Interview with Vice President Biden

Interview with Vice President Biden

By Meet the Press - February 14, 2010

MR. GREGORY: Is bipartisan agreement possible given deep divisions over a jobs bill, the administration's handling of terror suspects, and health care? We'll ask our guest, Vice President Joe Biden, joining us from Vancouver, Canada, the site of the Olympic Games.

Then, the governing challenge: How should the White House reframe its agenda after a bruising first year, a sour electorate, and a unified opposition? Insights and analysis from our roundtable: New York Times columnist David Brooks; MSNBC's Rachel Maddow; chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, former Congressman Harold Ford of Tennessee; and Republican Congressman Aaron Schock of Illinois.

But first, the vice president of the United States. We spoke to him late last night from Vancouver.

Mr. Vice President, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

VICE PRES. JOE BIDEN: It's good to be back with you, David.

MR. GREGORY: You are there, of course, at the Winter Games, and there's been mixed emotions as the games have begun, incredible pride and excitement after the opening ceremonies, but also the tragic death of that luger from Georgia. Give me your impressions of the mood and of the games so far.

VICE PRES. BIDEN: Well, exactly how you described it. I met with Misha Shalikashvili--Saakashvili last night, the president of Georgia, and it was obvious it was--it really had hit home with him and his team. But the way--the reception that the Georgian team got when they walked into the arena was heartening, and, and I think that--I think people are basically dedicating the games to the young man, and they're moving on. But it's an exciting atmosphere, notwithstanding the opening tragedy.

MR. GREGORY: Let me turn to some of the issues that you and, of course, the rest of the administration are dealing with. Let me start with terrorism and the controversy surrounding the proposed trial of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The attorney general ordered a civilian trial to be held in New York. Now it appears that that decision has been withdrawn. It's unclear what's going to happen. The reason for a civilian trial as given by the president and others was a question of perception, that it was very important that the rest of the world see that we'd treated Khalid Sheikh Mohammed fairly. But hasn't the administration already made the decision that even if he were to be acquitted that he would never be released?

VICE PRES. BIDEN: Look, there's no doubt that he would not be acquitted; the facts we have are overwhelming. We're absolutely confident he will be convicted in whatever for he is tried. The attorney general made the decision that he should be tried in the court of the greatest jurisdiction, which was in New York City. There has been significant response coming from the city and congressional delegation requiring the president to have to take a look at this again. That decision as to where he's going to be tried and exactly when is something that is being considered right now. But he will be tried...

MR. GREGORY: But Mr. Vice President...

VICE PRES. BIDEN: ...he will be held accountable.

MR. GREGORY: But wait a minute, you--but the question I asked is whether a decision has already been made that even if he were to be acquitted, he would never be released.

VICE PRES. BIDEN: David, I'm not going to speculate on that. He will not be acquitted; he will be found guilty. He will be in jail, and he will stay there.

MR. GREGORY: But here is what the attorney general said last November on this question of what would happen if he were acquitted. This is what he said:

(Videotape, November 18, 2009)

ATT. GEN. ERIC HOLDER: If there were the possibility that a trial was not successful, that would not mean that that person would be released into, into our country. That, that would--that is not a possibility.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: It's rather clear what he's saying: If he were acquitted, he's not going to be released in America. I can't imagine the United States is going to release him somewhere in the Middle East or elsewhere around the world. So isn't the conclusion that he's going to stay a prisoner of the United States. And, if that's the case, despite your confidence in his conviction...

VICE PRES. BIDEN: No, it's not the case.

MR. GREGORY: ...despite your confidence in conviction, what is--where is the fairness--the perception of fairness in our system?

VICE PRES. BIDEN: David, he--the, the--what the attorney general said, he would not be released into America, that is a fact. But we're not even going to have to get to that place. I'm not going to speculate on what would happen to him if, in fact, he were acquitted. I assure you, I assure you, acquitted or not, he will not be walking the streets of the United States of America. He will not be acquitted.

MR. GREGORY: By such statements, are you prejudging the trial, and doesn't that undercut the, the goal of fairness by the rest of the world in our judicial system?

VICE PRES. BIDEN: No, look, I'm part of a team that heads up the prosecutorial apparatus of the federal government. We are confident in our case.

MR. GREGORY: Are you ruling out a military commission?

VICE PRES. BIDEN: Name me a prosecutor--I am not ruling anything out. What I am telling you is he will be held accountable under the law. We have improved military commissions considerably. The fact of the matter is, the only reason there's any discussion going on about whether or not the trial will take place in an Article III court in the court of jurisdiction with the broadest jurisdiction, New York City, is because of the response of the Congress requiring the president to have to consider the consequences of failing to heed their, their, basically, their, their concerns. So this is a discussion taking place. The decision will be made by the president. He will be held accountable. A military tribunal is available. It is the less preferable way to go. But one way or another, he will be held accountable.

MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about some of the criticism that's been leveled at this administration by former Vice President Dick Cheney. He has argued that this administration has failed to treat the fight against terrorists as war. He cites the decision related to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to offer him a civilian trial as one example. Giving the Christmas Day bomber the privileges of the American criminal justice is another example. The decision to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison. What do you say?

VICE PRES. BIDEN: Let me choose my words carefully here. Dick Cheney's a fine fellow. He's entitled to his own opinions. He's not entitled to rewrite history. He's not entitled to his own facts. The Christmas Day bomber was treated the exact way that he suggested that the shoe bomber was treated, absolutely the same way. Under the Bush administration, there were three trials in military courts. Two of those people are now walking the streets; they are free. There were 300 trials of so-called terrorists and those who had engaged in terror against the United States of America who are in federal prison and have not seen the light of day, prosecuted under the last administration. Dick Cheney's a fine fellow, but he is not entitled to rewrite history without it being challenged. I don't know where he has been. Where was he the last four years of the last administration?

MR. GREGORY: What about the general proposition that the president, according to former Vice President Cheney, doesn't consider America to be at war and is essentially soft on terrorism? What do you say about that?

VICE PRES. BIDEN: I don't think the vice--the former vice president, Dick Cheney, listens. The president of the United States said in the State of the Union, "We're at war with al-Qaeda." He stated this. And by the way, we're pursuing that war with a vigor like it's never been seen before. We've eliminated 12 of their top 20 people. We have taken out 100 of their associates. We are making--we've sent them underground. They are, in fact, not able to do anything remotely like they were in the past. They are on the run. I don't know where Dick Cheney has been. Look, it's one thing, again, to, to criticize; it's another thing to sort of rewrite history. What is he talking about?

MR. GREGORY: You, you have often said, when I've asked you and others, that you never impugn a man's motives, but why do you think Dick Cheney is speaking out and being so critical of the president and the administration so publicly?

VICE PRES. BIDEN: I don't know. I, I, I'm not going to guess about his motive. All I know is he's factually, substantively wrong on the major criticisms he is asserting. Why he's insisting on that, he either is misinformed or he is misinforming. But the facts are that his assertions are not accurate.

MR. GREGORY: You would not be this outspoken or critical when you're out of office, is that fair to say?

VICE PRES. BIDEN: Well, I, I would hope I, I--look, it's one thing to be outspoken. It's another thing to be outspoken in a way that misrepresents the facts. And I, I just--again, I--it's almost like Dick is trying to rewrite history. I can understand with--why that would be, you know, an impulse. And maybe he isn't--literally, I'm not being facetious, maybe he's not fully informed of what's going on. I mean, the progress we have made. There has never been as much emphasis and resources brought against al-Qaeda. The success rate exceeds anything that occurred in the last administration. And they did their best. I'm not, I'm not impugning their effort. It's just simply not true that the president of the United States is not prosecuting the war against al-Qaeda with a vigor that's never been seen before. It's real, it's deep, it's successful.

MR. GREGORY: Let me move on to some other issues. I want to ask about some other foreign policy matters in just a couple of minutes. But let me turn to the economy. You said on Friday that Democrats facing re-election this fall will do just fine if Americans see, "tangible, visible evidence" that the economy is turning around, it's creating jobs. Well, here are the facts: You came into office, the unemployment rate was 7.4 percent, it's now 9.7 percent. Where is that evidence?

VICE PRES. BIDEN: Well, look, I'll tell you where the evidence is. We came into office--and let's get the facts straight. The month we were sworn in, 740,000 people lost their jobs; 640,000 the next month, before we could get our, our, our, our, our computers hooked up accurately in the, in the West Wing. We had an economy that shrunk at 6 percent the quarter before we took office. We found ourselves with our financial institutions not only needing to reorganize, but in threat of shuttering their doors and moving the world into a literal depression. We found the housing market absolutely tanking for 32 months in a row. Here we are 11, 12 months later, we're in a situation where the economy grew at over 6 percent--or, excuse me, 5.8 percent the last quarter, where we are--stopped the hemorrhaging of jobs and are now going to begin to produce jobs on a monthly basis, where the housing market is stabilized, where no bank is in jeopardy. And now we're turning our attention to reviving small town banks, commercial banks so we can get credit flowing again. I--we have pulled us back from the brink, we have made genuine success, and now we're in the process of having--moving forward and the--building the kind of economy that is not built on a bubble, a housing bubble, not built on a dot-com bubble. We're investing in the future, including technology, the new green economy, etc. This is going to take time.

And my point was, David, it's understandable why, when you're sitting in your kitchen table and your wife or husband lost their job and you're worried about your job, where you're not sure you can send your kid back to college this year, where you're--can't get any help to care for your elderly parent, there's no wonder you're sitting there and feeling angry. But there's going--tangible evidence, tangible evidence that the path we've put the country on, that we're moving it in the right direction has become more and more apparent. And by the time we get around to November, in addition to bringing home 90,000 American troops out of Iraq, the story of this administration is going to be more clearly told and we're going to do just fine.

MR. GREGORY: But if--there's not going to be tangible evidence of a turnaround if the jobless rate is as high as it is.

VICE PRES. BIDEN: David, look, the neighborhood I grew up in, and I suspect the neighborhood you grew up in, no one sat at the, no one sat at the kitchen table talking about the jobless rate. They talked about their job. My grandpop used to have an expression: When the guy up on Oliphant was out of work, it was a slowdown; when your brother-in-law was out of work, it was a recession; when you're out of work, it's a depression. This is a depression for a lot of people. Not only are we moving to be able to provide them the ability to get jobs by putting a lot of focus on small business, the engine of job creation, through tax cuts, through capital gains cuts, through a $5,000 tax credit for employing people; in the meantime, we're working on things that affects the quality of their life. We're making sure their kid's going to be able to stay in college and pay back that college loan. We're helping--we're going to be helping them this year with child tax credits. We're going to help them with their--with elder credit. We're going to make sure that they are able to begin to save for their retirement by automatic 401(k) programs withheld from their--or excuse me, automatic retirement programs set up by their employers where they can have part of their pay automatically taken out and saved. There's a lot of things you do simultaneously beyond just creating jobs, which we have created or saved over two million jobs thus far. Put another way, instead of seven million people being unemployed, there would have been nine million people unemployed this year.

MR. GREGORY: Right. But, but do, do--you have to concede...

VICE PRES. BIDEN: But that--but less bad is not good enough.

MR. GREGORY: Wait a second, Mr. Vice President. Mr. Vice President, you have to concede, that figure that you use so often, economists say there is no way to accurately measure the impact of the stimulus on jobs saved or, or job creation. That is a number that cannot be verified.

VICE PRES. BIDEN: Well, I do not agree with that. I know economists will tell you that. We use the same, we use the same econometric models economists have been using for the last 25 years to measure growth and to measure loss. That--you cannot say with absolute certainty what the job loss is either. It's based on an estimate of who files and how and when. Look, David, there is no reasonable economist that I know of, no econometric model that suggests that we have not created a minimum of 1.6 million to 2.4 million jobs. Even The Wall Street Journal last quarter acknowledged that the significant reason for the growth in the third quarter was because of the investments of the recovery package. They went on to say, but that's not good because once the recovery money is not there things are going to change. That--so you can't have it both ways.

MR. GREGORY: Let me...

VICE PRES. BIDEN: The fact that you stimulate the economy and it actually grows, no one doubts that the recovery package played a major part in that.

MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about health care.


MR. GREGORY: Back in January, it was reported that you said to the president, given the country's fiscal situation, it was not wise to try to pursue healthcare reform. Given what's happened, given the trouble that healthcare reform is now in, do you think that that advice should have been followed?

VICE PRES. BIDEN: Well, first of all, I'm not acknowledging what advice I gave. The advice I give to the president is private. That's why he keeps asking for it, and as long as it stays private.

I think the president made the right judgment in deciding that in order to bend the cost curve and prevent people from being victimized by health insurance costs that we had to move and we had to move aggressively. And the president is still committed to making sure that we do three things: One, make sure that those whose premiums are now continuing to skyrocket in fact are brought under control; making sure that the money the federal government spends on health care, 46 cents on every dollar spent is through Medicare and Medicaid, that we bend that cost curve to gain control of the future, of our future fiscal situation; and making sure the insurance companies can't engage in the kind of practices they do with pre-existing conditions and limits on coverage, etc.

We've invited the Republicans down to the White House. It is my sincere hope that they all say there's a real problem. If they're willing and they have ideas that can better deal with those three problems, we're ready, willing and able to listen; and we're anxious to. But we think it's absolutely essential for the economic health of this country that we move forward on health care.

MR. GREGORY: I wanted to get back to a few areas of foreign policy, away from the domestic, and that's Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. When I last interviewed you on this program eight months ago, this is what you said when I asked you whether President Obama would be the president to stop Iran from going nuclear or allow it to go nuclear. Here's--was your response.

(Videotape, June 14, 2009)

VICE PRES. BIDEN: He's going to be the president that stopped it, God willing. We are not going to allow Iran to go nuclear any more than the rest of the world is going to allow it to go nuclear.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: And yet eight months later, no real progress on that front. Do you still believe that to be the case, given Ahmadinejad's claim this week that, indeed, Iran is a nuclear power?

VICE PRES. BIDEN: It is not a nuclear power. I can understand why Ahmadinejad would make that assertion to divert the world's attention from the abuse of the civil liberties and civil rights of the people of Iran. But let's get the facts straight. The fact is that, number one, we've made significant progress. You have Iran more isolated internally by its own people than it has been in the last 20 years. In the region, they're completely isolated. We have the, we have the support of everyone from Russia to Europe, and I believe we'll get the support of China, to continue to impose sanctions on Iran to isolate them, to make it clear that, in fact, they cannot move forward. The progress that Iran has made on the nuclear front is greatly exaggerated, in my view. If you take a look at what's happened--anyway, I think we've made significant progress. We are no longer the issue in the world; Iran is the issue.

MR. GREGORY: Couple of other issues quickly, if we can. On Iraq, you said this week that it will turn out to be one of this president's great achievements. What did you mean?

VICE PRES. BIDEN: What I meant by that is I think he has taken office and managed the situation incredibly well in Iraq. We are now moving toward a position where there is actual political accommodation among factions who were killing one another just two years ago. We are going to be in a position to bring home 90,000 combat troops by the end of the summer. There will be a successful election, I predict, in Iraq, where there's full participation by the Sunnis, Shia, Kurds and other minorities. You are seeing the Iraqis now working. And we have worked very, very hard. I've made a total of 17 trips to Iraq, four just this year, working with each of the, each of the parties. I think they are working--it will be a great tribute to the Iraqi people and, I think, to the government that we've managed this transition, they've managed the transition well.

MR. GREGORY: Was the war worth it?

VICE PRES. BIDEN: No, I don't think the war was worth it in the sense that we paid a horrible price, not only in loss of life, the way the war was mishandled from the outset, but we took our eye off the ball, putting us in a much different and more dangerous position in Afghanistan. We lost support around the world. It's taken a lot of hard work to get it back. But we were handed--we were dealt a hand, and I think we're handling it incredibly well. I--that's presumptuous to say. I think we're handling it very well, the Iraqis are handling it well. And we build on the positive things that the Bush administration had initiated, and we have jettisoned those things that were negative.

MR. GREGORY: You, you mentioned Afghanistan. There is a large offensive under way by American and allied forces now in southern Afghanistan. What will be achieved through that?

VICE PRES. BIDEN: Well, the hope is what will be achieved is we'll get further cooperation from the people in the region, the Pashtun tribes who will see more accommodation coming out of the Taliban, who--most of whom are Pashtun, realizing that they cannot realize their expectations through intimidation and force. And we will be in a position where the Iraqi forces that are leading this effort are more seasoned and more capable and more able to handle their own security interests over time.

MR. GREGORY: Finally, Mr. Vice President, about the Olympics, now, there are a lot of hockey fans in this country, including my seven-year-old son, who follow teams like the great Washington Capitals with great Russian players. I'm going to show you a picture of two of them, Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin. Now they are playing for Team Russia, and it's creating a lot of divided loyalties, my son now saying he's rooting for Team Russia over Team USA. What should, should a father do about this?

VICE PRES. BIDEN: I don't have that problem, and I would--well, David, I never give another man advice on how to deal with his children. Having three myself, I, I, I don't presume to tell anyone else. I think your son's a great hockey fan. Tell him that they chose to live in the United States and work and play for the Capitals, and, and that's what they, that's what he should focus on.

MR. GREGORY: I'll go with that. I'll see where it gets me.

Mr. Vice President, thank you, as always.

VICE PRES. BIDEN: All right.


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