`s your political position, that`s your -- you know, your moral position. But at least now you`ve got some voices inside the caucus in particular that can help temper some of these Todd Akin moments, if you will. MATTHEWS: You know, Howard, I think there`s two different people we`re talking about here. There are women Republicans who know what they`re talking about, because they`re women, they know about reproductive health, they know about reproductive reality. And then you take Republican men, it`s like, let`s go to the worst quadrant of American life, men who are conservatives who know the least about this stuff. HOWARD FINEMAN, THE HUFFINGTON POST: As is often the case it`s the women sensible about this, among other issues. MATTHEWS: That will get you home tonight.   FINEMAN: It will. I do think it`s moderately good news for the Republican Party that they came to their senses last night about this. It`s one of first signs that I`ve seen, actually that they really are going to try to win the 2016 election. And I think that`s significant. I think that`s significant. Whether they`ll be able to control themselves is questionable, because you`re going to have the Iowa caucuses. For example, just this weekend all of the pro-life candidates are going to be trouping out to Iowa to tell the evangelicals in Iowa how much they care about banning abortion entirely, constitutional amendment, human life amendment. That`s at the core of the Republican Party base. So, they`re getting smarter, perhaps, in Congress, but the grassroots are still there to be -- MATTHEWS: And the pro-choice women are certainly on their tail (ph). Earlier today, Democratic Congresswoman Diana DeGette commented on the decision by the Republican leadership to pull the bill. Here she is, and she`s a very strong pro-choice person. Here she is. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. DIANE DEGETTE (D), COLORADO: I`ve been in Congress for 18 years now. I`ve been the co-chair of the pro-choice caucus for a number of those years. I`ve never seen the Republican leadership have to pull a bill like this, a bill like this. And let`s remember, the Republicans have their biggest majority since the 1920s. I think at least they Republican women realize this is a divisive issue and it`s not going to go to help families and women in this country. (END VIDEO CLIP) FINEMAN: That`s my point. That`s exactly your point. MATTHEWS: You know, I got to say, it`s very much a partisan issue. In the Democratic convention, you`ll hear the word "choice" many, many times. It means one thing, the right to choose in regard to an abortion, reproductive rights. Republican convention, I`m not sure you still push the other side as hard. Is that fair? STEELE: Well, push the pro-life? MATTHEWS: Yes.   STEELE: They do. I mean, when you get closer to the convention, you do have much more noise, if you will, for people within the party who want to further strengthen the convention. MATTHEWS: Really? I don`t hear much from the candidates. (CROSSTALK) FINEMAN: Wait a minute. They don`t give big primetime speeches anymore -- STEELE: Did you hear me say that? FINEMAN: No. STEELE: No, you didn`t hear me say that. What you heard me say is you have activists who push the subject at the convention. It doesn`t mean it gravitates to that level. MATTHEWS: But not the candidate. STEELE: But not the candidate. STECH: Well, look, we`re 15 days into the new Republican Congress, all eyes on them. Here we are the last 24 hours, have been a banner 24 hours for them, fumbling, causing chaos within their own caucus. But the reason why they wanted to change this was about optics. It wasn`t actually about the substance. If you listen to Renee Ellmers, who was as woman who stood up and said, this is going to look bad with millennials. It wasn`t actually about the substance of it, it was about optics. That`s who motivates them with women voter.   MATTHEWS: Is that fair? STEELE: It`s not just optics. (CROSSTALK) MATTHEWS: Are you saying they mistrust a woman`s witness to having been raped? They were willing to go on the record as a party and say, we as a party don`t trust women? STECH: I think that is very clear. It`s not just on choice. They don`t trust them --. (CROSSTALK) MATTHEWS: Hang on, everybody. FINEMAN: They found a safer way to deal with the optics, at least for one day. MATTHEWS: I think sometimes the optics actually see something that`s real. Anyway, the roundtable is staying with us. And up next, Hillary Clinton finds herself in a familiar territory. She`s got a commanding lead in the new polls for the presidency. This is HARDBALL, the place for politics. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)   MATTHEWS: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie hasn`t recovered from the George Washington Bridge lane closure story, which I don`t believe is anywhere near over, by the way. Christie`s had his lowest approval ratings in four years, according to a new Quinnipiac poll. Forty-six percent of New Jersey voters say they approve the job Christie is doing, versus 48 percent who don`t. Besides the bridge, Christie is taking a hit because the economy in his home state hasn`t recovered as quickly as it has elsewhere in the country. And we`ll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Well, there is good news for Hillary Clinton again, according to a new ABC/"Washington Post" poll. The former secretary of state holds a double digit lead over potential GOP rival Jeb Bush in a hypothetical 2016 match up. I don`t think it`s so hypothetical. The poll also shows Secretary Clinton with a 15-point lead over Mitt Romney as a potential rival. For more on the 2016, back now with the roundtable, Michael, Marcy and Howard. I want to start with Michael here. STEELE: Yes. MATTHEWS: I mean, a lot of this is name ID. Everybody knows Hillary Clinton, the world, even the global "Huffington Post" director knows her. Everybody knows her. And the fact is 85 percent of Democrats in a recent poll like this week we saw, get in there, go Hillary go. So, she`s very much -- she is almost like a Republican candidate, it`s her turn.   STEELE: It`s her turn. MATTHEWS: In the other side, your party has got people like Jeb up against Mitt for the establishment part. And you got people out of the ring, like Rahm what`s his name? Rand Paul, not Rahm Emanuel. Rand Paul. FINEMAN: That`s going to be a story. STEELE: That`s going to be a story. MATTHEWS: By the way, in "Good Wife", they suggest they will be running anyway, the mayor of Chicago. So, is your party still just a little bit in disarray even though it`s not alliterative, just disarray like you can`t be Democrats in disarray, it`s Republicans in disarray? STEELE: Well, it`s not even really disarray because no one has really kind of jumped in full board and said, hey, I`ve got a campaign, I`m running. So, this is still the early stages of setting up and positioning. That`s a natural part. You`ve got a lot of folks. You`ve got 25 or 30 people potentially. That`s going to whittle down. I mean, you know, this is the way it is. I can`t help that the Democrats don`t have a bench. That`s not my problem. We have a very good bench. We`ve got governors, senators and the like, and the reality at the end of the day, they`ve got Hillary, that`s about it, and we`ve got a whole array of folks -- MATTHEWS: Who do you think can beat her? STEELE: Pretty much all of them. MATTHEWS: You`re such a chairman of the party.   Let me ask, Marcy -- Hillary Clinton, I keep wanting to figure this out -- another tricky thing like Israel, what else are we talking about tonight, abortion rights, does he run as a woman or is that just implicit? STECH: Well, look -- MATTHEWS: Obama was very careful about this. He ran as a son of immigrants, he put it together, kind of an interesting melange. You know what I mean? He was very interesting. So, everyone felt they had a piece of him, you know? STECH: Yes, exactly. I think if you look at this poll, we see that Democrats and the country is ready for a woman candidate, but we know that -- MATTHEWS: Per se. STECH: Well, if you look at that poll. MATTHEWS: They want to happen, per se. STECH: Yes, absolutely. It is 2015, it is time. But what we know is that voters don`t for women just because they`re women. They vote for a set of policies. They vote for values. They vote for people who are on their side. And if you look at what she has done in her career, should she decide to run, it`s going to be centered around economic opportunity for women and for families. She`s going to be talking about things like paid family leave and -- MATTHEWS: Current domestic issues. STECH: Exactly --   MATTHEWS: Howard -- (CROSSTALK) FINEMAN: Now, she benefits from the passage of time. Because going back to 2008, it turns out that it was Barack Obama who made demographic history. STEELE: Yes. FINEMAN: But now, women in politics, I think, will become such an accepted thing that she doesn`t have to run as a demographic path breaker. That`s just there. And as a matter of fact, there is pulling evidence to show that. Most people in new polls say it doesn`t make any difference. MATTHEWS: Is it already broken? FINEMAN: Yes, it`s already. And so, she can`t -- as a matter of fact, she can`t run as a history making woman candidate. That`s actually been settled by the passage of time more than her own -- MATTHEWS: So, no Bradley effect at the last minute? No last minute pull back from the polling, like we thought we had for Obama? FINEMAN: No, I don`t think so anymore. I really don`t. So, she benefits. MATTHEWS: You know what I mean, people say one thing in the poll and then the next day they vote differently? I think, I don`t know -- FINEMAN: If he runs as a person trying to make history, that`s not the way to do it.   MATTHEWS: By the way, Michael made a shot at her here. She`s getting off of her private plane, like there`s something wrong -- STEELE: Hey, $300,000 a speech. Just saying, you know? Come on. Be president. MATTHEWS: What part of that is bad? (LAUGHTER) STEELE: For Hillary, not a lot. MATTHEWS: Michael Steele, Marcy Stech and Howard Fineman. When we return, let me finish with a tribute to the 50th anniversary of the passing of the greatest man of the 20th century, Britain`s World War II leader Winston Churchill. You`re watching HARDBALL, the place for politics. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MATTHEWS: Let me finish tonight with this. This Saturday marks 50 years since the passing of the greatest man of the 20th century, Britain`s World War II leader Winston Churchill. Churchill, I think, would have been one of the most impressive people of the 21st century even if he had not done what he did. What he did, standing up to Hitler in those months when Britain had to stand alone, would save the honor of the 20th century.   My hero did have one bad habit, quote, "All of the years I have been in the House of Commons," he said, "I always said to myself one thing, do not interrupt, and I have never been able to keep to that resolution." Well, I know that problem all too well. What he had was the courage to speak out when others didn`t. When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, Churchill was right from the beginning about the Nazis. He saw them building a war machine. And when war came, he alone had a the street cred to face down Adolf Hitler and to say Britain would never surrender. Churchill knew that national morale in politics was everything. He talked to the British people of serving their country in its finest hour, because he knew what that meant to them because it`s what it meant to him. He lost a half dozen elections in his life, but he had nothing but contempt for those who loved the word democracy but rejected free elections. "Democracy is not a harlot in the street to be picked up by some men with a Tommy gun," he said. "Democracy is based on reason, a sense of fair play, and freedom and a respect for other people." And most of all, though he wanted public support, though he liked, like all of us, to be popular, he was ready to stand alone. As John Meacham wrote in "Franklin and Winston", when Hitler dominated the continent, staring across the English Channel, Winston Churchill stood there alone and stared. "What is the use of living", he asked, "If it`s not to strive for nobler cause and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone." It`s HARDBALL for now. Thanks for being with us. "ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" starts right now. THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. 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