President Trump hosted correspondents from TIME for a nearly 100-minute wide-ranging discussion on Monday, May 8 over a four-course dinner in the Blue Room of the White House. Joined by Vice President Mike Pence and two senior Administration officials, Trump weaved between topics and frequently went off the record. Excerpts from his conversation with TIME Editor Nancy Gibbs, Washington Bureau Chief Michael Scherer and White House Correspondent Zeke Miller are below:
On the job
I find the job very natural for me. I find–it’s a very big job obviously, there’s no job big like this. No job is important like this. But I think some of the–I just think it’s something that works for me, it feels very natural to me.
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And all I said, the job, it is, it’s a difficult job but it’s a job that I find to be–I love doing it. I love helping people. Mike [Pence] is doing a fantastic job. He fits it so well. I mean we have a great team, he and I guess, they say we’re somewhat opposite and that works to be a very good combination.
MORE: Read TIME’s cover story “Donald Trump After Hours”
On deal making in business vs. deal making in Washington
It’s never different. I think it’s never different. It’s always the same. You have to know your subject. And that would be the misconception of misconceptions for that. I mean, it’s not that I–look, I always had health care for my company. But it’s not that I–it was just something that wasn’t high on my list. I had people that negotiated for my company.
But in a short period of time I understood everything there was to know about health care. And we did the right negotiating, and actually it’s a very interesting subject.
On whether the White House is too combative
I think it is. It could be my fault. I don’t want to necessarily blame but there’s a great meanness out there that I’m surprised at. I mean I’m surprised.
On whether the White House has chosen to be combative
No, I’d like not to be. But the only way you survive is to be combative. I’ll read stories in the New York Times that are so one sided. Hey, I know when I’m successful. I know victory, okay.
On business versus politics
I don’t quite get it – if I’m going to do a job with the lowering taxes, better health care, take care of people, take care of hospitalization, all the things we’re doing, because there’s no plan now. You would think that people would like that. And they don’t. … I used to get the credit in business but they want to belittle everything you do. Business is easier because you put something up, it’s good, whatever.
But the politics is tough.
On negotiating with defense contractors
When [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō] Abe came from Japan, first thing he said to me when I first met him. He walked out. “Thank you, thank you.” I said, “For what?” F-35. You bought, you saved us one hundred million dollars. Because they’re part of the group that buy the ninety planes. It’s a lot. We get, they get, different allies.
But I saved Japan a hundred million bucks. Took me probably an hour if I added up all the time. But I will be saving, when we put that out over two, the two thousand five hundred planes, billions of dollars. Nobody ever wrote a story about that.
But they said the F-35 program is now straightened out and the costs are way down. They’re down because of me. Then Boeing when the F-18, I mean I must have got thirty-five million of each plane off. . . . You know they had the F-35s, they had thirty-five of them fly over Japan when [Defense Secretary] General [James] Mattis was there, and they were not detected by the radar. They flew over and everyone said where the hell did they come from? That’s stealth. It’s pretty cool, right. Thirty-five of them flying at a high speed, low, and they were not detected. They flew right over the top of the deal, nobody knew they were coming. Pretty cool, right?
On the future USS Ford-class carriers
You know the catapult is quite important. So I said what is this? Sir, this is our digital catapult system. He said well, we’re going to this because we wanted to keep up with modern [technology]. I said you don’t use steam anymore for catapult? No sir. I said, “Ah, how is it working?” “Sir, not good. Not good. Doesn’t have the power. You know the steam is just brutal. You see that sucker going and steam’s going all over the place, there’s planes thrown in the air.”
It sounded bad to me. Digital. They have digital. What is digital? And it’s very complicated, you have to be Albert Einstein to figure it out. And I said–and now they want to buy more aircraft carriers. I said what system are you going to be–”Sir, we’re staying with digital.” I said no you’re not. You going to goddamned steam, the digital costs hundreds of millions of dollars more money and it’s no good.
On the power of the Oval Office
I’ve done a lot with [Vice President] Mike [Pence] where we have a meeting in the [Roosevelt Room], we’ll have a lot of different people, labor unions, workers. … We had Harley Davidson up. I’ll say anybody ever see the Oval Office? Nobody’s ever said they’ve seen the Oval Office. President Obama was different. He didn’t, not a lot of people invited in. Me, I invite people in. … And it means something, the Oval Office. It means something to them. I’m telling you I’ve had big people, some of the biggest business people, you’ve seen it. They go in they’re like, they can’t believe it. And I’ve seen them cry. It’s weird.
On what else he watches on television
I’ll tell you, I used to watch sports. I don’t watch–I’m now consumed by news. And business, I like the business stuff.
On health care
See, there wasn’t a second attempt. There was only one attempt. There was a mistake, was we set a date. Now had we not set that date, we would have had one time. What we did was we started off and it changed until three or four days ago when it got passed. But we set a date. And when we didn’t vote, everyone said Trump fails with health care. The thing that surprised me is, I said, I’m not stopping. And everybody, not one person said that was going to pass. Which was sort of surprising to me. Nobody thought it was going to pass. Everyone said–and I’d go to [Vice President] Mike [Pence], I said remember I said, they’re talking like we don’t have a chance of passing. I’ll tell you, it was a great thing. It was a great process because those two hundred plus people in congress I got to know almost every one of them. And I developed a bond with many of them that you can only develop under fire. And it was a great thing. And again, somebody wrote an article where they said this is one of the greatest learning experiences, because Donald Trump has gotten to know every–you know I was with them for eighteen hours a day, calling.
On foreign policy
You know what’s interesting, I’m getting very good marks in foreign policy. People would not think of me in that light. I’m just saying, and you read the same things I read. I’m getting As and A+s on foreign policy. And nobody thought about it.
On forging relationships with foreign leaders
Great relationship with [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, one of the best. In fact so good she invited my daughter over. She loves Ivanka. Ivanka was over there and did great. But no I have a very good relationship with all of them, including Australia. You saw that the other night, right. You know they all said I hung up and I slammed the phone on him. I didn’t do that. I mean, it was a little testy for a while because Obama made a ridiculous deal. But that wasn’t [Australian Prime Minister] Malcolm [Turnbull]’s fault. But we have a very good relationship with Australia and him. Which I think the other night showed.
…I get back [former Egyptian prisoner] Aya [Hijazi]. Nobody could have done that. Nobody else could have done that. They could have negotiated – how tough is [Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah] el Sisi, right? Nobody else could have done–and he’s a great guy. Nobody else could have gotten her back. She would have been in jail for twenty-eight years. And that’s not twenty-eight years you’re going away for one. That’s twenty-eight years meaning twenty-eight years.
On his first use of force and empowering his generals
I’ve been doing this, in all fairness, when I first came into the office, the first night. You weren’t here.
But they say sir, we’re ready to go. I said where? They had some people in a certain country, Yemen, where they had them [surveilled] and they needed the go ahead to kill, to kill them.
But in other words they wanted the right to go. So they’re telling me this. And this happened for two or three weeks, four weeks. And they keep coming to me, at weird times too. I don’t care about that.
And they’re in parts of the world that most people have never even heard about. They were in cities that nobody every heard about or towns. And in some cases they’re ISIS or al-Qaeda. And so they say sir, we have a situation we’d like to be able to go and they tell me what.
Then after about four or five weeks I said wait a minute. By the time they get to me, and I get back to them, usually it’s over anyway, it’s gone, they’re gone. They couldn’t fire. You know under the Obama Administration they get back to them three or four weeks later and say it’s okay to go. They say okay to go, they left three weeks ago.
So I said to myself, I’m a believer in professionals, these people over there, whether it’s in Iraq or in Yemen or anywhere, Libya, they went to West Point, or wherever. Annapolis, they went to Air Force Academy.
I said to the general, I said how good. … The lieutenants, the captains, their majors, their colonels, they’re professionals. They love doing it, they know every inch of the territory, right. I say why am I telling them? So I authorized the generals to do the fighting. You know.
You know I have a lot of respect for President Xi [Jinping]. I have great respect for him. I think we have a very good mutual liking of each other. And I told you we had tremendous dialogue at Mar-a-Lago.
And Mar-a-Lago is a great place for the dialogue because there’s a warmth to Mar-a-Lago that you just don’t find anywhere else. You can sit down in a chair and just talk for hours. Where in some places you don’t have that.
And this is great. I mean it’s very different. But you don’t have that here. It’s not the same. It’s great in a different way.
We’ve never had the relationship that we have now. Now, in all fairness to President Xi, he loves China, he loves his people, and he is representing the people of China. He’s not representing the people of the United States. So we’ll see how that all turns out.
On why he struck Syria
I think we have to be a strong nation. I think we were being laughed at by the world. They’re not laughing anymore. When I saw that, I thought it was incredible. And then he called them child actors, and that was even, that was just a terrible disrespect.
I mean when he actually said they were child actors, who would even think of that? But I felt something had to be done. And the interesting thing is, a friend of mine who’s very much a warrior and a person over there, a general, said you know when they hit a barrel bomb right in the middle of a town, the kids are more brutally damaged, and people.
You have arms and legs and everything else laying all over the town where it is. A real problem too. But you know, it just seemed, when they start using gases, it’s something that is just terrible. But honestly barrel bombs are incredible when you see the damage done by these.
…My friend said to me that, he said you know it’s interesting, he said you hit them because of the gases but the barrel bombs are worse. He said what they do to people is unbelievable. You have arms and legs laying two hundred yards away.
And despite that there was something about the gases. It’s just terrible. And I guess it was also that he violated the deal that was done with Obama. He’s got gas all over the place. He’s got gas all over the place.
On the fight against ISIS
We have to humiliate the enemy. And if we don’t humiliate them, we’re going to have our kids continuing to go and fight for ISIS. We have kids leaving this country because they’re so damned good at the internet, ISIS, they’re better at the internet than Google. You know it’s a smart enemy. Believe it or not. And these kids are going over and fighting.
You know we’ve gotten billions of dollars more in NATO than hat we’re getting. All because of me. I mean it’s not like a bragging thing, I’m just saying. If Hillary Clinton would have gotten in, she wouldn’t even know that we’re getting screwed by everybody.
But we have gotten billions of dollars more coming in. and coming in. I asked one simple question, I says is everybody paid up? An they bring their chart, and these countries haven’t paid for years. Haven’t paid a fair amount for years. Billions, and billions, and billions and billions of dollars. And we’re paying. We’re paying for it.
And they pay 2% and we pay close to 4%. And in all fairness it’s better for them than it is for us. It’s wonderful. But its better for them. And I get along great with Merkel. I got along great with all of them. I said folks, you gotta pay. You gotta pay.
On his visit to Walter Reed Medical Center
Terrible. Incredible and terrible. They’re so brave. I mean their legs are blown off, their arms are blown off, their faces … Their spirit’s amazing. It’s incredible. One guy had his leg blown off in Afghanistan. Handsome guy, really good looking guy. And he was with his girlfriend. His leg was blown off high, you know.
All he can do, because now they let them go back, was with the prosthetic, if you can, it works out okay. All he wants to do is go back. It’s amazing. The spirit is so incredible.
Vice President Mike Pence on Trump
I always say the president has a gift for hospitality…I think people sense when they’re around the president an open door, a hospitality, a graciousness. I think it’s–I’ve had more people tell me that it was the memory of a lifetime.
And it’s just because of the kindness that he’s shown large and small groups with his time and attention.