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11 things we learned from Donald Trump’s meeting with the New York Times

This is what the president-elect says when he wants the Times to like him.

Donald Trump Speaks To Conservative Party Of New York State Reception In New York City Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On Tuesday, President-elect Donald Trump sat down with reporters, editors, and management of the New York Times. Since the president-elect hasn’t held a traditional press conference since being elected, this meeting was the closest he’s come to fielding questions from many angles at once and without preparation.

Much of the meeting, as live-tweeted by Times reporters Maggie Haberman and Mike Grynbaum, was typical Trump bluster and whining; Trump reportedly started the meeting with four solid minutes of complaints about how “unfair” the Times had been to him. It’s also tough to tell at times whether Trump was saying what he believes or, as he often does, was just trying to get his audience to like him.

Still, even Trump’s self-serving comments can be a useful window into what he wants, and he offered some glimpses into how he sees his presidency — and how little he takes responsibility for pretty much anything he said during the campaign.

1) He doesn’t see any problem with running a business while running the country

Before being elected, Trump said he’d put his business holdings in a “blind trust” for his children to manage. But there’s not much of a blindfold: The Trump children are currently involved in planning the presidential transition; Ivanka Trump has been present during conversations between Trump and other world leaders; and Trump took time off from transition work to meet with Indian businessmen building a Trump-branded apartment complex.

These might seem like a conflict of interest, if not outright corruption. Trump, however, is unconcerned.

Narrowly speaking, this is almost correct: conflict-of-interest laws don’t apply to the president. But there is a clause in the Constitution, the “emoluments clause,” which prohibits the president from taking any money from foreign governments — and barring a change to what Trump’s business holdings are or who manages them, he’d be violating that clause the minute he took office.

It would be up to the Republican Congress to decide whether to take action against an emolument-clause violation, and since the Republican Congress loves Trump right now, that’s probably unlikely. But that doesn’t mean the clause doesn’t exist.

Perhaps with an eye toward this, or just knowing that it would be bad politically not to even pay lip service to separating his business from his presidency, Trump magnanimously gestured toward doing “something.” But not anything too hard.

2) Trump is asking politicians in other countries to lobby for things that will help his businesses

Trump’s alliance with British politician Nigel Farage is well known — he’s even called for Farage to be appointed the UK’s ambassador to the US (not gonna happen).

This week, though, the Farage-bromance story intersected with the conflict-of-interest story, as it was reported that Trump had asked Farage to lobby against wind farms that would impede the view at Trump’s golf courses.

Trump’s presidential campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, denied that any such conversation had taken place. Donald Trump … pointedly did not.

3) Trump’s still not a fan of the Electoral College

Donald Trump lost the popular vote on Election Day. But Trump said before the election that he believes the Electoral College is a bad way to pick a president, and he’s sticking to that position now.

Trump’s not saying that Hillary Clinton should have won the election, mind you. He claims that if the 2016 presidential election had been determined by popular vote, he would have spent time campaigning in New York and California, and would have won anyway.

4) Trump wants to move on from that whole “lock her up” thing

When it comes to Trump’s campaign bragging that he’d put Hillary Clinton in jail — or at least appoint a special prosecutor to put her in jail — he’d rather move on.

This is promising: It indicates that Donald Trump is now aware that the president of the United States can’t just order that someone be prosecuted. How to move forward with investigations into Secretary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state, or the connections between her State Department and the Clinton Foundation, is a decision that belongs to the Department of Justice.

Of course, Trump’s attorney general (he’s nominated Jeff Sessions) could still decide to prosecute Clinton — Trump isn’t taking that off the table. He’s just saying that the slogan his campaign embraced and took very seriously — “Lock her up!” — is, contrary to what you might have guessed, not something he cares much about.

5) Trump really wants the media to stop calling him out in public when he gets things wrong

We know Donald Trump is thin-skinned. We know Donald Trump really, really hates the way the New York Times has covered him. But in the room with Times staff, he stressed that what he really wanted was just for the Times to be nicer to him — and, for example, have the publisher Arthur Sulzberger “call me” if he gets anything wrong.

This is, needless to say, not how journalism works. Subjects don’t have the right to a friendly chat from the publisher every time they make a mistake or do something immoral. But it’s telling that Trump’s idea of what a better relationship with the press would look like involves two rich men solving their disagreements in private, without anyone needing to do anything so gauche as blaring it on the front page.

6) Trump’s willing to “disavow” the alt-right — but not much else

It is patently clear that an organized white-supremacist movement has been energized and emboldened by the Trump presidency. Donald Trump is willing to pay lip service to the idea that such a movement is a bad thing. But he’s unwilling to do anything stronger than that — which is to say, anything that would actually make them feel less excited about his election.

While Trump professes ignorance about why white nationalists support him, they’ve been pretty clear. They’re fans of some of Trump’s policy proposals, like the ones to cut legal and unauthorized migration and empower police officers to use force more often. They are particularly excited about Trump’s pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and his chief strategist, Steve Bannon — who ran the site Breitbart as an explicitly alt-right outlet before joining Trump’s campaign.

7) Trump thinks that Breitbart can’t be racist because it’s successful

One main criticism of Trump’s new strategic advisor Steve Bannon is that he has spent the past several years running a website, Breitbart, that fans racist fears and prejudices for strategic benefit. The idea is that someone who’s expert in “how to benefit from inflaming racism” is not someone you want running the strategy of your White House.

But Trump’s response to this is tautological: Essentially, Breitbart can’t be racist, because it’s successful.

This is in line with things Trump and his allies have said about his own campaign: that nothing he said or did was over the line, because he won. If President-elect Trump has a moral compass beyond what helps him personally, it’s not apparent here — on the question of one of the biggest, most immediate fears about his presidency.

8) Trump’s surprised not everyone in the armed forces loves torture

Trump’s other hint about Cabinet staffing came in the form of praise for Gen. James Mattis, another potential Department of Defense pick — even though Mattis disagrees with the president-elect’s pro-waterboarding stance:

The difference of opinion is actually not that surprising! Many people involved in defense policy think about waterboarding in terms of its costs and benefits — and have decided that whatever dubious benefits it has for intelligence gathering aren’t worth its costs, such as losing credibility. Mattis could be one of those.

Donald Trump, however, appears to view waterboarding primarily as a punishment for being a bad person, which explains why he’d assume a “general’s general” like Mattis would agree with him about it.

9) Trump says he’s “open-minded” on climate change — but hasn’t thought much about it

Trump, who once tweeted that climate change was a Chinese hoax, elaborated only vaguely to the Times on his views here:

Trump has promised to withdraw the US from the Paris climate treaty, and gave no indication here on whether he’s given this more thought. Trump’s comments — that he’s keeping an “open mind,” that he sees “some connectivity” between humans and climate change — don’t seem like a finely calibrated moderation, they seem like what you’d say if you just hadn’t given an issue much thought.

10) Trump wants everyone to know how close he and Barack Obama are now

It’s been reported that outgoing President Barack Obama is working more closely with Trump and his team than expected. Some anonymous Obama administration sources have indicated this is because Obama was quietly horrified by how little Trump understood the duties he’d be taking on as president. But the way Trump sees it, or at least the way he characterized it to the Times, he and Obama are just good friends.

This is typical: Trump doesn’t like people who dislike him, and likes people who like him. It appears that the Obama administration is trying to use this fact to its advantage — using Trump’s strange newfound respect for his predecessor (who, remember, he spent years claiming wasn’t born in the US and didn’t deserve to get into Harvard Law School) to mitigate his desire to totally undo every policy said predecessor enacted.

After all, Donald Trump is known to agree with the last person he spoke to.

11) He’s still got a grudge against New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte

Among the many, many names floating around for potential appointees to Trump’s Cabinet is outgoing New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte. Ayotte’s been discussed as a potential secretary of state or secretary of defense, due to her foreign affairs experience in the Senate. (Though she’s more interventionist than Trump, who told the Times he doesn’t want to be a “nation-builder.”)

But Ayotte also spent her failed reelection campaign trying to distance herself from Donald Trump — at one point she apologized for having said that Trump would be a good role model for children. And Donald Trump, whose life philosophy is “if someone hits you, you hit them back 10 times worse,” doesn’t appear to want such a person in his Cabinet.

Because Trump can be so inconsistent, of course, it’s not a great idea to assume that this — or anything he told the Times — is set in stone. But ultimately, the Times meeting was less useful for what Trump thought he was saying than as another display of some of his most deep-seated character traits: a total disinterest in self-reflection, an ideological flexibility that can be indistinguishable from (or a cover for) ignorance, a morality defined by success. Trump’s willing to “move on” from some of the things he did to win the election, but those appear to be too deeply ingrained to cast off.


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