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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