The in-depth inside battle for the heart and mainly the mind of President-elect Donald Trump has been under way ever since 3 a.m. on the day after Election Night — and so far we’ve discovered one possibly hopeful revelation.
It is that I have just used a wrong word: depth.
At an on-the-record luncheon Tuesday at The New York Times, the president-elect backed away from several hard-line and seemingly deeply held rightwing positions he had declared when he was wooing campaign crowds. Trump expressed surprising acceptance of positions that, just weeks ago, he’d loved to denounce and even ridicule.
The biggest news story most of the media focused on from Trump’s lunch at the Times was that he now has no intention of pursuing an investigation of his defeated Democratic opponent, whom he had derided as “Crooked Hillary” Clinton while his crowds chanted “Lock her up!”
But the luncheon also produced significant shifts on two of the issues that will define whether America will pursue its role of global leadership during the Trump presidency.
Consider what Trump said Tuesday about waterboarding and other forms of torture as tools for interrogating terrorist suspects. And as you consider what Trump said, remember that Trump’s campaign position was that the United States should permit waterboarding and even more severe forms of torture during interrogations.
Asked about waterboarding and other forms of torture, Trump began by citing his recent meeting with retired Marine General James Mattis, who, Trump volunteered, is being “seriously, seriously considered for defense secretary.”
“I said, what do you think of waterboarding?” Trump said. “He said — I was surprised — he said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful.’ He said, ‘I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.’ And I was very impressed by that answer. I was surprised, because he’s known as being like the toughest guy. ... (Y)ou know he’s known as Mad Dog Mattis, right? ... I thought he’d say ‘It’s phenomenal, don’t lose it.’ ”
Trump said that alone hasn’t changed his mind, but he made clear that he’s now reconsidering all that he once assumed was right about waterboarding and terrorist interrogation. Waterboarding is illegal according to international law. And many tough-minded military leaders strongly opposed its use as contrary to our nation’s values.
Trump has famously ignored Sen. John McCain’s guidance on that and even called McCain a “loser” because he was captured during the Vietnam War in which Trump never served. But when a general named “Mad Dog” opposes it, well, that impressed Trump.
Now consider Trump’s post-election enlightenment on climate change. He has a long history of calling scientific evidence of human activity causing climate change a “hoax.” PolitiFact has documented that on Dec. 30, 2015, at Hilton Head, S.C., Trump told a rally: “Obama’s talking about all of this with the global warming and ... a lot of it’s a hoax. It’s a hoax.” And on Sept. 24, 2015, on CNN’s New Day, Trump said: “I don’t believe in climate change.”
But when he was asked Tuesday if he believed human activity is connected to climate change, Trump took a different tack: “I absolutely have an open mind. I will tell you this: Clean air is vitally important. Clean water, crystal clean water is vitally important. ... I think right now ... well, I think there is some connectivity. There is some, something. It depends on how much.”
But then, in the same breath, he spoke of his concern that efforts to curb pollution will harm already-beleaguered companies. “It also depends on how much it’s going to cost our companies,” Trump added. “You have to understand, our companies are noncompetitive right now. ... (W)e’ve lost 70,000 factories since W. Bush.”
Now, Trump added, he’s not sure what he thinks about what, if anything, America should pursue to combat climate change. “I’m going to be studying that very hard,” he said.
No doubt, now that he has run and won, Trump will begin doing the sort of studying most candidates do before they start campaigning and making policy pronouncements and promises. And we know one thing more about Trump: he craves adoration. Especially adoration from every audience, every day. It shapes everything he says and does.
He ended his visit by telling his hosts, whom he famously loved to publicly hate and denounce as rally crowds cheered him on: “The Times is … a great, great American jewel. A world jewel. And I hope we can all get along. We’re looking for the same thing, and I hope we can all get along well.”
And so we must wonder: Was Trump really telling it like it is as he executed his policy wheelies? Or was he just telling his liberal audience du jour what he thought it wanted to hear?
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington, D.C., journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.