I read the transcript of the New York Times interview with Donald Trump yesterday. The day before, I had complained on Twitter that what I had seen in Maggie Haberman‘s live tweet of the interview suggested that nobody had tried to nail down Trump in any of his assertions or non-answers.
It’s taken my brain a full day to recover from that reading. I can see why interviewers might be thrown off in a real-life meeting with someone who talks and acts like this, added to the prestige of being President-elect. But it is their job. I’m an amateur at the reporting thing, but when I interview someone, heck, when I got together with a few people I know to plan out a panel talk recently, I take notes along about topics and questions that might be asked. There was little indication that the Times group had done any of that.
I also give myself a mental pep talk when I’m going to see someone difficult. I plan how I’ll deal with predictable actions on their part and maybe a few unpredictable things. No sign of that from the Times. This won’t be an exhaustive analysis; there is so much unprofessional and yes, stupid, in the transcript that it could take all day. And I have a (real) turkey to prepare for congenial guests.
Trump begins the interview with an infomercial for himself and his businesses. In this way, he takes control. All twenty-four of the Times journalists allow him to do this. There were any number of ways that they could have kept control; a professional organization (at least the ones I’ve been involved in) would have had a meeting ahead of time to sketch out ways to maintain control. Agreement that one of the higher-ranked would cough and one of the lower-ranked would jump in with a question, for example. Or the higher-up could have reminded everyone that time was limited and asked for a question. The Times could have reestablished control during the chit-chat that preceded the interview. “We’re glad to see you, Mr. Trump. We are looking forward to a substantive discussion,” maybe the third or fourth Times comment. Twenty-four to one, for crying out loud!
But Trump had established control a day earlier, by berating a number of journalists called to his imperial palace. Then he turned down the Times interview, gaslighting the Times by implying it was their fault. The Times responded as a battered wife does, giving up control and being grateful when the master relented.
Trump’s infomercial goes for about 1500 words. Average speaking speed is about 150 words per minute, so that’s ten minutes during which none of the Times people interrupt him to say they have some new things they’d like to talk about.
Although the infomercial is the most coherent thing Trump says during the interview, it skips around and breaks logic enough that, besides establishing control, it makes your head go funny. I know it does mine, and it was probably worse being in the room with him. That’s why you have notes and a plan. It’s fully characteristic of Trump.
Dean Baquet, executive editor, finally steps in with a question about the alt-right convention in Washington. Here is a list of the topics covered:
- Baquet: Alt-right convention
- Maggie Haberman, political reporter: Prosecution of Hillary Clinton
- Tom Friedman, opinion columnist: Climate change
- Elisabeth Bumiller, Washington bureau chief: Back to Clinton
- Michael Shear, White House correspondent: Back to climate change
- Trump himself then brings up his conflicts of interest
- Julie Hirschfeld Davis, White House correspondent: Steve Bannon and the alt-right
- Ross Douthat, opinion columnist: Future of the Republican Party
- Trump transitions to manufacturing jobs
- An unknown voice asks about the pledge to Naziism at the alt-right conference
- Back to jobs
- Bacquet tries to move back to the Republican Party, but too weakly, and Trump moves into another infomercial
- Shear: Trump’s meeting with President Obama and his feelings about the office
- Friedman: America’s role in the world
- Trump then asks to go off the record on Syria.
- Mark Thompson: Libel laws
- Haberman: Waterboarding and Jared Kushner (separate questions)
That’s ten topics over maybe an hour. Six minutes average for each. There is some followup, but also a lot of laughter. People seem relaxed, and Trump is allowed many digressions, time sinks, repeating his stump speeches.
Three things have been reported differently than what I see on the transcript, namely Trump’s views of prosecuting Hillary Clinton, of climate change and of torture. They are reported as changes from earlier positions, but Trump left himself very large loopholes.
On Hillary Clinton, Trump says
Look, I want to move forward, I don’t want to move back. And I don’t want to hurt the Clintons. I really don’t.
But then we have the exchange
MATTHEW PURDY, deputy managing editor: So you’re definitively taking that off the table? The investigation?
TRUMP: No, but the question was asked.
PURDY: About the emails and the foundation?
TRUMP: No, no, but it’s just not something that I feel very strongly about. I feel very strongly about health care.
In a customary distraction maneuver, Trump then lists a number of things he says he feels strongly about. I’ve bolded where, along the way, he reversed his implied desire not to pursue Clinton. It’s hard to know how “but the question was asked” qualifies his “No.” What is he referring to? Haberman’s earlier question? And why would he even qualify that way? Later in the interview, Trump seems to say more directly that he will not pursue Clinton, but that “No” remains unexplained.
Carolyn Ryan ignores that response, and Trump seems to go with that.
CAROLYN RYAN, senior editor for politics: Do you think it would disappoint your supporters who seemed very animated by the idea of accountability in the Clintons? What would you say to them?
TRUMP: I don’t think they will be disappointed. I think I will explain it, that we have to, in many ways save our country.
At that point, he seems to have given up an investigation, but he can justify any future action by his words here.
Tom Friedman moves on to climate change, expressing his concern. Trump responds
But a lot of smart people disagree with you. I have a very open mind. And I’m going to study a lot of the things that happened on it and we’re going to look at it very carefully. But I have an open mind.
The agreement within the scientific community is around 97%. That doesn’t really leave “a lot of smart people,” if you define “smart people” as those who have studied the facts. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger and Friedman push back slightly, using storms that have recently battered Manhattan as an example. Trump:
I do have an open mind. And we’ve had storms always, Arthur…You know the hottest day ever was in 1890-something, 98. You know, you can make lots of cases for different views. I have a totally open mind…I’m not sure anybody is ever going to really know. I know we have, they say they have science on one side but then they also have those horrible emails that were sent between the scientists.
The sentences I’ve bolded make clear that Trump reserves judgment or does not want to say what he thinks. James Bennett, editorial page editor, tries to ascertain what Trump’s “open mind” means.
Do you think human activity is or isn’t connected?
TRUMP: I think right now … well, I think there is some connectivity. There is some, something. It depends on how much. It also depends on how much it’s going to cost our companies. You have to understand, our companies are noncompetitive right now.
Trump then goes into his stump speech about how US companies are suffering. As he does in disavowing the alt-right, he repeats a word from his questioner and quickly moves away from the topic.
The “open mind” gambit is frequently used by global warming deniers. It gives them a way to shrug off the evidence without considering it. Trump gives no ground whatsoever and winds up with what is important to him, that industry will have to change in the face of global warming. This is no change whatsoever from Trump’s previous statements on the subject, only words to suit his audience. Christopher Stroop has noted this on Twitter.
Haberman asks about torture and waterboarding. Here is Trump’s full answer:
So, I met with General Mattis, who is a very respected guy. In fact, I met with a number of other generals, they say he’s the finest there is. He is being seriously, seriously considered for secretary of defense, which is — I think it’s time maybe, it’s time for a general. Look at what’s going on. We don’t win, we can’t beat anybody, we don’t win anymore. At anything. We don’t win on the border, we don’t win with trade, we certainly don’t win with the military. General Mattis is a strong, highly dignified man. I met with him at length and I asked him that question. I said, what do you think of waterboarding? 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. And when he said that, I’m not saying it changed my mind. Look, we have people that are chopping off heads and drowning people in steel cages and we’re not allowed to waterboard. But I’ll tell you what, I was impressed by that answer. It certainly does not — it’s not going to make the kind of a difference that maybe a lot of people think. If it’s so important to the American people, I would go for it. I would be guided by that. But General Mattis found it to be very less important, much less important than I thought he would say. I thought he would say — you know he’s known as Mad Dog Mattis, right? Mad Dog for a reason. I thought he’d say ‘It’s phenomenal, don’t lose it.’ He actually said, ‘No, give me some cigarettes and some drinks, and we’ll do better.’
I’ve bolded the basic answer to Haberman’s question. I’ve italicized the bottom line: “I’m not saying it changed my mind.” Trump goes back and forth after that.
If it’s so important to the American people, I would go for it. I would be guided by that. But General Mattis found it to be very less important, much less important than I thought he would say.
Whatever he says or does will be consistent with some part of that answer. He has not researched nor thought out the issue, or he would not have been surprised at Mattis’s answer. He also makes no reference to issues of ethics and international law associated with torture, only efficacy.
There’s much more wrong with this interview. Trump repeats numerous “facts” that have long been debunked, and the Times people say nothing. If they did, they would spend the whole time on that, and they had to triage for (hopefully) more substantive discussion.
It’s hard to tell what Trump is doing, whether he has a strategy he is working, or whether his mind is such a mess that all he can do is dominance displays and word salad, barely organized by a few talking points he has memorized. I lean toward the latter. If journalists would prepare themselves to deal with him, we might get some clues as to which it is.
This interview is like every other one he has done. The tactics, from wherever they originate, continue. They are difficult to cut through, particularly if deference is given. Journalists like to pride themselves on upsetting the powerful. It’s going to take more preparation and discipline than the Times showed on this one.