Russert misrepresented Dems' Iraq statements to suggest shift in "emphasis" from previous debate

››› ››› BEN ARMBRUSTER & MATT GERTZ

On MSNBC's postdebate coverage of the January 15 Democratic presidential debate, Tim Russert misrepresented the positions on Iraq articulated that evening by Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and John Edwards to suggest a shift in "emphasis" from their statements on the issue during a September 26, 2007, debate, which Russert also moderated.

Immediately following the January 15 Democratic presidential debate on MSNBC, NBC News Washington bureau chief and debate co-moderator Tim Russert misrepresented the positions on Iraq articulated that evening by candidates Sen. Barack Obama (IL), Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (NY), and John Edwards to suggest a shift in "emphasis" from their statements on the issue during a September 26, 2007, MSNBC debate, which Russert also moderated.

During MSNBC's January 15 postdebate coverage, Russert claimed: "On Iraq specifically, you heard all three of those candidates say they are going to get all troops out of Iraq within a year of taking office -- other than those necessary to guard the embassy. In September, I asked if they would make a pledge to withdraw all troops by the end of their first term: None of them would say it. And they tried to today say, 'Well, what we were talking was this small reserve force.' I thought the emphasis was much different tonight."

On the January 16 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe, host Joe Scarborough and NBC News chief White House correspondent David Gregory echoed Russert's claims of a change in what the three were saying. Gregory asserted: "I think you heard Democrats say last night that they are still committed to removing most forces, most troops out of Iraq very early on in their presidency, in the first year of their presidency." Apparently referring to the September 26, 2007, debate, host Joe Scarborough replied, "That's a big change from them saying, '2013, don't know,' " during which Gregory interjected, "It is a change. Right."

But Russert's suggestion that the candidates are only now bringing up the need for a limited troop presence to explain their refusal to commit in September to remove all troops from Iraq is false. In fact, during the September debate, Obama, Clinton, and Edwards all cited the need for a limited troop presence.

Moreover, Russert's claim that the three candidates said during the January 15 debate that "they are going to get all troops [emphasis added] out of Iraq within a year of taking office -- other than those necessary to guard the embassy" is also false. Both Obama and Clinton left open the possibility of retaining a small troop presence in Iraq to not only guard the embassy, but also to conduct counterterrorism activities within the country and to protect humanitarian workers. Edwards stated during both debates that he intended to remove all combat troops from Iraq during his first year as president, while retaining a limited number to protect U.S. civilians working there.

Obama

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams moderated the January 15 debate, along with Russert and Today's Natalie Morales. During the debate, Obama asserted, "I have opposed this war consistently. I have put forward a plan that will get our troops out by the end of 2009." Later, Russert stated: "In September, we were in New Hampshire together, and I asked the three of you if you would pledge to have all troops out of Iraq by the end of your first term. All three of you said: you will not take that pledge. I'm hearing something much different tonight." In response, Obama said, "No, no, no. There's nothing different, Tim." Obama went on to explain that he would "maintain some troop presence" in Iraq -- not only to "guard our embassy," as Russert claimed -- but also to "protect our civilians ... engaged in humanitarian activity" and to "allow[] us to strike if Al Qaeda is creating bases inside of Iraq":

OBAMA: I have been very specific in saying that we will not have permanent bases there. I will end the war as we understand it in combat missions.

But that we are going to have to protect our embassy. We're going to have to protect our civilians. We're engaged in humanitarian activity there. We are going to have to have some presence that allows us to strike if Al Qaeda is creating bases inside of Iraq.

And -- so I cannot guarantee that we're not going to have a strategic interest that I have to carry out as commander-in-chief to maintain some troop presence there, but it is not going to be engaged in war and it will not be this sort of permanent bases and permanent military occupation that George Bush seems to be intent on continuing.

Contrary to Russert's postdebate suggestion that Obama was only now bringing up the need for a limited troop presence, Obama said in September that he would "drastically reduce our presence" in Iraq when he took office, but refused to pledge to withdraw all troops by the end of his first term, citing the need for certain limited missions. During that debate, Russert asked Obama whether he would "pledge that, by January 2013, the end of your first term, more than five years from now, there will be no U.S. troops in Iraq." Obama replied, "I think it's hard to project four years from now, and I think it would be irresponsible. We don't know what contingency will be out there." Obama went on to state: "What I can promise is that if there are still troops in Iraq when I take office ... then I will drastically reduce our presence there to the mission of protecting our embassy, protecting our civilians, and making sure that we're carrying out counterterrorism activities there."

Clinton

During the January 15 debate, Williams asked Clinton and Edwards if they would "join in the 2009 pledge that Senator Obama has made concerning the withdrawal of American troops." Clinton replied:

Oh, yes, I'm on record as saying exactly that, as soon as I become president, we will start withdrawing within 60 days. We will move as carefully and responsibly as we can, one to two brigades a month, I believe, and we'll have nearly all the troops out by the end of the year, I hope.

Like Obama, Clinton agreed that there is a need to retain some troop presence in Iraq: "[W]e have to be responsible, we have to protect our embassy, we do need to make sure that, you know, our strategic interests are taken care of."

Undermining Russert's suggestion of a difference in "emphasis" between the September and January debates, Clinton offered a similar position in September. During the September debate, Russert asked Clinton, "You have said that you will not pledge to have all troops out by the end of your first term, 2013. Why not?" Clinton replied, "[I]t is my goal to have all troops out by the end of my first term. But I agree with Barack. It is very difficult to know what we're going to be inheriting." Later in the debate, Clinton added that "there may be a continuing counterterrorism mission, which, if it still exists, will be aimed at Al Qaeda in Iraq. It may require combat, special operations forces or some other form of that, but the vast majority of our combat troops should be out."

Edwards

In response to Williams' question during the January 15 debate, Edwards replied, "I will have all combat troops out in the first year that I'm president of the United States. I will end combat missions. And while I'm president, there will be no permanent military bases in Iraq." He later stated that "[i]t is dishonest to suggest that you're not going to have troops there to protect the embassy."

Undermining Russert's postdebate suggestion that the "emphasis" of Edwards' Iraq position is now "much different," when Russert asked Edwards during the September 26, 2007, debate whether he would commit to removing "all U.S. troops" by 2013, Edwards replied that he "cannot make that commitment," noting the need to protect the U.S. embassy and humanitarian workers:

EDWARDS: I -- well, I can tell you what I would do as president. If I -- when I'm sworn into office come January of 2009, if there are in fact, as General [David] Petraeus suggests, 100,000 American troops on the ground in Iraq, I will immediately draw down 40 to 50 thousand troops. And over the course of the next several months, continue to bring our combat troops out of Iraq until all of our combat troops are in fact out of Iraq.

I think the problem is, and it's what you've just heard discussed, is, we will maintain an embassy in Baghdad. That embassy has to be protected. We will probably have humanitarian workers in Iraq. Those humanitarian workers have to be protected. I think somewhere in the neighborhood of a brigade of troops will be necessary to accomplish that -- 3,500 to 5,000 troops.

From MSNBC's January 15 postdebate analysis:

KEITH OLBERMANN (MSNBC host): But as we bring in Tim Russert, host of Meet the Press, and participant in tonight's debate, and of course NBC news Washington bureau chief. Tim, that format, it may have tamped down some of the sparks, but the discussion about Iraq seemed to be as nuanced, and in some respects, as subtle and as detailed as any we may have heard about the subject by any group in a couple of years. Do you think that was a) the case, and b) aided by the geographical setting of everybody at the table?

RUSSERT: I think you're exactly right, Keith. You know, these candidates make tactical decisions for a reason. In some of the debates, they wanted to engage each other. The last four days, we saw Senator Obama and Senator Clinton engaging each other, sometimes in bitter words. Tonight, they wanted to ramp down considerably the discussion of race. They thought it was hurting each of them. But they did find, and were able to coalesce on this issue of Iraq.

I thought the three Democratic candidates tonight have come to a simple conclusion -- that because of the economy and the situation we're now finding ourselves in, in terms of a recession, and this situation in Iraq, they believe that this nomination is priceless. That the Democrat is going to win the election. That's what they're thinking right now. And I think that really did modulate their behavior in this debate.

On Iraq specifically, you heard all three of those candidates say they are going to get all troops out of Iraq within a year of taking office -- other than those necessary to guard the embassy. In September, I asked if they would make a pledge to withdraw all troops by the end of their first term: None of them would say it. And they tried to today say, "Well, what we were talking was this small reserve force." I thought the emphasis was much different tonight, and we're going to see, I believe, in this fall campaign, a very pronounced difference on Iraq. The Republicans say, "Stay and listen to General Petraeus," and the Democrats say, "Get out most troops within a year." That makes for a big difference on a big issue in a big campaign.

From MSNBC's broadcast of the January 15 Democratic presidential debate:

WILLIAMS: Now, I've been told in midstream here, Senator Edwards, I have to take away one of your options. We were -- we apparently told the campaigns, bring one question for an opponent, which now brings us to you, Senator Clinton. So, you get your choice on either side.

CLINTON: Well, I want to ask Senator Obama to join me in doing something. You know, we both very much want to convince President Bush -- which is not easy to do -- in the remaining year to end the war in Iraq, to change direction.

It appears that not only is he refusing to do that, but that he has continued to say he can enter into an agreement with the Iraqi government -- without bringing it for approval to the United States Congress -- that would continue America's presence in Iraq long after President Bush leaves office. I find that absolutely unacceptable, and I think we have to do everything we can to prevent President Bush from binding the hands of the next president.

So I have introduced legislation that clearly requires President Bush to come to the United States Congress -- it is not enough, as he claims, to go to the Iraqi Parliament -- but to come to the United States Congress to get anything that he's trying to do, including permanent bases, numbers of troops, all the other commitments he's talking about as he's traveling in that region.

And I want to ask, Senator Obama, if you will co-sponsor my legislation to try to rein in President Bush so that he doesn't commit this country to his policy in Iraq, which both of us are committed to end.

OBAMA: Well, I think, you know, we can work on this, Hillary, because I don't think -- you know, the -- we got unity in the Democratic Party, I hope, on this.

The notion that President Bush could somehow tie the hands of the next president I think is contrary to how our democracy's supposed to work, and the voices of the American people who spoke out in 2006 and I expect will speak out again in 2008.

I have opposed this war consistently. I have put forward a plan that will get our troops out by the end of 2009. And we already saw today reports that the Iraqi minister suggests that we're going to be in there at least until 2018; 2018 -- 10 years -- a decade-long commitment. Currently, we are spending nine to $10 billion a month. And the notion is that we are going to sustain that at the same time as we're neglecting what we see happening in Afghanistan right now, where you have a luxury hotel in Kabul that was blown up by militants and the situation continues to worsen.

My first job as president of the United States is going to be to call in the Joint Chiefs of Staff and say, "You've got a new mission," and that is to responsibly, carefully, but deliberately start to phase out our involvement there and to make sure that we are putting the onus on the Iraqi government to come together and do what they need to do to arrive at peace.

WILLIAMS: If I could just interrupt here before I give you your question. Would the other two of you join in the 2009 pledge that Senator Obama has made concerning the withdrawal of American troops?

CLINTON: Oh, yes. I'm on record as saying exactly that, as soon as I become president, we will start withdrawing within 60 days. We will move as carefully and responsibly as we can, one to two brigades a month, I believe, and we'll have nearly all the troops out by the end of the year, I hope.

WILLIAMS: Senator Edwards?

EDWARDS: I think I've actually, among the three of us, been the most aggressive and said that I will have all combat troops out in the first year that I'm president of the United States. I will end combat missions. And while I'm president, there will be no permanent military bases in Iraq.

RUSSERT: In September, we were in New Hampshire together, and I asked the three of you if you would pledge to have all troops out of Iraq by the end of your first term. All three of you said: you will not take that pledge. I'm hearing something much different tonight.

[crosstalk]

OBAMA: No, no, no.

EDWARDS: There's nothing different.

OBAMA: There's nothing different, Tim.

EDWARDS: This is nothing different.

OBAMA: I want to make sure of --

[laughter]

OBAMA: No, no. I think this is important because it was reported as if we were suggesting that we would continue the war until 2013. Your question was: Could I guarantee all troops would be out of Iraq? I have been very specific in saying that we will not have permanent bases there. I will end the war as we understand it in combat missions.

But that we are going to have to protect our embassy. We're going to have to protect our civilians. We're engaged in humanitarian activity there. We are going to have to have some presence that allows us to strike if Al Qaeda is creating bases inside of Iraq.

And -- so I cannot guarantee that we're not going to have a strategic interest that I have to carry out as commander-in-chief to maintain some troop presence there, but it is not going to be engaged in war and it will not be this sort of permanent bases and permanent military occupation that George Bush seems to be intent on continuing.

EDWARDS: Can I --

CLINTON: And you know, Tim, what -- it's not only George Bush.

EDWARDS: Can each of us speak to that?

CLINTON: I just want to add here --

RUSSERT: But you both will have a presence?

CLINTON: Well, I think that what Barack said is what John and I also meant at that same time, because, obviously, we have to be responsible, we have to protect our embassy, we do need to make sure that, you know, our strategic interests are taken care of.

But it's not only George Bush. The Republican candidates running for the presidency are saying things that are very much in line with President Bush. You know, Senator McCain said the other day that we might have troops there for 100 years, Barack.

I mean, they have an entirely different view than we do about what we need to have happening as soon as we get a Democrat elected president.

EDWARDS: Can I --

WILLIAMS: Thirty seconds for Senator Edwards.

EDWARDS: I just want to say: It is dishonest to suggest that you're not going to have troops there to protect the embassy. That's just not the truth. It may be great political theater and political rhetoric, but it's not the truth.

There is, however, a difference between us on this issue. And I don't think it's subtle. The difference is: I will have all combat troops out in the first year that I'm president, and there will be no further combat missions, and there will be no permanent military bases.

WILLIAMS: Senator Obama.

OBAMA: I just want to pick up on what John said, because we've had this discussion before. John, are you saying that you're -- I don't know if I'm using my question here, but --

WILLIAMS: I think you are.

EDWARDS: This is your question.

OBAMA: Well, I've got to be careful, then.

[laughter]

WILLIAMS: This is a -- we've got --

OBAMA: Instead of phrasing it that way --

WILLIAMS: Oh, no, no, no, no.

OBAMA: Let me --

WILLIAMS: That sounded like the start of a question to me.

RUSSERT: You're half pregnant, Senator.

[laughter]

OBAMA: No, no, no, no. Look, I think it's important to understand that, either you are willing to say that you may go after terrorist bases inside of Iraq if they should form, in which case there would potentially be a combat aspect to that, obviously, or you're not.

And, you know, if you're not, then that could present some problems in terms of the long-term safety and security of the United States of America. So I just wanted to make sure that we had got that clarification.

EDWARDS: I'll be happy to respond.

WILLIAMS: Senator, I --

EDWARDS: Is that a question?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I think we've ruled it a question.

EDWARDS: My answer to that is, as long as you keep combat troops in Iraq, you continue the occupation. If you keep military bases in Iraq, you're continuing the occupation. The occupation must end. As respects Al Qaeda, public enemy number one, they're responsible for about 10 percent of the violence inside Iraq, according to the reports.

I would keep a quick reaction force in Kuwait, in case it became necessary, but that is different, Barack, than keeping troops stationed inside --

OBAMA: Well, John --

EDWARDS: Excuse -- let me finish, please.

OBAMA: I'm sorry.

EDWARDS: That is different than keeping troops stationed inside Iraq, because keeping troops stationed inside Iraq -- combat troops -- and continuing combat missions, whether it's against Al Qaeda or anyone else, at least from my perspective, is a continuation of the occupation. And I think a continuation of the occupation continues the problem, not just in reality, but in perception that America's occupying the country.

OBAMA: Let me suggest, I don't -- I think there's a distinction without a difference here. If it is appropriate for us to keep that strike force outside of Iraq, then that obviously would be preferable.

The point is, at some point, you might have that capacity, and that's the clarification I wanted to make sure was there.

From MSNBC's broadcast of the September 26, 2007, Democratic presidential debate:

RUSSERT: Will you pledge that, by January 2013, the end of your first term, more than five years from now, there will be no U.S. troops in Iraq?

OBAMA: I think it's hard to project four years from now, and I think it would be irresponsible. We don't know what contingency will be out there.

What I can promise is that if there are still troops in Iraq when I take office, which it appears there may be, unless we can get some of our Republican colleagues to change their mind and cut off funding without a timetable -- if there's no timetable -- then I will drastically reduce our presence there to the mission of protecting our embassy, protecting our civilians, and making sure that we're carrying out counterterrorism activities there.

I believe that we should have all our troops out by 2013, but I don't want to make promises not knowing what the situation's going to be three or four years out.

RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, Democrats all across the country believed in 2006, when the Democrats were elected to the majority in the House and Senate, that that was a signal to end the war, and the war would end.

You have said that you will not pledge to have all troops out by the end of your first term, 2013. Why not?

CLINTON: Well, Tim, it is my goal to have all troops out by the end of my first term. But I agree with Barack. It is very difficult to know what we're going to be inheriting. You know, we do not know, walking into the White House in January 2009, what we're going to find. What is the state of planning for withdrawal?

That's why, last spring, I began pressing the Pentagon to be very clear about whether or not they were planning to bring our troops out. And what I found was that they weren't doing the kind of planning that is necessary, and we've been pushing them very hard to do so.

You know, with respect to the question, though, about the Democrats taking control of the Congress, I think the Democrats have pushed extremely hard to change this president's course in Iraq. Today, I joined with many of my colleagues in voting for Senator [Joe] Biden's [D-DE] plan, slightly different than he'd been presenting it, but still the basic structure was to move toward what is a de facto partition if the Iraqi people and government so choose.

The Democrats keep voting for what we believe would be a better course. Unfortunately, as you know so well, the Democrats don't have the majority in the Senate to be able to get past that 60-vote blockade that the Republicans can still put up. But I think every one of us who is still in the Senate -- Senator Biden, Senator [Chris] Dodd [D-CT], Senator Obama and myself -- we are trying every single day. And of course, Congressman [Dennis] Kucinich [D-OH] is in the House.

But I think it is fair to say that the president has made it clear. He intends to have about 100,000 or so troops when he leaves office. The height of irresponsibility -- that he would leave this war to his successor. I will immediately move to begin bringing our troops home when I am inaugurated.

RUSSERT: Senator Edwards, will you commit that, at the end of your first term, in 2013, all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq?

EDWARDS: I cannot make that commitment. I -- well, I can tell you what I would do as president. If I -- when I'm sworn into office come January of 2009, if there are in fact, as General Petraeus suggests, 100,000 American troops on the ground in Iraq, I will immediately draw down 40 to 50 thousand troops. And over the course of the next several months, continue to bring our combat troops out of Iraq until all of our combat troops are in fact out of Iraq.

I think the problem is, and it's what you've just heard discussed, is, we will maintain an embassy in Baghdad. That embassy has to be protected. We will probably have humanitarian workers in Iraq. Those humanitarian workers have to be protected. I think somewhere in the neighborhood of a brigade of troops will be necessary to accomplish that -- 3,500 to 5,000 troops.

But I do say -- I want to add to things I just heard. I think that it's true that everyone up here wants to take a responsible course to end the war in Iraq. There are, however, differences between us, and those differences need to be made aware. Good people have differences about this issue. For example, I heard Senator Clinton say on Sunday that she wants to continue combat missions in Iraq. To me, that's a continuation of the war. I do not think we should continue combat missions in Iraq, and when I'm on a stage with the Republican nominee come the fall of 2008, I'm going to make it clear that I'm for ending the war. And the debate will be between a Democrat who wants to bring the war to an end, get all American combat troops out of Iraq, and a Republican who wants to continue the war.

CLINTON: Well, Tim --

RUSSERT: Governor Richardson.

CLINTON: -- could I just clarify that, you know, I said there may be a continuing counterterrorism mission, which, if it still exists, will be aimed at Al Qaeda in Iraq. It may require combat, special operations forces or some other form of that, but the vast majority of our combat troops should be out.

EDWARDS: But can I just say that -- my only point is, I don't have any doubt that Senator Clinton wants to take a responsible course. There is a difference, however, in how we would go about this, and I think Democratic primary voters are entitled to know that difference -- and the difference is really very simple: I would have our combat troops out of Iraq over a period of several months, and I would not continue combat missions in Iraq. Combat missions mean that the war is continuing. I believe this war needs to be brought to an end.

RUSSERT: Would you send combat troops back in if there was genocide?

EDWARDS: I believe that America, along with the rest of the world, would have a responsibility to respond to genocide. It's not something we should do alone. In fact, if we do it alone, it could be counterproductive.

In fact, if I can go one step further, beyond what you just asked. I think the president of the United States -- and I as president -- would have a responsibility, as we begin to bring our combat troops out of Iraq, to prepare for two possibilities. One is the possibility that -- the worst possibility -- which is that genocide breaks out, Shia try to systematically eliminate the Sunni. I think we need to be preparing for that with the international community now, not waiting. And second, the possibility that this war starts to spill outside the borders of Iraq -- and that's a very difficult thing to contain, because we know historically that it's difficult to contain civil war.

From the January 16 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe:

SCARBOROUGH: How does -- things for now seem to be getting better in Iraq. How does that impact not only the Republican side but also the Democratic side if the surge continues to make a difference and there's some political reconciliation?

MIKA BRZEZINSKI (co-host): Potentially good for McCain.

GREGORY: Well, yeah, I mean it vindicates the position he took on the surge. I think you heard Democrats say last night that they are still committed to removing most forces, most troops out of Iraq very early on in their presidency, in the first year of their presidency.

SCARBOROUGH: That's a big change --

GREGORY: It is a change. Right, 'cause --

SCARBOROUGH: -- from them saying, "2013 --

GREGORY: Right.

SCARBOROUGH: -- don't know." What's happened?

GREGORY: Well, I think, in part, they're trying to create a real distinction with the Republicans. This will be a question of, you know, staying bogged down in Iraq 'cause they'll argue it versus allowing the surge to work, which will be the Republican argument and giving Iraq time to make some progress.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, War in Iraq
Network/Outlet
MSNBC
Person
Tim Russert
Stories/Interests
John Edwards, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, 2008 Elections
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.