THE MORNING PLUM:
This morning, the New York Times published a full transcript of the remarkable set of exchanges that occurred yesterday between Donald Trump and the paper’s editors and reporters. Some, such as Tom Friedman, see cause for hope in the fact that Trump appears to be moderating his stances on climate change and torture, as well as in the indications that Trump perhaps allows the advice of others to shape his thinking — sort of, at least.
There is a bit of cause for hope in the transcript — more on that later. But on balance, the main takeaway from it should be that, if anything, we should be more alarmed, rather than less.
Though it’s true that Trump did shift on climate, the exchange on this topic is, on balance, more worrying than not, and it perhaps deserves the most attention, because as I’ve argued, the question of whether Trump will really pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord is one of the most consequential we face. Here’s the exchange on that topic:
QUESTION: Are you going to take America out of the world’s lead of confronting climate change?
TRUMP: I’m looking at it very closely….I’ll tell you what. I have an open mind to it. We’re going to look very carefully. It’s one issue that’s interesting because there are few things where there’s more division than climate change. . . .
It’s a very complex subject. 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. . . .
QUESTION: When you say an open mind, you mean you’re just not sure whether human activity causes climate change? 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.
It’s good that Trump acknowledged that human activity might be connected to climate change. But the mere fact that this is seen as a major breakthrough is alone a reminder of how worrying it is that the incoming president is someone who previously said climate change is nothing but a “hoax.” What probably happened here is that Trump knew he could not tell this particular audience that climate change has no human cause without feeling or looking foolish. This may have been a driving motivator in making this concession, which, when you really examine it, is a pretty tiny one. Indeed, Trump also flatly says here that we may not ever know who is right in the dispute over whether climate change poses the dire long-term threat that the scientific consensus tells us it does.
What’s more, Trump does not appear at all preoccupied with another crucial aspect of this line of questioning: the notion that pulling out of the Paris accord would mean the U.S. is abdicating its global leadership role in combating global warming. Nor does he seem preoccupied with the potential consequences of this, i.e., that it heralds a badly weakened global consensus behind the need to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius before it is too late, which in turn could make future widespread human suffering and dislocation far more likely. The main consequences here Trump appears even aware of are the supposed “cost to our companies” of acting to curb carbon emissions.
It’s also less than reassuring that Trump cites the “horrible emails that were sent between the scientists.” That appears to be a reference to a seven-year-old “scandal” in which a large number of hacked emails between climate scientists supposedly revealed that the science is largely fabricated. Those emails actually showed nothing of the sort. But regardless, the idea that this, of all things, is still weighing (if that’s the right way to put it) on Trump’s mind — when the scientific consensus has been reaffirmed again and again countless times over the many years since then — is disconcerting, to say the least.
All that said, Friedman makes a good point when he argues that the interview shows that Trump “clearly learns by talking to people, not reading,” and that “the struggle for Donald Trump’s soul has just begun.” Elsewhere in the Times interview, Trump gushed about his recent private meeting with President Obama, and seemed to signal that he genuinely learned new and enlightening things about the complexities and challenges he’s about to face. I suspect that in private conversations, Trump is susceptible to persuasion by those who really appear to know what they’re talking about, since his own convictions don’t appear to be all that deeply rooted.
On climate, for instance, one can imagine a scenario in which the relatively non-crazy Mitt Romney becomes secretary of state and advises Trump that pulling out of the Paris deal might create all sorts of international diplomatic complications that should give him pause about acting too rashly. John Kerry is already suggesting something like this might happen. To avoid doing too much damage, Trump would also have to refrain from reversing Obama’s climate rules putting us on track to lower carbon emissions. Trump could conceivably be influenced by the fact that hundreds of companies are now warning that a weakened commitment to a lower-carbon future could pose a grave threat to our long term prosperity. We don’t yet know whose counsel Trump will truly value, but we can hope.
* OBAMA OVERTIME RULE CHANGE BLOCKED: A federal court has blocked Obama’s executive action raising overtime pay for four million workers under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which had been challenged by some states and business groups. Note this from the AP write-up:
Overtime changes set to take effect Dec. 1 are now unlikely to be in play before vast power shifts to a Donald Trump administration, which has spoken out against Obama-backed government regulation and generally aligns with the business groups that stridently opposed the overtime rule.
Trump, who ran on a supposedly pro-worker agenda, will probably support the ruling. Elections have consequences!
* BATTLE ERUPTS FOR DNC CHAIR: Dem Rep. Keith Ellison, a Muslim, is running for DNC chair, but the New York Times reports that the White House and other Dems are pushing Labor Secretary Tom Perez:
Some Democrats, in Mr. Obama’s orbit and beyond, say that elevating Mr. Ellison would amount to handing the party to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. . . . Mr. Ellison was a high-profile backer of Mr. Sanders’s presidential campaign, and Mr. Sanders has been rallying support for Mr. Ellison’s D.N.C. bid.
The deeper dispute is over whether Dems lost because they strayed from populism and nominated a creature of the establishment. Perez has deep ties to unions, but he’s less of an outsider than Sanders is.
* TRUMP’S COMMENTS ON CLINTON STIR CONCERNS: Trump now says his administration won’t prosecute Hillary Clinton. But The Post reports that experts worry Trump doesn’t get that this isn’t his decision and that the Justice Department is independent. One says:
“Trump’s implicit assumption that he can direct the Department of Justice to prosecute Clinton — or not — demonstrates a dangerous assumption the president can dictate the department’s prosecutorial decisions. But the Department of Justice depends on its independence as the source of its authority and power.”
In other words, the underlying assumption seems to be that Trump also thinks he can dictate affirmative decisions to prosecute. How reassuring . . .
* CONSERVATIVES WORRY ABOUT TRUMP GOING WOBBLY: Politico talks to conservatives who are increasingly worried by Trump’s modifications of his positions. They want reassurances that he’ll fully repeal Obamacare (rather than just change it, as he’s hinted he might) and honor his promises on immigration.
My question is: What would that look like? Does Trump have to build a border wall, remove protections from deportation from the dreamers, and deport as many longtime U.S. residents as possible to make them happy?
* HALEY TAPPED AS U.N. AMBASSADOR: Trump has tapped South Carolina governor Nikki Haley as U.N. Ambassador:
Her views on various U.S. military and national security matters usually fall within the GOP’s hawkish mainstream. . . . Haley also represents the addition of a rival. She was critical of some of Trump’s proposals, such as his temporary ban on Muslims’ entry to the U.S., during the Republican primary contest.
The addition of someone who (apparently) doesn’t think we’re embroiled in a global war with Islam is relatively good news.
* CLINTON’S POPULAR VOTE WIN PASSES TWO MILLION: That’s per the latest calculations by Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman, who now puts her margin at 1.5 percentage points.
* TRUMP SAYS HE CAN’T HAVE A CONFLICT OF INTEREST: Trump also said in the Times interview that “the law’s totally on my side, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” Glenn Kessler and Michelle Lee investigate the claim and get to the key nuance:
The president-elect did rightly point to an exemption for the president and vice president in conflicts of interest laws. And while such an exemption exists, the theory was that the presidency has so much power that any policy decision could pose a potential conflict. The law assumed that the president could be trusted to do the right thing and take actions to avoid appearance or presence of impropriety — not that the law is “totally” on the president’s “side” or that it would allow the president to use the exemption to his favor.
Trump obviously can’t be trusted to take actions to avoid the appearance of impropriety, but surely he can be trusted to do the right thing.