“An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Paul Manafort trial has degenerated into a mud-slinging contest between President Trump’s former campaign chairman and his longtime deputy, Rick Gates, who has turned state’s witness. Gates testified that Manafort falsified his tax returns and loan applications. Manafort’s lawyer, in turn, got Gates to admit that he embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from Manafort, and engaged in at least one extramarital affair.
President Trump insists that all of this has nothing to do with him. That may technically be true. But what the trial reveals is something very damning, in the ethical if not legal sense: namely, what kind of people Trump surrounds himself with.
There was no secret about Manafort’s record as an influence-peddler on behalf of corrupt dictators and oligarchs when he went to work for Trump. On April 13, 2016, Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake wrote a prescient article headlined: “Trump Just Hired His Next Scandal.” Trump couldn’t have cared less. His whole career, he has surrounded himself with sleazy characters such as the Russian-born mob associate Felix Sater, who served prison time for assault and later pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges, as well as lawyer-cum-fixer Michael Cohen, who is reportedly under investigation for a variety of possible crimes, including tax fraud.
These are the kind of people Trump feels comfortable around, because this is the kind of person Trump is. He is, after all, the guy who paid $25 million to settle fraud charges against him from students of Trump University. The guy who arranged for payoffs to a Playboy playmate and a porn star with whom he had affairs. The guy who lies an average of 7.6 times a day.
And because everyone knows what kind of person Trump is, he attracts kindred souls. Manafort and Gates are only Exhibits A and B. There is also Exhibit C: Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), the first member of Congress to endorse Trump, is facing federal charges of conspiracy, wire fraud and false statements as part of an alleged insider-trading scheme. Exhibit D is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who has been accused by Forbes magazine, hardly an anti-Trump rag, of bilking business associates out of $120 million. (Both Collins and Ross have denied the charges.)
In fairness, not all of Trump’s associates are grifters. Some are simply wealthy dilettantes like Trump himself – a president who is setting new records for golfing on the job but can’t find the time to read briefing books. Among the affluent and unqualified appointees Trump has set loose on the world are his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his former lawyer, Jason Greenblatt, who are somehow supposed to solve an Israeli-Palestinian dispute that has frustrated seasoned diplomats for decades. No surprise: Their vaunted peace plan remains MIA.
ProPublica has a mind-boggling scoop about another group of dilettantes — a Palm Beach doctor, an entertainment mogul, and a lawyer — whom Trump tasked as an informal board of directors to oversee the Department of Veterans Affairs. None has any experience in the U.S. military or government; their chief qualification was that they are all members of Trump’s golf club, Mar-a-Lago. So much for the conceit that rich guys can run government. Their perspicacity was revealed in their recommendation that David Shulkin be appointed VA secretary; he has since left amid scandal.
Beyond the swindlers and dilettantes, there is a third group of people who have no business working for Trump or any other president: the fanatics. The most prominent of the extremists was Stephen K. Bannon, the notorious “alt-right” leader who was chief executive of Trump’s campaign and a senior White House aide. He may be gone, but others remain. They include Peter Navarro, who may well be the only economist in the world who thinks trade wars are a good thing; Stephen Miller, the nativist who was behind plans to lock immigrant children in cages and bar Muslims from entering the United States, and who is now plotting to reduce legal immigration; and Fred Fleitz, the Islamophobic chief of staff of the National Security Council. They feel at home in the White House because, aside from being a grifter and a dilettante, Trump is also an extremist with a long history of racist, sexist, nativist, protectionist and isolationist utterances.
This isn’t to suggest that everyone who serves Trump is disreputable. There are well-qualified, high-minded public servants such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein who deserve Medals of Freedom for all they are doing to protect America from Trump. But it should be no surprise that the most unethical, unqualified and unhinged president in our history has attracted an unethical, unqualified and unhinged retinue.