Donald Trump tweaked the script of his transition again Tuesday, appearing to shift his stance on at least three major issues in the course of an afternoon but defending his right to continue involvement in his worldwide businesses despite the potential for conflicts of interest.
What seemed to be Trump’s ironclad belief that America must withdraw from the international climate change accord reached last year suddenly wasn’t so ironclad. He demurred when pressed on whether he would pursue criminal charges against Hillary Clinton — a signature promise of his campaign. And he backed off on his commitment to torturing enemies of state, saying a single conversation with a retired Marine general changed his mind.
The day marked yet another in which Trump’s agenda bounced around like a pinball. Much of the repositioning played out during a wide-ranging interview with the New York Times — a meeting that Trump had angrily said in the morning that he would cancel over what turned out to be a misunderstanding over the ground rules. By afternoon, Trump was on a full-fledged charm offensive in the mothership of the news organization he had just hours earlier derisively labeled “failing.”
Whether Trump’s remarks reflected a genuine pivot in his thinking or just the president-elect playing to the room he was in will become clearer when he starts governing. Trump made sure to leave himself wiggle room, as he often does.
Still, some of the shifts were jarring. The president-elect, who had branded climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese and dismissed efforts to fight it as a massive, politically motivated waste of time and money, now said that perhaps action was needed, and that he might follow through with America’s commitments in the international climate agreement that he repeatedly vowed during the campaign to disregard.
“I’m looking at it very closely,” he said. “I have an open mind to it.”
The comments put Trump at odds not just with his own campaign pledge, but also with his transition team. The man charged with readying the Environmental Protection Agency for the Trump administration, Myron Ebell, is a renowned climate contrarian who regularly attacks the consensus of mainstream science that global warming is a crisis that must be addressed immediately. Ebell has crusaded against every major effort the U.S. has embarked on to slow warming. The Trump transition plan, posted online, states the president-elect will “scrap the $5-trillion Obama-Clinton Climate Action Plan.”
Environmentalists were skeptical of Trump’s altered tone. “As long as Trump has a climate change denier like Myron Ebell running his [EPA] transition team, you know this is all a bunch of empty rhetoric,” said May Boeve, executive director of the climate change advocacy group 350.org.
“I don’t want to hurt the Clintons — I really don’t,” Trump said. “She went through a lot and suffered greatly in many different ways.” When he was pushed on whether prosecution is off the table, Trump responded: “It’s just not something that I feel very strongly about.”
The conservative group Judicial Watch, which has committed itself to exposing alleged Clinton law-breaking, warned Trump against “a betrayal of his promise to the American people.”
But Trump said he would use his influence over law enforcement to argue it is time to move past Clinton investigations, though that too would suggest undue sway over agents who are supposed to be independent of politics when deciding which targets to investigate.
He allowed there is even a case to be made that the Clinton Foundation does “good work.”
The remarks came on a day when Trump’s own foundation was once again in the spotlight. It acknowledged in a fresh tax filing Tuesday that it broke rules prohibiting self-dealing, which will likely trigger a fine. The tax document emerged after the Washington Post reported on multiple instances in which Trump used foundation money to cover the cost of legal settlements his businesses entered into.
The Trump Foundation did not disclose on its new tax filing what payments were inappropriate. Foundation attorneys declined to comment and the Trump transition team did not respond to emails.
The continued negative attention on Trump’s financial entanglements, though, did not appear to be motivating him to more quickly step away from his business empire. Trump made a point of noting that while he is working to transfer control of his businesses over to his children, he does not have to.
“The law’s totally on my side; the president can’t have a conflict of interest,” Trump said.
He elaborated: “In theory, I could run my business perfectly and then run the country perfectly.”
Trump’s indifference to being perceived as using the presidency to enrich himself flouts all White House convention.
He pushed back against concerns that turning over his business empire to his children doesn’t free him from conflicts, as they are also his advisors in government and will be in constant contact. “If it were up to some people, I would never, ever see my daughter Ivanka again,” he scoffed.
In another significant turnabout, he backpedaled from his repeated calls for a return to waterboarding and other discredited torture techniques to fight terrorism. Trump indicated he had reversed his view after a discussion with retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, considered a possible pick for secretary of Defense.
“He said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful,’” Trump said of their conversation on torture.
Trump said Mattis explained his view, shared by experts, that proven methods of interrogation, including building a relationship between interviewer and suspect, yield more useful information. “Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I’ll do better,” Mattis said, according to Trump, who said he was “very impressed” with the answer.
Trump also made no apologies for naming Stephen K. Bannon, the favorite of white nationalists, as his senior strategist. “If I thought he was a racist or alt-right or any of the things, the terms, we could use, I wouldn’t even think about hiring him,” Trump said. Asked about white supremacists inspired by the Trump victory to gather over the weekend in Washington, where some raised their arms like Nazis saluting Hitler, Trump said he condemns them.
The meeting started with Trump lecturing the Times about its coverage, complaining it had been unfair. But the exchange was notably less hostile than an off-the-record encounter between Trump and executives and anchors from major networks the day before, during which, several people in the room said, the president-elect delivered an unrestrained and extended rant against cable news.
And Trump, as is his custom, also took the opportunity Tuesday to step around the mainstream media and broadcast some news himself. He tweeted that loyalist Ben Carson is on his shortlist for secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
It was yet more whiplash from Trump. Only days ago, Carson had pulled himself out of the running for any Cabinet post. He had put out word that he was not qualified to run a federal agency, having no government experience.
Trump sees it differently. “He’s a greatly talented person who loves people!” he tweeted.
Californian Michelle Rhee, the former head of Washington, D.C., schools and a prominent Democratic lightning rod of the school reform movement, said after meeting with Trump over the weekend that she would not pursue nomination as his secretary of Education.
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