In the span of three days, President Trump appears to have lost or to be dangerously close to losing the loyalty of three people he used to be able to count on pretty much unconditionally.
First, Trump’s longtime fixer and lawyer flipped on him in dramatic fashion: Michael Cohen pleaded guilty Tuesday to breaking campaign finance laws and implicated the president in his crimes.
On Thursday, one of Trump’s oldest friends in media appears ready to walk that same path. The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair and NBC News are reporting that David Pecker, president of the publisher of the tabloid National Enquirer, has been granted immunity to share with prosecutors what he knows about a hush-money payment to a woman alleging an affair with Trump. It suggests Pecker has something prosecutors very much want to know.
On the same day, Trump’s attorney general publicly announced he’s had enough of the president attacking him. Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a defiant statement — while he was on his way to the White House — declaring the agency he runs would not be “improperly influenced by political considerations.”
Such words from an attorney general to the president would be remarkable regardless of the backstory. But they’re even more surprising given Sessions was one of Trump’s first high-profile congressional endorsements and remained one of his closest political allies during the campaign.
The two couldn’t be described as friends anymore, since Trump has spent the better part of his presidency attacking Sessions for recusing himself from all things Russia. But Sessions has largely resisted pushing back against those attacks. He’s mostly kept his head down and focused on implementing policies Trump would approve of.
If Sessions was hoping the Trump storm would blow over, this seems to be the week he realized that’s a lost cause. That his breaking point comes on the same week two people who allegedly conspired to break the law to help Trump win an election also ditched the president is probably not a coincidence.
Trump is a leader who demands loyalty without offering much in return. The seemingly paradoxical strategy helped get him to the presidency with an eclectic cadre cheering him on.
But just being president doesn’t seem to be enough anymore for some of Trump’s former allies, not when multiple investigations are threatening his inner circle with serious jail time. Of the five Trump associates ensnared in legal troubles stemming from the Russia probe, only one — former Trump campaign boss Paul Manafort — has refused to take a plea deal. And he arguably paid a hefty price for that. Manafort faces at least a decade in jail after being convicted of tax and bank fraud this week.
An irony here is that Manafort can’t be described as a friend of Trump’s. Despite the fact he led Trump’s campaign for several crucial months in 2016, the two don’t have a long-standing relationship. And yet, through Manafort, Trump is demonstrating that loyalty to him is the ultimate harbinger of whether you’re on his good side.
Over the past few days he has praised Manafort as “brave” and for refusing to “break” amid an independent federal investigation. And now The Post reports Trump sought his lawyers' advice about issuing a pardon for Manafort.
Of course, the always-overarching question is what all these dropped loyalties mean for Trump. Legally, it might not mean much. It’s likely a sitting president can’t be indicted.
Politically, Trump might be making new friends to make up for the ones he’s lost. Two Republican senators said Thursday that they would be open to seeing Sessions leave the Justice Department. One, Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), even told Bloomberg News that he would be amenable to holding hearings to put a new attorney general in the job, despite warning Trump as recently as March that firing Sessions would mean he wouldn’t get to pick a new one anytime soon.
But for reasons that are still unfolding, in one extraordinary week, Trump is at risk of losing the loyalty of three people he once trusted. That has got to have him wondering: Who’s next?