Donald Trump arrives speak to the media outside a town hall event in Columbus, Ohio, U.S. (Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg)

Trump Says He’s Inclined to Keep Base in Iraq to ‘Watch’ Iran

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump stood by his plans to reduce the U.S. footprint in the Middle East but said in an interview broadcast on Sunday that he intends to maintain a presence in Iraq, in part to keep tabs on Iran.

Trump also said he’d ignore the advice of intelligence community officials on Iran if their views run counter to his own. He has scoffed at their finding that while Iran is a major threat, it is abiding by the terms of the nuclear deal that the U.S. exited.

“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,” Trump said in an interview with CBS News.

U.S. forces will stay in Iraq indefinitely, Trump said, in part to be able “watch” Iran from nearby.

“We might as well keep it,” he said of the Al Asad Air Base in Anbar province, which he visited in late December. “I want to be able to watch Iran. All I want to do is be able to watch. We have an unbelievable and expensive military base built in Iraq. It’s perfectly situated for looking at all over different parts of the troubled Middle East rather than pulling up.”

At the same time, Trump reiterated plans to pull troops from Syria, though he declined to provide a timetable for the move -- announced abruptly in late 2018 -- saying only that they would leave “in a matter of time.”

Endless Wars

Trump is struggling to reconcile his campaign promises to end long American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the advice of top military and intelligence officials -- as well as many key congressional Republicans -- that the U.S. needs to maintain a robust presence in the Middle East. The intelligence chiefs told Congress last week that the Islamic State and other militant groups in the region remain a threat while Iran is complying with the accord it signed with Trump’s predecessor to halt its nuclear weapons program.

Republican Senators Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Richard Shelby of Alabama both said on Sunday morning political shows that the president should heed the advice of his intelligence chiefs.

“I come from the private sector and I realize, I have the modesty to understand, that there’s an awful lot, so much tradition and history and complexity to some of these foreign policy issues,” Johnson said on “Fox News Sunday.” “You have to rely on people who’ve been working on these issues for decades.”

But I Won

But Trump pointed to his victory in the 2016 Republican presidential primary as a sign that he has the right view -- or at least one popular among his party’s voters -- of U.S. involvement in the Middle East. “I ran against 17 Republicans. This was a big part of what I was saying, and I won very easily,” he said. “I think the people out in the world -- I think people in our country agree.”

His interview with CBS touched on everything from U.S.-Venezuela policy to whether the president would let his young son play football. It was conducted on Friday, a few days before the president makes the annual State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday night.

Trump said his administration is “doing very well” on making a trade deal with China ahead of a fast-approaching March 1 deadline for escalating tariffs, and he didn’t rule out another government shutdown or other action to get funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Congress faces a mid-month deadline to come up with an agreement on border security spending to prevent a potential second government shutdown on the heels of the longest such closing in history.

Waste of Time

Trump in recent days has repeatedly declared the negotiations a waste of time. His speech on Tuesday is likely to reveal more of his plans, including the politically and legally fraught option of making an emergency declaration to circumvent Congress to continue building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I don’t take anything off the table. I don’t like to take things off the table,” he said in the CBS interview. Republican lawmakers have pushed back on the prospect of an emergency declaration, saying they want the border funding issue to be settled through the appropriations process.

Trump faces an array of foreign policy challenges, including time-sensitive trade talks with China, planning a second summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, the terms of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria, and efforts to pressure Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro out of office.

Military ‘Option’

Asked what would make him use the U.S. military in Venezuela, Trump said he didn’t want to say that “but certainly it’s something that’s on the -- it’s an option,” according to the transcript.

The president said the date of his next summit with Kim is set would be announced shortly. Bloomberg has reported that the meeting is likely to be held in Vietnam this month.

“Certainly I think we have a very good chance of making a deal,” with North Korea, he said. “And one of the reasons is because North Korea has a chance being located between Russia, China, and South Korea. What a location -- I’m in the real estate business -- what a location. They have a chance to be an economic powerhouse.”

Few Americans believe North Korea has reduced its nuclear program since the first Trump-Kim summit in June, and 58 percent don’t think there should another meeting now, according to a CBS poll released on Sunday. Still, most think the country can be contained.

Asked about the number of “acting” Cabinet ministers and aides now in place, including attorney general and the secretaries of Defense and Interior, Trump said “it’s easier to make moves when they’re acting.”

Pompeo for Senate?

Trump also said he doesn’t think Secretary of State Michael Pompeo plans to leave his administration to run for the Senate, as has been speculated recently. Long-time Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas will retire at the end of 2020.

“He tells me he wouldn’t want to leave,” he said. “I asked him the question the other day, he says he’s absolutely not leaving. I don’t think he’d do that.”

As for whether the report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigating Russian interference in the 2016 president election should be made public -- which the president has repeatedly derided as a “witch hunt” -- Trump said he is leaving that to his attorney general.

“That’s up to the attorney general,” Trump said. “I have no idea what it’s going to say.”

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