John McCain’s Death Reminds Us Just How Petty Trump Is

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORKER)

 

Donald Trump’s Response to John McCain’s Death Reminds Us Just How Petty He Is

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.”

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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.

Following the Money in Trumpland Leads Ugly Places

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE ‘NEW YORKER’ MAGAZINE)

 

 / THE NATIONAL CIRCUS

Following the Money in Trumpland Leads Ugly Places

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Michael Avenatti is doing what Woodward and Bernstein did: exposing the money trail. Photo: MSNBC

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, the meaning of Michael Avenatti’s disclosures, Trump’s decision to kill the Iran deal, and Rudy Giuliani’s media tour.

With Michael Avenatti’s revelation that the shell company Michael Cohen used for the Stormy Daniels payoff also received money tied to Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg (as well as payments from other companies with government business), it looks like the two main threads of Donald Trump’s legal troubles may be part of the same story. Has Avenatti found the “collusion” that Trump has spent so much energy denying?

Avenatti, whose revelations have since been verified by the Times and others, is doing exactly what Woodward and Bernstein did in Watergate — following the money. By doing so he has unveiled an example of collusion so flagrant that it made Trump and Rudy Giuliani suddenly go mute: a Putin crony’s cash turns out to be an essential component of the racketeering scheme used to silence Stormy Daniels and thus clear Trump’s path to the White House in the final stretch of the 2016 election. Like the Nixon campaign slush fund that Woodward and Bernstein uncovered, this money trail also implicates corporate players hoping to curry favor with a corrupt president. Back then it was the telecommunications giant ITT, then fending off antitrust suits from the government, that got caught red-handed; this time it’s AT&T. Both the Nixon and Trump slush funds were initially set up to illegally manipulate an American presidential election, hush money included. But the Watergate burglars’ dirty tricks, criminal as they were, were homegrown. Even Nixon would have drawn the line at colluding with Russians — or, in those days, the Soviets — to sabotage the Democrats.

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I know some accuse Avenatti of being a media whore, but he’s the one media whore I can’t get enough of. He knows what he’s doing, he has the goods, and he is playing high-stakes poker, shrewdly, with what appears to be a winning hand. It is also entertaining to imagine how crazy he is driving Trump. In personality and presence he’s exactly the kind of take-no-prisoners television defender that Trump would want appearing with Sean Hannity in his defense. That was the point of the Mooch. That is the point of Rudy. Apparently that was even once the point of Michael Cohen. If Avenatti, as others have noted, is Billy Flynn from the musical Chicagothen Trump is left with Larry, Curly, and Moe.

Donald Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. from the Iran deal has drawn condemnation from European alliesBarack Obama, and scores of other experts. Will Trump face any political penalty for his choice?

Honestly, I doubt Trump will still be in office when the full fallout of this blunder is felt. The blunder, one should add, is not only to pull out of a deal that was working but also to have no “better deal” (or policy at all) to take its place. But the interesting political piece about both this decision and the onrushing summit with Kim Jong-un is that Trump has persuaded himself that big bold foreign policy moves, however harmful to America and its allies, will rescue him from the rampaging scandal at home. This, again, has a Watergate echo: As the revelations of White House horrors piled up during the midterm election season of 1974, Nixon decided to travel to Moscow, ostensibly a diplomatic mission in the cause of détente. This stunt didn’t stave off the wolves closing in on him in Washington, and the current regurgitation of this tactic won’t save Trump either.

At least Nixon had foreign-policy expertise. He wouldn’t have given away the store to the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. By contrast, there’s every reason to fear that Trump’s ignorant foray into Korea will make Neville Chamberlain’s performance at Munich look Churchillian. Kim is not an idiot; he will keep playing the American president for all he can, knowing that Trump needs a “win” abroad to counterbalance all his losses at home. And Trump’s desperation to make a “deal” with North Korea for his own personal political salvation gets visibly greater with every Michael Avenatti television appearance. Witness the president’s decision to turn up at Andrews Air Force Base at 2 a.m. tomorrow to personally greet the three American detainees that North Korea released today. That Trump thinks this photo op will be effective counterprogramming to Stormy Daniels suggests he’s now lost one talent he unassailably did possess, an intuitive knack for show business.

Even in non-corrupt modern presidencies, there’s little evidence that foreign-policy achievements sway voters. (Foreign-policy debacles — wars that devolve into quagmires, for instance — do move voters, but not in a good way.) In Trump’s case, his America First base could not care less if he wins one of those suspect foreign Nobel Prizes as meaningless as the one awarded Obama. The majority of Americans who are not in Trump’s base won’t care either. Meanwhile, nuclear proliferation and possibly war hang in the balance.

After subjecting the country to a week of the Rudy Giuliani media tour, Donald Trump is now considering sidelining the lawyer. Has Giuliani done more damage to his own reputation or to Trump’s defense?

Both Trump’s legal strategy (if there is one) and Rudy’s reputation were in tatters well before this frequently hilarious and wholly unhinged media tour. It’s an indicator of how much the Trump defense is in disarray that the White House thought it was a good idea to send Giuliani to last weekend’s Sunday shows even after nearly a full week of screwups. And the debacle just keeps rolling along: Just hours before Avenatti posted his bombshell yesterday, Rudy was firmly declaring that Michael Cohen “possesses no incriminating information about the president.”

There’s clearly not just a screw loose in Giuliani but a missing link in his story with Trump. Rudy was a fierce Trump defender during the campaign and lobbied vociferously for a Cabinet position during the transition. Twice he was considered for both secretary of State and secretary of Homeland Security, and twice he was rejected. What does that say about him when you consider that those who did make the cut to top Trump administration jobs included Michael Flynn, Ben Carson, Tom Price, Scott Pruitt, Betsy DeVos, and Ryan Zinke? What does Giuliani have for — or on — Trump that brought him into the fold now? Inquiring minds would like to know.

In any case, Trumpism has bequeathed America not merely a post-fact but post-rule-of-law culture. Rudy, like his boss, claims nonexistent extralegal privileges for presidents, dismisses FBI agents as “stormtroopers,” and endorses “rumor” as a legal strategy. I’d say his record for mad-dog lunacy is perfect were it not for the moment when he told Hannity that Jared Kushner is “disposable” — a judgment that no doubt reflects the view of Kushner’s father-in-law and is surely correct. That is our national Godfather replay at its best.