The New York Times is sitting on an audio recording that some of its staff believes could deal a serious blow to Donald Trump, who, in an off-the-record meeting with the newspaper, called into question whether he would stand by his own immigration views.
Trump visited the paper's Manhattan headquarters on Tuesday, Jan. 5, as part of a round of editorial board meetings that — as is traditional — the Democratic candidates for president and some of the Republicans attended. The meetings, conducted partly on the record and partly off the record in a 13th-floor conference room, give candidates a chance to make their pitch for the paper's endorsement.
After a dispute over Trump's suggestion of tariffs on Chinese goods, the Times released a portion of the recording. But that was from the on-the-record part of the session.
On Saturday, columnist Gail Collins, one of the attendees at the meeting (which also included editor-in-chief Dean Baquet), floated a bit of speculation in her column:
The most optimistic analysis of Trump as a presidential candidate is that he just doesn’t believe in positions, except the ones you adopt for strategic purposes when you’re making a deal. So you obviously can’t explain how you’re going to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, because it’s going to be the first bid in some future monster negotiation session.
Sources familiar with the recording and transcript — which have reached near-mythical status at the Times — tell me that the second sentence is a bit more than speculation. It reflects, instead, something Trump said about the flexibility of his hardline anti-immigration stance.
So what exactly did Trump say about immigration, about deportations, about the wall? Did he abandon a core promise of his campaign in a private conversation with liberal power brokers in New York?
I wasn't able to obtain the recording, or the transcript, and don't know exactly what Trump said. Neither Baquet, Collins, nor various editorial board members I reached would comment on an off-the-record conversation, which the Times essentially said it cannot release without approval from Trump, given the nature of the off-the-record agreement.
Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal told me he would not comment "on what was off the record at our meeting with him."
"If [Trump] wants to call up and ask us to release this transcript, he's free to do that and then we can decide what we would do," Rosenthal said.
Trump, whose spokeswoman didn't respond immediately to an email, can resolve this mystery: He can ask the Times to release the tape. Will he?