Trump Addresses Free Press, Libel Laws in On-the-Record Meeting With New York Times

Ted Johnson
Variety

President-elect Donald Trump told a meeting with top executives, columnists and reporters from The New York Times that they would be “happy” with his commitment to the First Amendment, amid concerns that his criticisms of the media during the campaign and attacks on the paper afterward will chill free speech.

“I think you’ll be happy,” Trump told the gathering, according to a tweet from one of the reporters who was there, Maggie Haberman.

Earlier in the day, Trump tweeted that he was canceling the meeting because the ground rules for it had changed “at the last moment.” He complained that the publication continues to “cover me inaccurately and with a nasty tone” and called the Times “failing.” But a couple hours later, he announced that the meeting was back on.

A Times spokeswoman said that they did not change the ground rules, but that Trump’s team had sought to make the entire gathering off the record, “which we refused to agree to.” Instead, they stuck to the original plan for a small off the record session followed by a larger gathering with staffers.

At the on-the-record session, Trump complained about the way he had been covered but also acknowledged the need for a reset.

“I have great respect for the New York Times. I have tremendous respect. I think I have been treated very rough,” he said at the gathering according to other tweets. He said that he would like to improve his relationship with the Times because “it would make the job I am doing much easier.”

On Monday, at Trump tower, he met with network anchors, news executives and correspondents and berated them for their coverage, according to sources. That session was off the record.

At the Times meeting, which lasted 75 minutes, Trump also was asked about his campaign pledge to “open up” libel laws, making it easier for plaintiffs to sue. According to Mike Grynbaum, Trump said that someone told him after he made the comment, “You know, you might be sued a lot more. I said, ‘You know, I hadn’t thought of that.'”

Trump also defended his choice of Steve Bannon to be his chief strategist, triggering criticism that he had selected someone who has moved Breitbart News to draw in readers with racist and anti-Semitic views.

Trump said that “if thought he was a racist, or alt-right” he “wouldn’t even think about hiring him.”

“He’s having a hard time of it, because it’s not him,” Trump said.

He also said that Breitbart News is “just a publication” that “cover[s] stories like you cover stories.”

Trump also said that he disavowed a gathering over the weekend of white nationalists in Washington, where they praised the incoming president and even engaged in a Nazi salute.

During the campaign, Trump’s attorneys had threatened to sue the Times after it published stories quoting women who claimed that he had groped them. Although his legal team fired off a letter to the Times, they have yet to file suit.

He said that he does read the Times, but “unfortunately, I would live about 20 years longer if I didn’t.”

Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist, asked Trump if he would back out of the Paris climate agreement. Trump said that he was “looking at it very closely” and had an “open mind to it,” but was also weighing the impact that climate change would have on U.S. companies and competitiveness, according to tweets from the session.

Trump also attempted to dismiss criticisms that his business holdings posed conflict of interest questions. He said that “the law’s totally on my side, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” But he also suggested that it would not be easy to sell off his holdings because much of his investments are in real estate. Instead, his children are going to be managing those businesses.

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