Donald Trump has demanded that the New York Times reveal the identity of an anonymous op-ed writer so he might be charged with treason. To cloak himself from criticism, Trump also seeks to weaken America’s libel laws.
Yet even as Trump wages war on free speech and the first amendment, he appears to have forgotten that the only reason he holds office is the constitution itself. Trump demonstrably lost the popular vote; his legitimacy emanates solely from the provisions of the document he appears to hold in the same regard as the truth.
Fear, the latest chronicle of a president from Bob Woodward, who with Carl Bernstein did so much to bring down Richard Nixon, only reinforces this dismal picture. From beginning to end, Woodward treats us to a portrait of an occupant of the Oval Office who sucks the life out of his subordinates.
Trump is continually reminded of the legal constraints that encumber the presidency, that dyspeptic diktats are not substitutes for legislation or even executive orders, and that the White House counsel and attorney general ultimately owe duties to their country and offices, not reflexively to the guy who hired them.
And he hates all of it.
Fear depicts a White House awash in dysfunction, where the Lord of the Flies is the closest thing to an owner’s manual. Woodward is not describing the usual flavors of palace intrigue that come with the turf.
Even during the campaign, Trumpworld was its own special brand of cray-cray, one that channeled the tempestuousness of its prime mover. Imagine a campaign manager like the newly convicted Paul Manafort who never bothered to tell his boss that he, Manafort, was under investigation for pocketing more than $12m in foreign cash until the New York Times was about to go to print. Or a presidential candidate, Trump, who virtually scrapped his pre-election transition efforts so as not to be jinxed, post-election chaos be damned.
Like Joe Friday on Dragnet, Jack Webb’s television classic, Woodward’s Fear is big on facts and short on hyperventilation. It is not Fire and Fury redux or Omarosa 2.0. Rather, it is a sober account of how we reached this vertiginous point. Woodward’s words are quotidian but the story he tells is chilling. Like Trump himself, the characters that populate Woodward’s narrative are Runyonesque and foul-mouthed.
Lifting papers from your boss’s desk because you disapprove of his policy choices is not standard operating procedure. Trashing everyone in your circle is not an effective means of engendering loyalty. Reflexively dissembling to your personal lawyer when Robert Mueller holds your fate in his hands is akin to a death wish.
As Woodward frames things, “Trump had one overriding problem” that his personal lawyer, John Dowd, an ex-marine, “knew but could not bring himself to say to the president: ‘You’re a fucking liar.’”
Others surrounding Trump express less salty reservations about his capabilities. In the aftermath of the Access Hollywood tape debacle, Steve Bannon tried to focus the then candidate on a state-by-state strategy. Trump was having none of it. Bannon realized: “I’m the director, he’s the actor.”
Through the words of others, Fear also examines Trump’s finances. Woodward describes back-and-forth between Jared Kushner and Bannon concerning an injection of funds by the candidate into the campaign’s thinly stretched coffers. Looking at a dead heat with Clinton, Bannon suggested to Kushner that Trump cut a $50m check on his dime. Kushner demurred.
Like Abraham haggling with God over the fate of Sodom, Bannon dropped the ask to $25m, Jared explained that his father-in-law “doesn’t have a lot of cash” and Trump announced: “Fuck that. I’m not doing it.” In the end, Trump ladled out $10m. Regardless, it’s no shock the NFL never welcomed Trump to its ranks of really wealthy owners.
Gary Cohn, the senior economic adviser who ended up removing policy papers from Trump’s desk, was keenly aware the Trump Organization was less than creditworthy by industry standards. In his days at Goldman Sachs, Cohn warned a young trader who did a bond deal with a Trump casino that if the trade did not settle the trader would be out the door. Fortunately, the casino kept its end of the bargain.
Forget Trump University. It was with Deutsche Bank that Trump’s version of reality most strongly collided with cold hard facts. According to Trump, the bank “loved” him. The public records say something else.
A decade ago, the bank and Trump sued each other over Trump’s refusal to pay a $40m loan guaranty in connection with the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago. In letter to the bank, Trump wrote: “Deutsche Bank is one of the banks primarily responsible for the economic dysfunction we are currently facing.”
While the bank and Trump eventually settled and did business, affection had little to do with it. As a former managing director put it to the Financial Times: “Sometimes a business will look at a client who can’t do business elsewhere … It makes the overall picture economic.” Parenthetically, the bank also lent to Kushner and his family business. Kushner Companies owes more than $500,000 in fines to New York City and is facing a tenant class action in Maryland. Being a slumlord can be a such drag.
Having promised that his administration would be staffed by “the best people”, Trump has made the White House a school for scandal. Fear recounts the downfall of Rob Porter, Trump’s wife-beating staff secretary, and Mike Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser who pleaded guilty in the Mueller investigation.
Despite the din, the economy chugs ahead. But America’s institutions shudder as the US continues its more than decade-old semi-civil civil war. Fear does not address what comes next. But when the phrase “the sleeper cells have awoken” migrates to everyday discussion, there is reason for concern if not alarm. Institutions can withstand only so much punishment.