The Memo: Trump’s NYT interview sets 2018 stage

President TrumpDonald John TrumpCoast Guard chief: 'Unacceptable' that service members must rely on food pantries, donations amid shutdown Dem lawmaker apologizes after saying it's never been legal in US to force people to work for free Grassley to hold drug pricing hearing MORE won’t be making any move to push special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe 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 passes bill expressing support for NATO Maduro starts new term in Venezuela facing US sanctions, lack of legitimacy abroad Rick Scott threw party at Florida governor’s mansion after DeSantis and family had moved in: report 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 ClintonPavlich: Mueller’s indictment of the media Poll shows 36 percent support Trump's reelection, 43 percent prefer generic Democrat How the Clinton machine flooded the FBI with Trump-Russia dirt … until agents bit 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 ComeyPavlich: Mueller’s indictment of the media How the Clinton machine flooded the FBI with Trump-Russia dirt … until agents bit Mueller’s report: Release enough, but not too much 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 MooreHillicon Valley: Dem blasts groups behind Senate campaign disinformation effort | FCC chief declines to give briefing on location-data sales | Ocasio-Cortez tops lawmakers on social media | Trump officials to ease drone rules Domestic influence campaigns borrow from Russia’s playbook Jones asks federal officials to investigate misinformation campaign tactics in Alabama Senate race 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 StrangeDomestic influence campaigns borrow from Russia’s playbook Overnight Defense: Senate bucks Trump with Yemen war vote, resolution calling crown prince 'responsible' for Khashoggi killing | House briefing on Saudi Arabia fails to move needle | Inhofe casts doubt on Space Force Five things to watch in Mississippi Senate race 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) ManchinGOP seeks to change narrative in shutdown fight Senate to vote on dueling government funding bills This week: Congress heading in opposite directions on shutdown plans 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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerCongress: Americans in Puerto Rico still need our help Airbnb is doing the Democrats' dirty work Protecting our judiciary must be a priority in the 116th Congress MORE (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiBudowsky: Pelosi can break shutdown stalemate GOP seeks to change narrative in shutdown fight Poll shows 25 percent view McConnell favorably, lowest among leaders in survey 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.