Politicians lie; Donald Trump dissembles more frequently than most. So no matter how clever or tough or eloquent your questions, there are limits to what an hour or so in a room with him can actually establish.
But this newspaper’s lunch with the next president of the United States was still, I think, a possibly revelatory experience. Given the palpable tension between the president-elect and my employer (or “failing nytimes,” as his Twitter self would have it), it was interesting to observe the ways in which Trump did and didn’t try to ease that tension, the places where he was conciliatory and the places where he dug in his heels and refused to give an inch.
The conciliation was most striking on public policy. Without getting into details, Trump professed to have an open mind about climate change, made a passing reference to making an immigration deal that we (meaning my more-liberal-on-immigration-than-myself colleagues) would find surprisingly congenial, and was more eager, as usual, to talk about repairing roads and persuading Apple to build products stateside than about fiscal discipline or any other more Paul Ryan-ish Republican priority.
He also professed to have an open mind on torture, an issue where his campaign rhetoric was particularly reckless; he had been impressed, he said, when James Mattis, a former Marine Corps general and a leading candidate to be secretary of defense, dismissed waterboarding as less effective than the art of subtler persuasion. (A possible lesson: If you want President Trump to cool off, make sure it’s the guy nicknamed “Mad Dog” urging restraint.) He hewed to his campaign trail promise to aim for détente with Russia, but he also revived a past promise to try to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was personally conciliatory toward Hillary Clinton (more so than toward Republicans who had crossed him), positively glowing in his descriptions of President Obama, and amply complimentary toward this newspaper’s storied past.
And he was quick enough to disavow his white-supremacist supporters, albeit in a way that took no responsibility for the ways that both he and his strategist, Steve Bannon, had played footsie with birthers and online alt-right trolls.
So the overall policy impression Trump left was that he would be very happy to play a Nixon-Rockefeller Republican, with lots of public-works spending, pump-priming economic policy and attempted deal making overseas. If this posture was a pander to my colleagues’ pro-government sensibilities, it was also a plausible one — consistent with Trump’s New York background, his past (and in his heart, probably present) social liberalism and many of his pre-2016 pronouncements.
It may not be possible for Trump to govern this way, given the Republican Party as it exists, his erratic temperament and tendency to be more George Wallace-like than Nixonian on race, crime and immigration. But I can well believe that it’s how he sees himself.
What’s also consistent with Trump’s background, though, is an unapologetic eye for the main chance and a brazen disregard for propriety and self-restraint. And this was where his lack of pandering to Timesian sensibilities was striking: He refused to yield much ground when faced with questions about the ethics of being a businessman-president whose beloved family plays both sides of the Trump Organization-Trump administration line.
Amid prodding by my colleagues on these issues, he made only the vaguest of promises about firewalling himself off from his companies and investments, while constantly stressing that no clear conflict-of-interest laws govern the presidency, playing down the appearance of corruption as inconsequential and basically suggesting that he intends to continue the kind of seemingly self-dealing moments (photo ops with business partners, self-interested comments to foreign politicians) that have already cropped up during his transition.
There will be no blind trust; he won’t sell off anything, because real estate is too hard to unload; he’s still signing checks (though he would eventually phase that out); he’d love to have his son-in-law working for him (maybe solving the Israel-Palestine problem!) even though nepotism laws might make it hard; his kids would run the business and he could hardly be asked not to have contact with Ivanka, could he?
We didn’t need to worry, he promised, because he didn’t care about his business any more, only about America — though of course he was aware that the Trump Hotel in Washington might see more business, and that his brand was probably doing well worldwide.
Whether or not you believe a politician when he panders, it’s wise to believe him when he doesn’t. So our hour with Donald Trump left me persuaded that whether he governs effectively or incompetently, as a moderate or a conservative or something in between, his administration will be closer to a king’s court than any presidency before it — and it will be very, very good to be the king.