NEW YORK – Two weeks after his election victory, President-elect Donald Trump began backing off campaign promises Tuesday, including his hard line on climate change and his vow to jail “Crooked Hillary” Clinton that had brought thunderous “Lock her up” chants at his rallies.
A top adviser said Trump is now focused on matters that are essential in setting up his administration, not on comments he made during the heat of the campaign.
After a year blasting The New York Times, Trump submitted to an interview with reporters and editors at the Times office. Among the topics covered, he:
• Pushed back against questions about conflicts that could arise due to a lack of separation between his government post and his many businesses, declaring that “the law’s totally on my side, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.”
• Took his strongest stance yet against the “alt-right,” a term often used as code for the white supremacist movement. Though members are celebrating his victory, he said, “It’s not a group I want to energize. And if they are energized, I want to look into it and find out why.”
• Spoke positively not only of fellow Republicans in Congress – “Right now they are in love with me” – but also of President Barack Obama, who he said is “looking to do absolutely the right thing for the country in terms of transition.”
Trump, who left late Tuesday to spend Thanksgiving at his estate in Florida, also continued to work to populate his incoming administration, tweeting that he was “seriously considering” former GOP presidential rival Ben Carson to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Adviser Kellyanne Conway said earlier on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that Trump is “thinking of many different things as he prepares to become the president of the United States, and things that sound like the campaign aren’t among them.”
His interview comments on a possible prosecution of his former foe Clinton stood in stark contrast to his incendiary rhetoric throughout the campaign, during which he accused her breaking laws with her email practices and angrily barked at her that “you’d be in jail” if he were president.
“I don’t want to hurt the Clintons, I really don’t,” Trump said in the interview. Sympathetically, he said, “She went through a lot and suffered greatly in many different ways.”
Though he declined to definitively rule out a prosecution, he said, “It’s just not something that I feel very strongly about.”
Trump had vowed throughout the campaign to use his presidential power to appoint a special prosecutor to probe his Democratic rival for both her reliance on a private email server as secretary of state and what he called pay-for-play schemes involving the Clinton Foundation. Adviser Conway signalled to congressional Republicans earlier Tuesday that they should abandon their years of vigorous probes of Clinton’s email practices and her actions at the time of the terror attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
“If Donald Trump can help her heal, then perhaps that’s a good thing,” she told reporters at Trump Tower in New York.
But some of his conservative supporters strongly disagreed.
If Trump’s appointees do not follow through on his pledge to investigate Clinton for criminal violations he accused her of, “it would be a betrayal of his promise to the American people to ‘drain the swamp’ of out-of-control corruption in Washington,” said the group Judicial Watch.
And Breitbart, the conservative news site whose former head, Stephen Bannon, is now a senior counsellor to Trump, headlined its story about the switch with “Broken Promise.”
FBI Director James Comey has declared on two occasions there is no evidence warranting charges against Clinton. Justice Department investigations are historically conducted without the influence or input of the White House.
As for global warming, Trump has repeatedly questioned the idea, suggesting at times that it is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to hurt U.S. manufacturers with environmental regulations.
But on Tuesday, he said he would “keep an open mind” about pulling the United States out of the landmark, multi-national Paris Agreement on climate change – he’d said in the campaign he would yank the U.S. out – and he allowed, “I think there is some connectivity” between human activity and climate changes.
He said his own businesses are “unimportant to me” in comparison to the presidency, but he also said he now believes he could continue to run them at the same time if he wanted.
There have been concerns raised about conflicts of interest since many of the businesses are subject to government actions in the U.S. and abroad. But he said he would be “phasing” control over to his grown children, although “in theory I could run my business perfectly and then run the country perfectly. There’s never been a case like this.”
Earlier Tuesday, it was confirmed that Trump’s charity had admitted it violated IRS regulations barring it from using its money or assets to benefit Trump, his family, his companies or substantial contributors to the foundation.
According to a 2015 tax return posted on the non-profit monitoring website GuideStar, the Donald J. Trump Foundation acknowledged that it used money or assets in violation of the regulations during 2015 and in prior years. The tax filing, first reported Tuesday by The Washington Post, didn’t provide details.
On another topic, the president-elect, who has been criticized for being slow to denounce racist acts done in his name, said, “I disavow and condemn” a recent “alt-right” conference in Washington where some attendees raised their arms in a Hitler-like salute while chanting “Heil Trump.”
Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in New York and Laurie Kellman and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.