WASHINGTON—President Trump said war with Iran was “closer than you thought” and that he plans to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, in remarks made during a nearly two-hour lunch with television anchors at the White House on Tuesday, according to people familiar with the conversation.
Over celery soup, fish and coconut macaroons, the president spoke at length about Mr. Limbaugh, who said Monday he is being treated for advanced lung cancer, the people said. Mr. Trump said he had invited Mr. Limbaugh to his State of the Union address, but that Mr. Limbaugh might not be able to attend. The president has praised Mr. Limbaugh on Twitter as a “major star” and a “great guy who truly gets it.”
It is an annual tradition for the president to invite TV anchors to the White House for an off-the-record lunch on the day of the State of the Union address to give them a preview of what he plans to discuss.
Asked for comment, White House press secretary
said, “I actually have ethics, so I’m not going to comment on an off-the-record lunch.” The Wall Street Journal didn’t attend the event.
The president’s comment on Iran came after one attendee asked him how close the U.S. came to going to war with Iran earlier this year, after the U.S. killed a top Iranian military commander,
Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
Iran responded with a missile barrage on Iraqi bases housing U.S. and allied military forces. The Iranian strikes didn’t result in any deaths.
Mr. Trump didn’t elaborate on why war with Iran was “closer than you thought,” the people said. He is expected to speak about Iran and national security during Tuesday evening’s address.
The president also reiterated his previous comments describing head injuries suffered by U.S. service members during the strikes, telling anchors he had seen worse injuries, according to one of the people familiar with the matter. Last month, he said the head injuries weren’t “very serious,” prompting angry replies from veterans.
At one point, the people familiar with the matter said, NBC anchor Chuck Todd mentioned the exclusion of CNN, whose anchors have attended the lunch for decades, including in recent years under the Trump administration. Mr. Trump replied that “MSDNC”—a term he has used for MSNBC to suggest it is run by the Democratic National Committee—wasn’t there, either.
Mr. Todd didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Trump and his advisers said he isn’t expected to speak about impeachment at length during Tuesday evening’s speech. He told anchors he would address the subject in more detail after Wednesday’s Senate vote, which is expected to acquit him on abuse-of-power and obstruction-of-Congress charges. He also told them he isn’t bitter about impeachment, which he has decried as a partisan hoax during the past four months.
The president told the anchors that he expects to participate in the general-election debates, despite privately raising concerns about their fairness during recent months, one of the people said.
He complained about House Speaker
(D., Calif.), telling anchors she was nice on the phone, but critical in public, the people said. He added that the two haven’t spoken recently.
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