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Trump boasts about doing things “proper,” talks North Korea, and attacks Michael Wolff in Camp David speech

Gary Cohn says he’s happy, too.

President Donald Trump and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn affirm their support for each other at Camp David in January 2018.
President Donald Trump and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn affirm their support for each other at Camp David in January 2018.
Pool/Getty Images News
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

“That’s what I do is I do things proper,” President Donald Trump declared on Saturday while fielding questions from reporters at presidential retreat Camp David, a rare Q&A session with a president who has become increasingly press-shy since taking office. The president addressed a range of issues, including his early-morning Twitter rant, his immigration proposals, and talks between North Korea and South Korea. At one point, Trump also called his top economic adviser, Gary Cohn — who has long been rumored to be contemplating leaving the White House — to the microphone to declare, “I’m happy.”

Trump’s “proper” comment came in response to a question about a report published in the New York Times on Thursday, which said Trump had enlisted the White House counsel, Don McGahn, to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Trump believed it was Sessions’ job as attorney general to protect him. “Everything that I’ve done is 100 percent proper,” Trump said. He held that the Times report was “way off, or at least off,” though he declined to say in what way. “You’ll find out,” he said. He took about 10 minutes of questions.

Others attending the Camp David retreat with Trump spoke as well — Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Sessions did not attend.

Here are the highlights.

On the Michael Wolff book: “It’s a disgrace.”

Trump called Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by media writer Michael Wolff a “disgrace” and “work of fiction.” The salacious book describes the events of Trump’s first months in office and has clearly roiled the president; multiple excerpts were published before its official release on Friday. Since then, Trump has derided Wolff and former top strategist Steve Bannon. (The Breitbart News chairman was clearly a major source for Wolff.)

President Trump said Wolff, who interviewed him in 2016 for a Hollywood Reporter profile, “does not know me at all” and insisted Wolff’s claim that he spoke with Trump for a total of three hours during his campaign and after was a lie. Initially, Trump said Wolff had never interviewed him but then backtracked, saying they spoke once “a long time ago” for an article.

“I guess Sloppy Steve brought him into the White House a lot,” Trump said, referring to Bannon. “That’s why Sloppy Steve is looking for a job.” For his part, Wolff said he gained access to the White House, essentially, through the president’s “non-disapproval.”

On the Times story: It’s “way off, or at least off.”

Trump on Saturday said the New York Times story about Sessions’ recusing himself from the FBI’s Russia probe was “way off, or at least off” but wouldn’t explain how. When asked how off the story was, Trump replied, “You’ll find out.”

The president seemed to think Sessions failed to protect him, reportedly going so far as to ask “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” — a reference to Trump’s former attorney and fixer, a ruthless figure who served as Sen. Joe McCarthy’s top aide in his 1950s communist investigations and who died in 1986. Trump added that he’s still standing by Sessions, despite the Attorney General’s conspicuous absence at Camp David. “The collusion is dead,” the president told the assembled reporters.

The FBI’s investigation remains ongoing.

On discussions between North Korea and South Korea: “I hope it works out.”

Next week, North Korea and South Korea plan to hold high-level diplomatic talks for the first time in more than two years. Trump’s take: “I hope it works out, I very much want to see it work out between the two countries.”

Trump said he had spoken with South Korean Moon Jae-in, who “thanked me very much for my tough stance” and with whom he had a “great discussion.” He said he would like to see North Korea “getting involved” in the Pyeongchang Olympic Games which South Korea will host in February and “maybe things go from there.”

Trump said Moon and others had said that “without my rhetoric, and without my tough stance, and it’s not just a stance, I mean, this is, this is what has to be done, if it has to be done that they wouldn’t be talking about Olympics, they wouldn’t be talking right now.” It is unclear how true that is.

On potential talks with Kim Jong Un: “I always believe in talking.”

Trump earlier this week tweeted that he has a “much bigger & more powerful” nuclear button than North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — a serious Cold War-esque threat. (For the record, he doesn’t actually have a button.) Apparently, however, the phone lines at the White House are open if the Jong Un wants to catch up.

“Sure, I always believe in talking,” Trump said on Saturday when asked if he was willing to engage in phone talks with the North Korean leader. “But we have a very firm stance.”

Trump went on to say that Jong Un “knows I’m not messing around, not even a little bit.” But he said if some sort of an agreement could be reached, “that would be a great thing for all of humanity, that would be a great thing for the world.”

The world agrees.

On the 2018 midterms: “We need more Republicans.”

Trump said that he plans to be very involved in 2018 Senate and House races and will campaign for “whoever I have to protect,” including incumbents and “anybody else that has my kind of thinking.”

He took a swipe at Bannon and failed Republican candidate Roy Moore, who lost his bid for the US Senate seat in Alabama to Democrat Doug Jones after a wave of sexual assault allegations, many of them involving teenagers, surfaced near the end of the race. “We should have never lost Alabama,” Trump said, and then seemingly opened the door to bipartisan legislation:

We need more Republicans, we have to have more Republicans, with that being said, I think we’re going to go bipartisan, I think we’re going to have some really great bipartisan bills, but we need more Republicans so that we can really get the rest of the make America great again agenda passed.

Trump also took the opportunity to brag about his poll numbers, which he said “have gone way up.”

According to Gallup, Trump’s approval rating this week reached its highest level since mid-July: 39 percent. President Barack Obama’s approval rating at about the same time in his presidency was 51 percent; President George W. Bush’s was 84 percent.

On immigration: “The wall’s going to happen or we’re not going to have DACA.”

Trump has given Congress until March to come up with legislation to save the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an Obama-era law that protected some 700,000 young people from deportation. President Trump, however, clarified that there will be strings attached to any deal that might be reached: “The wall’s going to happen or we’re not going to have DACA.”

Beyond calling for funding for a border wall at the US-Mexico border, for which the Trump administration is asking $18 billion, the president also called for an end to “chain migration” — immigration to the United States that happens based on family ties — and the visa lottery system, a diversity-boosting program for people without US relatives.

“We all want DACA to happen, but we also want great security for our country,” Trump said.

When asked about his continued call for Mexico to pay for the wall, despite all evidence pointing to the fact that American taxpayers will eventually foot the bill, Trump reiterated that he thinks that Mexican check will still somehow come through. “In some form, Mexico will pay for the wall,” he said. It doesn’t seem likely — Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has consistently said Mexico has no plans to pay for the wall.

Gary Cohn on his feelings: “I’m happy.”

National Economic Council director and former Goldman Sachs chief operating officer Gary Cohn has long been subject to speculation that he might soon leave the White House. Midway through his speech, though, Trump said that he’s sticking around — and brought Cohn up to the microphone to prove it.

“If he leaves, I’m going to say that I’m very happy that he left,” Trump joked as Cohn approached the podium.

“Are you happy, Gary? We just passed a very big bill, I think he’s pretty happy,” the president said, referring to the Republican tax bill, passed in December.

“Yes, I’m happy. How’s that?” Cohn said.

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