(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORKER)
Donald Trump is a small, petty man. He is a liar and a crook. And his legal problems are mounting. Each one of these statements has been true since January 20, 2017, when Trump became the President of the United States. But the remarkable events of the past week have highlighted and confirmed the essence of this President, and the terms on which he continues to hold office.
On Monday morning, someone in the White House ordered that the U.S. flag atop the building—which had been flying at half-staff to honor the memory of Senator John McCain, who died on Saturday—be raised to its normal position. Who was responsible for this action? President Trump, of course.
Over the weekend, Trump declined to issue a personal statement praising McCain, instead confining himself to a tweet in which he offered condolences to McCain’s family. You might argue that, in doing so, the President was avoiding hypocrisy—the enmity between the two men was long-standing and bitter. After the Helsinki summit, earlier this year, McCain called Trump’s joint press conference with Vladimir Putin “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American President in memory.” If, after all this acrimony, Trump had said something positive about McCain, it would have rung hollow.
But messing with the flag that flies above the White House was different. The flag represents the United States and the office of the Presidency, not Trump personally. After the death of a prominent U.S. politician, such as a former President or prominent senator, it is standard practice for the sitting President to issue a proclamation ordering the flag to be lowered to half-staff until the burial, which, in this case, will be next Sunday. Whatever one thinks of McCain’s political views, his record—five and a half years in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp, thirty-one years in the Senate, and two Presidential bids—surely merited such an honor. As Mark Knoller, of CBS News, noted on Monday morning, Trump failed to order the proclamation. Evidently, there is no limit to his smallness.
The outcry was immediate and broad-based, and, in this instance, Trump backed down. On Monday afternoon, the White House press office released a statement in his name, which said, “Despite our differences on policy and politics, I respect Senator John McCain’s service to our country and, in his honor, have signed a proclamation to fly the flag of the United States at half-staff until the day of his interment.”
Who persuaded Trump to change course? Was there a rebellion in the West Wing? The initial reports about the reversal didn’t say. But it was clear that the last thing the White House needs right now is another public-relations disaster. Although McCain’s death knocked the saga of Michael Cohen’s guilty plea off the front pages, at least temporarily, the past week was a disaster for the White House, and a reminder that Trump’s pettiness is only exceeded by his deceitfulness. Is there anybody in the entire country who now believes anything he says about the payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal that Cohen helped orchestrate?
In the words of Glenn Kessler, the head of the Washington Post’s fact-checking team, “Trump and his allies have been deliberately dishonest at every turn in their statements regarding payments to Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal.” No surprise there, of course. This is a man who used to pose as his own press agent to plant fake stories about himself; who has claimed—on the basis of no evidence whatsoever—to have seen Muslims in New Jersey celebrating after the 9/11 attacks; and who has routinely exaggerated his wealth by a factor of ten or more.
For habitual liars, telling untruths is “partly practice and partly habit,” William Hazlitt once wrote. “It requires an effort in them to speak truth.” Trump seldom makes the exertion. From the start of Trump’s Presidency to the beginning of this month, Kessler’s team had “documented 4,229 false or misleading claims from the president—an average of nearly 7.6 a day.”
Most of these falsehoods Trump has got away with, but he may not get away with his denials and dodges regarding the Daniels and McDougal payments. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York—having secured the coöperation of Cohen and the reported coöperation of David Pecker, who is the head of the company that owns the National Enquirer, and Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization—already seems to have strong evidence that Trump was part of a conspiracy to evade campaign-finance laws. Last week, Cohen told a federal court that, in helping arrange the payoffs to Daniels and McDougal, he acted “at the direction of a candidate for federal office.” According to the Wall Street Journal, Pecker “told federal prosecutors that Mr. Trump had knowledge of Mr. Cohen’s payments to women.”
Some of Trump’s defenders are complaining that the Feds, having failed to nail the President on the charge of conspiring with Russia to influence the 2016 election, are now “trying to Al Capone the President”—that is, get him on a technicality. Others in the Trump camp are falling back on the legal argument that a sitting President can’t be indicted, or that Hillary Clinton’s campaign also violated campaign laws. But, apart from Trump himself, virtually nobody seems to be claiming that he didn’t direct the payoffs.
It would be an irony, of course, if it were the Stormy Daniels story, rather than the Russia probe, that brought Trump to book. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising, though. Sometime, somewhere, Trump’s crooked past was going to catch up with him.
Here’s a quick reminder of the rap sheet. Turning a blind eye to money laundering at his New Jersey casinos. Operating a bogus university that bilked middle-income seniors out of their retirement savings. Stiffing his suppliers as a matter of course. Selling condos to Russians and other rich foreigners who may well have been looking to launder hot money. Entering franchising deals with Eastern European oligarchs and other shady characters. For decades, Trump has run roughshod over laws and regulations.
To protect himself from whistle-blowers, financial cops, and plaintiffs, Trump relied on nondisclosure agreements, lax enforcement, and his reputation for uncompromising litigiousness. But since May, 2017, when he fired James Comey and opened the door to the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel, things have been slowly unraveling for the President. (Indeed, Mueller’s team tipped off the Southern District about Cohen’s alleged misdeeds.) Last week, the unwinding process seemed to speed up.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean Trump is finished. Whatever happens on the investigative front, it is hard to believe that his own Justice Department will approve an indictment of him while he remains in office. And, as long as the vast majority of G.O.P. voters continue to support him, the Party’s leaders on Capitol Hill, whose continued support he needs, are very unlikely to turn on him.
A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which was taken after the news about Cohen’s plea and the conviction of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, shows that Trump’s approval rating has barely budged. So does the weekly Gallup poll, which was updated on Monday. In both surveys, Trump’s rating is in the low forties, where it has been for months. “We’ve had this enormous series of events, and these numbers don’t change very much,” Bill McInturff, one of the pollsters who carried out the NBC/Wall Street Journalpoll, told the Journal. And so we go on.