Interview of the Vice President by Campbell Brown, NBC News
Mrs. Cheney's Office
Eisenhower Executive Office Building
11:00 A.M. EST
Q: Let's start with a subject that I know is one of your favorite at the moment -- Enron. You've made your position on this abundantly clear, that you have no intention of handing over documents to the General Accounting Office relating to the Energy Task Force. But over the weekend, Chief of Staff Andy Card, on Meet The Press, seemed to indicate that there may be some room for compromise for perhaps handing documents to a congressional committee, certain documents limiting the information. Is that something that's being discussed?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, we believe we've already provided a great deal of information. The important thing here, Campbell, to understand is what we're focused on are those things that relate to my role as Vice President; that as Vice President I'm the constitutional officer provided for in the Constitution. And the General Accounting Office has authority over statutory agencies, but not over constitutional officers. That's not the way their statute is set up. And that it's important here to protect the ability of the President and the Vice President to get unvarnished advice from any source we want.
We have given them a lot of information, for example, about the cost of the operation. They've got information on the various agencies and departments that participated where they clearly do have jurisdiction. But in this one area, we think it's very important to preserve that principle.
Q: I understand the principle, the confidentiality issue. But can you understand the perception problem, that to many people it may look like the administration has something to hide?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, but again, what's the charge here? What is it that we are alleged to have done with respect to the Energy Task Force? The fact is, there really aren't any charges. Enron didn't receive any special treatment. We talked to all kinds of people. We talked to energy companies, we talked to consumer groups, we talked to environmentalists, we've talked to labor leaders, as we put together our package. It's a very good package.
What happened was that Congressman Waxman decided he didn't want to have to deal with the substance of what we recommended, so he attacked it on the basis of process: you didn't talk to the right people; you should have talked to this person instead of that person.
When he got the GAO involved when they first looked at this last August, and we took a very tough position, they, in effect, backed off. Now what's happened is, with the Enron corporate collapse, some of my Democratic friends on the Hill have decided they'd like to come back and try to create a political issue when there really isn't one. But for us to give up on this very important principle for the sake of political expediency, which, frankly, is the way we look it -- the collapse of Enron should not justify compromise on a basic fundamental principle of the presidency -- we think that would be a mistake. We think that would be wrong.
Most of all, we're interested here in trying to pass on to our successors our offices in better shape than we found them in. For 35 years that I've been in town, there's been a constant, steady erosion of the prerogatives and the powers of the President of the United States. And I don't want to be a part of that.
Q: But can't you understand the perception problem? You're a former oil man --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I have to deal in reality, not perception.
Q: But this is the reality. You are a former oil man; the President's a formal oil man; Don Evans, the Commerce Secretary, a former oil man. So to a lot of people, it may appear that your friends at the energy companies may have had undue influence when you were developing this --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Let's talk about undue influence for a minute. The Sierra Club put out a set of energy policy recommendations, 12 points. Our energy recommendations put out by our task force includes 11 of those. Are we unduly influenced by the Sierra Club? Of course not. The solution, if you want to evaluate the policy, is go read the study, look at the 105 recommendations we made, decide whether they make sense or don't make sense. Some of them are probably good news for energy companies, some of them aren't.
Enron, for example, wanted us to put a mandatory emissions limit on carbon dioxide. We said no. Enron wanted us to support the Kyoto Treaty. We said no. Not everybody got everything they wanted. But did we talk to energy companies? Absolutely. You'd have to be a damn fool to put together a comprehensive, nationwide energy policy and not talk to energy companies.
Q: I'm going to do this one more time, then we're going to move on.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: That's all right.
Q: You're a realist, though. You do know that there is a political cost here. Is the principle worth that political cost?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I took an oath when I took -- when I was sworn in to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. You have an obligation, I believe, in these offices to defend the office against the unlawful or unconstitutional or unreasonable encroachment by the other branches of government.
The way the Constitution is set up specifically provides for separation of powers. And to create a precedent where future vice presidents, for example, would be in a situation where anytime they meet with somebody, they have to call Henry Waxman and tell them who they met with, what the subject was that was discussed, giving him notes of the meetings that were taken -- now, the Congressman does not have the constitutional right to insist that the President or the Vice President provide him with that information, any more than I can demand of the Congressman, look, you've got to tell me everybody you talked to before you cast that vote. That's silly. That's not the way the government works.
We sit down, we get advice from any source we want. We, in the end, make decisions, and those decisions get embodied in legislation we recommended, or in this case, in a 177-page report which is not secret, we printed thousands of copies of it, distributed it all over town. Go evaluate the report.
Enron didn't get any special deals. Nobody got any special deals. What we did was to give our best judgment. You can argue with it, you can debate it, you can say you like it or don't like it, but you can't attack it by saying, well, we're suspicious.
Q: Have you and the President talked about Enron?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Sure. Well, we've talked about the study, about our task force.
Q: What can you tell us about those discussions?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Nothing. I never talk about my conversations with the President.
Q: But have you talked about this issue, the fact that --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Sure. Of course, we've discussed the question of the energy report and my role in it as Vice President. And he feels as strongly as I do the importance of protecting and preserving the principles that are part and parcel of the constitutional authority of the President and the Vice President of the United States.
I cannot do my job if I can't be -- if I'm not able to deal with people in confidence. If people can't come to me and tell me what they really think, if they can't come and offer advice or argument without knowing that the next day it's going to be on the front page of The Washington Post, or I'm going to call some congressman and say, okay, these people were in, this is what they said, then there's just no way for this job, this office to function under those circumstances.
Q: Let's talk a little bit about the fallout of the company's collapse. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said about Enron's collapse, and I'm quoting, "Companies come and go. That's the genius of capitalism." Is that the administration's policy, that it's okay to stand by and watch?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I think what Paul is referring to there is that in our private sector economy, one of the great strengths of our system is that companies get started, they grow, they do very well; those that aren't efficient or can't compete fall by the wayside. That's the way it's always been.
The problem we've got here with Enron is that it may well have been much more than just the normal laws of competition -- supply and demand. It looks like there were significant flaws in terms of the way the company was run. Now, exactly what happened, we don't know. We do know that investors lost billions. We know that employees lost their life savings. We know the company is bankrupt. There are serious questions about how the accounting function worked and how Arthur Andersen did its job, serious questions about how Enron was managed. Those questions need to be answered.
What the President has made clear is that we will do everything we can to get to the bottom of it. If laws were broken, people will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. If laws need to be changed, they will be changed. We're already working with a task force on 401K plans, for example. So we are -- we do think there was a fundamental problem here, not just sort of the normal cycling, if you will, of the economy. Clearly, something seriously wrong happened at Enron.
Q: Some of the things you're looking at are more regulations for 401Ks, for pension plans. But how does that mesh with the general Republican philosophy of freer rein in the corporate world?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I don't think -- I would argue you've misstated the Republican philosophy. We believe in a free economy. We believe in the competition of markets and companies. We think that's very important. But we also still think it has to be regulated so that you can't have fraud, for example. If somebody violates basic, fundamental statutes, they ought to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
Now, what has happened with respect to Enron is as -- we will move very aggressively -- I think you will find Republicans are probably stronger defenders of the system and tougher on the Enron proposition than are Democrats. What we believe in is the ability of companies to go out and compete. And if you're going to have that, then you've got to have transparency, you've got to have financial reports that are accurate, people have to be able to look at a company and its reports and know that those are true, valid representations of the status of the company. And it would appear that with respect to Enron, that wasn't the case.
Q: My last Enron question. A lot of people take the view that what's happened with Enron, the attention it's getting, that it's about class; that the monied executives at Enron walked away moderately scathed, while the little guy, in this case, lost their shirt. You have a lot of people in this administration, including yourself, who are from that former category -- rich executives at one time in your career. So how do you convince the American people that you care about the little guy, in this case?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I've had a long career, Campbell, and I didn't start rich. I spent the first six years of my life at a high school, working with the tools as a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, building power line and transmission line all over the West. I've been a poverty-stricken graduate student. So I was fortunate late in life to make a lot of money in the private sector. But that's, in fact, I think the way the system is supposed to work. If you work hard and you're fortunate and get some opportunities, which I clearly had, I'm thankful for that. But I don't think that the fact that I was successful in business in any way jeopardizes my ability to judge these kinds of events.
I don't think this is about class at all. I think it's a total misreading and misrepresentation of the situation. I think, in fact, what it's about is whether or not some individuals running a particular company did, in fact, conduct themselves in a way that was inconsistent with basic statutes, laws, and regulations. And if they did, they ought to be punished, and they will be.
But that's not an indictment of the entire system. We have the world's most formidable economy. We've achieved a standard of living in this country that most people only dream of. We do it by providing jobs for millions of Americans, and opportunities for future generations to grow and develop and be prosperous. And part of that is in our private, free enterprise system in which the ability of people with a dream and maybe no assets at all, to go borrow a few dollars and start a business, and if they're successful and they work hard, they can build a tremendous enterprise and provide jobs for millions of Americans. And that's exactly the way it ought to be.
Q: Let's move on to foreign policy. On the Mideast, last week The Washington Post reported that the administration is considering cutting ties with Yasser Arafat. Did Sunday's bombing push you closer to that decision?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: First of all, I would go back and not buy into the basis of your proposition -- don't believe everything you read in the newspaper. We have been --
Q: Are you considering cutting ties with Yasser Arafat?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: We have been very concerned about Yasser Arafat's conduct and his failure to keep his commitments, the fact that he's unable or unwilling to deal with the violence perpetrated out of the West Bank and Gaza against Israel, the suicide bombing attacks, in particular.
We also have been very concerned because he clearly was involved, or people very close to him were clearly involved in this shipment of 50 tons of weapons from Iran in conjunction with Hezbollah, slated for Palestine and the West Bank. He is --
Q: Do you believe he was involved in that?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: My own personal view is that it would not have happened without his knowledge, given the level of involvement of people very close to him and around him. So the key here is whether or not he is going to conduct himself in a way that would allow him to be an effective interlocutor with respect to the peace process. So far, he hasn't done that. He knows what he has to do. He knows he has to deal with the violence on the West Bank. Until he does, it's difficult to see how we make any progress in the peace process.
Q: But do you have another option?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, we've always got options. The United States government has got a major role to play here. The President's committed to the peace process, has spoken out on behalf of the Palestinian state. Secretary Powell made an important speech last December on all of these subjects. We had General Zinni to the region. We want to engage and push forward on that basis. But we have to have somebody on the Palestinian side who's prepared to be an effective participant in that process. And that means they've got to control the violence emerging from the West Bank and say -- so far, Yasser Arafat has not done that.
Q: And for the moment, Yasser Arafat is the only person we have.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: So far, Yasser Arafat has not done what he knows he has to do.
Q: Much was made over the weekend about a possible split among the administration's foreign policy team about the detainees, the status of the detainees in Cuba. Has the administration met to discuss this?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: We frequently -- we meet almost daily with respect to the National Security Council and/or the principals -- that's the NSC without the President being there. I never discuss what's on the agenda of those meetings. We're obviously involved generally in addressing the war on terror and conducting the war on terror, but those meetings are and need to be classified.
Q: But the foreign policy team, in particular, is looking at this issue and there's obviously disagreement over the status of those detainees and how it should be handled.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I disagree with that. I think there are important questions the President has to resolve, important legal issues with respect to the Geneva Convention and how it may or may not apply in this particular instance. There's no disagreement on the detainees. We all agree they're not lawful combatants. We all agree that they will be treated humanely. All of that's true. There are important other policy considerations that are being deliberated in the interagency. But, as I say, those deliberations are classified.
Q: The State of the Union. The President gives his State of the Union address tomorrow. How have the priorities changed from one year ago?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, clearly, the events of September 11th have shifted the focus very much. I mean, a year ago we were focused very much on the tax bill, which we got done; we were focused on education reform, which we got done. Now, after September 11th, were in the midst of a war, we're involved in a war on terror. It's gone very well in Afghanistan, but that's only the beginning. We've got terror cells in 65 or 70 countries around the world that we need to wrap up. So that conflict will continue for some considerable period of time. That colors everything else we do.
We're also in a position now where we need to do much more than we ever had before with respect to securing the homeland -- that is to say, making us invulnerable to attack, doing everything we can to head off and disrupt efforts to kill Americans. And that effort is underway, too.
Final point, I think, that is different today than what it was a year ago, of course, is we're in a recession. We didn't have -- we thought we were in the beginning of a recession last year. We said as much before the inaugural. But now we've actually experienced, we've had two, maybe three quarters of negative real growth. And we think it's vital to get the economy back on track, to provide jobs for Americans. And that will be an important part of the President's focus, as well.
Q: A year ago, though, this was a country that was enjoying -- an administration that was enjoying a massive surplus. We are now looking at massive deficits --
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, we're not. We're looking at -- we had a massive surplus. We're now looking at small deficits as the result of the recession. The recession has significantly reduced the amount of revenue that's going to come in over the course of the next several years, but it's a slowdown in the economy that caused that. But even with the very significant increase in defense spending and the increase for homeland security the President calls for, we still end up with a smaller deficit than we've had in any recession in recent memory. It's a relatively modest deficit given the total size of the economy.
Q: Are you okay, though, dealing with deficits?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Sure. I mean, if you look back at statements the President and I have both made, we believe very deeply in trying to run a surplus, but there are expectations. The exceptions are war, recession, national emergency. And we've got all three. And the amazing thing is that the economy is strong enough even in a recession to be able to support and sustain the priorities we need, and still come very close to eliminating the deficit.
Q: I'm getting the signal we need to wrap this up. But let me ask you -- you probably have one of the most well-documented health histories of anybody in the country. How do you feel?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Good.
Q: Any change in the status?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No.
Q: Are you working out?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I am, every day.
Q: Do you think if this President, who has an approval rating right now hovering near 80 percent, if that holds, will you serve eight years?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I will make a judgment about a second term based on whether or not he wants me. Obviously, it will be his call. After the first term he'll have to decide whether or not he wants me on the ticket for the second term. But assuming it makes sense and all of the things being equal, I'd be glad to serve. I've enjoyed it very much, it's been a great job. I love working for him. It's a fascinating time to be here. And I would like to continue to serve as long as he wants me. But it's his call.
Q: Is this job more or less stressful now than you thought it would be?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No -- this is my fifth time in government, my third time in the White House. So, Campbell, this is not new in that sense. And stress is doing something you don't like. Stress is having to spend your days in a job that you just hate. That's not my problem. This is a great job and I'm delighted to be here.
Q: Mr. Vice President, thank you.
END 11:20 A.M. EST
Richard B. Cheney, Interview of the Vice President by Campbell Brown, NBC News Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/286066