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Trump slams Fed chair, questions climate change and threatens to cancel Putin meeting

The president said of the central bank: "They're making a mistake because I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else's brain can ever tell me."

President Trump sits at his desk in the Oval Office during an interview Tuesday with The Washington Post.
President Trump sits at his desk in the Oval Office during an interview Tuesday with The Washington Post.Read moreJabin Botsford / Washington Post

WASHINGTON – President Trump placed responsibility for recent stock market declines and this week's announcement of General Motors plant closures and layoffs on the Federal Reserve during an interview Tuesday, shirking any personal blame for cracks in the economy and declaring that he is "not even a little bit happy" with his hand-selected central bank chairman.

In a wide-ranging and sometimes discordant 20-minute interview with The Washington Post, Trump complained at length about Federal Reserve Chair Jerome "Jay" Powell, whom he nominated last year. When asked about declines on Wall Street and GM's announcement that it was laying off 15 percent of its workforce, Trump responded by criticizing higher interest rates and other Fed policies, though he insisted that he is not worried about a recession.

"I'm doing deals, and I'm not being accommodated by the Fed," Trump said. "They're making a mistake because I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else's brain can ever tell me."

He added: "So far, I'm not even a little bit happy with my selection of Jay. Not even a little bit. And I'm not blaming anybody, but I'm just telling you I think that the Fed is way off-base with what they're doing."

Sitting at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, Trump also threatened to cancel his scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a global summit this week in Argentina because of Russia's maritime clash with Ukraine.

Asked whether he thought Putin was within his rights to capture three Ukrainian ships and their crews Sunday in the Black Sea, Trump said he was awaiting a "full report" from his national security team Tuesday evening about the incident. "That will be very determinative," Trump said. "Maybe I won't have the meeting. Maybe I won't even have the meeting."

When asked whether Russia's aggression is a cause for concern for the American people, Trump responded with a more forceful critique of Putin's actions than those he has delivered in the past.

"I don't like that aggression," he said. "I don't want that aggression at all. Absolutely. And by the way, Europe shouldn't like that aggression. And Germany shouldn't like that aggression."

Trump also dismissed the federal government's landmark report released last week finding that damages from global warming are intensifying around the country. The president said that "I don't see" climate change as man-made and that he does not believe the scientific consensus.

"One of the problems that a lot of people like myself, we have very high levels of intelligence but we're not necessarily such believers," Trump said. "You look at our air and our water, and it's right now at a record clean."

The president added of climate change, "As to whether or not it's man-made and whether or not the effects that you're talking about are there, I don't see it."

The comments were Trump's most extensive yet on why he disagrees with the dire National Climate Assessment released by his own administration Friday, which found that climate change poses a severe threat to the health and financial security of Americans, as well as to the country's infrastructure and natural resources.

Trump again questioned the CIA's assessment that Saudi Arabia's crown prince ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a contributor to The Post, and said he considered Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's repeated denials in his decision to maintain a close alliance with the oil-rich desert kingdom.

"Maybe he did and maybe he didn't," Trump said. "But he denies it. And people around him deny it. And the CIA did not say affirmatively he did it, either, by the way. I'm not saying that they're saying he didn't do it, but they didn't say it affirmatively."

Trump said he could visit with Mohammed on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit, though no formal meeting has been scheduled.

The CIA has assessed that Mohammed ordered Khashoggi's killing and has shared its findings with lawmakers and the White House, according to people familiar with the matter. Intelligence assessments are rarely, if ever, ironclad, and Trump has repeatedly stressed that there is no evidence that would irrefutably lay the blame at Mohammed's feet.

But the CIA based its overall assessment of Mohammed's role on a number of pieces of compelling evidence, including intercepted communications; surveillance from inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, where Khashoggi was killed in October; and the agency's analysis of Mohammed's total control of the Saudi government.

Meanwhile, Trump said he had "no intention" of moving to stop special counsel Robert Mueller III's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

"The Mueller investigation is what it is. It just goes on and on and on," he said. When pressed on whether he would commit to letting the probe continue until its conclusion, Trump stopped short of making an explicit pledge.

"This question has been asked about me now for almost two years," he said, at which point counselor Kellyanne Conway chimed in, "A thousand times."

Trump continued: "And, in the meantime, he's still there. He wouldn't have to be, but he's still there, so I have no intention of doing anything."

The president declined to discuss on the record the Mueller team's accusation Monday that Paul Manafort had breached his plea agreement by lying repeatedly to investigators, or whether he would use presidential powers to help his former campaign chairman.

"Let me go off the record because I don't want to get in the middle of the whole thing," he said. He added later: "At some point, I'll talk on the record about it. But I'd rather not."

Trump also floated the idea of removing U.S. troops from the Middle East, citing the lower price of oil as a reason to withdraw.

"Now, are we going to stay in that part of the world? One reason to is Israel," Trump said. "Oil is becoming less and less of a reason because we're producing more oil now than we've ever produced. So, you know, all of a sudden it gets to a point where you don't have to stay there."

Trump also called the killing of three U.S. troops in a roadside explosion in Afghanistan this week "very sad." He said he was continuing the military presence in Afghanistan only because "experts" told him the United States needed to keep fighting there.

The president said he was considering visiting troops in the region soon, perhaps before Christmas. "At the right time I will," he said of a war-zone visit, which would be his first as president.

During the interview, Trump's sharpest criticism was reserved for his Fed chairman. Though Trump said several times in response to a question about emerging cracks in the economy that he wasn't "blaming anybody," he clearly assigned blame to Powell for leading the Fed through several interest rate increases this year.

In a series of Twitter posts Tuesday, issued shortly after his interview with The Post, Trump blamed GM chief executive Mary Barra for the company's plant closures and layoffs and threatened to strip away any government subsidies for the auto giant.

Trump's fury at GM and the Fed was similar to his outrage at Harley-Davidson this summer, after the Milwaukee-based motorcycle company announced it was moving some jobs overseas in part because it said it was caught in the midst of a trade war between the White House and foreign leaders.

The stock market has tumbled in recent weeks, unnerving Trump, who in turn has blamed Democrats, the Chinese government and the central bank for any perceived economic weakness.

Asked in the interview who should be held responsible – and reminded that one of his predecessors, Harry Truman, famously kept a sign at his desk that read, "The buck stops here" – Trump took no personal responsibility.

The Federal Reserve is the nation's central bank and sets the direction for interest rates, or the cost of borrowing money. Higher rates make it more expensive for consumers and businesses to obtain credit, which can put downward pressure on the economy.

During the interview, Trump's description of the economy was at odds with its actual performance. It has grown since he took office and the unemployment rate has fallen, but he suggested that as many jobs were returning to the United States from overseas as were being lost in layoffs.

In addition, Trump said the stock market was up 38 percent since he took office. In fact, the Dow Jones industrial average is up 25 percent since he was sworn in, less than the increase during President Barack Obama's first two years in office.

The United States has had very low interest rates for more than a decade, and Fed officials are slowly trying to bring them back up. Many economists believe that higher interest rates are a way to combat inflation and prevent the economy from overheating.

Powell took over as chairman earlier this year. Since then, the Fed has raised interest rates three times and is expected to increase them another time next month.

"The Fed is doing exactly what it should be doing, which is to prevent overheating and boom- bust-type conditions in the future," former Federal Reserve vice chairman Donald Kohn said.

Brad DeLong, an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said the Fed was responding in part to economic conditions Trump had helped foster, such as last year's tax cut, which led to what some had projected would be a short-term economic growth spurt.

"The Federal Reserve cannot be expected to do otherwise than raise interest rates," DeLong said. "This is what Trump bought when he made his Fed appointments. So why is he surprised?"

Trump's selection of Powell to lead the central bank was driven largely by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Powell's appointment was very unusual, as he is not an economist. He had served in a past Republican White House but was first tapped to serve as a Fed governor by Obama. During his initial tenure at the Fed, Powell was seen as largely supportive of the slow-but-steady interest rate increase strategy used by then-Chair Janet Yellen.

Trump considered reappointing Yellen to the post, and she impressed him greatly during an interview, according to people briefed on their encounter. But advisers steered him away from renominating her, telling him that he should have his own person in the job.

The president also appeared hung up on Yellen's height. He told aides on the National Economic Council on several occasions that the 5-foot-3-inch economist was not tall enough to lead the central bank, quizzing them on whether they agreed, current and former officials said.

Discussing his decision to tap Powell, Trump said Monday: "Look, I took recommendations. I'm not blaming anybody."

The Washington Post's Brady Dennis, Anne Gearan, Shane Harris and Damian Paletta contributed to this report.