It was good to hear Donald Trump “disavow and condemn” the white nationalism of some of his supporters, in a meeting Tuesday at the New York Times.
It was good to hear him acknowledge that climate change is linked to human activity, and that maybe waterboarding isn’t such a great idea after all. And speaking for the home team, it was good to hear him even call the New York Times a “great, great American jewel.”
It was, of course, hard to square all these statements with his record of spreading the birther lie about President Obama, calling climate change a “hoax,” promising he’d “bring back waterboarding” and describing the New York Times as “failing.”
But, hey, if President-elect Trump moderates his views, and then crystallizes those views in policies that, as he put it, “save our country,” we will commend him on growth in office. “I am awed by the job,” he said.
The problem is, as pleasant as it was to hear those remarks, it was alarming to confront how thinly thought through many of the president-elect’s stances actually are. Consider climate change. Trump said that he valued clean air and water, but that he hadn’t decided if combating climate change was worth the expense. “I have a totally open mind,” he said, making a virtue of not knowing the issue.
Or take torture. In the campaign, he stoutly defended waterboarding, which is contrary to American values and illegal under international law. Yet one conversation, with Gen. James Mattis, a candidate for defense secretary, may have changed his mind. Mattis told Trump what experts have been saying for years: Torture doesn’t work. Trump said he was “impressed and surprised” by Mattis’s assurance that, “Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I’ll do better.”
We would applaud any sensible change of position, however arrived at. Trump’s apparent flexibility, combined with his lack of depth on policy, might be grounds to hope he will steer a wiser course than the one plotted by his campaign. But so far he is surrounding himself with officials eager to enact only the most extreme positions. His flexibility would be their springboard.
President Obama, who also spoke of bringing the country together, invited Republicans to join his administration. We have not yet seen Trump make any such effort to reach across party lines.
And in one area, Trump remained quite inflexible: He made clear he has no intention of selling his businesses and stepping decisively away from corrupting his presidency with an exponentially enhanced version of the self-dealing he accused Hillary Clinton of engaging in.
Ronald Reagan used to say that in dealing with the Soviet Union, the right approach was to “trust, but verify.” For now, that’s also the right approach to take with Trump. Except, regrettably, for the trust part.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE NEW YORK TIMES