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Trump on media: 'They basically have to let me win' in 2020

President Donald Trump speaks to the media as he walks to Marine One as he departs the White House, Friday, Sept. 29, 2017, in Washington. Trump is en route to Bedminster, N.J.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

President Donald Trump addressed a wide array of issues in an impromptu interview with a New York Times reporter Thursday, revealing his thoughts on Russia, the independence of the Justice Department, North Korea’s nuclear threat, and why he believes the press will help him win reelection in three years.

Speaking to Michael Schmidt at his golf club in West Palm Beach, Florida, Trump defended his record in his first year in office, bragged about his relationship with Republicans in Congress, and advised Democrats to “come to me” to negotiate bipartisan deals on immigration, infrastructure, and more in 2018. He also provided insight into how he views his relationship with the mainstream media that he has at times derided as the “enemy of the American people.”

Some highlights:

1. ‘No collusion’

Over the course of 30 minutes, Trump said 16 times that there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia. He also said twice, citing the opinion of attorney Alan Dershowitz, that if there was collusion, it would not be a crime.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election has already resulted in indictments of two Trump campaign aides and guilty pleas by two others, but not for any crimes directly related to the campaign’s activities.

Trump claimed “virtually every Democrat” has agreed that there was no collusion, but few of them have made such definitive statements. He also indicated the probe has fired up his own base.

“The Republicans, in terms of the House committees, they come out, they’re so angry because there is no collusion,” he said.

2. ‘Tremendous collusion’

While Trump was adamant that his campaign did not collude with Russia, he was similarly strident but relatively vague in arguing that Democrats did collude with Russia.

“There was tremendous collusion on behalf of the Russians and the Democrats,” he said, pointing to “the dossier.”

A former British intelligence official working for a firm that was being paid by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee compiled a dossier of information alleging links between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government. Some of his sources reportedly had ties to the Kremlin.

Trump also brought up a lobbying firm run by the brother of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta that is under investigation for work it did on behalf of a Ukrainian client referred to it by indicted Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

U.S. intelligence agencies have accused Russian operatives of attempting to influence the election through hacking of Democratic email accounts, dissemination of propaganda, and other measures. The CIA and FBI concluded with a high degree of confidence that Russia’s aim was to help Trump and discredit Clinton.

3. ‘He’s going to be fair’

Asked repeatedly about the timeline of Mueller’s investigation, Trump insisted it does not bother him because he believes he will be treated fairly and no evidence of wrongdoing will be found. His attorneys had reportedly advised him the probe would likely be complete by the end of 2017, but there have been no public indications it is wrapping up.

As he often has, Trump dismissed the whole investigation as “a ruse” dreamed up by Democrats to explain why they lost the election, and he suggested it has spun out of their control.

“They thought it would be a one-day story, an excuse, and it just kept going and going and going,” Trump said.

Trump also warned that the investigation is making America look “very bad,” but he did not explain why that is.

4. ‘An absolute right’

Trump accused Attorney General Jeff Sessions of doing “a terrible thing” by recusing himself from the investigation of Russia’s role in the election, a decision which ultimately led to Mueller’s appointment.

“I like Jeff, but it’s too bad he recused himself,” Trump said, comparing Sessions to Obama Attorney General Eric Holder, who he claimed “totally protected” the president from scandals.

“I have an absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department,” Trump said at one point, but he claimed he has stayed uninvolved because he thinks he will be treated fairly.

5. ‘China can help us’

Trump defended the disparity between his tough campaign rhetoric on China and what he acknowledged has been “soft” treatment of the Chinese since he took office.

“If they’re helping me with North Korea, I can look at trade a little bit different, at least for a period of time,” he said.

Trump was responding to questions about a tweet he sent earlier in the day accusing China of selling oil to North Korea, something Beijing denies. Trump cited a Fox News report that morning as the source for his allegations.

If China does not become much more helpful in containing North Korean nuclear ambitions, he indicated he will take the tougher actions on trade that he threatened on the campaign trail.

6. ‘I didn’t lose’

Trump appears to have brought up the Alabama special election and his endorsement of failed Republican nominee Roy Moore unprovoked. He insisted that he initially endorsed Moore’s primary opponent, Luther Strange, because he knew Moore would lose.

“I was for Strange, and I brought Strange up by 20 points,” he claimed. One poll showed a 4-point increase in Strange’s support after Trump endorsed him, according to Politifact, but most registered little or no change.

The president took issue with analyses of the Alabama race that has cast him as the loser, even though both candidates he endorsed did lose. Despite downplaying his support for Moore, who faced allegations of child molestation in the month before the election, Trump also attempted to claim credit for Moore almost winning.

“It became a much closer race because of my endorsement,” he said. “People don’t say that. They say, ‘Oh, Donald Trump lost.’ I didn’t lose, I brought him up a lot.”

7. ‘They’ll be loving me’

One of the most revealing moments in the interview came at the end when Trump laid out reasons why he is confident he will be reelected in 2020.

“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,” Trump said.

“So they basically have to let me win,” he added. “And eventually, probably six months before the election, they’ll be loving me because they’re saying, ‘Please, please, don’t lose Donald Trump.’”

For a president who constantly complains that the press is unfair to him and frequently threatens to take action against media outlets he dislikes, this is a somewhat rosy assessment of Trump’s relationship with the fourth estate. Experts say it has some basis in reality, though.

“The media certainly profit from Donald Trump in terms of readership, in terms of audience,” said John Carroll, a former journalist and a professor of mass communication at Boston University, but he doubts those benefits will drive reporters to make some concerted effort to reelect him.

There is a distinctly adversarial element of Trump’s interactions with the press, but Don Irvine, chairman of conservative watchdog group Accuracy in Media, noted the media willingly amplified his voice in 2016, often crowding out his opponents.

“When you look going through the campaign and leading up to the election, the media loved to cover him,” he said.

Coverage may be more balanced in 2020 when Trump is a known quantity and his blunt campaign style is no longer a novelty.

“He’s going to require a certain amount of coverage,” Irvine said. “Will it be as much as it was during 2016 during his initial run? I’m not so sure.”

Given his vociferous anti-media rhetoric, casual observers might also be surprised to see the president sitting down, apparently spontaneously, with a journalist from the “failing New York Times” in the first place.

“Please bear this interview -unprompted and eagerly agreed to by POTUS - when he holds his next rally and talks about the ‘enemy’ re the media,” Times reporter Maggie Haberman tweeted.

While they are targets of his public scorn, Trump has turned to reporters at the Times and the Washington Post when he wanted to speak out in the past.

“It’s like ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ you know,” Carroll said. “He can’t quit the Times.”

As a creature of New York media, Carroll suggested Trump has long been concerned with how the city’s paper of record treats him.

“He is addicted to trying to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the New York Times and the Times readers. So he will gravitate toward them on a regular basis because it’s like oxygen for him,” he said.

Though the interview has subjected Trump to fresh criticism and mockery, talking to a perceived hostile outlet like the Times undercuts complaints from the press corps about access.

“It kind of neutralizes some of the negativity the media has toward him when he opens up and sits down for a half hour with these guys,” Irvine said.

The president’s boasts aside, how much sway the press will hold over voters in the 2020 election is an open question. Critical reporting on Trump in the final months of the 2016 race did little to erode his support. However, Democrats have argued the media’s fixation on Clinton’s emails badly damaged her chances of victory.

“If you ask Hillary Clinton’s people, do you think the New York Times had a significant influence in terms of her losing the 2016 campaign, they would say absolutely,” Carroll said.

For now, though, Irvine said the media is still struggling to grasp how to cover Trump, typically focusing on controversial comments in interviews like this one instead of regulatory changes, judicial appointments, and other issues of substance that would face greater scrutiny under a more traditional Republican president.

“I don’t know if it’s really a defined strategy,” he said, “but whatever it is, it’s working to his benefit overall.”

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