PALM BEACH, Fla. — Former president Donald Trump voiced regret Wednesday over not marching to the U.S. Capitol the day his supporters stormed the building, and he defended his long silence during the attack by claiming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others were responsible for ending the deadly violence.
The 45th president has repeatedly deflected blame for stoking the attack with false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, and in the interview, he struck a defiant posture, refusing to say whether he would testify before a congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 assault. Trump said he didn’t remember “getting very many” phone calls that day, and he denied removing call logs or using burner phones.
Trump also said he had spoken during his presidency with Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. A seven-hour gap in Trump’s phone records on Jan. 6, and Thomas’s texts to then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows urging the White House to fight the election results, have both come under scrutiny by the Jan. 6 committee.
THE ATTACK The Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol was neither a spontaneous act nor an isolated event.
During the attack, Trump watched television, criticized then-Vice President Mike Pence and made calls pushing lawmakers to overturn the election as the violent mob of his supporters ransacked the Capitol. He was eventually persuaded by lawmakers, family members and others to release a video asking his supporters to go home — 187 minutes after he urged them to march to the Capitol during a rally near the White House. He was described by advisers as excited about the event.
Trump, speaking Wednesday afternoon at his palatial beachfront club, said he did not regret urging the crowd to come to Washington with a tweet stating that it would “be wild!” He also stood by his incendiary and false rhetoric about the election at the Ellipse rally before the rioters stormed the Capitol. “I said peaceful and patriotic,” he said, omitting other comments that he made in a speech that day.
In fact, Trump said he deserved more credit for drawing such a large crowd to the Ellipse — and that he pressed to march on the Capitol with his supporters but was stopped by his security detail. “Secret Service said I couldn’t go. I would have gone there in a minute," he said.
The former president praised organizers of the rally, some of whom have now received subpoenas from federal authorities, and repeatedly bragged about the size of the crowd on the Ellipse, when questioned about the events of Jan. 6.
“The crowd was far bigger than I even thought. I believe it was the largest crowd I’ve ever spoken to. I don’t know what that means, but you see very few pictures. They don’t want to show pictures, the fake news doesn’t want to show pictures,” he said. “But this was a tremendous crowd.”
On at least a dozen occasions in the interview, Trump blamed Pelosi for the events of Jan. 6. On that day, Pelosi was taken to a secure location and worked with some of Trump’s top military officials and others to help secure the building. Trump supporters stormed her office and vowed to hurt her, with some shouting for her by name.
Pelosi does not have total control over the Capitol Police, as Trump alleged, but shares control of the Capitol with the Senate majority leader. Most decisions on securing the Capitol are made by a police board. He also blamed the D.C. mayor, whose advisers furiously tried to reach Trump’s team that day.
“The former president’s desperate lies aside, the speaker was no more in charge of the security of the U.S. Capitol that day than Mitch McConnell,” said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi.
Trump said he had not been contacted by the Jan. 6 committee and added that he didn’t know what he would do if he were. “It depends what the request is,” he said. He has repeatedly invoked executive privilege in a bid to block the committee from seeing documents.
He said the committee’s interview with his daughter Ivanka Trump for eight hours this week was a “shame and harassment,” though he insisted he did not know what she had told the members. He said he also did not know what her husband, Jared Kushner, had told the committee, and that he had offered the couple “privilege” if they wanted it. They declined, Trump said.
Trump said he had not destroyed any call logs from the afternoon of Jan. 6 and took part in no phone calls on “burner phones,” even though there is a large gap in his White House phone logs. Trump said that he remembered talking to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and other people during that period. He said he had a “very good” memory but could not say exactly who he talked to that afternoon, or when.
“From the standpoint of telephone calls, I don’t remember getting very many,” he said, later adding, "Why would I care about who called me? If congressmen were calling me, what difference did it make? There was nothing secretive about it. There was no secret.”
Trump said he had talked at times during his presidency with Ginni Thomas, whose texts with Meadows urging him to overturn the election were obtained by The Washington Post and CBS News. But Trump said he wasn’t aware of her electoral efforts. He declined to say whether he thought Meadows should have handed over the text messages to the Jan. 6 committee.
“First of all, her husband is a great justice. And she’s a fine woman. And she loves our country,” he said.
Trump emerged Wednesday in his ornate and gilded Mar-a-Lago living room with the sun beaming into the couches alongside two advisers — Susie Wiles, who occasionally suggested it was time for the interview to end, and David Bossie, whose family stood nearby. After he asked four times, loud music piping into the ballroom was turned down. He wore a blazer with no tie and carried a Diet Coke as he sat near a toy Air Force One.
He meandered during the interview and stonewalled questions with long answers. He appeared to be in a good mood, aside from when he faced a series of questions about Jan. 6.
At one point, Trump was greeted by Scott Atlas, his White House coronavirus adviser who clashed with the medical community. Atlas strolled in from the patio to see him on the couch.
“Doc!” Trump said, before complimenting Atlas on losing weight. “Look who we have here!”
“This is the center of the universe,” he said, shortly after Atlas walked away. “Come back later,” he hollered after him.
Trump also delved into foreign policy, lashing into NATO for not doing more to help Ukraine — Trump has repeatedly lampooned the organization — and said he’d threatened NATO leaders during a 2018 meeting in Brussels, a notion his advisers denied vigorously at the time.
“A lot of people are a little bit surprised, I think they’re very impressed with Ukraine, but they’re not impressed with what NATO is doing, because a lot of people think NATO could be doing more,” Trump said, speaking in general terms.
When asked whether he had changed his mind on Ukraine, a country he regularly criticized as president, he began speaking about his impeachment trial that was launched after he asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden’s son Hunter Biden and find an email server.
“I liked Zelensky from the beginning for one reason. When we had the impeachment hoax, based on a perfect phone call, he totally backed me up, and I didn’t ask him to do that. They asked him, and he said, he absolutely did nothing wrong," Trump said. “He said there was no quid pro quo. He didn’t even know what his people were talking about. He thought they were crazy. ... So I gained great respect for him there.”
Trump offered few ideas for what he would do to end the war between Russia and Ukraine. He said he thought Russian President Vladimir Putin was a savvy negotiator for sending troops to the Ukrainian border but thought he “overplayed his hand” by invading the country.
Some top Republicans have distanced themselves from Trump’s continued praise of Putin. Trump said he had not spoken to Putin since leaving office.
“Now, it’s a hard situation. What they should do is lower the price of oil. Because you need money to fight wars. At $150 a barrel and going up to more, you look at it, it’s going up to numbers that nobody has ever seen, it’s already the highest it’s ever been in history. The first thing they should do is lower the price of oil by using the liquid gold we have underneath our feet,” he said, asked about the Biden administration’s response.
The former president also had a lot to say about domestic matters. Trump declined to relinquish the fantastical idea he could be reinstated as president after he lost the election, a notion that has been roundly mocked by Republicans and even some of his advisers. Trump bristled that he asked Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) to help in his bid to be reinstated, as Brooks said last month after Trump rescinded his endorsement of him in Alabama’s U.S. Senate race. Brooks was trailing in the polls and encouraged the former president and the party to move past the 2020 election.
“I didn’t ask him to do it. He’s in no position to do it. I certainly didn’t ask him to do it. But I believe when you see massive election fraud, I can’t imagine that somebody who won the election based on fraud, that something doesn’t happen? How has it not happened? If you are a bank robber, or you’re a jewelry store robber, and you go into Tiffany’s and you steal their diamonds and get caught, you have to give the diamonds back,” he said.
Trump repeated unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, saying new findings from Georgia would emerge next week. He said they would be released by a group called True the Vote and would show millions of illegal votes, but he offered no proof.
The former president also refused to say whether he would ever endorse a Republican candidate who did not accede to his election fraud demands. “Some of them are more into it than others,” he said. “But the ones who are into it, they are really into it. They have no doubt.”
He sought during much of the interview to tout his political supremacy inside the Republican Party, which remains strong but has faded in recent months. Trump appeared preoccupied with the notion that his grip on the GOP is not as strong as it once was, beginning the interview with a long riff about how popular he was within the GOP. Unprompted, he decried news coverage that indicated otherwise and crowed about how many people wanted his endorsement, while vowing to stop the Republicans who favored impeaching him.
“Our numbers are higher than ever,” he said, without presenting evidence.
Other Republicans, such as Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, would not want to run against him in a 2024 Republican presidential primary season, he said. None of them have ruled out challenging him.
“If I ran, I can’t imagine they’d want to run. Some out of loyalty would have had a hard time running. I think that most of those people, and almost every name you mentioned, is there because of me. In some cases, because I backed them and endorsed them. You know Ron was at 3 percent, and the day I endorsed him, he won the race,” he said. Asked if he thought he “made” DeSantis, Trump said he knew he did. "As soon as I endorsed him, the race was over,” Trump claimed.
Trump later allowed that DeSantis had been a good governor, particularly on handling the coronavirus — because Trump allowed him to make decisions on whether to keep the state open. “Federalist,” he said. “I gave them the right to do what they wanted to do.”
The former president also said he agreed with DeSantis signing a recent bill that bans teachers from teaching students in early grades about gender identity and sexual orientation. “I do think it was a good move,” he said, but declined to elaborate.
“I have a good relationship with Ron, I have a good relationship with all the names you mentioned. Would they run against me? I doubt they would run against me. I doubt it,” Trump reiterated.
A DeSantis spokesman declined to comment.
Asked about candidates he endorsed that were struggling, such as gubernatorial hopeful David Perdue in Georgia, he repeatedly downplayed their lagging polls and moved the conversation to other states, where GOP members of Congress who voted to impeach him were retiring and under fire. “What are you hearing?” he said of Perdue, the former senator, after saying it would be difficult to topple Republican Brian Kemp, whom he loathes.
Out on the patio, he said, was David McCormick, the Pennsylvania GOP Senate candidate and hedge fund honcho who wanted his endorsement. McCormick met with Trump later Wednesday. Trump asked a reporter if he should endorse McCormick or Mehmet Oz and said he would be making a decision in “about a week," noting that he was torn. “They all come here,” he said.
Trump also discussed his post-presidential interactions with foreign leaders. Earlier this week, Trump claimed, Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, called him to thank him for endorsing him and to credit Trump with the win. “After I endorsed him, he went up like a rocket ship,” Trump claimed of his unusual endorsement.
Other world leaders regularly call him because they like him so much, Trump claimed. He declined to say if he’d spoken to President Xi Jinping of China or Kim Jong Un of North Korea.
“These other leaders, they want endorsements,” he said. “I’m the king of endorsements. It’s more than just this country. It’s other countries."
He declined to specify which other world leaders had pressed him for an endorsement — or whether he would be giving more. “You’ll see,” he said.
Trump said it was true he had told advisers that his health would factor into whether he would run again in 2024 but that he was currently in good health.
“You always have to talk about health. You look like you’re in good health, but tomorrow, you get a letter from a doctor saying come see me again. That’s not good when they use the word again,” he said.
“I don’t want to comment on running, but I think a lot of people are going to be very happy by my decision," he said, adding: "Because it’s a little boring now.”