President Trump’s interview with a team of reporters from Time magazine took a sudden turn when he made a comment about prison time for a journalist.
The exchange happened in the Oval Office on Monday. Time published the interview transcript on Thursday evening, and that’s when the comment started to get attention.
Here’s the background: Trump showed the four reporters a letter that he said was “written by Kim Jong Un. It was delivered to me yesterday. By hand.” Then he asked to go off-the-record, so that he could make comments that would not be reported or included in the transcript.
A Time journalist who was in the room evidently tried to take a photo of the letter’s contents — and when the interview was back on the record, press secretary Sarah Sanders said, “You can’t take a picture of that, sorry.”
Later in the interview, the Time team brought up the fact that Trump tried to “limit Mueller’s Russia probe to only future election meddling.” One of the reporters (the transcript doesn’t say who) noted that Trump dictated a letter to a former aide, Corey Lewandowski, “telling him to tell” former attorney general Jeff Sessions “to limit the investigation.” The details were included in former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
The Time reporter said “he testified under oath under threat of prison time, that that was the case Mr. President.” Trump, cornered, did what he usually does: He lashed out and brought up the other letter, the one he had shown off earlier, from North Korea’s dictator.
Quoting from the transcript:
TRUMP: “Excuse me — Under Section II — Well, you can go to prison instead, because, if you use, if you use the photograph you took of the letter that I gave you —”
TIME: “Do you believe that people should be —”
TRUMP: “confidentially, I didn’t give it to you to take photographs of it — So don’t play that game with me. Let me just tell you something. You take a look —”
TIME: “I’m sorry, Mr. President. Were you threatening me with prison time?”
“Well,” he said, “I told you the following. I told you you can look at this off-the-record. That doesn’t mean you take out your camera and start taking pictures of it. O.K.? So I hope you don’t have a picture of it. I know you were very quick to pull it out — even you were surprised to see that. You can’t do that stuff. So go have fun with your story. Because I’m sure it will be the 28th horrible story I have in TIME Magazine because I never — I mean — ha. It’s incredible. With all I’ve done and the success I’ve had, the way that TIME Magazine writes is absolutely incredible.”
Then the president continued raging against the magazine’s coverage. “Some day within the next 20 years,” he said, “maybe you’ll pick me as Man of the Year. O.K., big deal.” The “Person of the Year” title was last bestowed on Trump in 2016.
So what about the photos?
Were there photos of the letter? Will TIME publish them? No: “At various points during the interview, the President asked to go off-the-record, and TIME is honoring those requests,” a spokeswoman told me. Due to that agreement, the contents of the letter itself are considered off-the-record.
A version of this story first appeared in the Reliable Sources newsletter. Subscribe here!
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the Time journalist who was the subject of Trump's prison threat.