Here’s the central question for America, and, the rest of the perplexed, mesmerised world right now: does Donald Trump mean what he says?
After meeting him in New York, I was not so sure.
And yet it is now his greatest challenge: having so effectively, almost effortlessly captured and stimulated the disaffected, the angry men, the extremists, the white blue-collar workers, the presumptive Republican nominee now must capture the centre in his fight for the White House.
So how can he do this without alienating his supporters and undermining his own credibility?
After all, the tanned reality TV star has repeatedly said: “Everything I say, I’m going to do, folks.”
Build a wall, stop Muslim immigration, make deals, bully business with threats of tariffs, scrap trade deals. Make America great again,
But the reason a Trump campaign is more of a threat to the Clinton campaign than one the arch conservative Ted Cruz might have waged is that he is malleable, and comfortable in the middle. As I quickly gathered while sitting near him at a New York Times editorial board meeting in January, he does not see his constituency as partisan or factional but global: everyone should like him.
Even, remarkably, the Times.
This meeting occupied much attention when allegations emerged that he had softened his stance on key matters like immigration in it; his rivals loudly called for the Times, or Trump, to release the tape recording. It was not.
But what was missing from the entire discussion was the context and reason for the meeting. And that, crucially – and unusually for a Republican – Trump wanted to seek the support, or at least understanding of the New York Times.
The meeting was held in a room in the Times offices in midtown Manhattan with the editorial board and columnists – Maureen Dowd, Gail Collins and Nick Kristof, as well as the executive editor, Dean Baquet.
Endorsement meetings are held at each election so the Times staff can grill presidential candidates about policy, in depth. Candidates are all routinely offered the chance to speak off the record.
Trump elected to speak mostly on the record; some was not. And of course I will respect every remark made off the record. But I can make the following observations:
1. Trump’s gargantuan ego and lack of interest in policy detail make having a conversation with him like driving a manual car with a chronic wheel alignment problem. Every answer, within a matter of minutes of not seconds, very quickly turns to discussion of his polls, lovability, ratings success, TV show, business success or wealth. Ask him about immigration, for example, and before you can blink you will be listening to an indignant questioning of how Time magazine could make Angela Merkel the Person of the Year and not him, when everyone thought he should get it.
2. His skills at reductive rhetoric are surely unparalleled. He has the biggest crowds, the best polling, everyone loves him and the world has “a real problem”.
3. Trump often refers to “everyone” or “everybody” as an unscientific way of citing those who agree with him or want to see him president. For example: “The voter turnout if I run against Hillary will be the biggest in the history of the country. Everybody’s saying that.”
4. Throughout the meeting Trump emphasised that his skill as a deal maker and successful businessman was the most important that he would posses as president – which poses the question of which policies are merely starting points. As Maureen Dowd later wrote: “Trump sees his egregious positions on immigration, torture and terrorism revenge as opening bids.” Asked how he would negotiate serious policies, he said he would make phone calls.
5. And you could see the finely honed skills of a deal maker – his scanning the room for the most important people and fixing on their faces, complimenting reporters he liked while attacking others, even flattering the Times – it was an “honour” to be there, “with great respect”.
What was most fascinating was that Trump was there at all.
After the endorsement meetings the board members debate who to support, and why – and the meetings can shift a perception dramatically. In 2008 for example, some board members reported that Obama appeared to be offputtingly professorial, detached and uninterested, while Hillary Clinton was impressive in her confident command of policy detail.
The problem the Times usually faces is that Republicans are reluctant to attend, if not outright hostile, as they view the paper as liberal and think even a tepid endorsement could be more damaging than helpful. In 2012, not one Republican candidate came.
This year, while Rand Paul and John Kasich agreed to meet, Trump’s most threatening rival, Ted Cruz blankly refused.
But not only did Trump come, he genuinely entertained the idea that there might be common ground. He wrapped up a point he was making about how he built great hotels, so knew “what he was doing” unlike other people in politics with this: “I know you are never going to endorse me but if you endorsed me it would be the greatest shock in the history of newspapers.”
He then leaned forward: “It would be the smartest thing you had ever done.”
Trump conceded he trashes the Times in public and says articles about him are unfair and wrong, but added: “I have such respect for the NYT and I will tell you, if I win I think you would be very, very proud of the job I did.”
And all the while Ivanka sat next to him, smiling. She did not remove her gaze from his face.
Julia Baird is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.