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NBC's Guthrie: Does Romney Look Like He Has 'Something to Hide'?

In an interview with Republican strategist Steve Schmidt on Monday's NBC Today, co-host Savannah Guthrie portrayed Mitt Romney's decision not to release more tax returns as a sign of guilt: "Mitt Romney is within the letter of the law, but he's on the low end of the norm. Do you think that he's left the impression with voters that perhaps he does have something to hide?"

A list appeared on screen of the amount of tax returns released by other presidential candidates in past years as Schmidt provided a bland response that only reinforced Guthrie's assertion: "...when you don't disclose something, one side is demanding you disclose it. People in your own party are saying you ought to disclose it. I think the American people look at it and they go immediately to, 'What's he hiding?' Whether that's a fair conclusion or not."

Guthrie followed up with these questions:

> On this issue of Bain Capital, it seems that the Obama campaign is trying to turn this major credential that Romney has to run for president into a liability. Have they been successful at doing that?

> In one sense, are you surprised that the Romney campaign isn't better prepared for these attacks? It's well-known that this was the Obama campaign's plan to go after him in this way and Newt Gingrich did it during the primary?

Guthrie rounded out the series of anti-Romney questions by wondering: "Real quickly, Romney asked the President to apologize for these attacks. Was that smart?"

Schmidt took the bait and ripped the Romney camp:

No, I don't think it was a particularly smart thing to do. For one, Mitt Romney's not a particularly sympathetic character on this front. No one feels sorry for him. The race is about the American people. It's not about Mitt Romney. It's not about Mitt Romney's feelings on an issue like this. So Mitt Romney would have been much better off, I think, hitting back, pivoting, pivoting to a contrast on the economy, and begin taking the fight to the President.

Here is a full transcript of the July 16 interview:

7:06AM ET

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Steve Schmidt is an MSNBC political analyst and served as senior advisor to John McCain's campaign in 2008. Steve, good morning to you.

STEVE SCHMIDT: Good morning, Savannah.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Decision 2012; Obama Doubles Down on Bain Attack as Romney Fights Back]

GUTHRIE: Let's start on this issue of the tax returns. If you look at what presidential candidates have turned over in the last few years, you see that, of course, Mitt Romney is within the letter of the law, but he's on the low end of the norm. Do you think that he's left the impression with voters that perhaps he does have something to hide?

SCHMIDT: Well, I think one of the things that characterizes our politics today, Savannah, is the collapse of trust in institutions of government by the American people. So when you don't disclose something, one side is demanding you disclose it. People in your own party are saying you ought to disclose it. I think the American people look at it and they go immediately to, "What's he hiding?" Whether that's a fair conclusion or not.

GUTHRIE: And so you think he should just go ahead, turn it over, just to make this issue go away?

SCHMIDT: I think it's a very difficult issue going forward. And you know, it's really a – you know they have a big decision to make. If they're going to fold on this and they're going to release more, they should do it now. If they're going to dig in on it, they need to make sure that they're going to dig in on it permanently and they're going to ride out all the bad press that's going to come from it.

GUTHRIE: On this issue of Bain Capital, it seems that the Obama campaign is trying to turn this major credential that Romney has to run for president into a liability. Have they been successful at doing that?

SCHMIDT: Well, they haven't been successful so far when you look at the polls. It remains a very, very close race. But there's no doubt that they're trying to knock down one of the central pillars of Romney's candidacy, which is his ability to give a critique of the President on the economy from his private sector experience. And the Obama campaign is going at that very, very hard right now.

GUTHRIE: If nothing else, Romney is now on the Obama campaign's agenda. He scheduled five network interviews late last week to respond to these issues. In one sense, are you surprised that the Romney campaign isn't better prepared for these attacks? It's well-known that this was the Obama campaign's plan to go after him in this way and Newt Gingrich did it during the primary?

SCHMIDT: Look, these Bain attacks have been a centerpiece of attacks against Mitt Romney since 1994 when he ran for office. They knew it was coming. I think that this is much more part of the rhythm of a presidential campaign. This is Mitt Romney's first real defensive posture since he's won the Republican nomination. Both campaigns go through this. And it's the campaigns that are best able to handle the down cycles that wind up on top in November.

GUTHRIE: Real quickly, Romney asked the President to apologize for these attacks. Was that smart?

SCHMIDT: No, I don't think it was a particularly smart thing to do. For one, Mitt Romney's not a particularly sympathetic character on this front. No one feels sorry for him. The race is about the American people. It's not about Mitt Romney. It's not about Mitt Romney's feelings on an issue like this. So Mitt Romney would have been much better off, I think, hitting back, pivoting, pivoting to a contrast on the economy, and begin taking the fight to the President.

GUTHRIE: And Steve, I can't let you go without asking about the VP selection process. You were the man who was integral in the selection of Sarah Palin back in 2008. Do you think the Romney campaign should go for a game change or play it safe?

SCHMIDT: No, I think it's a very different election cycle. You know, four years is a long time in politics. I think the Romney campaign has been very safe, very cautious, and I think you're going to see them look to a safe, very cautious pick in this race, because they're in a very close race and the fact is we weren't four years ago.

GUTHRIE: Alright, Steve Schmidt, great to get your perspective. Thank you very much.

SCHMIDT: Great. Good to be with you, Savannah. Thank you.