DAVID GREENE, HOST:
President Trump is expected to ring in the new year in Florida. He's been celebrating the holidays there, staying at his Mar-a-Lago resort and hitting the links at his golf course. This is where, yesterday, he spoke to a New York Times reporter. According to the Times, it was a 30-minute impromptu sit-down in the golf course's grill room after the president had just finished lunch. In our studio, we have NBC's White House correspondent Geoff Bennett, also a familiar voice on our air.
Hey, Geoff. Good to see you.
GEOFF BENNETT: Good to see you as well. Good morning.
GREENE: So the president just finished lunch and decided - hey, I want to give an interview (laughter) here.
GREENE: It's funny how that can happen sometimes. What's the headline? It sounds like it might be his comments about this Russia investigation. What exactly did he say?
BENNETT: I think so. President Trump told the New York Times' Michael Schmidt, who conducted this interview, that he expects Robert Mueller to treat him fairly but that the investigation, quote, "makes the country look very bad, and it puts the country in a very bad position." Those are the president's words. And so he insisted 16 times in this interview, David, that Mueller has found...
GREENE: Only 16 times. OK.
BENNETT: ...Only 16 times - that Mueller has found no collusion between his campaign and Russia. Of course, we don't know that yet because the special counsel investigation has not concluded. Still, the president is framing the investigation as being bad for the country. He says, so the sooner it's worked out, the better it is for the country.
GREENE: You know, you come away from the transcript of this interview - 16 times saying no collusion, the president talking about Mueller, the president talking about what he thinks this looks like for the country. You cover this White House. Is he obsessed with this investigation?
BENNETT: The president and his close aides certainly want this investigation to be over. And their view on that is based on the guidance they are receiving from the president's lawyers. Ty Cobb, one of the president's attorneys, has said that he expects the Russia probe to wrap up sometime in the new year. But legal experts - historic precedent suggests that won't be the case. This investigation could last well into 2018, including up until the midterm election. So the other big question, I think, heading into next year is when the president will speak with Robert Mueller.
GREENE: Oh, we think that'll happen?
BENNETT: Well, we do think that'll happen. Legal experts I've spoken with say that they do not expect this investigation to wrap up without the president speaking to the special counsel team. I can tell you that as of last week, a source familiar says that a sit-down interview has not yet happened, so expect it to happen sometime in 2018.
GREENE: And the fact that Mueller would interview the president does not say anything one way or the other about what the president did or did not do. But that's a thing, if he's sitting down and doing an interview with the special counsel.
BENNETT: Of course. And it is part of the investigation - of the investigators following the leads where they might take them.
GREENE: The president got in a dig at the media in this interview, which is no surprising thing. But he said to The New York Times, quote, "without me, The New York Times will indeed be not the failing New York Times, but the failed New York Times. So they basically have to let me win." He's suggesting that the media has to let him win another four years in office because that's good for the media. I just want to fact check here, Geoff, that that's not the way this works.
BENNETT: (Laughter) Fact check - false. I mean, it's sort of remarkable. In a way, it's the president almost viewing himself as a reality TV star still, who has the power - or, you know, viewing the media as having the power to decide, you know, who wins elections based on who is good for ratings and based on who is good for clicks. That's obviously - I guess it should be said - not how it works in a democracy.
GREENE: So this is our final program of 2017. Let's look to what we might expect next year as this new year begins. What stories do you expect to be, you know, developing that involve this Trump White House and a Republican Party that wants to get more done? And also it's in an election year.
BENNETT: The thing that I'm keeping an eye on is this. People close to the president - Trump backers - have said that they have real concerns about what they see as a lack of political strategy driving this White House. It's made evident by a series of seemingly flat-footed political missteps, a series of missed opportunities that they see as having limited the president's progress.
So looking into next year - with the president's approval rating as stuck in the 30 to 40 percent range, if he isn't able to grow his base of support beyond his pre-established base, if the Russian investigation continues unabated, you know, how does that color the president's relationship with mainstream Republicans? What does it mean for the relationship around, you know, big-ticket agenda items? I'm interested to see how that all plays out.
GREENE: And we're going to get a pretty quick test of that since this is an election year - a test of how strong, I mean, that the political abilities are of this White House and how well they work together with the Republican Party. This is an election year.
BENNETT: That's right. And look, heading into the midterms, there are sort of countervailing forces here. You have Democrats with all the energy, but you have a map that's favorable to Republicans. Those two things, in a way, could cancel each other out, leaving the GOP majority intact. But you know, the Democrats I've talked to, Democratic strategists, are trying to field strong candidates in hopes of making states that were once, you know, think - you know, once viewed as non-competitive, competitive - states like Texas, Tennessee - making those states in play, which was once unthinkable.
GREENE: Another news item this week - we saw the RNC has a lot more money than the DNC right now, which could be another advantage for Republicans.
BENNETT: That's true.
GREENE: All right, speaking to Geoff Bennett. He's NBC's White House correspondent and also former editor and correspondent here at NPR.
Geoff, it's good to see you again.
BENNETT: You as well. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.