At numerous points during the presidential campaign, Donald Trump described the top ranks of U.S. military leadership as plagued by incompetence. He famously said he knew more than the generals about battling the Islamic State ― they “don’t know much because they’re not winning.” He bluntly called civilian leadership “stupid” since “weak” was insufficient.
So it was a bit jarring last week to see Trump admit he could be taught at least one thing from at least one general. In an interview with the New York Times, the president-elect said Gen. James Mattis changed his view about the efficacy of torture as a tool of interrogation when the two met, ostensibly to discuss the post of secretary of the Department of Defense.
“I asked him that question. I said, what do you think of waterboarding?” Trump told the paper. “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.’”
For those appalled by the prospect of the U.S. adopting torture once again as counterterrorism tactic, the rest of Trump’s interview wasn’t quite as soothing. He went on to suggest that he could change his mind once more if he sensed the public clamoring for the use of waterboarding.
Still, the fact that the president-elect allowed himself to be moved off his campaign promise based on such an anodyne conversation is a remarkable statement about both Trump himself and the way he will govern. It also raises a question of immense consequence: Is Trump’s worldview this malleable, or are his statements the product of an impetuous mindset? (Or is it both?)
Those around Trump admit he hasn’t given these policy topics much thought. He comes, first and foremost, from the world of business, not politics. And when he ran for president, he didn’t think his chances of winning were particularly high. With the campaign season giving way to the transition to governance, his views have begun to fully congeal out of interest and necessity.
“He has always been very receptive to ideas,” said Sean Spicer, a top official at the Republican National Committee and an adviser to Trump. “That’s what I think people have gotten wrong. He wants to know your plan and how and why you want to get there. And if he thinks that you have a competent plan to achieve success he’ll say, OK, let’s get it done.”
For Democrats and various interest groups, this represents an opportunity. Mattis may have opened Trump’s eyes to the ineffectiveness of torture. Perhaps others can do the same elsewhere.
To a certain extent, that eye-opening has begun. The president-elect has talked several times with President Barack Obama, including a 45-minute discussion this weekend that Trump initiated. And while the White House and the transition team have been studiously quiet about the contents of those talks, it’s clear that Obama has rubbed off on his successor. Trump has publicly praised the president, whose legitimacy for office he infamously questioned. He’s also softened his calls for repealing Obama’s signature health care law. And when Trump put out a video listing the executive actions he would take on day one, the most notable elements were the omissions: a directive to end Obama’s immigration protection for young undocumented immigrants or a pledge to pull out of the Iran nuclear accord. Likewise, in his meeting with the Times, Trump appeared open to not scrapping the Paris Climate Accord agreements, one of Obama’s signature achievements in combating global warming.
“All I know is the president is doing this much more out of a sense of obligation to the office. He wants to set the tone that if you can sit down with this guy for an hour and a half, others can too,” said a senior administration official. “It is not Machiavellian. He is trying to do this by the book.”
Those who have worked with Trump aren’t surprised by his receptiveness to Obama. Though he crafts an image of a self-assured boardroom chieftain, Trump remains, by their telling, susceptible to outside influence, especially from voices he sees as elite and informed. During the Republican primary, one close associate said it was quite common for Trump to make strategic adjustments based off of segments he watched the night before on Fox News. (It’s worth noting here that Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly has also publicly called on Trump to accept the Paris Climate Accord as an olive branch to allies overseas.) During the general election, the associate added, Trump nearly scrapped his hardline immigration platform after a meeting with the Hispanic Council. Only when his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, explained that it was politically unpalatable to go back on a signature cause did he decide against it.
The lesson learned, the associate noted, was two-fold: If you want to influence Trump it’s best to use carrots and not sticks; and even better to be the last one to have his ear.
“What I always found was you have to suggest something to him,” said the associate. “You’re not going to tell him to do it one way or another. If you tell him it doesn’t work one way, he will try to show you it can work that way. ... He has always said to me, ‘I’m not going to be handled.’”
“What I always found was you have to suggest something to him. You’re not going to tell him to do it one way or another.”
But while geographic proximity to Trump may be a means to influence him, it is a tenuous means at best. Obama has Trump’s ear now. But he won’t when consequential decision after consequential decision gets made during the next four years. Beyond that, it’s not entirely clear how much Trump values outside opinions so much as entertains them. Those close to the president-elect say that despite his rough exterior, he tends to shy away from conflict ― choosing instead to tell people what it is they want to hear hidden behind just enough vague phrasing to allow him to change course later.
In that vein, just a day after the Times interview, one former adviser said he was certain that Trump’s comments about the Paris accord were meant simply to placate his crowd.
“If he’s in a room where people think global warming is a bigger threat than nuclear war, then he’s gonna say, ‘Yeah, I think some of it may be tied to human activity.’ He’s not going to be confrontational in that moment,” the former adviser said. “But, trust me, he doesn’t believe in global warming. I can tell you, the Paris agreement is a goner.”
Sure enough, days later, Trump’s incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus said Trump still believes climate change is “bunk.”