Washington, D.C.: A defiant President Donald Trump declared on Thursday that he has all but given up on negotiating with the US Congress over his border wall and will proceed without lawmakers even as he dismissed any suggestions of wrongdoing in the investigations that have ensnared his associates.
In an interview in the Oval Office, Trump called the talks “a waste of time” and indicated he will most likely take action on his own when they officially end in two weeks. At the same time, he expressed optimism about reaching a trade deal with China and denied being at odds with his intelligence chiefs.
“I think Nancy Pelosi is hurting our country very badly by doing what she’s doing and, ultimately, I think I’ve set the table very nicely,” Trump said. He made no mention of closing the government again, a move that backfired on him, but instead suggested he plans to declare a national emergency to build the wall. “I’ve set the table,” he said. “I’ve set the stage for doing what I’m going to do.”
Addressing a wide range of subjects, Trump brushed off the investigations that have consumed so much of his presidency, saying that his lawyers have been reassured by the outgoing deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, that the president himself was not a target. “He told the attorneys that I’m not a subject, I’m not a target,” Trump said. But even if that is the case, it remains unknown whether the matter would be referred to the House for possible impeachment hearings.
Trump added that he never spoke with Roger Stone, his longtime associate who was indicted last week, about WikiLeaks and the stolen Democratic emails it posted during the 2016 election, nor did he direct anyone to do so.
“No, I didn’t. I never did,” he said of speaking with Stone on the subject. Did he ever instruct anyone to get in touch with Stone about WikiLeaks? “Never did,” he repeated.
The president dismissed the importance of the proposed Trump Tower his team was seeking to build in Moscow at the height of the 2016 campaign, and he denied his own lawyer’s account of how late in the campaign he was still discussing the project. He denied that his Twitter messages about former associates who are cooperating with prosecutors amount to witness tampering.
Trump also said he played no role in directing White House officials to arrange for Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, to receive a top-secret clearance. Kushner’s application was rejected at least once after concerns were raised by the FBI about his foreign contacts. The CIA, which also raised concerns, has continued to deny him access to “sensitive compartmentalised information.”
The interview with Trump came on a busy day at the White House as the president seeks to rebound from the 35-day partial government shutdown that failed to force Democrats to finance his wall and took a toll on his poll numbers. With most Americans blaming him for the standoff, Trump expressed frustration that he has not gotten credit for what he sees as his accomplishments, including deregulation, increased military spending and the nuclear talks with North Korea.
Fresh from a meeting on trade with China’s vice premier, Trump seemed relaxed and confident as he sought to make his case, distributing handouts including, at one point, printed copies of two tweets sent out in his name even as he was speaking with his visitors.
The interview was arranged after Trump reached out to A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times, and invited him for an off-the-record dinner. Sulzberger declined, saying he would prefer an on-the-record interview that included two of his reporters. The president agreed.
Trump sat behind the Resolute Desk, sipping periodically from a glass of Diet Coke with ice cubes floating in it and resting on a gold coaster. His acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney; his senior communications adviser, Bill Shine; and his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, sat in on the session with Sulzberger and the two reporters.
Trump spoke with a low voice, his arms folded tightly during questions about the Russia inquiry as his aides grew fidgety. But he was more good humoured at other points. He grew most animated when condemning media coverage he considers unfair. He disputed persistent reports of dysfunction in the White House, noting that his staff write up summaries of kiss-and-tell books that have been published for him to peruse.
“I have somebody — boom, they give me the quotes.”
At one point, he scoffed at the notion that he was making money from the presidency, calling the job a “loser” financially. Still, he rejected any speculation that he might not run for re-election next year. “I love this job,” he said. And he said he did not think he would face a challenger for the Republican presidential nomination, even though several candidates are mulling a race. “I don’t see it,” he said. “I have great support in the party.”
Watching the emerging Democratic field, Trump said the opposition party has “really drifted far left,” and he derided Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts as damaged while expressing admiration for the campaign kickoff of Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who drew thousands of supporters.
He had tough words as well for Pelosi, who has adamantly refused to approve even a dollar of the $5.7 billion he has sought for his border wall, which she has denounced as “immoral.” Trump had gambled that he could force her to back down through the government shutdown and was vexed when he could not.
“I’ve actually always gotten along with her, but now I don’t think I will any more,” Trump said. “I think she’s doing a tremendous disservice to the country. If she doesn’t approve the wall, the rest of it’s just a waste of money and time and energy because it’s desperately needed.”
Trump has been considering an emergency declaration to spend money on a wall even without congressional approval, an action that even some Republicans have objected to and that would certainly draw a court challenge. “I’ll continue to build the wall and we’ll get the wall finished,” he said. “Now whether or not I declare a national emergency — that you’ll see.”
The president defended his decisions to pull troops out of Syria and Afghanistan on the same day that the Senate advanced a Republican-sponsored measure condemning a “precipitous withdrawal” from those two countries. “I got elected on saying we’re getting out of these endless wars,” he said.
Given that, however, he did not explain why he has taken such an assertive stance in trying to force out President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, even leaving open a military option, while not criticising other autocratic countries like Saudi Arabia. “I’m just saying this: Terrible things are going on. Terrible things are going on in Venezuela,” he said.
“Now in Saudi Arabia, a lot of improvement has been made in Saudi Arabia,” he said, while adding that the assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was “a terrible crime.”
On another point of contention, the president noted that he had summoned his intelligence chiefs, including Dan Coats, the national intelligence director, to the White House on Thursday because he had heard they had contradicted his foreign policy during testimony to Congress this week. Coats and the others told lawmakers that North Korea was unlikely to give up its nuclear arsenal, that Iran has not restarted work to build one and that the Islamic State was not defeated, all assessments that clash with the president’s worldview.
But Trump said the intelligence chiefs told him their presentation was misinterpreted. “They said, ‘Sir, our testimony was totally mischaracterized,’” Trump said. “I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And when you read their testimony and you read their statements, it was mischaracterized by the media.” Even though he had assailed the chiefs earlier in the week, he said, “I’m happy with Dan Coats.”