1. Headline
  1. Headline
updated 4/5/2012 12:26:56 PM ET 2012-04-05T16:26:56

Guest Host: Michael Smerconish

Guests: Michael Isikoff, Milissa Rehberger, Howard Fineman, Steve Schmidt, Steve McMahon, John Feehery, Marcy Kaptur, Joy-Ann Reid, Jay
Carney, Marcy Kaptur, Jason Caffetz

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, GUEST HOST: Obama takes on Ryan`s hope.

Let`s play some HARDBALL.

Good evening. I`m Michael Smerconish, in for Chris Matthews. Leading
off tonight: Game on. There are Republican primaries tonight in Maryland,
Washington, D.C., and most importantly, in Wisconsin, but President Obama
is clearly looking ahead to November. The president hit Mitt Romney where
it hurts today, right in his support for Paul Ryan`s budget plan.

The president called the plan a Trojan horse that would deepen
inequality in the United States.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Instead of moderating
their views even slightly, the Republicans running Congress right now have
doubled down and proposed a budget so far to the right, it makes the
"Contract with America" look like the New Deal.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: This was just the latest in a series of addresses that
Mr. Obama has made portraying the Republicans as social Darwinists who
favor the rich and are unconcerned with who gets left behind. While
listening to President Obama, we wondered, how would the Republicans
respond? Well, there`s no need to guess. We`ve got a Republican and a
Democrat on tonight to face off in a debate.

Also, we`ll get a first look at the exit polls in what may be today`s
make-or-break Wisconsin primary for Rick Santorum.

And the Trayvon Martin case. NBC News has obtained the audiotapes of
George Zimmerman`s prior phone calls to police. Do they show that he was
racially motivated or profiling? We`ll get a report.

And we`re not the only ones who noticed that Mitt Romney`s
endorsements seem to lack something, enthusiasm. "The Daily Show" noticed,
too, and we`ve got their take in the "Sideshow."

We begin with President Obama`s very tough speech on the Ryan budget
and the Republicans who support it. Jay Carney is, of course, the White
House press secretary.

Jay, from the president`s singling out of Mitt Romney, am I to
conclude that the White House has concluded he`s the nominee?

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, I can tell you that
we, you know, watch what you guys report and read what your colleagues
report, and it certainly seems like he could well be.

But the point the president was making was that all of the Republican
presidential contenders, those who would hold this office come 2013, have
endorsed and support the Ryan Republican budget.

So you know, regardless of who emerges as the Republican nominee, it
is -- this is not -- the Ryan Republican budget and the sort of radical
vision that it represents, as the president said, is not something that
only a faction of the Republican Party supports. It`s not something that,
you know, the mainstream of the Republican Party rejects. It is the
Republican budget. It has been embraced by every Republican leader there
is, from Governor Romney on down.

So what the -- the case the president was making today was that there
are two competing visions of America`s future that are very stark and that
can be easily contrasted. And one is embodied in the Ryan Republican
budget, and it basically embodies the -- like, doubling down on the same
policies that got us into the worst financial and economic crisis we`ve had
in 70 years.

SMERCONISH: You say "radical." The president earlier today said
"Trojan horse" and also said it was thinly veiled social Darwinism.

Let me show you how Paul Ryan responded. Quote, "Like his reckless
budgets, today`s speech by President Obama is as revealing as it is
disappointing. While others lead by offering real solutions, he has chosen
to distort the truth and divide Americans in order to distract from his
failed record. His empty promises are quickly becoming broken promises,
and the American people will hold him accountable for this violation of
their trust."

Your response, the White House response to Congressman Paul Ryan?

CARNEY: Well, what I`d like you to do is contrast that brief bit of
boilerplate from Congress Ryan to the substantive, fact-filled presentation
the president gave today. What`s lacking from Congressman Ryan and what is
lacking in his budget are any of the statistics and facts and numbers and
math to back up his promises.

What we know is that in order to pay for substantial new tax cuts for
the wealthy, the money has to come from somewhere. And it`s going to come
from non-defense discretionary spending only and from entitlement programs
like Medicare and Medicaid.

So what it means is more tax cuts for the wealthy, in order to -- and
in order to pay for them, the middle class and seniors get stuck with the
bill. That -- there is -- you know, what I would like to hear from
Congressman Ryan, what the president would like to see from Congressman
Ryan, is a fact-filled critique and not a lot of boilerplate...

SMERCONISH: The final...

CARNEY: ... because the facts speak to the fact that the president
has put forward a balanced approach, as you know, and the Ryan budget is
doubling down on a theory that we tested a decade ago.

SMERCONISH: Jay, final question...

CARNEY: And it led to the slowest -- slowest growth we`ve had in a
long time, and it led to the middle class being put under great stress
while the wealthiest Americans saw their incomes rise.

SMERCONISH: Final question, if I might. Tomorrow on the radio, when
I get the inevitable call from someone who says Congressman Paul Ryan is
reining in reckless federal spending, the response is what?

CARNEY: Here`s what I would tell you. When I was a reporter,
political courage was when someone from one party was willing to take on
the invested, embedded special interests in their party. Show me anything
in the Republican Ryan budget that asks anything of the wealthiest
supporters, the wealthiest corporations that support the Republican Party.
It does not.

It is not courageous for a Republican to say he wants to give tax cuts
to the wealthy while he asks seniors and the middle class to pay for it.
That`s not new. We`ve seen it before. And I think the American people
recognize that.

SMERCONISH: White House press secretary Jay Carney, thank you very
much for joining us.

CARNEY: Thank you.

SMERCONISH: Now let`s turn to Howard Fineman, editorial director for
the Huffington Post, and Republican strategist Steve Schmidt. Both are
MSNBC political analysts.

Gentlemen, let`s talk about the particulars of this Paul Ryan budget,
as a matter of fact, to make sure that our audience knows what we`re
describing. Last week, it was passed in the House. It`s been criticized
for pushing deep tax breaks for the wealthiest while making major cuts to
programs that mainly serve low-income Americans.

Now, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Ryan`s
budget cuts include $2.4 trillion worth of reductions to Medicaid and other
health care programs, $463 billion in mandatory programs, including Pell
grants and other social services, $291 billion in cuts to discretionary
programs and $134 billion in cuts to the food stamp program.

And here`s what the president said about the budget plan today. Let`s
watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: This congressional Republican budget is something different
altogether. It is a Trojan horse disguised as deficit reduction plans. It
is really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It is
thinly veiled social Darwinism. It is antithetical to our entire history
as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everybody who`s willing to
work for it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: It seemed to me, Howard Fineman -- and I know you were in
the room -- that this was an effort by the White House to clearly tie Mitt
Romney and Paul Ryan together.

HOWARD FINEMAN, HUFFINGTON POST MEDIA GROUP, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:
That`s exactly what it was. And on a day when, in Wisconsin, Republicans
are going to the polls, and if they vote for Mitt Romney, they`ll remember
that Paul Ryan was by his side campaigning in Wisconsin. So it was a very
deliberate strategy on the part of the White House.

What struck me about this, Michael, is that -- the sort of almost grim
determination that the president had to attack the Republican Party and tie
every Republican they can find to Paul Ryan and the Republican House
budget, even to the point of President Obama praising what he described as
another tradition of Republicanism, going from Abe Lincoln and Dwight
Eisenhower, who you always hear Republicans talk about, to praising Richard
Nixon and even George W. Bush.

So you know something`s going on tactically when a Democratic
president is praising Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, but that`s exactly
what President Obama was doing today to really try purposefully and
intentionally and in a tough fashion to separate the Republicans out from
the mainstream of American society.

SMERCONISH: Well, and as you mentioned, Mitt Romney has been
campaigning with Paul Ryan this past week in Wisconsin, and he`s voiced
support for Ryan`s budget. The president called out Romney specifically by
name today, and that`s what I was making reference to with Jay Carney.
Let`s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: One of my potential opponents, Governor Romney, has said that
he hoped a similar version of this plan from last year would be introduced
as a bill on day one of his presidency. He said that he`s very supportive
of this new budget. And he even called it "marvelous," which is a word you
don`t often hear when it comes to describing a budget.

(LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: It`s a word you don`t often hear generally.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Steve Schmidt, read those tea leaves. What`s going on
with the president calling him out for the word use "marvelous"? Is that
intended to further portray Governor Romney as an outlier?

STEVE SCHMIDT, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well,
look, Michael, I think what`s going on here is that the Obama campaign is
turning on. The general election is starting. They know that Mitt Romney
is going to be the opponent in the fall.

They see the same poll numbers that everyone else has, that this
Republican primary process has made Mitt Romney 34 percent favorable
rating. It`s made him unpopular, has lost ground in the middle of the
electorate. So all of this is about trying to seize territory in the
middle of the electorate, to control the 50-yard line, where these
elections are won and lost.

Even though you see some numbers showing the president opening up a
lead, I think the reality that both sides look at is that this is a race
that both sides start out with about 47 percent.

So the president is trying to use this Ryan budget to try to paint
Republicans, and thus Mitt Romney, as out of the mainstream, and he`s off
to the offensive start on that today.

SMERCONISH: Howard, do you buy into that analysis of the politics of
this? Because my gut reaction was to say, having watched the president,
OK, the R`s are going to portray this as an attempt by Paul Ryan and the
Republicans to rein in reckless, and the D`s are going to say, Well, as
usual, you Republicans are out to hurt the poor.

Where`s the play for the I`s, the independents, in all of this?

FINEMAN: Well, that`s a good question. And I`m not entirely sure
that the tone and the tactics that the president and his advisers are
launching this campaign, this fall campaign, with -- that`s really what it
is. The general election campaign starts today, in my view.

To play that first card in an attack way, and say, Look, let`s not
look at my record, let`s look at the apocalypse that will happen if these
people get in power -- is interesting, and shows, I think, that at the very
least, the White House and its strategists are being cautious and they`re
not -- they don`t necessarily think they`re arguing from strength about
their own record, but they sure think they have a vehicle to attack -- a
place to attack with what they`re going after today on the Ryan budget.

SMERCONISH: Steve, yesterday, the Obama campaign put out an ad tying
Mitt Romney to big oil. Let`s watch and then you can critique.

SCHMIDT: Sure.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Under President Obama, domestic oil production is
at an eight-year high. So why is big oil attacking him? Be he`s fighting
to end their tax breaks. He`s raising mileage standards and doubling
renewable energy. In all these fights, Mitt Romney stood with big oil --
for their tax breaks, attacking higher mileage standards and renewables.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: As "FIRST READ" pointed out, I think an attempt to
portray him as part of this cog of the conservative machine. Good
strategy, bad strategy?

SCHMIDT: Well, putting today for a second the fact that big oil --
quote, unquote, "big oil," never attacked him, you know, look, this is an
area where the president has some real political liabilities, the lack of
an energy plan, the Keystone pipeline, rising gas prices.

But when you are making an attack from a place of weakness onto your
opponent, it`s really a sign of overall political strength. It just shows
that the president, after the end of this long Republican primary process,
is in as strong a political position as he`s been in some time.

And they`re beginning to -- they`re beginning to campaign by focusing
on their opponents` vulnerabilities, and also trying to mitigate some of
their liabilities both on the economy, both on the issue of energy. And
that`s what that ad is about and that`s what the speech was about today.

SMERCONISH: A final question for both of you, one-word answer, if
you`re able. Did Paul Ryan`s vice presidential stock go up or down today?
Howard Fineman, you first.

FINEMAN: Up.

SMERCONISH: Up. Steve Schmidt?

SCHMIDT: Steady.

(LAUGHTER)

SMERCONISH: Steady. Steady as she goes.

All right, thank you both. Thank you, Howard Fineman. Thank you,
Steve Schmidt.

FINEMAN: OK.

SMERCONISH: Coming up, we`ll get reaction to what we heard from
President Obama today from two members of Congress, one Democrat and one
Republican.

And we`ll get the latest on those tornadoes in Texas.

This is HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: There are primaries tonight in Wisconsin, Maryland, and
Washington, D.C., but Rick Santorum`s best hope for a win might be three
weeks from now in his home state of Pennsylvania. Let`s check the HARDBALL
"Scoreboard."

Santorum is still clinging to a 6-point lead in the Keystone state,
according to a new Quinnipiac poll. He`s at 41 percent. Romney is at 35
percent.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Republicans are voting in
primaries today in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin. Wisconsin is
critical for Rick Santorum, and we have some brand-new exit poll
information from Wisconsin to report.

Let`s look at the evangelical vote. Today, white evangelicals made up
34 percent of Wisconsin Republican primary voters. Now, this number is
very significant because so far, demographics have been destiny. In
earlier contests, if the evangelical vote was more than 50 percent,
Santorum won. Less than 50 percent, Romney won.

Polls close in Maryland and Washington, D.C., at 8:00 o`clock Eastern
time, and an hour later, 9:00 o`clock Eastern, in Wisconsin.

Today, as we reported, President Obama took on the Paul Ryan budget
plan, framing it as an issue of fairness and putting it squarely into the
presidential fight. Let`s listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Maybe, just maybe, at a time of growing debt and widening
inequality, we should hold off on giving the wealthiest Americans another
round of big tax cuts. But that`s exactly the opposite of what they`ve
done.

Instead of moderating their views even slightly, the Republicans
running Congress right now have doubled down and proposed a budget so far
to the right, it makes the "Contract with America" look like the New Deal.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Democratic congresswoman Marcy Kaptur of Ohio opposes the
Ryan plan. Republican congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah supports it. And
both are on the House Budget Committee.

A breakdown, members of Congress, from the nonpartisan Center of
Budget and Policy Priorities shows that the tax cuts in the Ryan plan will
disproportionately favor the wealthy. Making more than a million dollars a
year, they`ll see a 12.5 increase in after-tax income. That`s an average
of more than $250,000.

Congressman Chaffetz, respond to that and the perception that grows
from it that this is all designed to help the rich and take advantage of
the poor.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R-UT), HOUSE BUDGET COMMITTEE: Well, what you
have to do is read the fine print because what we have talked about as
House Republicans is we want to broaden the base and lower the rate. You
can`t -- now, what that chart showed was that they were just going to lower
the rate. Now, we want to broaden the base, which means getting rid of the
loopholes and other things that I think is common ground.

I think if you talk to Republicans and Democrats, we want to get rid
of these loopholes. And that`s what we`re saying. Disproportionately, the
wealthier Americans get more of these loopholes, so we want to close those.

SMERCONISH: What loopholes...

CHAFFETZ: That`s what we`re asking to do.

SMERCONISH: And what loopholes specifically are you referring to?

CHAFFETZ: Oh, I mean, they go -- there`s a list of them just goes on
and on and on. Remember, back in December of 2010, I actually voted
against the extension of Bush tax cuts because it was coupled with all
kinds of loopholes and special interests breaks and whatnot. I voted
against it.

The president is the one that actually voted for it. So -- and supported
it in signing it into law. So, there are a host of things that we want to
do. And what our budget says is, in a revenue-neutral way, we want to
broaden the base and lower the rate.

I think that should be in bipartisan in our approach.

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH: Yes, I`m all for closing loopholes. It just seems to me
that most of the loopholes benefit the wealthiest of Americans.

And if, in fact, the wealthiest are having their loopholes closed,
then you wouldn`t expect, as that chart presented, that they would see
disproportionate advantage from the Paul Ryan plan.

CHAFFETZ: No, no, no, what you -- that chart is totally incomplete
because what it doesn`t show is the impact of actually broadening the base
and lowering the rate.

What our budget calls for is to do so in a revenue-neutral way.
That`s what we`re trying to accomplish. And that`s where you need to
engage other -- the Ways and Means Committee, Appropriations committee.
Lots of other committees need to be involved and other members, but we`re
trying to set the framework to put forward a responsible budget that over
the course of the time will balance the budget and pay off the debt.

(CROSSTALK)

CHAFFETZ: Contrast to the president, in the president`s budget never
balances. The Democrats always call for a balanced approach. The problem
I have with it is they have never put forward a plan that actually balances
the budget, which I think is a moral imperative.

SMERCONISH: Congresswoman Kaptur, what will I see when I get to the
fine print? React to that, please.

REP. MARCY KAPTUR (D), OHIO: You`re going to see that this is a
radical plan.

The Ryan-Romney budget actually gives tax breaks to the wealthiest,
those billionaires in our country, Wall Street bankers that are just
laughing over the bonuses that they`re depositing, that actually gives them
on average an additional $150,000 in tax cuts and more, tax cuts we can`t
afford as a country.

And then what it does is, it begins to voucher out Medicare, it sticks
a dagger in the heart of the middle class of this country. It says
education and training? Sorry, we`re going to cut that. Same thing with
Medicare.

You know, it hurts the programs that benefit the vast majority of the
American people. So it takes it out of the heart of the middle class. It
sort of says, well, you know the old trickle down theory? We want a little
more trickle.

Our view as Democrats is we want the middle class to prosper. We know
that with job creation in this country, with more education and training
and with investment in research and development, that`s where new jobs come
from. We don`t need to give those who already have a great deal at this
time more breaks and add to our deficit.

SMERCONISH: Congressman Chaffetz, one of the things that I thought
was redeeming about Simpson-Bowles is that everyone had the skin of the
game.

My understanding of the Paul Ryan plan is that Social Security is not
on the table and that the defense cuts that have been proposed would be
offset. Shouldn`t everything be in play if we really want to address the
debt of the country?

CHAFFETZ: Well, I think that in the House Republican budget that we
passed, went through committee and it passed through the House of
Representatives, we`re actually doing our job. We`re actually addressing
and talking about a budget.

So, yes, of course. We actually want to -- there are things that need
to be cut in defense. I, for one, believe that it`s time to bring our
troops home from Afghanistan. I think that is the right thing to do.

So one of the things that Simpson-Bowles did not deal with is
Obamacare. You can`t take $500 billion out of Medicare and then expect
there to be no effect. That was one of the criticisms. Simpson-Bowles did
a wonderful job on a lot of areas, and you will see, actually, quite a bit
of their suggestions in this plan.

But you have got to contrast that with the president, and then
certainly the United States Senate, who won`t even bring up and debate a
budget, and the president`s plan that was defeated last year 97-0, this
year we brought it up on the floor. There wasn`t even one Democrat that
voted for the president`s budget. It was defeated 415 nos and zero yeses.

And that`s the stark difference here. There`s actually support for
our plan.

SMERCONISH: Congresswoman -- Congresswoman Kaptur, please respond to
that and then I want to ask you each a political question about what`s
going on today.

KAPTUR: Well, first of all, in terms of a budget, we have to pass a
proposal that causes this economy to keep growing.

And without job creation at a robust level, and we begin to see it
coming back in the automotive industry, for example, you -- people go back
to work, they pay their taxes, we don`t have these huge social costs that
are borne because of unemployment. And the economy can roll.

We see that in automotive country, rail country that I represent,
steel coils moving across the Midwest again, people being hired. We thank
President Obama for helping to resurrect this sector. General Motors and
Chrysler now at the top of their game, who would have said that was
possible three years ago?

We have more work to do. I think with natural gas coming up and
moving toward energy independence as a country, this president has done an
enormous amount to begin to turn an economy around that was truly dead in
the water under the last administration. So my answer is job creation is
the answer, and we can experience it today right here in the Midwest. We
see the difference.

SMERCONISH: Big election tonight in Wisconsin.

Congressman Chaffetz, is it time for Rick Santorum to get out of this
race?

CHAFFETZ: Well, I think it`s time for the Republican`s best interests
to coalesce. I think the person to beat President Obama who has got the
background, the expertise and can articulate what needs to happen in this
economy is Mitt Romney.

I think the sooner that happens, better off for Republicans up and
down the ticket from coast to coast. It`s not about Santorum, it`s about
what`s best for the party, what`s best for the country. I think after
hopefully a strong showing today in three different parts of the country,
that more and more people come to the same realization that Marco Rubio and
others came to, and that is Mitt Romney is the best person to be the
Republican nominee.

SMERCONISH: Congresswoman Kaptur, very quickly, I know you represent
both Toledo and Cleveland. I think of those white, Democratic, blue-collar
workers that hold the keys to this election. I`m sure you`re mingling with
them when you go home to your district. What are they telling you?

KAPTUR: They are asking, why can`t the Republican House get out a
transportation bill so more of them can go back to work?

They see a group of devolutionists in the Congress, people who want to
take us backwards. This is an I-can nation. The numbers in Ohio are
moving toward President Barack Obama, he`s doing very well here. And I`ll
tell you, with this recent war on women and what`s going on with women`s
health across this country, and those numbers are certainly reflected here
in Ohio, the American people want someone who is reasonable sitting in the
presidency.

They don`t want anyone radical. They want someone focused on job
creation and someone who knows that as the middle class prospers, we
balance our budgets. We put America on an I-can-do track again.

SMERCONISH: I wish we had more time.

Thank you very much, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur and Congressman Jason
Chaffetz.

KAPTUR: Thank you.

CHAFFETZ: Thank you.

SMERCONISH: Up next, yesterday, we showed you some of the least
enthusiastic endorsements for Mitt Romney, Republicans who sound like they
would rather be doing just about anything else other than supporting the
former Massachusetts governor.

Well, on "Jon Stewart," he noticed as well. Stick around for that in
the "Sideshow."

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: Back to HARDBALL and now time for the "Sideshow."

First up, here`s something we picked up on yesterday, the pitifully
unenthusiastic endorsements that Mitt Romney has been receiving. And we`re
not alone. "The Daily Show" took note of the trend as well. Let`s take a
look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART")

JON STEWART, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART": Republican
after Republican have begun to line up behind Mitt Romney with one simple
message.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), BUDGET COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: I think we are
entering a phase where it could be counterproductive if this drags on much
longer.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: I am going to endorse Mitt Romney and
the reason why is not only because he`s going to be the Republican nominee,
but he offers at this point such a stark contrast to the president`s
record.

STEWART: I`m going to endorse Mitt Romney because he`s going to be
the Republican nominee.

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART: A lot of tepid endorsements, but these are mostly Tea Party
types that are giving these. Let`s hear from Romney`s base.


GEORGE PATAKI (R), FORMER NEW YORK GOVERNOR: Now, Mitt is not a
perfect candidate. It`s hard for him -- for blue-collar families like mine
to identify with him. It`s hard for economic conservatives to identify
with him.

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART: All right. Geez. These are his supporters. Just imagine
if past campaigns had failed this test of sincerity. "I Like Ike" would
have been, "Ike`s Fine."

Reagan`s optimistic morning in America would be, yes, it`s time to get
up.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: I think even lukewarm might be overstating it for a
couple of those.

Up next, the latest in the Trayvon Martin case. Investigators are
looking into whether George Zimmerman profiled in his prior phone calls to
police. We will get the latest from Sanford, Florida, when we return.

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MILISSA REHBERGER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: I`m Milissa Rehberger with
breaking news.

Tornadoes ripped through the Dallas-Fort Worth area a short while ago,
leaving a trail of destruction and forcing schools into lockdown.
According to the National Weather Service, there were reports of funnel
clouds throughout the region. All planes at Dallas-Fort Worth were
grounded earlier. The storms tore off roofs and tossed around tractor-
trailers. So far it`s not clear how many may be injured.

Northern Texas is under a tornado watch until 8:00 p.m. local time --
now back to HARDBALL.

SMERCONISH: Welcome back to HARDBALL.

The FBI remains in the retreat at Twin Lakes, that community in
Sanford, Florida, as agents interview residents about neighborhood crime
and fellow resident George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin in
late February.

We have got the latest developments for you tonight from Michael
Isikoff, NBC News national investigative correspondent, and Joy-Ann Reid,
who is the managing editor for TheGrio.com.

Michael, what`s the latest?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Well, as you say, Michael, the
FBI was back there in Twin Lakes today, questioning witnesses, going door
to door.

One thing we have learned is that one crucial piece of evidence are --
is these audiotapes of the prior phone calls that George Zimmerman made to
the police. We had an exchange yesterday about this. You were right, I
was wrong. These had been previously released.

But what we now know and didn`t realize before and I don`t think
people have realized is they are critical to the FBI investigation, which
is civil rights. Is there a pattern of racial profiling, was there, by
Zimmerman? Is this evidence of whether or not he had racial motivations in
the night that he pursued Trayvon Martin?

And one of the things that`s worth pointing out because we raised this
yesterday is, we listened to all the calls today. We listened not just to
the Trayvon Martin call, but all the ones that are still in existence going
back to last August. And in every instance where it`s reported in police
reports that he was calling about suspicious activity by a black male,
that`s only information that he`s asked about.

He doesn`t volunteer the race of the suspects he`s calling about.
He`s asked to describe them, he`s asked their race, and that happens and
every time, he describes them as African-American males. There is no hint,
at least in these phone calls, of any racial motivation by George
Zimmerman.

And that`s going to be helpful to Zimmerman`s lawyers if the FBI, if
the Justice Department tries to bring a civil rights violation.

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH: All right, but let me ask this question, because I
understand the distinction you`re making. You`re saying he doesn`t call
and offer that information. It`s elicited from him.

ISIKOFF: Right. Correct.

SMERCONISH: Does he call about suspicious white guys in the
neighborhood? How often -- in listening to those...

ISIKOFF: We know of -- no, there are seven calls in its entirety.
The calls about particular suspects are the five that we have referred to,
and that includes the Trayvon Martin call, and those are all African-
Americans.

The other two don`t involve suspicious activity by individuals.
There`s a dogfight. There`s a garage door open. So you can`t sort of make
that comparison.

Look, it is true that in every instance where he`s calling about
individuals, they happen to be African-Americans, but at least in the audio
calls, he`s not emphasizing that point. He`s not making a point of it.
The information always comes after it`s elicited by police.

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH: I hear you and I respect that, but he`s picking up the
phone.

ISIKOFF: Right.

SMERCONISH: Every time he picks up the phone it`s because there is a
black guy.

ISIKOFF: Right.

Look, I don`t suggest this is dispositive evidence. If it was, the
FBI wouldn`t have a reason to keep conducting its investigation. I`m just
saying that, you know, we`re still piecing together a lot of spotty
information on this case.

SMERCONISH: I understand. And, Michael...

ISIKOFF: There`s a lot of murkiness. And every data point is one
piece of information that the public can weigh in trying to assess what
really happened here.

SMERCONISH: OK. And not to be repetitive, but, Joy-Ann, I just --
there is something strange about the call regarding Trayvon Martin when
Zimmerman, who "The Orlando Sentinel" has reported in 15 months called 46
times, I find it unusual that he doesn`t say, hey, it`s George Zimmerman
from neighborhood watch.

At no point in that phone call does he identify himself as being from
neighborhood watch. In other calls I have listened to, he does. I don`t
know quite what to make of it, but you would think there would be some
simpatico between neighborhood watch and police, but apparently not because
he never says, I`m with neighborhood watch.

What do you make of that, if anything?

JOY-ANN REID, THEGRIO: That`s a great point, Michael, because
including in the call about the person he says was lurking around the home
of Frank Taaffe, the guy you have seen out on media defending him, he
points out in that call that he`s from neighborhood watch.

And you`re absolutely right. He doesn`t point that out. Now, the
neighborhood watch program is run by Seminole County Sheriff`s Department,
not by the Sanford police. So that doesn`t necessarily mean that because
when you`re calling these non-emergency lines -- that`s the other issue.

He wasn`t necessarily calling 911 emergency lines. He was calling
non-emergency lines, which I`m told are fairly easy to get the information.
But I guess being neighborhood watch, he`d have that number.

So I think the other thing that is interesting, let`s just say, about
George Zimmerman, as you were pointing out, is that he was repeatedly
calling about seeing black males. And whether or not he was talking about
that in the call, it does turn out -- I mean, this community is about 20
percent black, the retreat at Twin Lakes. But it seems to be that his
concerns were consistently about black males.

And one other thing I`ll point out really quickly, George Zimmerman
doesn`t live anywhere near where this actual shooting took place. He lives
clear on the other side of the retreat at Twin Lakes. So he was quite far
from his home when he was picking up the trail of Trayvon Martin. So it
does seem that he was doing something that neighborhood watch said you
shouldn`t do, which is patrolling around like a police officer.

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, GUEST HOST: Michael Isikoff, we show some B roll
right now of Zimmerman at the police station that night. And, you know,
there`s this raging controversy online as to whether, when you enhance
that, if you see a wound on the back of his head. Frankly, I don`t know if
it`s outcome determinative, if he does or doesn`t have a wound. We
obviously know there was a scuffle.

But what, if anything, can you say about that issue?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Well, I still think we need
to see the medical reports from that evening, the EMS reports of the
medical personnel who were on the scene, which we haven`t seen yet. We do
have the police report that clearly states that Zimmerman was bleeding from
the nose and the back of his head.

But I do want to pick up on one point Joy raised about the
neighborhood watch program. Another data point, piece of information we
found today is we got specific information about the briefing that was
given at the Twin Lakes clubhouse in September 2011 on the neighborhood
watch program. This was a meeting that Zimmerman himself set up. He
invited the Sanford police officer who oversees the neighborhood watch
program to come brief people on it.

And we actually got the PowerPoint that was given that night. It
clearly says no neighborhood watch is not vigilante police, and in the
briefing, the police officer specifically tells neighborhood watch
volunteers, you are not to pursue suspects and you are not to carry
weapons.

So those were instructions that Zimmerman clearly did not follow on
the night of the confrontation with Trayvon Martin.

SMERCONISH: I wish I had more time. To be continued for sure.

Thank you, Michael Isikoff. Thank you so much, Joy-Ann Reid.

REID: Thank you.

SMERCONISH: Up next, President Obama takes a page from the
Republican playbook, warning the Supreme Court against judicial activism.
Is that a smart strategy?

By the way, you can follow me on Twitter if you know how to spell
Smerconish.

This is HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: Former Vice President Dick Cheney is home after a heart
transplant surgery. Cheney was released from a Virginia hospital today, 10
days after getting a new heart. Cheney is 71 years old. He thanked his
doctors and the donor`s family for what he called a remarkable gift.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: Hey, we`re back.

President Obama took on an unlikely foe yesterday in his forceful
defense of his signature health care bill aimed at the Supreme Court.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Ultimately, I`m
confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an
unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a
strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: But he also seemed to telegraph his possible summer
playbook should the court not rule in his liking, positioning himself on
the side of the American public and against a politicized judicial branch.

With me tonight now, our HARDBALL strategists tonight: Democrat Steve
McMahon, Republican John Feehery.

Steve, does he think he lost? Because, you know, by protocol, last
Friday morning, the court would have gathered in secrecy and taken their
initial ballot on the health care bill. Maybe I`m reading the tea leaves
tonight. What do you think?

STEVE MCMAHON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: It seems like everybody is
reading the tea leaves and president maybe doing a little of that because
he`s obviously reading the newspaper and everybody is predicting what the
court is going to do in advance of even that vote.

And I think, you know, as somebody who went to law school and
constitutional law and is familiar with the kind of questions that are
asked in a Supreme Court argument, they don`t always telegraph what they`re
going to do. They just sometimes argue for the other side just to find
out, you know, to draw out all the arguments that each side might want to
make and all the problems that they would like to point out.

So, you know, I`m not sure you can read too much into the tea leaves.

SMERCONISH: You don`t read too much into it.

MCMAHON: That`s right.

SMERCONISH: John, hear more President Obama`s comments and his words
for conservatives. Listen to this and then react.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: I just remind conservative commentators that for years what
we`ve heard is the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a
lack of judicial restraint, that an unelected group of people would somehow
overturn a duly constituted and passed law. Well, this is a good example,
and I`m pretty confident that this court will recognize that and not take
that step.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: John Feehery, he`s right in that respect. It seems like
everybody has switched jerseys on this one.

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, I`m just stunned by the
president lecturing really one justice in particular, Anthony Kennedy how
to look at the Constitution. I think that he`s trying to gain the referees
here, and I`m not sure if this really works for him. I think with
independent voters, they like the equal branches of government. They don`t
like the president lecturing the Supreme Court in how to rule.

And I`m not sure how this plays out. And I do think that at the end
of the day, we don`t know how they`re going to rule, but in many ways I`m
scratching my head and thinking myself, does he want Kennedy to rule
against him? Does he want this whole health care law passed thrown out so
he can start over again because it`s so unpopular with the American people?

SMERCONISH: Well, you --

FEEHERY: It was such a silly strategy for the president to lecture -
-

SMERCONISH: You anticipated my next question, which was to say --
who is the intended audience -- voters or the justices themselves? You
seem to think it`s not even the justices, it one justice.

FEEHERY: Well, I mean, it seems to me that he`s talking to one
person who has all the cards on the table. And that is Justice Kennedy. I
don`t understand, you know, if they were, if he`s trying to play politics
with that. I think it`s extraordinarily inappropriate until after the
court rules.

SMERCONISH: But I have to say this. It`s funny, because the
president is being criticized by some who say, oh, he`s implying that this
is all politics. And yet today, page one, "New York Times," what`s the
lead story? Yet another 5-4 decision, this one on strip searches. And who
held the cards? Justice Kennedy.

So, you know, when the president makes the argument that there`s a
lot of -- and I`m paraphrasing, but there`s a lot of politics, Steve
McMahon, my gosh, take a look at page one of the paper today. Isn`t he
right?

MCMAHON: Well, there is a lot of politics, but there`s a difference
between, you know, elections have consequences and presidents get to
appoint justices, which is the way this country has been for 200 years.
And, you know, I think walking up to the line, where you`re suggesting that
the court is somehow illegitimate, creates a problem for democracy that a
president, frankly, shouldn`t do.

I think he was careful here not to go over the line. But he did send
a pretty clear signal about what he will be arguing in the fall if the
Supreme Court overrules this. And remember, it was -- it`s the court
that`s put itself in this position again and again and again by
politicizing or appearing to politicize decisions in a way that requires
this conversation.

Frankly, this is a conversation that shouldn`t be had on the right or
the left. The president of the United States should say -- should assume
that justices are going to do the right thing by the Constitution.

(CROSSTALK)

FEEHERY: Let me jump in.

SMERCONISH: Go ahead, John. Yes?

FEEHERY: Let me say -- for him to say these are a bunch of unelected
-- almost like unelected bureaucrats was an extraordinary statement. Like
--

MCMAHON: John, was it not extraordinary when the Republicans say it?
John, maybe you haven`t been listening to --

FEEHERY: This is about the Supreme Court.

MCMAHON: -- what the people of your party have been saying?

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH: Go ahead. John?

FEEHERY: Michael, this is about the Supreme Court. They have gone
through the ringer. They have been through everything. They have been
through more than any politician. And to make this kind of -- for the
president, who is a constitutional lawyer, to make that case, is
extraordinary. And I think a very undermining democracy. I think it`s
over the line.

SMERCONISH: Well, he got hammered -- he got hammered by "Wall Street
Journal" for today on the editorial page, essentially saying, hey, didn`t
the guy teach Marbury versus Madison when he was at the University of
Chicago law school?

Steve McMahon, go ahead and take the final word on this.

MCMAHON: Listen, I will say this. I think that it`s inappropriate
for somebody on the left or on the right to be criticizing decisions that
come out of the United States Supreme Court. I`m a lawyer, and I think
that it would be better if people viewed the court the way they used to
view it. But the court has put itself in this position.

FEEHERY: I agree with you, Steve.

MCMAHON: But the court has put itself in this position, and frankly,
it`s been the right that`s been complaining about judges and justices, all
this time. And the president just turned it on today. I wish he hadn`t,
but he felt like he needed to. And that`s just the way politics goes
today.

SMERCONISH: And I will say that as a lawyer as well, it`s very hard
to defend decisions that are continuously 5-4. It just doesn`t instill a
lot of confidence among the electorate when they look at the court and say,
wait, you know, they look to us like they`re the Congress and not nine
jurists.

FEEHERY: Well, Michael --

SMERCONISH: I`m out of time, and I wish I weren`t.

But thank you, Steve McMahon. And thank you, John Feehery.

When we return, "Let Me Finish" with how Mitt Romney has blown chance
after chance to turn questions about his religion to his advantage.

You`re watching HARDBALL.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SMERCONISH: "Let Me Finish" tonight with this:

Yesterday, Mitt Romney was asked about his Mormon faith while on the
stump. In Wisconsin, a man read to him from the book of scripture
published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and he asked
Romney whether he agreed with his church`s one-time belief that interracial
marriage was a sin.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you believe it`s a sin for a white man to
marry or procreate with a black?

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No, next question.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: I sat here last night, that I think Romney has missed
several opportunities to turn this campaign`s religious fixation to his
advantage. And this was yet another.

Given that polls show that he faces prejudice among a sizable share
of primary voters because of his Mormon faith, you`d think that Romney
would be eager to try to redefine the role of faith in the election.

One opportunity came when the Obama administration attempted to force
religious institutions to offer birth control coverage to their employees
in contravention of church teaching teachings. The administration exempted
churches, but should have done the same for religious-related institutions
from the get-go.

Forget for a moment the short-sightedness of an institution that
opposes abortion, but fails to recognize the contraception can prevent it.
Whatever the basis of the church`s position, the government should not
force it to act against its teachings. It was into this crossfire that
Rick Santorum moved when he said the president was motivated by, quote,
"some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible."

And that`s when Romney should have stepped in, and asked, what
separates us from Iran or al Qaeda if we`re going to pick our presidents
according to religious litmus steps. Perhaps, he could have quoted the
First Amendment and reminded people that it insures every American`s
ability to exercise his faith or to exercise no faith. But Romney remained
silent.

And he stayed silent when Matt Drudge trumpeted a 2008 Santorum
speech at Ave Maria University in which he invoked Satan while discussing
abortion. And Romney was still silent a day later when the Reverend
Franklin Graham, Billy Graham`s son, said on MSNBC that while he believes
Santorum is a Christian, he couldn`t be sure whether Obama or Romney was.
Maybe Graham was channeling the Southern Baptist pastor Robert Jeffries who
in October that the church was a cult.

All of these developments, just like yesterday, presented Romney with
chances to remind the nation that this is not the election that ends with a
cloud of white smoke over the Sistine Chapel. What has he done instead?
He`s doubled down on his efforts to reach the party`s religious base,
telling a Michigan crowd a few weeks ago, quote, "Unfortunately, possibly
because of the people the president hangs around with and their agenda,
their secular agenda, they have fought against religion."

That kind of talk, it might help Romney with some of the GOP
faithful, but it`s not likely to be forgotten by independents come this
fall.

That`s HARDBALL for now. Thank you for being with us.

"POLITICS NATION" with Al Sharpton starts right now.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY
BE UPDATED.
END

Copyright 2012 CQ-Roll Call, Inc. All materials herein are protected by
United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed,
transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written
permission of CQ-Roll Call. You may not alter or remove any trademark,
copyright or other notice from copies of the content.>


More on TODAY.com

  1. Pool / Getty Images

    Duchess Camilla's brother Mark Shand dies from head injury in New York

    4/23/2014 6:00:47 PM +00:00 2014-04-23T18:00:47
  1. Divers banned from ferry search: Korea 'not doing enough'

    Volunteer divers who were allowed into the water around the ferry during the first days of rescue operations say they’ve been banned from the search after some victims’ family members asked to only use military divers and civilian professionals.

    4/23/2014 6:52:49 PM +00:00 2014-04-23T18:52:49
  1. Teen girl kicked out of prom for wearing jeans

    video A North Carolina girl was sent home from prom for wearing red skinny jeans. Natalie Morales, Al Roker and Tamron Hall discuss the incident during TODAY’s Take. “A lot of girls don’t like to wear dresses,” says Natalie. Al jokes, “Guys, you’ve gotta wear pants.”

    4/23/2014 1:34:05 PM +00:00 2014-04-23T13:34:05