MSNBC: Tim, why, after not answering months and months of charges that the United States trumped up reasons for invading Iraq, do you think, now, President George W. Bush and Vice president Dick Cheney are swinging back?
Tim Russert: The White House recognized it was getting to a point where, if they did not go on the offense, they were going to lose this battle, this skirmish and thereby have a profound affect on the war in Iraq.
The word I heard around Republican circles was, “How low can we go?” They thought they were going to bottom out at 40% approval rating and then it went to 38 and then it went to 36. And they decided they had to apply the brakes to the freefall.
And the White House believes that in order to secure its base and not plummet any further in the polls, they have to stay on the offense.
MSNBC: Congressman Murtha’s been described as a “staunch, pro-military hawk”. When he makes a turnaround, calling for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, how much weight does he carry?
Russert: As I watched Congressman Murtha, you could see a man who clearly had done a lot of reflection – struggling with his conscience, struggling with his commitment to the military, as someone who was in the Marine Corps for 37 years and a decorated Vietnam veteran, someone who voted for this war. Murtha decided to step forward and make the very bold statement that the United States withdraw immediately.
It sent shockwaves through Washington Thursday.
MSNBC: Speaking of Vice President Cheney, Murtha was pretty sarcastic Thursday when he said, “I like guys who’ve never even been there, that criticize us who’ve been there. I like that. I like guys who got five deferments, have never been there, and send people to war and then don’t like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done.”
Mr. Cheney did have five deferments and didn’t serve in the military, so it was an accurate statement, but it was also a very strong response.
Russert: And a very direct response. Many Democrats were riled by Vice president Cheney’s comments the other night, when he said, “The president and I cannot prevent certain politicians from losing their memory, or their backbone.”
The words being used now, back and forth, from several Republicans, suggesting, not so subtly, that Congressman Murtha was aiding and abetting the enemy, aiding and abetting the terrorists. The White House said he had joined Michael Moore and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
It’s a very hostile environment and I don’t think its going to ease up, but Congressman Murtha is standing his ground - and he brings all his background and all his credibility with him.
When Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona speaks about torture as a former POW, people listen. Some Republicans told me privately Thursday that when someone of the stature of Murtha steps out like this, you have to pay attention.
MSNBC: It’s almost as if the congress is responding to the echo of what Americans are now saying - if the polls are accurate. The polls are saying the American majority believes they were misled into this war and the war is not being waged properly and is not succeeding and they want American troops to come home.
Russert: Murtha said that yesterday. He said the country is way ahead of the congress. And he comes from Johnstown, Pennsylvania – a hard-working, middle class town.
The White House is fighting back ferociously, saying what was done in the Senate the other day was not a repudiation of the president, but rather embracing his policies.
People who listened to that debate in the Senate heard the lawmakers trying to take a more assertive role in overseeing the Iraq war.
Clearly, when you have a situation where nearly 60% of the American people want to withdraw troops, the war is not going well. When you send a military to war, you’re bringing a country to war. And once you lose the support of the people back home, it creates a near impossible situation for the Commander in Chief.
MSNBC: One side note here, please - you were at the big going away party this week for ABC’s Ted Koppel, right?
Russert: I was. I said to Ted that night and I will say it again, he elevated all of us. He elevated our whole profession by the way he conducted himself.
I grew up with Nightline. People forget that before cable and the Internet, you had to wait until 11:30 to find out what had gone on in the world since dinner, and Nightline brought it to you. And Ted Koppel was the very best.
MSNBC: What will you be talking about Sunday, on Meet the Press?
Russert: We have an exclusive Sunday morning interview with Congressman John Murtha. He’s going to explain his views very clearly to the American people. I’ll obviously ask the challenging question as what could be the ramifications of troop withdrawals.
Then, we’re going to tackle another issue that, God forbid, does not strike us. That’s this Bird flu. There are two more deaths reported in China,. 66 people have died. 50% of the people who get this bird flu die. There’s concern this could be a pandemic. I’m going to talk to the four people who have been charged with protecting all of us: Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Julie Louis Gerberding from the CDC, Michael Leavitt, the Secretary of HHS and Dr. Michael Ryan from the World Health Organization.
So, two big issues; war and the potential flu pandemic… all this Sunday, on Meet the Press.