I had just shaken the president-elect’s normal-size hand and he was moving on to the next person when he wheeled around, took a half step back, touched my arm and looked me in the eye anew.
“I’m going to get you to write some good stuff about me,” Donald Trump said.
It’s entirely possible. I keep an open mind. But I’m decided on this much: Winning the most powerful office in the world did nothing to diminish his epic ache for adoration or outsize need to tell everyone how much he deserves it.
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He sat down for more than an hour with about two dozen of us at The Times on Tuesday afternoon, and what subject do you suppose he spent his first eight minutes on? When the floor was his, to use as he pleased?
The incredibleness of his win two weeks ago.
“A great victory,” he said as he went back, unbidden, through all the Trump-affirming highlights: the size of his crowds; the screens and loudspeakers for the overflow; the enthusiasm gap between his rallies and poor Hillary Clinton’s. It’s a song I’ve heard so often I could sing it in my sleep.
He volunteered that until he came along, Republican presidential candidates had been foiled in both Michigan and Pennsylvania for “38 years or something.” The “something” apparently covered the actual figure, 28.
He said that he got close to 15 percent of African-Americans’ votes, though exit polls suggest it was just 8 percent, and he asserted that their modest turnout was in fact a huge compliment to him, demonstrating that “they liked what I was saying” and thus didn’t bother to show up for Clinton.
He mentioned the popular vote before any of us could – to let us know that he would have won it if it had mattered and his strategy had been devised accordingly.
“The popular vote would have been a lot easier,” he said, making clear that his Electoral College triumph was the truly remarkable one.
For Trump, bragging is like breathing: continuous, spontaneous. He wants nothing more than for his audience to be impressed.
And when his audience is a group of people, like us, who haven’t clapped the way he’d like?
He sands down his edges. Modulates his voice. Bends.
That was perhaps the most interesting part of the meeting, the one that makes his presidency such a question mark. Will he tilt in whatever direction, and toward whichever constituency, is the surest source of applause? Is our best hope for the best Trump to be so fantastically adulatory when he’s reasonable that he’s motivated to stay on that course, lest the adulation wane?
The Trump who visited The Times was purged of any zeal to investigate Clinton’s emails or the Clinton Foundation, willing to hear out the scientists on global warming, skeptical of waterboarding and unhesitant to disavow white nationalists. He never mentioned the border wall.
He more or less told us to disregard all the huffing and puffing he’d done about curtailing press freedoms, and he looked forward to another meeting – a year from now – when we’d all reunite in a spirit of newfound amity to celebrate his administration’s uncontroversial accomplishments. I could see the big group hug. I could hear “Kumbaya.”
And though one of his splenetic tweets just seven hours before our meeting had again branded The Times a “failing” news organization, he said to our faces that we weren’t just a “great, great American jewel” but a “world jewel.”
There was a lesson here about his desire to be approved of and his hunger to be loved. There was another about the shockingly unformed, pliable nature of the clay that is our 70-year-old president-elect.
His reservations about waterboarding, he said, arose from a conversation he’d just had with James Mattis, a retired Marine general under consideration for secretary of defense. During that talk Mattis had bluntly questioned waterboarding’s effectiveness – and so, now, did Trump.
It was as if he’d never really thought through the issue during that endless campaign, and it suggested that the most influential voice in Trumplandia is the last one he happened to listen to. That’s worrying, because some of the voices he has thus far put closest to him – those of Steve Bannon, Mike Flynn, Jeff Sessions – aren’t the most constructive, restrained, unifying ones.
And to my eyes and ears, Trump still has grandiose intentions in lieu of concrete plans. Toward the end of our meeting, he went so far as to prophesy that he might be able to accomplish what his predecessors couldn’t and broker a lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
That’d definitely do the trick. We’d all be writing nothing but very, very good stuff about him then.