The Memo: Trump’s NYT interview sets 2018 stage

President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House panel votes against curtailing Insurrection Act powers after heated debate House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops MORE won’t be making any move to push special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE out — yet.

That’s the main takeaway from Trump’s interview with The New York Times, which was published on Thursday evening.

Trump will have surprised some allies by predicting that Mueller will be “fair.” 

The president’s personal legal team has sought to strike a cooperative tone with Mueller, but the prosecutor has been subjected to a blizzard of criticism from Republican lawmakers and Trump-friendly media outlets.

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Rep. Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzHouse panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops House panel votes to limit Trump's Germany withdrawal Voters must strongly reject the president's abuses by voting him out this November MORE (R-Fla.) told CNN earlier this month that the investigation into Trump, like the earlier probe into former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublican Nicole Malliotakis wins New York primary to challenge Max Rose Trump's evangelical approval dips, but remains high How Obama can win back millions of Trump voters for Biden MORE’s emails, had been “infected with the virus of severe bias.”

In the Times interview, Trump said he didn’t know when Mueller would end his investigation into allegations of collusion with Russia during the 2016 campaign. That comes in contrast with Trump lawyer Ty Cobb, who predicted the probe would end by Thanksgiving or, at the latest, the end of the year.

But, Trump added of Mueller, “I think he’s going to be fair.”

The president insisted 16 times over the course of the interview that there had been no collusion. He also unnerved Democrats and other skeptics with his assertion that he has the “absolute right” to do what he wishes with the Justice Department. 

That is, to say the least, a contentious claim. 

It could be read as the president once again defending his firing of FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyThe Seila Law case: Liberty and political firing A new age of lies? Trump celebrates ruling on Flynn case MORE — the one event that loomed over all others during his first year in office. But it could also be interpreted as suggesting that Trump might yet act against the people investigating him.

The Times interview received considerable blowback on social media, with critics alleging that the reporter, Michael Schmidt, had not been sufficiently confrontational with Trump. 

Others focused on the veracity, or otherwise, of the president’s words. The Washington Post asserted that Trump had made 24 false or misleading claims during the encounter.

Still, the interview — conducted without any aides present — showed the president’s state of mind at the end of a tumultuous year, in which he suffered low approval ratings, an endless stream of controversies — Comey, Russia, Charlottesville, the NFL and more — and frustration, as he failed to undo former President Obama’s signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act.

Yet Trump has also used his famous Twitter feed in recent days to highlight the achievements he believes have been underplayed by the media: the passage of tax-cutting legislation this month, the generally robust state of the economy, and advances against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

2018 will be critical for the president, particularly because of November’s midterm elections. 

Democrats, who looked at the midterms with gloom a year ago — they have to defend many more seats in the Senate than do Republicans — have had their spirits buoyed. 

The victory of Democrat Doug Jones over Republican Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreTrump to hold rally in Sessions's hometown for opponent in Senate runoff: report Sessions-Tuberville Senate runoff heats up in Alabama Sessions goes after Tuberville's coaching record in challenging him to debate MORE in the Senate race in Alabama earlier this month suggests that few seats are safe for the GOP.

Trump sought to deflect any blame for Moore’s loss during his Times interview, in part by suggesting that he had backed incumbent Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeThe biggest political upsets of the decade State 'certificate of need' laws need to go GOP frets over nightmare scenario for Senate primaries MORE (R-Ala.) in the primary because he knew Moore would have trouble in the general election. 

But the broader question as the midterms loom is whether Trump and the GOP seek some kind of bipartisanship or prefer to stick with the base-first strategy that got the president elected.

It’s not clear whether Trump has made up his mind. 

He told Schmidt on one hand that bipartisan progress was possible on three issues: infrastructure spending, health care and a fix for the Obama-era program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which gives a measure of protection to people who came to the United States illegally as minors.

Yet he also suggested Democrats were not acting in good faith. “We hear bullshit from the Democrats,” he complained. 

He also singled out Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinManchin draws line against repealing legislative filibuster Steyer endorses Markey in Massachusetts Senate primary The Hill's Morning Report - COVID-19 alarms escalate; Trump under fire over Russia MORE (D-W.Va.) saying “he talks. But he doesn’t do anything.” (Manchin is one of the most endangered Democrats in the midterms, seeking reelection in a state Trump won by the huge margin of 42 points.)

Trump also took to Twitter on Friday morning to insist that there could be no deal on immigration without action on the southern border wall he promised during his campaign. 

While Democrats might agree to enhanced border security of some kind as a price for a DACA fix, it seems highly unlikely that they would agree to a wall, which is anathema to much of their base.

The uncertainty about Trump’s future intentions echoes some of his 2017 moves. He excoriated Democrats for much of his first year, then suddenly embarked on a brief period of deal-making with Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerOvernight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday Top intelligence officials to brief Gang of Eight on Thursday Over 1700 veterans ask Senate to pass statehood bill MORE (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse votes unanimously to extend deadline for coronavirus small-business loan program Overnight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House approves .5T green infrastructure plan | Rubio looks to defense bill to block offshore drilling, but some fear it creates a loophole | DC-area lawmakers push for analysis before federal agencies can be relocated MORE (D-Calif.) before returning again to a more confrontational stance.

One thing’s for sure: the president won’t be tempering his social media use anytime soon. He boasted to Schmidt about a social media audience of 158 million, although it was not clear how he was calculating that figure.

Trump is also guaranteed to be just as unpredictable in 2018 as he was during his first year. 

At one point, Schmidt asked him whether he was moving more toward the political center, or at least toward an openness to deal-making.

“I’m always moving,” Trump replied. “I’m moving in both directions.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency. 

-Updated 12:31 p.m.