Juan Williams on Interviewing President Bush

President Bush spoke with NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams in an exclusive interview Monday morning. It was the president's first broadcast interview since the State of the Union speech last week.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, we talk with the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad.

BRAND: First, though, we're joined by NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams. Hi, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Hi, Madeleine. Hi, Alex.

CHADWICK: Hi.

BRAND: Hello. Well, earlier today you sat down with President Bush at the White House for an exclusive one-on-one interview. And before we hear you talk about that interview, let's hear you actually interviewing the president.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Harry Reid, the senate majority leader, says that if you have an incursion into Iran, he expects that you would come to the Senate for approval.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I have no intent upon incur - going into Iran. I mean this is the kind of thing that happens in Washington. People ascribe, you know, motives to me beyond a simple statement.

Of course we'll protect our troops. I don't know how anybody can then say, well, protecting the troops means that we're going to invade Iran, if that's what he's talking about.

I mean we will protect our interest in Iraq. That's what the American people expect us to do. That's definitely what our troops want to do. And that's what the families of our troops want us to do.

And if we find the Iranians are moving weapons that will end up harming American troops, we'll deal with it.

BRAND: Juan, we'll deal with it. Is the president being more emphatic now than he has been in the past?

WILLIAMS: You know, it's really interesting, Madeleine. On the one hand he's saying the United States has no intent - no hostile intent - against Iran. But he's saying, gosh, you know, if they continue to act as they have in the past and get involved in the Iraqi war, then we will take actions to protect our soldiers.

And he suggests that this is what the military would want. It's what the American citizens would want. And of course if that therefore leads to going into Iran, that he would not hesitate.

So in that sense it seems as if he's saying, well, if I happen to stumble into this, it's unavoidable. It's not my fault. It's going to be the fault of the Iranians.

BRAND: Last week the president and the vice president seemed to be giving slightly different messages when it came to Iraq, Vice President Cheney speaking to Wolf Blitzer on CNN. What did the president have to say about that when you asked him?

WILLIAMS: It's so interesting. Here he - here what you hear the president - in a moment, Madeleine, here you'll see the president initially saying, well, you know what, the vice president understands the need to make some changes.

But here listen to what the vice - what the president had to say himself.

President BUSH: I think the vice president is a person reflecting a half glass full mentality. And that is he's been able to look at - as have I and other hope other Americans have - the fact that the tyrant was removed, 12 million voted, there's an Iraqi constitution in place that is a model for - and unique for the Middle East.

I will tell you, 2005 was a great year for freedom. And then the enemy took a good look and said what do we need to do to stop the advance of freedom? And 2006 was a tough year. And I have said that the progress is not good enough.

BRAND: So Juan, he's saying basically that he and the vice president do see eye to eye. There aren't any differences, right?

WILLIAMS: Well, he's trying to minimize the difference. But it's hard to get around the idea - last week, as you mentioned, Madeleine, the vice president was saying we've had many successes in Iraq (unintelligible) success.

And here's the president having said that he's responsible for all the errors that have been made, saying, you know what, the vice president - he went on to tell me - understands why we have to add troops, because we are having problems.

So he was suggesting that maybe the vice president was emphasizing the glass half full, but acknowledged the realities on the ground.

BRAND: And you also asked the president about that pending Senate resolution - or one of them - on Iraq, which says that it's not in the interests of the United States to send troops, send more troops there. What did he say to that?

WILLIAMS: Well, this again brings us back to Vice President Cheney, because the vice president has suggested that really that was doing nothing but helping the insurgents and the bad guys.

And what the president had to say was of course it's a democracy and people are going to have their way of looking at it. But he did say that what's important for the American people and for the Senate to understand, that it is in America's interest to make sure that we defeat what he called the insurgents there in Iraq.

His suggestion was they could be coming over to the United States bringing the war here if we don't, in fact, stop them right there at that front. And so he was making the case that if the national interest is the key phrase in that resolution, he believes that people who are familiar with the situation in the war, people will understand what's at stake, will come to his assessment that it is in our national interest to continue the fight in Iraq and to make sure that we have success there.

BRAND: NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams. Thank you, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Madeleine.

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An NPR Interview with President Bush

President Bush, photographed during a Jan. 24 visit to the DuPont Experimental Station in Delaware. i i

President Bush speaks with Juan Williams during an interview in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Jan. 29, 2007. White House Photo by Eric Draper hide caption

itoggle caption White House Photo by Eric Draper
President Bush, photographed during a Jan. 24 visit to the DuPont Experimental Station in Delaware.

President Bush speaks with Juan Williams during an interview in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Jan. 29, 2007.

White House Photo by Eric Draper
Ron Elving

Watching Washington

NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving sees in President Bush's statements on Iraq a prelude to disengagement. Read his latest column.

President Bush said Monday that he does not intend to invade Iran, but he's willing to do "whatever it takes" to defend U.S. troops in Iraq whom he says have been attacked by Iranians.

"If Iran escalates its military action in Iraq to the detriment of our troops and/or innocent Iraqi people, we will respond firmly," the president said in a half-hour interview with NPR Senior Correspondent Juan Williams, the first broadcast interview the president has given since his State of the Union address.

Asked whether he would seek the approval of Congress for a move against Iran, the president said he had "no intent upon going into Iran," adding, "Of course, we'll protect our troops.

"I don't know how anybody can then say, 'Well, protecting the troops means that we're going to invade Iran," the president said.

Asked whether Americans could be confident in U.S. intelligence reports about Iran's weapons programs, given previous misinformation about Iraq's programs, the president said this:

"Look, I'm like a lot of Americans who say, 'Well, if it wasn't right in Iraq, how do you know it's right in Iran?' So we're constantly evaluating and answering this legitimate question, by always working to get as good intelligence as we can."

On Signs of Progress in Iraq

Mr. Bush also said he sees evidence of progress in Iraq and against terrorism, but warned that "presidents and Congresses will be dealing with this ideological struggle for quite a while." He responded to a question about the highly confident picture of Iraq painted by Vice President Dick Cheney by saying Cheney had "a half-glass full mentality."

He was careful about responding to reports of a battle against a shadowy insurgent group over the weekend, one in which Iraqis appeared to have taken the lead and experienced some success.

"The Iraqis are beginning to take the lead," he said. "One of the things that I expect to see is the Iraqis take the lead, and show the American people they're willing to do the hard work necessary to secure their democracy. Our job is to help them." He added: "The Iraqis are beginning to show me something."

Regarding a looming Senate vote on a nonbinding resolution resisting his plans to send 21,500 additional troops to Iraq, the president said:

"The legislators will do what they feel like they've got to do. We want to work with them as best we can, to make it clear what the stakes of failure will be, and also make it clear to them that I think they have a responsibility to make sure our troops have what they need to do the missions."

On the Stakes for the Middle East

Asked by Williams how long he can sustain such a policy with people "so vehement in their doubt," the president essentially said he hopes for the best:

"I'm hopeful the decision I've made is going to yield enough results so that the Iraqi government is going to take more of the responsibility," he said. "Listen, they want the responsibility. You've heard their prime minister say, 'We're ready to go,' and in my judgment and more importantly, the judgment of the military folks, they're not quite ready to go. And therefore, it is in our interest to help them, with an additional 21,000 troops, particularly in Baghdad."

He said the stakes in the region are high. "A Middle East could evolve in which rival forms of extremists compete with each other, nuclear weapons become developed, safe havens [for terrorists] are in place, oil would be used as an economic weapon against the West."

He continued, "I'm confident that if this were to happen, people would look back at this era and say, 'What happened with those people in 2006? Why couldn't they see the impending threat?'"

Williams relayed to the president a question from Spec. Ryan Schmidt of Forest Lake, Minn., who is serving in Iraq. According to Williams, Schmidt wanted to know what if the plan for a troop "surge" doesn't work.

"I would say to Ryan, I put it in place on the advice of a lot of smart people — particularly the military people — who think it will work. I will also assure Ryan we're constantly adjusting to conditions on the ground," he said.

"Let me also say to Ryan, 'Thanks for serving,'" Mr. Bush added. "One of the amazing things about our country is that we have people who volunteered to go. One of the things I look for is whether we're able to recruit and retain. And we are."

On the State of the Union

Williams noted that in the State of the Union address, President Bush did not mention the ongoing efforts to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina — one of the most costly natural disasters in U.S. history. That omission has incensed people in hard-hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region, and was criticized over the weekend by Louisiana's Republican Sen. David Vitter.

Asked if he regretted this, Mr. Bush replied: "I gave a speech I thought was necessary to give." But he noted he had talked about Katrina elsewhere and sent billions of dollars to the area. "And the money is there and the money is available."

"Our response to the Katrina recovery has been very robust," he said.

The president did mention "climate change" in a one-line reference during the State of the Union. He said Monday that he "absolutely" was referring to global warming, and reiterated his goals to advance "safe" nuclear power and change "how we power our cars," adding that he believes cutting gasoline use by 20 percent over 10 years "is an attainable goal."

Williams asked the president if he purposely referred to the "Democrat majority" — instead of Democratic majority — in his address, given that for Democrats, the term is "like fingernails on the black board. They don't like it."

That was an oversight, Mr. Bush responded. "Look, I went into the hall saying we can work together, and I was very sincere about it. I didn't even know I did it. And if I did, I didn't mean to put fingernails on the board. I meant to be saying, 'Why don't we show the American people we can actually work together.'"

On History's Judgment

Williams noted that, like President Harry Truman, Mr. Bush's popularity has flagged late in his presidency.

"My own view is that history will take care of itself," the president responded.

He said that last year he'd read "three analyses of Washington's administration." Mr. Bush added: "If they're still writing about the first president, the 43rd doesn't need to worry about it. You can be popular, but you may be wrong. I would rather, when it's all said and done, get back home and look in the mirror and say, 'I didn't compromise the principles that were etched into my soul in order to be a popular guy.'"

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