The Trump pivot is the Bigfoot of politics in 2016: often spotted, never verified. Yet despite warnings—from Mark Leibovich, from S.E. Cupp, from Jonathan Chait—the temptation to stake a claim as the genuine discoverer of the mythical Trump pivot remains powerful.
Now there’s another chance. Here’s Trump, meeting with Al Gore. Here’s Trump, saying maybe torture isn’t a tremendous idea. Here’s Trump, telling Time that he wants to find an accommodation for DREAMers, the unauthorized immigrants brought here as children and raised in the United States.
So with an eye toward recent history, here’s some advice: Don’t be tempted.
Take the Gore meeting. There’s no good way to know what motivated the summit, which was arranged by Ivanka Trump. Gore gave a tight-lipped statement when he emerged. Whatever the point of the meeting, as Robinson Meyer notes, the balance of Trump’s statements and his concrete actions on climate change point in a clear direction. There are his repeated claims that climate change is a Chinese hoax, and there is his appointment of Myron Ebell, an outright denier of global warming, to head his EPA transition team.
What about the torture question? This one came out of Trump’s interview at The New York Times, but it’s actually much less than has been reported. Trump was asked whether he still supported torture, and he described a meeting with General James Mattis, who he on Tuesday nominated as secretary of defense. Here’s the transcript:
I said, what do you think of waterboarding? 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.’ And I was very impressed by that answer. I was surprised, because he’s known as being like the toughest guy. And when he said that, I’m not saying it changed my mind. Look, we have people that are chopping off heads and drowning people in steel cages and we’re not allowed to waterboard. But I’ll tell you what, I was impressed by that answer. It certainly does not—it’s not going to make the kind of a difference that maybe a lot of people think. If it’s so important to the American people, I would go for it.
In other words, he’s not really backing off. To summarize, Trump now thinks maybe torture doesn’t work, but he hasn’t changed his mind and will happily yield to his interpretation of political exigency. Of course, why might some Americans think torture was effective? It could be because the man who won the presidential election spent months saying things like, “Torture works, okay folks? … Believe me, it works.”
Trump’s comments about DREAMers came in an interview for an award you should otherwise ignore.“We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud,” Trump told Michael Scherer, with typical vagueness. “They got brought here at a very young age, they’ve worked here, they’ve gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”
That last phrase is marvelously disingenuous: They don’t know what’s going to happen because Trump has promised to withdraw executive orders, put in place by President Obama, that settled their status.
Despite making his hardline immigration stance the centerpiece of his campaign, Trump has floated this kind of softening before. In late August, he seemed unsure of his own stance, suggesting he might be open to allowing some unauthorized immigrants to remain. Several days later, after harsh backlash, he reversed course and re-adopted his old position: Throw ’em all out.
Since his election, Trump has offered more conflicting stances. On immigration issues, Trump has met with Kris Kobach, a hardliner who is Kansas secretary of state. But allowing DREAMers to stay might actually be one area where Trump will follow through. The reason is not that there’s proof of a change of heart; his August episode suggests he’s never been totally decided. Rather, that’s because it has always seem unlikely he would really follow through on deporting all unauthorized immigrants. Doing so would be extremely expensive, logistically nearly impossible, and politically unpopular.
There are a few possibilities that seem more likely than a pivot on Trump’s part. One is his oft-noted tendency to parrot whatever the last thing he’s heard is, as in the case of Mattis criticizing torture. Another is that he is happy to sow uncertainty, taking both sides of an issue in order to appear more open and flexible than he is. One lesson he must have learned from the campaign is that there’s seldom any penalty when he flatly contradicts himself and his former, or even contemporary, statements.
Meanwhile, his Cabinet picks so far suggest little in the way of a pivot. As David McIntosh, the president of the Club for Growth, told Politico, it is “the most conservative since Reagan.” Appointments include Senator Jeff Sessions, a longtime backer and adviser, as attorney general; Ben Carson, who has no experience in housing or policy, as secretary of housing and urban development; Michael Flynn, a proud Islamophobe, as national security adviser; and Representative Tom Price, a strongly conservative critic of health-care reform, as secretary of health and human services. Several spots remain open, including secretary of state, which could head in a radical direction (e.g., Rudy Giuliani) or a much more mainstream one (e.g., David Petraeus).
Trump’s appointments of Steven Mnuchin as secretary of the treasury and Wilbur Ross as secretary of commerce, as well as meetings with Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn, reportedly about the Office of Management and Budget, have raised eyebrows and some hackles among Trump supporters, but they should come as little surprise to anyone who followed the campaign; Ross was a top backer and adviser, and Mnuchin told BusinessWeek more or less outright in August that he would have a spot in Trump’s cabinet.
With the exception of Flynn, Trump’s appointments of and meetings with generals have suggested a pivot to some observers. In addition to his meetings with Petraeus, Trump has named retired General James Mattis as secretary of defense and General James Kelly as secretary of homeland security. But to view these as softening is to view them along the wrong axis. They may be surprisingly experienced and competent, especially compared to some of other nominees and rumored candidates, but both of them take hard lines on key issues.
Trump’s presidential campaign provided ample proof that not only was he not going to pivot, but he didn’t need to do so to be politically successful. Unless and until he starts experiencing some political setbacks, why would he do so now? Bigfoot still isn’t real.