Matt Lauer Urges Bush to Trash Trump on Political Division, Media Attacks

In an exclusive interview with George W. Bush on Monday’s NBC Today, co-host Matt Lauer repeatedly urged the former president to criticize current President Trump’s first month in office. Lauer began the exchange by demanding: “You took office in 2001 after an extremely contentious election, controversial end to that, the Supreme Court decided it, the nation was incredibly divided. How would you compare the divisions we faced then to what we’re living through right now?”

After Bush pointed out that the nation has been divided before in its history, Lauer proceeded to blame Trump for the present-day condition: “But there's enormous division right now. And although President Trump has said he hopes to unify the country, have you, in the first month, seen him do or say anything that, in your opinion, would be an attempt to heal the wounds of the election?”

Bush called for patience: “Well, first of all, there's only been one month in office. And so it’s a – you know, he’s got four years. Secondly, I think you have to take the man for his word that he wants to unify the country and we’ll see whether he’s able to do so.” He then observed that increased media competition and fragmentation contributed to the problem:

It's hard to unify the country, though, with the news media being so split up. When I was president, you know, you mattered a lot more because there was like three of you and now there's all kinds of information being bombarded out and people can say things anonymously. It's just a different world.

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Lauer then invited the former president to condemn Trump’s attacks on the media:

...you were a guy who faced both praise and criticism from the media during your time in office. Even at the times where you were dealing with the worst criticism, where it must have been very difficult to hear and read some of the things that were being said by the press in this country, did you ever consider the media to be the enemy of the American people?

Bush refused to speak on Trump’s comments directly, but replied: “I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy. That we need an independent media to hold people like me to account.... And it's kind of hard to, you know, tell others to have an independent free press when we're not willing to have one ourself.”

In his next query, Lauer hyped: “So many questions about the contacts between Trump associates during the campaign and the Russian government.” He turned to Bush and wondered: “As a former president, would you like to see a special prosecutor appointed to look into this once and for all and give the American people answers?”

Bush explained: “Well, first of all, I think we all need answers. Whether or not the special prosecutor's the right way to go or not, you're talking to the wrong guy....I've never been a lawyer. You know, I'm not sure the right avenue to take.”

Lauer then took time to praise Bush for his inclusive statements about Muslims following the 9/11 attacks, but fretted: “That's very different talk than what we're hearing today about a Muslim ban. Do you think the President's position on this has been well thought out?”

Moments later, Lauer followed up: “But by banning people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering this country, do we make it easier or harder to fight the war on terrorism?” Instead of comment on Trump’s immigration policy, Bush alluded to President Obama’s handling of the Iraq war: “Well, I think it's very hard to fight the war on terrorism if we're in retreat. And I think we learned that lesson that, you know, if the United States decides to pull out before a free society emerges, it's going to be hard to defeat them.”

Lauer pressed: “I just want to make sure I understand. Are you for or against the ban? You’re against the ban?” Bush simply responded: “I am for an immigration policy that's welcoming and that upholds the law.”

Wrapping up the political portion of the exchange, Lauer complained: “...you listened to President Trump’s inaugural address, and he talked about ‘American carnage’....And the fact that so much has gone wrong in this country and so much is wrong. Is that the America you see when you travel around this country?”

Following the interview, a ten-minute segment followed that focused on Bush’s new book, Portraits of Courage, a compilation of paintings and stories of wounded veterans he met during his post-presidency charity work.         

The last time Lauer interviewed the former president was during the 2013 opening of Bush’s presidential library. At the time, Lauer didn’t bother to ask any questions about then-President Obama’s job performance, but instead hammered Bush over his “controversial decisions” as commander-in-chief.

The same was true in 2010, when Lauer conducted two extensive interviews with Bush about his newly-released memoir, Decision Points. Again, the segments focused entirely on forcing Bush to defend his legacy and were void of any discussion of Barack Obama.

With another Republican in the White House, Lauer was suddenly eager to get Bush’s thoughts on the new administration.

Here is a full transcript of the February 27 exchange:

8:10 AM ET

MATT LAUER: Welcome back to Today on a Monday morning. Much of George W. Bush's post-presidency work has been dedicated to issues that veterans face after returning home. With a growing number of them suffering traumatic injuries and post-traumatic stress, President Bush has worked to support programs that ease the transition to civilian life. In his new book, Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors, President Bush uses his love of painting to honor the sacrifice and courage of America's military veterans. We're going to talk to some of them in a moment, but first, President Bush, it’s always nice to have you here in the studio.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Thank you, sir.

LAUER: Thanks for joining us.

BUSH: It's been a while.

LAUER: It has been a while. So let me get caught up on some things. You took office in 2001 after an extremely contentious election, controversial end to that, the Supreme Court decided it, the nation was incredibly divided. How would you compare the divisions we faced then to what we’re living through right now?

BUSH: You know, it's hard to compare times. One thing, though, is for certain, the job is a tough job. Being pres – everybody looks at the presidency when they campaign one way, then they get into office and find out there's a reality to the job. And you know, there's been times where we've been divided. I remember growing up as a kid and when I got out of college we were really divided and it's – you know, it requires a lot of people coming together to try to make us united.

LAUER: But there's enormous division right now. And although President Trump has said he hopes to unify the country, have you, in the first month, seen him do or say anything that, in your opinion, would be an attempt to heal the wounds of the election?

BUSH: Well, first of all, there's only been one month in office. And so it’s a – you know, he’s got four years. Secondly, I think you have to take the man for his word that he wants to unify the country and we’ll see whether he’s able to do so. It's hard to unify the country, though, with the news media being so split up. When I was president, you know, you mattered a lot more because there was like three of you and now there's all kinds of information being bombarded out and people can say things anonymously. It's just a different world.

LAUER: Well, you bring me to an interesting point because you were a guy who faced both praise and criticism from the media during your time in office. Even at the times where you were dealing with the worst criticism, where it must have been very difficult to hear and read some of the things that were being said by the press in this country, did you ever consider the media to be the enemy of the American people?

BUSH: I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy. That we need an independent media to hold people like me to account. I mean, power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive, and it's important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power, whether it be here or elsewhere. One of the things I spent a lot time doing was trying to convince a person like Vladimir Putin, for example, to accept the notion of an independent press. And it's kind of hard to, you know, tell others to have an independent free press when we're not willing to have one ourself.

LAUER: You mention Vladimir Putin. So many questions about the contacts between Trump associates during the campaign and the Russian government. As a former president, would you like to see a special prosecutor appointed to look into this once and for all and give the American people answers?

BUSH: Well, first of all, I think we all need answers. Whether or not the special prosecutor's the right way to go or not, you're talking to the wrong guy. I have great faith in Richard Burr, for example, he’s the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Really good guy, an independent thinker. And you know, if he were to recommend a special prosecutor, then I could – I’d be – you know, then I – it would have a lot more credibility with me. But I’m really – you know, I've never been a lawyer. You know, I'm not sure the right avenue to take. I am sure, though, that that question needs to be answered.

LAUER: It was only eight or nine months after you took office that the attacks of 9/11 occurred, the worst terrorist attack on American soil. And just after those attacks, you gave a speech and you said this, “I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It's practiced freely by many millions of Americans and millions more in countries that America counts as friends. It's teachings are good and peaceful.” That's very different talk than what we're hearing today about a Muslim ban. Do you think the President's position on this has been well thought out?

BUSH: I think it's very important for all of us to recognize one of our great strengths is for people to be able to worship the way they want to or not worship at all. I mean, the bedrock of our freedom – a bedrock of our freedom is the right to worship freely. And I – you see, I understood right off the bat, Matt, that this was an ideological conflict and people who murder the innocent are not religious people. They want to advance an ideology and we have faced those kind of ideologues in the past.

LAUER: But by banning people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering this country, do we make it easier or harder to fight the war on terrorism?

BUSH: Well, I think it's very hard to fight the war on terrorism if we're in retreat. And I think we learned that lesson that, you know, if the United States decides to pull out before a free society emerges, it's going to be hard to defeat them. The enemy is very good about exploiting weakness. It's going to be very important – if that's the goal, to defeat ISIS, which I believe it should be – that we project strength. Now whether or not the domestic politics plays – helps them or not – I, you know –

LAUER: I just want to make sure I understand. Are you for or against the ban? You’re against the ban?

BUSH: I am for an immigration policy that's welcoming and that upholds the law.

LAUER: On a more general note, you sat at the Inauguration, you listened to President Trump’s inaugural address, and he talked about “American carnage.”

BUSH: Yeah.

LAUER: And the fact that so much has gone wrong in this country and so much is wrong. Is that the America you see when you travel around this country?

BUSH: Well, the America I see often is the America that these vets represent, people willing to sacrifice for the greater good to put their lives on the line and then come back and make America a wonderful place to live. And that's why I'm here, I’m selling this book because I want America to realize how fortunate we are to have people in our midst and that we owe – that we’ve got to help them transition from being a vet to a civilian.

LAUER: And you transitioned me perfectly. So let me – and you’re going to stick around. Let me tell people we also want to talk more about Portraits of Courage and meet some of the military veterans that the President is honoring.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is the Senior News Analyst for MRC