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Transcript: One on one with Nancy Pelosi

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow talks with the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi about President Barack Obama's economic recovery bill and his plan for troop withdrawal from Iraq.
MSNBC's Rachel Maddow engaged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in an exclusive interview at the Capitol.
MSNBC's Rachel Maddow engaged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in an exclusive interview at the Capitol.Matt Saal / MSNBC
/ Source: MSNBC

On Wednesday, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow talked with the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi about President Barack Obama's economic recovery bill and his plan for troop withdrawal from Iraq.

Read the transcript below.

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST, ‘RACHEL MADDOW SHOW:’ Madam speaker thank you for this chance to talk.


MADDOW: The president is legislatively ambitious, as you would expect from a new president. Not just the giant stimulus bill that has already passed, also the education and national service proposal from last night’s speech, energy and he says healthcare reform this year.

PELOSI: Absolutely.

MADDOW: Can healthcare reform be done this year, really?

PELOSI: It’s the priority of the president of the United States, it’s always been a priority for the democrats in the congress. We want to work in a bipartisan way, but it is absolutely essential. It’s essential to everything, not only the personal well being of individuals, which is of course our top concern.

But if you’re going to for example have entitlement reform, you must have healthcare reform. The rapid increase in cost of healthcare is the biggest contributor to our concerns about, shall we say Medicare, Medicaid. And the rest. So it’s about individuals, it’s about our national budget; it’s about the health of America. It’s got everything going. And it’s an economic issue of course.

MADDOW: Is entitlement reform contingent on healthcare reform happening first. Is it not worth approaching Medicaid and Medicare reform, for example, without having approached healthcare costs in a bigger way?

PELOSI: No, you have to start with healthcare reform. Reducing the rapid increase in cost of healthcare in our country. And again, healthcare reform is entitlement reform. And you put it all on the table, you know?

And this looms so large. It’s about prevention, it’s about biomedical research. We’ve done a number of these things already in the first few weeks of this congress. Of course, we passed the children’s health bill, which is a big chunk.
11 million children, ensured. In the recovery package we have health IT. Which will make, what we’re providing in terms of healthcare, safer, reducing errors, and lowering costs.

In the bill, there also is a big investment in biomedical research. So that we are getting the best possible answers for customized, personalized care for the American people. Prevention was cut in the recovery package.

But the president called for it as a priority last night. Prevention, where we’re talking about diet, not diabetes. We’re talking about a healthier America, we’re talking about the health of America, not just the healthcare in America. But of course we have to reach out to make it universal.

MADDOW:  What has happened thus far, are the sort of politically the low hanging fruit. The ones on which it’s maybe a little easier to get some consensus. There’s definitely a lot tougher ground ahead, in terms of healthcare reform. If the republicans in the house treat healthcare politically, the way they treated the stimulus, and they say no. Would you compromise the quality of a healthcare reform proposal to try to chase their votes, or would you just let it pass with 0 republican votes if it came to that.

PELOSI: Well, I think my record is clear on this subject. I want bipartisanship to the extent that we are making progress.

But we’re not going backward. If I had to use four words to describe, on all of our initiatives. Whether it’s rebuilding infrastructure of America, keeping America competitive and number one through innovation. Whether it’s global warming or healthcare.

Use these four words: Science, science, science and science. That’s what it’s about. We want to have the best scientific basis and the best scientific methods as we go forward to put together this healthcare reform.

And we want bipartisanship. Too many people are involved, too much money is involved. We want to have as much legitimacy as possible as we move forward. I think this is a national debate, it’s not just in this chamber. Or the senate chamber.

It’s a national debate for our country and so we have to bring people together. But how we may want to respect different views and tactics on different revisions, we cannot dilute the healthcare prevention. Customized, personalized care. The universality because it all feeds together to make America healthier.

MADDOW:  So politically, it would be great to have Republicans and Democrats standing united in favor of...

PELOSI:  Absolutely.  And we should strive for that.

MADDOW:  Striving for that, but if it comes to compromising the quality of the policy in order to get that you’re not going to compromise.

PELOSI:  Well the, we take it to the American people.  I think that the people -- the Republicans are not accountable to all of us here. They're accountable to their constituents.  And what we have to do is promote this idea in the larger sense with a vision, and our president is so well prepared and committed to do that.

Now, the Senate is a different place they need 60 votes and the rest.  But hopefully the vision is so compelling, and the strategy is so clear, and the results so promising, that the American people will insist that their representatives vote for it.

MADDOW:  On that issue of taking it to the people, the president last night (obviously) starting off his speech by saying, I want to not just address this joint session of Congress, but also the American people, directly, his oratorical skills in full display.  Republicans in the House don't really have any political power.  They are a substantial minority in your House.  But they did dominate media coverage, to a certain extent, of the stimulus fight.

Will, you, approach that, will Democrats in the House approach that differently on the next big bill?  Is there a lesson learned there?

PELOSI:  No, I don’t think so, I think that the fact is that they have come out very poorly in any measure of that – we call it the recovery package, because their numbers are terrible.  Their numbers are terrible.

So they wanted to talk about process. We want to talk about jobs and while they made some little hay with saying the president reached out, but the Democrats in the house didn’t.  They had every parliamentary opportunity, but not to get so involved in the process, the discussion.

They came out very poorly in this.  But you know, bless their heart.  They vote for what they believe in, and they do not believe in a new direction for America, they are committed to the path that we're on that got us here in the first place.

So while people want us to be bipartisan, and we have an obligation to strive that.  The fact is, is that there is a very big difference philosophically between Democrats and Republicans, and the votes on the stimulus package, I think, pointed that out.

MADDOW:  On the issue of looking back while moving forward...

PELOSI:  Right.

MADDOW:  On the issue -- and you knew I was going to ask you about this.  Because this is something that liberals have really been pushing.  And you have stated your support for John Conyers convening an investigation into potential lawbreaking in the Bush administration.

PELOSI:  Absolutely.

MADDOW:  You've been outspoken about contempt of Congress charges related to the politicization of the Justice Department and that investigation.  You have been less specific about how Congress should proceed on wireless warren less wiretapping and torture.

Why is that?

PELOSI:  Well, I haven't been less specific, because we're waiting what we had in the bill -- which I did not like the bill, part of the bill that was positive, the FISA bill, was an inspector general.  We will have an inspector general's report in July about the conduct of the government in the collection in our country.

Mr, Senator Leahy has a proposal, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is a good idea.  What I have some concern about there is it has immunity.  And I think that some of the issues involved here, like politicizing of the Justice Department, and the rest, may have criminal ramifications, and I don't think we should be giving them immunity.

But we'll find a way to go forward -- because American people want us to go forward -- but also making sure that the Constitution's respected -- and that's what our issue is, whether you’re talking about separation of power, whether you’re talking about Karl Rove, Josh Bolten, and the others at the White House, not responding to subpoenas by the Congress on the subject of the Justice Department politicizing.  And so those issues are still alive.

We're in the courts on those, we're in negotiations with the administrations, both the Bush administration and the Obama administration, about how the executive branch responds to the legislative branch honoring our Constitution.  I don't -- I'm not -- I don’t want to look back, I want to go forward, but as we try to have reconciliation, I'm a little hesitant to have immunity.

MADDOW:  And if that inspector general...

PELOSI: More than a little bit hesitant, let me say.  I don't think we should have immunity for some of those issues.

MADDOW:  Then in terms of moving forward, if the inspector general report that comes out this summer suggests that there has been criminal activity at the official level on issues like torture, or warrant less wireless wiretapping, or rendition, or any of these other issues...

PELOSI:  No one is above the law. The president has said that.

MADDOW:  ... you would support a referral for a criminal investigation, potential prosecution.

PELOSI:  Absolutely.  No one is above the law, but we have to go through
-- we have to have the facts

I mean, we are unhappy about certain things, we anecdotally know about certain things.  We will have the documentation of it, and we can go forward.

I don't know what other criminal investigations are going on concurrently, because they are not usually publicly disclosed.  But I'm hopeful that as we go forward, the American people will have more confidence in their government and how we protect them.  Get liberty and security, they're very compatible.  You don't have to choose one or the other.

MADDOW:  Let me ask you about one sort of thorny issue in this area, and I say it's thorny because it has been invoked by the Bush administration and its supporters as a way to try to deflect calls for this accountability.

In October, 2001, you were briefed as a member of the House Intelligence Committee issues.  September, 2002, you were briefed on CIA, detention issues and enhanced interrogation issues.

Because of those briefings -- and I know that you expressed concern for the NSA after that October, 2001 briefing.  You released that publicly in 2006.  But you didn't express public concerns at the time after those briefings.

Does that raise a complication?

PELOSI:  No.  No, -- the fact is, they did not brief…well, first of all, we're not allowed to talk about what happens there but I can say they did not brief us with these enhanced interrogations that were taking place.  They did not brief us.  They were talking about an array of interrogations that they might have at their disposal.

MADDOW:  Techniques in the abstract, as if they were not being used?

PELOSI:  We were never told they were being used.

MADDOW:  You were told they weren't being used?

PELOSI:  Well, they just talked about them, but -- the inference to be drawn from what they told us was that these are things that we think could be legal.  And we have a difference of opinion on that.  But they never told us that they were being be used, because that would be a different story altogether.

We had many disagreements with them all along the way on how they collect information in our country and what they think might be acceptable.  They have never gotten any comfort from me on any of those issues, no matter what they want to say publicly.  And they know that I cannot speak specifically to the classified briefing of that kind.  
But I can say flat out, they never told us that these enhancement interrogations were being used.

MADDOW:  And they have said publicly -- they have cited those briefings as essentially congressional consent for what they did. And , A – you say the consent was not given, and B – you say you can not explain the extent to which consent was not given because you’re not allowed to discuss the briefing. 

PELOSI:  What I’m saying to you is they never told us that those techniques were being used.

MADDOW:  But did they tell you that they think water boarding is legal now?

PELOSI:  They may have given the inference that there were some debate that, that water boarding could be of course I disagree with that.  But the issue is, are you going to use such a thing?  And they had not ever briefed us that.  That was the case.

But let me say this.  There is a whole series of meetings that relate to a collection of information in terms of FISA...


PELOSI:  ... where they know that they had very strong resistance from me in my capacity as intelligence -- the senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.  They've never had, we've never had in the leadership of the Congress, certainly a speaker of the House, a person with as much intelligence background as I have.  So I have some discernment about it, and that's why, one of the reasons why I had such sorrow over the war in Iraq is that so many people voted for it when the intelligence wasn't there to support that claim.

And people say, well, why did other Democrats vote for it when you all were saying there’s no intelligence to support the threat? I don’t know why they voted for it. But there was no intelligence to support the imminent threat that the administration was contending.  So we have been -- some of us have been a thorn in their side every step of the way.

The advantage they have is we can't talk about some of it, although we talked about that at the time because that was an open vote in Congress.  But the inspector general will give his report in July and we’ll see what they came up with in how they may or may not have breached the Constitution in their collection.

We have a new president who is -- whether you're talking about protecting the rights of the American people, protecting the Constitution of the United States, or setting forth our values that America does not torture, as the president did so clearly last night, we’re in a new direction.

MADDOW:  On the issue of...

PELOSI:  And there is no justification on anything that -- any excuse, justification, or anything, on any briefing that they have given.

MADDOW:  Well, let me just ask you one last detailed question on that, though.  And I'll ask you about Iraq as well.

But on the NSA, just a couple of weeks after 9/11, the very start of October, 2001, you were briefed on the NSA's spying program and you objected.  You wrote a letter to the NSA saying, I'm concerned about this warrant less spying.

PELOSI:  Right.

MADDOW:  The NSA responded to you with a letter, and I know...

PELOSI: It’s all redacted ,it’s all redacted.

MADDOW: And I printed it out, I actually have it because it's funny. So much has been redacted. What they released is absolutely nothing. 

PELOSI: Like "Dear Congresswoman" Redact, redact, redact.

MADDOW: Sincerely yours,

PELOSI: Sincerely yours,

MADDOW:  Exactly.  But was there something in that letter that, and I know it’s redacted, so it can’t be released publicly. But was there something in that letter that made you feel like, you know what?  I objected privately.  I should not object publicly?  I should not...

PELOSI:  Well, you can't.  You can't.

MADDOW: You can’t speak out about the content of what you have been briefed on – but isn’t there a way that you can say, I'm a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, I believe that we are doing something that we should not be doing?

PELOSI:  You cannot do that publicly, and that's something that I think we have to change in terms of -- because your hands are pretty much tied.  And we were relentless with them on this score in terms of questioning them on what they were doing and fighting them on it.  And this is a very nature of battle, and it's one of the reasons I'm looking very closely at some of the appointments in the Obama administration, to make sure that nobody who had anything to do with this in the Bush administration has any cloak of authority and experience, and should be appointed at any level, advisory or at any level in the Bush Administration.

MADDOW:  But you think the rules should be changed in terms of what members...

PELOSI:  No -- who can you go to?  Can you go to the chief justice of the Supreme Court?  Can you -- these are issues, mind you, that you can't even talk to your staff about.  I have a security adviser, but we can't talk -- you can't talk to anybody about it.

And that just isn't right, because it gives all the cards to the administration.  And then if you say anything about it, you have violated our national security.  And it shouldn't be that way.

MADDOW: It neuters the oversight rule for voters.

PELOSI:  It does, and that's what we’re going to change, because you can't -- even with a Democratic president -- you don't want any president, Democrat or Republican, to have that kind of authority.  And that will happen.
I think with the cooperation of this administration that, again, some of this has come out in terms of the attorney general being in the hospital.  And, you know, some of these things have come out because of leaks and the rest.  It gives you some picture of the lengths that they would want to go, that even their attorney general did not want to sign a letter to give the authority to go forward.

MADDOW:  I want to ask you a little bit about Iraq.  And we're expecting a major statement from the president on Friday in North Carolina.

You described the '06 elections in which you became speaker of the House as a referendum on Iraq.  And you said right before those elections that, absent a Democratic victory, we could be in Iraq for 10 years.

PELOSI:  Right.

MADDOW:  I wonder if you are disappointed with the prospect that we might be looking at 50,000 American troops still in Iraq, essentially beyond seven years in Iraq, beyond that 16-month timeline that we've heard from candidate Obama.

PELOSI:  Well, in the House of Representatives, I want to be clear, we have ended the war in Iraq six or seven times...


PELOSI:  ... and sent the legislation over to the Senate.  And, of course, they need 60 votes. One time it got to the president's desk.  He vetoed it, and that was never allowed to happen in the Senate again.

So we were calling over the past, now, two years ago, in that period of time, for a year-- you know, by the end of '09.  And now the president is saying -- I don't know what he's saying because ha hasn’t made the statement yet.  But certainly that the war would be over by 2010.

What is important about this is that we're on a path to ending the war. Some might want it a few months shorter but some a little longer. But nonetheless the time would go by and the war will be over.  Right now all we've had is the debate.  We've past bills of timelines and deadlines and time certain, and all that.

MADDOW:  Doesn't 50,000 seem like an awful lot for a residual force. 

PELOSI:  I completely agree with that.  And the president hasn't made a statement, so I don't know what he's going to say.

I know what the rumors -- and I don't know what the justification is for 50,000, a presence of 50,000 troops in Iraq.  I do think that there's a need for some.  I don't know that all of them have to be in country.  They can be platformed outside.

I'll just be interested to see what the president has to say.  But I do think that -- I would think a third of that, maybe 20,000, a little more than a third, 15,000 or 20,000.

But again, I don't know what purpose he has in keeping them there, whether it is to fight terrorism, train whatever -- the training of the Iraqis, which seems to have been going on forever.  I don't know what the purpose of those are.

So we have to see what the purpose is, how it fits the mission of our own national security, and why that number is important.  But again, he hasn't said it yet, so I’d like to see what he has to say.

But I am pleased that we are, at long last, on a path to responsibly end the war.  He said 19 months, but he said nineteen months -- so I would hope that it could be sooner than that.

MADDOW:  One last question.  I know we're just about out of time.

You're just back from Afghanistan.  Your thoughts?  Your impressions?

PELOSI:  What a tragedy.  What a tragedy.

Of course, 9/11 occurred, and we had to respond in terms of eliminating any safe haven for those who would do harm to our country.  But the fact, Rachel, is that we did not defeat or eliminate al Qaeda and the Taliban.  We routed them.

They went into the mountainous areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  
They have safe haven there now, and they've come back into Afghanistan.

So, for seven and a half years, we have had an administration without a plan, adrift.  And it's really a tragedy, because so much could have been done.  And this, again, is about our national security, how we protect the American people.  And in order to do so, I conclude-- coming from the trip, I come back with many questions, a trip it does not make you an expert, although I've been there a number of times and I've seen some difference.

Everyone in the military says this cannot be accomplished militarily only.  So it's about how we work with our allies in NATO for a military presence there that will be effective in defeating the Taliban and eliminating al Qaeda.

It's about governance.  It's about the government of Afghanistan and how it is legitimate, and reducing corruption and the whole poppy trade, the drug trade, the rest of that.  About governance.  We give them more power to local with people, more empowerment of the Afghan people.

I'm not talking about a Jeffersonian democracy.  I'm just talking about a stake in the future.  It's about reconstruction of the economy of Iraq.

Again, we can't make a commitment to change hundreds of years of disparity in Afghanistan, but we can create a circumstance where, in a secure environment, there's some appeal to cooperate, rather than saying the Taliban is here, we don't know what the other side is doing, I'll make my peace with the Taliban.

The most important ingredient, though -- and this is – I don’t think - I’m so pleased what the Obama administration is doing, that was neglected by the Bush administration, is the regional cooperation.  This cannot be done in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has to be honest about what it is doing.  It has been duplicitous, I think, in terms of saying fighting in the mountainous regions -- al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the rest.  In fact, that hasn't been really sincere.

It’s not just Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s about Afghanistan and Pakistan, India, the neighboring stans in the region, the other stans.  It's about China, it's about Russia, it's about Iran.


PELOSI:  And Iran has a stake in some level of stability in Afghanistan they don’t want the refugees.  They have some commerce on the border there.  And Taliban or Sunnis… -- you know, you have that whole element.

MADDOW:  The drug problem in Iran.

PELOSI:  The whole drug problem, and they don't want that.  They don't want that in Iran.

So there are many reasons why these countries in the region have a stake in bringing stability to Afghanistan.  We have to work together.

The beauty that I see in -- and this is my first trip since this term as speaker.  My first trip is always to visit the troops and thank them for their service, and this or that, and to talk to the leadership of the country.  And people are so excited about Barack Obama.

They think that he will listen and not lecture.  They think he'll be collaborative and not condescending.  They see that if they’re going to work together with the United States, it's a plan that we work together on, and not one is that dictated to them.  This is a big new direction in Afghanistan.

PELOSI: It’s a big mission. - It's as essential as the national security of our…

MADDOW: Is it 20 years? Is it 10 years?

PELOSI: Well they talk about a 10 year plan. Some do, or 5 year or 10. You have to have a longer view so that the Taliban doesn't wait you out, so that what you’re doing is not irrelevant.  We do it, we leave; they come back.

But I'd hate to see it be a 10-year plan.  But what it has to be is a plan, a strategic plan. Involving the neighbors and the stakeholders in the region, including our NATO allies, being realistic about a corrupt government or a government that the public respects there. Doing our reconstruction in a way that, again, works for them and for stability, and have a military plan that gets the job done.  And not routing seven and a half years ago for defeating or eliminating the threat to America.

And so, again, there are many reasons why this election was so vital to our country in every way. But in terms of our national security in that part of the world, this change is absolutely necessary, but in so many other ways that relate to the well being of the American people.

We were so proud of Barack Obama's speech last night, his presentation to the American people about investments in their education, a new energy policy that will create good paying green jobs in our country, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, preserve our planet in terms of global warming, and  the important investments in education, health care we mentioned.  Also, what he's going to do in terms of enforcing the recovery package initiatives on regulatory reform, housing and stabilizing our financial institutions, doing it all in a fiscal, sound way, not heaping mountains of debt onto future generations, with accountability, with transparency and oversight.

It's a whole new day for us, and it was such a joy to be so much a part of history, to have him speak there.  It was about history, but more importantly, it was about the future and how we make progress with a strategy for success.  So I think there's every reason to be very hopeful that our country will be going in a new direction domestically and internationally.

MADDOW:  Madame Speaker, thank you for your time.  It's so nice to see you.

PELOSI:  Nice to see you, Rachel.

MADDOW:  Thank you.

PELOSI:  Thank you for being here.