On Today: Matt Lauer and Andrea Mitchell Push For Assault Weapons Ban

NBC's Matt Lauer and Andrea Mitchell, on Thursday's "Today" show, pressed their guests (Lauer with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Mitchell with Mexican President Felipe Calderon) about reinstituting the assault weapons ban. First up, Mitchell – who pushed Hillary Clinton last month to bring back the ban -- offered Calderon an open to blame Mexican drug cartel violence on guns imported from the U.S.:

ANDREA MITCHELL: President Obama will not deliver long-promised Blackhawk helicopters, nor a ban on assault weapons smuggled south. He campaigned as a candidate against the assault weapons. Now that he's in office, he's had to back off.

FELIPE CALDERON: But most of the weapons, almost 16,000 are assault weapons and 90 percent of those were sold in United States.

Then Lauer, in his segment with Napolitano, repeated Calderon's inaccurate line that 90 percent of drug cartel weapons came from the U.S.:

MATT LAUER: You know President Calderon wants a reinstatement of the assault weapons ban that was, that expired during the Bush administration. When you look at the numbers, that 90 percent of the 12,000 weapons Mexican officials recovered from these drug cartels in the last year or so were made and sold in the United States, and many of those, as we just heard from President Calderon, are assault weapons, how can President Obama, who ran on an issue against assault weapons, how can he not deliver on that?

JANET NAPOLITANO: Well, let me, let me just say this. First of all, we can't wait for whatever happens in the Congress on something as clearly controversial as an assault weapons ban reinstatement to take on these drug cartels.

But all was not bad in the Lauer segment as he did question Napolitano on the Homeland Security's "right wing extremists," report:

LAUER: In the last several days the Department of Homeland Security released a report warning, among other things, that right wing extremists could use the bad economy and the election of the country's first black president to recruit domestic terrorists to carry out attacks against the homeland. It said that veterans might be attractive recruits because of their experience in combat skills. But, and this is a big "but," no specifics, no plots currently under investigation were mentioned in this. Why not and why release the report without specifics?

NAPOLITANO: Well, these are, these are not intended to be specifics case-by-case. These are intelligence assessments. They are for situational awareness for law enforcement. Indeed, as the, the VFW said yesterday, this is an assessment, not an accusation. And I really do want to stress to the veterans out there watching this today, that report did not, and, and we do not mean to suggest that, veterans as a whole are at risk of becoming violent extremists. However in terms of situational awareness-

LAUER: Well you're saying that because as you know there's been-

NAPOLITANO: -it's just a factor.

LAUER: There's been an uproar over this. Conservatives have said that this is offensive, a blatant propaganda effort designed to characterize conservatives as racist, anti-American, dangerous extremists. And John Boehner in Congress said to characterize men and women returning home after defending our country as potential terrorists is offensive and unacceptable.

The following is a complete transcript of the Mitchell set-up piece and Lauer interview with Napolitano as they were aired on the April 16, "Today" show:

MATT LAUER: President Obama heads to Mexico today, a nation dealing with a wave of recent drug violence and he'll meet there with Mexican President Felipe Calderon. NBC's chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell is in Mexico City this morning. Andrea, good morning to you.

[On screen headline: "Obama Off To Mexico, Challenges South Of The Border"]

ANDREA MITCHELL: Good morning, Matt. Well President Obama will be the first American president to come to Mexico City in 12 years because it is so dangerous. That is exactly the signal of solidarity that he wants to send to Mexico's President Calderon for taking on the drug cartels. And it's part of a larger Obama strategy to remake U.S. relations with Latin America. Before arriving here, the President's Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano introduced a new border czar for immigration and drug control, Alan Bersin, who had a similar role in the Clinton White House. And he pointed to more seizures of drugs and firearms and detention of illegal immigrants. And the administration designated three Mexican cartels as drug kingpins to tighten the financial noose around their organizations. Mexico is also pointing to small victories. More arrests, including a woman with a 50-caliber anti-aircraft machine gun but corruption is rampant. Are you losing the war on drugs?

FELIPE CALDERON: Absolutely not.

MITCHELL: Mexico's President Felipe Calderon told me when he meets with President Obama today, he will tell him the U.S. still has to do more.

CALDERON: You in United States, you have a lot of traffic of drugs, you have a lot of distribution of drugs, you have a lot of corruption as well.

MITCHELL: President Obama will not deliver long-promised Blackhawk helicopters, nor a ban on assault weapons smuggled south. He campaigned as a candidate against the assault weapons. Now that he's in office, he's had to back off.

CALDERON: But most of the weapons, almost 16,000 are assault weapons and 90 percent of those were sold in United States.

MITCHELL: 10,000 people have died since Mexico's president declared war on the gangs two years ago. There is a price on your head. This is a very risky business. Do you fear for your own life?

CALDERON: I'm not thinking about the risk associated with this privilege.

MITCHELL: After Mexico, President Obama heads to a two-day Latin American summit in Trinidad and Tobago to discuss the economy, the environment and hear an earful of criticism about U.S. policy toward Cuba. Although Mr. Obama loosened travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans this week, he did not propose lifting the 50-year U.S. ban on most travel and trade to the island. On that, Mexico is willing to be a go-between.

CALDERON: Mexico has the willingness to help the United States and Cuba to, to build new bridges of understanding.

MITCHELL: But overriding everything else on this trip, the U.S. recession which is now dragging down Latin American economies, and of course the drug war that has so inflamed the U.S.-Mexican border. Matt?

MATT LAUER: Alright Andrea, thank you very much. Andrea Mitchell in Mexico City this morning. Janet Napolitano, the Secretary of Homeland Security is also in Mexico City. Madam Secretary, nice to see you. Good morning.

JANET NAPOLITANO: Good morning.

LAUER: So even as President Obama is heading to Mexico to show support for President Calderon, President Calderon is pointing the finger at us here in the United States saying we've got to clean up our act if he has any chance of solving his problem. Do you agree with that?

NAPOLITANO: Well, what I think is that both countries have work to do to solve this problem. We can work on our own demand for drugs, as Secretary of State Clinton said, but also on the flow of guns and cash going south across our, our border into Mexico that are fueling these cartels. Mexico needs to work on its own law enforcement capacity and taking on these cartels right in their homeland.

LAUER: You know President Calderon wants a reinstatement of the assault weapons ban that was, that expired during the Bush administration. When you look at the numbers, that 90 percent of the 12,000 weapons Mexican officials recovered from these drug cartels in the last year or so were made and sold in the United States, and many of those, as we just heard from President Calderon, are assault weapons, how can President Obama, who ran on an issue against assault weapons, how can he not deliver on that?

NAPOLITANO: Well, let me, let me just say this. First of all, we can't wait for whatever happens in the Congress on something as clearly controversial as an assault weapons ban reinstatement to take on these drug cartels. This is a problem that's very urgent, it is right now. With 6,000-plus homicides in the northern states of Mexico last year, 500-plus of those were assassinations of law enforcement, public officials. And [what] we want to do is several things. One is help Mexico reduce that violence in its own homeland but also make sure we don't have significant spillover violence into the United States.

LAUER: Let me move on to another subject, Madam Secretary, if I can. In the last several days the Department of Homeland Security released a report warning, among other things, that right wing extremists could use the bad economy and the election of the country's first black president to recruit domestic terrorists to carry out attacks against the homeland. It said that veterans might be attractive recruits because of their experience in combat skills. But, and this is a big "but," no specifics, no plots currently under investigation were mentioned in this. Why not and why release the report without specifics?

NAPOLITANO: Well, these are, these are not intended to be specifics case-by-case. These are intelligence assessments. They are for situational awareness for law enforcement. Indeed, as the, the VFW said yesterday, this is an assessment, not an accusation. And I really do want to stress to the veterans out there watching this today, that report did not, and, and we do not mean to suggest that, veterans as a whole are at risk of becoming violent extremists. However in terms of situational awareness-

LAUER: Well you're saying that because as you know there's been-

NAPOLITANO: -it's just a factor.

LAUER: There's been an uproar over this. Conservatives have said that this is offensive, a blatant propaganda effort designed to characterize conservatives as racist, anti-American, dangerous extremists. And John Boehner in Congress said to characterize men and women returning home after defending our country as potential terrorists is offensive and unacceptable.

NAPOLITANO: Well, you know, he wants to make some political hay. But here let, let's focus on what this is. It is an assessment of a situation where you have a down economy. Other factors that go on that historically have given rise to violence. Now, we have a responsibility, we fight issues or try to protect against violence all the time. This was an assessment of things just to be wary of. Not to infringe on constitutional rights, certainly not to malign our veterans. In fact, our department has a huge number of veterans and, and we also have a branch of the military service ourselves, the Coast Guard, as part of our department. So I think what has happened is taking a few words, there has been a lot of spitting out there in Washington, D.C. land. But all we're trying to say across is look, there is situational awareness that needs to go on.

LAUER: Right.

NAPOLITANO: These are routine reports. In fact, this one was begun months ago in fact in preparation before this new administration took office. So these are just routine reports that go out.

LAUER: Okay.

NAPOLITANO: This one just happened to hit the Washington media stream.

LAUER: Madam Secretary, I appreciate your time this morning. Good luck in Mexico City.

NAPOLITANO: Thank you so much.

Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center.