Donald Trump's on-the-record meeting with the New York Times on Tuesday was an exercise in avoidance. At moments, Trump played coy in the New York Times meeting, including dodging specifics on policy questions. The staff on hand covered many topics relating to the president-elect's plans for the future, but from my perspective, the answers they received were many times superficial, and didn't provide much depth into his White House strategy.
The interview was announced earlier in the week, but then Trump cancelled the meeting on Tuesday morning because of an alleged dispute over the "ground rules" that were established. A few hours later, the dispute was presumed to be resolved, as the meeting was back on. Trump sat down with the publisher of the New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., along with prominent news and politics editors and reporters, for a 90-minute on-the-record talk. Many saw the meeting as a chance for the two parties to wipe the slate clean after a contentious election cycle, where Trump often criticized the newspaper for its negative reporting on him. In a certain sense, it was a larger test for how a future President Trump would respect freedom of the press.
The discussion hit on many of the biggest issues surrounding Trump's candidacy, election and administration right now. Trump gave compelling answers to many of the questions asked of him, but did not provide much detail. Most notable, Trump spoke about his meeting with Obama shortly after the election. While said that Obama shared what he thought was the biggest problem the country was dealing with, he refused to divulge any further information on what that problem was. According to a tweet from New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, who was present at the meeting, Trump said, "'He [Obama] did tell me what he thought were the biggest problems, in particular one problem,'" but she added Trump "Won't say what that was."
When asked about the controversy over his appointment of former Brietbart News executive Steve Bannon, who is facing allegations of ties to the white nationalist movement, Trump defended Bannon, and said "If I thought he was a racist or alt-right or any of the things, the terms we could use, I couldn't even think about hiring him." He went on to disavow the alt-right, but then claim to not know why they support him, another coy moment. "It's not a group I want to energize, and if they are energized, I want to find out why," Trump said.
One surprisingly frank and revealing answer came during a discussion about how he would protect First Amendment rights. He told the reporters that they would be "happy" with his policies. He then admitted that when he explored changing libel laws for his benefit, he was told that he could possibly face more litigation himself, a thought he said hadn't occurred to him.
But many of Trump's responses were cloaked in mystery. When asked if he would pull the country out of a multinational climate change accord agreed upon in Paris earlier this year, he said that he would "keep an open mind" on the matter. When asked about how he would deal with Syria, he said he had a "different view" than everybody else. This would presumably mean different than the way things are currently being handled, but unfortunately speculation is the best we have at this point.
Trump showed progress in attending the meeting with the New York Times. It was a good first step, but until his answers have real wonky meat to them, he still has a long way to go.