Full Transcript: George Stephanopoulos and Mitt Romney

Martin H. Simon/ABC

The following is a full transcript of my interview with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Governor, thank you for doing this.

MITT ROMNEY: Thank you, George.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Boy, there has been quite a controversy in the last couple of days, since those killings in Libya, the chaos in the Middle East. And we heard some of that at your event today. President Obama has stepped in as well. He said your comments on Tuesday night displayed a tendency of yours to "shoot first and aim later." What's your response?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, early on, with the developments in Egypt, the embassy there put out a statement which stayed up on their website for, I think, 14-15 hours.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But before the protestors had breached the wall.

MITT ROMNEY: Well, it first went up before they breached the wall. But it stayed up. And they reiterated the statement after they breached the wall, even after some of the tragedy in Libya, the statement stayed up. And I thought the statement was inappropriate and pointed that out. And of course, the White House also thought it was inappropriate. But of course, now our attention is focused on the loss of life and the tragedy of having a remarkable ambassador and diplomatic members, have their lives taken. This is a great sadness and tragedy for America.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You said the statement showed a tendency to sympathize with those who waged the attacks. And what the statement seems to be is condemning the continuing efforts of individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims. Where do they show sympathy for those who waged the attacks? It was done before the attacks happened.

MITT ROMNEY: Well, the statement as I indicated stayed on the website for some 14-15 hours. The statement was reiterated after they had breached the sovereignty of the embassy.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Coupled with a condemnation-

MITT ROMNEY: Even- and even-

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: -of the attacks, though.

MITT ROMNEY: And even after the killing in Libya. And by the way what I said was exactly the same conclusion the White House reached, which was that the statement was inappropriate. That's why they backed away from it as well.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: They didn't say that it was showing sympathy for the attackers.

MITT ROMNEY: Well, I think the statement was an inappropriate statement. I think it was not directly applicable and appropriate for the setting. I think it should have been taken down. And apparently the White House felt the same way.


MITT ROMNEY: Well, I indicated, at the time, and continue to that what was said at that time was not appropriate, that they continued to have that. They reiterated the statement after the then breaching of the grounds. And I think that was wrong. And by the way my statement was the same point, which was that the White House said they distanced themself from the statement. I also thought it was an inappropriate statement. I made the statement- my point at the same time, I think, the White House did. So I think we said about the same thing there. I just thought the statement was wrong.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And so- and no direct response then, when the president says you shoot first and aim later?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, this is politics. I'm not going to worry about the campaign.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How about the film that seems to have sparked all this, the Innocence of Muslims film? Secretary Clinton today said she thought it was disgusting. How would you describe it?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, I haven't seen the film. I don't intend to see it. I you know, I think it's dispiriting sometimes to see some of the awful things people say. And the idea of using something that some people consider sacred and then parading that out a negative way is simply inappropriate and wrong. And I wish people wouldn't do it. Of course, we have a First Amendment. And under the First Amendment, people are allowed to do what they feel they want to do. They have the right to do that, but it's not right to do things that are of the nature of what was done by, apparently this film.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: We've seen General Martin Dempsey call Pastor Jones to say, "Please don't promote this film." You think that's a good idea?

MITT ROMNEY: I think the whole film is a terrible idea. I think him making it, promoting it showing it is disrespectful to people of other faiths. I don't think that should happen. I think people should have the common courtesy and judgment- the good judgment- not to be- not to offend other peoples' faiths. It's a very bad thing, I think, this guy's doing.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How about on a broader policy in the Middle East? The president said last night that Egypt is not an ally. Do you agree? And what would you do about it?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, that's obviously not a reflection of our official policy. American official policy is that Egypt is an ally of the United States. Of course, we recognize that Egypt has gone through a dramatic change in government. And what their status will be going forward in terms of the relationship with our nation is something which which I'm sure will be developing over time.


MITT ROMNEY: That being said, I would like to bring Egypt closer to us. I think it's important for them to understand that it's an advantage to have a close relationship with the United States, to be an ally of the United States. And for that to continue, Egypt must honor their agreement with Israel, for peace with Israel. Egypt must also respect the rights of minorities in their nation. And Egypt must also protect the lives and sovereignty of our embassy and of our installations in Egypt. This is- these elements are all essential for us to have the kind of-


MITT ROMNEY: -relationship we've had.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: -you believe they- excuse me. Right now, you believe they are an ally?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, right now, officially, Egypt is an ally of the United States, under the policy of the United States. The president's saying they are not may reflect the fact that there's been a change in government and a change in relationship as a result of that. But they are today, officially, an ally of the United States.

And George, this nation has a population of 80 million people. This is the heart of the Arab world. It's important for us to establish relationships with the people there, with the government there, to draw them into a sphere of influence such that they- they're a peaceable nation, that they encourage peace in the region.

Our relationship with Egypt is very, very important. And I would want them to remain an ally. I don't want to see that official status change. And I hope the president takes the steps for that to occur. And if I were president, I would do virtually everything in my power to make sure they understand what the requirements are to remain an ally of the United States, and to help them understand how important it is for them to be an ally of ours-


MITT ROMNEY: -and the West.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's talk about Iran. You've been quite critical of the president's policy. Also Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel has suggested he wants more clear red lines from the United States. What is your red line with Iran?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, my red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon. It is inappropriate for them to have the capacity to terrorize the world. Iran with a nuclear weapon or with fissile material that can be given to Hezbollah or Hamas or others has the potential of not just destabilizing the Middle East. But it could be brought here. Hezbollah, which has presence in Latin America can be bring fissile material and threaten the United States by perhaps bringing it into the United States and suggesting they'd detonate it if we didn't do certain things. Look, Iran as a nuclear nation is unacceptable to the United States of America.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: President Obama said exactly the same thing. He said it's unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon. So your red line is the same as his.

MITT ROMNEY: Yeah, and I laid out what I would do to keep Iran from reaching that red line. I spoke some years ago in Israel at the Herzliya Conference and laid out seven steps to keep Iran from becoming nuclear. They have not been taken, until one, more recently. I said that crippling sanctions needed to be put in place immediately. This was a long time ago, several- five years ago, I believe. Crippling sanctions such that their economy would be on its knees, at this point.

That combined with standing up with Iranian dissidents, the president was silent, when dissidents took to the streets in Tehran. I would have spoken out in favor of representative government and against the Ahmadinejad regime. The president was silent. In addition, I think Ahmadinejad should have been indicted under the genocide conviction for incitation to genocide.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But your red line going forward is the same?

MITT ROMNEY: Yes. And recognize that when one says that it's unacceptable to the United States of America that that means what it says. You'll take any action necessary to prevent that development, which is Iran becoming nuclear.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's talk some politics right now. You've got some allies of yours who are a little worried about the campaign. George Will on my program on Sunday says looks at the economic environment you've talked about and says, "If the Republican Party cannot win in this environment, it has to get out of politics and find another business." Laura Ingraham, "If you can't beat Barack Obama with this record, then shut down the party, shut it down." What do you say to the hand wringers?

MITT ROMNEY: (LAUGH) Well you know, beating an incumbent is never easy. The president exudes an air of likability and friendliness, which is endearing. But at the same time, I think people recognize that he has not done the job they expected him to do and that he promised he would do.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But you're falling-


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: -further behind. Why aren't you doing better?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, I'm doing well. I'm virtually tied in the polls, some days up, some days down a point or two. We're doing well in swing states. And this is a campaign which I think will come into focus as the debates occur. The president got a bit of a bump after his convention. I got a bit of a bump after ours. It's going to go back and forth.

Look, the nation is pretty evenly divided. And it ultimately is the outcome is decided by the people in the middle. They're taking a close look. A lot of them won't make their mind up until the very, very last moment. And I believe that as they look at who they believe can get this economy strong again and create jobs again and rising wages and take home pay for middle-income families, they're going to say, I've got the best prospects for doing that. And I'll get their nod.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But right now, you're behind here in Virginia. I've seen polls that show that. Behind in Ohio. Can you get the 270 electoral votes without those two states?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, I'm ahead in a lot of other states, too. I saw one this morning, ahead in Florida, ahead in North Carolina. Gosh, we're even tied in Wisconsin. These polls are going to bounce around a lot. I don't pay a lot of attention day to day to which state's up and which one's down. But I believe that when the final decisions are being made by the American people, they're going to ask themselves, "Who do I have confidence in to keep America safe? And who do I believe can can get our economy doing what it needs to do?" Which is creating jobs for our kids and for the- what the- the 23 million people that are unemployed today.

More than poll numbers, the numbers 23 and 47 and 16 come to mind. 23 million Americans out of work or underemployed. 47 million people on food stamps. $16 trillion in debt. And now the Federal Reserve, it says, "Look, this economy is not going well. They're going to QE3. They're going to print more money." Look, what-

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you support that?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, what Bernanke's doing is saying that what the president's saying is wrong. The president's saying the economy's making progress, coming back. Bernanke's saying, "No, it's not. I've got to print more money." I don't think what Bernanke is doing is going to get the economy going. I think we have to have a leadership in Washington that encourages the private sector. I think printing more money, at this point, comes at a higher cost than the-


MITT ROMNEY: - benefit it's going to create.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: -you wouldn't reappoint him if you won?

MITT ROMNEY: I would like to appoint someone that I had selected. And I would look for someone other than the current incumbent.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me ask you also, you know, you talked about these voters who are still looking. And we had a poll coming out this week that says, "By a two to one margin, voters want to see more detail from you, on your policies," 63 percent of voters. Are they going to get that? Are you prepared to come out with a more specific, more detailed platform?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, actually, as you know, I published a book. I think it's about 150 pages-


MITT ROMNEY: -with 59 steps as to what it takes to get this economy going.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But that's not breaking through.

MITT ROMNEY: Well, people aren't going to sit down and read a book. And so that means that in the speeches I give over the coming weeks I need to lay out some of the principles that were described in that book. And I will in more detail. And I think in the debates, as well, we'll get asked questions of some substance. And I'll be able to describe in the kind of complete way that I think people would hope to hear.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You know Democrats are going to be wanting to get much more detail from you on how you're going to pay for your tax cuts. We've heard that at the Democratic Convention. President Clinton said your math doesn't work. I know you dispute what President Clinton said and what the Democrats that say that you're going to have a $2,000 tax hike on middleclass families. I know you dispute that. You cite your own studies. But one of the studies you cite by Martin Feldstein at Harvard shows that to make your math work, it could work, if you eliminate the home mortgage, charity, and state and local tax deductions for everyone earning over $100,000. Is that what you propose?

MITT ROMNEY: No, that's not what I propose. And, of course, part of my plan is to stimulate economic growth. The biggest source of getting the country to a balanced budget is not by raising taxes or by cutting spending. It's by encouraging the growth of the economy. So my tax plan is to encourage investment in growth in America, more jobs, that means more people paying taxes. So that's a big component of what allows us to get to a balanced budget.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But his study, which you've cited, says it can only work if you take away those deductions for everyone earning more than $100,000.

MITT ROMNEY: Well, it doesn't necessarily show the same growth that we're anticipating. And I haven't seen his precise study. But I can tell you that we can lower our rates-

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, you cited the study, though.

MITT ROMNEY: Well, I said that there are five different studies that point out that we can get to a balanced budget without raising taxes on middle income people. Let me tell you, George, the fundamentals of my tax policy are these. Number one, reduce tax burdens on middle-income people. So no one can say my plan is going to raise taxes on middle-income people, because principle number one is keep the burden down on middle-income taxpayers.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Is $100,000 middle income?

MITT ROMNEY: No, middle income is $200,000 to $250,000 and less. So number one, don't reduce- or excuse me, don't raise taxes on middle-income people, lower them. Number two, don't reduce the share of taxes paid by the wealthiest. The top 5% will still pay the same share of taxes they pay today. That's principle one, principle two. Principle three is create incentives for growth, make it easier for businesses to start and to add jobs. And finally, simplify the code, make it easier for people to pay their taxes than the way they have to now.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But you and Congressman Ryan, you're going to hold the line. You're not going to put out any more detail on what kind of deductions you're willing or loopholes you're willing to close in order to pay for these tax cuts?

MITT ROMNEY: You know, I had chance of being a governor and fighting for things I believe in as a governor. And I've found that you have to work with the people across the aisle. My legislature was 87 percent Democrat. So if I'd have come out and said, "Here this is my bill. This is the way I want it," you'd never get it done.

You lay out your principles. Those are my principles, don't raise taxes on middle-income people, make sure the high-income people pay the same share they're paying today, encourage growth by bringing down rates, and finally simplify the code. Those are my principles. I'll stick with them. And I believe that's going to help get the economy going and grow jobs.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You mentioned President Obama's likability. We had a poll question this week asking, "Who would you rather have dinner with?" Right now President Obama is beating you by about 19 points on that. So try and convince people that they're wrong. Bring us inside. What would dinner be like at the Romney home.

MITT ROMNEY: (LAUGH) It'd be chaotic, all right? You'd have grandkids climbing all over you. Probably some food would be thrown from one side of the table to the other by one of my grandkids. It'd be a lot of fun. By the way, that's my favorite dinner in the world is with my kids and my daughters in law and with my grandkids.

So I can't tell people who would have more fun at whose table. But I can tell you the president's a person that a lot of people like. I don't dislike him myself and wish him the very best. But I think the American people are looking for someone who has the capacity to help them get good jobs and more take-home pay. And I do.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's talk about the debates. They're coming up, first one on October 3rd. Big moment, right? Make or break?

MITT ROMNEY: It may well be a decisive point in the in the campaign to have three debates and also the vice presidential debate. You know, you don't know- sometimes there's something big that happens and they become deciding. Other times, it's like, well, nothing really changed. We're in the same spot we were before the debates. I can't predict what'll happen. But I think it'll be revealing one way or the other.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You've been working hard at them, I know. And I've been inside a lot of debate prep rooms. And in my experience, the candidate always gets crushed in the first couple of practice debates. Is that what's happened to you?

MITT ROMNEY: I'm not revealing those kind of secrets. But I will never debate Rob Portman again. (LAUGH)

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But he's pretty good, right?

MITT ROMNEY: He's very good. Yeah, he's very good.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And what have you learned as you studied all this about President Obama as a debater? What are you looking for?

MITT ROMNEY: Well I think he's going to say a lot of things that aren't accurate. And you know, I'd be tempted to go back to that wonderful line by Ronald Reagan, "There you go again." But you can't use something that-

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Bill Clinton used that about you the other day at the Democratic Convention.

MITT ROMNEY: I didn't happen to see that. But you know, I doubt we're going to pull out something from Ronald Reagan. He's one of a kind. But I think the challenge that I'll have in the debate is that the president tends to, how shall I say it, to say things that aren't true. And in attacking his opponents. I've looked at prior debates. And in that kind of case, it's difficult to say, "Well, am I going to spend my time correcting things that aren't quite accurate? Or am I going to spend my time talking about the things I want to talk about?" And that's the challenge you always-


MITT ROMNEY: Well, it's a challenge you always have. And that's a judgment you make.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I remember talking to Newt Gingrich during the debates, your Republican primary debates. He would say when he was up on the stage, he would take his debate direction from his grandkids. Do you have any rituals that you use to get ready? Any cues you play off of?

MITT ROMNEY: Well, Ann always gives me the advice as I get ready to go up on the stage and offers a few words of encouragement. And I look to her when I'm in the debate. I look and see her. Typically, her eyes are down. (She's) more nervous in the debates than I am. She says, "I wish I could debate instead." She said, "I wouldn't be as nervous." But I look to her. And when she's smiling and confident, that gives me the boost I need.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But even though you're behind today, you're confident you're going to win on election day?

MITT ROMNEY: Oh, absolutely. And you say I'm behind today. These polls are all within the margin of error. And we're making progress. I'm going up against someone who's been in office for four years and whose record, as you pointed out from the beginning is really pretty bad. And the more people think about where they are and ask, "Do we want four more years like the last four years?" I think people come to the conclusion, no, they want real change. That's what I represent.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Governor Romney, thanks very much.

MITT ROMNEY: Thanks, George

Walk Through Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, Vienna, VA

GS: You know we ask a lot of viewers for questions as well. One of them came in, people are looking ahead assuming a victory from you and wondering what kind of person you are looking for, particularly for Secretary of State.

Romney: Well, you want a person of judgment and wisdom. Obviously you want someone who has experience in foreign policy and has traveled other nations and hopefully has worked with leaders of other nations and has their respect and admiration.

GS: Has anyone caught your eye?

Romney: Well, I am not going to be tossing out names. I talk a great deal to prior Secretaries of State about policy issues. I spoke with Secretary Baker, today for instance, and regularly speak with different members of our diplomatic leadership and would look for their council in helping pick a person who would be our next Secretary of State.

GS: How much time have you spent thinking about the transition and staffing of government?

Romney: You know I have a very good team that is working by going through different agencies and departments of the federal government and saying, 'OK what things would we want to do to ensure that these entities conform to my vision for getting the economy going. So we do spend time on that. In addition we spend time talking about the kinds of individuals we'd like to bring in but specific names we haven't begun yet.

GS: But, If you could sum up your philosophy about how you want to do it, how you want to staff up and manage the government how would you do that?

Romney: I want to be able to get the federal government to see its job as encouraging the freedom and free enterprise of the American people. I do not want government to be focused on itself, but instead on encouraging on the private economy and individual freedoms such that we can reignite our economy.

GS: Governor Romney, thanks.

Romney: Thanks George.

The interview took place on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012. This transcript has been edited for clarity.