President Donald Trump again denied on Saturday that his 2016 campaign colluded with Russia and dismissed claims he obstructed justice by trying to prevent the recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions from a Justice Department probe into Russian election meddling.
“Everything I’ve done is 100 percent proper,” Trump said during a press conference on the sidelines of a meeting with congressional leaders at Camp David. “That is what I do, is I do things proper.”
He added later, “Just so you understand, there’s been no collusion, there’s been no crime.”
The president took questions from reporters for about 10 minutes on issues ranging from the GOP’s 2018 legislative agenda to North Korea to an explosive new book that alleges concern among White House aides about his mental condition.
“I consider it a work of fiction,” Trump said, complaining about what he called the country’s weak libel laws.
“Libel laws are very weak in this country,” he said. “If they were stronger, hopefully, you would not have something like that happen.”
The president also cast doubt on a Thursday New York Times report that said Trump asked the White House’s top lawyer to convince Sessions not to recuse himself in March from the Justice Department’s inquiry into Russia’s 2016 election interference.
Trump said the story was “off,” but did not explain why. On Friday, his personal attorney dismissed the story to POLITICO as a “nothing burger,” even as many legal experts said it shows special counsel Robert Mueller could present a strong obstruction of justice case.
Trump said he continues to have confidence in Sessions, even though the attorney general did not participate in the Camp David summit, which included several other Cabinet secretaries.
Trump added that he “hopes” National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn stays in his job — but then joked, “If he leaves, I’m going to say, I’m very happy that he left.”
The president also said he would be open to talking to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, despite the fiery rhetoric he has employed against him.
“Sure, I always believe in talking,” he said. In October, Trump said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was “wasting his time” by trying to communicate with the nuclear-armed Asian dictatorship.
GOP leaders speaking alongside Trump seemed to acknowledge that 2018 would be a difficult year for their party. Instead of detailing specific policy plans for the coming months, Republicans spent much of the press conference touting their 2017 accomplishments.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared 2017 to be “the most consequential year in the many years that I’ve been here in Congress,” and touted judicial nominations in particular.
Trump cited passage of December’s landmark tax reform bill, which also repealed Obamacare’s individual mandate and opened up parts of Alaska’s Arctic for oil drilling — a decades-old GOP goal.
“It’s going to be tough to beat the year we just left because what we had last year was something very special,” Trump said.
Republicans also suggested they’d shift from a purely partisan agenda to one that includes Democrats. For weeks, party leaders have debated whether they should tack right and peruse red-meat legislation like entitlement reform, or take on subjects they believe can win bipartisan support such as infrastructure.
Republicans signaled Saturday that they would choose the latter, specifically citing their desire to rebuild roads and bridges and reshape federal anti-poverty programs.
“I think we’re going to go bipartisan; we’re going to have some bipartisan bills,” Trump said.
Added Vice President Mike Pence: “We truly do believe that there are opportunities after our discussions this weekend for bipartisan work on a broad range of issue from infrastructure to workforce and vocational education,” Pence said.
The president also seemed to distance himself from House Speaker Paul Ryan’s recent push to tackle entitlement reform. The speaker in recent weeks had set his sights on an overhaul of welfare programs, including work requirements for things like food stamps, housing and Medicaid.
The idea — which would be very popular with the Republican base — has made some Republican leaders like McConnell uncomfortable. The Kentucky Republican, along with some more political-minded House leaders, worry that such a proposal could backfire on swing-state Republicans during the midterm elections and cripple their majority.
Their concerns have led Ryan to narrow his push, according to two senior House Republican sources. But, the speaker still discussed the matter in vague terms Saturday, framing the issue as “poverty reform” that helps move the unemployed from welfare to work.
There are “people who are sidelined in society who want to get out of poverty and into the work force,” Ryan said. “We want to make sure we close that skills gap and opportunity gap so that everyone has a life and career in this country and tap this potential.”
Trump told reporters that Republicans would only pursue welfare in a “bipartisan way — otherwise we’ll have to do it a little later.” That effectively rules out any House conservatives’ hopes of using a fast-track reconciliation process to bypass Democrats and make steep cuts to the safety net.
GOP leaders said they also intend to focus this year on military spending, anti-drug efforts, workforce training, a budget agreement and immigration enforcement.
But on immigration — one of the most pressing and divisive items on Congress’s agenda — Trump stuck to hard line demands that could prevent bipartisan agreement on the fate of so-called “Dreamers” who are losing legal protections and work permits.
Trump reiterated his price for ensuring that young immigrants can stay in the U.S. legally: a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, an end to the “diversity visa” lottery program, and changes to laws allowing citizens to sponsor some relatives for green cards. Provisions dealing with those issues should be lumped in the same legislation, Trump said Saturday at Camp David.
He issued a directive killing the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program starting March 5, although many DACA recipients have already lost their protections.
“We all want DACA to happen,” Trump said, referring to the top congressional Republicans who accompanied him. “But we also want great security for our country. So important.”
Key senators trying to hammer out a deal, including Democrats, are discussing ways to bolster border security, deal with family-based immigration laws and handle the visa lottery, which grants 50,000 visas to immigrants from countries that are traditionally underrepresented in the United States.
But the administration is making demands that Democrats won’t accept. For instance, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) blasted the administration for its border wall request sent to key senators on Friday, totaling $18 billion over a decade.
That request came even as Trump on Saturday kept insisting that Mexico would be financially responsible for building it.
“I believe that Mexico will pay for the wall,” Trump said. “In some form, Mexico will pay for the wall.”
Later in the press conference, the president said he has no current plans to back challenges to incumbent Republicans in Congress.
“I don’t see that happening,” he said.
But Trump said he expects to spend a significant amount of time campaigning for Republican lawmakers in the coming months.
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