Axios National Political Correspondent, Jonathan Swan, interviewed President Donald Trump on Tuesday, July 28th, 2020, about a number of topics including the coronavirus pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the world, and mail-in voting. The interview aired on HBO the following Monday, August 3rd, 2020.
The interview began with a lengthy conversation regarding the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. The next topic of discussion: allegations of Russian bounties on U.S. troops. Swan noticed that such intelligence has been widely reported and asked the president if he had discussed this topic with Vladimir Putin on their July 23rd phone call.
Trump: “No that was a phone call to discuss other things, and frankly that’s an issue that many people said was fake news.”
Swan: “Who said it was fake news?”
Trump: “A lot of people, uh, if you look at some of the wonderful folks from the Bush administration, some of them, not any friends of mine, were saying it’s a fake issue, but a lot of people said it’s a fake issue.”
Swan: “There was a dispute, within the intelligence community.”
Trump: “We had a call talking about nuclear proliferation, which is a very big subject, where they would like to do something and so would I.”
President Trump was clear that he had never discussed the reports of Russian bounties with Vladimir Putin, despite saying:
Trump: “I would. I’d have no problem with it.”
Swan: “It’s because you don’t believe the intelligence, that’s why?”
Trump: “Uh, everything – you know it’s interesting nobody ever brings up China, they always bring up Russia, Russia, Russia.”
The president when on to say that “it never reached my desk”, despite such information reportedly being in his written brief, and claimed that officials in the intelligence community thought it was fake. President Trump also indicated that he was more concerned about the talks with Russia regarding nuclear proliferation, which he described as a “much bigger problem than global warming.” Understandably, this question led to the logical follow-up:
Swan: “Do you read your written brief?”
Trump: “I do. I read a lot.”
Trump: “They like to say I don’t read, I read a lot.”
Swan: “You read your daily intelligence brief?”
Trump: “I comprehend extraordinarily well, probably better than anybody that you’ve interviewed in a long time. I read a lot.”
The president belabored his point about how many memos and briefings he receives, among the many meetings he attends, to circle back to his original assertion that the particular intelligence briefing in question never reached his desk. Swan noted that the former head of forces Afghanistan, John Nicholson, said that “Russia is supplying weapons to the Taliban.” and asked the president:
Swan: “Isn’t that enough to challenge Putin over the killings of U.S. soldiers?”
Trump: “Well we supplied weapons when they were fighting Russia too.”
Despite that being a different era and probably a logical fallacy, it does somehow strike to the core of geopolitics: there are no clean hands or innocent actors on the world stage. Though that was most certainly not Trump’s meaning beyond his obvious deflection.
The conversation moved to troop levels in Afghanistan, which saw a surge after President Trump took office to about 14,000 troops on the ground. Currently those numbers are back down to around 9,000 soldiers, nearly the same level as when Trump took office. When asked about a specific date for troop reductions the president at first refused to answer, but when pressed for an estimate by the November election the president noted that we may be down to around 4,000-5,000 by that time. In the exchange President Trump alleged that we “wiped out ISIS” dodged a question about considerations to reduce troop levels to zero.
You can watch the full interview here.