The president’s unique, norm-smashing way of doing his job is a reflection of his campaign promise to be the ultimate disrupter, the outsider who would “drain the swamp” and bust up Washington’s chummy power channels.
It is also an entirely predictable, steady continuation of a lifelong pattern. Trump has always operated as the boss of a tight, small circle of executives and enforcers. He has always demanded loyalty, searched for ways around established customs and defied the rules — painting himself as a pragmatic, practical, plainspeaking truthteller, and dismissing those who play by the rules as small-minded or petty.
When he asked then-FBI Director James B. Comey for loyalty; when he asked then-deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland to write a letter saying, falsely, that Trump didn’t direct national security chief Michael Flynn to talk to the Russian ambassador about U.S. sanctions against his country; when the president called his White House counsel, Donald McGahn, at home and directed him to have special counsel Robert S. Mueller III removed — in all these cases and in many more detailed in the report, Trump was acting in the way that got him where he is today.
The president portrayed in Mueller’s report is strikingly similar to the real estate developer, casino magnate and TV celebrity who spent four decades crafting a public image as a playboy billionaire with a populist touch and an outrageous mouth. Mueller’s investigators present a detailed narrative showing Trump calling aides at home at night, clearing the room to deliver a personal appeal, naming names and spewing insults — whatever it took to demand loyalty and hit back at perceived enemies.
In success and in failure, in his historic outsider campaign and in his bankruptcies and business collapses, Trump’s tactics have barely varied. He bullies, he praises, he uses the media to attack and insult. He talks to many and trusts few. He lives in the moment and ignores the past. He acts now and constructs rationales later.
Trump rose to celebrity and to power by forming close alliances with renegades and rogues, with lawyers who were willing to push people around, with union bosses and construction executives who had close ties to organized crime, and with his own top executives who could be relied on to keep secrets and work behind the scenes to make problems go away.
As a real estate developer in New York City and later as a casino magnate in New Jersey and elsewhere, Trump worked closely with all sorts of seedy characters, some of them mobsters. Trump came to believe that politics and real estate — two fields he saw as inextricably intertwined — were dirty businesses, shot through with corruption.
He built his business around his personal brand, his media-
fueled presentation of himself as a can-do billionaire who got results by doing end runs around the rules. Building his company as a tight family circle, bolstered by a tiny group of totally committed lawyers and executives, allowed Trump to withstand bankruptcies, business collapses, lawsuits, federal investigations and an avalanche of bad publicity.
So when he got to the White House, it’s no surprise that he expected similar loyalty and devotion from his closest aides. When he didn’t always get that loyalty in return, he was enraged. But as the Mueller report makes clear, the aides who refused to do his bidding may in the end be what saved the president from an obstruction charge.
Trump has argued throughout his career that the only people you can absolutely trust to provide total loyalty are blood relatives and a tiny inner circle of longtime employees.
McGahn, for example, listened to Trump’s directives about getting rid of Mueller and decided he’d prefer to “resign rather than trigger what he regarded as a potential Saturday Night Massacre,” as the report put it, referring to a key moment in the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard M. Nixon’s downfall.
Even one of Trump’s original political loyalists, former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, found a way to avoid executing the president’s order. After Trump dictated a message for Lewandowski to deliver to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, directing Sessions to publicly announce that the president had done nothing wrong and that Mueller’s investigation would be sharply limited, Lewandowski told Trump he’d do it. But instead, he passed the job along to another official, who, the report said, “was uncomfortable with the task and did not follow through.”
“The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful,” the report says, “but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests.”
In his rhetoric and in his actions, Trump has veered far from the conventions of business or politics.
“Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Trump asked in 2017, exploding in public frustration over the fact that his own attorney general had removed himself from supervision of the investigation into the president’s campaign.
Cohn, Trump’s first attorney and most valued adviser in the early years of his career, was a notorious rule-breaker, an aggressive advocate whose client list included alleged mob bosses and who was ultimately disbarred. Cohn taught Trump two of his most enduring mantras: Never back down, and when you’re hit, hit back a hundred times harder.
Cohn was fiercely loyal, and Trump has often lamented his inability to find a similarly tenacious and unstinting consigliere. At one point in 2017, according to the report, Trump blew up at McGahn, saying he wished Cohn was his attorney.
Sessions, too, did not fit the bill.
“What kind of a man is this?” Trump asked in a Fox interview last summer. “The only reason I gave him the job: Because I felt loyalty.”
But then, Sessions, in Trump’s view, failed to back up his boss. “Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself, which frankly I think is very unfair to the president,” Trump told the New York Times in 2017. “How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? . . . It’s extremely unfair — and that’s a mild word — to the president.”
Trump is the first president to lash out at advisers who cooperated with a federal investigation and to adopt the language of the mob to bash people such as Michael Cohen, his longtime attorney and fixer who spoke extensively to Mueller’s investigators.
“I know all about flipping,” Trump told Fox News. “For 30, 40 years, I’ve been watching flippers. Everything’s wonderful, and then they get 10 years in jail and they flip on whoever the next highest one is, or as high as you can go.”
Before Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges, the president was complimenting him on Twitter because “he refused to ‘break’ — make up stories in order to get a ‘deal.’ ”
As the report documents, Trump tried a similar strategy with Cohen, telling his longtime attorney to “stay strong.” When Cohen instead agreed to share what he knew with the special counsel, Trump turned on him, dubbing him a “rat.”
Trump’s ability to sound like a mobster, or at least the movie version of one, is a vital part of his charm and his effectiveness. Friends say he has an unusually intimate way of connecting, on the phone, in the office, on the golf course. He shares secrets, showers with praise — and when he deems it necessary, he delivers vague threats about the aggressive response he’ll have if things don’t go as he wants them to.
In 1987, before Trump published his first best-selling book, “The Art of the Deal,” he was a regional figure, a tabloid newspaper’s minor celebrity, something of a joke to many New Yorkers. But those who doubted him failed to see the appeal of the character he had built in his many media appearances — the rare rich guy who spoke like a blue-collar worker, who preferred cheeseburgers, hung out with his security guys rather than his fellow executives, and explained the world’s problems in simple, binary terms.
The book was a hit because its author displayed no moral qualms, wholly embracing the idea that the way you get things done is to do them, whatever it took. “Mr. Trump makes one believe for a moment in the American dream again,” the New York Times’s critic gushed in a review.
The rich kid whose classmates considered him a bully, the self-proclaimed king of debt who spent the meat of his career watching his enterprises fall into bankruptcies, became president of the United States.
As the Mueller report richly details, the way he got there and the way he has behaved there are virtually identical. What the American people and Congress make of that is the subject of the coming months of investigations, legal confrontations and, in a bit more than 18 months, an election.