President Trump sat down this weekend for what is an increasingly rare thing: A non-Fox News, nonconservative interviewer peppering him with questions in a full-length interview.
Below are six takeaways.
1) Trump is still downplaying Russian interference
The latest tack seems to be suggesting it is nothing compared with what China is doing. Trump has claimed before that China is interfering in the 2018 election, even as the administration has provided no actual instances of specific electoral interference.
And in Sunday’s interview, Trump quickly parried a question about Russian interference by arguing China also interfered — in 2016:
LESLEY STAHL: Do you believe that the Russians interfered in the 2016 campaign election? Our election —
TRUMP: They — they meddled. But I think China meddled too.
STAHL: But why do you —
TRUMP: And I think other countries —
STAHL: — say China meddled too?
TRUMP: And you want to know something?
STAHL: Why do you say Chi— why don’t you just say —
TRUMP: Well, let me ask you —
STAHL: — the Russians meddled?
TRUMP: Because I think China meddled also. And I think, frankly, China —
STAHL: This is amazing.
TRUMP: — is a bigger problem.
STAHL: You are diverting the whole Russia thing.
TRUMP: I’m not doing anything.
STAHL: You are, you are.
TRUMP: I’m saying Russia, but I’m also saying China.
Trump is indeed diverting. He’s been doing it for the past two years. And the latest strategy here seems to be whataboutism. Yeah, Russia may have interfered, but what about China now interfering to help the Democrats! The problem is it’s not apples to apples.
2) He’s still downplaying human rights abuses, too
And that’s whether we’re talking about Russia, North Korea, Saudi Arabia or any other place. Trump has generally made clear he views these things as an impediment to cutting deals, and that was again the case Sunday.
Trump, not for the first time, suggested he doesn’t like the idea of scaling back an arms deal with or imposing sanctions on Saudi Arabia for Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and alleged murder, if indeed the Saudis were responsible. He suggested such a thing would unnecessarily punish U.S. companies:
STAHL: What are your options? Let’s say [the Saudis] did. What are your options? Would you consider imposing sanctions, as a bipartisan group of senators have proposed?
TRUMP: Well, it depends on what the sanction is. I’ll give you an example: They are ordering military equipment. Everybody in the world wanted that order. Russia wanted it, China wanted it, we wanted it. We got it.
STAHL: So would you cut that off —
TRUMP: Do I — well — I tell you what I don’t want to do. Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon, all these com— I don’t want to hurt jobs. I don’t want to lose an order like that. There are other ways of —punishing, to use a word that’s a pretty harsh word, but it’s true.
Perhaps the most telling part of this is that Trump views the mere idea of “punishing” as being “pretty harsh.”
Trump has also downplayed the idea of punishing Saudi Arabia by noting that Khashoggi “is not a[n American] citizen.” (Update: He again noted this Monday.) And he did the same Sunday when it comes to Russia’s targeting of dissidents, noting that they aren’t Americans:
STAHL: Do you agree that Vladimir Putin is involved in assassinations? In poisonings?
TRUMP: Probably he is, yeah. Probably. I mean, I don’t —
TRUMP: But I rely on them. It’s not in our country.
It’s not a coincidence that he keeps bringing this up. And his track record is pretty consistent on this stuff.
Trump also suggested, yet again, that Kim Jong Un’s human rights record is a nuisance more than anything, after Stahl noted he recently said that he and Kim “fell in love”:
STAHL: I want to read you his resume, okay? He presides over a cruel kingdom of repression, gulags, starvation. Reports that he had his half-brother assassinated, slave labor, public executions. This is a guy you ‘love?’
TRUMP: Sure. I know all these things. I mean — I’m not a baby. I know these things.
STAHL: But you love him.
TRUMP: Okay. That’s just a figure —
LESLEY STAHL: Just like —
TRUMP: — of speech.
STAHL: No, it’s like an embrace.
TRUMP: It — well, let it be an embrace. Let it be whatever it is to get the job done.
STAHL: He’s a bad guy.
TRUMP: Look. Let it be whatever it is. I get along with him really well. I have a good energy with him. I have a good chemistry with him. Look at the horrible threats that were made. No more threats. No more threats.
3) Something may be afoot with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis
A preview clip airing Sunday morning on “Face the Nation” featured Trump leaving open the idea that Mattis might be leaving soon.
And in the same comments, Trump rather curiously argued that Mattis is a Democrat — a comment that is thick with subtext and suggests possible discord:
STAHL: What about General Mattis? Is he going to leave?
TRUMP: Well, I don’t know. He hasn’t told me that. I have —
STAHL: Do you want him to —
TRUMP: — a very good relationship with him. It could be that he is. I think he’s sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth. But General Mattis is a good guy. We get along very well. He may leave. I mean, at some point, everybody leaves. Everybody. People leave. That’s Washington.
Also suggesting discord is Trump’s claim that he knows more about NATO than Mattis and argued that Mattis might be wrong when he says NATO has prevented war:
STAHL: Are you willing to get rid of that Western alliance?
TRUMP: Now, I like NATO, NATO’s fine. But you know what? We shouldn’t be paying almost the entire cost of NATO to protect Europe. And then on top of that, they take advantage of us on trade. They’re not going to do it anymore. They understand that.
STAHL: Okay, but are — it does seem this — are you willing to disrupt the Western Alliance? It’s been going for 70 years. It’s kept the peace for 70 years.
TRUMP: You don’t know that. You don’t know that.
STAHL: I don’t know what?
TRUMP: You don’t know that.
STAHL: Is it true General Mattis said to you, “The reason for NATO and the reason for all these alliances is to prevent World War III?”
TRUMP: No, it’s not true.
STAHL: What’s not true?
TRUMP: Frankly, I like General Mattis. I think I know more about it than he does. And I know more about it from the standpoint of fairness. That I can tell you.
4) ‘What’s an ally?’
You could have missed it if you didn’t look at the transcript, but at one point, Trump seems to suggest that our allies aren’t actually our allies — and perhaps that the traditional concept of allies is something he doesn’t subscribe to:
STAHL: You have also slapped some tariffs on our allies.
TRUMP: I mean, what’s an —
STAHL: And —
TRUMP: — ally? We have wonderful relationships with a lot of people. But nobody treats us much worse than the European Union. The European Union —
STAHL: But why —
TRUMP: — was formed in order to take advantage of us on trade, and that’s what they’ve done.
STAHL: But this is hostile.
TRUMP: And yet, they — it’s not hostile.
STAHL: It sounds hostile.
TRUMP: You know what’s hostile? The way they treat us. We’re not hostile.
5) He’s now arguing climate change will reverse itself
This isn’t a completely new argument on the conservative side of the climate science debate, but it’s notable that Trump is now picking up on it and confidently predicting it will reverse itself:
STAHL: Do you still think that climate change is a hoax?
TRUMP: I think something’s happening, something’s changing, and it’ll change back again. I don’t think it’s a hoax, I think there’s probably a difference. But I don’t know that it’s man-made. I will say this: I don’t want to give trillions and trillions of dollars. I don’t want to lose millions and millions of jobs. I don’t want to be put at a disadvantage.
. . .
TRUMP: I’m not denying climate change. But it could very well go back. You know, we’re talking about over a millions —
STAHL: But that’s denying it.
TRUMP: — of years. They say that we had hurricanes that were far worse than what we just had with Michael.
6) He tacitly confirmed the White House is chaotic — and said he doesn’t trust his own staff
Trump likes to say there isn’t actually chaos in his White House, but then he gives away the game like this:
STAHL: The first lady, Melania. She said that there are still people in the White House that she doesn’t trust and that you shouldn’t trust.
TRUMP: I feel the same way. I don’t trust everybody in the White House, I’ll be honest with you.
STAHL: You go to a meeting, do you have to wonder, “Is he wearing a wire — ”
DONALD TRUMP: I’m usually —
STAHL: — or whatever?
TRUMP: Not so much a wire. I’m usually guarded. And I think I’m guarded anyway. But I’m not saying I trust everybody in the White House. I’m not a baby. It’s a tough business. This is a r— this is a vicious place. Washington, D.C., is a vicious, vicious place. The attacks, the — the bad-mouthing, the speaking behind your back. But — you know, and in my way, I feel very comfortable here.