Trump’s go-it-alone instincts were a consistent refrain — “I’m the Lone Ranger,” he said at one point — during a 96-minute interview Thursday in which he talked candidly about his aggressive style of campaigning and offered new details about what he would do as president.
The real estate mogul, top aides and his son Don Jr. gathered over lunch at a makeshift conference table set amid construction debris at Trump’s soon-to-be-finished hotel five blocks from the White House. Just before, he had met there with his foreign-policy advisers and just after he visited officials at the Republican National Committee — signs that, in spite of his Trump-knows-best manner, the political novice is making efforts to build a more well-rounded bid.
Over the course of the discussion, the candidate made clear that he would govern in the same nontraditional way that he has campaigned, tossing aside decades of American policy and custom in favor of a new, Trumpian approach to the world.
In his first 100 days, Trump said, he would cut taxes, “renegotiate trade deals and renegotiate military deals,” including altering the U.S. role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
He insisted that he would be able to get rid of the nation’s more than $19 trillion national debt “over a period of eight years.”
Most economists would consider this impossible because it could require taking more than $2 trillion a year out of the annual $4 trillion budget to pay off holders of the debt.
Trump vehemently disagrees: “I’m renegotiating all of our deals, the big trade deals that we’re doing so badly on. With China, $505 billion this year in trade.” He said that economic growth he foresees as a consequence of renegotiated deals would enable the United States to pay down the debt — although many economists have said the exact opposite, that a trade war would be crippling to the U.S. economy.
Trump also said that the United States has lost its standing in the world and that he would make people “respect our country. I want them to respect our leader.” Asked how he would do so, Trump cited an “aura of personality.”
Were he to be elected president, Trump said he would want high-level employees of the federal government to sign legally binding nondisclosure agreements so that staffers couldn’t write insider accounts of what it’s like inside a Trump White House.
“When people are chosen by a man to go into government at high levels and then they leave government and they write a book about a man and say a lot of things that were really guarded and personal, I don’t like that,” Trump said.
But first, Trump must get elected, and his campaign is struggling through one of its most challenging stretches. In the past week, his campaign manager has been charged with battery for grabbing a reporter, Trump has been criticized for mocking the looks of an opponent’s wife as compared with those of his own spouse, and he has backtracked from comments about abortion that offended many in his own party.
Trump said that everyone close to him — family, friends, Republican leaders — has been urging him to tone down his attacks and reach out to former rivals, both to reassure wary voters and to begin the difficult process of unifying a party in which many have sworn to never back him. Trump does not intend to take the advice. He said such overtures are “overrated.”
“I think the first thing I have to do is win,” he said. “Winning solves a lot of problems. And I have two people left”: his two remaining Republican rivals, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
“Sometimes you have to break an egg,” Trump said, and Cruz and Kasich were the two remaining eggs.
Trump did offer some concessions to the realities of being a political novice, saying that he would not pick an outsider like himself as a vice-presidential running mate, but rather, “somebody that can walk into the Senate and who’s been friendly with these guys for 25 years, and people for 25 years. And can get things done. So I would 95 percent see myself picking a political person as opposed to somebody from the outside.”
In another unprecedented move, Trump said he plans to announce a list of 10 to 12 judges from which he would pick to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court to allay concerns from conservatives that he wouldn’t choose someone to their liking.
“I’m getting names. The Federalist people. Some very good people. The Heritage Foundation,” Trump said. “I’m going to announce that these are the judges, in no particular order, that I’m going to put up. And I’m going to guarantee it. I’m going to tell people. Because people are worried that, oh, maybe he’ll put the wrong judge in.”
And after a series of violent incidents at his rallies between supporters and protesters, Trump acknowledged that, at least for a little while, he has tried to calm things down.
“We’ve purposefully kept the crowds down this past week,” he said. “You know, we’ve gone into small venues and we’re turning away thousands and thousands of people, which I hate, but we didn’t want to have the protest. You know, when you have a room of 2,000 people, you can pretty much keep it without the protesters.”
‘I bring rage out. I always have.’
The question posed to Trump about his decision to run: “Where do you start the movie?”
A wry smile spread over his face as he repeated the question about the moment when he decided to turn what had long been a flirtation with running for the presidency into something real.
Asked who he talked to about this critical decision, Trump answered: “To myself.”
To your family?
“To my family, but to myself.”
So it was an interior dialogue?
“This is thought process. And I’m saying to myself, you know, look, they put me in these polls. I’m number one.”
Trump said his interest really started to pick up in the summer of 2014, when he was still busy with his hit NBC reality show, “The Apprentice.” He kept his ambition mostly to himself, slowly thinking it through into early last year, when he hired political advisers, months before he formally jumped in.
Trump said his experience throughout the last two years wasn’t like 1987, when he first made a speech in New Hampshire that he “forgot about” soon after delivering it. This time, as he read the daily newspapers, printed-out online articles (his preferred method of reading) and kept tabs on cable news, he felt the pull.
“I said, ‘You know, this is something I really would like to do.’ I think I’d do it really well. Obviously the public seems to like me,” Trump recalled.
“I’ll tell you a moment when it kicked to yes. Because it was a monetary moment also. . . . There was a moment in, I would say February of last year, so that would be four months, three, four months before I announced, when Steve Burke, great guy, of Comcast . . . came to see me with the top people at NBC. And they wanted to extend my contract.”
Trump told them he was going to run for president instead.
“I just felt there were so many things going wrong with the country,” Trump said of his thinking at the time. He was frustrated with what he saw as the “stupidity” of trade deals and Iran nuclear negotiations that were “terrible” and dominated by “Persians being great negotiators.”
Trump’s wife, Melania, heard most of his complaints, but was not enthused about him becoming a candidate. “She said, ‘We have such a great life. Why do you want to do this?’ ”
“I said, ‘I sort of have to do it, I think. I really have to do it.’ . . . I could do such a great job.”
Later, Melania said, “I hope you don’t do it, but if you run, you’ll win,” according to Trump.
Now, more than a year later and with the Republican nomination in sight, Trump’s family is giving him different advice. “My family said to me — and Don [Jr.] has said this, and Ivanka, and my wife has said this — ‘Be more presidential.’ ”
Trump said he is getting similar guidance from close friends. He had a story to share. A couple weeks ago, a friend, a famous athlete, called. This was right after Trump beat Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida, the senator’s home state. “That was a big beating. Don’t forget, he was the face of the Republican Party. He was the future of the Republican Party. So [the athlete] called me up. And he said, ‘Hey Donald, could you do us all a favor? We love you. Don’t kill everybody. Because you may need them on the way back.’ ”
But Trump doesn’t see it that way, at least not yet. “I think you have to break the egg initially,” he said, adding that he has to beat his opponents and secure the nomination before he is willing to consider reaching out or easing off in any way.
When it was suggested that he seems comfortable being the Lone Ranger — the famous old-time TV and radio masked vigilante who fought for good outside the law — Trump immediately concurred.
“I am,” he said. “Because I understand life. And I understand how life works. I’m the Lone Ranger.”
Asked how he would build a coalition for the general election, Trump responded that he hasn’t focused on Hillary Clinton yet — an implication that once he starts attacking her, voters would rally to his side.
Pressed on whether it is incumbent on him to tame the anger within his party, Trump said it was, but also: “I bring rage out. I do bring rage out. I always have. I think it was, I don’t know if that’s an asset or a liability, but whatever it is, I do. I also bring great unity out, ultimately. I’ve had many occasions like this, where people have hated me more than any human being they’ve ever met. And after it’s all over, they end up being my friends. And I see that happening here.”
Not with everyone, though. Trump acknowledged that he has been “rough” and “nasty” in debates — so much so that some relationships with his former rivals are likely beyond repair. “One of the problems I have is that when I hit people, I hit them harder maybe than is necessary,” he said. “And it’s almost impossible to reel them back.”
Like Rubio, and former Florida governor Jeb Bush. “Some of the people that I was competing against, I’m not sure they can ever go back to me,” Trump said. “I was very rough on Jeb.” It was “Jeb: Low energy. Little Marco. Names that were devastating.”
Trump seemed unsure whether Cruz would ultimately fit that category. Trump noted that they had gotten along quite well for many months and suggested they could again, but he was also ambivalent about potentially reaching out to Cruz if he beats the senator from Texas for the nomination.
“I’ll never have to call him,” to get his help and support, Trump said, adding that if Cruz did reach out, he would congratulate him. “Because out of 17 people, you beat 16. Okay? Which is pretty good.”
Still, Trump admitted that he needed to do more outreach. “Honestly, a lot of people are calling me, but I should be calling them,” he said. “Because to a certain extent, I should be calling them, they shouldn’t have to be calling me.”
Trump noted that two of his former rivals, Ben Carson and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, are supporting him. As for some others, “They will be loved. At the right time, they will be loved.”
Asked specifically at this uncertain moment in his campaign whether “all politics, all successful politics, is about coalition building,” he responded: “It’s true.”
Do you agree?
“I do,” Trump said, his arms folded across his familiar dark suit, white shirt and red tie, as he sat in what he hopes will be his newest trophy hotel. “I agree. I agree.”
Pressed on when that coalition building might begin, he turned to stories about boxing great Muhammad Ali and football coaching icon Vince Lombardi.
Ali, he said, earned respect “through having the goods. You know, so Muhammad Ali is a friend of mine. He’s a good guy. I’ve watched many people over the years. Muhammad Ali would get in the ring, and he’d talk and talk and scream and talk about the ugly bear, and this, that — you know. And then he’d win. And respect is about winning. We don’t win anymore. I see it in my — we don’t win anymore. And he’d win. I’ve seen many fighters that were better than Muhammad Ali, in terms of talking. I’ve seen guys that were so beautiful, so flamboyant, they’d get into the ring — and then they’d get knocked out. And guess what? It’s all gone.”
Trump took a similar lesson from Lombardi.
“The coalition building for me will be when I win. Vince Lombardi, I saw this. He was not a big man. And I was sitting in a place with some very, very tough football players. Big, strong football players. He came in — these are tough cookies — he came in, years ago — and I’ll never forget it, I was a young man. He came in, screaming, into this place. And screaming at one of these guys who was three times bigger than him, literally. And very physical, grabbing him by the shirt. Now, this guy could’ve whisked him away and thrown him out the window in two seconds. This guy — the player — was shaking. A friend of mine. There were four players, and Vince Lombardi walked in. He was angry. And he grabbed — I was a young guy — he grabbed him by the shirt, screaming at him, and the guy was literally. . . . And I said, wow. And I realized the only way Vince Lombardi got away with that was because he won.”
‘It’s precarious times’
Trump has for months contended that the U.S. economy is in trouble because of what he sees as an overvalued stock market, but his view has grown more pessimistic of late and he is now bearish on investing, to the point of warning Americans against doing so.
“I think we’re sitting on an economic bubble. A financial bubble,” Trump said. He made clear that he was not specifying a sector of the economy but the economy at large and asserted that more bullish forecasts were based on skewed employment numbers and an inflated stock market.
“First of all, we’re not at 5 percent unemployment. We’re at a number that’s probably into the twenties if you look at the real number,” Trump said. “That was a number that was devised, statistically devised to make politicians — and, in particular, presidents — look good. And I wouldn’t be getting the kind of massive crowds that I’m getting if the number was a real number.”
[The bizarre optimism in Donald Trump’s theory of the economy]
Trump’s assertion does not match data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Its analysis of joblessness beyond the unemployed — such as “marginally attached” workers and those who have dropped out of the labor force — was under 10 percent nationally last month.
Trump’s view also runs counter to that of most economists, whose rough consensus is that the U.S. economy has about a 20 percent chance of slipping into recession this year largely because growth remains weak across the world, according to a Wall Street Journal survey of economists in March.
Most economists aren’t overly worried about an imminent downturn because job creation remains strong, workers are starting to see their wages grow and the Federal Reserve remains cautious about shifting away from the low-interest-rate stance that has helped stimulate the economy.
Any number of Trump’s predictions haven’t worked out. In 2012, for instance, he predicted that if Obama were reelected, oil and gas prices would go “through the roof like never before.”
In 2011, Trump said that when Obama’s health-care law took effect, national unemployment would “go even higher” than 9 percent. He was also bullish on real estate investments in the run-up to the housing bust.
Nonetheless, Trump said, “it’s precarious times. Part of the reason it’s precarious is because we are being ripped so badly by other countries. We are being ripped so badly by China. It just never ends. Nobody’s ever going to stop it. And the reason they’re not going to stop it is one of two. They’re either living in a world of the make-believe, or they’re totally controlled by their lobbyists and their special interests.”
“I’m pessimistic,” Trump said. “Unless changes are made. Changes could be made.”
By Trump, for instance: “I can fix it. I can fix it pretty quickly.”
Trump firmly believes that a turnaround on trade would be the necessary beginning of a solution to any looming recession.
He mentions the Trans-Pacific Partnership as one pact he would immediately seek to renegotiate, putting him at odds with congressional Republicans who supported giving the president fast-track trade authority last year.
Coupled with his push on trade would be a “very big tax cut,” which Trump unveiled last September. That proposal increases taxes on the “very rich” but reduces taxes for most taxpayers and would cut the corporate tax rate to 15 percent. To woo companies back to the United States, he would offer an incentive of a deeply discounted rate and would no longer allow corporations to defer taxes on income earned overseas.
‘You’ll be falling asleep’
In the center of Washington on Thursday, world leaders were attending a summit focused on reducing nuclear stockpiles around the world. A day earlier, Trump had made headlines for saying at an MSNBC forum that he would “possibly” use a nuclear weapon as president. Less than a week before, in an interview with the New York Times, Trump had suggested that Japan and South Korea should consider acquiring nuclear arms as a way of disengaging the United States from its role as a military protector — a proposal that the Obama White House promptly called “catastrophic.”
Told that Obama had said in 2010 that his greatest worry is a nuclear device exploding in an American city, Trump at first took a dig at the president.
“It’s funny. It’s very interesting. I’m surprised he said that because I heard him recently say that the biggest problem we have is global warming, which I totally disagree with. Okay?” Trump said.
But after mocking, Trump turned solemn on the topic, calling the nuclear threat the “single greatest problem” for global peace. “You look at Hiroshima and multiply it times a thousand,” he said, shaking his head.
Trump said if other countries would agree to do so simultaneously, he would be open to eliminating nuclear weapons held by the United States. “If it’s done on an equal basis, absolutely,” he said.
But Trump added a caveat. He said as much as he supports the idea of eliminating nuclear weapons, it may not be feasible in the current climate and with countries such as Russia and Pakistan perhaps unwilling to relinquish their arms since they are “spending a tremendous amount of money.”
“That’s something that in an ideal world is wonderful, but I think it’s not going to happen very easily. I would love to see a nuclear-free world. Will that happen?” Trump said. “Look, Russia right now is spending a tremendous amount of money on redoing their entire nuclear arsenal.”
Turning to Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, Trump said he continues to appreciate praise from Putin, even though his human-rights record and incursions into Ukraine and elsewhere have alarmed many. “I want Putin to respect our country, okay?” Trump said. “I think he respects strength. Okay? I think Putin respects strength. And I’ve said it before, I think I will get along well with Putin. Now you never know. I don’t say that — only a fool would say, ‘I will,’ but I feel that I will get along well with Putin.”
After talk of Putin and strength, Trump was read a few lines from Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with Obama in the Atlantic, which quotes Obama as saying, “Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence.”
Trump listened carefully and said: “Well, I think there’s a certain truth to that. I think there’s a certain truth to that. Real power is through respect. Real power is, I don’t even want to use the word, fear. But you know, our military is very sadly depleted. You look at what’s going on with respect to our military, and it’s depleted from all of the cuts,” Trump said, noting that he frequently sees advertisements for former U.S. military bases being available for purchase.
“I don’t want people to be afraid. I want them to respect our country,” he said. “Right now, they don’t respect our country.”
Trump said the United States should not retreat from the world but should reevaluate its relationships and role in many international groups and alliances, including NATO.
“First of all, it’s obsolete,” he said. “Our big threat today is terrorism. Okay? And NATO’s not really set up for terrorism. NATO is set up for the Soviet Union more than anything else. And now you don’t have the Soviet Union.”
But for Trump, NATO, Putin, nuclear weapons, all of that is for later. For now, against mounting calls from friends, loved ones and fellow Republicans, remains the fight.
“My natural inclination is to win,” Trump said. “And after I win, I will be so presidential that you won’t even recognize me. You’ll be falling asleep, you’ll be so bored.”
Jim Tankersley and Evelyn M. Duffy contributed to this report.