Bush Meets Media, Holds Silence on Key Subjects

President Bush held a news conference Wednesday for the first time in almost two months. He discussed a variety of issues, but refused to comment on some key topics — including the ongoing trial of former vice presidential aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

President Bush yesterday held his first news conference in nearly two months. His party and policies are being besieged in Congress and in the polls just as attention is turning to the 2008 presidential race. We'll learn more on how potential Republican presidential candidates are positioning themselves on the war.

First, NPR's David Greene reports on the president's news conference.

DAVID GREENE: The nation's capital was a wintry mess yesterday. Schools were closed. Much of the federal government was shut down. But President Bush decided this was the time to invite reporters into the East Room.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Thanks for coming in on a icy day.

GREENE: He stood at his podium for about an hour, providing a kind of snapshot of the troubles he's facing both abroad and at home. First he was asked about Vladimir Putin. Back in 2001 Mr. Bush bragged about his relationship with Russia's president. He said he even got a sense of Putin's soul. So why, Mr. Bush was asked, has Putin now come out and slammed the Bush administration, saying it acted unilaterally and threatened global security? The president said he and Putin have disagreements they can't get over, including over the future of NATO.

President BUSH: I firmly believe NATO is a stabilizing influence for the good, and that helps Russia. Evidently he disagrees with that assessment.

GREENE: Of course, what divided Mr. Bush from Mr. Putin and many others was Iraq. Polls now show most Americans disagree with his policies there. Nevertheless, the president insisted yesterday his decision to send more troops to Baghdad was the only viable option.

President BUSH: If you think the violence is bad now, imagine what it would look like if we don't help them secure the city, the capital city of Baghdad.

GREENE: But Baghdad and much of the country are so chaotic that a joint assessment by all the U.S. intelligence agencies recently declared Iraq to be in civil war. Mr. Bush said he's not convinced.

President BUSH: I can only tell you what people on the ground whose judgments… It's hard for me in the, you know, living in this beautiful White House, to give you an assessment - a first-hand assessment. I haven't been there. You have. I haven't. But I do talk to people who are, and people whose judgment I trust, and they would not qualify it as that.

GREENE: The president's record on Iraq has led to questions about whether he and his aides are hyping a threat from Iran. Mr. Bush denied the suggestion. He said there's clear evidence that an arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, the Qods Force, is shipping explosive devices to Iraq that could harm U.S. troops. But the president did have to back away from his administration's earlier accusation that top leaders like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are actually involved.

President BUSH: There are weapons in Iraq that are harming U.S. troops because of the Qods Force. And as you know, I hope, that the Qods Force is a part of the Iranian government. Whether Ahmadinejad ordered the Qods Force to do this, I don't think we know. But we do know that they're there. And I intend to do something about it.

GREENE: One thing Mr. Bush can't do anything about is a federal trial going on in Washington. Former White House aide Lewis Scooter Libby is accused of lying during an investigation into a White House leak of a CIA operative's identity. The Washington Post's Peter Baker asked Mr. Bush if he authorized White House officials to leak back in 2003.

President BUSH: Thanks, Pete, I'm not going to talk about any of it.

Mr. PETER BAKER (The Washington Post): If they're not under investigation, then…

President BUSH: Peter, I'm not going to talk about any of it.

Mr. BAKER: How about pardons, sir. Many were asking whether you might pardon…

President BUSH: Not going to talk about it, Peter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

President BUSH: Would you like to think of another question? Being the kind man that I am, I will recycle you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: When the 2008 presidential campaign came up, the president had a ready answer.

President BUSH: I'd just like to establish some ground rules here with those of you who are stuck following me for the next - a little less than two years. I will resist all temptation to become the pundit-in-chief.

GREENE: And at least for right now, the Republicans running to succeed him are probably just fine with having the president stay out of it.

David Greene, NPR News, the White House.

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Bush Dismisses Doubts on Iran's Role in Iraq

Listen: Hear President Bush's Press Conference

President Bush during a news conference i i

hide captionPresident Bush speaks during a press conference in the East Room of the White House. The president discussed North Korea, the House debate on Iraq policy, and claims about Iran's role in Iraq during the nearly hour-long event.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
President Bush during a news conference

President Bush speaks during a press conference in the East Room of the White House. The president discussed North Korea, the House debate on Iraq policy, and claims about Iran's role in Iraq during the nearly hour-long event.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

President Bush on Wednesday declared that the multi-party talks that led to an agreement designed to end North Korea's nuclear program represented "good progress" and a "step in the right direction," but he acknowledged there was more to be done.

In a morning news conference that lasted nearly an hour, Mr. Bush also dealt with questions regarding his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the ongoing debate in the House over the conduct of the war in Iraq, and the administration's claim that Iran is responsible for weapons used in Iraq by Shiite groups to kill U.S. troops.

There has been an ongoing debate within the administration regarding the role of the Iranian government in Iraq, and the growing number of roadside bombs that are killing Americans at a rapid rate. U.S. intelligence has linked the bombs to the Quds Force, a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The conclusion by the White House is that the Quds Force is getting its marching orders from the leaders in Tehran, but Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently said he was not ready to make that connection.

Mr. Bush said Wednesday that whether or not it can be proven that the Iranian government was directly involved, the fact remains that the weapons are in Iraq and are killing Americans, and that he, the president, is "going to do something about it." A more pointed question, whether the administration was getting the same kind of faulty intelligence about Iran that it got during the "weapons of mass destruction" debate in Iraq – and whether the intelligence was being manipulated as a "pretext to war" — was also dismissed by the president as missing the point.

"What's worse," Mr. Bush asked, "them ordering it and it happening, or them not ordering it and it happening?"

Asked about the fact that many of America's allies are involved in major trade deals with Iran, the president shrugged and said, "Money trumps peace sometimes." But he said he still expected allies to stand together in resisting Iran's ambitions as a nuclear power.

Regarding the debate in the House this week over a Democratic non-binding resolution that disapproves of the president's decision to send 21,000 more troops to Iraq, Mr. Bush said it was his "hope" that it didn't lead to a binding vote that would cut funding for the troops. The president mentioned the seeming contradiction of an overwhelming Senate vote to confirm Gen. David Patraeus, the new chief commander of U.S. forces in the region, and the anticipated vote to disapprove of the new war policy ... "before it has a chance to work," he added.

Mr. Bush said he recently spoke to Patraeus, who told him that the new war plan is "beginning to take shape" – though, as he has done before, the president said securing Baghdad "will take time." He also refused to be drawn into a discussion as to whether Friday's antiwar policy vote in the House "sends a message to" or "emboldens" the enemy.

But President Bush did say that pulling back would lead to "disastrous consequences:" "If we failed there, the enemy will follow us here." It was the same argument that House Minority Leader John Boehner made Tuesday on the House floor during the Iraq resolution debate.

Back to North Korea, Mr. Bush said he "strongly disagrees" with John Bolton, his former acting U.N. ambassador, who criticized the recently announced deal to end Pyongyang's nuclear program as weak. Bolton's assessment was "flat wrong," the president said, though he acknowledged that all sides must make sure to "follow through" with making it stick.

In other news coming out of the news conference:

  • The president acknowledged that he and Russian President Putin have a "complicated relationship." But despite Putin's recent and growing criticism of America's role in the world, Mr. Bush said the two have worked together on a number of key issues, such as North Korea and nuclear proliferation.
  • Mr. Bush was asked, as he has been in the past, whether he considers the situation in Iraq to be a "civil war." He said it was hard to give an assessment, as he has spoken to some who feel it is and others who don't.
  • He was questioned about troop morale and whether it was declining, given the fact that some troops in Iraq are going through second, third and even fourth tours of duty. The President said it was his understanding that troop morale was good but that a lot of concern was coming from loved ones back in the United States. He said more than once that he appreciates the sacrifice that is being made.
  • The president completely refused to address a question about the trial of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Mr. Bush would not speak to a question about pardoning Libby in the event the former aide is convicted.
  • A question about how Iraq might play in the 2008 presidential election, or whether Mr. Bush will brief the various presidential candidates about what's going on there, elicited a response that the President would "resist the temptation to be pundit-in-chief" – though that's not what the questioner asked.
  • And asked about where he and the Democrats might find common ground in the final two years of his term, Mr. Bush talked about balancing the federal budget, overhauling national policy on immigration, energy policy and health care, and renewing the "No Child Left Behind" program.

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