Helen Thomas, who in January grumbled that President Bush was a “coward” for not calling on her at a press conference, today was granted a question for the first time in several years. The doyenne of the White House press corps, who once called Bush the worst president in U.S. history, seized her chance with gusto, essentially debating Bush instead of questioning him. Here’s the transcript:
THE PRESIDENT: Helen. After that brilliant performance at the Grid Iron, I am — (laughter.)
Q: You’re going to be sorry. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: Well, then, let me take it back. (Laughter.)
Q: I’d like to ask you, Mr. President, your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet — your Cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth — what was your real reason? You have said it wasn’t oil — quest for oil, it hasn’t been Israel, or anything else. What was it?
THE PRESIDENT: I think your premise — in all due respect to your question and to you as a lifelong journalist — is that — I didn’t want war. To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect —
Q: Everything —
THE PRESIDENT: Hold on for a second, please.
Q: — everything I’ve heard —
THE PRESIDENT: Excuse me, excuse me. No President wants war. Everything you may have heard is that, but it’s just simply not true. My attitude about the defense of this country changed on September the 11th. We — when we got attacked, I vowed then and there to use every asset at my disposal to protect the American people. Our foreign policy changed on that day, Helen. You know, we used to think we were secure because of oceans and previous diplomacy. But we realized on September the 11th, 2001, that killers could destroy innocent life. And I’m never going to forget it. And I’m never going to forget the vow I made to the American people that we will do everything in our power to protect our people.
Part of that meant to make sure that we didn’t allow people to provide safe haven to an enemy. And that’s why I went into Iraq — hold on for a second —
Q: They didn’t do anything to you, or to our country.
THE PRESIDENT: Look — excuse me for a second, please. Excuse me for a second. They did. The Taliban provided safe haven for al Qaeda. That’s where al Qaeda trained —
Q: I’m talking about Iraq —
THE PRESIDENT: Helen, excuse me. That’s where — Afghanistan provided safe haven for al Qaeda. That’s where they trained. That’s where they plotted. That’s where they planned the attacks that killed thousands of innocent Americans.
I also saw a threat in Iraq. I was hoping to solve this problem diplomatically. That’s why I went to the Security Council; that’s why it was important to pass 1441, which was unanimously passed. And the world said, disarm, disclose, or face serious consequences —
Q: — go to war —
THE PRESIDENT: — and therefore, we worked with the world, we worked to make sure that Saddam Hussein heard the message of the world. And when he chose to deny inspectors, when he chose not to disclose, then I had the difficult decision to make to remove him. And we did, and the world is safer for it.
Q: Thank you, sir. Secretary Rumsfeld — (laughter.)
Q: Thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: You’re welcome. (Laughter.) I didn’t really regret it. I kind of semi-regretted it. (Laughter.)
Q: — have a debate.
THE PRESIDENT: That’s right. Anyway, your performance at the Grid Iron was just brilliant — unlike Holland’s, was a little weak, but — (laughter.)