FACT CHECK: Trump's 'New York Times' Interview On Russia, Taxes, Health Care And More

Dec 29, 2017
Originally published on December 30, 2017 12:01 am

In an impromptu 30-minute interview with The New York Times on Thursday, President Trump said 16 different times that there has been "no collusion" proved in the Russia investigation. Trump also asserted he will win re-election in 2020 because the media need him for ratings and made inaccurate claims about his role in the Alabama Senate race, the state of the Affordable Care Act and more.

As for that special counsel investigation, while some Trump allies have actively tried to undermine the Mueller probe, in the interview Trump hewed closely to what his own lawyers have been saying. "I think that Bob Mueller will be fair, and everybody knows that there was no collusion," Trump said.

According to the Times, there were no aides on hand as Trump spoke with reporter Michael S. Schmidt about a wide range of topics in the Grill Room at his golf club in West Palm Beach, Fla. The president didn't conduct a traditional end-of-year news conference, so this interview offers a look at what Trump is thinking as he heads into 2018.

NPR reporters and editors have combed through the interview excerpts transcribed by the Times. Their annotations follow.

You can also jump to the following sections:

Russia investigation
Justice Department
Taxes
Health care
Immigration
Foreign policy
Alabama Senate race
Campaigning for president

Russia investigation

Defining collusion: "There is no collusion, and even if there was, it's not a crime."

NPR's Ryan Lucas: When people say "collusion," they're generally using it in a colloquial sense to refer to secret coordination that would include criminal conduct. But Trump is right — collusion is not a crime. However, there's another C-word that comes into play here — "conspiracy" — and that is a crime. Now, it depends on how Mueller's investigation shakes out, but there are a few possible conspiracy charges that could come into play in the special counsel's probe. One is conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and another is a more general conspiracy charge: to defraud the United States.

Special counsel's fairness: "No, it doesn't bother me because I hope that he's going to be fair. I think that he's going to be fair. And based on that [inaudible]. There's been no collusion. But I think he's going to be fair. And if he's fair — because everybody knows the answer already, Michael. I want you to treat me fairly. O.K.?"

NPR's Tamara Keith: President Trump's description of the investigation closely mirrors that of White House special counsel Ty Cobb's. "I think it's been highly professionally done," Cobb said of the investigation in an interview with NPR in November. "And I think they have moved with an alacrity that they're proud of and that the American people can be proud of." Under Cobb's guidance, the White House posture has been full cooperation with the investigation, with an insistence that it will be over soon and the president will be cleared. This is in contrast to some of the president's allies who have been actively trying to undermine the investigation.

Feinstein's comments: "I saw Dianne Feinstein the other day on television saying there is no collusion. She's the head of the committee."

NPR's Keith: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee; Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is the chairman. On Nov. 5, Feinstein appeared on CNN's State of the Union following the guilty plea of former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos. Charging documents described conversations Papadopoulos had with Russian-linked individuals where he was promised "dirt" on Hillary Clinton, as well as hacked emails. Feinstein was asked whether she had seen any evidence of that dirt or emails being given to the Trump campaign. "Not so far," Feinstein responded.

A month later, though, in an interview on NBC's Meet the Press, Feinstein said she believed an obstruction of justice case was coming together against the president.

"I see it in the hyperfrenetic attitude of the White House, the comments every day, the continual tweets. And I see it most importantly in what happened with the firing of Director [James] Comey, and it is my belief that that is directly because he did not agree to 'lift the cloud' of the Russia investigation. That's obstruction of justice," Feinstein said.

"They made the Russian story up": "So for the purposes of what's going on with this phony Russian deal, which, by the way, you've heard me say it, is only an excuse for losing an election that they should have won, because it's very hard for a Republican to win the Electoral College. ... So the Democrats. ... [Inaudible.] ... They thought there was no way for a Republican, not me, a Republican, to win the Electoral College. Well, they're [inaudible]. They made the Russian story up as a hoax, as a ruse, as an excuse for losing an election that in theory Democrats should always win with the Electoral College. The Electoral College is so much better suited to the Democrats [inaudible]. But it didn't work out that way. And I will tell you they cannot believe that this became a story."

NPR's Keith: It is true that the Electoral College map in recent elections has been favorable to Democrats — not "always." However, it is simply not true that the "Russian story" is a hoax cooked up by Democrats to explain away Clinton's loss. The U.S. intelligence community, with a high level of confidence, has concluded that Russia did interfere in the 2016 election, hacking emails, using troll farms to amplify fake news that was favorable to Trump and intended to hurt Clinton, and pumping out its own anti-Clinton propaganda on Russian state-owned television and YouTube channels. Even among members of his own administration, Trump is virtually alone in insisting that Russian interference in the election is a hoax.

What Trump often conflates when he says that the "story" is a "hoax" is the idea of "collusion" with Russian interference overall. He has cast doubt on and left open the possibility that Russian interference didn't happen, but he has not outright dismissed it. Trump has not been consistent on Russia's role in the election. At times, he has questioned whether the Obama administration's response was adequate. In July, he said, "I think it was Russia" and "others also." Trump also said, after speaking with Putin in Asia in November, that he believed that Putin meant it when he again denied interfering.

Justice Department

Purview over Justice Department: "What I've done is, I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department. But for purposes of hopefully thinking I'm going to be treated fairly, I've stayed uninvolved with this particular matter."

NPR's Carrie Johnson: The president is the ultimate boss of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other Justice Department leaders. But norms and guidelines enforced widely after the Watergate fiasco have meant that only a few people inside the White House may contact only a few people at the Justice Department. Those policies are supposed to insulate prosecutors and FBI investigators from political interference. DOJ law enforcement decisions, such as whether to bring criminal charges, are supposed to operate independent of political decision-making. But several times in 2017, President Trump himself or someone in his White House has reportedly reached out to FBI or DOJ officials about particular matters. And the president's lawyers maintain he has the ultimate authority over federal investigations, whether or not it is wise to use it.

Loyalty and the attorney general: "I don't want to get into loyalty, but I will tell you that, I will say this: Holder protected President Obama. Totally protected him. When you look at the I.R.S. scandal, when you look at the guns for whatever, when you look at all of the tremendous, ah, real problems they had, not made-up problems like Russian collusion, these were real problems. When you look at the things that they did, and Holder protected the president. And I have great respect for that, I'll be honest, I have great respect for that."

NPR's Johnson: While former Attorney General Eric Holder once declared himself President Obama's "wing man" and called the president a friend, he also maintained that the Justice Department's law enforcement duties operated independent of the White House. Prosecutors did decline to bring charges over the IRS scandal in the Obama years, to the dismay of Republican lawmakers. As for the ATF gun-running scandal known as "Fast and Furious," it prompted a shake-up at the ATF and a congressional contempt citation for Holder. But no evidence emerged that either the White House or Obama had a role in that failed operation.

Taxes

Working with Democrats: "So. ... We started taxes. And we don't hear from the Democrats. You know, we hear bullshit from the Democrats. Like Joe Manchin. Joe's a nice guy. ... But he talks. But he doesn't do anything. He doesn't do. 'Hey, let's get together, let's do bipartisan.' I say, 'Good, let's go.' Then you don't hear from him again."

NPR's Keith: In a recent interview with Politico, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was critical of the president's approach to the tax bill, going with a partisan process that relied on Republican votes alone for passage. "I was an easy pickup. Very easy pickup," Manchin said. "And a couple, two, three other Democrats would have been easy pickups, if they had just made an effort."

In the end, not a single Democrat voted in favor of the tax bill.

State and local tax deduction: "Had they come to me for a bipartisan tax bill, I would have gone to [Majority Leader Mitch McConnell], and I would have gone to the other Republicans, and we could have worked something out bipartisan. And that could've been either a change to SALT or knockout of SALT."

NPR'S Keith: This is a fascinating maneuver by the president. In a way, he is absolving himself of blame, and instead pointing fingers at both Democrats and members of his own party for new limitations on the deductibility of state and local taxes in the new GOP tax law. He is blaming Democrats for not playing ball, and blaming Republicans for insisting on limiting the deductions. The limits on state and local tax deductions are expected to disproportionately affect high-cost areas in blue states. A handful of Republican representatives in the House voted against the tax bill because this provision would hurt their constituents. But other Republicans saw this as a way to punish high-tax states or even push them to lower taxes, reducing the reach of government at the state level.

Health care

Individual mandate: "You know the individual mandate, Michael, means you take money and you give it to the government for the privilege of not having to pay more money to have health insurance you don't want. There are people who had very good health insurance that now are paying not to have health insurance. That's what the individual mandate. ... They're not going to have to pay anymore. So when people think that will be unpopular. ... It's going to be very popular. It's going to be very popular."

NPR's Keith: The individual mandate, which requires people to buy health insurance, is a largely unpopular part of the Affordable Care Act. The law also requires people to pay a fine if they do not have health insurance. With the new tax bill, Republicans eliminated the fine (technically the mandate to have insurance still exists, but the enforcement mechanism goes away). In 2015, according to the IRS, 6.5 million taxpayers were hit with the penalty. The average payment was $470. Millions more received federal subsidies to help offset the cost of the insurance they did purchase.

According to NPR's Shots blog: "The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that dropping the requirement would result in 13 million fewer people having insurance over 10 years." Premiums are also predicted to rise as healthier people drop insurance.

Association health plans: "We've created associations, millions of people are joining associations. Millions. That were formerly in Obamacare or didn't have insurance. Or didn't have health care. Millions of people. That's gonna be a big bill, you watch. It could be as high as 50 percent of the people. You watch. So that's a big thing. And the individual mandate. So now you have associations, and people don't even talk about the associations. That could be half the people are going to be joining up."

NPR's Keith: Trump is referring to an executive order he signed in October calling on various federal agency heads to "consider proposing regulations or revising guidance" to expand the availability of association health plans; short-term, limited-duration insurance; and health reimbursement arrangements. Trump speaks as if this executive order is already in full effect and millions of people have signed up for association health plans as a result. That is simply not the case.

"The regulations for these new association health plans have not yet been proposed, let alone implemented," Larry Levitt of the Kaiser Family Foundation said in a tweet. "So unless we're in a time warp, people are not yet covered by them." Levitt is co-executive director of the Program for the Study of Health Reform and Private Insurance and is a noted expert on the U.S. health care system.

In another tweet, he pointed out that many questions remain about how these plans would be regulated. The news site Vox wrote a detailed explainer about the policy implications.

Immigration

DACA and the wall: Schmidt: "It sounds like you're tacking to the center in a way you didn't before." Trump: "No, I'm not being centered. I'm just being practical. No, I don't think I'm changing. Look, I wouldn't do a DACA plan without a wall. Because we need it. We see the drugs pouring into the country, we need the wall."

NPR's Amita Kelly and Joel Rose: Trump has reason to become more "practical" on immigration: He has been unable to secure funding to construct his U.S.-Mexico border wall from either Congress or Mexico. He has, however, remained steadfast that a border wall is needed. His administration is moving to end DACA, which protects about 700,000 people brought illegally to the U.S. as children. But he has called on lawmakers to protect those immigrants through a larger immigration overhaul. Polls show wide support for allowing so-called DREAMers to stay in the country.

Here are five immigration stories to watch in 2018, including DACA and the border wall.

"Chain migration": "We have to get rid of chainlike immigration, we have to get rid of the chain. The chain is the last guy that killed. ... [Talking with guests.] ... The last guy that killed the eight people. ... [Inaudible.] ... So badly wounded people. ... Twenty-two people came in through chain migration. Chain migration and the lottery system. They have a lottery in these countries."They take the worst people in the country, they put 'em into the lottery, then they have a handful of bad, worse ones, and they put them out. 'Oh, these are the people the United States. ...' ... We're gonna get rid of the lottery, and by the way, the Democrats agree with me on that. On chain migration, they pretty much agree with me."

NPR's Kelly and Rose: What Trump calls "chain migration," immigration advocates call "family reunification." It describes the way most immigrants come to the U.S. — someone immigrates and, in turn, sponsors family members.

Trump is apparently referring to Sayfullo Saipov, who allegedly killed eight people after plowing a truck into a crowd in Lower Manhattan in November. Saipov is a legal resident and came to the U.S. from Uzbekistan in 2010 on a diversity visa, not through a family connection. The diversity visa program, which issues 50,000 visas per year, was created for people from countries that have sent relatively few immigrants to the U.S. They apply and are vetted before being entered in a lottery. It's not a program that allows countries to put the "worst people" into a lottery. Trump has called for a merit-based system that would preference highly skilled workers.

A suspect in a different New York attack — Akayed Ullah, who is accused of setting off a bomb near the Port Authority in December — was in the U.S. on a visa available through family connection.

Democrats aren't necessarily on board with Trump's desire to eliminate chain migration. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said following the subway bombing that many New Yorkers were in the U.S. because they "were allowed to come after the first family members got here. ... If we're now talking about a new generation of immigrants who are, in many cases, people of color ... suddenly it's 'chain migration,' and it's a bad thing." And Trump has blamed Democrats — specifically Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York — for creating the diversity visa lottery program. Though, as NPR has noted, it had bipartisan support at the time.

Foreign policy

Spending in the Middle East: "Michael, we have spent, as of about a month ago, $7 trillion in the Middle East. And the Middle East is worse than it was 17 years ago. ... [Inaudible.] $7 trillion."

NPR's Domenico Montanaro: This is higher than Trump said during the campaign. He would pin the cost of what the U.S. has spent in the Middle East after the Sept. 11 attacks as $6 trillion. That, PolitiFact noted in October 2016, "is confusing money that's been spent with money that researchers say will be spent. That's a $1 trillion difference or more." That's because of money that is estimated to be spent on veterans' care over the next half-century.

Welcome in China: "I like very much President Xi. He treated me better than anybody's ever been treated in the history of China. You know that. The presentations. ... One of the great two days of anybody's life and memory having to do with China."

NPR's Montanaro: In the 4,000-year history of China, this is a sweepingly hyperbolic claim. Without delving into the pomp China has provided past foreign dignitaries, it's worth pointing out that former President Richard Nixon is largely responsible for the normalization of relations with China and was received warmly in 1972.

Oil going to North Korea: "It was very recently. In fact, I hate to say, it was reported this morning, and it was reported on Fox. Oil is going into North Korea. That wasn't my deal! ... My deal was that, we've got to treat them rough. They're a nuclear menace so we have to be very tough."

NPR's Keith: Trump tweeted about this on Thursday. "Caught RED HANDED - very disappointed that China is allowing oil to go into North Korea," Trump said. "There will never be a friendly solution to the North Korea problem if this continues to happen!" The tweet raised questions about where this information had originated and whether the president was tweeting about something he had learned in a classified briefing. As Trump explains here, his source was a report on Fox News.

NAFTA renegotiation: "If I don't make the right deal, I'll terminate NAFTA in two seconds. But we're doing pretty good. You know, it's easier to renegotiate it if we make it a fair deal because NAFTA was a terrible deal for us. We lost $71 billion a year with Mexico, can you believe it?"

NPR's Montanaro: In 2016, the overall U.S. trade deficit with Mexico was about $56 billion, not $71 billion. But, more important, this is not a zero-sum game. American exports to Mexico have increased sixfold since NAFTA went into effect. Goods exports are five times as high as they were in 1993 when NAFTA was signed, with more than $200 billion worth of American goods being sold in Mexico. In fact, Mexico is the second-largest goods export market for the United States — behind Canada.

As NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben fact-checked during the 2016 campaign: "NAFTA doesn't seem to have been catastrophic for the U.S. economy or for U.S. jobs. As we pointed out in our last Trump speech annotation, nonpartisan analyses have found only a small economic impact from NAFTA. The Congressional Research Service wrote in a 2015 report, 'NAFTA did not cause the huge job losses feared by the critics or the large economic gains predicted by supporters.' "

Trade with Canada: "[We lost] $17 billion with Canada — Canada says we broke even. But they don't include lumber and they don't include oil. Oh, that's not. ... [Inaudible,] ... My friend Justin [Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister] he says, 'No, no, we break even.' I said, 'Yeah, but you're not including oil, and you're not including lumber.' When you do, you lose $17 billion, and with the other one, we're losing $71 billion."

NPR's Montanaro: The U.S. had a trade surplus with Canada of $12.5 billion in 2016. Canada is the U.S.'s largest export market, and the Commerce Department says exports to Canada accounted for an estimated 1.6 million jobs in the United States in 2015.

Alabama Senate race

Endorsing Strange, then Moore: "I was for Strange, and I brought Strange up 20 points. Just so you understand. When I endorsed him, he was in fifth place. He went way up. Almost 20 points. But he fell a little short. But I knew what I was doing. Because I thought that. ... If you look at my rhetoric, I said the problem with Roy Moore is that he will lose the election. I called it. But as the head of the party, I have a choice: Do I endorse him or not? I don't know. ... I feel that I have to endorse Republicans as the head of the party. So, I endorsed him. ... The problem with Roy Moore, and I said this, is that he's going to lose the election. I hope you can straighten that out."

NPR's Jessica Taylor: When Trump endorsed Sen. Luther Strange in a tweet on Aug. 8, most polls had Strange in second place behind Roy Moore in the GOP primary. One contemporaneous poll put the appointed senator's support at 23 percent, while another pegged it at 32 percent.

Strange ended up getting just shy of 33 percent, compared with Moore's almost 39 percent in the first round of voting on Aug. 15. So Trump did not "bring [Strange] up 20 points," and Strange was not in fifth place at any point in time. In the runoff in September, Strange did get 45 percent of the vote, an uptick of 20 points, but he was always going to gain more votes once there were just two candidates instead of a crowded field. That can't be attributed to Trump's endorsement alone — which wasn't able to bring Strange across the finish line. Moore headed to the general election instead.

Trump did say at a rally on Strange's behalf on Sept. 22 that Strange was the most electable candidate, telling the crowd that, "If [Luther] wins, that race is over. If somebody else wins, I will tell you, that's gonna be a very tough race." And those comments came before the sexual assault allegations against Moore surfaced. But Trump also did express some hesitation at endorsing Strange during that rally, admitting that, "I'll be honest, I might have made a mistake" in picking Strange. Many of Trump's allies — including former chief strategist Steve Bannon — backed Moore in the primary.

Ultimately, Trump is probably right about another thing — if it had been Strange as the GOP nominee, Republicans very likely would have held on to the Alabama seat. Democrat Doug Jones won, despite a last-minute challenge from Moore and his refusal to concede even as the voting result was certified.

Campaigning for president

The popular vote: "I won because I was a better candidate by a lot. I won because I campaigned properly and she didn't. She campaigned for the popular vote. I campaigned for the Electoral College. ... It would have been a whole different thing. The genius is that the popular vote is a much different form of campaigning. Hillary never understood that."

NPR's Keith: Hillary Clinton's campaign was not ignoring the Electoral College in favor of the popular vote, though it did assume she had more strength in several typically Democratic states than it turns out she did. In the lead-up to the election, Clinton's campaign focused on Florida, North Carolina and Ohio, states that were thought to be winnable but by no means a shoo-in, while spending less time and resources on Wisconsin and Michigan — traditionally Democratic states mistakenly thought to be in her column. Meanwhile, Trump put a lot of emphasis on those states, knowing he would need them to pull off an Electoral College victory, which he ultimately did. He also did so because it was his only path. Clinton had several options.

The irony here is that some Clinton insiders were concerned that she would win the Electoral College but Trump would win the popular vote and then contest the election results. In the end, Clinton ended up with nearly 2.9 million more popular votes than Trump.

For a primer on how the Electoral College works, watch this episode of Ron's Office Hours from February.

Winning in 2020: "We're going to win another four years for a lot of reasons, most importantly because our country is starting to do well again and we're being respected again. But another reason that I'm going to win another four years is because newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I'm not there because without me, their ratings are going down the tubes. Without me, The New York Times will indeed be not the failing New York Times, but the failed New York Times. So they basically have to let me win. And eventually, probably six months before the election, they'll be loving me because they're saying, 'Please, please, don't lose Donald Trump.' O.K."

NPR's Keith: This is far from the first time Trump has claimed with confidence that he will win re-election in 2020. But he is now offering a stunning theory that the media — an institution he has denigrated to no end throughout 2017 — will help him win because papers and cable networks need him to keep their ratings and subscriptions up. It is true that Trump has generally been good for ratings. But in America, the media don't decide who wins elections. Voters do.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.