You should probably read this book anyway.
The Trump presidency is so messy that it feels beyond the ability of any single human to keep up with all of the scandals, the criminal allegations, the acts that would have been unimaginable from a president just a few years ago — not to mention the impossibility of keeping track of the president’s entourage of petty grifters, sleazy wiseguys and, increasingly, convicted criminals. The more the shady dealings stack up, the higher the bar for badness gets. The more bad actors surround the president, the less his relationship with any single one seems troubling enough to be disqualifying.
Until you see them all listed in one place.
That’s what Joe Palazzolo and Michael Rothfeld have done here. As the subtitle — “The Bottom-Feeders, Crooked Lawyers, Gossipmongers, and Porn Stars Who Created the 45th President” — suggests, this is not exactly a trim read. Instead, Palazzolo and Rothfeld, who together won a Pulitzer Prize for their work for the Wall Street Journal covering Donald Trump’s hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, have put together a nearly encyclopedic account of every unsavory character who built the Trump presidency. This does not make for an easily totable book. The text is necessarily substantial, because there are a whole lot of unsavory characters.
Palazzolo and Rothfeld’s reporting breaks some new ground, including the particularly delicious detail that the crowd supposedly cheering Trump’s campaign announcement included some 50 hired extras. And notably disturbing is the story from decades ago that Trump ordered Mar-a-Lago staff to fumigate the silverware after a visit from Roy Cohn, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1986. There are also new tidbits about the bottom-feeding and Trump-championing National Enquirer, including specifics of the allegation that the publication paid off a onetime Trump doorman to keep his mouth shut about a rumor that the future president had a child with a former employee.
Much of the rest of what appears in the book isn’t brand-new, but that’s not the point. The world Trump came from explains much about the president and offers a few (terrifying) insights into how much lower American politics might still sink. It’s impossible to understand Trumpism without understanding Trump’s people. It’s through them that he first instituted a kind of tin-pot dictator’s requirement of loyalty above all else (even while he was systematically disloyal and backstabbing), developed a taste for publicly humiliating any perceived rivals (and a particular disgust for women who challenged him) and honed the craft of flat-out lying without worry (and realizing he could do so without consequence).
The first fixer to come into Palazzolo and Fothfeld’s sights is Cohn, whose playbook is as follows: “Attack — mercilessly. Never admit you’re wrong. Declare complete victory, even when making concessions. Follow through only when pressed, and only as much as required.”
Then there’s David Pecker of the National Enquirer, who clawed his way to the top of his publishing empire and used his perch to do dirty deals for friends and those he thought might be useful to him.
And of course there’s Michael Cohen, a character both mercenary and hapless, who in a far-too-literal turn wanted to draw more attention to the nascent Trump campaign, already a media circus in the making, by bringing an elephant to the announcement.
These little gems keep “The Fixers” from tipping over into the simply depressing, even as the anecdotes that offer bits of levity often double as insights into how truly pathetic these men are. In 2014, for example, Cohen was ordered to rig a CNBC online poll of “Top Leaders, Icons and Rebels” of business in Trump’s favor. Trump begged for votes on Twitter, then demanded that Cohen get him into the top 10. When that failed and his name wasn’t even in the top 100, Trump raged with all the emotional depth of an adolescent not invited to a cooler kid’s party, tweeting, “Stupid poll should be canceled — no credibility.”
Years later, while Trump was in the White House, Cohen pleaded guilty to what a New York judge called “a veritable smorgasbord of fraudulent conduct.”
Now, Trump has new fixers. Chief among them are Rudy Giuliani and, perhaps more dangerously, Attorney General William Barr. Giuliani has been in Trump’s orbit for decades, ever since, as the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, he dropped a probe into potential money laundering by Trump — after Trump said he would raise $2 million for Giuliani’s mayoral campaign (in true Trump fashion, he ended up raising just $41,000). Barr elbowed his way into Trump’s good graces, and the president seems to have rightly assessed him as a good soldier, someone who won’t let the law get in the way of what Trump wants. This is the only part of the book that feels a little thin. Palazzolo and Rothfeld touch on these men’s roles in the White House and in the scandals involving Russia and Ukraine, but, given that those stories are still unfolding by the day, the retelling of them is understandably incomplete.
Giuliani and Barr serve as the president’s current buffers, protectors and advocates. Trump has also managed to turn much of the GOP into a party of fixers, willing to bend the rules, overlook wrongdoing and put loyalty to a single craven man over duty to country. To understand how we got to this dark moment, “The Fixers” is the place to start. How we fix this mess the fixers put us in, well — that may be a question for the next book.
The Bottom-Feeders, Crooked Lawyers, Gossipmongers, and Porn Stars Who Created the 45th President
By Joe Palazzolo and Michael Rothfeld
Random House. 433 pp. $28