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CNN BREAKING NEWS

White House Holding Reaction to Taylor's Announcement

Aired July 4, 2003 - 08:31   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Moments ago, we told you that Reuters News Service is reporting Liberia's President Charles Taylor has agreed to step down.
Our John King is standing by now at the White House for reaction on all of this -- John, good morning.

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Heidi.

We are trying to get some official reaction from the White House. Officials here, most are not here because it is a holiday, but those who are working say they are aware of this report, but that the White House itself does not have official confirmation as yet, or at least the aides we are talking to don't have official confirmation as yet.

There is a national security meeting going on as we speak. Secretary of State Powell among those on hand here at the White House early on this Independence Day holiday. So we will try to get more reaction as the day plays out.

Obviously, if this report from Reuters is accurate, and President Taylor has agreed to step down, that would begin the domino effect that would ultimately result in a U.S. peacekeeping force going into Liberia, perhaps even within a matter of days.

There are still key questions, though. Let us assume that President Charles Taylor will leave Liberia. What we do not know is is there a deal to give him immunity? He is under indictment for war crimes, facing trial from a United Nations court that sits in Sierra Leone. Does he have immunity? Which country has agreed to take him into exile? There was a proposal from Nigeria on the table. President Taylor had initially rejected that, but we do know the Nigerian foreign minister had continued his negotiations with the Liberian government, trying to bring that about.

But this would be the key development. President Bush did not want to send a U.S.-led peacekeeping force into a hostile situation and the White House believes so long as Charles Taylor is in power, the rebel groups would be reluctant to lay down their arms. And so the president did not want to put U.S. troops in the middle of a civil war. If President Taylor goes, and if his troops agree to lay down their arms, you would then have a cease-fire and the president said, we are told, about 1,000 U.S. troops to lead a several thousand large international peacekeeping force made up mostly of troops from Liberia's West African neighbors -- Heidi. COLLINS: John, is it safe to say, then, that this decision that the president has before him about sending in troops -- we're hearing 500 to 1,000 troops going into Liberia. That decision will be hastened.

KING: Well, the planning is under way. The troops, we are told, could be poised to go within a matter of days. This is interesting military diplomacy here. The president does not want to draw a specific link, a direct public link, saying that troops would only go if President Taylor leaves, because that would give President Taylor so much leverage and the negotiations. But it is crystal clear that the president very much wants President Taylor to leave. That is why the president has publicly called on him to leave. You've had private diplomacy, as well.

The key situation there is the president simply does not want to send a relatively modest amount of U.S. troops into a peacekeeping role that turns into a civil war. You do not want to insert U.S. troops and have them in the middle of the fighting.

So from the White House perspective, get President Taylor out, bring about a brief period of calm, get a transitional government, with the help of West African neighbors and the United Nations, up and running, and then send in the troops. And we are told when U.S. troops do go in, their deployment would be a finite deployment of three, perhaps four months -- Heidi.

COLLINS: Very good.

Senior White House correspondent John King, thanks so much, from Washington this morning.

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