President Trump sat down with CBS News host Margaret Brennan for an interview airing Sunday before the Super Bowl — his second interview with a non-conservative media outlet in a few days, after a New York Times interview.
And as is often the case in interviews in which he is asked tough questions and pressed, the president struggled.
There are no huge news nuggets from the interview, but a few exchanges highlighted just how evasive and confused Trump’s response can be, even on issue of huge national import. Below are a few responses that stood out.
Why Obama couldn’t telegraph withdrawals but he can
BRENNAN: You also campaigned saying that, you know, President Obama made a big mistake by telegraphing his military moves. You’re telegraphing your retreat [from Afghanistan and Syria].
TRUMP: I’m not telegraphing anything. No, no, no. There’s a difference. When President Obama pulled out of Iraq, in theory, we had Iraq. In other words, we had Iraq. We never had Syria, because President Obama never wanted to violate the red line in the sand. So, we never had Syria.
I was the one that actually violated the red line when I hit Syria with 59 Tomahawk missiles, if you remember. But President Obama chose not to do that. When he chose not to do that, he showed tremendous weakness. But we didn’t have Syria, whereas we had Iraq.
First, it’s not clear what Trump means by how the United States “had Iraq.” Perhaps he means that we invaded it and, thus, had more invested in it? But either way, this is not a distinction Trump made on the 2016 campaign trail, where he regularly attacked President Barack Obama for not just the Iraq withdrawal plans, but also for telegraphing basically any military moves. In fact, he also attacked Obama for telegraphing moves in ... wait for it ... Syria.
He said in 2017 about Syria: “One of the things I think you’ve noticed about me is militarily I don’t like to say where I’m going and what I’m doing. I’m not saying I’m doing anything one way or the other.”
He added around that time about North Korea: "I’m not like other administrations, where they say we’re going to do this in four weeks and that. It doesn’t work that way.”
Trump said in a speech about terrorism in 2016: “I have often said that General MacArthur and General Patton would be in a state of shock if they were alive today to see the way President Obama and Hillary Clinton try to recklessly announce their every move before it happens — like they did in Iraq — so that the enemy can prepare and adapt.”
Trump regularly suggested announcing withdrawals early would allow the enemy to just bide their time and wait until the United States is gone. That would sure seem to apply to Syria.
Why he wouldn’t negotiate with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro
BRENNAN: Would you personally negotiate with Nicolás Maduro to convince him to exit?
TRUMP: Well, he has requested a meeting and I've turned it down because we're very far along in the process. You have a young and energetic gentleman, but you have other people within that same group that have been very, very, if you talk about democracy, it's really democracy in action. We're going to see what happens.
BRENNAN: When did he request a meeting?
TRUMP: A number of months ago he wanted to meet. I thought it was very far --
BRENNAN: But now, because you're at that crisis point, would you negotiate that?
TRUMP: Well, now, we’ll have to see. I would say this, I decided at the time no because so many really horrible things have been happening in Venezuela when you look at that country. That was the wealthiest country of all in that part of the world, which is a very important part of the world. And now you look at the poverty and you look at the anguish and you look at the crime and you look at all of the things happening. So I think the process is playing out very, very big, tremendous protests.
BRENNAN: North Korea. When and where are you going to meet Kim Jong Un?
TRUMP: I won’t tell you yet, but you’ll be finding out probably State of the Union or shortly before.
Trump claims he decided not to talk to Maduro because “so many really horrible things have been happening in Venezuela” and that it has descended into poverty.
And then, in the next breath, he previews more talks with North Korea ... where many really horrible things have been happening for decades and the people are impoverished.
Blaming Iraq for why he doesn’t trust intel chiefs
BRENNAN: I want to move on here, but I should say, your intel chiefs do say Iran’s abiding by that nuclear deal. I know you think it’s a bad deal, but ...
TRUMP: I disagree with them. I’m -- I’m -- by the way --
BRENNAN: You disagree with that assessment?
TRUMP: -- I have intel people. That doesn’t mean I have to agree. President Bush had intel people that said Saddam Hussein --
TRUMP: -- in Iraq had nuclear weapons, had all sorts of weapons of mass destruction. Guess what? Those intel people didn’t know what the hell they were doing, and they got us tied up in a war that we should have never been in. And we’ve spent $7 trillion in the Middle East. And we have lost lives.
It’s 100 percent true that intel is not foolproof. But using Iraq and weapons of mass destruction as a cautionary tale is dicey.
In that case, the evidence was indeed flawed, but it was also often stretched by political actors seeking a convenient narrative. As The Post’s Glenn Kessler wrote, the "Bush administration often hyped the intelligence that supported their policy goals — while ignoring or playing down dissents or caveats from within the intelligence community.”
Similarly, Trump seems to be cherry-picking the intel he likes and doesn’t like in a very convenient way.
Claiming he fired Jim Mattis
BRENNAN: How do you know when to fire someone?
TRUMP: When it’s not happening, when --
BRENNAN: What do you mean?
TRUMP: -- it doesn’t get done. Like, with General Mattis, I wasn’t happy with his service. And I told him, give me a letter.
BRENNAN: He resigned.
TRUMP: He resigned because I asked him to resign. He resigned because I was very nice to him. But I gave him big budgets, and he didn’t do well in Afghanistan. I was not happy with the job he was doing in Afghanistan. And, if you look at Syria, what’s happened — I went to Iraq recently. If you look at Syria, what’s happened in Syria in the last few weeks, you would see that things are going down that were not going down, that things are happening that are very good. So, I was not happy with him, but I wish him well.
This echoes what Trump told the Times last week: “I told Mattis to give me a letter. He didn’t just give me that letter. I told him.”
This is quite simply not what happened, according to all available evidence. Trump administration officials have said for weeks that Mattis’s resignation was a complete surprise and that he submitted his resignation letter after a series of policy differences. Eventually, Trump’s withdrawal from Syria was the last straw.
Trump did push Mattis out earlier than the February departure date Mattis included in his resignation letter. But there is no evidence he ever asked for Mattis’s resignation — nor has anyone with knowledge of the circumstances claimed it.