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Trump backs away from some of his strident campaign promises

President-elect Donald Trump leaves after a meeting at the New York Times. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

President-elect Donald Trump abruptly abandoned some of his most tendentious campaign promises Tuesday, saying he does not plan to prosecute Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email system or the dealings of her family foundation, has an “open mind” about a climate-change accord from which he vowed to withdraw the United States and is no longer certain that torturing terrorism suspects is a good idea.

The billionaire real estate developer also dismissed any need to disentangle himself from his financial holdings, despite rising questions about how his global business dealings might affect his decision-making as the nation’s chief executive.

“The law’s totally on my side. The president can’t have a conflict of interest,” Trump told editors and reporters of the New York Times during an expansive, hour-long question-and-answer session. “In theory, I could run my business perfectly and then run the country perfectly. There’s never been a case like this.”

Trump further sought to distance himself from a small, far-right movement known for its embrace of racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric that has celebrated Trump’s election.

“I don’t want to energize the group, and I disavow the group,” Trump said of the alt-right.

The Washington Post's David Weigel explains the connection between the president-elect and the group that seeks a whites-only state. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

The president-elect has a record of making statements that are inconsistent with his previous ones, which means it is uncertain whether any of the positions he espoused on Tuesday will hold in the days going forward, much less after he is inaugurated.

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Some of Trump’s shifts also have the potential to spark a backlash from his most ardent supporters.

In his meeting with the Times, Trump assumed a more cordial, magnanimous posture than he has in recent days. Over the weekend, he used his Twitter account to attack the comedy of “Saturday Night Live” and the cast of the hit Broadway show “Hamilton.” On Monday, he upbraided broadcast news executives and on-air journalists in an off-the-record session that quickly leaked to other media.

His stance on Clinton, the former secretary of state, was a jarring pivot from the presidential campaign, during which he called her “Crooked Hillary” and threatened during one of their debates to put his Democratic opponent in jail. At his rallies and during the Republican convention in Cleveland, Trump’s supporters would regularly chant, “Lock her up!”

But on Tuesday, he said: “I don’t want to hurt the Clintons. I really don’t. She went through a lot and suffered greatly in many different ways.”

Asked whether that meant he had ruled out appointing a special prosecutor, as he had said he would, Trump said: “It’s just not something that I feel very strongly about.”

Will Trump try to 'lock her up'? It doesn't look like it (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

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If Trump were to push or try to block a criminal investigation from the Oval Office, it would mark an extraordinary break with political and legal protocol, which holds that the attorney general and FBI make decisions on whether to conduct probes and file charges, free of pressure from the president.

The president-elect’s new position may also have no effect on the plans of other members of his party on Capitol Hill. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah,) who is finishing his first term leading the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has vowed to continue to investigate Clinton’s email server.

An attorney for Clinton, David Kendall, declined to comment.

Trump also shifted position on climate change, saying he believes there is “some connectivity” between human activity and rising global temperatures.

In 2012, he had brushed off that idea as a Chinese hoax, tweeting: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

Asked whether he plans to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris climate accord, he said he is keeping “an open mind to it.” The deal negotiated by nearly 200 countries last year commits them to a global push to reduce greenhouse gases.

Trump, however, has repeatedly said the agreement is bad for U.S. businesses. In a speech in May, he declared that during his first 100 days in office, “we’re going to cancel the Paris climate agreement and stop all payments of U.S. tax dollars to U.N. global warming programs.”

Trump signaled another shift on the question of how to treat terrorism suspects. During his presidential campaign, he had said that he would reinstate the use of waterboarding and similar interrogation techniques in the questioning of suspected terrorists.

“Don’t tell me it doesn’t work — torture works,” Trump said in February at a retirement community in South Carolina. “Okay, folks? Torture — you know, half these guys [say]: ‘Torture doesn’t work.’ Believe me, it works. Okay?”

But Tuesday he suggested he might have changed his mind after interviewing a leading candidate for secretary of defense, retired Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, who headed the U.S. Central Command.

Mattis argued that he had never found harsh interrogation techniques “to be useful,” Trump said, adding that the retired general preferred building trust with “a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers.”

“I was very impressed by that answer,’’ Trump said.

Trump spoke extensively about the implications of an unprecedented situation in which a businessman with global holdings will sit in the Oval Office. That prospect has prompted criticism that there will be inevitable conflicts of interest.

His election, Trump acknowledged, has been good for his business, making the name that he emblazons on his properties and markets through his licensing agreements “a hotter brand than it was before.”

As he plans his presidential transition, Trump remains involved in several of his private enterprises.

He held a meeting at Trump Tower with three business partners building a Trump property south of Mumbai. His new hotel in Washington, just blocks from the White House, last week invited about 100 foreign diplomats to hear a sales pitch.

It also raised eyebrows when Trump’s daughter Ivanka, a vice president at the Trump Organization, attended his meeting last week with the Japanese prime minister.

While no statute specifically requires divestment by the president, all of them in modern history have put their assets under independent management, generally through a blind trust.

The concern is to avoid running afoul — in actuality or appearance — of laws against bribery and other forms of corruption in dealings with corporations, foreign entities and powerful interests.

Trump noted that he has turned the management of his businesses over to his children, giving him a requisite distance from the operation, but he protested: “If it were up to some people, I would never, ever see my daughter Ivanka again.”

But his comments fueled more criticism.

“Donald Trump campaigned against a culture of self-enrichment in Washington and pledged to ‘drain the swamp,’ but made clear today that he doesn’t think the rules apply to him,” Democratic National Committee communications director Adam Hodge said in a statement. “He fully intends to use the Oval Office to expand his family’s wealth.”

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In disavowing the alt-right movement, Trump also came to the defense of his campaign’s chief executive, Stephen K. Bannon, whom he intends to bring into the White House as his chief strategist.

Bannon is on a leave of absence as chairman of the website Breitbart News, a leading voice of the alt-right movement. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Bannon conceded that the alt-right has “some racial and anti-Semitic overtones,” but he insisted he does not hold those views.

The president-elect defended Bannon. “If I thought he was a racist or alt-right or any of the things, the terms we could use, I wouldn’t even think about hiring him,” Trump said, adding that such accusations are “very hard on” Bannon, “because it’s not him.”

Trump also suggested that he might make his son-in-law Jared Kushner, an observant Jew, a special envoy to work on brokering peace in the Middle East.

Kushner, a publishing and real estate executive with no background in international diplomacy, “would be very good at it,” Trump said. “I would love to be able to be the one that made peace with Israel and the Palestinians.”

Trump also used the session to air his grievances with the campaign coverage of the newspaper, which he frequently refers to as “the failing New York Times.” Shortly before the session, he had announced via Twitter that he was canceling the meeting, but he then reversed himself.

He tempered his criticism with praise, however, and at one point called the Times “a great great American jewel,” according to a tweet by Julie Davis, who covers the White House for the newspaper.

During the session, he also softened his frequent threat to reopen libel laws and use them more aggressively against news outlets that write critical things about him.

His reconsideration, he said, came after he discussed the issue with an associate who told him, “You know, you might be sued a lot more.’ I said, ‘You know, I hadn’t thought of that.’ ”

Shortly after the interview, Trump departed for Palm Beach, Fla., where he plans to take a break from transition planning and spend Thanksgiving at his Mar-a-Lago estate.

However, Trump tweeted that he is closing in on another Cabinet selection: His onetime presidential rival, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, as secretary of housing and urban development.

Carson told Fox News: “It certainly is something that has been a long-term interest of mine and I’ll be thinking and praying about it seriously over the holiday.”

Jerry Markon and Elise Viebeck contributed to this report.