After U.S. intelligence chiefs seemed to be at odds with Mr. Trump on several topics during congressional testimony last week, he called them naive and they might need to go back to “school.”
But on “Face the Nation,” the president indicated it was more the “questions and answers” about the worldwide threats report that troubled him, and he went on to tout the success of U.S. efforts around the globe.
“You have the caliphate almost knocked out,” he said. “We will be announcing in the not too distant future 100 percent of the caliphate, which is the area – the land – the area, 100. We’re at 99 percent right now, we’ll be at 100,” Mr. Trump said.
Specifically on the threat posed by Iran, Mr. Trump still appeared to doubt the intelligence. “My intelligence people, if they said in fact that Iran is a wonderful kindergarten, I disagree with them 100 percent. It is a vicious country that kills many people,” he said.
When pressed on the intelligence community’s assessment that Iran was technically in compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, Trump said he doesn’t “have to agree” with his intelligence chiefs.
“I have intel people, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree. President Bush had intel people that said Saddam Hussein in Iraq had nuclear weapons, had all sorts of weapons of mass destruction. Guess what? Those intel people didn’t know what the hell they were doing, and they got us tied up in a war that we should have never been in.”
He added, “We were in many, many locations in the Middle East, in huge difficulty. Every single one of them was caused by the number one terrorist nation in the world which is Iran. So when my intelligence people tell me how wonderful Iran is – if you don’t mind, I’m going to just go by my own counsel.”
Mr. Trump said he wouldn’t stop his intelligence chiefs from testifying again, saying, “I want them to have their own opinion and I want them to give me their opinion.”
Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan
Brennan pointed out the president’s intelligence chiefs had said that a vacuum left by the departure of U.S. troops could result in a resurgence of ISIS or al Qaeda in Syria or Iraq.
“And you know what we’ll do? We’ll come back if we have to,” Mr. Trump said. “We have very fast airplanes, we have very good cargo planes. We can come back very quickly, and I’m not leaving. We have a base in Iraq and the base is a fantastic edifice. I mean I was there recently, and I couldn’t believe the money that was spent on these massive runways. And these – I’ve rarely seen anything like it. And it’s there. And we’ll be there.”
He went on to say he’d keep troops in Iraq to be able to “watch Iran.”
“Well, we spent a fortune on building this incredible base. We might as well keep it. And one of the reasons I want to keep it is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem,” he said. “We’re going to keep watching and we’re going to keep seeing and if there’s trouble, if somebody is looking to do nuclear weapons or other things, we’re going to know it before they do.”
Mr. Trump told Brennan that 2,000 troops remain in Syria, but they are starting to come home, as they push out the “final remainder of the caliphate.” Afterward, he said, “they will be going to our base in Iraq, and ultimately, some will be coming home.”
He said planned to keep a small contingent of troops in Afghanistan for “real intelligence” purposes. “I’ll leave intelligence there and if I see nests forming, I’ll do something about it.” He was emphatic, however, about bringing troops home.
“We’ve been there for 19 years. I want to fight. I want to win, and we want to bring our great troops back home. I’ve seen the people. I go to Walter Reed Hospital. I see what happens to people. I see with no legs and no arms. And I’ve seen also what happens to them up here because they’re in this situation, and they come back and they are totally different people,” he said. “Where the wives and the fathers and the mothers say, ‘What has happened to my son? What has happened’ – in some cases – ‘to my daughter?’ It’s a terrible thing. We’ve been there close to 19 years. And it’s time. And we’ll see what happens with the Taliban. They want peace. They’re tired. Everybody’s tired. We’d like to have – I don’t like endless wars.”
Mr. Trump also discussed the crisis in Venezuela, saying the use of military force remains “an option.” The country’s President Nicolás Maduro is holding onto power as the U.S. and dozens of other countries have thrown their support behind Juan Guaidó, the head of the Venezuelan National Assembly. The president told Brennan Maduro requested a meeting with him “a number of months ago.”
“I’ve turned it down because we’re very far along in the process,” he said. Mr. Trump explained why he turned down the meeting with the embattled Venezuelan leader, who has seen the economic crisis in the country dramatically worsen under his leadership, and whose re-election last year was widely regarded as tainted.
“I would say this. I decided at the time, no, because so many really horrible things have been happening in Venezuela, when you look at that country,” he said. “That was the wealthiest country of all in that part of the world, which is a very important part of the world. And now you look at the poverty, and you look at the anguish, and you look at the crime and you look at all of the things happening.”
Shutdown or national emergency?
Less than two weeks before some parts of the government will again see their funding lapse, Mr. Trump is now not ruling out another government shutdown. Asked directly whether he’d consider such a move again, Mr. Trump said, “Well, we’re going to have to see what happens on Feb. 15.” However, he quickly pivoted to another alternative – declaring a national emergency at the border, which would enable him to fund the construction of a border wall without congressional approval.
“It’s a national emergency, it’s other things and, you know, there have been plenty national emergencies called,” he said. “You need a wall. And anybody that says you don’t, they’re just playing games.”
Mr. Trump criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her negotiating tactics in this fight. Pelosi has firmly insisted the House will not agree to increased funding for the wall.
“She can keep playing her games, but we will win,” he said. “Because we have a much better issue. On a political basis, what she’s doing is – I actually think it’s bad politics, but much more importantly it’s very bad for our country.”
Mr. Trump dismissed reports that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would consider running for Senate from Kansas. He said he asked Pompeo, who he said told him he’s “absolutely not leaving.”
Still, Brennan pointed out that the president has an unusually large number of interim personnel in top positions in his administration, with an acting attorney general, chief of staff, defense secretary and interior secretary.
“It’s OK. It’s easier to make moves when they’re acting,” Mr. Trump said. “I like acting because I can move so quickly. It gives me more flexibility.”
Asked when he knows it’s time to fire someone, Mr. Trump said, “When it’s not happening … when it doesn’t get done.” Without prompting, he pointed to his former defense secretary, James Mattis.
“Like with General Mattis, I wasn’t happy with his service. I told him, ‘Give me a letter,'” he told Brennan, who pointed out that Mattis had resigned.
“He resigned because I asked him to resign,” Mr. Trump said. “He resigned because I was very nice to him. But I gave him big budgets and he didn’t do well in Afghanistan. I was not happy with the job he was doing in Afghanistan. And if you look at Syria what’s happened. I went to Iraq recently, if you look at Syria, what’s happened in Syria in the last few weeks, you would see that things are going down that were not going down. That things are happening that are very good. So I was not happy with him, but I wish him well.”