President Trump sat down this weekend with one of the best interviewers in the business — Chris Wallace — for a segment on “Fox News Sunday.”
Wallace pressed Trump on many of the major issues of the day, including Trump’s attacks on the media and his critics, Saudi Arabia’s alleged killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the 2018 election.
Here are three takeaways that provide a window into the Trump presidency — and Trump the man.
1. Attacking Bill McRaven
WALLACE: Bill McRaven, retired admiral, Navy SEAL, 37 years, former head of U.S. Special Operations —
TRUMP: Hillary Clinton fan.
WALLACE: Special Operations —
TRUMP: Excuse me, Hillary Clinton fan.
WALLACE: Who led the operations, commanded the operations that took down Saddam Hussein and that killed Osama bin Laden says that your sentiment is the greatest threat to democracy in his lifetime.
TRUMP: Okay, he’s a Hilary Clinton, uh, backer and an Obama-backer and frankly —
WALLACE: He was a Navy SEAL 37 years —
TRUMP: Wouldn’t it have been nice if we got Osama bin Laden a lot sooner than that? Wouldn’t it have been nice? You know, living — think of this — living in Pakistan, beautifully in Pakistan in what I guess they considered a nice mansion, I don’t know, I’ve seen nicer. But living in Pakistan right next to the military academy, everybody in Pakistan knew he was there. And we give Pakistan $1.3 billion a year and they don’t tell him, they don’t tell him —
WALLACE: You’re not even going to give them credit —
TRUMP: For years --
WALLACE: — for taking down bin Laden?
TRUMP: They took him down but — look, look, there’s news right there, he lived in Pakistan, we’re supporting Pakistan, we’re giving them $1.3 billion a year, which we don’t give them anymore, by the way, I ended it because they don’t do anything for us, they don’t do a damn thing for us.
For a candidate and president who has tried to make support for the U.S. military his calling card, Trump has shown remarkably little compunction about attacking decorated veterans and their families. The most famous example is Sen. John McCain, of course, whose war hero status Trump repeatedly questioned and whom Trump attacked even as McCain was dying of brain cancer over the last year. But Trump has also tangled with Khizr Khan, a Gold Star father who spoke against Trump at the Democratic National Convention, and, at one point, Trump suggested a Gold Star widow who spoke out against him was lying.
Add retired Adm. William H. McRaven to the list. When asked about criticisms from McRaven, who oversaw the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, Trump immediately dismissed him as a “Hillary backer” — repeatedly.
This is not true.
But it’s just noteworthy how quickly Trump goes into attack mode. As with McCain and Khan, Trump is serving notice that nobody is immune from his wrath. If you criticize him, you will be attacked in very political terms and even have your most significant achievements diminished. Trump has huge sway over his base, and he’s basically saying: You can criticize me, but I will not let it pass, and I will not abide by the usual rules. I will attack your legacy, and I will take 40 percent of the country with me.
It may make sense as a political strategy. Usually such attacks would be punished politically, but Trump has so lowered the bar for the political rules of engagement that such criticisms are normal. It’s why Republicans are so reluctant to condemn Trump.
But the McRaven example shows how ugly it can get. Here is another bona fide American hero being reduced to a partisan operative by the president of the United States.
2. Questioning the intel on Jamal Khashoggi
WALLACE: A month ago you said you had spoken with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and that he had told you directly that he had no knowledge of this.
TRUMP: That’s right, that’s right and still says that.
WALLACE: But we now know that some of the people closest to him, some of his closest advisers were part of this. Question: Did MBS lie to your sir?
TRUMP: I don’t — I don’t know, you know who could really know but I can say this he’s got many people now that say he had no knowledge.
WALLACE: What if the crown prince speaking to you, the president of the United States, directly lied to you about —
TRUMP: Well, he told me that he had nothing to do with it. He told me that I would say maybe five times at different points.
WALLACE: But what if he’s lying?
TRUMP: As recently as a few days ago.
WALLACE: Do you just live with it because you need him?
TRUMP: Well, will anybody really know? All right, will anybody really know? But he did have certainly people that were reasonably close to him and close to him that were probably involved. You saw we put on very heavy sanctions, massive sanctions on a large group of people from Saudi Arabia. But at the same time we do have an ally and I want to stick with an ally that in many ways has been very good.
We know that the CIA has concluded, with high confidence, that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was behind the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist. And Trump has made little secret that this is not his preferred conclusion.
But this answer, even more than his wishy-washy comments over the weekend, epitomizes how he’s going to play it. Even as the CIA has told him Mohammed was almost definitely behind it, Trump suggests this is actually unknowable. “Will anybody really know?” he said. “All right, will anybody really know?”
Intelligence is an imprecise business, yes, but applying this standard means the United States basically won’t hold anybody accountable, barring a conviction in criminal court. It’s an impossible standard, but it’s one Trump has employed before: with the Russia probe.
Trump’s presidency has often meant calling into question the very existence of objective facts. But here’s the point: He only does this when it’s something he wants to doubt. It’s a stark contrast to how Trump treats facts — many of them false — that he wants to accept.
What’s also telling here is that Trump will allow for the idea that his intelligence community is wrong, but he won’t really allow for the idea that Mohammed has lied to him. It’s a remarkable double standard, but a convenient one for Trump. And that’s what really matters to him.
3. ‘I won the Senate’
WALLACE: When Democrats flipped the House back in 2006 and picked up 30 seats, President Bush 43 had a news conference the next day and said, “We had a thumping.” Last week, in this election, the House picked up, so far it’s 36 seats, it may be on the way to 40 seats and your reaction was that it was almost a complete victory.
TRUMP: I won the Senate, you don’t mention that.
WALLACE: But, well — I —
TRUMP: Excuse me, I won the Senate.
WALLACE: I understand that but —
TRUMP: I think they said 88 years.
WALLACE: But this was a — this was a historically big defeat in the House. You lost 36, maybe 40 seats. Some would argue that it was a thumping. And I want to talk about some of the ways in which you lost. You lost in traditionally Republican suburbs, not only around liberal cities like Philadelphia and D.C. but also red-state big cities like Houston and Oklahoma City. You lost among suburban women. You lost among independents and, in three key states that I think you remember pretty well — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan — you lost both the governor seats and the Senate seats.
TRUMP: Are you ready? I won the Senate, and that’s historic too, because if you look at presidents in the White House it’s almost never happened where you won a seat. We won — we now have 53 as opposed to 51 and we have 53 great senators in the U.S. Senate. We won. That’s a tremendous victory. Nobody talks about that. That’s a far greater victory than it is for the other side. Number two, I wasn’t on the ballot. I wasn’t —
WALLACE: But if you can’t carry — and you certainly didn’t carry it two weeks ago — Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, you’re not going to get reelected.
TRUMP: I didn’t run. I wasn’t running. My name wasn’t on the ballot. There are many people that think, “I don’t like Congress,” that like me a lot. I get it all the time; “Sir, we’ll never vote unless you’re on the ballot.” I get it all the time. People are saying, “Sir, I will never vote unless you’re on the ballot. I say, “No, no, go and vote.” “Well, what do you mean?” As much as I try and convince people to go vote, I’m not on the ballot.
Within a span of two minutes, Trump both takes credit for “winning the Senate,” but also suggests historic losses in the House were not his fault. And it’s not even him saying Republicans won the Senate; it’s “I won the Senate.”
Trump will argue this is because he campaigned for Senate candidates and not really for House candidates. Okay. But he’s picking and choosing what’s a reflection of him and what is not. It also raises this question: If Trump was such a boon to the GOP in the Senate, why didn’t he try to replicate that in the House, which after all was the more endangered chamber?
The answer: The White House knew he wasn’t helping them hold the House, but he could turn out the GOP base in key Senate races. And when it comes to Trump’s overall impact, he can’t have it both ways.