Transcript: NPR News Interview With Jeb Bush Hear NPR host Steve Inskeep's interview with Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush Thursday, December 31, on Morning Edition and at NPRPolitics.org.
NPR logo Transcript: NPR News Interview With Jeb Bush

Transcript: NPR News Interview With Jeb Bush

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush in Boston, Mass., during an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep. (12/20/15) Kayana Szymczak for NPR hide caption

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Kayana Szymczak for NPR

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush in Boston, Mass., during an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep. (12/20/15)

Kayana Szymczak for NPR

Update: A full transcript of this interview is now available below.

NPR News Interview: Jeb Bush

Full Interview Available Thursday (12/31) From Morning Edition & At NPRPolitics.org
Excerpts Available Now

December 30, 2015; Washington, D.C. – In an interview with NPR News, Jeb Bush calls his opponent Donald Trump "a creature of Barack Obama." Talking with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep today in Boston, the trailing Republican presidential candidate predicts voter enthusiasm for Trump will subside in the coming months. Bush goes on to discuss the differences between his and President Obama's strategies against ISIS, the public's response to security threats, immigration policy and the extent to which the Republican elite may be out of touch with the Republican electorate.

The interview airs tomorrow, Thursday, Dec. 31, on Morning Edition (stations and broadcast times at npr.org/stations). Audio and a transcript as well as analysis from NPR's political team will be available starting at NPRPolitics.org at approximately 5 AM ET.

When asked about Trump's emergence as a leading Republican candidate, Bush says: I would argue that Donald Trump is in fact a creature of Barack Obama. But for Barack Obama, Donald Trump's effect would not be nearly as strong as it is. We're living in a divided country right now and we need political leaders rather than continuing to divide as both President Obama and Donald Trump, to unite us.

When asked about Republican primary voters supporting Trump's plan to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., Bush replies: In a month from now [those voters] won't [agree with him]. That's the point. The point is, that we're living in this reality TV political environment where [Trump] fills the space by saying outrageous things. People, based on their emotions, will express support for the sentiment, not necessarily the specifics, because there are none and then he'll backtrack. And he'll move on the next thing and he fills the space.

On what he'd say to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton if criticized for being against a pathway to citizenship, he says: I would tell her that I have a proven record as it relates to — I don't need to be lectured to about my commitment to the immigrant communities. Because I did it.

When asked what he meant by calling the President's strategy against ISIS incremental, he says: Well, he hasn't laid out a strategy, in fact, until recently, he admitted in the last year and three months, he's admitted twice that we didn't have a strategy. He made the mistake of talking about containing ISIS, as though that would be an effective strategy. And then shortly after that, the tragedy of Paris took place. And incrementally, you can continue to see it. There's been some success. This week, there was a successful airstrike that killed one of the high-ranking ISIS operatives. That's good news. But a strategy would require explaining to the American people what the objectives are, how we would go about doing it, doing it in a transparent way, I think.

On how the ISIS threat should be handled from Washington, Bush says: The job of a president is to identify - distinguish between the two, make sure that people know that we view it as a threat, that we're - because people are scared and they're legitimately so - take action accordingly, and then you're going to lessen peoples' fears on their day to day activities. We can't be paralyzed in place and that's where we are today.

When asked whether his opponents in the presidential race are playing up the threat from ISIS for political gains, he replies: I mean Trump clearly banning all Muslims would actually be so counterproductive in our efforts to destroy ISIS, that it's foolhardy. I mean, it's beyond ridiculous, it's quite dangerous.

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FULL TRANSCRIPT FOLLOWS

STEVE INSKEEP: I want to begin by talking about ISIS because it's so much in the news. I was reading your speech from several months ago in which you laid out a strategy against ISIS, and I want to start with a word in that speech. You described President Obama's strategy as incremental. What did you mean by that and what's wrong with it?

JEB BUSH: Well, he hasn't laid out a strategy, in fact, until recently, he admitted in the last year and three months, he's admitted twice that we didn't have a strategy. He made the mistake of talking about containing ISIS, as though that would be an effective strategy. And then shortly after that, the tragedy of Paris took place.

And incrementally, you can continue to see it. There's been some success. This week, there was a successful airstrike that killed one of the high-ranking ISIS operatives. That's good news. But a strategy would require explaining to the American people what the objectives are, how we would go about doing it, doing it in a transparent way, I think.

A strategy looks more like what I described at the Reagan Library, I think, which is that we — we view this as a threat to our national security. You don't have to overstate it, but it is clearly a threat, particularly in the — in the form that it exists as a caliphate. It wins each day that it exists and it recruits people from all around the world to go to the caliphate and also to be radicalized here in our own country.

So I — I think the president has let us down a bit by not recognizing it for what it is and not creating a real strategy, not asking the military leaders to give him options, instead putting conditions on their fighting, which I think is inappropriate.

I think if the president were sitting here, he might, had he read your — your speech where you laid out a number of steps against ISIS, he might argue that he is already doing a number of those steps, such as bombing ISIS or trying to train some local forces on the ground, but that you just want to do them incrementally more.

BUSH: Well, I'd say it's more than incrementally if — if you — for whatever reason, you can't embed our troops inside of the Iraqi military, which other countries have done, if you can't directly arm the Kurds, which I think they are deserving of that support, if you — now, granted, the president appears to — his — we — the United States appears to have begun the process of reengaging with the Sunni tribal leaders that lost all confidence in the United States after the abandonment of Iraq and Maliki's efforts to kind of disrupt the order that existed while it was fragile, it certainly — it existed.

He hasn't done any of that. A no-fly zone wouldn't be part of it. Creating safe zones for refugees requires man power that doesn't exist. And limiting the lawyers on top of the war fighters- I mean, there is a level of approval for sorties that is way beyond what the international standards of war fighting exist.

We actually have — there's memorandums of understanding for the Defense Department and the intelligence communities about when they identify terrorists, what — what the course of action can be that goes way beyond what — what a standard fight of war would would exist.

So I think we're — the incremental part of this is that as he sees the threat grow, he's moving in the right direction, but it isn't a strategy. A strategy would require a comprehensive approach.

Is this a serious enough threat that American lives should be on the line? You have laid out, for example, forward air controllers who would help guide airstrikes. Those are people who might be killed.

BUSH: Yes, it is. It is a — it is a serious threat. When you have four million refugees in Syria and four million in camps, literally, you know, millions at a time in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The destabilizing impact that has on those countries and the potential of a breeding ground for Islamic jihadist activity for — for a long, long while. That's a serious threat.

When you see the refugee challenges that — that was partially the — the — created the tragedy in Paris, that's a threat. I view it as a threat because it's a long-term threat against Western civilization. They effectively have declared war on us.

I don't — you know, I think sometimes, the president infers, well, it's not a threat because they're going to invade us. Well, they could — they could destabilize our way of life in a really serious way.

Are they an existential threat?

BUSH: They are. They are. And if anybody doesn't think that they would use whatever means possible to — to do us harm, I think they're — they're naive and — look, you saw it in place. I mean, I was in California a couple of weeks ago. I was in Vegas for the debate, actually, and right after that, the Los Angeles school district was closed for two days because of a potential threat coming from an e-mail. We're, you know — part of the job of being president...

Is that a sign of an existential threat, though, or is that a sign of overreacting?

BUSH: Well, I was going to — I was going to complete the sentence that part of the job of a president is to identify — distinguish between the two, make sure that people know that we view it as a threat, that we're — because people are scared and they're legitimately so, take action accordingly, and then you're going to lessen peoples' fears on their day to day activities.

We can't be paralyzed in place and that's where we are today. Whether or not ISIS is the greatest threat that we have in terms of the world, that's debatable. I would say Iran empowered by an agreement that will allow them now to destabilize the region is a serious threat. I would say an unstable Pakistan is a threat.

North Korea continues to build capabilities. We don't have as much intelligence there to know exactly what those capabilities are but they claim that they have more capabilities and just because the dictator — you know, people smile when you talk about him because he dresses funny and all that — got quirky habits, that's a threat. That's a threat to the United States when serious people believe that it's possible that they will have long range missile capabilities to hit the United States. There are a lot of threats.

Cybersecurity, dealing with — you know, the infrastructure of our country. The president, the next president is going to have a lot of times at three o' clock in the morning where he can wake up — ISIS would be on the list, though.

At the same time you said, "let's not overstate the threat from ISIS." Are some of your rivals for the republican nomination playing up the threat from ISIS for political reasons?

BUSH: Well, I mean Trump clearly banning all Muslims would actually be so counterproductive in our efforts to destroy ISIS, that it's foolhardy. I mean, it's beyond ridiculous, it's quite dangerous. So he's clearly playing that card, talking about carpet-bombing which would — I don't think carpet-bombing has existed since the 1960s. That might be an overstatement of a strategy but it is a threat.

Look, I don't want to hear me and think that I'm discounting this threat. I just, what I'm saying is, the president actually talks about it as though it's a law enforcement exercise in some way and I think it's bigger than that.

What did you think governor, when Donald Trump called for banning Muslims from entering the country for a time? You called him, "unhinged," and then surveys came out and it was revealed that majorities of Republican primary voters said, "they agreed with him."

BUSH: Well, in a month from now they won't. That's the point. The point is, that we're living in this reality T.V. political environment where he fills the space by saying outrageous things. People based on their emotions will express support for the sentiment, not necessarily the specifics because there are none and then he'll backtrack. And he'll move on the next thing and he fills the space.

You know, I think the next president of the United States needs real strategy to create economic growth and to promote national security, rebuild our intelligence capabilities, ultimately the conversation needs to get that.

You think if somebody was — you think if another poll was done in a month or two, people would completely change their view on that?

BUSH: I think the emotion of the here and now will subside. Are people scared about the national security interest of our country being violated because of a lax immigration system or a visa waiver program that wasn't designed for people being radicalized? Yeah, they're scared and the job of a president or a candidate for that matter isn't to scare more, it's to give them solutions and that's what I'm trying to do.

The president told us in an interview the other day that, "he believed that Donald Trump was exploiting the fears particularly of blue collar men." That was part of his analysis of Trump's rise. Do you — the expression on your face, I wish people could see it, you look very doubtful.

BUSH: [laughter] Well, this reminded me of his off-the-cuff remark at a fundraiser in San Francisco that you know, that people are appealing to the guns and ...

Oh, people clinging to guns and religion?

BUSH: Yeah, he's got this notion of what blue collar, white voters kind of think that's so out of touch. People are legitimately angry with Washington, D.C. And yes, Mr. President, they're legitimately angry with you. You have divided the country up in all sorts of disparate parts.

I would argue that Donald Trump is and in fact a creature of Barack Obama. But for Barack Obama, Donald Trump's effect would not be nearly as strong as it is. We're living in a divided country right now and we need political leaders rather than continuing to divide us as both President Obama and Donald Trump, to unite us.

Your party sponsored a report in 2013. It was described as an autopsy of the election loss in 2012. One of your close advisors I believe was one of the authors of that report.

BUSH: Yeah.

Among the many recommendations was, that the party needed to be more inclusive, more welcoming to people of color, and embrace comprehensive immigration reform. What if it turns out that Republican primary voters just are not willing to go there?

BUSH: Well, look, l, I think the report is accurate. For us to win the election that was the — their point wasn't how are people feeling you know in the primary, their mission was, how do we win? It's tough being in exile. It's lonely for now near eight years and to imagine another eight years or four years with Hillary Clinton as president is something that is unfathomable for most Republicans.

So the argument that we need to realize, our demography as a nation is changing and we need to make — we have to change our principles. In fact, I think we need to re-establish them because the conservative movement is a hopeful optimistic movement at it's best. It draws people towards our cause when it's that way.

Although, aren't you in a situation where granting that no votes have been cast, but based on the polling in 2015, very large numbers of Republican primary voters don't seem to want to be in that spot that you'd like them to be in.

BUSH: Well, they want to win, though, and if they have a honest appraisal of how we're going to win, we're not going to win by insulting our way to presidency. You cannot disparage women, people of disabilities, Mexican-Americans, POWs, Muslims — it's not a strategy for victory, it's a strategy to maintain this divisive kind of culture we're in right now.

David Frum, one of your brother's former speech writers had a very interesting article in The Atlantic the other day. He was writing about Trump supporters and he argued that Trump is gaining support because there's a lot of people who actually think like Trump politically on a number of issues. They're not really all that conservative. They're not that concerned about the details of tax policy. They do feel that the wealthy are putting one over on them and they're against immigration reform.

BUSH: No, there are people like that for sure, there are a lot of people. And Donald Trump's plan would actually — of all the tax plans out there and many of Republican candidates have offered interesting proposals, I think mine's the best. But his proposal would enhance the status of the wealthy and enhance his own status.

So while people may be latching on to Trump for whatever he says, the simple fact is that his proposal of his tax cuts — his tax proposals would allow for the wealthy to get the biggest deal break by far, not even close.

But I think that Frum's point was, that your wing of the party if we can call it that, may have lost touch with a very large part of the electorate, the Republican electorate.

BUSH: I don't think so. I think what people want is to fix Washington D.C. And the way the fix you fix immigration for example, is to enforce the border. You don't fix immigration by building a wall and saying, "Mexico will pay for it." That's just not going to happen.

That is just completely in fantasy land, but we should fix the border in terms of controlling who comes in and there are ways to do it. Fencing is part of it for sure, having, using technology — we now have drone technology. When this debate started in the mid-2000s, we didn't have drones to the extent that we have now or GPS technology.

We have many more border patrol agents than we did just ten years ago. They're just not being deployed effectively. We have 800,000 plus sworn law enforcement officers state and local, that could be the eyes and ears of border patrol agents. We have 40 percent of illegal immigrants come with illegal visa and overstay.

I mean, that's the reality. The reality is that we have a mess. And we need someone who has the strategies and the skills to fix it. And I totally get why people are upset.

How can you have comprehensive immigration reform if the border's not secure? I mean, that makes all the sense in the world. People are not illogical when they have that view. Mr. Frum is not — no great insight there. This is — this is a — in the real world, people are really upset about how Washington is working, or is not working.

One of your rivals, Ted Cruz, made a joke the other. Was a joke that spoke, to a serious. He said that the politically correct for illegal immigrants now was undocumented Democrats, which speaks, I think, to the Republican suspicion that this is all about registering Democrats, ultimately. Making citizens of people who are likely to be Democrats. Democrats have the opposite suspicion, that Republicans just want to prevent immigrants from voting. How much of the past here is really about that question? The question of political power in the future?

BUSH: That's an interesting point. I — I don't know what percentage of the gridlock can be related to that. The proposal ought to be for a conservative for the people that are here illegally, a path to legal status, not a path to citizenship. But a path out from the shadows where you pay a fine. Where you learn English. Where you work. Where you don't commit crimes. You don't receive federal government assistance and over an extended period of time you earn legal status.

That's the answer. The answer isn't to joke as — as Senator Cruz apparently did. It's to offer a proposal that will solve the problem.

Why not citizenship?

BUSH: Because people have cut in line. There are a lot of people — I mean, if you're a Filipino under our antiquated legal system, the waiting list could be over 100 years. For waiting for a family member to petition you. Why should that family that's been patiently waiting not get a better deal than someone who crossed the border illegally?

And if someone says to you, Governor Bush just doesn't want that person to vote, that's why he's objecting to their citizenship. What do you say...

BUSH: I think it's a question of fairness. I think it's a question of fairness. why — whys should someone — it's called illegal immigration for a reason. People came here illegally; 40 percent of the people that came here illegally, by the way, didn't cross the border. They came with a legal visa and they overstayed. A great nation ought to be able to identify where these folks are for national security purposes alone, but for a lot of other reasons as well.

Why should people gain citizenship by coming here illegally? I — I just — I don't quite understand why that is such a compelling moral argument.

So let me ask about an implication of that. You have argued that on immigration and so many other issues, that you are far better positions for a general election than many of your opponents for the Republican nomination. But Hillary Clinton, if she is the nominee, and you've made it clear in your remarks you believe she will be — no matter who the Republican nominee is, she will still be able to hammer them on this issue. She'd be able to hammer you and say you're against a pathway to citizenship. Aren't you still going to be vulnerable on this in a general election?

BUSH: No, because I have a proven record as it relates to immigrants and immigration and a tone, and a leadership as governor of Florida that defies whatever the attacks will be. The advantage I have is I have a proven record. The other candidates on the stage that are running for the Republican nomination are untested. As it relates to my reelection effort when I ran for in a purple state, I got 60 percent of the Latino vote. I got more Latino votes than I got non-Latino, white votes. And there's a reason for that. Because I campaigned and I governed in a way that was inclusive. I appointed men and women of Hispanic origin to the judiciary — to the Supreme Court, to positions of responsibility.

We focused on educated reform which was a number one issue for the Hispanic communities across the state of Florida. I advanced the cause of opportunity. We were the first state to really make a major effort for early childhood education.

We created the first, second and third voucher programs, and Hispanics and African Americans disproportionally benefited from that. Hillary can talk all she wants about the stuff that she wants to do, but her record of accomplishment is quite — quite narrow. She's passed — she was a senator for eight years, I believe, and she passed — three bills became law that she sponsored. One was renaming a highway, one was naming a monument, and one was naming a post office.

Are you saying you'd tell her, you'd never get a pathway to citizenship anyway?

BUSH: I would tell her that I have a proven record as it relates to — I don't need to be lectured to — about my commitment to the immigrant communities. Because I did it as governor of the state of Florida, I embraced our immigrant heritage in a way that people responded by voting for me in a way that no other Republican can compare.

Again, asking about the case against Hillary Clinton — and all respect to Sanders and O'Malley — but you and others have pointed out that she is the favorite. People can see a way that Donald Trump would make his case broadly against Hillary Clinton, 'cause he's done it this week. He's been in battles with Hillary Clinton this week.

People have laid out a way that Marco Rubio would challenge Hillary Clinton by saying, I'm a new generation of leadership — how would you do it?

BUSH: I would do it by laying out a detailed plan to lift us up again in terms of economics and to take on the Obama-Clinton foreign policy because it's failed. And I could do it grounded in reality because as governor of the fourth largest state now third largest state in the country, I got to take conservative principles and apply them in a way that benefited everybody in the state. And I can tell that story, and that's a story of accomplishment rather than just talking about it.

I think people are tired of the yipping and yapping going on here, and they want someone to actually begin to solve problems. And that's the case against Hillary — she's not trustworthy, she has a filed record in her public service, her secretary of state time, while she traveled all around the world, is not one of great accomplishment. And I have a record of accomplishment, and that's what I would take to the voters.

I also want to ask you about your family, Governor. But in a different way, I think, than you've been asked about it in the past.

People ask you , will you be different than your brother, how would you be different than your brother...

BUSH: Yeah, a lot of that.

... questions like that. This is a different question. I'm thinking about the fact that the Bush name — your last name — is, in political terms, a brand. It's a brand that many people have voted for. And that I assume you associate with certain characteristics of leadership that you're proud of. So can you define it for us? What is the Bush brand?

BUSH: Well, I think the Bush brand, if there is one — I'm not sure people can be created into — we use branding now kind of in a broader context than maybe we're used to. It would be integrity. It would be having a servant's heart. It would be patriotic, loving the country. And in my case, you know, look, I'm a conservative. But I believe that conservatism needs to be applied in a hopeful, optimistic way. And I think that's another part of the Bush brand that I hope people will be reminded of. That it's a hopeful, optimistic — hopeful, optimistic message, not a divisive one.

We need to get to solving problems again in this country. And having, you know, having — pushing someone down to make yourself look better doesn't solve the problem. How long has it been for immigration to be used as a wedge, political issue rather than have it be solved?

We're now in the second decade of arguing about it rather than fixing it. Our tax code has gotten extraordinarily convoluted. Look at the omnibus bill that just passed. Just larded up with all sorts of special treatment for all sorts of people to have special deals, because they can hire lobbyists.

We need to fix how we regulate, how we tax on all these things and that's the message that I would take. I don't know if that's part of the Bush brand, but it was part of my brand as governor of the state of Florida.

One other question. When we interviewed the president the other day, we asked, "Is there a question you would put to the people who want your job?"

He said, "Why do you want this?" That was the question.

BUSH: Yeah, it was an interesting insight that he had. It was a great question, too.

Thank you. And you — you know why he said that? He said that the good parts of this jobs, or the seemingly good parts of the job wear off, and you have to be committed to something. So, let me ask you — you are the first candidate I have run into since talking to him. Why do you want this?

BUSH: I think if we fix a Washington that is mired in the mid-20th century, literally, a career civil service system that protects lifetime employment.

People working in Washington make 40 percent more for the like-kind jobs in the private sector out in the real world. We have to fix these things — how are health care insurance systems. We have to fix the regulatory systems that are used to suppress opportunity across the country.

We have to fix our tax code, we have to embrace the energy revolution. To me, the greatest joy isn't the cool helicopter and the plane, and all the things that I think he implied that, you know, quickly go away — Camp David.

I mean, I've had a little bit of experience just being the brother of a president and the son of a president. All of that stuff is fine. But that has nothing to do with my motivation; my motivation is to forge consensus on how we fix these things so that more and more people can rise up again, and we can be safe and secure.

And I don't think that passion for that will ever go away. I feel bad for the president that he kind of feels compelled that it might have gone away for him. But with all due respect to our president, who is a gifted man, he is part of the reason he might be disappointed, because he — whenever — his impulse was always to divide, rather than to forge consensus.

Imagine President Obama in his first month in office, and he said, my mandate is that there are no blue states and no red states, only the United States of America. Soaring rhetoric of the campaign.

Imagine if he said, well, now I have got to implement this. I feel duty-bound to do it, it's why I got elected. Because it was. He didn't get elected by saying, I'm going to jam down the throats of the American people the most convoluted health care insurance reform ever known to man, with no Republican support.

Or I'm going to massively regulate the financial services sector with no Republican support, or I'm going to triple down on top-down driven programs through the stimulus.

The three things he did, in short order, had no support from the so-called red states. And the divide got bigger. Imagine if he took a different approach and said, how can we create win-wins?

Imagine if he starting inviting Republicans, actually to have a — you know, have a meeting with him in the residence, sit on the Truman balcony and have a cigar, or whatever you do. And try to — try to get people to realize that we have these problems, we can fix it, we can share in the glory.

He didn't do any of that. And now he is disappointed that, you know, it's a tough job.

He also talked about in that answer what sustains him in times of difficulty.

BUSH: Sustains him? Yeah.

What sustains him, what it is that sustains him in times of difficulty. And I'm wondering that about you.

It has been a difficult year, in many ways, for your campaign. What has sustained you these last few months?

BUSH: Well, I've got — I'm not going to stand up and pull them out, but I have — I have a little Jesus in my pocket that I carry with me, and some rosary beads.

And first and foremost, what sustains me is my faith. Secondly, I knew it was going to be hard, so, you know, I don't feel — I didn't — I don't feel like this is a huge burden.

I consider it to be a blessing to be running for president of the United States. And so, the possibility of becoming president sustains me in ways that it is hard to describe.

And I'm going to out-work everybody. I have, I think, and I'm going to continue to do it, because I view this as an incredible privilege and opportunity to be able to at least express views that I think are important to move us forward, and then have a chance to implement them? What an incredible opportunity. So, I — I do this, not thinking, oh, woe is me, things aren't working out. I view it completely in the opposite way.

Governor, thanks very much.

BUSH: Yeah. Happy New Year.

QUESTION: Happy New Year to you.

[END]