William P. Barr, Trump’s nominee to be attorney general, has not said whether he plans to release information to the public — be it the report he receives from Mueller or a different summation of the report. Some Trump allies and aides fear the findings will be damaging, and the president’s lawyers have said they are crafting their own report to counter Mueller’s.
The president’s comments on the investigation, which the acting attorney general has said is wrapping up soon, came in a wide-ranging interview with CBS News. Among the highlights of the interview: The president said he is keeping another government shutdown on the table, outlined disagreements with top intelligence officials, argued that keeping troops in Iraq is vital to watching Iran, contended that having a Cabinet packed with interim secretaries is a plus for his administration and again attacked former defense secretary Jim Mattis by falsely saying he forced him to resign.
“I don’t take anything off the table. I don’t like to take things off the table,” he said when asked to rule out a second partial government shutdown in 12 days, when the government again runs out of money. Trump endured a political shellacking during the last shutdown, according to public polls, with his approval rating dropping below 40 percent as he kept the government closed for 35 days because Democrats would not give him more than $5 billion for a wall along the Mexican border.
He also referenced declaring a national emergency to build the wall — an alternative that aides say is likely but that has drawn sharp resistance from Senate Republicans — while complaining that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is “very rigid.” Pelosi has said she supports money for border security but won’t give the president a dollar for a wall, his signature campaign promise. “She doesn’t mind human trafficking,” he said, without offering any evidence for such an incendiary claim.
Several Democratic lawmakers criticized Trump over the statement. “This is an outrageous and despicable smear on @SpeakerPelosi, who has spent her career fighting for women and families,” Rep. Barbara Lee of California tweeted.
Much of the interview with host Margaret Brennan focused on foreign policy — one of the biggest areas of disagreement between Trump and Senate Republicans. Asked about dozens of members rebuking his foreign policy moves in a recent Senate resolution, he said he beat his 16 Republican opponents in 2016 “very easily.”
Trump intimated that the U.S. government is close to a deal with the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan. “I think that they will,” he said, “ . . . I think everybody’s tired.”
He said he wanted to keep troops in Iraq so he could “watch” Iran, bemoaning the country but saying he was not interested in a military action there.
And he seemed to hedge on when troops would be coming home from Syria, saying it would be in a “matter of time.” Trump previously ordered an expedited removal of the 2,000 troops in Syria, which led to the departure of Mattis.
Trump said the slower departure in Syria was due to a need to protect Israel, among other reasons.
He repeatedly cited the costs of having troops all over the world as a reason to bring them home. He struggled to reconcile his criticisms of Obama for telegraphing withdrawals of troops but now doing it himself. “I’m not telegraphing anything,” he said, minutes after explaining what he wanted to do in Syria.
Trump revised history again concerning the departure of Mattis, saying he asked Mattis to resign in December. “I told him to give me a letter,” Trump said. “He resigned because I asked him to resign.” At the time, White House and Defense Department officials said Mattis, upset with Trump's impulsive moves on foreign policy, arrived at the White House with a letter rebuking the president and quit. Trump praised Mattis on Twitter later that day and agreed to let the general stay until the end of February. But days later, as TV coverage of the departure grew increasingly negative for Trump, he told Mattis to leave within a week.
The president again disagreed with his intelligence chiefs, saying there is a “very good chance” he can make a deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to give up his nuclear weapons at a summit next month, which the president said was already scheduled. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said last week on Capitol Hill that it is highly unlikely the country would ever give up its nuclear weapons. The president struck a more buoyant tone, citing his personal abilities as a dealmaker.
“I get along with him great. We have a fantastic chemistry,” he said of the North Korean dictator, who starves his people. “We have had tremendous correspondence that some people have seen and can’t believe it.” He said the country could become an “economic powerhouse.”
“I’m in the real estate business. What a location,” he said of North Korea.
The president also referenced the failures of intelligence leading up to the Iraq War as one reason he is skeptical of intelligence officials, whom he suggested should “go back to school” and called “naive” last week on Twitter. White House aides have long said the president is skeptical of intelligence officials who give him information that is contrary to his beliefs, and he usually receives a briefing only three times a week.
“I disagree with them,” he said, when told again by Brennan that his intelligence chiefs say Iran is abiding by the terms of the nuclear deal. “I have intel people, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree. President Bush had intel people that said Saddam Hussein . . . had all sorts of weapons of mass destruction. Guess what? Those intel people didn’t know what the hell they were doing.”
The president said he was perfectly okay having an acting chief of staff, acting interior secretary, acting defense secretary and acting attorney general, among other acting roles, in an administration known for its turnover. In some ways, the president said, he prefers it. “It's easier to make moves when they’re acting,” he said. “It gives me more flexibility.”
He poured cold water on the discussions Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is having about running for Senate, telling Brennan that his favored Cabinet member had given him assurances that he would not seek the seat in 2020. Pompeo has said he has spoken with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), among others. Trump deemed that “fake news” before he was corrected that Pompeo had admitted it.
Trump again called for the Mueller probe to end, labeling it a “political witch hunt.” He defended his friend and former adviser Roger Stone, calling him a “character” who was defending himself well but declining to say whether he would consider a pardon for Stone.
Asked about the 34 people Mueller’s probe has indicted, the president said none of the charges were related to him or collusion with Russia. In fact, Mueller’s team has indicted a number of Trump campaign or administration officials for lying about their interactions with Russia.
“Even the Mueller report said it had nothing to do with the campaign,” the president said inexplicably, given that the report has not yet come out and is probing the actions of people involved in the campaign.
The president said he rejected a meeting two months ago with embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. “I 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,” he said. The Trump administration is pushing for Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader, to take over in Venezuela.
The interview, slated to air Sunday just before the Super Bowl, also focused on the president’s tense relationship with the NFL and race.
Asked whether kneeling NFL players had a point about police brutality against black Americans, the president demurred and noted that he passed a criminal justice reform bill last year. “I think that when you want to protest, I think that’s great. But I don’t think you do it at the sake of our flag, at the sake of our national anthem,” adding that NFL ratings were now “terrific” because players were not kneeling and the league was not battling him.
The president also said that a lower unemployment rate among black Americans was a defense against charges that he is not handling race relations well. A CBS poll last week showed 63 percent of Americans disapprove of the president’s work on that front. “In terms of race, a lot of people are saying, well, this is something very special that's happening,” Trump said.
Trump said he would encourage his son Barron not to play football, given the potential for head injuries. “And he actually plays a lot of soccer. He's liking soccer. And a lot of people, including me, thought soccer would probably never make it in this country, but it really is moving forward rapidly,” Trump said.