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Transcript of Bob Costas’ Interview with President Barack Obama

NBC Olympics Primetime and Late Night Host Bob Costas, a 25-time Emmy Award-winning journalist, interviewed President Barack Obama on Thursday, Feb. 6, via satellite. Costas conducted the interview from NBC Olympics’ studio in Sochi, Russia, site of the XXII Olympic Winter Games, while the President was in The White House.

Following is a transcript:

BOB COSTAS: Welcome back to the International Broadcast Center in Sochi. I am joined now by President Barack Obama from the White House – there are, of course, any number of questions that can be asked of any sitting U.S. President, but tonight we will confine our conversation with President Obama to topics pertaining to these Olympics.

First of all, thank you, Mr. President, for being with us tonight, and our first question is this: neither you nor the Vice President, the First Lady, nor any high ranking member of your cabinet will be in Sochi for these Olympics. Why not?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to go to the Olympics since I’ve been President. There are a lot of things going on – even when it was as close as Vancouver, I didn’t attend. And the Vice President and the First Lady obviously they have got pretty busy schedules themselves. But we are sending a wonderful delegation headed up by Brian Boitano. Billie Jean King unfortunately has a family illness that she has got to attend to. But Janet Napolitano, former secretary of Department of Homeland Security. So we’ve got some wonderful Americans representing us and, the truth is, Bob, that the folks that the people are actually interested in seeing at the Olympics are incredible athletes. We will be fielding the largest team ever, and I am very confident that they are going to be bringing home some gold.

BOB COSTAS: As you said, Billie Jean King, a recognizable and outspoken figure, would have been there had she not been forced to withdraw at the last minute because of her mother’s illness, but you are sending openly gay athletes like Caitlin Cahow and Brian Boitano as part of the delegation. It’s hard to miss the message that’s being sent there.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, there is no doubt that we wanted to make very clear that we do not abide by discrimination in any forms, including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and one of the wonderful things about the Olympics is that you are judged by your merit. How good you are regardless of where you come from, what you look like, who you love, and that I think is consistent with the spirit of the Olympics. It is certainly consistent with American values, and we want to make sure that people understand that.

BOB COSTAS: Well, not calling out any specific leader or nation by name, the new head of the IOC, Thomas Bach, was bluntly critical of world leaders who have distanced themselves from these Games. The way he put it was, they are politicizing the Olympics on the backs of the athletes. Do you have a response to that?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Actually, I don’t because I didn’t see the quote, and I didn’t see the context of it. I think that all of us find the Olympics to be one of these singular events that brings the world together and captivates us all. My suspicion is that now that the actual competition is taking place, a lot of this stuff will take a back seat to the excitement of luge and bobsled, skiing and all the incredible athletes that are on display. I don’t think that it is inappropriate; however, for us to make sure that in any international venue like this, we’re upholding the values that we hold most dear. One of those values is making sure that everybody is treated fairly and with dignity and with respect. They are judged on the basis of their character and their accomplishments and not their status. And I make no apologies for being very clear about delivering that message, not just in the Olympics, but in any venue in which Americans are being represented.

BOB COSTAS: The U.S. and Russia obviously have their differences, but right now, there is at least one area where those interests coincide. How satisfied are you about the level of cooperation between Russian and American intelligence and security forces when it comes to trying to keep these Games safe?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I think the Russians have enormous stake, obviously, in preventing any kind of terrorist act or violence at these venues. They have put a lot of resources into it. We’re in constant communications with them, both at the law enforcement level, at the military level, at the intelligence levels, and it’s not untypical of every Olympics, whether it’s in Canada or China or anyplace else. We are consistently working with them to make sure that not only our athletes are safe, but everyone who’s attending these Games are safe.

For those people who are in attendance, my recommendation, what I’ve said in the past is just be mindful. And that’s true, by the way, if there’s a big international event inside the United States. Exercise common sense, check with the State Department on their website where they can give you advice about how to make sure that you are paying attention when you are in these events. In fact, we have gotten strong cooperation from Russia. We expect that that will continue through the duration of the Games. They have got, obviously, an enormous investment in making sure that these Olympics are successful.

BOB COSTAS: You came into office promising to reset America’s relationship with Russia, and, if anything, it seems to have deteriorated, and it also seems that if anyone is doing the resetting it is President Putin. Syria, Iran, asylum for Edward Snowden, laws prohibiting U.S. couples from adopting Russian orphans. How well do you think you will work with President Putin going forward? How effective will it be?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, first of all, Bob, that was sort of a selective list because in my first term we were able to reduce nuclear stock piles in both countries, and we were able to make sure Russia’s ascension into the WTO took place, so that they were abided by international norms and rules on trade that provided opportunities on U.S. businesses. We were able to cooperate on Libya and making sure Gaddafi wasn’t slaughtering many of his own people. So, there have been ups and downs in the relationship during the course of these five years.

I think there is always going to be a balance where the areas of mutual interest, where we work together, we cooperate. It is a constructive, respectful relationship when I interact with Mr. Putin. There will be times where we have real differences. We tend to have pretty blunt conversations. The one thing I will give Mr. Putin credit for is, that when we sit down and talk, there is not a lot of beating around the bush or niceties. I think it’s all business, and I tell him where I strongly disagree with him and he does the same.

BOB COSTAS: You just answered my following question, at least in part, but most people perceive your relationship with the Russian President, this might be the right adjective, this being the Winter Olympics, they perceive it as being icy. How would you characterize your relationship with President Putin?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I wouldn’t call it icy. The truth of the matter is that when we are in meetings there is a lot of exchanges, there’s a surprising amount of humor and a lot of give and take. He’s always treated me with the utmost respect. I think he recognizes the importance to Russia of working with the United States on areas of mutual concern. He does have a public style where he likes to sit back and look a little bored during the course of joint interviews. I think that’s where some of these perceptions come up. My sense is that’s part of his shtick back home politically, as wanting to look like the tough guy. U.S. politicians have a different style. We tend to smile once in a while.

BOB COSTAS: We appreciate the time you have given us, Mr. President – so one last question: do you have a message for the United States team as they approach tonight’s Opening Ceremony and the competition following?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, we couldn’t be prouder of them. I’ve had the chance now to meet a lot of Olympic athletes, including those that were so successful in Vancouver. One observation, when they came to the White House, Michelle and I shook hands and met with all of them and they all look really healthy. They are wonderful and spirited and they just make us proud, and so as President, I am honestly rooting for some of the older folks. I don’t know if Shaun White or Shani Davis want to be called old, but at least in Olympic years these are folks who are repeaters and are going for medals again.

What’s wonderful about Olympics is also to see these young kids –18, 19–suddenly surface on the world stage and perform under incredible pressures. So, I think the main message is: good luck. We are all proud of you. Everybody back home is rooting for you. We are confident you are going to do well, and I can’t wait to have you guys visit The White House after bringing home some golds as well as some silver and bronze. But more than anything, what I know is that you will represent what’s best in our country. We are really, really proud of all the work you have put in to get to this pinnacle of your sport, of your discipline.

BOB COSTAS: There you go, Mr. President, good to talk to you again; thank you for your time.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you so much, Bob. GO U.S.A!