WHITE HOUSE —
President Donald Trump told reporters on Air Force One that the "media witch hunt" linking his 2016 presidential campaign to Russia was "bad for the country," because "there's no collusion, there's no obstruction, there's no nothing."
Trump accused Democrats of playing "their card too hard on the Russia thing, because people aren't believing it," especially in making accusations of treason.
"When they say 'treason' — you know what treason is? That's Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for giving the atomic bomb [to the Russians], OK?" the president said.
Trump, during a one-hour conversation on his plane as it flew to France, defended face-to-face talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he met last week in Germany, because of mutual interests concerning Syria and other geopolitical issues.
"If you don't have dialogue, you have to be fools," Trump said. "Let's be the smart people, not the stupid people."
Question for Putin
Trump said he wanted to ask Putin, at their next meeting, whom the Russian leader really wanted to win last year's U.S. presidential election, "because I can't believe that he would have been for me." Trump contended that his stances on defense and energy policy were more detrimental to Moscow's interests than those of his opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The president, when asked about sanctions in place against Russia and whether he might relax them — despite opposition in Congress to doing that — replied that the United States has "very heavy sanctions on Russia right now. I would not and have never even thought about taking them off."
Trump denied that Putin had raised the issue during their discussions at the Group of 20 meeting in Hamburg.
He said he was willing to invite Putin to the White House, but "I don't think this is the right time. But the answer is, yes, I would."
Trump's conversation on the plane was initially deemed to be off the record, but on Thursday in Paris he queried one of the reporters from the flight about why his comments had not been published.
In the exchange with New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, in the office of French President Emmanuel Macron, Trump "asked if I had heard him say it could be on-record," she recounted in a pool report.
"Your pooler replied truthfully, 'no' (co-poolers also were not under the impression it was on-record, since Sarah Huckabee Sanders had declared it off-record)," Haberman wrote.
After that exchange, Sanders, the primary deputy White House press secretary, told reporters traveling with the president that excerpts of the Air Force One conversation would be released. A transcript, in excess of 3,500 words, was sent to reporters Thursday afternoon, detailing the wide-ranging conversation.
Some of what the president said about Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting in June 2016 with a Russian lawyer reflected what the president had said in two interviews Wednesday and at his news conference with Macron on Thursday.
"Honestly, in a world of politics, most people are going to take that meeting," Trump said, according to the White House transcript.
Both the senior and junior Trumps have been criticized by people on both sides of the political aisle for asserting it is not a problem to accept an offer of derogatory information from a foreign government on a political opponent.
Trump told the reporters on the flight that twice he asked Putin whether the Russian government interfered in last year's presidential election.
"He said absolutely not, twice," according to Trump. "What do you do? End up in a fistfight with somebody?"
Trump also had blunt words about U.S. trade deficits with China and South Korea.
"We are being absolutely devastated by bad trade deals," he said. "We have the worst of all trade deals with China. We have a bad deal with South Korea. We're just starting negotiations [to modify the free trade agreement] with South Korea."
Trump also linked trade negotiations to his push to have Beijing increase pressure on Pyongyang because of the fast-developing North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.
"In terms of North Korea, our strength is trade [with China]," he said. "You make reciprocal deals, you're talking about hundreds of billions of dollars. But before I did that I wanted to give it a good shot."
Trump, when queried by a reporter about retaliatory action against Beijing for dumping of Chinese steel onto the U.S. market, replied that "there are two ways — quotas and tariffs. Maybe I'll do both."
He also told the journalists that his previous remark about placing solar panels on his proposed border wall with Mexico was no joke.
"We have major companies looking at that," Trump said. "Look, there's no better place for solar than the Mexico border — the Southern border. And there is a very good chance we can do a solar wall, which would actually look good."
Because of the presence of natural barriers, Trump said, the solar wall would need to span only 700 to 900 miles (1,127 to 1,448 kilometers) to be effective in halting illegal migration.