Lost amid the print media back-slapping last week after The New York Times’ on-the-record meeting with Donald Trump was confusion over how the newspaper covered its own sit-down with the president-elect. At issue: a potential Trump U-turn on torture that would eventually be picked up by numerous other outlets around the country and world.
A roomful of Times journalists didn’t force Trump into fully explaining his stance on torture, as the newspaper publisher cut off the lengthy interview for a final question on the First Amendment. But that didn’t stop the Times from publishing a story that ascribed meaning—which a transcript of the interview appears to contradict—to a Trumpian rhetorical flourish that danced around any real position.
The lede of the Times’ news story, which led the front page of Wednesday’s paper and was widely read online, said that Trump “tempered some of his most extreme campaign promises…expressing doubt about the value of torturing terrorism suspects.” The framing suggests potential second-thoughts by a candidate who extolled the virtues of torture on the campaign trail—an interesting development in its own right. But a later description of Trump’s remarks in the same story seemed to go a step further (emphasis ours):
On the issue of torture, Mr. Trump suggested he had changed his mind about the value of waterboarding after talking with James N. Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, who headed the United States Central Command.
“He said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful,’” Mr. Trump said. He added that Mr. Mattis found more value in building trust and rewarding cooperation with terrorism suspects: “‘Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers, and I’ll do better.’”
“I was very impressed by that answer,” Mr. Trump said.
Torture, he said, is “not going to make the kind of a difference that a lot of people are thinking.”
The full transcript of Trump’s remarks, corrected since its initial publication, paints a different picture. When Times reporter Maggie Haberman queried Trump about torture, he indeed complimented Mattis’ contrarian perspective on waterboarding. But the president-elect continued in a typically meandering response:
[Mattis] said — I was surprised — he said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful.’ He said, ‘I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.’ And I was very impressed by that answer. I was surprised, because he’s known as being like the toughest guy. And when he said that, I’m not saying it changed my mind. [An earlier version made a mistake in transcription. Mr. Trump said “changed my mind,” not “changed my man.”] Look, we have people that are chopping off heads and drowning people in steel cages and we’re not allowed to waterboard. But I’ll tell you what, I was impressed by that answer. It certainly does not — it’s not going to make the kind of a difference that maybe a lot of people think. If it’s so important to the American people, I would go for it. I would be guided by that. But General Mattis found it to be very less important, much less important than I thought he would say.
Note the update appended within the text. The corrected transcript seems to refute the Times’ reporting that “Mr. Trump suggested he had changed his mind about the value of waterboarding.” Writers at Slate and The Intercept have similarly highlighted this apparent discrepancy, which stands without clarification nearly a week later.
The Times had already tweaked this description to de-emphasize Trump’s supposed flip flop. An early version of the story, still available at The Boston Globe and elsewhere, said that “the president-elect’s turnabout on the need for torture as a tool in the fight against terrorism, which he repeatedly endorsed during the campaign, was remarkable.”
In a brief interview on Monday, the Times’ Washington bureau chief, Elisabeth Bumiller, stood by the final, toned-down characterization. “Since we were there, we felt we had a good reading of his remarks,” she says, adding that the correction to the interview transcript didn’t affect the Times’ thought process.
“[Trump] suggested he changed his mind about the value of torture,” Bumiller adds. “He then said, if you look at the transcript, that it’s not going to make the kind of difference that people may think. It reflects, we thought, a shift in his value judgment.”
That’s a small needle to thread, particularly given how Trump talks in circles and contradicts himself within statements. And that nuance was lost as the story trickled down from the Paper of Record through the rest of the media ecosystem. A handful of major outlets instead echoed the Times’ initial framing.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Trump “backed off on his commitment to torturing enemies of state,” Foreign Policy labeled his remarks as a “stunning reversal,” and The Daily Beast put them in the context of a “Week of Wild WTF Reversals.” None of these outlets have updated their stories, even after the Times’ correction to its transcript. Some foreign news organizations also picked up on the notion of an about-face from the president-elect.
The narrative of a Trump flip-flop is tempting given his mishmash of a policy agenda and supposed gravitation toward the opinion of the last person in the room with him. And it speaks to the need for skepticism about any exclusive interview with a president-elect who can look at a white wall and claim it’s black. Fortunately, the Times released a transcript, allowing other journalists to draw their own conclusions from the president-elect’s remarks. The next four years will likely require similar openness among competing reporters attempting to decipher Trump’s verbal gymnastics.