Return to Transcripts main page
STATE OF THE UNION
Interview With Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta; Terror in Denmark; The ISIS Threat
Aired February 15, 2015 - 09:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN ANCHOR: Terror hits Denmark. ISIS threatens U.S. troops in Iraq. And a former defense secretary says President Obama made mistakes in the fight against terror.
This is STATE OF THE UNION.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
ACOSTA: And good morning from Washington. I'm Jim Acosta.
We're following breaking news from Denmark, which is reeling from a terror attack. A gunman opened fire Saturday at a cafe near a synagogue in Copenhagen, leaving two people dead. Police say the gunman may have been inspired by the Paris attacks.
Let's go to CNN's Nic Robertson, who is in Copenhagen.
And, Nic, are police confident now that these two attacks are connected?
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They are, Jim.
And they have surveillance camera footage that shows the gunman coming back to this apartment between the attacks. They then waited for him. That's when they -- he returned home at about 4:50 in the morning. They challenged him. He shot back at them. They shot at him, killing him.
Now, what they say they have discovered is that when they shot him, he had pistols on him. What they know about the first attack was that it was an attack with an automatic weapon, possibly a machine pistol or a small machine gun.
When they went into his apartment today, they discovered that longer weapon that may be consistent with the weapon that was used in the first part of the attack. They have also discovered clothing in his apartment consistent with what they believe the first gunman was wearing.
So there's a much higher degree of confidence from the police here now. The deputy prime minister has also said the same thing. They believe they have got the man who was behind both these attacks. What they're concerned about now and why security remains high is because they don't know if there is -- if there are other perpetrators out there, other actors who are ready to sort of do copycat type attacks or be inspired by this to do something, Jim.
ACOSTA: And, Nic, I know it's early in the investigation, and it's not certain whether he acted alone. Do they know whether or not this point if he traveled to join up with ISIS in Syria, Iraq, or elsewhere?
ROBERTSON: You know, the police aren't putting a name out yet. This is a community here where he lived that is quite a high immigrant community. I have spoken with a politician here today, who's told me -- this is her constituency -- that the people here are worried because they feel, like so many other people, that this perhaps had and, as the police have said, Islamist leadings, an Islamist type of attack.
There's a lot of Muslims live here, so people are concerned. Now, what connections he may have had to ISIS or other groups remains yet for the police on their investigations. But, so far, that's the direction the police seem to be looking, by saying that this perhaps was inspired by the attack in Paris on the cartoonists and on the kosher deli there as well.
So, that -- this is the direction the police are looking in at the moment, Jim.
ACOSTA: OK, Nic Robertson in Copenhagen, thanks, Nic.
Joining me now, Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense and CIA director of President Obama.
Secretary Panetta, thanks for joining us on STATE OF THE UNION.
LEON PANETTA, FORMER U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: Nice to be with you, Jim.
ACOSTA: Let's jump right into it, because, as you probably saw in recent days, there was this pretty alarming attack on the Al Asad base in Iraq. Some ISIS insurgents attacked that base. They were repelled by Iraqi security forces. But it was alarming, in the fact that there are U.S. military personnel at that base involved in these training exercises with the Iraqis.
And I'm just curious. You said in your book, "The ISIS offensive in 2014 greatly increases the risk that Iraq will become al Qaeda's next safe haven."
Is this what you were afraid of?
PANETTA: What I see happening is that ISIS is -- truly represents kind of a whole new face in the war on terrorism.
We're dealing with an enemy that is well-funded. We're dealing with an enemy that has strong command-and-control, and we're dealing with an enemy that is well-armed. And as a result of that, I think that they can conduct the kind of offensive operations that can be very effective and that have to be met tooth and nail with everything we have got. That's the reality. ISIS is a whole new chapter in terms of the terrorist threat to
this -- to that area and to our country.
ACOSTA: The president, as he was laying out this authorization for use of military force earlier this week, made a pretty bold statement.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our coalition is on the offensive. ISIL is on the defensive and ISIL is going to lose.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA: In your view, is the U.S. and its coalition winning right now?
PANETTA: I think the president has the right pieces in place to try to confront ISIS. And, obviously, we have made some important gains in trying to stop their effort to try to gain additional territory in Iraq.
The key elements are obviously developing strong intelligence, so we know what they're up to, developing our counterterrorism operations with special forces, using our air capability, using other technologies, building the kind of alliances that can help us, developing the capacities of Iraq and other countries to be able to confront them, and ultimately dealing with the root causes of terrorism.
All of that needs to be part of the strategy that is involved here. I think the problem I see is that that strategy has to be bolstered in a strong way. We have got to be able to ensure that we are committed every day of the week towards making sure that this strategy works, that we disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat ISIS.
ACOSTA: Before we talk more about the AUMF, let's talk about the battle against ISIS.
And since leaving the White House, you have said publicly that the U.S. should have armed those moderate rebels in Syria a couple of years ago, when that civil war was unfolding there. And I'm just curious. You know, do you think that would have made a difference at this point in this fight against ISIS?
PANETTA: Well, you know, there's no question in my mind that some mistakes were made here.
Presidents make mistakes, but they also learn from those mistakes. And I think the president has learned from those mistakes. It's going to take time. I'm more hopeful about the effort in Iraq. I think ultimately we will have, I think, a pretty good chance of being able to push ISIS back out of Iraq.
The big question mark in my mind is Syria and just exactly how long is it going to take us to be able to confront ISIS in Syria, because if they had a safe haven there, they may continue to be trouble for some time.
ACOSTA: One thing I have heard from people over at the White House is that -- and this was obviously the big debate when Bashar al- Assad, Syria's president, crossed President Obama's red line, and the president had that decision to make as to whether he was going to bomb Assad's forces in Syria. He didn't do that. He didn't enforce that red line.
But what White House officials will say now privately is that, had we done that, ISIS would be in control of Damascus now. Do you buy that argument?
PANETTA: No, not at all.
I think that had we gone in and made very clear that, once Assad made use of chemical weapons and crossed the line that the president of the United States established, that we stand by our word and go after them. You know, we are now conducting air attacks in Syria. We're going after ISIS. We're going after those that represent the worst of terrorism, in terms of their ability to strike, not only there, but in other places as well.
I don't -- I think it's important to understand that this is not an enemy that you can kind of stand aside and not confront. If we stand aside, if we don't get involved, if we don't provide leadership, unfortunately, nobody else will. And that's why it's important for us to be -- to take a leadership position here, both in Syria, as well as in Iraq, as well as elsewhere in confronting terrorism.
ACOSTA: And, as you know, Mr. Secretary, the president is -- has intent to get involved in a big ground war type operation in Iraq or even in Syria, and it is sort of built into or baked into that authorization of the use of military force against ISIS that the president proposed earlier this week or last week.
He said that there would only be a three limit -- a three-year limit on that authorization. Are you comfortable with putting an end date, an expiration date on that authorization? Do you think he has the flexibility that he needs to take on ISIS?
PANETTA: You know, I think it's important that the president has asked the Congress to give him this authorization for military force. Probably should have been done six months ago, but I'm glad that the president has sent this up.
And it's very important for the Congress hopefully to unite, both Democrats and Republicans, and support this authorization. Look, I understand there is going to be some limits here. And I think the president has struck actually a pretty good balance. He has got a lot of flexibility built into this authorization, which I think is important.
I think the president, as commander in chief, needs a great deal of flexibility in order to protect this country. At the same time, it's obvious that nobody, nobody wants a large ground war similar to what we did in Iraq and Afghanistan. And so limiting these kind of enduring combat operations as part of this authorization probably makes some sense.
And putting a three-year limit on it...
ACOSTA: What does that phrase mean to you, though, Mr. Secretary, enduring combat operations? There are some of your fellow Democrats who say, we don't know what that means.
PANETTA: Well, I think -- I think the bottom line here is that we are not going to go to war with 100,000, 150,000 troops, the way we did in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's certainly what I envision in terms of the limits of our operation.
ACOSTA: I know you have been critical of the president's ability to rally Congress to his cause.
And one thing that you say in your book: "He does, however, sometimes lack fire. Too often, in my view, the president relies on the logic of a law professor, rather than the passion of a leader."
If that is the case, does he have what it takes to rally this Congress to pass this authorization?
PANETTA: Oh, I don't -- I don't think there's any question that the president could get this done, but it's going to -- it's going to take a continuing commitment.
You know, look, you want to know what the biggest national security threat is to this country right now? It's the total dysfunction in Washington, the fact that so little can be done by the Congress. They can't even resolve the issue of homeland security. They can't deal with budgets. They can't deal with immigration reform. They can't deal with infrastructure. They can't deal with other issues.
If they wind up not being able to deal with this war authorization, that sends a terrible message to the world.
ACOSTA: And, as you know, the president is going to need a Pentagon that will carry out this policy. And you served as defense secretary.
And, as you know -- you have probably been watching this week -- a pretty smooth confirmation process for Ash Carter, who was confirmed as the next defense secretary. But you complained and I know your predecessor, Bob Gates, complained that the White House is sometimes too controlling when it comes to foreign policy.
The president might rather listen to his national security team inside the White House, rather than the view over at the Pentagon. What would be your advice to incoming Secretary Carter?
PANETTA: I think Ash Carter is going to be a great leader at the Pentagon.
He was my deputy when I was there. I have tremendous confidence in him. He's very bright, knows the Defense Department inside out, knows capabilities of the Defense Department. And I think the president would not have nominated him to be secretary of defense if he wasn't willing to listen to Ash Carter and the advice that he provides in the National Security Council.
I think the role of secretary of defense and, for that matter, the secretary of state, is to present your most honest views of your department to the president of the United States to make sure that he understands what the best guidance and the best recommendations are. In the end, it's the president who has to ultimately decide.
ACOSTA: And when we come back: Leon Panetta on that spat between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, plus what he expects for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
ACOSTA: Welcome back.
In part two of my interview with former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the conversation turned to the rift between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
PANETTA: I don't like the way this developed.
I don't know what was behind it. And I don't know how it all happened. But, you know, we need to have a strong relationship with Israel. They are -- they are an important ally in a very difficult part of the world.
I think we need to maintain a relationship of trust and confidence in each other. And I'm just afraid that what's going to happen here with, you know, what Netanyahu will do is to make this a partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans. And that -- that makes it a very dangerous trend in terms of the relationship.
ACOSTA: Should Democrats boycott that speech, do you think?
PANETTA: Look, I will leave that up to Democrats to decide what they should do.
But I really do think that, hopefully, they could find some way to be able to listen to Netanyahu's views without having it be used in this fashion, to kind of set up what is clearly a kind of partisan presentation. We need to get back to presidents and Congresses who can work together, together to try to confront the challenges we face.
PANETTA: Otherwise, it's going to damage this country for the future.
ACOSTA: And, as you know, another big issue that came up this week, this past week was Ukraine. You know, the Russians, the Ukrainians, the Germans and the
French all agreed to this cease-fire deal, but almost immediately after that cease-fire deal was announced, the State Department was complaining that the Russians were supplying anti-aircraft weaponry to those pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine.
I'm just curious, as former CIA director, former defense secretary, you might have some insights, I would think, into Vladimir Putin's mind. I don't know if you have a sense of his soul, but -- as President Bush once famously said -- but what do you think Vladimir Putin is after in the end here?
And I have got to ask the question here. Do you think he's playing with a full deck?
PANETTA: You know, look, he -- Vladimir Putin is not a mystery. We have seen him operate before.
The intelligence community has nailed down pretty well what Putin is all about. And Putin is all about Russia and expanding the influence of Russia. He's about dividing the East from the West. He's about doing everything he can to regain influence over the former states of the Soviet Union.
And he is somebody who will take advantage of other countries and weakness if he sees that. Frankly, we have got to take a tougher stand against him, because we're engaged now in a whole new chapter of the Cold War. And the only thing he understands is power.
ACOSTA: The president is not tough enough with Vladimir Putin?
PANETTA: Pardon me?
ACOSTA: The president has not been -- the president has not been tough enough with Vladimir Putin?
PANETTA: No, I think the West needs to be much tougher.
The West, combined with the United States, needs to be much tougher in drawing the line on Vladimir Putin. I think we ought to be providing military aid to the Ukrainians. I think we ought to be bolstering NATO. I think we ought to be doing everything we can to provide other energy supplies, so that Russia isn't the only country that provides energy to those countries in that part of the world.
I think we have got to take a number of steps here to make very clear to Putin that he cannot just simply use military power to be able to invade and take over another country.
ACOSTA: And that includes...
PANETTA: That simply cannot be allowed to happen.
ACOSTA: And that includes weapons to Ukraine?
PANETTA: Absolutely. ACOSTA: And, on Yemen, let me just ask you about this, because,
as you saw, the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa closed this past week, and -- as well as other foreign embassies.
The president, the Obama administration has held up Yemen as something of a success story in recent years. Is it still a success story, do you think?
PANETTA: No, I'm afraid Yemen has turned into another failed state in the Middle East.
You know, I mean, we have seen a number of failed states throughout the Middle East. The problem is, in Yemen, with the Houthis having taken over, supported by Iran, by the way, that what we have now is chaos.
And what it's doing is, it's giving al Qaeda a free hand to do what it wants to do in Yemen. And I have to tell you that, when you look at terrorist threats around the world, the one you have to worry about the most is al Qaeda in Yemen, AQAP, because they have the bomb- making capability, and they have the other capabilities to basically do what they have to do to attack this country.
They are -- they are a real danger. That's why we have operations there. That's why we're going after al Qaeda there. And, as a result of what's happened in Yemen, I think it's going to impact on our capability to defend ourselves.
ACOSTA: And I want to jump to politics, if we can, with the time that we have left.
As you know, Hillary Clinton is reportedly weighing a run for the presidency. You may have heard this in the news, Secretary Panetta.
PANETTA: Yes, I have.
ACOSTA: You worked in the...
You have worked in the Clinton White House, before working in the Obama White House. What do you make of this? It seems to be almost sort of an internal debate in the pre-Hillary Clinton campaign as to when they should launch this campaign. What's taking them so long?
PANETTA: Well, you know, I really don't know the ins and outs of what they're operating with and their plans.
I do know that she would make an outstanding candidate. I think she would be great for the Democrats in terms of running for president. And I'm sure that, at some point, that will happen. But, you know, we're a long way from the presidential election. And there's going to be a lot of puts and takes with a lot of candidates in the interim.
So I think, in the end, there's no question in my mind that she will be a nominee for the Democratic Party.
ACOSTA: You have been critical at times of President Obama. And I shouldn't let you go without raising something that's come up in recent weeks. As you probably saw, Valerie Jarrett made some comments recently where she almost took a swipe at you, I think, and maybe Bob Gates in saying -- she said -- quote -- "I would not serve in an administration and then be critical of that administration."
You are well-known in Washington, Secretary Panetta, as being a party loyalist. Do you regret some of the critical comments that you have made of President Obama?
I think -- look, I think, you know, in evaluating the president and in evaluating any president, you look at their strong points and you look at the mistakes that are made. And I think, you know, history is going to be the ultimate judge as to each president and what they have done for the country.
ACOSTA: Let me ask you this. Are you done with politics in government, Secretary Panetta? Is there any job that might bring you back to Washington? Maybe Hillary Clinton's running mate in 2016?
PANETTA: You know, I have -- I have mentioned this before. I have got -- I'm back on a walnut ranch that my father helped plant.
And, you know, I am glad to be back home working with a different set of nuts.
PANETTA: It's much more fun to be working back on the farm in Carmel Valley. So, that's where I'm going to stay for a while.
ACOSTA: A slightly different nut farm out there in California, I guess.
ACOSTA: All right.
Well, Secretary Leon Panetta, we really appreciate your time this morning. Thanks for joining us. Good talking to you, sir.
PANETTA: Thank you very much, Jim.
ACOSTA: And can the war against ISIS be won without American combat boots on the ground? A retired Navy SEAL now serving in Congress and the former House Intelligence Committee chairman are here next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
ACOSTA: Welcome back.
While many of President Obama's fellow Democrats see an endless war in the making, Republicans say the plan does not go far enough.
Joining me, Congressman Ryan Zinke, Republican from Montana, an Iraq War veteran and former commander at Navy SEAL Team Six, and Mike Rogers, CNN national security commentator and the former House Intelligence Committee chairman.
Mike let's start with you. The situation in Copenhagen is obviously unfolding but from what we understand, one man responsible for two shooting attacks yesterday. Your thoughts?
MIKE ROGERS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY COMMENTATOR: Well, they'll do the forensics to find out if they were tied to any ISIS recruiter or any aspirational encouragement.
Unfortunately with what you see with ISIS is they are looking for that aspirational encouragement everywhere Denmark, United States, Australia, Canada. And you're seeing people take action. So, the one place that they believe that can get credibility is any blasphemous talk about the prophet Muhammad is that's just (INAUDIBLE) for them in order to encourage these folks who might be on the edge of radicalization to bring them over because then it's more noble, if you will, in the eyes of those folks.
ACOSTA: And I want to go back to that interview that we just had with Leon Panetta, Congressman Zinke. He -- you just got to Congress. You're a retired Navy SEAL. And one of the things that Leon Panetta said is that the greatest national security threat to the United States is not is, not ISIS, is not al Qaeda, it's Washington.
What do you think so far?
REP. RYAN ZINKE (R), MONTANA: Three days in, a lot of what he says is truthful. We're too bureaucratic. We're polarized. And I think the authorization is probably, you know, a good look at that is, what does the authorization mean?
We're going to have hearings in Congress. I think the president was right to ask Congress, but at the end of the day, what does that mean?
I think Americans want the truth. When you embed troops in air operations alone is not going to degrade or destroy ISIS. You know that's clear. But when you embed special operations troops you're not going to sprinkle and it's not going to be over the rise. They're going to be up front. That means you have to make sure you have the right equipment, the right training, the right rules of engagement to win decisively on the field of battle. And you are not going to embed one or two folks special operations folks and selected units, that package will require medivac. What if our guys get injured? What if we need a quick reaction force? ACOSTA: Right.
ZINKE: So, the footprint is going to be larger than I think the administration can see.
ACOSTA: And Congressman, you've got an op ed in the "Washington Times." We'll put it up on the screen and it says, I look at President Obama's proposal and all I see is an outline of what our troops are not allowed to do. Congress should not be asked to put restrictions on the military. When the U.S. does go to war, we go to war to win. It is time the President stops listening to political pollsters and finally develop a plan to win."
I want to take this to Chairman Rogers here. Mike, you know, the president said last week that we don't want an endless war. And he tried to bake that into this authorization for use of military force. Does he have a point?
ROGERS: Well, first of all, this is a monumental failure of leadership. If you would have approached Congress before, met with members, I know this sounds crazy, met with members of both parties, you could have - you could have had a product that he asked for that would have passed in a week on Capitol Hill.
ACOSTA: Why didn't that happen?
ROGERS: This is, I think, the hallmark of this presidency.
He refuses to believe he needs to engage members of Congress of either party, and on something as serious as this. I mean, if you recall, I was calling last year for an AUMF back in August and September because if you're going to ask these men and women to go and serve in this pretty tough neighborhood, have you to give them all the full faith and confidence of the United States and American people.
He didn't do it then. He keeps putting it off. He keeps talking about the things he won't do. He did that last year. He's drawing it into this year.
This to me was the most frustrating thing to watch. We have a growing problem. Now you see ISIS nodes in Egypt. You see them in Libya. You see them in Afghanistan. You see them along the border area of Pakistan.
And what this is so frustrating is they're getting bigger. They're expanding their operations. They're looking for new safe havens. In the meantime, we're going to have hearings for a period of weeks to try to do something that he should have been working on for the last six months.
ACOSTA: But Mike, one thing that Democrats do say is that ISIS is laying a trap. What they do want is they want the United States and its coalition to invest a huge ground force presence in Iraq and potentially in Syria and get caught in another quagmire that lasts another 10 years. What about that? ROGERS: Well and this is the president's straw man argument. If
you're not what I'm for, you're for 100,000 troops, the 82nd Airborne Division marching on to Raqqa in Syria. No one is calling for that.
But the problem was we got into this semantic argument, and the congressman touched on that a moment ago, we believe that if you embed some soldiers -- now there is a footprint there but we got into this semantic political argument, what is a boot on the ground? Is it one? Is it 50? Is it 200? A ridiculous argument.
ACOSTA: And that is --
ROGERS: If you want to leverage up the ability for our friends and our allies, you need Special Forces capabilities and intelligence capabilities down range.
ACOSTA: And that is nebulous in this AUMF. We don't know what these ground forces potentially might be doing down the road. We have a light foot print now. All the president is trying to ban in this AUMF is in during combat operations. Leaves a lot of room in the middle. A lot of wiggle room.
Congressman, how are your fellow Republicans going to respond to this? Are they going to give the president the authorization he needs?
ZINKE: Well, he has the authorization now. And no doubt that he will have a robust capability. Because you can't fight war in a half punch, you know, fashion. And it will take ground troops. We're going to ask for a plan.
I think - I think our troops deserve that. The military, when we -- this is from a perspective of not only a commander, but a father. My daughter is a former Navy diver. My son-in-law is in active duty Navy SEAL. I've been to a lot of funerals. I know the consequences of war, but when you go to war you go to war to win decisively. And that means you make sure that our troops have what they need to win the battlefield.
ACOSTA: Is the president going to war to win right now?
ZINKE: No. In my - in my estimation not. You can't fight from a distance. It will take coalition.
And look, this is a battle as much between or within Islam as it is east and west. And what we have to do is separate the terrorist organizations within Islam from mainstream. And it will take resolve. It will take commitment. It will take coalition.
And I do agree with King Abdullah of Jordan that it is - it is an Islamic battle to fight, but we need to provide logistics, make sure the intelligence is correct. And if they use our air, which is critical, we have to make sure our guys on the ground are directing it in the right places. That means you need to embed Special Forces and other groups. And when you do that, you've got to protect them on the field of battle. We've seen what happens when they capture. And so I don't think
we ever want to have one of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marine in the same position as the Jordanian pilot.
ACOSTA: All right. Congressman Zinke, I have to leave it there. Chairman Mike Rogers, thanks very much for being with us this morning.
When we come back, all the president's media. What's behind the White House's end run around the traditional press?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The deadline for signing up -- the deadline for signing up for health insurance is February - febru (ph) -- that's not right.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA: Now we've seen everything, right? The presidential selfie stick in that parody video promoting the government's health care site.
The video was a "BuzzFeed" production co-starring a "BuzzFeed" film's actor. The news and entertainment website also scored an interview with the president. For the most part presidents often turn to the traditional news conference to get their messages out.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIO)
DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (ph), FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: First of all (INAUDIBLE) a country without -
JOHN F. KENNEDY, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: (INAUDIBLE) the issue of war and peace on a rumor or report.
LYNDON JOHNSON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We shall fight the battle against aggression in Vietnam.
RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Four out of five Central American countries now have Democratic governments.
BILL CLINTON: I did not have sexual relations with that woman.
OBAMA: Congress will pass some bills I cannot sign. I'm pretty sure I'll take some actions that some in Congress will not like.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA: But they have also used nontraditional media to connect with the public.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Sock it to
GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Number 7, make sure the White House library has lots of books with big print and pictures.
OBAMA: Seriously? What's it like for this to be the last time you ever talk to a president?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA: All right. Joining me now, Matthew Yglesias, executive editor at "Vox News," that's v-o-x. He interviewed President Obama this past couple of weeks. Ben LaBolt, the press secretary for the Obama 2012 campaign and John Stanton, Washington bureau chief at "BuzzFeed News."
John, I'm going to put you on the spot right away. How does that work, you wink and you stick the tongue out at the same time?
JOHN STANTON, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, BUZZFEED NEWS: The winkie emoji, yes.
ACOSTA: Just to show you how not hip I am. I have no idea what was. When I saw the president doing it I had to look it up.
STANTON: Yes. I'd ask. I'd ask about what it was. Like just making faces in the mirror. (INAUDIBLE).
ACOSTA: What was that all about?
STANTON: You know, I mean, I think -- I don't know a whole lot about how they come up with these crazy ideas for these videos. You know, it's something they do -
ACOSTA: You work there. Yes, right?
STANTON: Yes. You know, yes. I mean -- and -- but, you know, I think it's hilarious, right. It was funny and sort of showed the human side of the president. And people really liked it. So, I thought it was funny.
ACOSTA: And, Matthew, over at "Vox," you guys had this interview with the president and it was also sort of in a nontraditional format in that you took the interview, you guys went back, you edited it together, you added some new media flair to the presentation.
Why did you take that approach in your interview?
MATTHEW YGLESIAS, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, VOX: Well, we wanted to try to do something a little bit different. I think people have seen interviews with the president before. It's a great -- you know, it's an honor. It's like a big deal if you're a journalist doing one. But to the audience, it may get a little bit stale.
So, you know, we wanted to sort of produce something that looked different and that meant taking a slightly different approach in terms of the questions we ask so that our team had the time to go and kind of do the animations.
ACOSTA: And Ben, let me ask you this because - I mean, you know, the question that I'm going to ask which is - and you've heard this beef before from people like me before in the White House press corps. It feels like the White House more and more is using nontraditional outlets. Now, "BuzzFeed" does have a news operation and "Vox" is obviously a website that does a lot of great journalism as well, but it is sort of going around the folks in the briefing room, around the networks, around the newspapers to get the message out.
Why is that? Why is the White House doing this?
BEN LABOLT, FORMER PRESS SECRETARY, OBAMA 2012 CAMPAIGN: Well, the ultimate goal is to reach the American people. I'm not sure that there's one bully pulpit anymore when the president walks out into the briefing room, that no longer guarantees that he's going to reach his target audience. So, this week for example, February 15th there is a healthcare enrollment deadline. He is trying to reach younger people who are uninsured, to try to get them healthcare coverage. And the fact is 71 percent of people under the age of 30 get their news online as their primary source of information now. So, he had to go to nontraditional audiences to reach those folks.
ACOSTA: Is he trying to get away from not answering the hard questions? Is that what he's up to?
LABOLT: Well, just a few months ago he was criticized for doing "60 Minutes" too often.
I think if you watch these interviews, sure, there were some things that were different and some things that were a little bit fun. But it was a broad discussion of politics, domestic policy and foreign policy. We've just gotten past the time when it was three networks or so that had a monopoly on a national audience. The president and the White House worked to identify the audience he's trying to reach and then go to venues to meet the audience where they are.
ACOSTA: And John, obviously your editor, Ben Smith, asked some hard questions in that interview with the president but then, you know, a day later it comes out and we're seeing some YouTube video now of when the president sat down with YouTube.
But, you know, the next day you come out with this video that shows the president with the selfie stick and so forth. Does - I mean, does that kind of take away from the seriousness of, you know, the interview that you had with the president earlier this week?
STANTON: No, I don't think so. I think, look, you know, a, there are sort of two parts of the company that did it. So, it's not like Ben doing selfies taking pictures with the president. Which would be hilarious. (CROSSTALK)
ACOSTA: ...be wrong I'm sure. Yes.
STANTON: But you know, it's you know, it's a bit like saying, you know, that "ABC News" should be worried about marvel (ph) doing something with the president, right? No, I don't think that's a problem. But I also think that this is an issue that we in the media definitely talk a whole lot about and politicians talk a whole lot about. But I don't think news consumers have a problem with sort of chewing and walking - chewing gum and walking at the same time. I think they can see the difference between the two things and, you know, accept them for what they are. So --
ACOSTA: And Matthew, I mean, one thing that you heard obviously in the criticism that came after your interview with the president was that it was -- it was sort of a way to -- you were trying to explain his answers with the graphics and so forth in almost a supporting role is what some conservative commentators said after that interview.
What is your response to that?
YGLESIAS: Well, you know, I mean, it's not a surprise that conservatives don't love an interview with the president. They don't like the president. You know, they don't agree with what he's saying. I thought it was a good way to illustrate some of his points.
You know, when people are able to speak freely they sometimes speak a little bit imprecisely. I asked him a question about foreign aid. He said something like, well, it's one to two percent of the budget. We were able to show exactly what it is. It was, I think, 1.6 percent. I --
ACOSTA: There was part of the interview where he sort of misspoke and described the terror attack at the Paris deli as being random when obviously it wasn't random. There were anti-Semitic motivations there. And we tried to ask the White House press secretary about that, Josh Earnest, and he sort of fumbled the answer to that question as well.
So, in these interviews, and I'm a big believer and almost all presidential interviews make news no matter what the questions are because sometimes just letting the president speak he'll make news.
YGLESIAS: Yes. I mean, it's true. That was an interesting moment. You know, I don't think the president meant to deny there was an anti-Semitic motivation there. He had said it before. His administration had said it before.
YGLESIAS: But what he said in the interview was random. And then members of his staff I think sort of fumbled follow-up questions. It became, you know, a story for a day or two. I don't think from my point of view that was not like the most interesting thing...
YGLESIAS: ...that happened in that interview, but it goes to show, you know, whenever you get the president on camera something can happen.
ACOSTA: And Ben, I mean, I got -- I have to ask you this. What makes you cringe the most, the president sitting down with a "BuzzFeed" or a "Vox" or "60 Minutes" or CNN? Which is the one that has you bracing for impact the most?
LABOLT: Well, I think Matthew hit on a good point.
When you prepare for a Sunday show interview, when you prepare the president for that he spends hours in preparation thinking through everything he's said in the past and detail questions that could come in. Sometimes it's the interviews in a relaxed setting that are the most dangerous. It's a free flowing conversation. It's harder to predict the questions. Those are the sorts of times when it's easiest for the president or any elected official to go off message.
ACOSTA: OK. And I'll wrap this up here by taking a quick selfie of all of us here on set.
I don't know if I'll get us all in there but I'll try.
STANTON: You need a selfie stick.
ACOSTA: Yes. I need a selfie stick. I didn't bring my selfie stick.
All right. John Stanton, Matthew Yglesias, Ben LaBolt thanks for your time. We appreciate it.
Up next, real news, fake news and our own moment of Zen to ponder.
ACOSTA: Now for a moment of Zen.
This week Jon Stewart announced he was leaving as host of "The Daily Show" after 16 years. Over the past decade and a half Stewart became a master at skewering politics, (INAUDIBLE) and journalism.
Take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JON STEWART, THE DAILY SHOW HOST: Welcome to "The Daily Show."
Craig Kilborn is on assignment in Kuala Lumpur. I'm Jon Stewart.
To lead off coverage our industries in 2000 coverage the story that really just puts babies in wells every to shame.
BUSH: I was not elected to serve one party. STEWART (ph): You were not elected.
Do you like commuting to work, or do you like a home office? What's your --
HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: You know, I've spent so many years commuting, I kind of prefer a home office.
STEWART: All right. Do you have a favorite shape for that home office?
China is the new goal. Why do you there's so many Maoists hanging around the White House.
It's so ingenious. It almost doesn't make any sense.
Let me -
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: It's very unfair --
STEWART: What I'm saying is less supportive of them.
MCCAIN: What each of them were being they're fighting a war -
STEWART: Settle down for a second.
MCCAIN: No, you settle down.
STEWART: Is there a sense that you don't want this? Then you may look at the country and think, you know, when I thought I was going to get this, it was a relatively new car, now look at it.
Please welcome back to the program, President Barack Obama.
How many times a week does Biden show up in a wet bathing suit to a meeting? Just the ballpark figure.
OBAMA: I've got to say, though, he looks pretty good.
STEWART: Even though you may have heard certain things about the Koch brothers, how bad could they be? I mean, if they were evil, would a baby agree to appear in one of their advertisements?
I think I know why you're here. And let me deflate the tension right off the bat, apology accepted.
We will gather on the national mall in Washington, D.C. A clarion call for rationality. Here it is your moment of Zen.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Shut her down.
STEWART (ph): And you're saying shut the government down?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't want to shut the government down, I'm making a point.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA: Who was that reporter? On that last moment of Zen there?
All right. On a serious note, this week drudge report two headlines on broadcast news in America. The one about "NBC's" Brian Williams read, the end of real news. While the headline for Stewart said, the end of fake news. But then we learned about the death of Bob Simon, legendary "60 Minutes" correspondent who didn't fake the news or exploits in covering news.
I used to work for "CBS News," I looked up to Bob. Instead Bob just delivered the news. And although he is gone, in his passing, he reminds us all that the news, the pursuit of news, real news, is very much alive.
ACOSTA: Thanks for watching STATE OF THE UNION. I'm Jim Acosta.
Fareed Zakaria, starts right now.