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.
Trump on his businesses/conflict q's: "The law's totally on my side, the president can't have a conflict of interest."— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 22, 2016
Trump says "in theory" he could continue signing checks at his company, but he is "phasing that out now" and giving to his kids.— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 22, 2016
"In theory I could run my business perfectly and then run the country perfectly. There's never been a case like this,"he says of his tangles— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 22, 2016
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.
"I'd assumed that you'd have to set up some type of trust or whatever and you don't," Trump says.But he adds "I would like to do something."— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 22, 2016
What about selling your company? “That’s a really hard thing to do, because I have real estate."— Mike Grynbaum (@grynbaum) November 22, 2016
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.
"I might have brought it up," Trump says of Farage meeting and wind farms.— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 22, 2016
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.
"I'd rather do the popular vote," Trump says. "I think we'd do as well or better." Says he was "never a fan of the electoral college."— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 22, 2016
Adds: "Until now." Also says Electoral College "gets you out to" see states you wouldn't otherwise.— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 22, 2016
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.
"My inclination would be for whatever power I have on the matter is to say let's go forward.This has been looked at for so long, ad nauseum"— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 22, 2016
That last tweet was Trump making clear he doesn't favor prosecution. Added people could argue the Clinton Foundation has done "good work."— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 22, 2016
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.
Trump says "no" when asked if he is taking investigations off the table for Clintons but adds he doesn't want to "hurt the Clintons."— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 22, 2016
Trump is pressed if he has definitively ruled out prosecuting Hillary Clinton. “It’s just not something that I feel very strongly about."— Mike Grynbaum (@grynbaum) November 22, 2016
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.
“I would like to turn it around,” Trump says of his relationship with the NY Times. “I think it would make the job I am doing much easier."— Mike Grynbaum (@grynbaum) November 22, 2016
Trump: “If you see something or you get something where you feel that I’m wrong, I'd love to hear it. You can call me. Arthur can call me."— Mike Grynbaum (@grynbaum) November 22, 2016
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.
Trump: “I don’t want to energize the group, and I disavow the group.” (1/2)— Mike Grynbaum (@grynbaum) November 22, 2016
Trump gets asked again about the alt-right conference. 'Boy you are really into" this issue, Trump replies. Then disavows again.— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 22, 2016
Trump on alt-right supporters: "It's not a group I want to energize. And if they are energized I want to look into it and find out why."— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 22, 2016
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
Trump: “I’ve known Steve Bannon a long time. If i thought he was a racist, or alt-right…I wouldn’t even think about hiring him."— Mike Grynbaum (@grynbaum) November 22, 2016
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.
Trump is asked about concerns from minority groups about Breitbart News’s coverage under Steve Bannon. His reply: pic.twitter.com/FBqCGwQpBr— Mike Grynbaum (@grynbaum) November 22, 2016
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:
Trump says he is "seriously considering" Mattis for DoD, says he asked Mattis about waterboarding, was surprised he didn't favor it.— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 22, 2016
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:
"Clean air is vitally important," Trump says about climate change. Says he is keeping "an open mind."— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 22, 2016
"I think there is some connectivity" between humans and climate change, Trump says.— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 22, 2016
On climate change, Trump says he is also thinking about "how much it will cost our companies” & the effect on American competitiveness.— Mike Grynbaum (@grynbaum) November 22, 2016
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.
Trump on Obama: “I didn't know if I’d like him. I probably thought that maybe I wouldn’t, but I did. I really enjoyed him a lot."— Mike Grynbaum (@grynbaum) November 22, 2016
'He did tell me what he thought were the biggest problems, in particular one problem," Trump says. Won't say what that was.— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 22, 2016
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.
Of Ayotte, Trump says, "No, thank you."— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 22, 2016
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.