Preface. Wolff’s book continues the mordant humor of Fire & Fury. His books are the best, by far, of the dozens I’ve read about the Trump Administration. There will never be any books as insightful because Wolff was given unprecedented access. And so much fun to read too.
It amazes me that Fire & Fury didn’t force Trump out of office, since it clearly shows that he is too incompetent, unfocused, corrupt, and crazy to be President. The Mueller report or Ukraine impeachment trial the public knows the most about don’t begin to hint at all the corruption and stupidity of what’s going on in this administration.
And has there ever been a more dislikable person than Trump in history or any book or movie? Narcissistic with endless angry tantrums, just like the giant toddler float that shows up at protests. Stupid. Lazy. Only cares about himself. Mean to everyone. Nasty misogyny and filthy locker room talk degrading women. Absolutely no sense of humor. None. Hated by all, even by Republicans, who spinelessly do nothing about it. You will be appalled, I guarantee it, even though this book doesn’t delve into the evil undoing of regulations protecting our health, wealth, and futures, or the dismantling of government to dismay us about how the executive is being run, or rather not run. Though that’s partly, as the book makes clear, because no one wants to work for such a nasty man or have their career tainted by him.
This book conveys the absolute chaos, bizarre thinking, and exaggerated sense of power Trump and other key players have, such as Bannon imagining himself President in 2020 with Hannity as VP after Trump tires of the whole thing.
And then there is the endless turnover of staff as they grow tired of being humiliated and yelled at every day. Historians will be gobsmacked in the future by how such a loony bin could be at the center of the most powerful and wealthy nation that has ever existed.
Michael Lewis saw disaster coming in his book “The Fifth Risk” about how Trump wasn’t staffing key departments, making all of us more vulnerable to risks and disasters. He even listed a pandemic as one of the potential problems. Well, here we are, if people voted for Trump for the reality TV entertainment value, I sure hope they regret it now that it is endangering their life.
What follows are some of my kindle notes from the first half of the book. Obviously, you’d be better off buying the book; perhaps my notes will convince you to do so.
Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report
Wolff, Michael. 2019. Siege. Trump Under fire. Henry Holt.
To have worked anywhere near him is to be confronted with the most extreme and disorienting behavior possible. That is hardly an overstatement. Not only is Trump not like other presidents, he is not like anyone most of us have ever known. In general, I have found that the closer people are to him, the more alarmed they have found themselves at various points about his mental state.
“I have never met anyone crazier than Donald Trump” is the wording of one staff member who has spent almost countless hours with the president. Something like this has been expressed to me by a dozen others with firsthand experience.
‘Where’s my Roy Cohn and Bobby Kennedy?’
Trump harbored a myth about the ideal lawyer that had almost nothing to do with the practice of law. He invariably cited Roy Cohn, his old New York friend, attorney, and tough-guy mentor, and Robert Kennedy, John F. Kennedy’s brother. With enough juice and muscle, the legal system could always be gamed.
This was the constant Trump theme: beating the system. “I’m the guy who gets away with it,” he had often bragged to friends in New York.
At the same time, he did not want to know details. He merely wanted his lawyers to assure him that he was winning. “We’re killing it, right? That’s what I want to know. That’s all I want to know. If we’re not killing it, you screwed up,” he shouted one afternoon at members of his ad hoc legal staff.
From the start, it had become a particular challenge to find top lawyers to take on what, in the past, had always been one of the most vaunted of legal assignments: representing the president of the United States. More than a dozen major firms had turned down his business. In the end, Trump was left with a ragtag group of solo practitioners without the heft and resources of big firms.
Every lawyer’s first piece of advice to his or her client was blunt and unequivocal: talk to no one, lest it become necessary to testify about what you said [which became clear to Bannon as his ]… legal costs at the end of the year came to $2 million. Before long, a constant preoccupation of senior staffers in the Trump White House was to know as little as possible. It was a wrong-side-up world: where being “in the room” was traditionally the most sought-after status, now you wanted to stay out of meetings. You wanted to avoid being a witness to conversations; you wanted to avoid being witnessed being a witness to conversations, at least if you were smart. Certainly, nobody was your friend.
One of the many odd aspects of Trump’s presidency was that he did not see being president, either the responsibilities or the exposure, as being all that different from his pre-presidential life. He had endured almost countless investigations in his long career. He had been involved in various kinds of litigation for the better part of forty-five years. He was a fighter who, with brazenness and aggression, got out of fixes that would have ruined a weaker, less wily player. That was his essential business strategy: what doesn’t kill me strengthens me. Though he was wounded again and again, he never bled out.
“It’s playing the game,” he explained in one of his frequent monologues about his own superiority and everyone else’s stupidity. “I’m good at the game. Maybe I’m the best. Really, I could be the best. I think I am the best. I’m very good. Very cool. Most people are afraid that the worst might happen. But it doesn’t, unless you’re stupid. And I’m not stupid.
Tantrum Toddler Narcissitic Stupid inept Trump
“When you speak to him, open with positive feedback,” counseled Hicks, understanding Trump’s need for constant affirmation and his almost complete inability to talk about anything but himself.
Trump did not want his administration to be staffed by professionals; he wanted it to be staffed by people who attended and catered to him.
As a family insider, Kushner, in a game of court politics so vicious that, in another time, it might have yielded murder plots, had appeared to triumph over his early White House rivals. But Trump invariably soured on the people who worked for him, just as they soured on him, not least because he nearly always came to believe that his staff was profiting at his expense. He was convinced that everyone was greedy, and that sooner or later they would try to take what was more rightfully his. Increasingly, it seemed that Kushner, too, might be just another staff member trying to take advantage of Donald Trump.
Kushner, with superhuman patience and resolve, waited for his opportunity. The trick among Trump whisperers was how to focus Trump’s attention, since Trump could never be counted on to participate in anything like a normal conversation with reasonable back-and-forth. Sports and women were reliable subjects; both would immediately engage him. Disloyalty also got Trump’s attention. So did conspiracies. And money—always money.
Trump didn’t want a chief of staff who would focus him. Trump, it was clear, didn’t want a chief of staff who would tell him anything. Trump did not want a White House that ran by any method other than to satisfy his desires. Someone happened to mention that John F. Kennedy didn’t have a chief of staff, and now Trump regularly repeated this presidential factoid.
Trump’s bubble was smaller and increasingly less penetrable: he was left, at night, in bed, eating his favorite candy bars—Three Musketeers—and talking to a slavish and reassuring Sean Hannity.
Trump could only be part of an organization that attended to him with unalloyed devotion; he could not really imagine another type. He insisted that the White House operate more like the Trump Organization, an enterprise dedicated to his satisfaction and committed to following and covering for his peripatetic and impulsive interests. Trump’s management practices were entirely self-centered, not task-oriented or organizationally based. An outward focus, or focus of any sort, was not his concern or his method.
It often seemed as though Trump, remote from the technical operations of governing, glued to the television and obsessed by its moment-by-moment challenges and insults, did not really intersect with his own White House.
Many around Trump were surprised to record an unexpected character note: he wasn’t paranoid. He was self-pitying and melodramatic, but not on guard. Negativity and betrayal always startled him. Narcissism, really, is the opposite of paranoia: Trump thought people were and should be protecting him.
Why couldn’t he get what he wanted? The problem was the White House itself. Its many personalities and power centers demanded a savvy and politesse and diplomacy and adroitness—indeed, a willingness to work with others—that, counter to everything in Trump’s life, he was not now going to summon.
The only show that had ever worked for Donald Trump was a one-man show. With only a tight circle of intimates, few people would learn much about what he felt, what he believed, or what, if anything, he might want to truly express. While some found him cryptic in a way that could be construed as wise or brilliant, others often suspected he merely had nothing to say.
Every day was a minefield. Trump constantly thought out loud. He perhaps had no solely private thoughts, and certainly no editing mechanism when he invariably expressed what was on his mind. Everyone was therefore potentially included in a wide conspiracy. Everybody was privy to the details of a cover-up.
Trump the Grifter
At the same time, many, and perhaps all, were privately convinced that a deep dive—or, for that matter, even a cursory inspection—of Trump’s financial past would yield a trove of overt offenses, and likely a pattern of career corruption. Books and newspaper stories about Trump’s 45 years in business were full of his shady dealings, and his arrival in the White House only helped to highlight them and surface even juicier ones. Real estate was the world’s favorite money-laundering currency, and Trump’s B-level real estate business—relentlessly marketed by Trump as triple A—was quite explicitly designed to appeal to money launderers
Kushner understood that Trump was surrounded by a set of mortal arrows, any of which might kill him: the case for obstruction; the case for collusion; any close look at his long, dubious financial history; the always-lurking issues with women; the prospects of a midterm rout and the impeachment threat if the midterm elections went against them; the fickleness of the Republicans, who might at any time turn on him; and the senior staffers who had been pushed out of the administration (Kushner had urged the ouster of many of them), any of whom might testify against him.
The Southern District was looking to treat the Trump Organization as a Mob-like enterprise; its lawyers would use the RICO laws against it and go after the president as if he were a drug lord or Mob don. Kushner pointed out that corporations had no Fifth Amendment privilege, and that you couldn’t pardon a corporation. As well, assets used in or derived from the commission of a crime could be seized by the government. In other words, of the more than five hundred companies and separate entities in which Donald Trump had been an officer, up until he became president, many might be subject to forfeiture. One potential casualty of a successful forfeiture action was the president’s signature piece of real estate: the government could seize Trump Tower.
Trump certainly ran his business as though it were a criminal enterprise. In the Trump Organization the truth needed to be contained in a tight circle—that was the secret sauce. Trump measured loyalty, that significant currency of his business and walk-on-the-wild-side lifestyle, by who was so dependent on him, and as clearly exposed as he was, that they would of course lie for him. The model here was mobster life. Trump not only knew mobsters, and did business with them, he romanticized them. Mobsters had more fun. He would not conform to behavior that respectability demanded; he would go out of his way not to be respectable. Trump was the Dapper Don; it was a joke he embraced. His New York, his era of nightlife and prizefights—with Roy Cohn, the gold standard of Mob lawyers, by his side—was a Mob heyday. Hence the special nature of his inner circle at the Trump Organization. They were all truly his: his executive assistant (holding the title of senior vice president), Rhona Graff; his accountant, Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg; his lawyers, Michael Cohen and Marc Kasowitz; his security man, Keith Schiller; his bodyguard, Matt Calamari, eventually elevated to Trump Organization COO; his children. Later, in the White House, Hope Hicks would join this trusted circle, as would Corey Lewandowski. This was extreme codependence. You became an extension of DJT, a part of the strange organism that, daily, demonstrated an uncanny ability to survive every threat.
A frequent Trump riff was about whom he could pardon. His list included both contemporary and historical figures. Aides were urged to offer ideas about who could be added to the list.
He wanted to know just how absolute “absolute” really was. His lawyers went out of their way to assure him that his power was, indeed, truly absolute, thus reassuring him that he had ultimate control of his own fate: in a pinch, he could even pardon himself.
“It really is a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Trump proudly marveled to one frequent caller. “I am told there is nothing anyone can do if I pardon someone. I’m totally protected.
“Almost everything he does is about trying to avoid humiliation,” said Bannon.
Whatever current feeling Bannon might have for Trump—his mood ranged from exasperation to fury to disgust to incredulity—he continued to believe that nobody in American politics could match Trump’s midway-style showmanship. Yes, Donald Trump had restored showmanship to American politics—he had taken the wonk out of politics. In sum, he knew his audience. At the same time, he couldn’t walk a straight line. Every step forward was threatened by his next lurch. Like many great actors, his innate self-destructiveness was always in conflict with his keen survival instincts.
Bannon understood what moved Trump. Details did not. Facts did not. But a sense that something valuable might be taken from him immediately brought him up on his hind legs. If you confronted him with losing, he would turn on a dime. Indeed, turning on a dime was his only play. “It’s not that he needs to win the week, or day, or even the hour,” reflected Bannon. “He needs to win the second. After that, he drifts.
You had to constantly remind Trump which side he was on. As Bannon organized a howling protest from the president’s base, he took stock of the Trump reality: “There simply is not going to be a Wall, ever, if he doesn’t have to pay a political price for there not being a Wall.” If the Wall was not under way by the midterm elections in November, it would show Trump to be false and, worse, weak. The Wall needed to be real. The absence of the Wall in the spending bill was just what it seemed to be: Trump out to lunch. Trump’s most effective message, the forward front of the Trump narrative—maximal aggression toward illegal immigrants—had been muted. And this had happened without him knowing it.
Bannon believed he represented the workingman against the corporate-governmental-technocratic machine whose constituency was the college-educated.
China was the Russia of 1962—but smarter, more tenacious, and more threatening. American hedge funders, in their secret support of China against the interests of the American middle class, were the new fifth column.
The Wall and so much else that was part of Bannon’s populist revolution—the details of which he had once listed on whiteboards in his White House office, expecting to check each one off—were entirely captive to Trump’s inattention and wild mood swings. Trump, Bannon had long ago learned, “doesn’t give a fuck about the agenda—he doesn’t know what the agenda is.
For Bannon there were two sides in American politics—not so much right and left, but right brain and left brain. The left brain was represented by the legal system, which was empirical, evidentiary, and methodical; given the chance, it would inevitably and correctly convict Donald Trump. The right side was represented by politics, and therefore by voters who were emotional, volatile, febrile, and always eager to throw the dice. “Get the deplorables fired up”—he slapped his hands in thunderclap effect—“and we’ll save our man.
Bannon understood that only Trump could save the day, or at least that Trump believed only he could save the day. No other scenario was possible. He would rather lose, would rather even go to jail, than have to share victory with someone else. He was psychologically incapable of not being the focus of all attention.
Bannon spent a good part of every day talking to reporters. On some days, perhaps most days, his blind-quote voice—hidden behind a familiar attribution such as “this account is drawn from interviews with current and former officials”—crowded out most other voices on the subject of whatever new crisis was engulfing the Trump administration. These quotes functioned as something like a stage whisper that Trump could pretend he didn’t hear. Trump, in fact, was always desperately seeking Bannon’s advice, though only if there was the slightest pretext for believing that it came from some place other than Bannon. Indeed, Trump was quite willing to hear Bannon say something in this or that interview and then claim he had thought of it himself.
Trump’s stupidity, said Bannon, could sometimes be made into a virtue. Here was Bannon’s idea: the president should make a retroactive claim of executive privilege. I didn’t know. Nobody told me. I was ill-advised. It was hard not to see Bannon’s satisfaction in a prostrate Trump admitting to his own lack of guile and artfulness. Bannon understood that this claim of retroactive executive privilege would have no chance of success—nor should it. But the sheer audacity of it could buy them four or five months of legal delay. Delay was their friend, possibly their only friend. They could work this claim of retroactive executive privilege, no matter how loopy, all the way to the Supreme Court. For this plan to work, the president would have to get rid of his inept lawyers. Oh, and he would also have to fire Rod Rosenstein.
Privately, or not so privately, Bannon believed that Trump, if he made it through his first term, would have had quite enough of the presidency by 2020. “Dude, look at him,” said Bannon, who didn’t look all that good himself. In the event that Trump did not run in 2020, Bannon—ever revivified by the daily lurches, catastrophes, and lost opportunities of the Trump presidency—saw himself as the presidential candidate for the populist-nationalist movement and its radical immigration platform. He saw Sean Hannity as his running mate.
A contemptuous Hannity, with grandiose ambitions of his own, insisted that this scenario was ludicrous. He would top the ticket, with Bannon, “if he’s lucky,” taking the second spot.
Bannon had his own reasons for not wanting Trump to have a meltdown in Europe. In recent months Bannon had vastly expanded the reach of his populist ambitions, promoting Trump as the new standard-bearer for right-wing Europe. If Brussels was the symbol, though a none-too-vibrant one, of a united globalist Europe, Trump was the symbol of a cohesive new right-wing Europe. That, anyway, was Bannon’s message, or snake oil. What he had done for Trump he could do for the ever-lagging right-wing parties of Europe. So Trump “losing his shit” on a European visit might not be the best thing for Bannon’s business.
Now, with the NATO trip looming, Bannon needed Trump to look the part of the American strongman, and not behave like a baby having a temper tantrum. That might spook Bannon’s European clients.
NATO, Trump kept repeating to various people accompanying him, “bores the shit out of me.” Indeed, NATO was a vast, complicated bureaucratic construct, a meticulous and uneven balance of interests. Trump’s urge to disrupt it might be as much about his resistance to small-bore details—white papers, data backgrounders, endless coalition politics—as about policy and operational matters. He needed to tilt the conversation from small to large. The small, the calibrated, the item-by-item approach infuriated him. He even saw it as a power play against him, suspecting that people knew he could not absorb details.
The other aspect of NATO summits he found irritating was that they were group meetings. He was almost invariably enthusiastic about one-on-one world leader meetings—no matter the subject, no matter the leader—and agitated about collective gatherings. He worried about being ganged up on; he suspected that plots had been laid to trick him.
His stated goal at the summit was to persuade NATO member states to raise their financial contribution. This was a longtime conservative gripe: alliances and foreign aid did little except ensure that the United States got cheated.
The White House had originally asked for $25 billion for the Wall, although high-end estimates of the Wall’s ultimate cost came in at $70 billion. Even then, the $1.6 billion in the appropriations bill was not so much for the Wall as for better security measures
Republicans like Ryan—with the backing of Republican donors such as Paul Singer and Charles Koch—who were eager to walk back, by whatever increment possible, Trump’s hard-line immigration policies and rhetoric. Ryan and others had devised a simple method for accomplishing this kind of objective: you agreed with him and then ignored him. There was happy talk, which Trump bathed in, followed by practical steps, which bored him.
Here were the twin realities. The Wall was the most concrete manifestation of Trumpian policy, attitude, belief, and personality. At the same time, the Wall forced every Republican politician to come to terms with his or her own common sense, fiscal prudence, and political flexibility.
The night of the twenty-second, the Fox News lineup—Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity—hammered the message: betrayal (on not funding the Wall). All three Fox pundits delivered a set of electric shocks, each rising in current. Trump had sold out the movement. Or, worse, Trump had been outsmarted and outwitted. Trump, on the phone, roared in pain and fury. He was the victim. He had no one in his corner. He could trust no one. The congressional leadership: against him. The White House itself: against him. Betrayal? Almost everyone in the White House had betrayed him.
The next morning it got worse. Pete Hegseth, the most obsequious of the Fox Trump lovers, seemed, on Fox & Friends, nearly brought to tears by Trump’s treachery. Then, almost simultaneously with Hegseth’s wailing, Trump abruptly—confoundingly—shifted position and tweeted that he was considering vetoing the appropriations bill. The same bill that, 24 hours before, he had embraced.
That Friday morning, he came down from the residence into the Oval Office in a full-on rage so violent that, for a moment, his hair came undone. To the shock of the people with him, there stood an almost entirely bald Donald Trump. The president’s sudden change of heart sent the entire Republican Party into a panic. If Trump carried out his threat not to sign the bill, he would bring on what they most feared: a shutdown. And he might well blame the shutdown on his own party.
Mitch McConnell rushed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis into action to tell the president that American soldiers would not be paid the next day if he didn’t sign the bill. Once again he caved and agreed to sign the bill. But he vowed that next time there would be billions upon billions for the Wall or there really would be a shutdown. Really. Really.
As with all issues, the details bored him. Hence, he became extremely susceptible to the last person who sold him on a different mix of details. Over and over, Hannity would reiterate and reinforce the policy’s zero-tolerance theme. This was rendered, of course, as effusive praise for Trump. Only he had the guts to stop the endless flow of immigrants. Trump, galvanized, was suddenly demanding a new executive order that would fund the Wall
Mean Trump and staff abandoning the madhouse
McGahn’s background was largely as a federal election lawyer. Mostly he was on the more-money, less-transparency side—he was against, rather than for, aggressive enforcement of election laws. White House counsel Don McGahn. He was a constant target for his boss’s belittling, mocking, falsetto-voice mimicry, and, as well, sweeping disparagements of his purpose and usefulness.
The more Pence bowed, the more Trump tried to figure out his angle. “Why does he look at me like that?” Trump asked about the way Pence seemed to stare at him near beatifically. “He’s a religious nut,” Trump concluded. “He was a sitting governor and was going to lose when we gave him the job. So I guess he’s got a good reason to love me. But they say he was the stupidest man in Congress.
Early in the administration, an article in Rolling Stone had quoted Pence referring to his wife as “Mother.” The moniker stuck. Since then, Mrs. Pence has been known throughout the West Wing as Mother, and not with affection. She was seen as the power behind the vice-presidential throne—the canny, indefatigable, iron-willed strategist who propped up her hapless husband. “She really gives me the creeps,” said Trump, who avoided Mrs. Pence.
The story of the past 15 months had not been about a president strengthening his White House team, but about the attrition of the relatively weak team that Trump had been rushed into accepting. Almost the entire top tier of White House management had been washed out in little more than a year. Flynn, Priebus, Bannon, Cohn, Hicks, McMaster—all of these and so many others, gone. In some sense he had no chief of staff, no communications department, no National Security Council, no political operation, no congressional liaison office, and only a sputtering office of the White House counsel.
Those who remained or joined up seemed to better understand the rules: they worked for Donald Trump, not for the president of the United States. If you wanted to survive, you could not see this as an institutional relationship; instead, you needed to accept that you were serving at the pleasure of a wholly idiosyncratic boss who personalized everything. Mike Pompeo was so far succeeding because he seemed to have put down a big wager that his future lay in being subservient to Trump. Indeed, it was his guess that stoicism and holding his tongue might someday make him president. Meanwhile, Larry Kudlow, replacing Gary Cohn on the National Economic Council, and John Bolton, replacing H. R. McMaster, were perfect substitutes because they both desperately needed the job—Kudlow had lost his show on CNBC and Bolton had long been consigned to the foreign policy wilderness with little hope of escape.
These replacements aside, more than a year into the Trump administration, many White House jobs remained unfilled. The risks of legal costs were too high, the pain of working for Donald Trump too great, and the stain on one’s career too evident.
The Conways’ public disagreement was, some acquaintances and colleagues believed, itself a lie, one in which the couple conspired to distance themselves from Trump’s lies. “They are of one mind about Trump,” said a friend of the couple’s. “They hate him.” The husband would take a moral stand, protecting his own reputation and law firm partnership, while the wife, who privately professed to be aghast at Trump, continued to defend her client.
Trump the Liar
Lying willfully, adamantly, without distress or regret, and with absolute disregard of consequences can be a bulwark if not a fail-safe defense. It turns out that somebody always believes you. Fooling some of the people all of the time defined Trump’s hard-core base.
Neither evidence nor logic would force the president into an admission. He would hold like the toughest barnacle to his lies. On the part of many in the White House, there was a constant fear, if not assumption, that some piece of irrefutable evidence would eventually surface and cause severe, perhaps fatal, damage. What if, for instance, someone actually produced a copy of the pee tape? Not to worry, said those who knew him best: even in such a predicament, Trump would not only deny it but convince a good part of the electorate to embrace his denial. It would be his word against a fake video.
One could argue that Trump’s métier—indeed, his primary business strategy—was lying. Trump Tower, Trump Shuttle, Trump Soho, Trump University, the Trump Casinos, Mar-a-Lago—all these enterprises were followed by a trail of claims and litigation that told a consistent story of borderline and often outright fraud. Broke in the 1990s, he somehow returned a few years later to billionaire status—hell, a billionaire ten times over!—at least in his telling. He was a con man,
Very little about him was real, and yet he managed to be at least halfway believed by enough people so that he could continue the con. This was where he really shone: he always stayed in character. When a person who is the target of multiple investigations remains outwardly untroubled, the effect is quite extraordinary. Such apparent coolness under fire fully exploits, to an almost unimaginable degree, the concept of innocent until proven guilty.
A successful career at the Trump Organization depended on getting Trump’s attention and favor. Cohen, like Trump, played at being a mobster to the point of becoming one. The coarser, grosser, and blunter you could be, the better; such behavior affirmed your standing with the boss. Trump’s oft-used injunction—“Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions”—was taken as both license and direction to do whatever it took to advance the Trump cause.
Melania & Family
Over time, a political wife develops habits and rationalizations and personal armor to deal with the loss of privacy and self, as well as the sometimes alarming public face of the man she has married; Melania had none of these defenses. To the extent that the Trumps had lived a don’t-ask-don’t-tell life—helped by the considerable distance between them allowed by their ample real estate, including at least one house near his golf club in the New York suburbs that Trump kept carefully hidden from his wife—this now became impossible. Whatever polite arrangement they had had prior to the campaign had certainly come crashing down in October with the grab-them-by-the-pussy tape. There was not only this terrible public coarseness, but the ensuing public testimony of multiple women claiming abuse at Trump’s hands.
Trump seemed entirely incapable of acknowledging that he even had a personal life, much less that it necessitated any kind of emotional allowance or understanding. Indeed, his personal life merely demanded the same kind of “fixing” as his business life. When Marla Maples became pregnant in the early 1990s, before their marriage, he debated with one friend how he could avoid both the marriage and the baby. The scenarios included pushing Maples down the stairs to cause a miscarriage.
Melania’s singular focus was her son. Together, mother and son occupied a bubble inside the Trump bubble. She assiduously protected Barron from his father’s remoteness. Ever cold-shouldered by Trump’s adult children, Melania and Barron were the non-Trump family inside the Trump family.
Melania sometimes spoke Slovenian with Barron, particularly when her parents were around—and they were frequently around—infuriating Trump and causing him to bolt from any room they were in. But the private living quarters in the White House were much smaller than their home in Trump Tower, making it more difficult for Trump and his wife to escape each other.
Even beyond their separate bedrooms in the White House—they were the first presidential couple since JFK and Jackie to room apart—much of Melania’s time was spent in a house in Maryland where she had installed her parents and established what was effectively a separate life for herself. This was the arrangement. For Trump, it was workable; for Melania, quite a bit less so. Maryland was fine—she had become quite involved with Barron’s school there, St. Andrews Episcopal School in Potomac—but what duties she had in the White House became more and more onerous as Trump’s relationship with his son became increasingly difficult
Barron, who turned twelve in March 2018, had become more distant toward his father. This might not be unusual behavior for a boy his age, but Trump responded with hostility. This took the form of ignoring his son when they had to be together; Trump also went out of his way to avoid any situation where he might have to encounter him. When he did appear with his son in public, he would talk about him in the third person—seldom to him, but casually about him.
2018 Mid-term Election
But in this scenario, a thirty- to sixty-seat loss would be, with a little critical interpretation, a gift to Trump—at least assuming the Republicans held the Senate. Just as he had run against Washington in 2016, now he would be able to do so again in 2020. Trump was at his best with an enemy: he needed the Democrats as his rabid and hysterical opposition. And enemies did not get any better than Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House. Picking on Pelosi gave Trump energy. Ridiculing her gave him a special pleasure—and it was a plus that she was a woman. Impeachment? Bring it on. Since he had a fail-safe in the Senate, it would all be for show—his show.
Fighting Congress would be a noble cause, Kushner felt; he also felt, all in all, that it was better now to keep Trump out of the confused midterm fray. This was part of the standard business-as-usual math: if you have an unpopular president—and Trump’s numbers were about as low as any president’s had ever been at this point before the midterms—you don’t send him out to stump in iffy races.
And then there was Trump’s own view: he found it very hard to feel in any way concerned about other people’s political problems. The idea of party, of the president ultimately being a soldier in a larger effort, would never mean anything to him. Even the idea of giving a speech about someone else—praising someone else—was a large pill for him.
Mitch McConnell was not only telling people that the House was lost. He was turning it to his advantage, using the doomed House as the selling point to raise money for the Senate. He was sure the Senate Republican majority would be held—twenty-six Democratic seats were up, versus nine Republican seats. Further, he believed the Republicans might pick up two or even three seats.
McConnell’s contempt for Trump was boundless. He was not just the stupidest president McConnell had ever dealt with, he was the stupidest person McConnell had ever met in politics—and that was saying something. He and his wife, Elaine Chao, the secretary of transportation, regularly mocked and mimicked Trump, a set piece they would perform for friends.
As for the sensible thought that the White House comms staff should get behind a political theme that would unite the White House and the party in a common fight toward November, forget it. Beyond the comms talent and leadership shortage—and the ongoing turf war among Sanders, Conway, and Mercedes Schlapp—the comms staff’s job was not to be outward-looking; their mission was to look inward and please Trump by defending him in a way that met with his approval. This, of course, was impossible: they never pleased him.
You couldn’t miss the sense of codependence here. Trump’s key supporters worked for him because nobody else would have them. For Bannon, bitter about many things, but now, at 64, having the time of his life, electing Trump was the ultimate fuck you. Part of his mission was to elect Trump precisely to shock and outrage all of the people who so passionately didn’t want him elected.
Kushner’s personal wealth depended on a shaky business whose precarious financial foundation rested on less-than-creditworthy loans. These were the kinds of loans secured through personal relationships and, not unusually, the trading of favors and influence. Often, they were obtained from countries with lax regulatory rules.
Outside of Western democracies, much of the world’s foreign policy was transactional in nature. Personal enrichment and an individual’s hold on power were ruling concerns in all but the most stable states and regions. This had become more pronounced as private fortunes vied with governments or collaborated with them. The oligarch-billionaire world—from Russia to China, from South Asia to the Gulf states—ran its own diplomatic missions. People who had the money to bribe, who fundamentally believed that anyone could be bribed, and who had outsize influence on the legal structures that might otherwise restrict bribery, had become major foreign policy players in key parts of the world.
For decades, the United States had reliably frustrated transactional and freelance diplomatic efforts. The American government was too big, its institutions too entrenched, its bureaucracy too powerful, its foreign policy establishment too influential. The international world of fixers and operators, often referred to euphemistically as “investors” and “representatives,” had to toil long and hard to be heard in Washington.
Almost immediately after his father-in-law’s election, Kushner became the sought-after point man for any foreign government inclined to deal with a family rather than an array of institutions. Instead of depending on a vast and frequently unresponsive bureaucracy to arbitrate and process your concerns, you could go directly to Kushner, and Kushner could go to the president-elect. Once Trump was inaugurated, you had, through Kushner, an all but direct line to the president.
Side deals, personal introductions, quid pro quos, agents and subagents—all these quickly spawned a parallel diplomatic force, a legion of people representing themselves as having a direct relationship with the president. Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, opened for business and began collecting money from dubious characters and regimes. Chris Ruddy, who ran a conservative news site that marketed vitamin supplements and was a Palm Beach confidant of the president’s, suddenly, in May 2018, had a $90 million investment offer from Qatar. David Pecker, the president’s friend who ran the supermarket tabloid the National Enquirer, walked a high-placed Saudi intermediary into the White House and was suddenly talking to the Saudis about backing his quixotic, if not screwball, effort to acquire Time magazine.
But the most efficient point of contact was Trump’s son-in-law. Russian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern diplomatic strategy centered on Kushner.
In a side deal that was unprecedented in modern diplomatic history, intermediaries from Saudi Arabia’s deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), approached Kushner during the transition period before the Trump administration entered the White House. The key issue for the House of Saud was financial—specifically, declining oil prices and an ever growing and more demanding royal family supported by oil output. The thirty-one-year-old deputy Crown Prince’s solution was economic diversification. This would be funded by taking the Saudi-owned oil company Aramco public, at an anticipated $2 trillion valuation. But first the plan would have to surmount a not inconsiderable obstacle: JASTA, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which was expressly written to make it possible for 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia. If Aramco were listed on a foreign exchange, it would be particularly vulnerable to anyone taking advantage of the opening provided by JASTA; in fact, Aramco’s liability would be virtually unlimited. Hence, who would invest? Not to worry: Kushner was on the case. If MBS would help Jared with a menu of items, including pressuring the Palestinians, Jared would help MBS. Indeed, MBS, to the consternation of the State Department—who backed his cousin the Crown Prince Muhammed bin Nayef (MBN)—would be one of the first state visitors to the White House. Three months later, without any White House objections, MBS ousted his cousin and became Crown Prince, the presumptive heir to the throne and the effective day-to-day Saudi leader. It was the Trump administration’s first coup.
Kushner found himself, or had positioned himself, as one of the essential players in one of the world’s largest pools of unregulated free cash flow.
In the White House, Kushner and Bannon represented the opposite polls of liberal globalism and right-wing nationalism. Bannon, for one, believed that Kushner showed the true and deeply self-interested face of liberal globalism. The Kushner family’s desperate need for cash was turning U.S. foreign policy into an investment banking scheme dedicated to the refinancing of the Kushner family debt. Government service regularly greased the wheels for future private careers and wealth, but Kushner, in Bannon’s view, was taking this to astounding new levels of self-dealing.
Kushner’s analysis was the same as nearly everyone’s who spent a significant amount of time around the president. He was childlike—a hyperactive child at that. There was no clear reason for why something caught his interest, nor was there any way to predict his reaction or modulate his response to it. He had no ability to distinguish the important from the less important. There seemed to be no such thing as objective reality.
The key to managing his father-in-law—as everyone in Trump’s family, in the Trump Organization, on The Apprentice, and now in the White House understood—was distraction. The more, for instance, Kushner could persuade Trump to get involved in foreign policy, the less he would obsess about his own more immediate political and legal issues.
In early 2018, as Kushner refined his strategy for shifting Trump’s focus from his present troubles, his thinking reflected advice he had received from Kissinger, who had served as Nixon’s national security advisor and secretary of state. Nixon had been distracted from his legal problems by foreign policy excursions, and, Kissinger noted, this had distracted the media, too. Over lunch at Bedminster shortly after the New Year, Kushner told his father-in-law that he should completely rethink his approach to North Korea. Kushner sketched out the favorable consequences: not only would he change the world opinion of his presidency; he could rub the noses of so many Trump haters in his accomplishment. Taking on one of the world’s most volatile situations and reversing it was a PR no-brainer. It would be like Nixon going to China, Kushner told the president, a major historical development. One for the history books—a favorite Trump phrase and standard. Kushner assured his father-in-law that he could declare victory in his campaign against North Korea and proclaim peace. Kushner had been told—or at least this is what he told his father-in-law—that not only was Kim ready to deal, he personally admired Trump. Flattery was flowing through the backdoor channels. Over the course of that lunch—hamburgers were served—Trump’s yearlong campaign to confront, demonize, and provoke North Korea, a personal enterprise supported by no one in the White House, was entirely put aside.
News of the proposed summit with Kim broke in early March. Trump’s foreign policy team—Tillerson, Mattis, McMaster, even the wholeheartedly loyal Pompeo—was relieved that the president was no longer issuing reckless threats, but confused and appalled that, in place of his taunts, he seemed ready to give away the store. With no revision of policy, no change in anything other than mood music, Trump had agreed to a radical alteration in the country’s posture toward North Korea.
The fear that Trump might go to war—that in a temper tantrum or a fit of megalomania, he would release the awesome power of the U.S. military—was misplaced.
The issue was not that he might act precipitously and recklessly because he didn’t understand the consequences of doing so. The issue was that he could not comprehend the actual choices that needed to be made in order to act; indeed, he could not even stay in the room long enough to decide on a course of action. For Trump, the fog of war would waylay him before the first command could be given.
In the weeks before the grand trip to Singapore, worries about the difficulty of briefing the president became both a critical concern and a topic of high comedy. There was almost no particular—not geographic, not economic, not military, not historical—that he seemed to grasp. Could he even identify the Korean peninsula on a map?
in defiance of the most basic North and South Korean norms and assumptions—or, perhaps, just to fuck with the foreign policy people and, especially, Mattis, who increasingly irked him—Trump suddenly began talking about withdrawing U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula. That is, for perhaps nothing in return, he might give China and North Korea what they most wanted: the transformative change that would remove the United States from the region’s power equation. Shortstopping this disaster quickly became the central goal of the foreign policy team. A successful summit would be one that did not permit China and North Korea to achieve total victory.
FOX NEWS & HANNITY
Hannity was now one of the richest men in television news. In 2017, Roger Ailes, his former boss and the man who had plucked him from a $40,000-a-year television job, estimated Hannity’s net worth at $300 million to $400 million. From his earliest days as a big earner at the network, Hannity had invested in rental properties across the country. “He may own every shitty piece of real estate in America,” said Ailes, fondly. Bannon, never one to miss the obvious joke, wondered, “How many illegals live in Hannity’s rentals?
After Ailes’s ouster, the leadership at Fox was seized by the Murdoch family, which was ever consumed by its daily squabble about whether the father or one of his two sons had actual control. Rupert himself, after sixty-five years as the most aggressive and successful newspaperman on the planet, still had scant interest in television news; his sons, Lachlan and James, were political moderates and liberal society wannabes, and they were regularly embarrassed by Fox. The entire family, however, appreciated the cash windfall from the network—hence they were stuck, at least for the moment, with the Fox programming point of view.
Fox’s billion-dollar prime-time schedule was left to Hannity, the weaker player behind O’Reilly and Kelly; Tucker Carlson, a second-string replacement anchor; and, after a botched attempt at a panel show, Laura Ingraham, a conservative radio host who had never had a television success.
Fox was no longer the brand; Trump was the brand. And the Trump-brand narrative was television genius. The establishment cadres—the elites, the media, the deep state, the great liberal conspiracy—were trying to bring Donald Trump down. At Fox, this was a big-ratings message: he had to be defended. And his most Trumpian instincts, especially those involving immigration, had to be supported, lest he waver from them.
Two of Bannon’s acolytes in the White House, Stephen Miller and Julie Hahn, the Trump anti-immigration brain trust, often lobbied Trump through Hannity. Indeed, Hahn’s job was now divided between policy and comms, where she was the direct contact with Hannity—not only giving Hannity the White House position, but giving him the Bannon-Miller-Hahn position, which Hannity would recycle back to Trump.
Hannity and the president spoke as often as six or seven times a day. The calls sometimes lasted more than thirty minutes. John Kelly, astounded that there were days when the president spent as many as three hours talking to Hannity, had tried to limit these calls. But Hannity was a calming influence on Trump: he was both a distraction and a willing audience for Trump’s endless complaints about almost everybody. Furthermore, Hannity supplied Trump with an ongoing report on TV ratings, one of the few things that could reliably hold Trump’s interest. As always, Trump was keenly responsive to whatever words and actions might get him better ratings.
“I calm him down,” explained Hannity, with solemn modesty, to a group of Fox people about his conversations with the president. Bannon had a different view. “Hannity’s theories are crazier than even Trump’s,” he said, “so Trump becomes the voice of reason.
A return in Trump’s tweets to the Wall would often be Hannity’s doing. This was old-fashioned politics, of course, a politician behaving in a way that would please his constituents. But this other angle—a television host directing the president to do whatever might most compel a television audience—took the game a big step further.
Hannity, the ultimate let-Trump-be-Trump-er, believed that it was his job, in television as well as in politics, to draw out Trump’s performance—to encourage Trump to be his most Trumpian. Much of their conversations were about how this or that Trump utterance or tweet, or public dis or snarl, had played on television. Trump, rarely studious about anything, was a patient student of what played well.
Hannity was happy to support Trump’s contempt for his own team. The comms department should have stood between Hannity and the president; instead, Hannity stood between the president and his comms team. Hannity was joined in this by Bannon, who saw himself functioning as shadow communications director (in addition to shadow everything else). Both men hugely enjoyed the abuse the comms team was forced to take from Trump. If Trump abused the press, he abused his own press team even more, issuing constant critiques on demeanor, dress, hair, and the passion of their defense of him.
For Hannity, the Wall was literal, just as he believed it was for the rest of the Trump base. The Wall needed to be made of cement—“no virtual shit,” Hannity would say. It needed to be the physical manifestation of Make American Great Again. The mantra was simple: if there was no Wall, there was no Trump. Stopping immigration was the Trump story. Immigration was the passion. You could not be too tough on immigration. And the tougher you were, the better chance you’d have of winning in November.
Trump had helped turn the final years of the 87-year-old Murdoch, a towering figure in conservative politics, into a sour time, with Murdoch having to kowtow to Trump, whom he considered to be a charlatan and a fool, and with his sons blaming him for his unwitting part in Trump’s rise.
Volatility was the enemy of power. Murdoch regarded Trump and Hannity as performers—clowns, both of them. Hannity was useful to him; Trump, before his election, was little more than fodder for Murdoch’s New York Post. Powerful men are often amused by the lesser attainments of lesser men who wish for power. For both Murdoch and Ailes, Trump and Hannity had been a shared bit of incredulity, a measure of how far you could go on lots of ambition and little brain power.
“I can’t get the asshole off the phone,” said Murdoch to an associate after Trump entered the White House, holding out the phone as the president’s voice rambled into the air. Meanwhile, as a function of both his easy access to Trump and the rising ratings at Fox, Murdoch, now theoretically running the network himself, allowed his prime-time anchors to devote themselves to Trump. This move was bitterly opposed by his son James, who was revolted by both Trump and the prime-time lineup. James, drinking at a heavy rate, became increasingly confrontational with his father. (“His son is a drunk,” Trump would say, rarely missing an opportunity to point this out.) James’s wife, Kathryn, was particularly vocal about how much she detested Fox News, and, indeed, much of the Murdoch company’s politics. Father and son had screaming fights over Hannity and Trump.
Seeing no way to manage his own family’s discord—Murdoch was by this time barely speaking to James, who had long been the designated heir—he began, six months into the Trump presidency, to plan for the sale of his company. His agreement with Disney, announced in December 2017, included most of the assets of the company, except for Fox News, which Disney did not want, and the Fox Network and local television stations, which would have caused issues with regulators.
James would leave the company, and the remaining assets would be run by Murdoch’s older son, Lachlan, until they, too, could be sold. But there would be few corporate buyers for Fox and, the Murdochs believed, perhaps no buyers if Sean Hannity remained a vital part of the deal. Hannity’s conspiracy mongering was not just absurd but intolerable: with his open political advocacy for Trump, he regularly flirted with FCC violations. And in the likely event that Trump fell, Hannity’s value, and the network’s value, would fall, too.
For all of Hannity’s flattery, for all of his zealous commitment to the president, Trump, in almost equal proportion, had become disdainful of him. This was partly standard practice. Sooner or later, Trump felt contempt for anyone who showed him too much devotion. “Hating himself, he of course comes to hate anyone who seems to love him,” analyzed Bannon.
He demanded sycophancy from the people around him and then shamed them for their weakness.
And then there was money. Trump invariably despised anyone who came to profit off of him without sharing the financial benefit with him. For Trump, Hannity’s high ratings were really his own; hence, he was being cheated.
Virtually everybody, including most of the Trumpiest figures in Trumpworld, thought Hannity was a figure of rare daftness and incoherence. Even Trump would shout at his television, “No follow, Sean, no follow.
Bannon, too, though fond of Hannity and of his plane, was consistently amazed by the bizarre direction of Hannity’s monologues, which echoed some of the most extreme online conspiracy forums. “Dude, dude, don’t go bonkers on me,” Bannon would mutter as he watched an evening broadcast.
The Apprentice reality TV show
One person who became a part of this organism a dozen years before Trump became president was Erik Whitestone, a young sound engineer in New York City. Whitestone worked for Mark Burnett, the TV producer who in 2004 launched The Apprentice, the reality show that presented the virtually bankrupt Trump as a supremely successful businessman—and made him world famous. In the first week of production, Whitestone was assigned the job of putting the microphone up Trump’s shirt. Given the physical proximity this task required—you had to reach under the jacket and shirt—everyone else on the production team had resisted it. Trump, with his size, height, and glowering demeanor, was not only off-putting; for no clear reason, he would unzip his pants and pull them down partway, exposing tighty-whities. “It was like sticking your head in the lion’s mouth,” said Whitestone, who found himself stuck with the job.
Not long after the show’s production got under way, Whitestone, now on permanent Trump-mic duty, took a day off and someone else, an African American sound technician, was given the assignment. Trump flipped out. A frantic Burnett found Whitestone at home. Trump had barricaded himself in the bathroom. “Donald won’t go on until you get here,” said Burnett. “So get here immediately!
After that, every single morning of the shooting season, for the next fourteen years, Whitestone would show up at Trump’s apartment. Trump would offer Whitestone gifts of things that he had gotten for free, such as products from the Art of Shaving, a kitschy men’s line. Trump turned everyone into a family member, at the same time offering a running commentary on his family’s flaws. “He kept saying how much he wished he’d never given Don Jr. his name and wished he could take it back,” recalled Whitestone.
Whitestone became what everyone around Trump had to become—long-suffering—because Trump was always ready to explode with anger. “It’s not your fault,” said Whitestone. “It’s just your turn, was how we put it.” “How’s the weather?” was the code for the boss’s mood.
Trump was a simple machine. Whitestone understood his singular interests—sports and girls—and learned they could be used as reliable distractions.
‘Hey,’ I’d say, ‘at six o’clock.’” Girls were the constant. “‘Erik, go get her, and bring her up.’ And so, me: ‘Mr. Trump wants to know if you want to come up and see the boardroom.’ He’d hug them and grope them and send them on their way. There was always one or another of Trump’s assistants in the car with him. “All his executive assistants were superhot. ‘Come with us,’ he’d order one of them on the way out to the limo. He and she sitting next to each other as he tries to grope her, with her blocking him like she’s done it a hundred times before.
“We’re flying to Chicago, and the Trump plane wasn’t working so we had to use another little plane and I had to sit facing him—knees almost touching—and he’s all pissed off because his plane’s broken down. I pull out a book to avoid eye contact. It was the book DisneyWar. But he can’t be ignored. He needs to talk. ‘What book is that … What’s it about … Am I in it? Read it to me.’ I tell him it’s got Mark Burnett pitching The Apprentice. ‘How does it make me look?’
You had to adapt yourself to an idiosyncratic and quite alarming creature, Whitestone observed. “He can’t walk down steps … can’t walk down hills. [He’s got] mental blocks … [He] can’t handle numbers … they have no meaning to him.” His transparency was as appalling as it was mesmerizing. “Once, we were with a bunch of people and Don Jr. suggested that Trump had been to two Yankees games in a row where they had lost, so maybe his father was bad luck. And he went ape-shit. ‘Why the fuck would you say that in front of these people? These fucking people are going to go out into the world and tell everyone, “Trump is bad luck.”’ Don Jr. was practically crying. ‘Dad, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Dad.’ “And at the hospital, when his grandchild was born, Don Jr.’s kid, [Trump said], ‘Why the fuck do I have to go see this kid? Don Jr. has too many fucking kids.’
The Apprentice were regularly exposed, was captured on thousands of hours of outtakes. Those fabled tapes still exist, but they are now controlled by Burnett and MGM.
Whitestone remembered certain moments with particular clarity. “Someone said ‘cunt’ and someone else said, ‘You can’t say “cunt” on TV,’ and Donald said, ‘Why can’t you say “cunt”?’ and said ‘Cunt, cunt, cunt, cunt. There, I’ve said it on TV. Now you can say it.’” And: “‘You’re very pretty, stand up, walk over here, turn around.’ [There was] constant dialogue about who has better tits and then bitter fights with producers about not using this. ‘Why can’t we?’ he’d say. ‘This is great. This is great television.’
Speaking about Trump more generally, Whitestone said: “A twelve-year-old in a man’s body, all he does is takedowns of people based on their physical appearance—short, fat, bald, whatever it is. There weren’t producers who could say, Don’t say that … We would just send him through the doors and hit Record … It’s like being in the backseat of a car being driven by a really drunk driver … holy shit. He was as incoherent then … no more, no less … as he is now, repeating thoughts and weird phrases … His weird sniffing thing (‘I have hay fever’) … [He was] always eating Oscar Mayer baloney … [Once he] pulled a slice of baloney out and shoved it in my mouth…” Michael Cohen stepped into the Trump circle in 2006. Cohen was an upper-middle-class, son-of-a-surgeon Long Island Jewish kid. Impressed by an uncle who owned a Mob-connected Brooklyn restaurant, a popular Mob hangout, Cohen recast himself as a would-be tough. He married a girl from Ukraine whose family had immigrated to Brooklyn, then got a degree from Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School (the nation’s lowest-ranked law school, according to the legal website Above the Law), became a lawyer, and amassed a fleet of taxis. His wife’s father helped introduce Cohen to Trump, and for Cohen, Trump stood out: he was a dazzling model of fast-and-loose business practices and lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous glamour. A successful career at the Trump Organization depended on getting Trump’s attention and favor. Cohen, like Trump, played at being a mobster to the point of becoming one. The coarser, grosser, and blunter you could be, the better; such behavior
Formerly an attorney for a nonprofit affiliated with the Koch brothers, McGahn was known as a hyperpartisan: One of McGahn’s jobs was to navigate what was possibly the most complicated relationship in modern government: he was the effective point person between the White House and the Department of Justice. Part of his portfolio, then, was to endure the president’s constant rage and bewilderment about why the DOJ was personally hounding him, and his incomprehension that he could do nothing about it. “It’s my Justice Department,” Trump would tell McGahn, often repeating this more than dubious declaration in his signature triad.
Giuliani’s loyalty, together with his willingness to defy credulity and logic in the defense of Trump, incurred a debt that inclined Trump to give Giuliani a senior position in the new administration. During the transition, this inclination became an acute problem for everyone around the president-elect. Rudy was, in almost everyone’s estimation—including, sometimes, Trump’s—off. “Dementia,” declared Bannon. “Plus he drinks too much,” said Trump, who more than once during the campaign had told Giuliani to his face that he was “losing it.” This sense of Giuliani’s offness was curiously ironic, since it bore an almost eerie similarity to Trump’s own hysteria, grandiosity, and tendency to say almost anything that came into his head.
On May 2, after drinks at a midtown restaurant, Rudy Giuliani went on Hannity for one of the most peculiar television appearances in modern politics, combining, in an 18-minute interview, the nonsensical and incoherent. Here was a bar-stool lawyer delivering the president’s legal strategy. “I know James Comey. I know the president. Sorry, Jim, you’re a liar—a disgraceful liar,” said Giuliani to Hannity. “It would have been good for God if God had kept you out of being head of the FBI.” He rambled on: “Look at what’s going on with North Korea. I told the president, you’re going to get the Nobel Peace Prize.” And: “I believe, I believe that Attorney General Sessions, my good friend, and Rosenstein, who I don’t know, I believe they should come in the interest of justice, end this investigation.” And: “I’m not going to have my client, my president, my friend, and a president that’s achieved more in a year and a half against all odds than anyone had a right to expect—I’m not going to let him be treated worse than Bill Clinton, who definitely was a liar under oath … I mean, he’s being treated much worse than Hillary Clinton … I’m not going to let him be treated worse than Hillary Clinton.” And: “I’m sorry, Hillary, I know you’re very disappointed you didn’t win, but you’re a criminal.” Bannon was horrified by Giuliani’s performance. “Dude, you can’t do this,” Bannon told Hannity afterward. “You can’t let him out there like that.” “I’m not the babysitter,” Hannity replied.
Jackson—physician to the president in the Obama administration and now in the Trump White House—was the go-to doctor for the president, cabinet members, and senior staff, supervising the White House’s on-site medical unit. Jackson was a popular get-along figure, not least because he was casual about prescribing medication. He kept the president stocked with Provigil, an upper, which Trump’s New York doctor had long prescribed for him. For others, Jackson was regarded as a particularly easy Ambien touch.
The Trumpers swept up by Mueller were all declared wannabe and marginal players. The president had never met them, could not remember them, or had a limited acquaintance with them. “I know Mr. Manafort—I haven’t spoken to him in a long time, but I know him,” declared a dismissive Trump, pulling a line from the “who dat?” page of his playbook.
The difficulty in proving a conspiracy is proving intent. Many of the president’s inner circle believed that Trump, and the Trump Organization, and by extension the Trump campaign, operated in such a diffuse, haphazard, gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight manner that intent would be very difficult to establish. What’s more, the Trump hangers-on were so demonstrably subpar players that stupidity could well be a reasonable defense against intent.
Many in the Trump circle agreed with their boss: they believed that whatever idiotic moves had been made by idiotic Trump hands, the Russia investigation was too abstruse and nickel-and-dime to ultimately stick.
Nobody could quite be certain of the number of times McGahn had had to threaten, with greater or lesser intention, to quit if Trump made good on his threat to fire the attorney general, the deputy attorney general, or the special counsel. Curiously, one defense against the charge that the president had tried to fire Mueller in June 2017 in an effort to end the special counsel’s investigation—as the New York Times claimed in a January 2018 scoop—was the fact that Trump was almost constantly trying to fire Mueller or other DOJ figures, doing so often multiple times a day.
In a kind of curious and profound role reversal, many conservatives, in the past reflexively supportive of law enforcement, had become suspicious, if not paranoid, about government oversight and policing. As the Mueller investigation progressed, the conviction that the deep state existed and that it was out to get Trump had become embedded in right-wing culture; this conviction had been adopted, albeit begrudgingly, even by many standard-issue Republicans. It had become one of Fox News star Sean Hannity’s main talking points, both on television and in private phone calls. “Sean’s in crank land,” observed Bannon, “but these are good bedtime stories for the president.
Likewise, many liberals, in the past antagonistic to the FBI, prosecutors, and the intelligence community, were now counting on government investigators to pursue Trump and his family relentlessly and, by so doing, protect democracy from ruin.
Trump might often come to the brink of firing Mueller, but he kept stepping back from it, too. This was not so much restraint as a cat-and-mouse game: threatening to fire him and then not firing him was Trump’s legal strategy. You were intimidated or you intimidated was Trump’s legal theory. Several rounds of imminent Mueller-to-be-fired stories came from Trump’s own direct leaks. “You’ve got to mess with them,” he explained.
Mueller’s keen suspicion of personality became his personality. He was a prosecutor in the old sense of representing the bureaucracy; he operated by the book and never promoted his own independence, a kind of anti-Giuliani. He had no press aptitude or interest and found it nearly incomprehensible and morally troubling that anyone did.
It is difficult to imagine a greater opposite to Robert Mueller than Donald Trump. Possibly no two men of the same age and general milieu could be more different in outlook, temperament, personal behavior, and moral understanding.
In spring 2018, the exotic “deep state” theory, long embraced by the president, finally came together in some half-cogent form. The Democrats believed that Trump had conspired with the Russians to fix the election. Well, the Trumpers believed that the Obama administration had conspired with the intelligence community to make it seem as if Trump and his people had conspired with the Russians to fix the election. It was not Trump and the Russians who had successfully stolen the election; it was Obama and his cohorts who had tried and failed to steal it.
The significance of Michael Flynn to the Mueller investigation was that he was, despite his mere 25 days in office, a player—this in a world where Trump permitted no one, other than himself, to be a genuine player. There might not have been anyone whom Trump had so bonded with during the campaign. Indeed, Flynn was, in the earliest days of the transition, one of the soon-to-be Trump White House’s first official hires. But now Flynn looked more and more like a smoking gun. At the direct behest of either Trump or Kushner—or, as likely, both—Flynn had reached out to the Russian ambassador during the transition and negotiated a separate peace around the Obama administration sanctions, or so the Mueller team seemed to indicate in its proposed obstruction indictment of Trump. An abiding historical regret for many Democrats was that Nixon had managed to get away with promising North Vietnamese negotiators working on a peace treaty in Paris that they would get a better deal if they waited for his administration to arrive in office. Here Trump and Flynn seemed to be up to similar dirty tricks. What’s more, Trump’s apparent attempt to obstruct justice began with Flynn. Trying to deflect the FBI’s investigation of Flynn had sent Trump down the path to firing Comey, which was the spark that lit the Mueller investigation.
Still, a pardon of Flynn—and for that matter anyone else whose own legal peril might induce him or her to testify against the president—would be a clear instance of the president using his authority to remove himself from the reach of the law. Such a pardon would, in the key phrase of Schick v. Reed, “offend the Constitution.” Put simply, the president’s absolute pardon power was up against that other constitutional guarantee: no one was above the law.