Trump talks about threatening Putin, mocking Merkel at Mar-a-Lago

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PALM BEACH, Florida — It was Presidents’ Day and Donald Trump looked especially relaxed. Wearing a white golf shirt emblazoned with the presidential seal and a bright red MAGA hat with “45” on both sides, he was talkative without being combative.

With the late afternoon light beginning to dim over Mar-a-Lago, we spent 90 minutes in the ornate living room discussing his presidency, the state of the nation and his future. Naturally, Trump’s successor took a rhetorical beating, but even harsh barbs were delivered in matter-of-fact tones.

A softball opener — did he think Joe Biden’s presidency would be as bad as it is? — was met with a pause, and then this: “If you took the worst five presidencies together, it would not be equal to what’s happening to this country.”

After ticking off a litany of America’s woes, from the open border to inflation to mounting energy prices, Trump added: “I never thought anything like this could happen to us.”

He remains especially troubled by the deadly and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, asking, “Can you imagine taking the military out first? And giving up that big, beautiful Bagram Air Base that’s just an hour from China?”

“It was the single biggest embarrassment in our history,” he insisted.

Does he think Biden will finish the term? “I don’t know,” he said, “but we are being systematically destroyed. We are no longer feared, respected or even liked.”

Joe Biden.
Former President Donald Trump blasted President Biden’s tenure in office.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

As we talked, and news was breaking about Vladimir Putin’s declaration of independence for two Ukrainian provinces, Trump was flabbergasted by the audacity but not surprised. “I got along great with Putin,” he said. “I like him, I respect him. He’s doing his thing, but our people aren’t doing theirs.”

Eager to draw a contrast with Biden, he told two stories relevant to the current crisis. Both involved his fight with NATO members that were not paying their agreed-upon share of the common defense, especially Germany.

“I sent her a white flag,” he said of former Chancellor Angela Merkel. “She said, ‘What is this?’ I said, ‘It’s a flag of surrender so you don’t have to go out and buy a new one.’”

He also recounted an exchange in a Brussels meeting of all 28 member NATO countries where he was pushing for more payments, leading the Austrian leader to ask whether the United States would still defend those countries against a Russian attack if they didn’t pay up.

“No,” Trump said he answered. “We will not defend you.”

Angela Merkel.
“I sent her a white flag,” former President Donald Trump said of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Jochen Zick/Pool/Getty Images

His answer led to a public uproar that Trump was reneging on the alliance’s Article 5 provision, under which an attack on one member is considered an attack on all. In what amounted to a deal, Trump later insisted he was not reneging, and NATO countries ponied up more cash that now totals several hundred billion dollars.

Still, eyeing his experience and the current fecklessness against Russia, he said, “NATO is a paper tiger.”

There are other stories making the rounds, too, and they are even more provocative. One has it that Trump — noting that Putin seized land from Georgia when George W. Bush was president and seized the Crimean peninsula when Barack Obama was president — warned Putin against a land grab on his watch.

“If you move against Ukraine while I’m president,” Trump is said to have told the Russian leader, “I will hit Moscow.”

Vladimir Putin.
Trump said he respects Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Kremlin Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Putin reportedly scoffed, “No way,” leading Trump to say, “All those beautiful golden turrets will be blown up.”

A similar story involves Chinese President Xi Jinping. It was during his visit to Mar-a-Lago in 2017 when Trump famously interrupted their chocolate cake dessert to declare he had just ordered the US military to fire 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base after the Syrian government used chemical weapons against rebels and civilians.

During that same visit, Trump reportedly told Xi that any military move against Taiwan would be met with an attack on Beijing. Xi, like Putin, is said to have been stunned, though it is possible neither man believed Trump was serious. While it is also possible that both accounts are exaggerated, it is a fact that neither man made the moves Trump is said to have warned against.

Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Trump previously warned Chinese President Xi Jinping that any move against Taiwan would be met with fierce opposition from the US.
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

“I got along best with the tougher ones” is how he summarized his relations with foreign leaders.

But his tone is harder and carries a sense of grievance when the subject is domestic political leaders, especially fellow Republicans he calls RINOs, or Republicans In Name Only. Mitch McConnell tops the list, and when I asked if their relationship can be salvaged, he quickly said, “I think it’s finished.”

Despite their remarkable success in nominating and confirming conservative federal judges, most notably putting three on the Supreme Court, Trump accuses the Senate leader of betrayal. He believes a commercial that he cut for McConnell lifted him to victory from near-certain defeat by Democrat Amy McGrath in Kentucky in 2020, yet McConnell, on Dec. 15, congratulated Biden on his election victory while Trump was disputing the results as rigged.

McConnell also condemned the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol as a “failed insurrection” and let it be known he was finished with Trump. The former president returns the favor, saying McConnell is “a bad guy.”

The Capitol riot, along with Trump’s own efforts to get the election results overturned, are major black marks on his tenure and a serious hurdle if, as likely, he runs again in 2024.

Sen. Mitch McConnell.
Former President Donald Trump says his relationship with Sen. Mitch McConnell is not salvageable.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

I raised the issue by telling him about the comments of a New Yorker I met with in Florida. The man, well-known in business and philanthropy circles, said that although he did not vote for Trump in either election, he had always liked him and they had been friends for years.

But he could not forgive the president’s post-election conduct.

“I’m afraid if he runs and wins, it will be our last election,” the man said to me.

When I relayed the story to Trump, he sighed and, seemingly discouraged, asked the man’s name. When I declined to reveal it, he said he doubted his accuser had been a real friend.

But he quickly switched gears and said the accusation reminded him of the fearmongering by Democrats and the media that greeted his 2016 candidacy.

“If Trump gets in, he’ll start World War III,” he said in mocking those claims. “But I’m the one who ended wars that others started.”

Capitol riot.
McConnell called the Capitol riot a “failed insurrection.”
Samuel Corum/Getty Images

He also cited the historic Abraham Accords forged under his watch, which saw Israel normalize relations with four Muslim nations. Any other president would get the Nobel Peace Prize for that breakthrough.

All Trump’s flaws and achievements will probably get another airing in the next presidential election. With rallies, fundraising and endorsements, he is laying the foundation for another White House run.

Has he made a final decision? “In my own mind, I have,” he said. “After the midterms, I’ll announce something.”



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