Cracks in Trump’s wall of prom­ises

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Jules Wit­cover Jules Wit­cover is a syn­di­cated colum­nist and for­mer long­time writer for The Bal­ti­more Sun. His lat­est book is “The Amer­i­can Vice Pres­i­dency: From Ir­rel­e­vance to Power” (Smith­so­nian Books). His email is juleswit­cover@com­

Barely two weeks af­ter Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion, built on a host of prom­ises that in­clude build­ing a wall along the Mex­i­can bor­der and putting “crooked” Hil­lary Clin­ton in jail, he has al­ready be­gun to with­draw or hedge on many of them.

He still in­sists that wall will go up and be paid for by Mex­ico. But at the risk of dis­il­lu­sion­ing mil­lions of Hil­lary-haters who voted for him, he has point­edly backed off the threat to his de­feated ri­val, show­ing a com­pas­sion never vis­i­ble dur­ing the cam­paign.

“I don’t want to hurt the Clin­tons,” Mr. Trump said last Tues­day. “I re­ally don’t. She went through a lot and suf­fered greatly in many dif­fer­ent ways.” The worst, of course, was the hu­mil­i­at­ing Elec­toral Col­lege loss he handed her on Elec­tion Day, plung­ing her into what she ac­knowl­edged was a pit of per­sonal as well as po­lit­i­cal gloom.

When Mr. Trump was asked about his pre-elec­tion plan as pres­i­dent to ap­point a spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor to go af­ter her, he shrugged off the idea: “It’s just not some­thing that I feel very strongly about.” It was another flip-flop from the vig­or­ous prom­ise with which he had whipped his faith­ful flock into a frenzy of calls of “Lock her up!” on the cam­paign trail.

It was a day in which the pres­i­dent-elect also soft­ened other pre­vi­ously stated firm po­si­tions. On cli­mate change, he piv­oted from be­ing a to­tal non­be­liever into say­ing there might be “some con­nec­tiv­ity” be­tween hu­man ac­tiv­ity putting car­bon into the at­mos­phere and the sharp rise in global tem­per­a­tures.

Asked again whether as pres­i­dent he will pull this coun­try out of the 2015 in­ter­na­tional cli­mate change ac­cord reached in Paris, Mr. Trump now said he was keep­ing “an open mind to it.”

He also backed off his cam­paign prom­ise to re­in­stall the prac­tice of wa­ter­board­ing cap­tured ter­ror­ist sus­pects, a prac­tice of the pre­vi­ous Re­pub­li­can ad­min­is­tra­tion that un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama was deemed a vi­o­la­tion of the Geneva Con­ven­tions on tor­ture.

Mr. Trump re­ported that in in­ter­view­ing re­tired Marine Gen. James Mat­tis as his pos­si­ble sec­re­tary of de­fense, Gen­eral Mat­tis had told him he had never found such harsh in­ter­ro­ga­tion tech­niques “to be use­ful.” Mr. Trump said he “was very im­pressed by that an­swer.”

It’s not clear whether all this back­track­ing is a con­cen­trated ef­fort by Mr. Trump to ease the wide­spread fears that he will be an au­thor­i­tar­ian ruler or just his pen­chant for dodg­ing or dis­miss­ing press queries on the run.

More sig­nif­i­cant may be Mr. Trump’s con­tin­ued in­sis­tence that as pres­i­dent he will not be barred from con­tin­u­ing his in­volve­ment in his vast real-es­tate busi­ness while essen­tially turn­ing its op­er­a­tions over to three of his chil­dren, daugh­ter Ivanka and sons Don­ald Jr. and Eric, and Ivanka’s hus­band, Jared Kush­ner.

To calls from le­gal quar­ters and po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents that he place all his vast busi­ness hold­ings in blind trust ad­min­is­tered by an in­de­pen­dent party, Mr. Trump so far is stand­ing fast against it.

“The law’s to­tally on my side,” he in­sisted in a meet­ing with New York Times ed­i­tors and reporters. “The pres­i­dent can’t have a con­flict of in­ter­est. ... In the­ory, I could run my busi­ness per­fectly and then run the coun­try per­fectly. There’s never been a case like this.”

The com­ment, be­yond re­flect­ing the man’s prodi­gious self-con­fi­dence, ap­proached be­ing an echo of the late Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon’s dec­la­ra­tion af­ter the Water­gate scan­dal that ended in his 1975 res­ig­na­tion.

Asked by tele­vi­sion in­ter­viewer David Frost whether “there are cer­tain sit­u­a­tions ... where the pres­i­dent can de­cide that it’s in the best in­ter­ests of the na­tion, and do some­thing il­le­gal,” Mr. Nixon replied: “Well, when the pres­i­dent does it, that means it is not il­le­gal.” Cer­tainly, it would be hard to imag­ine how it could be ar­gued it would be in the na­tion’s best in­ter­ests for real-es­tate mogul Mr. Trump to con­tinue to over­see Trump ho­tels in for­eign coun­tries while oc­cu­py­ing the Oval Of­fice.

But Amer­i­cans and the world be­yond have al­ready learned that as far as he’s con­cerned, noth­ing is im­pos­si­ble once he makes up his mind. The best le­gal schol­ars must weigh in on this one, and the sooner the bet­ter.

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