President Bush said Wednesday he wants Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney to remain in his administration until the end of his presidency, extending a job guarantee to two of the most-criticized members of his team.
Bush, in an interview, also said he was determined that sanctions imposed against North Korea must be applied even though Pyongyang has agreed to return to six-nation nuclear disarmament talks.
And Bush said he did not foresee a change in the immediate future in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. He said that U.S. generals have assured him that "they've got what they can live with."
Post-election questions denied
The president spoke in the Oval Office, seated in a wing chair in front of a table with a bowl of roses. Six days before midterm elections, Bush steered questions away from politics beyond saying he was confident that Republicans would defy the polls and hold control of the House and Senate. "I understand that the pundits have got the race over, but I don't believe it's over until everybody votes."
He refused to even say whether he could work effectively with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi or Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid if Democrats won either the House or Senate, or both.
Bush took the opportunity to take another poke at Sen. John Kerry, in political hot water for a remark that has been criticized as a slam on U.S. troops in Iraq. Kerry said it was a botched joke about Bush, not the troops.
"It didn't sound like a joke to me," the president said. "More importantly, it didn't sound like a joke to the troops."
Rumsfeld and Cheney
Democrats and Republicans alike have called for Rumsfeld's resignation, arguing he has mishandled the war in Iraq where more than 2,800 members of the U.S. military have died since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Cheney has faced sharp criticism for his hardline views and is viewed favorably by only about a third of Americans in polls. Bush said that "both those men are doing fantastic jobs and I strongly support them."
He said he valued Cheney's advice and judgment. "The good thing about Vice President Cheney's advice is, you don't read about it in the newspaper after he gives it," the president said.
Bush credited Rumsfeld with overseeing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while overhauling the military. "I'm pleased with the progress we're making," the president said. He replied in the affirmative when asked if he wanted Rumsfeld and Cheney to stay with him until the end.
North Korea sincerity
Bush opened the interview by saying he was pleased that North Korea was returning to stalled nuclear talks. Although North Korea has a history of breaking promises and walking away from negotiations, Bush did not express doubts about the intentions of Kim Jong Il, North Korea's leader.
"It's his choice," Bush said. "I would hope he is sincere." He said that any deal with North Korea would have to be verifiable.
The president said he did not accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, even though it tested an atomic bomb three weeks ago. "Our objective is to see they're not a nuclear weapons state," the president said.
Bush said Robert Joseph, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, and R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, will travel through the region to talk with allies about how to make progress.
"We're going to talk about making sure that the sanctions passed by the United Nations are effective," the president said. "Implementation of the sanctions will be on the table."
Iraqi goverment confidence
The president also expressed confidence in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki despite apparent strains between Washington and Baghdad.
"I appreciate he's making hard decisions that he thinks are necessary to keep his country united and moving forward," the president said. "I didn't find any difference of opinion when I talked to him. We both want Iraq to be able to govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself. We both want there to be benchmarks - Iraqi developed and designed benchmarks - that show the Iraqi people and the American people that this young democracy is making progress."
Bush said that "there's no question that October was a tough month. We lost 103 soldiers. It was a tough month because we were on the offense, the enemy was on the offense - the enemy was trying to affect us. And it was a tough month because of Ramadan. ... Our troops and Iraqi troops killed or captured over 1,500 people during this period of time."
Bush refused to comment on Cheney's assertion that a "dunk in water" of terrorist suspects was a "no-brainer" if it would save American lives. "We don't discuss the techniques we use," Bush said.