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Freewheeling Trump creates friction on both sides

Donald Trump is showing no signs of ditching the unpredictable, pugilistic style that marked his campaign, by clashing with media chiefs, unsettling the US’s closest ally and intervening in the legal fate of his election rival during a 24-hour blizzard of activity.

Most of the president-elect’s freewheeling decisions were broadcast over social media on Tuesday, a day after he broke with convention to announce a policy agenda for the first 100 days of his administration in a 150-second video posted on YouTube.

The events suggest that after a victory speech in which he appeared headed towards governing in a more conventional way, Mr Trump will remain as unpredictable as ever as president — both in the substance of his decisions and in the way he makes them.

“Trump got to be president-elect by breaking all the rules, and he clearly has no intention of obeying the rules now. We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Larry Sabato, a politics expert at the University of Virginia. “And we’d better get used to saying that.”

The moves were capped by Kellyanne Conway, his campaign manager, saying the president-elect had decided not to prosecute Hillary Clinton over her handling of secret information, arguing the move would help her “heal” from her loss. 

In a subsequent interview with the New York Times, Mr Trump said: “It’s just not something that I feel very strongly about … I don’t want to hurt the Clintons, I really don’t.”

The comments prompted an unusual barrage of criticism from his supporters, including the rightwing Breitbart News, which labelled the decision a “broken promise”. Judicial Watch, which had spearheaded the campaign over Mrs Clinton’s emails, warned Mr Trump against a “betrayal of his promise to the American people to ‘drain the swamp’ of out-of-control corruption” in Washington.

In the same interview, Mr Trump suggested that he might abandon another campaign pledge, saying he would “keep an open mind” about whether to withdraw the US from the landmark climate change treaty that was signed in Paris last year.

Mr Trump also distanced himself from the “Alt Right”, a white supremacist movement that held an annual event in Washington at the weekend. Asked in the interview whether he condemned the gathering arranged by Richard Spencer, a leader of the movement, Mr Trump said: “I condemn them. I disavow, and I condemn,” according to a tweet from one of the New York Times reporters who was present.

During the Republican primary, Mr Trump generated a lot of controversy for refusing to disavow the support he received from David Duke, a former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who had backed his candidacy. Some critics have also raised concerns about his appointment of Steve Bannon, former head of Breitbart News who once described the platform as a vehicle for the Alt Right.

Earlier in the day, the British government was forced to defend its ambassador to Washington, veteran diplomat Kim Darroch, after Mr Trump recommended he be replaced by Nigel Farage, the UK Independence party chief who grew close with Mr Trump during Mr Farage’s campaign to take Britain out of the EU.

It’s just not something that I feel very strongly about … I don’t want to hurt the Clintons, I really don’t

“We have an excellent ambassador to the United States and he will continue in his work,” a UK government spokesman said. “We appoint our ambassadors.”

The flurry came as Mr Trump continued to be dogged by questions about his past business and charitable dealings, an issue that has irked the president-elect and contributed to the cancellation of an interview scheduled for Tuesday with the New York Times — an interview he reinstated hours later. 

In the interview, Mr Trump pushed back against allegations he is using the presidency to advance his business interests, saying that conflict of interest rules did not apply to the president.

“The law’s totally on my side, the president can’t have a conflict of interest,” he said, adding that it would be very hard to dissolve his business because of its multiple real estate holdings around the world.

A spokesman for the Democratic National Committee criticised the remarks, saying: “Donald Trump campaigned against a culture of self-enrichment in Washington and pledged to ‘drain the swamp’, but made clear today that he doesn’t think the rules apply to him. He fully intends to use the Oval Office to expand his family’s wealth.”

Mr Trump’s foundation was separately forced to admit it had engaged in legally prohibited transactions that amounted to “self-dealing” under Internal Revenue Service rules.

The acknowledgment in the Donald J Trump Foundation’s 2015 tax return said the charity had transferred income or assets to a “disqualified person”, which under the tax code would include Mr Trump, his family members and his businesses.

Elsewhere on the tax return, the foundation admitted it had engaged in similar transactions in previous years.

“It is a large issue,” says Steve Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. “The penalties for self-dealing are really stiff.”

The law’s totally on my side, the president can’t have a conflict of interest

Mr Rosenthal, who helped draft tax legislation on Capitol Hill, said violations incur an initial excise tax equal to 10 per cent of the sum involved. A failure to correct the violation in a timely manner results in “much, much larger penalties,” up to 200 per cent of the sum at issue, he said. In extreme cases, when a foundation refuses to settle the tax bill, it can be shut down and hit with a termination tax.

While Mr Trump had toned down his rhetoric since the election, he has continued the public clashes with the media that propelled his campaign. He berated a number of high-profile television journalists and network executives in an off-the-record meeting on Monday that some had assumed would be an attempt to clear the air after a contentious campaign.

Speaking to MSNBC, Ms Conway dismissed suggestions Mr Trump had attacked the media representatives, saying it was a “very lively, spirited discussion”. 

During the campaign, Mr Trump and his campaign inner circle, including his incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn, encouraged supporters as they chanted “lock her up” in reference to Mrs Clinton. When she declared in one presidential debate that it was “awfully good” that someone with Mr Trump’s temperament was not in charge of the law in the US, he shot back: “Because you’d be in jail.” 

After the election, Ms Conway refused to rule out an effort to charge Mrs Clinton. Some Democrats grew nervous amid rumours that Rudolph Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor who was one of the harshest critics of Mrs Clinton, might be chosen to head the justice department. But Mr Trump eventually picked Jeff Sessions, the Alabama senator who once served with Mrs Clinton on the Senate armed services committee. 

Twitter: @dimi

Via FT