The question to President Trump was straightforward: Why does he seem to accept the Saudi Arabian crown prince’s denials that he ordered the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi over the intelligence his own CIA has gathered?
Trump began his answer by equivocating about Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement. Then he bragged about badgering the Saudi leader over oil prices this summer. Next he claimed personal credit for a sharp drop in prices. And then he complained the Palm Beach Post published a story last week blaming him for the traffic jams caused by cheap gas.
The only catch: The Florida newspaper’s front-page story last week about Thanksgiving travel did not attribute holiday traffic to the president. In fact, it did not mention Trump’s name.
This single meandering exchange in an interview Tuesday with The Washington Post neatly encapsulated Trump’s standard rules of engagement. He responds to questions with a torrent of words, digressions and self-congratulatory boasts. He makes humorous asides. He brushes away facts to spin his own reality. He sells his own accomplishments, no matter the question. And he tries to run out the clock with long-winded answers.
The pattern continued as Trump answered questions on climate change, the economy, Russia, his proposed border wall and the Justice Department.
However, he would only answer questions about new developments in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation involving former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort off the record. He argued he did not want to be in the middle of that story. Yet in tweets later Tuesday and Wednesday, the president accused the “disgusting fake news” of not printing criticism of the probe and proclaimed, “This is our Joseph McCarthy Era!” A White House spokeswoman did not respond to requests Wednesday to put his interview answers on the record.
The interview began shortly before noon Tuesday, with the president running behind schedule following a late night of campaigning in Mississippi. As White House press secretary Sarah Sanders escorted two Post reporters and a Post photographer into the Oval Office, some of the government’s top officials, including Vice President Pence and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, lingered in the outer office awaiting an event with the president. White House chief of staff John F. Kelly stood at the doorway.
“Journalists,” the retired Marine Corps general said, summoning the reporters and photographer to enter. He said little else.
Seated in a high-back burgundy leather chair behind the Resolute Desk, which was clear of clutter, save for the Presidents’ Day planner and glass of Diet Coke, Trump was a solicitous host. He asked his guests if they would like something to drink; they declined.
“Feels like a deposition!” he joked, as journalists and aides spread around his desk. Then, the president and his aides said the audio of the interview could not be posted online. “No posting it, please,” the president said.
Unlike at press availabilities or television interviews — when the combative president performs for the cameras — Trump was at moments charming and charismatic in Tuesday’s interview, eager to impress as he often is when sitting down with journalists in more intimate settings.
Though Sanders, deputy White House chief of staff Bill Shine and counselor Kellyanne Conway sat around the desk to listen and take notes, they largely refrained from interjecting. This was Trump’s show.
Some of Trump’s answers were characteristically discordant. During a discussion about climate change, he wandered rhetorically — from saying he does not believe the science behind global warming; to arguing that garbage from Asia sails over the Pacific Ocean and washes ashore on U.S. beaches; to referencing outdated speculation of a new Ice Age; to arguing California’s forests are so poorly maintained that a tree could catch fire by a single lit match, and therefore brush should be raked.
“It’s a massive problem in California,” Trump said. He added, “If that was raked in the beginning, there’d be nothing to catch on fire.”
When asked whether he was nervous about a recession considering recent stock market declines and the planned closures of some General Motors plants, Trump immediately launched an attack on Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome H. “Jay” Powell.
But his discussion of the economy was rife with inconsistencies. Asked who should be held responsible for the economy — and reminded that former president Harry Truman kept a sign at his desk that read, “The buck stops here” — Trump shirked personal responsibility.
When pressed on why the buck never seems to stop with him, Trump ignored the prompt for self-reflection and instead pointed his finger at the central bank chairman. The president simultaneously insisted he was not assigning blame to anyone while assigning blame to Powell.
“I’m not blaming anybody,” Trump said. “But I will tell you, at this moment in time I am not at all happy with the Fed.”
He hammered the point a second time: “I’m not blaming anybody. I’m just saying, I’m not happy with the Fed. So far, I’m not even a little bit happy with my selection of Jay.”
And a third time: “I’m not blaming anybody, but I’m just telling you I think that the Fed is wayoff-base with what they’re doing.”
The exchange on the economy underscored two Trump attributes: He plows through questions he does not want to answer without engaging them substantively. And for every problem, he finds someone to blame — and that scapegoat is never himself.
Another Trump feature is his elastic relationship with the truth. He routinely makes false or misleading claims, and Tuesday’s interview was no different.
The president falsely claimed the nation’s air and water are “right now at a record clean,” when in fact U.S. carbon emissions are only the lowest since 1996. They were considerably lower before then, according to the World Bank.
Trump also incorrectly claimed Saudi Arabia “could very easily invest $110 billion, $450 billion overall” in U.S. arms sales in “a fairly short period of time.” But the commercial agreements announced last year were mostly smoke and mirrors, with few if any signed contracts. Many of the memorandums of intent for military sales agreements contain no delivery date, according to an analysis by The Post’s Fact Checker.
Another pattern from Tuesday’s interview was Trump’s varying use of experts. He relied on them to justify things he does not want associated with him, such as his explanation that he was continuing the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan for the 17th straight year on the advice of experts.
“We’re there because virtually every expert that I have and speak to say if we don’t go there, they’re going to be fighting over here. And I’ve heard it over and over again.”
But on other subjects, Trump was quick to dismiss experts. For instance, he said he did not believe the climate change assessment of his own administration’s experts, as well as the dire warnings of most scientists around the world.
The president also equated Mohammed’s denials about Khashoggi’s killing with the information gathered by intelligence experts at the CIA suggesting the crown prince was behind it — reminiscent of his resistance to U.S. conclusions about Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“Maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t,” Trump said of the Saudi heir apparent. “But he denies it. And people around him deny it. And the CIA did not say affirmatively he did it, either, by the way. I’m not saying that they’re saying he didn’t do it, but they didn’t say it affirmatively.”
Trump seemed happy to continue to hold forth, even as his aides tried to wrap up the interview. At the end, Trump called out to his personal assistant, Madeleine Westerhout, who presented each reporter with handouts — including a two-page list titled, “TRUMP ADMINISTRATION ACCOMPLISHMENTS.”
“Our accomplishments!” Westerhout said. “Our economic accomplishments!”
The document contains 61 bullet-point items, including “4.5 million jobs created since election” and “We have begun BUILDING THE WALL and support STRONG BORDERS and NO CRIME.”
Trump was pleased. “That’s good, you’re getting better at this,” he told his assistant. Then, he called her “beautiful” and said everyone loved Westerhout.
“This is not a paper towel,” Conway jokingly interjected about the accomplishments. “This is real stuff.”
Trump then invited the pair of reporters to hang around the Oval Office for another 10 minutes or so, telling them to take a seat on one of his yellow couches as he moved along with his schedule — a private signing ceremony for new sanctions on the Ortega regime in Nicaragua.
Aides eventually said the reporters had to leave — even as the president continued to talk.