When President Trump jumped on a televised Thanksgiving conference call with the military, he fittingly opened with a list of things for which he is thankful: the sacrifices made by service members and their families. Their implacable leadership. Their toughness. Their heroism, perseverance and strength.
And after several good-natured chats with high-ranking officers stationed around the world, the president said farewell with one more word of thanks and hung up.
He then spoke to the press, some of whom were in the room with him — and that’s when he started on his list of grievances.
“We’re getting some terrible decisions from the 9th Circuit, as usual,” Trump told reporters clustered around his desk at his Mar-a-Lago resort, where he is spending the holiday.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has become a favorite punching bag for the president in recent days. The appellate court, which oversees much of the Western U.S., has dealt his administration some of its most high-profile legal setbacks — including a recent ruling reversing Trump’s attempt to phase out an Obama-era program that shields immigrants who arrived here illegally as children.
Trump has taken aim at the court on Twitter and even directed some ire at Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts after the judge pushed back against the president. The court was so squarely on Trump’s mind, he even said that it was — “a big thorn in our side” — during his Thursday call with the troops.
But he waited until after the phone call to elaborate.
“It’s a shame. It’s a disgrace, frankly. And essentially they’re legislating, they’re saying what to do,” Trump told reporters Thursday. “Some judge sitting in some location very far away is telling our incredible military and law enforcement what to do, and it’s not right.”
He also addressed the comments from Roberts, who, in a statement, had taken the unusual step of defending “an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.”
But Trump disagreed.
“I like [Chief Justice Roberts] and I respect him, but I think we have to use some common sense. It’s the 9th Circuit,” the president said, calling the appellate court “very unfair.” “Everybody knows it’s totally out of control.”
Saudi Arabia, however, has won the president’s praise.
The CIA last week determined that the Gulf kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, personally approved the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and U.S. resident. But on Thursday, as he has previously, Trump defended Riyadh and cast doubt on the U.S. intelligence community’s findings.
“They did not come to a conclusion. They have feelings certain ways,” Trump said, noting that both Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and king have “vehemently” denied the killing.
“It’s an atrocity. It’s a terrible thing. I dislike it more than you do,” he added. “But the fact is, they’ve been a very strong ally. They create tremendous wealth. They can meet really tremendous number of jobs in their purchases, and very importantly, they keep the oil price down.”
During his conversation with reporters Thursday, Trump was willing to clear up some confusion on a topic closer to home.
Earlier this week, reports surfaced that the White House had authorized military personnel to use lethal force along the U.S. border — only for Defense Secretary James Mattis to walk that back Wednesday, saying there has been “no call for any lethal force” from the Trump administration.
On Thursday, Trump appeared to contradict Mattis’ statement.
“If they have to, they’re going to use lethal force. I’ve given the OK,” Trump affirmed when asked about it Thursday. “If they have to. I hope they don’t have to.”
“I’m troubled by it,” former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who served in George W. Bush’s administration, told NPR’s Morning Edition.
“You know, we have the Posse Comitatus statute, which prohibits the military from being used in a law enforcement manner,” Gonzales explained, adding: “I see the potential for a disaster, quite frankly, if the military starts using lethal force against these individuals, who are truly not criminals, those who are truly not terrorists but simply families being persecuted and trying to seek asylum in this country.”
Trump, however, defended the move as necessary for national security.
“It’s really a bad situation,” Trump said. “If we find that it gets to a level where we are going to lose control or where people are going to start getting hurt, we will close entry into the country for a period of time until we can get it under control. The whole border.”