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January 20 countdown: Who is Donald Trump? 

For a brief period, I forced myself to stop thinking about the president-elect. Then I read last week’s New York Times interview with him.

Some people thought the interview showed a Donald Trump who is willing to learn, willing to change. To me, the interview proves that we have no idea about who he is, what he believes, how he makes decisions, and what he’ll do as president. And that’s horrifying.

The Trump mind seemed to be on full display during that interview. During the campaign, dismissing years of scientific research, he called climate change a hoax. In the Times interview, he said that he has “an open mind” about it, that he’s “going to look at it very carefully.”

During the campaign, he said that the US should torture prisoners. “Waterboarding is absolutely fine,” he said at one rally, “and we should go much farther.”

Numerous retired military leaders and defense experts criticized Trump’s embrace of torture – strenuously – but he kept at it. In last week’s Times interview, he said he has changed his mind.

He had talked to retired Marine General James Mattis, and Mattis, Trump said, told him he hadn’t found torture to be useful.

“I was very impressed by that answer,” Trump said.

He has talked with one military leader – one – and he has seen the light.

Trump had insisted for years that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US. He skipped away from that shortly before the election, of course, and he told the Times that now that he has met Obama, he really likes him.

During the campaign, Trump promised to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton. He told Clinton to her face that after he was elected president, she’d be in jail. He led campaign crowds in “Lock Her Up!” chants. In the Times interview? He said he doesn’t plan to investigate her. He doesn’t want to “hurt” her.

During the campaign he promised to make libel laws less stringent, so he could sue the news media “and win lots of money.” He’s rethinking that position now, he told the Times, because somebody pointed out that loosening libel laws meant he himself could be sued more easily.

He spent the campaign whipping up open expressions of hatred toward ethnic and religious minorities. White nationalists celebrated then, and they’re celebrating now. And a man who has provided an outlet for them on a widely read extremist website will be his chief presidential strategist. But Trump told the Times that he didn’t think he had tried to energize white nationalists during the campaign, that if they’re energized, he wants to “look into it.”

“I want to bring the country together,” he said.

Now that he’s headed to the White House, Trump is saying things that are in direct opposition to what he said during the campaign. Did he believe what he said as a candidate? Did he say what he said simply to get elected?

When he’s in office, will he do one day what he promised not to do a day earlier? Who on earth knows?

Among the writers present at last week’s Times interview was the usually rational columnist Tom Friedman. Weirdly, Friedman seems to have left the session encouraged. “At lunch,” read the headline on his column, “Trump gives critics hope.” Trump, Friedman wrote, “clearly learns by talking to people, not reading.”

But this isn’t the behavior of a man who listens and learns. This is the behavior of… what? A man with no clear beliefs at all? A con man who says whatever he has to say to get what he wants? A disturbed man disconnected from reality?

Right now, we don’t know. We may not know for months, maybe years, after his inauguration. But at some point, we’ll find out. And I don’t think any us will be happy with what we learn.

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