Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

I'm going to do the right thing for the country: Donald Trump

On October 6, President Trump sat down for a frank exchange of views with Forbes's editor, Randall Lane, and then chief product officer, Lewis D'Vorkin. Here is a condensed version of that 50-minute exchange. We quote the president verbatim and have not corrected errors of fact. The full transcript is available at www.

Published: Dec 5, 2017 06:10:29 AM IST
Updated: Dec 4, 2017 12:13:37 PM IST

I'm going to do the right thing for the country: Donald TrumpImage: Jamel Toppin for Forbes

Forbes: You’ve always talked about having fun as a key to business. Are you having fun?
I am having fun. I’m enjoying it. We’re accomplishing a lot. Your stock market is at an all-time high. Your jobs, your unemployment is at the lowest point in almost 17 years. We have fantastic numbers coming out. And I think we’ll have, over the course of the next fairly short period of time, and more importantly over a long period of time, we’re going to have great numbers coming out of our country.

Q. What’s your personal thought?
I enjoy success. And we’re having tremendous success, as a country. We have some difficulties, with respect to North Korea, the Middle East. I inherited, and I’ve said it often, I inherited a mess. The country was having many different problems. Among them, the Middle East, Isis, which we’ve done more with respect to Isis in nine months than we’ve done in nine years. But we have really done, we have done, I would say eight months in eight years, to be specific. But we have done a really, really good job with the military. We’re building up our military. We just had an over $700 billion budget, which will be approved. We’re... you know, there’s been few times where the military was more important than what it is right now. And, in addition to that, which is by far the overriding element, it’s lots of jobs in the United States.

Q. Now that we’re almost a year from the big upset and the big win, do you think your business background prepared you for this job? And were you ready, now that you have a year in?
Well, I think it helped. It’s certainly a different kind of job than, really, there is anywhere. Because you have so many skills necessary. But certainly the campaign was successful. What people don’t realise is that I spent much less money than Hil­lary Clinton. So right there, perhaps that’s business. You know, if you look at the numbers it’s astronomically different. I don’t think anybody’s ever written that. You know, in the old days, if you spent less money and won, that was supposed to be a good thing. Today nobody talks about it. But I spent much less money and won.

I think that’s... so we start off there... I think that was good. I also think that, yes, being in... just last night I had dinner with all of our generals and admirals, at the highest level. You probably saw that. It was lovely. It was fantastic. But I talked about business. I said, “Your equipment is coming in too slowly and at too great a cost.” And I actually got involved in negotiating, as an example, the F-35 fighter with Lockheed. You may call Marillyn, the head of Lockheed, who you know, I think. And she’s a terrific person. But I developed a bidding system between Boeing and Lockheed. And I was able to reduce the price of the Lockheed by billions of dollars. By billions of dollars. And this took me, actually, a very small amount of time.

Q. So, if you take away the politics of being president, and what you’re trying to do with the economy, what are the obstacles that you are finding that you necessarily didn’t find in your business life?
You have Congress. That’s a big obstacle in many cases. You have, in some cases, well-meaning people in Congress that truly feel strongly about something. And I understand that and actually don’t mind that. And then of course you have grandstanders and others that want to try and make a point or want to do something that really isn’t necessarily in the best interests of the country. And those people I fight.

And what people don’t know is that I’ve had just about the most legislation passed of any president, in a nine-month period, that’s ever served. We had over 50 bills passed. I’m not talking about executive orders only, which are very important. I’m talking about bills. We’ve had a tremendous amount of legislation passed. Like VA accountability, which nobody could get passed. Meaning people are accountable now, because before you couldn’t do anything if you caught people who worked there doing very bad things. But many, many bills have been passed. And now we’re going for taxes. I will get health care. I’m one vote short of health care. I’ll get health care.

Q. Until you come up with something different, isn’t Obamacare your administration’s responsibility?

Yes. But I’ve always said, Obamacare is Obama’s fault. It’s never going to be our fault. With that being said, I think the Democrats want to make a deal.At the same time, I think I have a deal with the Republicans. So I have the best of both worlds. That’s business to a certain extent... when you asked the business question. And as you have noticed, I’m very able to make deals with Democrats if I have to.

I believe we’ll have a great infrastructure bill before, which is easiest of all of them. In fact, I think I’ll have more Democrat votes for infrastructure than I will Republican votes. And I also have another bill that I think will be very... an economic-development bill, which I think will be fantastic. Which nobody knows about. Which you are hearing about for the first time. But I’m going to do that.

Q. What is that? What does that mean?
Economic-development incentives for companies. Incentives for companies to be here. Incentives for companies to do things.

Q. Like business incentives to create jobs, keep jobs?
So that when companies leave our country, they get penalised severely. So that when companies stay in our country, they’re incentivised.

Q. So is it a carrot to get companies to stay and/or grow? Or is it a stick that you penalise?

It’s both. It’s both. It’s both a carrot and a stick. It is an incentive to stay. But it is perhaps even more so, if you leave, it’s going to be very tough for you to think that you’re going to be able to sell your product back into our country.

Q. How comfortable are you, as a businessperson, having the government involved in a business decision about where a company wants to locate? And where a company wants to put jobs?

Very comfortable, because there’s no tax if you stay. There’s no tax. We have to protect our companies. And if you looked at what’s happened, they’ve been ravaged by the stupidity of politics and, frankly, the stupidity of politicians. They’ve been ravaged. And we have to protect our companies. We have to protect our workers. And the only way you’re going to do that is you have to create rules.

Q. But in terms of individual tax-rate reform, without spending cuts, even with dynamic scoring, it’s going to increase the deficit. So are you committing to then having offsetting spending cuts?

First of all, we’re going to have some spending cuts, okay. We are going to really have some spending cuts. But I will tell you that most of what we are going to do is we’re going to gain. Look at GDP. So GDP last quarter was 3.1 percent. Most of the folks that are in your business, and elsewhere, were saying that would not be hit for a long time. You know, Obama never hit the number.

Q. He hit 3 percent. He hit three a couple quarters.

He never hit it on a yearly basis. Never hit it on a yearly basis. That’s eight years. I think we’ll go substantially higher than that. And I think this quarter would have been phenomenal, except for the hurricanes.

Q. But in terms of the tax reform and what’s on the table so far, there’s a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, Trump’s not as rich.’ You’re worth many billions, we’ve looked at you for decades, and we all know that. The estate tax, the death tax...
Did you say Trump’s not as rich? What?

Q. No, other people are saying that. We say Trump’s worth billions. You say you’re worth more than we estimate. But the point is, the estate tax in the current plan is going away, that’s more than a billion dollars in benefit to you. How do you square that and being able to sell that to the American people?
Well, we’re going to have to see what happens. We’re going to have to see what happens. The estate tax is for many, many family companies where people are forced to sell their businesses. That includes farms. But it includes a lot of businesses, any business... not even small businesses only. Large businesses also, where the estate tax is so onerous that families are forced to sell and some cases have fire sales and not get proper pricing. And in many cases those businesses don’t do very well after the family leaves. So that’s the primary reasoning behind the estate tax.

Q. Yes, but you could raise that threshold higher. I think the point that for someone like yourself, as president—the first businessman president—how do you push forward a bill that would, right now, as written, give you and your family more than a billion dollars’ worth of advantage just on that clause alone?

Well, the big advantage that I would get is if the economy does well. That’s a great thing for me, politically and otherwise. But the economy is a very... you know, it’s very interesting, Randall. I built a great business, but it doesn’t mean anything to me. My children are running it. It doesn’t mean anything to me anymore. I don’t even think about it because this is so big, what I’m doing now, so big and so, so important because this country was going in the wrong direction.

You see, you have to understand, if what I do is good for the middle class, that’s also good for me, and then if I do what’s good for the upper class, that’s good for me. Don’t forget... the companies that we’re talking about, many people own some of these companies. And sometimes wealthy people own them, and sometimes poor people own them. But when we make life and business better for companies, that’s a great thing for everybody, including me.

Q. But history has shown that you just can’t cut.
What has happened and what will be happening is, not only will we have massive tax cuts and reform. Not only will we have the largest regulation cuts in the history of a presidency—there has never been a president who has cut regulations anywhere even close, and I’m not nearly finished. You know the ones I’ve done. And I’m doing actually doing one next week, which will be massive. But we’ve cut. Now, I believe in regulation, by the way, but it’s got to be reasonable regulation. It can’t take 21 years to build a highway.

Q. You’ve always said talent matters. Talent you bring in matters. How do you feel that you’ve done so far with managing the talent that you’ve brought into your White House, to your ­administration?
Well, I think you have different kinds of talent. I have some that is terrific, that is unknown to the public for the most part, that has been incredible.

Q. Who have been your biggest ­successes?
Well, I’ve, I’ve had a lot. I hate to point them out because then when I don’t point somebody out they’re disappointed.

Q. What surprised you about the ones that didn’t turn out better?
You never know when to fire. You can meet somebody and you can see somebody sitting in front of you and you can even look at their rec­ord to a certain extent. Don’t forget one of your early questions is how does this compare with the business. Well, it is a different set of skills. You need more skill for this. And you need more heart. You also need more heart. Because a lot of your decisions here are based on what’s good for people, not just what’s good for the budget or what’s good for the pocketbook. But, so it is, there are tremendous skill sets from the world of business that are great. But you need additional skill. You also need political skill.

Q. Where are you today with Secretary Tillerson?
He came out of a great company. A company that has been around a long time. I don’t mind opposing views, but he and I have some opposing views. I think we have to be much, much stronger in stance. And, ultimately, my view matters. That’s the way life goes. But I have a very good relationship with him. And, generally speaking, we get along very well.

Q. There are reports out today, over the last couple days, about him calling you a moron privately. Has he talked, reached out to you about that? Do you believe that he said that?
Well, we may have to, if he did that—which he says he didn’t, by the way, he said he didn’t. And they announced with the State Department that he didn’t. I think it’s fake news, but if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.

Q You’ve also made many fewer appointments than other presidents at this stage. Is that an intentional...
That’s because I don’t need as many people. And that has to do with business also. And I’ve said that loud and clear, but nobody wants to write it.

Q. So is it that you’re not going to make those appointments, ever?

I’m generally not going to make a lot of the appointments that would normally be... because you don’t need them. I mean, you look at some of these agencies, how massive they are, and it’s totally unnecessary. They have hundreds of thousands of people. And you look at... so the appointments, I’ve made some great appointments. You take a look at the appointments we’ve made.

But two things that nobody mentions that I think are very important. Judges. I have many, many judges in the pipeline. Already we’ve had approved a number. Federal judges. I’m not just talking about Justice Gorsuch, Supreme Court. I’m talking about many federal judges. And I will have approximately 145 federal judges. I’m getting praised... right, I mean, are you disputing that? It’s approximately 145. That doesn’t include the court-of-appeals judges, which will be about 17.

Q. Who do you pick up the phone and call and say, ‘I need to talk. I have a question.’

Well, I have friendships. I have relationships. Largely the relationship is where I am... in other words, now it’s very much of a Washington relationship. I deal with people here.It’s a very fair question. I do like to call friends. I don’t have much time, believe it or not. It’s, uh, I am definitely a working president. I come in early. I start very early. Today I’ve already spoken to the head of France and the head of other countries. And you know, I mean, this is very much of a... in fact, I have my actual working desk inside. This looks very nice... don’t let that fool you. But more family, I think, than anything else. Plus I have some very good friendships in business. And I do like to get opinions. I am somebody that very much accepts opinions from people that I know understand what’s going on in the world.

Q. Is it at times lonely?
It’s a lonely position, because the decisions are so grave, so big. If it’s a big... like if you buy airplanes, it’s tens of billions of dollars. It’s not like you’re buying a plane. It’s hundreds of billions of dollars.

But that’s not... if the decision I made on Syria, for example, going in and firing 59 rockets, missiles, into Syria. When I had to give the go-ahead for that, that’s a very hard decision to make. You don’t know. Every one of them hit their target with incredible technology... Tomahawks in that case, but incredible technology. And I was actually sitting with the president of China at the time, having dessert in Florida, at Mar-a-Lago.

But you know those decisions are tough decisions. It’s lonely. And you have to make them yourself. And the military is... we have the greatest military. And by the way, our military is getting so much stronger, so much better. And rapidly. But I will tell you, you make those decisions all by yourself.

Q. Did business prepare you for that decision?
No, nothing prepares you for that. Nothing prepares you for... when you send missiles, that means people are going to die. And nothing really prepares you for that.

Q. So where are you and North Korea right now, and what’s the endgame? You spent your whole life negotiating, but you haven’t left any room for negotiation. So where do we go?

There’s not that much room left. There’s not that much room left. Look, this should have been taken care of by four or five previous administrations. It certainly should have been taken care of over the last eight years. And every year makes it a more difficult situation. And right now, I mean, President Obama told me... sitting right there, the two of us. He said that the the meeting we had prior to my coming into the White House... he said that was his toughest decision. But I said, but you didn’t make a decision, because you didn’t do anything. You let it go on. I just, I feel strongly you cannot allow him to have nuclear weapons.

Q. And you’ve kind of shut off, again with Secretary Tillerson, you’ve told him stop wasting his time with diplomatic...
He was wasting his time.

Q. Let’s hypothesise that there could be a good-cop, bad-cop scenario. How can somebody who is under you be taken seriously as any kind of cop if his boss has undermined his authority?
Well, I’m not undermining. I think I’m actually strengthening authority. But in the case of North Korea, they have been talking for 25 years. Obviously, that doesn’t work.

Q. In terms of Russia, the department of homeland security reached out to 21 states and confirmed that Russia was meddling with their elections. Do you think that Russia meddled in the US election in 2016?
Well, they just announced that there was no vote change, number one.

Q. The question has really been about influence, not about messing with the total tally.
They just said there was no change in vote. They just said that. They also just said that there has been absolutely no collusion. They just said that. Yesterday. Two days ago. Senate. There has been no collusion. I didn’t speak to Russians.

Everyone knows that... that was just a statement put out by the Democrats so that they could have an excuse for losing an election that in theory they should have won because it’s very easy for the Democrats to win the electoral college. And not only didn’t they win, it was 306 to—what was it?—223, if you could get the right number. It was 306 to 223. That was an excuse for the Democrats not winning the election.

Q. But now that you’re in this seat, does it bother you—or doesn’t it bother you—that the Russians tried to meddle with the election?
It would bother me greatly if that’s the case. It would bother me greatly. And I look forward to seeing what the final reports are. And hopefully they’ll come out soon, so if there are suggestions, we can do those suggestions prior to the ’18 election.

Q. You’ve pretty much never had a boss. In some ways, now you do have a boss—the American people. How has this changed...

I have about 330 million bosses.

Q. Right. So how has this changed how you operate as an executive?
It doesn’t change, because all I want to do is the right thing. You’ll see that I’ll make decisions that aren’t politically popular, but they’re the right thing to do. So I do have all 330 million bosses, but it doesn’t matter, because I’m going to do the right thing.

I think that’s another thing that maybe you’ll do more as a businessperson than you would as a politician. A politician is going to do the politically correct thing. I’m going to do the right thing for the country.

(This story appears in the 08 December, 2017 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)