US president-elect Donald Trump seemed to have softened his pledge to step out of the Paris Climate Agreement –which would limit the rise in global temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius – during a wide ranging interview with staff of The New York Times on Tueday.
But it’s too early to rejoice.
Trump’s need at his first on-the-record meeting to gain the approval of his listeners was clear to journalists, suggesting that in the Times boardroom – as on the campaign trail – he might just be telling his audience what it wants to hear.
There is, so far, no concrete evidence – besides what Trump says – to believe what Trump says, and even less to suggest Trump believes what Trump says.
During the interview, which took place at the newspaper’s office, Trump – who has called climate change “b*llshit,” and a “hoax “ perpetrated by the Chinese – was asked by reporters about his stated position to back out of the agreement.
“I’m looking at it very closely,” reporter Mike Grynbaum quoted Trump as saying in a Tweet thread from the meeting. “I have an open mind to it.”
On Tuesday, instead of climate change being a giant hoodwink perpetrated on the American industry by a distant, sly foreign government, Trump acknowledged it might – as scientists have shown – be caused by people.
“I think there is some connectivity” between human activity and climate change, Trump said. “Some, something. It depends on how much.”
Pulling out of the Paris Agreement, signed in 2015 by 193 nations, however, was one of Trump’s signature xenophobic, populist campaign promises.
Speaking in North Dakota in May, Trump promised to rip up the agreement because it gave “foreign bureaucrats control over how much energy we use.”
He made revitalizing the US coal industry – an anachronistic commitment – a centerpiece of his stump, to the cheers of West Virginia’s voters.
And as late as November 2 – six days before the election – Trump said he would slash US spending on climate mitigation efforts.
Other indications that Trump might be adjusting his volume and message to his audience’s ears came Wednesday when the Guardian revealed Trump’s plans to defund NASA climate research.
Bob Walker, a senior Trump campaign adviser, said there was no need for NASA to do “politically correct environmental monitoring,” a typically Trumpian smear against so-called liberal ideas.
And in the days immediately following the election, Trump began actively seeking ways to jump the Paris Agreement as quickly as possible, a source from his transition team told Reuters. He was even seeking cut off the US membership in the United Nations’ entire climate agency. And then, after the election, he appointed Myron Ebell, a global-warming skeptic and longtime apologist for the fossil-fuel industry, to oversee environmental policy on his transition team.
Journalists present at the Times meeting noted that exiting the Paris Agreement wasn’t the only incendiary campaign thing that Trump retracted. He back-peddled on his position to more widely waterboard terrorism suspects. He denounced racists whose institutionalized support his campaign galvanized, though he defended his choice of Steve Bannon – a bigot and avowed “economic” nationalist – as his chief counsel.
He also stepped down from his firebrand media-bashing Twitter claims that The New York Times was biased against him, calling the paper during the interview “a great, great American jewel.”
Most significantly, he dropped his central and most electrifying pledge to his constituency –his promise to jail his campaign opponent Hillary Clinton.
Those aren’t bad things by themselves, of course. But they beg the question: What does Trump mean, if anything at all?
Doing what he said Tuesday would mean alienating the very electorate of whose ignorance he made a virtue. Rescinding his words to the Times as easily as he rescinded promises honed for eighteen months on the ugliest campaign trail in US memory would be a catastrophe for the country and the world.
Doing either means that Trump is the insubstantial huckster he has always been accused of being.
If Trump’s interview wit the Times proved one thing, it proved the president-elect’s adolescent need for an adulatory audience outstrips his fidelity to any policy or idea, good or bad.
“He wants nothing more than for his audience to be impressed,” wrote columnist Frank Bruni after the meeting.
Now it’s just a question of whose applause on what day Trump wants to hear.