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Trump: No doubt Iran was behind attacks on tankers

President says he won't fire Kellyanne Conway despite findings of Hatch Act violations

President Donald Trump speaks during a working lunch with governors in the White House on Thursday. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks during a working lunch with governors in the White House on Thursday. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump on Friday said U.S. officials are confident Iran is behind attacks on oil tankers in the Middle East.

During a wild 50-minute interview with “Fox & Friends,” the president defiantly said he will not fire White House counselor Kellyanne Conway despite findings from a federal investigator that she broke the law, refused to endorse any future presidential run by Vice President Mike Pence, and tried to walk back comments from a controversial television interview by claiming he would contact the FBI if another government tried to meddle in a U.S. election.

“Iran did do it. And you know they did it because you saw the boat,” he said of video footage showing a boat with men in Islamic dress appearing to handle a device on the side of a tanker. “It’s probably got, essentially, Iran written all over it. … That was exposed. That was a boat that was them that they didn’t want left behind. … It was them that did it.”

The commander in chief dropped a line he has when talking about potential shooting conflicts with countries like North Korea, Iran and Venezuela.

“We’ll see what happens. We’re being very tough on sanctions,” he said, adding this apparent assessment of those economic penalties’ impact on Iranian government officials: “They’re in deep, deep trouble.”

Trump said Iranian officials have been told “in very strong terms” to avoid actions that would force the United States and other countries to shut down key shipping routes in the region, including the busy Strait of Hormuz.

The president, who was allowed to speak uninterrupted for minutes at a time by the “Fox & Friends” anchors who spend ample time each morning defending his actions and lauding his performance as president, vowed to prevent Tehran from fielding an atomic arsenal.

“They can’t have nuclear weapons,” he said, slamming the Obama administration for a nuclear pact it struck with Iran and other world powers, a deal from which he removed the U.S. “We’re not going to have it.”

Meantime, he also addressed comments he made during an interview taped this week with ABC News during which he said he likely would accept dirt from a foreign government about a political opponent that drew sharp rebukes from Democrats. In the same Q&A, he refused to say that he would contact the FBI if such an offer was made, something former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III found he and his 2016 campaign team did not do when Russians approached them allegedly with negative information about Hillary Clinton.

“If I thought anything was incorrect or badly stated, I’d report it to the attorney general, the FBI, I’d report it to law enforcement — absolutely,” he said. “One thing that’s different with the president … I was with all the heads of these nations. … If they say, we don’t like your opponent, you know the president of France, am I supposed to report him to the FBI? I’m in a little bit of a different position than other people.”

[Trump comments blur line between ‘oppo research’ and stolen material]

Asked pointedly by Fox’s Brian Kilmeade what he would do — refuse the data or look at it — should a foreign leader offer political dirt, Trump demurred.

“Like I said, Brian, the president of the United States — no matter who it is, whether it’s me or somebody else — is in a much different position. Because I hear things, that good, bad or indifferent — other people don’t hear,” Trump insisted.

Trump also continues to be dogged by Mueller’s report and Democrats’ claims about what it show. When the network played a clip of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, saying Trump was involved in a criminal coverup of some of his pre-White House actions, the president went on the attack.

“It’s a facist statement. It’s a disgraceful statement. I call her ‘Nervous Nancy.’ She’s a nervous wreck,” Trump said, repeating his claims that Democrats — not his campaign — worked with Russians in 2016.

Trump lashed out at Andrew McCabe, former deputy FBI director, and other Justice Department officials, accusing them of “spying” on his 2016 campaign. Democrats and former Obama administration officials, however, rebut such comments by saying what they did was start a counterintelligence probe based on concerns about possible Trump campaign-Russia ties.

Asked about the slate of 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, Trump lashed out at former Vice President Joe Biden.

“Everybody knows Joe Biden doesn’t have what it takes,” Trump claimed. When pressed, he questioned Biden’s “mental capacity.”

“Obama came along and then, surprisingly, took him off the trash heap,” the president said, also saying he would like to run against Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. He added Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont to the short list of the Democrats he thinks could secure the party’s nomination.

And he called South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg a “joke,” introducing a new nickname: “Little Pete.”

Even as the 2020 race begins to heat up, a Fox anchor asked if the president would “automatically” endorse Vice President Mike Pence if he wins a second term and his VP runs in 2024.

“I love Mike. … I certainly would give it strong consideration,” Trump said, refusing to give his No. 2 his support.

The president again praised outgoing press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, saying “She was fantastic.” He announced Thursday she is leaving at the end of the month, a decision she later told reporters she informed him of that morning.

Trump claimed he has multiple “great” candidates to take over for Sanders, who has not briefed reporters at the James Brady Briefing Room podium in 95 days. He gave no indication that he would approve a new press secretary reviving the daily briefings, and did not name any potential replacements for a press shop that also lacks a communications director.

He declined to state clearly whether former Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci or Stephanie Grisham, who is first lady Melania Trump’s communications director, might replace Sanders. He did laugh and say he thinks “The Mooch” should “stay where he is.”

In an other personnel matter, a defiant Trump said he plans to keep counselor Kellyanne Conway even after a federal special counsel determined she has violated the Hatch Act by making political actions while performing her official government role.

“They’re trying to take away her right to free speech,” Trump said. “No, I’m not going to fire her.”

On immigration, Trump said he would consider calling Congress back during a recess period to try to work out a sweeping plan to address an uptick in attempted border crossings. He charged Democrats with viewing the issue as good “politics” for 2020, claiming they don’t want to reach any deal.

The president also announced Thomas Homan, former acting ICE director, is returning to the administration as “border czar.” He did not fully describe what Homan’s job functions will be.

Friday is Trump’s 73rd birthday. At the top of the interview, he told the Fox anchors he plans to have a piece of “cake” this evening to celebrate.

Asked about Washington scuttlebutt that he enjoys campaigning but not being president, Trump responded: “I love the job.”

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