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Trump says he doesn't have to agree with his intelligence officials

Image: U.S. troops walk off a helicopter at Camp Bost in Helmand Province,
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President Donald Trump said in an interview that aired Sunday that he doesn't always have to agree with his intelligence officials' assessments of international threats.

"I am going to trust the intelligence that I'm putting there, but I will say this: My intelligence people, if they said, in fact, that Iran is a wonderful kindergarten, I disagree with them 100 percent," Trump said in the interview with CBS News' "Face the Nation."

He added, "I have intel people, but that doesn't mean I have to agree."

Trump's comments come days after he blasted his top intelligence officials for their statements at a Senate hearing on the U.S. intelligence community's annual report about national security threats facing the United States. In their testimony, the intelligence chiefs contradicted Trump's positions on Iran, as well as on Syria and North Korea, saying in the case of Tehran that the Iranian government has been compliant with a nuclear agreement signed during the Obama administration that Trump has since pulled out of.

Later in the week, Trump said after meeting with his intelligence officials that their comments — which were carried on live television — had been taken out of context by the media.

"I'm not going to stop them from testifying," Trump told CBS News. "They said they were mischaracterized — maybe they were, maybe they weren't. I don't really know. But I can tell you this: I want them to have their own opinion, and I want them to give me their opinion. But when I look at Iran, I look at Iran as a nation that has caused tremendous problems."

Trump said that shortly after he became president, he received a Pentagon briefing on the Middle East and learned of the "many, many places" where Iran was causing "huge difficulty."

"So when my intelligence people tell me how wonderful Iran is — if you don't mind, I'm going to just go by my own counsel," he said.

Trump also said he was keeping U.S. troops in Iraq to "watch" Iran.

"All I want to do is be able to watch," he said. "We have an unbelievable and expensive military base built in Iraq. It's perfectly situated for looking at all over, different parts of the troubled Middle East, rather than pulling up. And this is what a lot of people don't understand. We're going to keep watching, and we're going to keep seeing, and if there's trouble, if somebody is looking to do nuclear weapons or other things, we're going to know it before they do."

Late last year, Trump said the U.S. would withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan, a decision that prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis.

When "Face the Nation" anchor Margaret Brennan questioned whether Trump was concerned that a withdrawal of troops could lead to a resurgence of terrorist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda, Trump said the U.S. will "come back if we have to."

"We have very fast airplanes, we have very good cargo planes," the president said. "We can come back very quickly, and I'm not leaving. We have a base in Iraq, and the base is a fantastic edifice."

Brennan pointed out that Trump had criticized former President Barack Obama for announcing military moves and asked if Trump likewise was telegraphing the U.S. retreat.

"I'm not telegraphing anything," Trump said. "No, no, no. There's a difference. When President Obama pulled out of Iraq, in theory we had Iraq. In other words, we had Iraq. We never had Syria because President Obama never wanted to violate the red line in the sand."

"Being in Iraq was a mistake, okay," he added. "Being in Iraq — it was a big mistake to go — one of the greatest mistakes going into the Middle East that our country has ever made. One of the greatest mistakes that we've ever made."