Written By Michael D. Shear
President Donald Trump on Sunday shrugged off the brutal dismembering of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, just days after a United Nations report described how a team of Saudi assassins called Khashoggi a “sacrificial animal” before his murder.
The UN report urged an FBI investigation into the slaying. But in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Trump said the episode had already been thoroughly investigated. He said the Middle East is “a vicious, hostile place” and noted that Saudi Arabia is an important trading partner with the United States.
“I only say they spend $400 to $450 billion over a period of time, all money, all jobs, buying equipment,” the president told Chuck Todd, the show’s moderator. “I’m not like a fool that says, ‘We don’t want to do business with them.’ And by the way, if they don’t do business with us, you know what they do? They’ll do business with the Russians or with the Chinese.”
Just days after pulling back from striking Iran for its downing of a US surveillance drone, Trump also said he was “not looking for war,” but added that if the United States went to war with Iran, “it’ll be obliteration like you’ve never seen before.”
He added: “But I’m not looking to do that.”
Trump said that he was willing to meet with Iran’s leaders without preconditions, saying: “Here it is. Look, you can’t have nuclear weapons. And if you want to talk about it, good. Otherwise you can live in a shattered economy for a long time to come.”
The president’s remarks about Iran and Khashoggi were part of a wide-ranging interview that was recorded on Friday and broadcast on Sunday. Trump also falsely blamed former President Barack Obama for his policy of separating families at the border, lashed out at his Federal Reserve chairman and said the biggest mistake of his presidency was selecting Jeff Sessions to be his attorney general.
Trump also said he might not raise the issue of election interference when he meets with President Vladimir Putin of Russia next week, and he complained that the “fake news” media misreported whether he would accept help from Russia or China during his reelection campaign.
On the question of whether he would address Putin directly about election interference when they meet, Trump said, “I may.” Todd asked Trump if he would tell the Russian president not to do it.
“I may,” he said. “If you’d like me to do it, I’ll do that.”
During the interview, Trump repeatedly refused to take responsibility for desperate conditions at the border, where migrant children are being detained in dirty, disease-ridden conditions because of a surge of people fleeing violence and poverty in Central America.
Instead, the president once again falsely blamed his predecessor for routinely separating families at the border, saying that “under President Obama you had separation. I was the one that ended it.”
Trump has repeatedly made that assertion, which is not true. Obama’s administration — like others before it — only separated children from their parents at the border on a case-by-case basis when they feared abuse by the parent or there was a question of parentage.
The Trump administration last year began a policy of routinely separating all migrant children from their parents at the border so the adults could be criminally prosecuted for crossing the border. Trump ended the policy that he created only after global outrage condemned it as inhumane.
Trump also told Todd in the interview that the biggest mistake of his presidency was his selection of Sessions to be his attorney general.
“I would say if I had one do over, it would be, I would not have appointed Jeff Sessions to be attorney general,” the president said. Asked if that was his worst mistake, Trump said: “Yeah, that was the biggest mistake.”
The president did not elaborate, but in the past he has complained bitterly that Sessions did not stop the Russia investigation from proceeding because he recused himself from oversight of the probe.
In the interview, Trump continued to criticize Jerome Powell, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, for raising interest rates too quickly. But he denied a report that he might demote Powell from the chairman’s position on the Federal Reserve board of governors.
”No, no, I have the right to do that. But I haven’t said that,” Trump said. “What he’s done is $50 billion a month in quantitative tightening. That’s ridiculous. What he’s done is he raised interest rates too fast.”
Bloomberg News reported last week that Trump had asked the White House Counsel’s Office to review options for removing Powell as chairman, including the possibility of keeping him on the board of governors but selecting another governor to be chairman.
It is unclear whether Trump could legally do that. Legal experts say there is no doubt that the president is prohibited from firing a Fed chairman outright without cause. But a court would have to decide whether Trump can effectively strip Powell of his leadership role.
Powell has insisted that he was appointed to a four-year term as chairman and cannot be removed from that position by a president who simply disagrees with some of his decisions.