President Trump, who says he made an eleventh-hour decision last week to call off a retaliatory military strike against Iran, declared in an interview aired Sunday that war would mean “obliteration” for the Islamic Republic. But he also said he was open to talks without preconditions with Tehran.
In a wide-ranging interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Trump also said he did not want to be impeached, but believed that if proceedings were opened in the House, it would help him politically in 2020.
And he said he “may” warn Russian President Vladimir Putin against interfering in the U.S. election when the two leaders meet this week on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Japan.
Additionally, the president brushed aside questions about inhumane treatment of children detained at the border, and ducked a query about a new United Nations report urging closer scrutiny of the role of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The confrontation with Iran, which has slowly ratcheted up since Trump pulled the United States out of a landmark nuclear accord last year, has spiked in recent days over Iran’s downing of a U.S. surveillance drone and amid threats to oil shipping in strategic waters in and near the Gulf of Oman.
Fueling confusion among U.S. allies, Trump has appeared to alternately heed and dismiss the advice of hawkish advisors like John Bolton, the national security advisor.
In the NBC interview, Trump said he did not want an armed confrontation with Iran, telling interviewer Chuck Todd, “I’m not looking for war.” But he added that “if there is, it’ll be obliteration like you’ve never seen before.”
At the same time, the president signaled openness to a larger negotiated settlement with Tehran, which has railed angrily against U.S. sanctions it says are strangling the country economically. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday repeated accusations that the United States is the aggressor in a series of tense incidents in and near the Gulf of Oman.
Trump, in the interview, ruled out allowing Iran to possess nuclear weapons, but added he would set no pre-arranged parameters on any talks with its leaders. No direct contacts have been disclosed, or such plans announced.
“Not as far as I’m concerned – no preconditions,” the president said. At another point, he said: “I think they want to make a deal. And my deal is nuclear.”
Trump offered an implicit defense of what critics have characterized as a chaotic-appearing decision-making process in the White House on how or whether to engage militarily with Tehran.
The president’s depiction of his abrupt scrapping of military strikes shortly before they were to have taken place on Thursday night – he said the next day on Twitter that he was told at the last minute the strikes would result in approximately 150 Iranian deaths -- has been publicly questioned by a number of experts and former national security officials.
Normally, casualty scenarios would be explored much earlier in the process. But Trump provided a similar account to Todd, with casualty projections only coming into play as final preparations were being made for military action.
“I thought about it for a second and I said, ‘You know what? They shot down an unmanned drone, plane, whatever you want to call it. And here we are sitting with 150 dead people that would have taken place probably within a half an hour after I said go ahead,’” the president recounted. “And I didn’t like it. I didn’t think it was -- I didn’t think it was proportionate.”
Bolton, who has long advocated settling disputes with Iran by force if necessary, employed more tough rhetoric on Sunday in Jerusalem, where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a fellow harsh critic of Iran. With the Israeli prime minister by his side, the U.S. national security advisor said Iran should not “mistake U.S. prudence and discretion for weakness.”
Referring to the shooting down of the U.S. drone, which American military officials have said was flying over international waters, Bolton declared: “No one has granted them [Iranian forces] a hunting license in the Middle East.”
Trump, speaking to NBC, acknowledged that on the spectrum of his senior advisors, Bolton is “absolutely a hawk.” But he played down his national security advisor’s consistent stridency on Iran, saying he wanted to hear a variety of viewpoints.
“If it was up to him, he’d take on the whole world at one time, OK?” Trump said of Bolton. “But that doesn’t matter, because I want both sides.”
Iran continued to insist Sunday that the United States bears the blame for regional tensions. Iran’s official news agency IRNA on Sunday quoted Rouhani as saying he hoped the international community would condemn the “interventionist military presence” of the United States.
On another topic, Trump expressed confidence in the face of growing sentiment among congressional Democrats that the House should open impeachment proceedings against him.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco has taken the position that Democrats should keep looking into various alleged malfeasance by the president and his associates, but not commence a formal process. She and many senior Democratic leaders believe Trump would point to a likely acquittal by the Republican-controlled Senate as proof he had done nothing wrong.
If impeachment proceedings were held, Trump said, “I think I win the election easier.” But he insisted again that he had done nothing wrong, despite the special counsel’s compilation of evidence that he may have obstructed justice.
Pressed by his interviewer as to whether he would bring up the subject of interference with Putin this week in Osaka, Japan, in light of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s finding of sweeping and systemic Russian efforts to influence the 2016 vote, Trump replied in an almost bantering fashion.
“I may,” he said. “If you’d like me to do it, I’ll do that.”
The president was also asked about conditions under which child migrants, many from Central America, are being detained by U.S. immigration authorities. Reports in recent days have cited filthy conditions, a lack of access to basic supplies like soap and toothpaste, and young children being pressed into caring for infants separated from their parents.
“We’re doing a fantastic job under the circumstances,” he said, blaming the Obama administration for problems at the border.
Trump avoided answering questions about a U.N. investigation last week citing “credible evidence” that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would have been aware of plans to kill Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing opinion columnist.
Asked whether new scrutiny of the crown prince was warranted, Trump said the journalist’s death at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in October had already been “heavily investigated.”
Without mentioning Khashoggi by name, he then quickly pivoted to the importance of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The Senate last week voted to block billions of dollars in weapons deals with the kingdom, but not by veto-proof majorities.
The president dismissed the notion that Khashoggi’s killing should be a deterrent to financial dealings with the Saudis.
“I’m not like a fool that says, ‘We don’t want to do business with them,’” Trump told Todd.