Interview with President George W. Bush
Meet the Press with Tim Russert
The Oval Office, February 7, 2004
Broadcast on Sunday, February 8, 2004
Please credit any excerpts to “NBC’s Meet the Press”
Below are some topics broached during Tim Russert’s Meet the Press interview with President George W. Bush.
Click on a topic to jump to that excerpt from the interview.
• Intelligence Commission• Director of the CIA George Tenet• 9/11 Commission• Osama bin Laden• Weapons of mass destruction
• Saddam as a threat• Future preemptive strikes
• Resistance in Iraq
• Nation-building• United Nations in Iraq
• Death and injury toll in Iraq
• Iraq as a War of Choice or Necessity
• President’s National Guard service• Bush-Cheney economic record
• Future tax cuts• Uniter vs. divider• Sen. John Kerry
• Skull and Bones society• Losing the election• Biggest campaign issues
Tim Russert: Prime Minister Blair has set up a similar commission in Great Britain.
President Bush: Yeah.
Russert: His is going to report back in July. Ours is not going to be until March of 2005, five months after the presidential election.
President Bush: Yeah.
Russert: Shouldn't the American people have the benefit of the commission before the election?
President Bush: Well, the reason why we gave it time is because we didn't want it to be hurried. This is a strategic look, kind of a big‑picture look about the intelligence‑gathering capacities of the United States of America, whether it be the capacity to gather intelligence in North Korea or how we've used our intelligence to, for example, learn more information about A.Q. Kahn. And it's important that this investigation take its time.
Now, look, we are in a political season. I fully understand people‑‑He's trying to avoid responsibility. There is going to be ample time for the American people to assess whether or not I made a‑‑good calls, whether or not I used good judgment, whether or not I made the right decision in removing Saddam Hussein from power, and I look forward to that debate …
Russert: Will you testify before the commission?
President Bush: This commission? You know, I don't‑‑testify? I will be glad to visit with them. I will be glad to share with them knowledge. I will be glad to make recommendations, if they ask for some.
On the Director of the CIA George Tenet:
President Bush: … I strongly believe the CIA is ably led by George Tenet. …
Russert: His job is not in jeopardy?
President Bush: No, not at all, not at all.
On the 9/11 Commission:
Tim Russert: Would you submit for questioning, though, to the 9/11 Commission?
President Bush: Perhaps, perhaps.
On Osama bin Laden:Tim Russert: Senator Charles Grassley, a Republican … said he is absolutely convinced we will capture Osama bin Laden before the election.
President Bush: Well, I appreciate his optimism. I have no idea whether we will capture or bring him to justice, may be the best way to put it. I know we are on the hunt …
Russert: Do you have a pretty good idea where Osama is?
President Bush: You know, I'm not going to comment on that.
On not finding Weapons of Mass Destruction:
Tim Russert: The night you took the country to war, March 17th, you said this: "Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised."
President Bush: Right.
Russert: That apparently is not the case.
President Bush: Correct.
Russert: How do you respond to critics who say that you brought the nation to war under false pretenses?
President Bush: The … first of all, I expected to find the weapons. Sitting behind this desk making a very difficult decision of war and peace, and I based my decision on the best intelligence possible, intelligence that had been gathered over the years, intelligence that not only our analysts thought was valid but analysts from other countries thought were valid.
On Saddam as a Threat:
Tim Russert: Mr. President, the Director of the CIA said that his briefings had qualifiers and caveats, but when you spoke to the country, you said "there is no doubt." When Vice President Cheney spoke to the country, he said "there is no doubt." Secretary Powell, "no doubt." Secretary Rumsfeld, "no doubt, we know where the weapons are." You said, quote, "The Iraqi regime is a threat of unique urgency.” “[Saddam Hussein] is a threat that we must deal with as quickly as possible.” You gave the clear sense that this was an immediate threat that must be dealt with.
President Bush: I think, if I might remind you that in my language I called it a grave and gathering threat, but I don't want to get into word contests. But what I do want to share with you is my sentiment at the time. There was no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a danger to America.
Russert: In what way?
President Bush: Well, because he had the capacity to have a weapon, make a weapon. We thought he had weapons. The international community thought he had weapons. But he had the capacity to make a weapon and then let that weapon fall into the hands of a shadowy terrorist network.
On Future Preemptive Strikes:
Tim Russert: There is a sense in the country that the intelligence that was given was ambiguous, and that you took it and molded it and shaped it‑‑your opponents have said "hyped" it‑‑and rushed to war.
President Bush: Yeah.
Russert: And now, in the world, if you, in the future, say we must go into North Korea or we must go into Iran because they have nuclear capability, either this country or the world will say, Excuse you, Mr. President, we want it now in hard, cold facts.
President Bush: Well, Tim, I and my team took the intelligence that was available to us and we analyzed it, and it clearly said Saddam Hussein was a threat to America. Now, I know I'm getting repetitive, but I'm just trying to make sure you understand the context in which I was making decisions. He had used weapons. He had manufactured weapons. He had funded suicide bombers into Israel. He had terrorist connections. In other words, all of those ingredients said to me: Threat.
On the Resistance in Iraq:
Tim Russert: It's now nearly a year, and we are in a very difficult situation. Did we miscalculate how we would be treated and received in Iraq?
President Bush: Well, I think we are welcomed in Iraq. …
Russert: Are you surprised by the level and intensity of resistance?
President Bush: No, I'm not.
Tim Russert: You do seem to have changed your mind from the 2000 campaign. In a debate, you said, "I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called 'nation-building.'"
President Bush: Yes.
Russert: We clearly are involved in nation-building.
President Bush: Right. And I also said‑‑let me put it in context. I'm not suggesting you're pulling one of these Washington tricks where you leave half the equation out. But I do say also that our troops must be trained and prepared to fight and win war and, therefore, make peace more possible. And our troops were trained to fight and win war, and we did, and a second phase of the war is now going on. The first phase, of course, was the Tommy Franks troop movement.
Russert: But this is nation-building?
President Bush: Well, it is. That’s right, but we're also fighting a war so that they can build a nation.
On the United Nations in Iraq:
Tim Russert: In transferring power, the U.N. will play a central role?
President Bush: Yeah. I call it a vital role because there is a lot of roles being played by different players, but the U.N. will play‑‑and this role is a very important role. It says to the Iraqi citizens who are again trying to figure out the right balance as they head toward this new democracy after years of‑‑after years of being enslaved by a tyrant how best to do this, and I think it's very helpful to have the stamp of the international community be placed upon the political process.
On the Death and Injury Toll in Iraq:
Tim Russert: Now looking back, in your mind, is it worth the loss of 530 American lives and 3,000 injuries and woundings simply to remove Saddam Hussein, even though there were no weapons of mass destruction?
President Bush: Every life is precious. Every person that is willing to sacrifice for this country deserves our praise, and yes. … It's essential that I explain this properly to the parents of those who lost their lives. Saddam Hussein was dangerous, and I’m not gonna leave him in power and trust a madman. He's a dangerous man. He had the ability to make weapons at the very minimum. For the parents of the soldiers who have fallen who are listening, David Kay, the weapons inspector, came back and said, “in many ways Iraq was more dangerous than we thought.” It's‑‑we are in a war against these terrorists who will bring great harm to America, and I've asked these young ones to sacrifice for that.
On Iraq as a War of Choice or Necessity:
Tim Russert: In light of not finding the weapons of mass destruction, do you believe the war in Iraq is a war of choice or a war of necessity?
President Bush: I think that's an interesting question. Please elaborate on that a little bit. A war of choice or a war of necessity? It's a war of necessity. In my judgment, we had no choice when we look at the intelligence I looked at that says the man was a threat.
On the President’s Service in the National Guard:
Tim Russert: The chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Terence McAuliffe, said this last week: "I look forward to that debate when John Kerry, a war hero with a chest full of medals, is standing next to George Bush, a man who was AWOL in the Alabama National Guard. He didn't show up when he should have showed up.” How do you respond?
President Bush: Political season is here. I was‑‑I served in the National Guard. I flew F‑102 aircraft. I got an honorable discharge. I've heard this‑‑I've heard this ever since I started running for office. I‑‑I put in my time, proudly so. …
Russert: The Boston Globe and the Associated Press have gone through some of their records and said there was no evidence that you reported to duty in Alabama during the summer and fall of 1972.
President Bush: Yeah, they’re‑‑they're just wrong. There may be no evidence, but I did report; otherwise, I wouldn't have been honorably discharged. In other words, you don't just say "I did something" without there being verification. Military doesn't work that way. I got an honorable discharge, and I did show up in Alabama.
Russert: You did‑‑were allowed to leave eight months before your term expired. Was there a reason?
President Bush: Right. Well, I was going to Harvard Business School and worked it out with the military.
Russert: When allegations were made about John McCain or Wesley Clark on their military records, they opened up their entire files. Would you agree to do that?
President Bush: Yeah. Listen, these files‑‑I mean, people have been looking for these files for a long period of time, trust me, and starting in the 1994 campaign for governor. And I can assure you in the year 2000 people were looking for those files as well. …
Russert: But would you allow pay stubs, tax records, anything to show that you were serving during that period?
President Bush: Yeah. If we still have them, but I‑‑you know, the records are kept in Colorado, as I understand, and they scoured the records. And I'm just telling you, I did my duty, and it's politics to kind of ascribe all kinds of motives to me. But I have been through it before. I'm used to it. ...
Russert: Would you authorize the release of everything to settle this?
President Bush: Yes, absolutely. We did so in 2000, by the way.
On the Bush-Cheney Economic Record:
Tim Russert: The Bush‑Cheney first three years, the unemployment rate has gone up 33 percent, there has been a loss of 2.2 million jobs. We've gone from a $281 billion surplus to a $521 billion deficit. The debt has gone from 5.7 trillion, to $7 trillion ‑‑ up 23 percent. Based on that record, why should the American people rehire you as CEO?
President Bush: Sure, because I have been the President during a time of tremendous stress on our economy and made the decisions necessary to lead‑‑that would enhance recovery. … what the people must understand is that instead of wondering what to do, I acted, and I acted by cutting the taxes on individuals and small businesses, primarily. And that, itself, has led to this recovery.
On Future Tax Cuts:Tim Russert: Every president since the Civil War who has gone to war has raised taxes, not cut them. …Why not say, I will not cut taxes anymore until we have balanced the budget? If our situation is so precious and delicate because of the war, why do you keep cutting taxes and draining money from the treasury?
President Bush: Well, because I believe that the best way to stimulate economic growth is to let people keep more of their own money. And I believe if you raise taxes as the economy is beginning to recover from really tough times, you will slow down the economic growth. You will make it harder.
On Uniter vs. Divider:Tim Russert: This is Time magazine: "Love him or Hate him: Why George Bush arouses such passion and what it means for the country." … Why do you think you are perceived as such a divider?
President Bush: Gosh, I don't know, because I'm working hard to unite the country. As a matter of fact, it's the hardest part of being a president. I was successful as the Governor of Texas for bringing people together for the common good, and I must tell you it's tough here in Washington, and frankly it's the biggest disappointment that I've had so far since coming to Washington. I'm not blaming anybody. It's just the environment here is such that it's difficult to find common ground.
On Sen. John Kerry:
Tim Russert: You're trailing John Kerry in both U.S.A. Today and Newsweek polls by seven and five points.
President Bush: Yeah.
Russert: This is what John Kerry had to say last year. He said that his colleagues are appalled at the quote “President's lack of knowledge. They've managed him the same way they've managed Ronald Reagan. They send him out to the press for one event a day. They put him in a brown jacket and jeans and got him to move some hay or move a truck, and all of a sudden he's the Marlboro Man. I know this guy. He was two years behind me at Yale. I knew him, and he's still the same guy.” Did you know him at Yale?
President Bush: No.
Russert: How do you respond to that?
President Bush: Politics. I mean, this is‑‑if you close your eyes and listen carefully to what you just said, it sounds like the year 2000 all over again.
On Yale’s Skull and Bones Society:
Tim Russert: You were both in Skull and Bones, the secret society.
President Bush: It's so secret we can't talk about it.
Russert: What does that mean for America? The conspiracy theorists are going to go wild.
President Bush: I'm sure they are.
On Losing the Election:
Tim Russert: Are you prepared to lose?
President Bush: No, I'm not going to lose.
Russert: If you did, what would you do?
President Bush: Well, I don't plan on losing.
On the Biggest Issues in the Campaign:
Tim Russert: Biggest issues in the upcoming campaign?
President Bush: Who can properly use American power in a way to make the world a better place, and who understands that the true strength of this country is the hearts and souls of the American citizens, who understands times are changing and how best to have policy reflect those times. … I have shown the American people I can lead. I have shown the American people I can sit here in the Oval Office when times are tough and be steady and make good decisions.