Written by Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman
A defiant President Donald Trump declared Thursday that he has all but given up on negotiating with Congress over his border wall and will build it on his own 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 departing 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 current 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 compartmentalized 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.
‘I Love This Job’
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-humored 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 members of his staff write up summaries of kiss-and-tell books that have been published for him to peruse.
“I have somebody — boom 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.
“I lost massive amounts of money doing this job,” he said. “This is not the money. This is one of the great losers of all time. You know, fortunately, I don’t need money. This is one of the great losers of all time. But they’ll say that somebody from some country stayed at a hotel. And I’ll say, ‘Yeah.’ But I lose, I mean, the numbers are incredible.”
Still, he rejected 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 considering running. “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.
“I would say the best opening so far would be Kamala Harris,” he said, pronouncing it “Kameela.” “I would say in terms of the opening act, I would say, would be her.” He added, “A better crowd — better crowd, better enthusiasm.”
“Some of the others were very flat,” he added. “I do think Elizabeth Warren’s been hurt very badly with the Pocahontas trap,” he added, using a favorite slur to refer to the senator’s effort to prove she has Native American heritage. “I think she’s been hurt badly. I may be wrong, but I think that was a big part of her credibility, and now all of a sudden it’s gone.”
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 anymore,” Trump said. “I think she’s doing a tremendous disservice to the country. If she doesn’t approve a 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.”
Defends Syria Policy
The president defended his decisions to pull troops out of Syria and draw down forces in 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 Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, even leaving open a military option, while not criticizing other autocratic countries like Saudi Arabia. “I’m just saying this: Terrible things are going on,” he said. “Terrible things are going on in Venezuela.”
“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.”
Trump said he has likewise received reassurances from Rosenstein, who until Attorney General Jeff Sessions was fired in November was overseeing the Russia investigation by the special counsel, Robert Mueller.
“Rod told me I’m not a target of the investigation,” he said at one point, but then later suggested he had not talked with him directly. “The lawyers ask him. They say, ‘He’s not a target of the investigation.’” Asked if that also covered the separate investigation by federal prosecutors in New York, he said, “I don’t know about that.”
Neither Rosenstein nor Mueller has said whether Trump is a target, and the president could not recall when Rosenstein would have assured him. Mueller has been known to explore whether the president’s actions amounted to obstruction of justice. But since Justice Department policy bars indicting a sitting president, it is unclear whether the term “target” would apply.
Trump denied having anything to do with Stone’s involvement with WikiLeaks, which during the 2016 campaign posted online Democratic emails that were stolen by Russian intelligence services. He expressed sympathy for Stone for his arrest at the hands of heavily armed FBI agents.
“I’ve always liked — I like Roger, he’s a character,” Trump said, insisting that the FBI agents charging “a house like they did at six o’clock in the morning. I think that was a very sad thing for this country.”
The Moscow Project
Trump offered a vague account of his involvement in the proposed Moscow project. Michael Cohen, his former personal lawyer, has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the project and told authorities that talks continued into summer 2016 even as Trump was securing the Republican nomination.
Rudy Giuliani, the president’s current lawyer, said recently that talks went all the way through the November election, only to later claim that he was mistaken and speaking only hypothetically.
“He was wrong,” Trump said Thursday. “Rudy has been wrong a little bit. But what has happened is this: I didn’t care. That deal was not important. It was essentially a letter of intent or an option.”
Asked when in 2016 the last conversation he had about the project was, he said, “I would say it was early to middle of the year. Now, I don’t know that Cohen didn’t go a little bit longer than that. I don’t think it would be much longer.” He added: “I was running for president; I was doing really well. The last thing I cared about was building a building.”
Cohen has been the focus of Trump’s ire lately, including hostile tweets that his former lawyer and others interpreted as threats. Among other things, the president has written that authorities should be looking into Cohen’s father-in-law.
“It’s not witness tampering,” Trump said. “It’s not witness tampering at all.”
Asked what the point was then, he said, “I think people have the right to speak their mind. You know, speaking your mind. I’ve heard that for a period of time. But other people have said it, too. I mean, many people have said it.”
He denied that he was upset to see William Barr, his nominee for attorney general, attest to his long relationship with Mueller during his confirmation hearing and commit to letting the special counsel finish his investigation. “I did hear the statement and it was totally acceptable to me,” the president said.
He said he was not initially aware that Barr, as a private lawyer, had drafted a memo criticizing Mueller’s possible approach to obstruction of justice. “I mean, I read it afterward,” he said. “But I did not know.” He added, “I never read the memo.”