President Trump told a group of television news anchors at the White House on Tuesday that he would participate in this year’s general election debates, despite his misgivings about the commission that oversees them, according to two people with knowledge of his comments.
Mr. Trump also said he hoped that Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing talk radio star who this week announced a diagnosis of advanced lung cancer, would attend Tuesday’s State of the Union address. The president said he was interested in awarding Mr. Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom, according to two people with knowledge of his comments.
In a jovial mood after Iowa Democrats botched Monday’s caucus vote count — a situation that Mr. Trump happily called a “fiasco” — the president held court for nearly two hours on Tuesday afternoon over a lunch of sole and soup in the State Dining Room. Vice President Mike Pence and Ivanka Trump also attended.
The conversation, an annual tradition for anchors, is off the record, but as in past years, multiple people described Mr. Trump’s remarks after the fact. Journalists from The New York Times were not invited and did not agree to those off-the-record terms.
The White House declined to discuss the president’s remarks. “I actually have ethics so I’m not going to comment on an off-the-record lunch,” said Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary.
The president had tough words for John Bolton, his former national security adviser, complaining that Mr. Bolton wanted to be referred to as “ambassador” and saying that Mr. Bolton “turned on me” by writing a book that includes unflattering portrayals of Mr. Trump’s behavior.
As for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who will stand on the dais beside Mr. Pence during the State of the Union, Mr. Trump said the two had not spoken in some time. “There’s one person behind me who’s going to be friendly and one who’s not going to be friendly,” the president said, referring to his Tuesday evening address.
With a Diet Coke at his side, Mr. Trump spoke of his regret about Mr. Limbaugh’s medical diagnosis, saying that he had recently spoken with the talk-radio host and Mr. Limbaugh had offered no hint of his illness.
Asked about this fall’s general election debates, Mr. Trump repeated his recent complaints that “Never Trumpers” sit on the Commission on Presidential Debates, the nonpartisan group that organizes the events. But the president said he had decided to participate, because he believed his debate performances helped him win support from voters in the 2016 campaign.
The annual anchor lunch predates Mr. Trump’s administration. On Tuesday, Mr. Trump broke from precedent by declining to invite journalists from CNN, a network that he routinely accuses of bias.
Chuck Todd, the moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” told Mr. Trump at the lunch that he was asking a question on behalf of the CNN anchor Jake Tapper, according to another person familiar with the exchange. The president responded by saying that journalists from “MSDNC” — his recently adopted nickname for MSNBC — were also absent, though Mr. Todd hosts a daily afternoon show for the cable network.
Mr. Trump often castigates news outlets and individual reporters in public, contributing to a hostile environment toward journalists that press freedom groups have called dangerous and encouraging to autocrats who suppress independent media. But the president was described as cordial and easygoing at Tuesday’s event.