Oh, FFS… The Moustache of Wisdom is the latest to fall for Mein Fubar’s “I’m not so bad” act. In “At Lunch, Donald Trump Gives Critics Hope” he tells us that the campaign is over, but the struggle for Trump’s soul has just begun. Tommy, the use of the word “soul” assumes facts not in evidence. Mr. Bruni may have a slightly clearer vision of what’s going on. In “Donald Trump’s Demand for Love” he says his meeting with The Times was a marvel of boasting and bending. Here’s TMOW:
Well, that was interesting … Donald Trump came to lunch at The New York Times. You can find all the highlights on the news pages, but since I had the opportunity to be included, let me offer a few impressions of my first close encounter with Trump since he declared for the presidency.
The most important was that on several key issues — like climate change and torture — where he adopted extreme positions during his campaign to galvanize his base, he went out of his way to make clear he was rethinking them. How far? I don’t know. But stay tuned, especially on climate.
There are many decisions that President-elect Trump can and will make during the next four years. Many of them could be reversible by his successor. But there is one decision he can make that could have truly irreversible implications, and that is to abandon America’s commitment to phasing out coal, phasing in more clean energy systems and leading the world to curb CO2 emissions before they reach a level that produces a cycle of wildly unpredictable climate disruptions.
When asked where he stood on that climate change issue — which in the past he dismissed as a hoax — and last December’s U.S.-led Paris emissions-reduction accord, the president-elect did not hesitate for a second: “I’m looking at it very closely. … I have an open mind to it. We’re going to look very carefully. … You can make lots of cases for different views. … I will tell you this: Clean air is vitally important. Clean water, crystal-clean water is vitally important.”
Do you think climate change is caused by human activity?
“I think there is some connectivity,” Trump answered. It is not clear “how much,” and what he will do about it “depends on how much it’s going to cost our companies.” Trump said he would study the issue “very hard” and hinted that if, after study, he was to moderate his views, his voice would be influential with climate skeptics.
On the question of whether the U.S. military should use waterboarding and other forms of torture to break suspected terrorists — a position he advocated frequently during the campaign to great applause — Trump bluntly stated that he had changed his mind after talking with James N. Mattis, the retired Marine Corps general, who headed the United States Central Command.
Trump said Mattis told him of torture: “I’ve never found it to be useful.” (Many in the military and the C.I.A. have long held this view.)
He quoted Mattis as saying, “Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I always do better” than anyone using torture. Concluded Trump, “I was very impressed by that answer.”
Speaking of the Middle East, Trump said unprompted: “I would love to be able to be the one that made peace with Israel and the Palestinians,” adding, “I have reason to believe I can do that.” And he hinted that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, could be his special envoy and “he’d be very good at it. … He knows the region.” (Wow, watching Trump try to forge a deal between Bibi Netanyahu and the Palestinians would be pay-per-view!)
The one area where I think Trump is going to have the hardest time delivering on his campaign promises is to create “millions” of good-paying jobs by incentivizing and pressuring American companies to manufacture more in the U.S. He still talks about America as a manufacturing wasteland when, in fact, manufacturing remains the largest sector of the U.S. economy but employs far fewer workers.
As the management consultant Warren Bennis famously observed: “The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”
Bottom line: The campaign is over, but the struggle for Donald Trump’s soul has just begun. Trump clearly learns by talking to people, not reading. Because so few thought he would win, many of those who gathered around him and had his ear were extreme characters.
But now that he has been elected president he is exposing himself to, and hearing from, a much wider net of people. He mentioned that he had had telephone conversations with Bill Gates and with Apple C.E.O. Tim Cook. And he stressed repeatedly that he wants to succeed: “I am doing this to do a good job.”
To do that he needs to moderate many views and learn from a much wider network of people. For those of us who opposed Trump’s election, it is not time to let down our guard and stop drawing redlines where necessary. But for moderate Republicans and Democratic business leaders, like a Bill Gates, who can gain his ear and respect, and who have made big investments in clean energy, Trump may be — may be — persuadable on some key issues. They need to dive in now and try to pull him toward the center.
For a meeting between the newsmaker and this news organization that has covered him without fear or favor, the lunch was fairly relaxed, but not without some jousting. Asked if he read The New York Times, Trump said: “I do read it. Unfortunately. I would live about 20 years longer if I didn’t.”
Well, that was just pitiful. Now here’s Mr. Bruni:
I had just shaken the president-elect’s normal-size hand and he was moving on to the next person when he wheeled around, took a half step back, touched my arm and looked me in the eye anew.
“I’m going to get you to write some good stuff about me,” Donald Trump said.
It’s entirely possible. I keep an open mind. But I’m decided on this much: Winning the most powerful office in the world did nothing to diminish his epic ache for adoration or outsize need to tell everyone how much he deserves it.
He sat down for more than an hour with about two dozen of us at The Times on Tuesday afternoon, and what subject do you suppose he spent his first eight minutes on? When the floor was his, to use as he pleased?
The incredibleness of his win two weeks ago.
“A great victory,” he said as he went back, unbidden, through all the Trump-affirming highlights: the size of his crowds; the screens and loudspeakers for the overflow; the enthusiasm gap between his rallies and poor Hillary Clinton’s. It’s a song I’ve heard so often I could sing it in my sleep.
He volunteered that until he came along, Republican presidential candidates had been foiled in both Michigan and Pennsylvania for “38 years or something.” The “something” apparently covered the actual figure, 28.
He said that he got close to 15 percent of African-Americans’ votes, though exit polls suggest it was just 8 percent, and he asserted that their modest turnout was in fact a huge compliment to him, demonstrating that “they liked what I was saying” and thus didn’t bother to show up for Clinton.
He mentioned the popular vote before any of us could — to let us know that he would have won it if it had mattered and his strategy had been devised accordingly.
“The popular vote would have been a lot easier,” he said, making clear that his Electoral College triumph was the truly remarkable one.
For Trump, bragging is like breathing: continuous, spontaneous. He wants nothing more than for his audience to be impressed.
And when his audience is a group of people, like us, who haven’t clapped the way he’d like?
He sands down his edges. Modulates his voice. Bends.
That was perhaps the most interesting part of the meeting, the one that makes his presidency such a question mark. Will he tilt in whatever direction, and toward whichever constituency, is the surest source of applause? Is our best hope for the best Trump to be so fantastically adulatory when he’s reasonable that he’s motivated to stay on that course, lest the adulation wane?
The Trump who visited The Times was purged of any zeal to investigate Clinton’s emails or the Clinton Foundation, willing to hear out the scientists on global warming, skeptical of waterboarding and unhesitant to disavow white nationalists. He never mentioned the border wall.
He more or less told us to disregard all the huffing and puffing he’d done about curtailing press freedoms, and he looked forward to another meeting — a year from now — when we’d all reunite in a spirit of newfound amity to celebrate his administration’s uncontroversial accomplishments. I could see the big group hug. I could hear “Kumbaya.”
And though one of his splenetic tweets just seven hours before our meeting had again branded The Times a “failing” news organization, he said to our faces that we weren’t just a “great, great American jewel” but a “world jewel.”
There was a lesson here about his desire to be approved of and his hunger to be loved. There was another about the shockingly unformed, pliable nature of the clay that is our 70-year-old president-elect.
His reservations about waterboarding, he said, arose from a conversation he’d just had with James Mattis, a retired Marine general under consideration for secretary of defense. During that talk Mattis had bluntly questioned waterboarding’s effectiveness — and so, now, did Trump.
It was as if he’d never really thought through the issue during that endless campaign, and it suggested that the most influential voice in Trumplandia is the last one he happened to listen to. That’s worrying, because some of the voices he has thus far put closest to him — those of Steve Bannon, Mike Flynn, Jeff Sessions — aren’t the most constructive, restrained, unifying ones.
And to my eyes and ears, Trump still has grandiose intentions in lieu of concrete plans. Toward the end of our meeting, he went so far as to prophesy that he might be able to accomplish what his predecessors couldn’t and broker a lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
That’d definitely do the trick. We’d all be writing nothing but very, very good stuff about him then.