Purporting to ask "tough" questions, Matthews repeatedly failed to challenge McCain

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN & RYAN CHIACHIERE

During his April 15 interview with Sen. John McCain, Chris Matthews failed to challenge McCain on a variety of issues, including Iraq, other foreign policy issues, campaign finance, and spending projects, despite purporting to ask "tough" questions.

On the April 15 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, host Chris Matthews said to Sen. John McCain, "Let me ask you a tough one here," before asking McCain, "Is [Sen.] Barack Obama an elitist?" Over the course of the program, Matthews failed to challenge McCain on several issues, including statements regarding Iraq policy, other foreign policy issues, campaign finance, and spending projects, despite purporting to ask "tough" questions. In advance of the interview, Media Matters for America had asked: Which Chris Matthews will show up for the interview with McCain -- the Chris Matthews who boasts a "tough, fearless," and "blunt" television program or the one who conducts himself as if, in his own words, he "loves McCain"?

  • Purporting to ask a "tough" question, then helping out with the answer

Matthews introduced his first question to McCain by saying, "The toughest question first -- it's for you." He added, "[H]ere we go. The tough one, and it is tough. Right now, President Bush has a favorability as of today of 28 percent in the polls, the Gallup poll. How will you be different than President Bush?" McCain pointed to one specific policy area, stating, "[W]hat's an area of disagreement? Climate change. Climate change. I believe that climate change is real, and I have said that for many, many years." After McCain's reply, Matthews helpfully reminded McCain of another area in which the senator says he differs from Bush: "You're also -- you disagree with him on torture." McCain began, "Absolutely. And could I take a few seconds on that?"

  • Failing to ask how McCain can accept Bush's endorsement after Bush defended his administration's use of waterboarding

McCain said he wanted to discuss torture because "it's important" and "because I think it's what America is all about and what kind of country we are." He later added that "for the future of this country, we have to make sure that we remain a nation that does not do things that our enemies do," and reiterated, "[T]hat's a very important question about what kind of a country we are, and what kind of country we've been and what kind of country we'll be in the 21st century." Matthews did not follow up by asking how, based on what McCain had just said, he could campaign with President Bush, who, in an April 11 interview with ABC News White House correspondent Martha Raddatz, said that he approved of senior White House officials authorizing the use of waterboarding -- an interrogation tactic that McCain has called "very exquisite torture." Nor did Matthews ask McCain how he could appear with Bush and accept his endorsement in March, after the president appeared to defend the use of waterboarding during a February 10 interview on Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday.

  • Failing to challenge McCain's distortion of Biden's Iraq position

Matthews told McCain that Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) "said you're joined at the hip today with the administration on the future of Iraq policy -- joined at the hip." McCain responded, in part, "Joe Biden wanted to divide Iraq into three countries. I rejected that idea as unsound and a threat to our security." However, Biden did not propose "divid[ing] Iraq into three countries." Rather, one of the central elements of Biden's plan for Iraq -- as Biden explained in a May 1, 2006, New York Times op-ed -- was "to establish three largely autonomous regions with a viable central government in Baghdad."

  • Failing to press McCain on his inconsistent position on the need for a Korea-like troop presence in Iraq

During the interview, McCain addressed a comparison between the situation in Iraq and America's troop presence in South Korea. Matthews asserted, "You said we will have a military presence for 100 years, which will be a period like our occupation in Japan -- or our occupation, actually, in Korea and Germany. But in Japan -- we had a Republican president elected in '52. He went to Korea. He signed an armistice. And we've had 55 years of only limited casualties. Only in, like, one year in the '60s, we had a bad year. Generally, it's only been 90 people killed, all the way back through '53. How do we get to that point in Iraq, where we can have this 100 years or endless period of military presence?" McCain responded: "In South Korea -- the point you made -- there was an armistice. We maintained a military presence there. Americans were fine for that because it provided stability and it was a deterrent from North Korea again attacking South Korea. So, that security arrangement was fine. After this war is won, then we may or may not. I hope that maybe there's a security arrangement such as we have with Kuwait or other countries, but maybe not." He added, "But Chris, the point is American casualties. If we'd have had a continuous loss of brave young Americans in South Korea after the armistice, I think Americans would have said, 'Bring them home.' "

But Matthews failed to point out McCain's inconsistency on the need for a Korea-like troop presence in Iraq. As Media Matters noted, on the November 27, 2007, edition of PBS' Charlie Rose, McCain was asked by host Charlie Rose if South Korea "is an analogy of where Iraq might be ... in terms of an American presence over the next, say, 20, 25 years, that we will have a significant amount of troops there." McCain replied, "I don't think so." Rose then asked: "Even if there are no casualties?" McCain replied, "No. But I can see an American presence for a while. But eventually I think because of the nature of the society in Iraq and the religious aspects of it that America eventually withdraws."

By contrast, during a January 3 town hall meeting in Derry, New Hampshire, a participant said to McCain: "President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for 50 years." McCain interjected: "Maybe 100. ... We've been in South Korea; we've been in Japan for 60 years. We've been in South Korea for 50 years or so. That'd be fine with me as long as Americans ... as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed, then it's fine with me. I hope it would be fine with you if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where Al Qaeda is training, recruiting, and equipping, and motivating people every single day."

  • Failing to point out McCain may have violated public financing system spending limits

Matthews allowed McCain to assert, "Senator Obama, a year ago, signed a piece of paper that said that if the Republican nominee would take the public financing ... he would, too." Matthews then asked, "Are you going to hold him to that ... if he gets the nomination?" However, at no point did Matthews point out that, as Media Matters has noted, McCain may have violated campaign finance laws by surpassing spending limits under the public financing system for the primary period. FEC chairman David Mason has taken the position that McCain cannot unilaterally opt out of public financing in the primary without FEC approval, meaning that every day that McCain spends beyond the limits of the public financing system, he could be breaking federal law.

Later, discussing an interview on the April 15 edition of MSNBC's Race for the White House, Matthews touted the exchange, asserting that McCain "said he's going to stick it to Barack Obama if he is the Democratic nominee on the issue of federal funding. He said Barack Obama promised publicly that he would go along with any Republican who agreed to limit their spending to federal money. He's going to stick it to him on that." Neither Matthews nor host David Gregory noted McCain's possible violation of federal campaign finance laws.

  • Ignoring McCain's previous statements on "rogue-state rollback"

Asked by a member of the audience whether he still supports a "rogue-state rollback" foreign policy, which he has previously advocated, McCain replied: "[W]ith the proliferation of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction, we have to do what's necessary to try to prevent those countries from acquiring those weapons which could destroy us." He later added, "We can exercise and effectively act together with other nations, diplomatically, trade, economic, and other ways. In other words, I wasn't saying that we go around and declare war. I am saying we nations of like values, principles, and the belief in democracy and freedom should make efforts to modify the behavior of those countries." However, Matthews did not point out that McCain has previously described "rogue-state rollback" as a policy in which, as president, he "would arm, train, equip, both from without and from within, forces that would eventually overthrow the governments and install free and democratically elected governments." Asked by moderator and CNN host Larry King during a February 15, 2000, CNN Republican presidential candidates forum "what area of American international policy would you change immediately as president," McCain replied:

McCAIN: China is obviously a place where this -- one of the signal failures of this administration. Although there are certainly many failures throughout the world.

But I would also look very -- revise our policies concerning these rogue states: Iraq, Libya, North Korea -- those countries that continue to try to acquire weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them. As long...

KING: And you'd do what?

McCAIN: I'd institute a policy that I call "rogue state rollback." I would arm, train, equip, both from without and from within, forces that would eventually overthrow the governments and install free and democratically elected governments.

As long as Saddam Hussein is in power, I am convinced that he will pose a threat to our security. "The New York Times" reported just a few days ago that administration officials worry that Saddam Hussein continues to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Congress passed a law a couple of years ago, called the Iraqi Liberation Act; the administration has done nothing. We should help them with arms, training, equipment, radio and a broad variety of ways. Until those governments are overthrown, they will pose a threat to U.S. national security.

An April 15 entry on the ABC News blog Political Radar described McCain's claim on Hardball as "directly at odds with the description of 'rogue-state rollback' that the Arizona senator offered during his 2000 presidential campaign."

  • "[Y]ou've been a maverick ..."

As Media Matters noted, despite questioning a few days earlier how people could "still think" McCain is "a straight-talk maverick when he's been in league with the president," Matthews asserted during the April 15 interview with McCain: "Let me ask you about your Republican Party, because you've been a maverick and a lot of people like you because of that. And I want to ask you how much of a maverick you are."

From the April 15 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: So, this is what it's like to be president, right this moment. It's going to be like this if you make it. You're a flip of the coin away from being the president of the United States, based on all the polls. You're about 50-50. The toughest question first -- it's for you. Ha!

McCAIN: Can I -- can I ask --

[laughter]

MATTHEWS: The question is --

McCAIN: Can I -- can I ask you a question first?

MATTHEWS: No.

McCAIN: Cheesesteaks: Pat's or Geno's?

[cheering and applause]

McCAIN: You refuse to answer?

MATTHEWS: The answer is, take your chances. Ha!

[laughter]

MATTHEWS: Let me go -- here we go. The tough one, and it is tough. Right now, President Bush has a favorability as of today of 28 percent in the polls, the Gallup poll. How will you be different than President Bush?

McCAIN: Well, I think that there's many philosophies and views and vision that we share for America. There are other areas, specific areas, in which we are in disagreement.

Chris, I think the American people will judge their -- or make their choice for the presidency on who they believe -- not only their record, but how they articulate a vision for the future. That's why forums like these, very honestly, are things that are important to me to be on so I can communicate directly not only with the people of this country but with the young people of this nation. So --

MATTHEWS: Well, let's get to that.

McCAIN: -- what's an area of disagreement? Climate change. Climate change. I believe that climate change is real. I think we have to act, and I have said that for many, many years.

[...]

MATTHEWS: You're also -- you disagree with him on torture.

McCAIN: Absolutely. And could I take a few seconds on that? Because I think it's important because I think it's what America is all about and what kind of country we are. We should never, ever torture anyone who is in the custody of the United States of America because --

[applause]

McCAIN: -- because the struggle we're in with radical Islamic extremism, which is going to be with us for decades -- and that is that it's a military, diplomatic, intelligence, and ideological struggle. If we're not any better than our enemies, then doesn't make it harder for young people to choose.

I was in Baghdad over Thanksgiving last year. I met with a high-ranking member -- former high-ranking member of Al Qaeda. I asked him, I said, "How did you do so well after the initial military success that the Americans and the coalition forces had?" He said two things: One was the lawlessness that in the environment that took place after the Americans and their allies won the military victory. He said, but the second was Abu Ghraib. He said, "Abu Ghraib was my greatest recruiting tool." Everybody here knows what Abu Ghraib was.

So, my point is that for the future of this country, we have to make sure that we remain a nation that does not do things that our enemies do. And I promise you, my friends, I'll close Guantánamo Bay, and we will never torture another person in our custody again.

[applause]

McCAIN: And I know we have a full hour, but I'll make my further answers shorter, but that's a very important question about what kind of a country we are and what kind of country we've been and what kind of a country we'll be in the 21st century.

MATTHEWS: I want to get back to that in a moment about the vision that you have for your presidency. Let me ask you a tough one. That's Joe Biden, the ranking member of -- you're smiling? He's the ranking member. He's right from near here, the state of Delaware, of course. He's the ranking -- he's actually the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee -- and he said --

McCAIN: A good guy. A really -- one of the good guys.

MATTHEWS: And he said you're joined at the hip today with the administration on the future of Iraq policy -- joined at the hip.

McCAIN: Why should I be surprised that Joe Biden -- not surprised that Joe Biden in the year 2008 would be disagreeing with me? Look, I have open and honest discussions with Joe Biden, and they're respectful ones. He's a fine man. We have a fundamental difference of opinion about what we should be doing there, as we have for a long time. Joe Biden wanted to divide Iraq into three countries. I rejected that idea as unsound and a threat to our security.

[...]

MATTHEWS: Well, let me ask you about that because I'd like to talk about that. You said we will have a military presence for 100 years, which will be a period like our occupation in Japan -- or our occupation, actually, in Korea and Germany. But in Japan -- we had a Republican president elected in '52. He went to Korea. He signed an armistice. And we've had 55 years of only limited casualties. Only in, like, one year in the '60s, we had a bad year. Generally, it's only been 90 people killed, all the way back through '53. How do we get to that point in Iraq, where we can have this 100 years or endless period of military presence?

McCAIN: First of all, the conversation was at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire. I believe in town hall meetings. I think they're so important, and not only so that I can hear from people, but we can have an exchange. And I was in a back-and-forth with an individual, and he said, "Well, you're going to be there for 50 years" -- I said, "Maybe 100, after the war is over."

In South Korea -- the point you made -- there was an armistice. We maintained a military presence there. Americans were fine for that because it provided stability and it was a deterrent from North Korea again attacking South Korea. So, that security arrangement was fine. After this war is won, then we may or may not. I hope that maybe there's a security arrangement such as we have with Kuwait or other countries, but maybe not.

But Chris, the point is American casualties. If we'd have had a continuous loss of brave young Americans in South Korea after the armistice, I think Americans would have said, "Bring them home."

MATTHEWS: Yeah.

McCAIN: But as you said, we didn't. So, the key to it is American casualties. And so, I believe those casualties are declining. I believe it's long and hard and tough, as we've just seen in the last couple weeks with this uptick in violence and more losses. So, I think that, over time, as the Iraqis take over more and more of their responsibilities for their own security, then American troops withdraw and gradually withdraw.

[...]

MATTHEWS: So you'll take the federal money in the general?

McCAIN: Pardon me?

MATTHEWS: You'll take the federal money and not take --

McCAIN: I certainly will, with utmost consideration, do that. Senator Obama, a year ago, signed a piece of paper that said that if the Republican nominee would take the public financing --

MATTHEWS: Right.

McCAIN: -- he would, too.

MATTHEWS: Are you going to hold him to that --

McCAIN: Now --

MATTHEWS: -- if he gets the nomination?

McCAIN: Well, he has now, in all due respect --

MATTHEWS: Well, are you going to hold him to it publicly?

McCAIN: I've been trying to hold him to it because that's all got to with what due process --

MATTHEWS: We're getting stuff done here.

McCAIN: -- in America is about.

MATTHEWS: We'll be right back.

[...]

McCAIN: And one of those areas where we Republicans have failed as much or more, in my view, than the other party is in spending. We let spending get completely out of control to the point where we've lost the confidence of the American people.

We once spent $3 million not long ago to study the DNA of bears in Montana. I don't know if that was a paternity issue or a criminal issue. But -- and it gets -- and you laugh and you joke about it when you read about these pork-barrel projects. People talk about them all the time on Chris' show. But after a while, it runs into real money.

In the last two years, the president signed into law two big spending bills that had 35 billion -- billion -- dollars' worth of earmark projects on it. That could have been a $1,000 tax credit for every child in America, I'm told. But the point is, it's got to stop. It's your money. It's not ours. And we begin to believe that it's ours and not yours. And that -- and I believe that being careful stewards of Americans' tax dollars is one of the most important ways of restoring trust and confidence on the part of the American people and their government.

Then, we'll take on fixing Medicare, Social Security, and the other serious challenges that we cannot hand off to your generation.

MATTHEWS: Next question, please.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, Senator. My name's Allie Flukes [ph], and I'd like to thank you for being with us. In the past, you've talked about enforcing a "rogue-state rollback" foreign policy. Do you stand by that today? And if so, how will you implement it?

McCAIN: I think we have a lot of challenges in the world. I think the overriding challenge is radical Islamic extremism, as I said. I think it's an ideological struggle, at the end of the day, not that much different in some ways than our ideological struggle with communism and the Soviet Union.

But I also think that with the proliferation of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction, we have to do what's necessary to try to prevent those countries from acquiring those weapons which could destroy us. In the Iranian situation, as we all know, overwhelming evidence is that they're developing nuclear weapons. I think, at the end of the day, we can't allow them to have nuclear weapons, but I think that we should join together with other nations, the French, the Brit --

By the way, in case you haven't noticed, we now have a pro-American president of France, which shows, if you live long enough, anything can happen in this world, as you know.

[laughter and cheering]

McCAIN: We can exercise and effectively act together with other nations, diplomatically, trade, economic, and other ways. In other words, I wasn't saying that we go around and declare war. I am saying we nations of like values, principles, and the belief in democracy and freedom should make efforts to modify the behavior of those countries.

Does that help?

From the April 15 edition of MSNBC's Race for the White House with David Gregory:

MATTHEWS: Secondly, he said he's going to stick it to Barack Obama if he is the Democratic nominee on the issue of federal funding. He said Barack Obama promised publicly that he would go along with any Republican who agreed to limit their spending to federal money. He's going to stick it to him on that.

From Raddatz's April 11 interview with Bush:

RADDATZ: ABC News reported this week that your senior national security officials all got together and approved -- including Vice President Cheney -- all got together and approved enhanced interrogation methods, including waterboarding, for detainees.

BUSH: You mean back in 2003?

RADDATZ: Are you aware of that? Are you aware of that?

BUSH: Was I aware that we were going to use enhanced --

RADDATZ: That they all met together?

BUSH: Of course. They meet together all the time on --

RADDATZ: And approved that?

BUSH: -- a variety of issues.

RADDATZ: And approved that?

BUSH: Yes.

RADDATZ: You have no problem with that?

BUSH: In 2003?

RADDATZ: Yes.

BUSH: No. I mean, as a matter of fact, I told the country we did that. And I also told them it was legal. We had legal opinions that enabled us to do it. And, no, I didn't have any problem at all trying to find out what Khalid Shaikh Mohammed knew.

RADDATZ: OK.

BUSH: And guess what? I think it's very important for the American people to understand who Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was. He was the person who ordered the suicide attack -- I mean, the 9-11 attacks. And back then, there was all kinds of concerns about people saying, "Well, the administration is not connecting the dots." You might remember those -- that period.

RADDATZ: I remember.

BUSH: Well, we started to connect the dots, in order to protect the American people. And, yes, I'm aware our national security team met on this issue. And I approved. I don't know what's new about that; I'm not so sure what's so startling about that.

From Chris Wallace's February 10 interview with Bush on Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday:

WALLACE: There seem to be some mixed signals from your administration about the interrogation of terror detainees, and I hope you clear it up for us. Your -- the CIA, with your approval, confirmed this week that you -- the CIA conducted waterboarding on three Al Qaeda prisoners back in 2002 and 2003, and a White House spokesman said that you can still approve that practice, depending on circumstances. On the other hand, CIA Director Hayden said this week that he's not sure whether or not it's legal any more to conduct waterboarding.

So, to set the record straight, do you think it's legal and are you prepared to authorize it if you believe it's necessary to protect the nation?

BUSH: First of all, whatever we have done was legal, and whatever decision I will make will be reviewed by the Justice Department to determine whether or not the legality is there. And the reason why -- there's a difference between what happened in the past and today is there's new law. And so, to answer your question, whatever we will do will be legal.

The American people have got to know that what we did in the past gained information that prevented an attack and for those who criticize what we did in the past, I ask them which attack would they rather have not permitted -- stopped? Which attack on America did they -- you know, would they have said, you know, "Well, maybe that wasn't all that important that we stop those attacks"? I'll do what's necessary to protect America within the law. That's what you gotta understand.

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