In a meeting with the New York Times, Donald Trump appeared to back away from some of the most prominent promises he made during his presidential campaign, notably, whether he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton, and whether or not torture should be used in the war on terror.
Asked whether he had ruled out prosecuting Hillary Clinton, he replied, “It’s just not something I feel strongly about,” Mr. Trump told the room, according to Times media reporter Michael Grynbaum, who live-tweeted the meeting.
Prosecution, he said “would be very, very divisive for the country,” Mr. Trump told the room, according to Times political reporter Maggie Haberman. “My inclination 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.” In addition to the FBI’s investigation, the House Select Committee on Benghazi has looked into Clinton’s emails, as did several media organizations and watchdog groups like Judicial Watch. Mr. Trump also said that Clinton had “suffered greatly” and he does not “want to hurt the Clintons.”
This was a far cry from the cries of “Lock her up” he encouraged at rally after rally during his campaign. And during the second presidential debate, Mr. Trump told Clinton he would appoint a special prosecutor. “If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation because there has never been so many lies, so much deception,” he said.
Mr. Trump also appears to have had a change of heart on the use of torture. Gen. James Mattis (ret), he said has told him “’I’ve never found it to be useful.’” Mattis, who is under consideration for secretary of state, told Mr. Trump that building trust with terror suspects and rewarding cooperation elicited better results. “‘Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I’ll do better,’” Mr. Trump said, quoting Mattis. “I was very impressed by that answer.’’
Torture, Mr. Trump told the Times, is “not going to make the kind of a difference that a lot of people are thinking.”
This is also a stark departure from his campaign rhetoric, when Mr. Trump expressed support for waterboarding and worse. In dealing with the threat posed by ISIS, Mr. Trump said in February, “Torture works, okay folks?...Believe me, it works.” Waterboarding, Trump has said is “your minor form,” and said “some people say it’s not actually torture.” And he said, “we should go much stronger than waterboarding.”
On climate change, too, which he has more than once called a “hoax,” in the meeting with the Times, when he was asked whether he thought it was related to human activity, he said, “I think there is some connectivity. Some, something. It depends on how much.”
Mr. Trump did not say with certainty he would withdraw from climate change accords, indicating it was a matter under consideration. “I’m looking at it very closely,” he said. “I have an open mind to it.” This again, differs from his past insistence that he would walk away. “We’re going to cancel the Paris climate agreement,” he said in May.
He did say, however, that he’s taking into account the impact on U.S. businesses, “how much it will cost our companies” and the impact on American competitiveness, he told the Times.
There was even a change of tone on First Amendment rights. Mr. Trump, who told the Times he thought its reporters had been “very rough” on him during the campaign, has threatened to sue the Times over its stories on him. He also threatened to change the libel laws during his campaign. “One of the things I’m going to do, is I’m going to open up the libel laws,” he told a rally in Radford, Va., in February. “...[W]hen people write incorrectly about you and you can prove that they wrote incorrectly, we’re going to get them through the court system to change and we’re going to get them to pay damages.”
A reporter in the room asked him about whether he still intends to “open up the libel laws.” It seems he’s rethought this idea, telling the Times that someone pointed out to him, “’You know, you might be sued a lot more.’ I said, ‘You know, I hadn’t thought of that.’”
During the hour-long conversation with the Times, Mr. Trump was also asked about other issues, as well.
Has he energized the alt right? “I don’t think so, Dean,” the president-elect replied to Executive Editor Dean Baquet. “I don’t want to energize the group, and I disavow the group,” Mr. Trump said.
The president-elect did not appear to address the concerns of minority groups about the right-wing news site Breitbart under Steve Bannon, who will be his chief White House strategist, and he defended the site by saying it covered stories like the Times does.
“Breitbart is just a publication. They cover stories like you cover stories,” Mr. Trump told the Times, according to Grynbaum. “They are certainly a much more conservative paper, to put it mildly, than the New York Times. But Breitbart really is a news organization that has become quite successful. It’s got readers, and it does cover subjects on the right, but it covers subjects on the left also. It’s a pretty big thing.”
According to Haberman, Mr. Trump said of Bannon, “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.” And apparently in reference to the allegations about sympathies toward the alt right, Mr. Trump added that “I think it’s very hard on him. I think he’s having a hard time with it. Because it’s not him.”
The Times also pressed Mr. Trump on the potential for conflicts of interest -- “The law’s totally on my side. The president can’t have a conflict of interest, Mr. Trump said, according to Haberman. It was not immediately clear what he meant by that.
“In theory, I could run my business perfectly and then run the country perfectly. There’s never been a case like this,” the president-elect also said. And he said that while he could continue signing checks at his company, he’s “phasing that out now” and giving control to his children, according to Haberman.
“If it were up to some people, I would never, ever see my daughter Ivanka again.” Ivanka Trump participated in the president-elect’s meeting with the Japanese prime minister last week, and reportedly spoke on the phone with the president of Argentina while he was speaking with Mr. Trump. The president-elect has said that his children will run his businesses while he’s president, and he told “60 Minutes” earlier this month that his children will not be consulting him on their business decisions. Also, a recent meeting between Mr. Trump and three of his Indian business partners has also raised questions about the separation of his business from the government’s interests.
Times reporter Maggie Haberman said she asked Mr. Trump what role he imagined in his administration for his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. He indicated that a formal role was unlikely, but he thought that Kushner could be involved in Mideast peace.
Mr. Trump also talked about his domestic agenda, which includes a very expensive infrastructure plan. Asked what House Speaker Paul Ryan and Republicans thought of the plan, Trump said, “Right now, they’re in love with me.”