Trump’s Freewheeling and Fact-Free Cabinet Meeting
WASHINGTON — President Trump had a few things to say to start the new year.
About walls. About wheels. About death and sand. About Mitt Romney and Iran. About his popularity in Europe and within the Republican Party. About essentially firing Jim Mattis as defense secretary, and forcing the retiring senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake from office. And about validation from Kanye West and how his generals were “better looking than Tom Cruise.”
© Doug Mills/The New York Times President Trump during a cabinet meeting on Wednesday at the White House.
He lamented being lonely in the White House over Christmas and New Year’s. He had been essentially out of public view for a week, so when he convened his first cabinet meeting of 2019, he seemed to be releasing some pent-up demand to be heardS
Mr. Trump seems quite dug in on — and not accurately informed about — building a wall.
Walls, the president said, are a time-tested effective way to secure a border. Just look at the Vatican, he said. Is that wall, “the biggest wall of them all,” immoral, he asked. (Vatican City has walls, but they do not enclose the entire territory and visitors can easily enter some parts.)
“The United States needs a physical barrier,” he said, adding that it “needs a wall.” Later, though, he said he did not really care if the barrier were called a wall, but wanted only to emphasize that a wall was needed.
© Getty President Donald Trump speaks to acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan during a cabinet meeting at the White House
A wall, he said, would stop the flow of heroin into the country, and it would stop human trafficking. There are “probably” 30 million to 35 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, he speculated, and they cost the government $250 billion, which “would pay for the wall.”
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(Government and independent analyses have estimated there are about 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, and one of the highest estimates for costs of illegal immigration — a criticized study from an anti-immigration group — pins the figure at $116 billion. Building a wall would not remove these immigrants from the United States and reduce whatever costs they impose.)
And, Mr. Trump noted, President Barack Obama built a wall around “his compound,” except that is not quite what Mr. Obama did. In any event, Mr. Trump said he did not want to be critical of his predecessor; rather, he wanted to make the point that walls work. Drones and other technology, he argued, had more limited capacity. “I know more about drones than anybody,” he said.
The wall, though, had the advantage of history.
“The wheel, the wall, some things never get old,” Mr. Trump said.
Mitt Romney’s op-ed article got the president’s attention.
Mr. Romney, the newly elected Republican senator from Utah, announced his presence in Washington by writing an op-ed article in The Washington Post that was a scathing criticism of Mr. Trump. Usually not one to shy from a fight, Mr. Trump was relatively restrained when he talked about Mr. Romney, who was the Republican presidential nominee in 2012.
© Getty President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House
“I’d love him to be a team player, possibly he won’t be,” Mr. Trump said. The president noted that he had endorsed Mr. Romney for the Senate, and Mr. Romney, in turn, had praised him “profusely.” Then Mr. Trump added that Mr. Romney’s words might not play well in Utah, where the president said he is extremely popular. (Mr. Trump is probably less popular in Utah any almost any largely Republican state.)
He went to on criticize Mr. Romney’s race against Mr. Obama in 2012, and said that if Mr. Romney had fought Mr. Obama as hard as he has fought him, Mr. Romney might have won. And when asked if he were concerned about a primary challenge from Mr. Romney in 2020, Mr. Trump replied, “They say I am the most popular president in the history of the Republican Party.”
(Actually, Mr. Trump’s approval rating among Republicans was 88 percent at 701 days into his term, according to Gallup, the same as President George W. Bush at the same point. Over all, Mr. Trump’s approval ratings among his own party have largely hovered below Mr. Bush’s.)
Cabinet members know the value of praise.
One by one, the president called on select cabinet members for their contributions to border security. One by one, they responded by praising their boss.
Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary, applauded his leadership on border security. She was followed the acting attorney general, Matthew G. Whitaker, who saluted the president for giving up his Christmas and New Year’s holidays “while some members of Congress went on vacation.” Rick Perry, the energy secretary and a former governor of Texas, also praised the president, saying he had been rebuffed on border security from the Obama administration. “You’re standing up and saying don’t come,” Mr. Perry said.
Not to be outdone, Vice President Mike Pence noted that he, too, stayed in Washington over the holidays. Then he, too, piled on the compliments: “I want to thank you for the strong stand you have taken on border security.”
Syria and ISIS are on Mr. Trump’s mind.
Mr. Trump was still stinging from criticism over his decision to withdraw American troops from Syria, lamenting that he was the only person who would get “bad publicity” for it. One rebuke in particular, from Mr. Mattis, seemed to prompt the president to issue some criticism of his own.
© Getty President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House
“How has he done in Afghanistan? Not good. I’m not happy,” Mr. Trump said, before adding, “I wish him well. President Obama fired him and, essentially, so did I.” (Mr. Mattis resigned in protest, and Mr. Trump initially characterized the retired Marine general’s departure as a retirement.)
He protested that some characterized the withdrawal as aiding Russia, insisting that “they’re not happy.” (In fact, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia called Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria “correct.”)
Besides, he said, Russia learned how costly and fruitless a foreign war can be after “they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan” even though it had good reason to invade the country “because terrorists were going to Russia.” (The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, beginning a “decade-long attempt by Moscow to subdue the Afghan civil war and maintain a friendly and socialist government on its border,” according to the State Department.)
Mr. Trump then misleadingly claimed that Mr. Obama gave Iran $150 billion and $1.8 billion cash. (The first figure refers to a high estimate of frozen Iranian assets released by the Iran nuclear deal — not a check cut to Tehran — while the second refers to a payment of a debt owed to Iran.)
The president likes to read polls.
Unprompted, the president responded to a recent poll in Europe that Mr. Romney cited in his op-ed article that showed only 16 percent of people in Germany, Britain, France, Canada and Sweden believed that the American president would “do the right thing in world affairs,” down from 84 percent in 2016.
© Getty President Donald Trump holds up a letter he says is from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a cabinet meeting at the White House
Mr. Trump took the low number as a measure of how well he is doing in the United States. “If I were popular in Europe, I wouldn’t be doing my job.”
He later added, though, that he could indeed reverse those numbers. “I could be the most popular person in Europe,” he said. “I could run for any office if I wanted to.”
And he has no intention of letting up.
Mr. Trump seemed to think that some of his predecessors — he did not name names — have coasted in what is frequently described as the most difficult, loneliest job in the world.
“It would be a lot easier if I just relaxed and enjoyed the presidency like a lot of other people have done,” he said.
Source : MSN
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By MICHAEL TACKETT and LINDA QIU