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Trump’s freewheeling CNBC interview gives glimpse of the campaign to come

Shortly after Donald Trump called into CNBC Monday morning, a host on the financial network’s flagship show posed a straightforward question: How did the former president’s vision for the country compare to the one President Joe Biden laid out in last week’s State of the Union address?

In a winding 280-word response, Trump had plenty to say about Biden’s speech – calling it “a terrible performance” from a “very angry man who’s losing badly in the polls” – and about his personal legal troubles. Left unmentioned, though, were his own plans for a second term.

The freewheeling continued from there. Asked about cryptocurrency policy, he bragged about the sales of his new sneaker line. He affirmed that TikTok is a national security threat but hedged that “there’s a lot of good” on the Chinese social media website his party is trying to ban, while declaring its American competitor Facebook “an enemy of the people.” In dismissing concerns about political polarization, Trump praised Hungarian Viktor Orbán, who has squashed political opposition and clamped down on democratic institutions in his country.

By the end of the interview – his first since becoming the presumptive Republican presidential nominee – Trump had also managed to hand a political gift to his opponent by suggesting Medicare and Social Security could be cut, sending his campaign into damage control.

In many ways, Monday’s 40-minute call-in to CNBC was typical Trump: evasive, evocative and eventful. In keeping with other recent interviews where he has dodged questions about his cutoff for abortion access and avoided taking a position on Israel’s war in Gaza, CNBC hosts repeatedly strained to pin Trump down to positions.

But as he emerges victorious from a GOP primary nominating fight where he exerted little effort, Trump’s unwieldy responses also evoked reminders of why the former president remains the occasional headache for those in his party attempting to govern in Washington and for his campaign trying to navigate a minefield of battleground states where impressionable swing voters may decide his fate.

His declaration to CNBC that “there is a lot you can do in terms of entitlements in terms of cutting” Social Security and Medicare is already reverberating on the campaign trail. The remark cut against months of Trump vowing to protect the popular entitlement programs – a perennial hot-button political football regularly featured in campaign attack ads, particularly from Democrats – while accusing his Republican rivals of planning to do the opposite. In his jumbled response, Trump suggested he could save the programs with better management before pivoting to a long-winded defense of his administration’s pre-pandemic achievements.

Biden seized on the remarks within hours, telling a New Hampshire crowd: “Even this morning, Donald Trump said cuts to Social Security and Medicare on the table.”

“I’m never gonna allow that to happen,” the president said. “I won’t cut Social Security and I won’t cut Medicare. … I will protect and strengthen Social Security, Medicare and make the wealthy to begin to pay their fair share.”

In a press release sent hours after Trump spoke, his campaign wrote that the former president “Reiterates Protecting Entitlements” in the CNBC interview.

Meanwhile, Republican leadership in Congress – working for months to ban TikTok in the United States – has scrambled in recent days to assess the damage from Trump’s sudden about face on the social media platform.

On Friday, Trump posted on his own social media site, Truth Social, “If you get rid of TikTok, Facebook and (CEO Mark Zuckerberg) will double their business. I don’t want Facebook, who cheated in the last Election, doing better.” The post came a day after a House committee advanced a bill that could lead to a nationwide ban on TikTok.

Speaking to CNBC, Trump confirmed he recently met with Jeff Yass, a Republican mega donor and billionaire hedge fund manager whose firm is known to own a sizable stake in TikTok. Trump, who has lately hosted GOP donors at Mar-a-Lago as he seeks to shore up his strained campaign coffers, described their encounter as brief. He said he did not discuss TikTok with Yass but talked about education policies with his wife.

“He never mentioned TikTok,” he said. “She did mention her school choice and that’s what her whole– in fact she said my whole life is based around school choice, was a very important thing to her and I agree with it.”

Trump also said that he “could have banned TikTok,” but decided to let Congress make the call.

“As you know, I was at a point where I could have gotten it done if I wanted to,” Trump said. “I sort of said, ‘You guys decide, you make that decision,’ because it’s a tough decision to make. Frankly, there are a lot of people on Tik Tok that love it. There are a lot of young kids on TikTok who will go crazy without it. There are a lot of users. There’s a lot of good and there’s a lot of bad with TikTok.”

Save for a handful of interviews on mainstream outlets, Trump has remained largely confined to conservative media since he exited the White House in January 2021. He refused to show up for any of his party’s nationally televised debates and faced far less negative advertising than Republican contenders Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley combined. His GOP rivals struggled to effectively attack him at all until it was too late.

For many general election voters just tuning in for the Biden-Trump rematch, the CNBC interview was perhaps their first extended opportunities to hear from the former president since he left office.

Those viewers received a heavy dose of Trump attacking the legal challenges he is facing – the place where he started and and ended his 40-minute appearance.

“I feel like I’m a pioneer,” Trump said of the indictments and judgments against him. “What’s happening is we have to be very careful. You know, we have a very fragile country. People are rejecting it, and they are watching.”

Ending the interview shortly after, host Joe Kernen thanked Trump and extended an opportunity to return.

“I look forward to another conversation in the not too distant future,” he said.

“Thank you very much, Joe,” Trump responded. “Thank you, everybody.”

CNN’s Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.

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