President-elect Donald Trump retreated on Tuesday from some of his most extreme campaign promises, dropping his vow to jail Hillary Clinton, expressing doubt about the value of torturing terrorism suspects and pledging to have an open mind about climate change.
But in a wide-ranging, hourlong interview with reporters and editors at The New York Times – which was scheduled, canceled and then reinstated after a dispute over the ground rules – Trump was fiercely unapologetic about repeatedly flouting the traditional ethical and political conventions that have long shaped the American presidency.
He said he had no obligation to establish boundaries between his business empire and his White House, conceding that the Trump brand “is certainly a hotter brand than it was before.” He defended Stephen K. Bannon, his chief strategist, against charges of racism, calling him a “decent guy.” And he savaged Republicans who had failed to support him in his unorthodox White House bid.
The interview demonstrated Trump’s apparent eagerness to please his audience and his tendency to speak in generalities, even as he was pressed to elaborate on policy positions that propelled him to a convincing and surprising victory over Clinton two weeks ago.
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After stoking cries of “Lock her up!” at campaign rallies by vowing to prosecute Clinton, Trump expressed empathy toward his former rival. He said he has no interest in pressing for Clinton’s prosecution over her use of a private email server or for financial acts committed by the Clinton Foundation.
“I want to move forward,” he said. “I don’t want to move back. I don’t want to hurt the Clintons, I really don’t.”
The president-elect’s turnabout on the need for torture as a tool in the fight against terrorism, which he repeatedly endorsed during the campaign, was remarkable. Trump suggested he has changed his mind about the usefulness of waterboarding and other forms of torture after talking with James N. Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, who headed the U.S. Central Command.
“He said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful,’” Trump said, describing the general’s view of torturing terrorism suspects. He added that Mattis found more value in building trust and rewarding cooperation with terror suspects: “'Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I'll do better.’” He added: “I was very impressed by that answer.”
Torture, Trump said, is “not going to make the kind of a difference that a lot of people are thinking.”
Trump repeated that Mattis was being “seriously, seriously considered” to be secretary of defense. “I think it’s time, maybe, for a general,” he said.
On climate change, he refused to repeat his promise to abandon the international climate accord reached last year in Paris, saying that, “I’m looking at it very closely.” But he said, “I have an open mind to it” and that clean air and “crystal clear water” were vitally important.
He held out assurances that he did not intend to embrace extremist positions in some areas. He vigorously denounced a white nationalist conference in Washington over the weekend where attendees gave the Nazi salute, criticized Jews and spoke some words in German.
Asked about his antagonism with the media and his vow to rethink libel laws, he told the group, which included The Times’ publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., and other executives: “I think you'll be happy.”
But pressed to respond to criticism in other areas, he was defiant. He declared that “the law’s totally on my side” when it comes to questions about conflict of interest and ethics laws. “The president can’t have a conflict of interest.”
He said it would be extremely difficult to sell off his businesses because they are real estate holdings. He said that he would “like to do something” to address ethics concerns, and he noted that he had turned over the management of the businesses to his children.
But he insisted that he could still have business partners into the White House for grin-and-grab photographs. He said that critics were pressuring him to go beyond what he was willing to do, including distancing himself from his children while they run his businesses.
“If it were up to some people,” he said, “I would never, ever see my daughter Ivanka again.”
Trump rejected the idea that he was bound by federal anti-nepotism laws against installing his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in a White House job. But he said he would want to avoid the appearance of a conflict, and might instead seek to make him a special envoy charged with brokering peace in the Middle East.
“The president of the United States is allowed to have whatever conflicts he or she wants, but I don’t want to do that,” Trump said. But he said that Kushner, who is an observant Jew, “could be very helpful” in reconciling the long-standing dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
“I would love to be able to be the one that made peace with Israel and the Palestinians,” Trump said, adding that Kushner “would be very good at it” and that “he knows the region.”
“A lot of people tell me, really great people tell me that it’s impossible – you can’t do it,” Trump added. “I disagree; I think you can make peace.”
“I have reason to believe I can do it,” he added.
Trump made a forceful defense of Bannon, who he named to become his chief strategist and who has drawn charges of racism and anti-Semitism. He said Bannon had been dismayed at the reaction to his hiring.
“I’ve known Steve Bannon a long time. If I thought he was a racist or alt-right,” he said, “I wouldn’t even think about hiring him.”
Trump added, “I think he’s having a hard time with it, because it’s not him. I think he’s been treated very unfairly.”
He also defended Breitbart, the news site Bannon founded, which has carried racist and anti-Semitic content, saying it was no different than The Times, only “much more conservative.”