Saturday 24 March 2018

Trump claims he is a 'stable genius' - then threatens free speech

Fire and fury goes both ways as US president meets the press at Camp David - only for that book to dominate proceedings

Angry men: US President Donald Trump, centre, accompanied by (from left) Senate Majority Whip Senator John Cornyn, House Speaker Paul Ryan, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Vice President Mike Pence, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen — at Camp David yesterday
Angry men: US President Donald Trump, centre, accompanied by (from left) Senate Majority Whip Senator John Cornyn, House Speaker Paul Ryan, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Vice President Mike Pence, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen — at Camp David yesterday

Chris Stevenson

US President Donald Trump has hit out at "very weak" libel laws in the US as he branded an explosive new book detailing the inner workings of the White House as "fiction".

Suggesting he would like to see tougher laws on speech, Trump said that if libel laws "were strong... you wouldn't have things like that happen where you can say whatever comes into your head" - referring to Michael Wolff's book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.

The book has caused a storm of controversy and has left the US president facing questions about his mental state, with quotes in Fire and Fury - including from Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon - suggesting that even those close to Trump had questioned his capability.

Early yesterday, Trump wrote a string of messages on Twitter where he rejected such claims, saying he was a "very stable genius" whose two greatest assets are his "mental stability and being, like, really smart".

Michael Wolff's new book, which has shot to the top of the bestseller list on Amazon after being released four days early, has clearly riled the American president, who used a rare news conference during a retreat with Republican leadership to reinforce what he sees as a stellar list of life achievements.

Answering a question about why he saw the need to tweet about his mental state, Trump said that he had attended "the best college" and was a "very excellent" student.

He added that he came out of college and "made billions and billions of dollars... [and] became one of the best business people" before touting his "tremendous success" over a decade on television. He went on to add that he "ran for President one time, and won".

Trump also called Wolff a "fraud" and the book "a complete work of fiction", saying that "he doesn't know me at all" and said that he had not been interviewed in the White House as Wolff had said. He later admitted that he actually had spoken to Wolff during his presidential campaign.

The gathering at Camp David with a number of members of his cabinet was supposed to be a weekend for Trump to concentrate on his regime's agenda for 2018. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan were also present for the two days of talks, with the Republican party facing a battle to keep control of the US Congress in November's elections.

At the beginning of his remarks, Trump described having some "incredible meetings" with colleagues, saying the party was readying its 2018 legislative agenda.

He said the group, 10 of whom were on stage with him, the only woman being Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, discussed a variety of topics, from national security and infrastructure to the military and the budget.

Trump said: "We are very well prepared for the coming year." He added that his administration "finished very strong," referring to the passing of a tax reform bill in December that marked the biggest overhaul of the tax code in nearly three decades.

However, with the outspoken president taking a number of questions from the assembled journalists - another rarity for Trump - attention soon turned back to the Wolff book.

A lawyer for Trump had sent a letter calling for its publisher not to release the book - but it did so anyway about a day later.

Trump has labelled Bannon "sloppy Steve", and issued a furious statement over his quotes in Fire and Fury earlier in the week after a number of reports appeared about the contents of the book. Trump continued in that vein as he spoke about Wolff while answering the question about his mental state.

"I don't know this man. I guess sloppy Steve brought him in the White House quite a bit and it was one of those things. That's why sloppy Steve is now looking for a job," Trump said.

In one of his morning tweets, the US president said critics were "taking out the old Ronald Reagan playbook and screaming mental stability and intelligence."

Former US president Ronald Reagan died in 2004, at age 93, from pneumonia complicated by the Alzheimer's disease that had progressively clouded his mind. At times during his time in the White House Reagan would appear to lose his train of thought, but his diagnosis came years after he left the Oval Office.

Trump's secretary of state Rex Tillerson yesterday jumped to defend his boss as Trump attempted to end speculation about his mental and physical suitability for the presidency by undergoing a formal health check.

The US president will this week be examined by the same doctor as his predecessor Barack Obama and a summary of the results will be made public. By undergoing his first formal medical check since entering the White House, Trump hopes to put to bed allegations about his mental health that emerged last week.

Wolff's book has claimed Trump was failing to recognise old friends and often repeated stories "word-for-word". The White House called questions about his mental suitability for office "disgraceful".

Responding to the accusations in Fire and Fury, Rex Tillerson told CNN: "I have no reason to question his mental fitness."

He added that Trump was "not typical of presidents of the past", saying: "I think that's well recognised. That's also though why the American people chose him."

Trump also insisted he was psychologically fit to do the job in a series of tweets yesterday, saying that "my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart".

He added: "I went from VERY successful businessman, to top TV Star... President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius... and a very stable genius at that!"

The physical will last around two hours and include blood and urine tests, heart checks and even questions about his sleeping habits and sex life, according to medical experts. It will be carried out at Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre, the country's largest military hospital, on Friday.

However, those hoping for a tell-all medical reveal may end up disappointed, according to Arthur Caplan, founding head of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine.

"The president has the same right as any citizen to keep his medical information private," he said. The examination is merely a custom that has become a norm in recent years, rather than a constitutional requirement.

The specificity has raised hopes that some Trump mysteries can finally be solved. Is he really 6ft 3in tall, as the president has claimed, despite evidence to the contrary?

Questions of mental capacity have occasionally dogged American presidents.

White House chief of staff John Kelly told reporters at Camp David that Trump did not seem angry about the book and on Friday night had watched a new film, The Greatest Showman, about legendary circus promoter PT Barnum, with Republicans and his cabinet.

Once beyond the issue of Wolff during his news conference, Trump opened up about a number of other topics. He said he would "absolutely" be willing to talk on the phone to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and that he hopes a positive development results from talks between North Korea and South Korea.

At Camp David Trump also took the opportunity to brag about his poll numbers, which he said "have gone way up."

According to Gallup, Trump's approval rating this week reached its highest level since mid-July: 39pc. President Barack Obama's approval rating at about the same time in his presidency was 51pc; George W Bush's was 84pc.

Trump also spoke about a NY Times story from last week concerning Jeff Sessions recusing himself from the FBI's Russia probe, saying it was "way off, or at least off" - but he wouldn't explain how. When asked how off the story was, Trump replied, "You'll find out."

Trump added that he's still standing by Sessions, despite the Attorney-General's conspicuous absence at Camp David. "The collusion is dead," the president told the assembled reporters. However the FBI's investigation remains ongoing.

Trump also returned to one of his favourite topics during his election campaign: the wall with Mexico.

He calling for funding for a border wall at the US-Mexico border, for which the Trump administration is asking $18bn, and also called for an end to "chain migration" - immigration to the US that happens based on family ties - and the visa lottery system, a diversity-boosting program for people without US relatives.

When asked about his continued call for Mexico to pay for the wall, despite all evidence pointing to the fact that American taxpayers will eventually foot the bill, Trump reiterated that he thinks that Mexican check will still somehow come through. "In some form, Mexico will pay for the wall," he said. It doesn't seem likely - Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has consistently said Mexico has no plans to pay for the wall.

©Washington Post

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