The stories Donald Trump most relishes telling are those in which a no turns into a yes. The prime actor in those stories is always Trump himself.
Sometimes his weapon is mischief, as when Trump wanted to persuade a law firm to vacate its offices in a Wall Street skyscraper he had bought in the 1990s. The lawyers had stopped paying rent. So one wintry morning, they got to work and the elevators to their 52nd-floor offices were kaput. And the heat was off.
Telling the story, Trump flashed the same impish smile he deploys when he recounts tales of even tougher tactics he has used to persuade his executives, wives or bankers to do his bidding. “They were real wiseguys,” he said of his lawyer tenants. “I got a check for the whole thing” and the law firm moved out.
But as president, Trump has found that at least some of the people on the receiving end of his strong-arming are far more likely to push back publicly. Which is what fired FBI director James B. Comey did Wednesday in a seven-page, single-spaced statement that portrays the president as a stereotypical tough guy out of a B movie.
In Comey’s telling, Trump talks like a mob boss: “I have been very loyal to you, very loyal. We had that thing, you know.” Trump can be politely cajoling: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” he tells Comey, referring to the FBI’s investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. And Trump can be relentlessly insistent, as when he came back at Comey on four separate occasions to press the FBI chief on whether he might commit himself to loyalty to the president.
Trump was so demanding that Comey took it upon himself to document every twist of his encounters with the new president, a bit of self-protection it had never dawned on him to use during Barack Obama’s presidency.
Now, as Comey prepares to testify before Congress and a nationwide TV audience, Trump faces pushback against his tools of persuasion that he rarely confronted in four decades as a real estate developer, entrepreneur and celebrity entertainer.
Trump said during last year’s campaign that he intended to govern the nation much as he had run his businesses — as a hard-driving boss who takes no guff, acts from the gut and holds people to account. Some of that approach is not new to the White House. Presidents bully, threaten and punish. Even the best presidents sometimes get down and dirty as they shoulder their initiatives through peckish bureaucrats and recalcitrant legislators.
And some of what comes off as rough and defiantly non-Washington about Trump is rhetoric that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) called an artifact of the president’s roots: “What you’re seeing is a president who is now very publicly learning about the way people react to what he considers to be normal New York City conversation,” Christie said Wednesday on MSNBC.
Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) — chair of the Republican Study Committee, which brokered a deal on health care in the House — said Trump is accustomed to “dealing with people as someone who’s been a New York-style ‘say what you want to say, do what you want to do.’ Now he’s in this new arena where . . . that behavior is sometimes not always probably the best approach.”
Some of Trump’s supporters say he is adapting to Washington’s expectations while holding on to what’s worked for him in his first 70 years of life: “He’s like the guy who can pitch 100 miles an hour but he hasn’t pitched in a game yet and hasn’t learned how to control the direction,” said Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), an early Trump endorser. “Remember, this is what we love about him — that he’s got this different style, that he doesn’t adhere to the traditions and the rules of the swamp.”
However they speak, presidents have deployed different styles in practicing their central task — persuading people to do what they want. President Lyndon B., Johnson’s tough tactics, memorialized in hundreds of White House tapes and explicated in Robert Caro’s majestic biography of a president who relished power, have become the stuff of legend. Obama drew as much criticism for his failure to strong-arm members of Congress as some other presidents have garnered for being overbearing.
Trump, like Johnson, is perfectly willing to dress down people to their faces or in a larger gathering. But both presidents’ main tool was the telephone. As Caro wrote in “The Passage of Power,” Johnson would browbeat congressmen whose votes he needed but would also butter them up, offering goodies for their own districts.
In one recorded phone call, Johnson, pushing to get the 1964 civil rights bill passed, told the bill’s Senate manager, Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.), how to get the Republican leader, Sen. Everett Dirksen (Ill.), on board: “You’ve got to let him have a piece of the action. He’s got to look good all the time. . . . You drink with Dirksen! You talk to Dirksen! You listen to Dirksen!”
Trump’s style is less solicitous. During the House health-care battle earlier this year, Trump confronted the leader of the House Freedom Caucus at a meeting of Republicans. If the bloc didn’t back the bill, “I’m going to come after you,” Trump told Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.). Those were familiar words to many Trump-watchers; he has used the phrase with reporters writing about him, TV executives he was negotiating with and activists who opposed his building projects.
With his top executives, underlings, attorneys and vendors, he won loyalty with a finely crafted mix of threats, shouting, demands — and generous gestures, such as extra time off, an encouraging phone call when someone was down, and repeated promises that an employee’s loyalty would be returned in kind. He was the same way with the reporters he alternately cultivated and bashed — he could praise a story, threaten a lawsuit, deliver an exclusive scoop and call the reporter’s boss seeking a firing, sometimes all in a week.
Some presidents — Ronald Reagan, for example — flexed their power muscles with self-deprecating humor. Trump does this, too, as when, during a lunch with U.N. ambassadors, he jokingly polled the room on whether they thought U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, seated next to him, was doing a good job. “How do you all like Nikki? ” he asked. “Otherwise, she can easily be replaced.”
Because Trump can also be rough and even humiliating, comments like that often come off as double-edged — possibly a joke but possibly a real threat. (Trump followed his jest with a reassurance: “No, we won’t do that. I promise.”)
In April, during the health-care bill’s push, Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who was skeptical about the proposal, said Trump sent an emissary to tell him that “the president hopes you vote against this because he wants to run somebody against you if you do.” Sanford said Trump “has made those kinds of threats to any number of members. . . . But I don’t think it’s productive to his own legislative agenda. It doesn’t make anybody’s day when the president of the United States says, ‘I want to take you out.’ ”
But the same tough tactics that might pass ethical muster between a president and Congress may turn out to be inappropriate between a president and, say, the head of the FBI, an agency that is designed to be as free as possible from political interference.
Trump’s tactics in some ways recall Johnson, who had what one of his aides once called “a horror of defeat.” Johnson, like Trump, saw himself as a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who knew how to get things done and had little patience for the niceties of high society. (Of course, Johnson really did come up from nothing; Trump, not so much.) Johnson, like Trump, also believed that good ends often justified rough, even brutal, means.
Johnson, like Trump, was a big man, comfortable with using his size and authority to get in people’s space and show them who was boss. Johnson, Caro once said, would “grab your lapel. He leaned into you. He got bigger when he talked to you.”
Trump has always taken pride in his ability to get his way, whether in his work or his personal life. When his marriage to Ivana Trump was collapsing in a very public way in the late 1980s, Donald Trump said during the divorce proceedings that “my marriage, it seemed, was the only area of my life in which I was willing to accept something less than perfection.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.