Trump’s ‘everybody does it’ view of politics comes to color his conduct, and that of his aides
After the guilty verdicts came down against Paul Manafort on Tuesday, President Trump was quick to note that his former campaign chairman had worked for Ronald Reagan and many other Republicans, implying that anyone in politics would have hired him, despite Manafort’s later reputation for operating in lobbying’s darker corners.
What about the illegal preelection payments that Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen admitted to in a separate federal court that day, intended to hush two women alleging affairs with Trump? No more a crime than a minor campaign finance violation by the 2008 Obama campaign, Trump tweeted on Wednesday.
Similarly, earlier this month Trump again dismissed suspicions about his son’s 2016 meeting with a Kremlin-connected operative offering dirt on Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. “Totally legal and done all the time in politics,” he falsely tweeted.
Trump has long promulgated an especially dark image of politics as-usual in America. During his campaign, he bragged of buying politicians and said that only he could end the corrupt scheming because he had “seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens.”
Yet his oft-stated view that politicians are generally corrupt and purely transactional may have colored the conduct of Trump and those around him, resulting in actions that could imperil his presidency.
“He thought they were stupid,” said longtime business associate Barbara Res, who worked with Trump in the 1980s and 1990s, speaking of his view of the politicians he lobbied on real estate matters. “He thought they were all for sale.”
Michael Gerson, a former speech writer for George W. Bush and a frequent Trump critic, labeled Trump’s White House the “‘everybody does it’ presidency” in a recent Washington Post column.
“Doesn’t every campaign try to conspire with a hostile foreign government to influence an American presidential election? Doesn’t every politician try to discredit and derail a federal investigation against them? Doesn’t every prominent man pay off Playboy bunnies and porn stars after he has used and discarded them?” Gerson wrote.
He answered: “No. They. Don’t.”
On Wednesday, following Manafort’s conviction and Cohen’s guilty plea, many in Trump’s orbit were calling this the most difficult moment of his presidency. Some were consoling themselves that even if impeachment talk is accelerating, the bar for actually removing the president is high, and the partisan politics in a Congress currently controlled by Republicans make it unlikely.
“Most of them, I’m sure, were all hoping that someday soon the Russia investigation would go away,” said Barry Bennett, a former campaign advisor to Trump. “Now it seems the Russia part has gone away but the investigation goes on.”
On Twitter early Wednesday, Trump expressed sympathy for Manafort, and praise that he’d “refused to ‘break’” and cooperate with the investigation of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III into possible campaign collusion with Russia and obstruction of justice. He tweeted more scornfully of Cohen, who implicated the president in the crime Cohen admitted to and offered to cooperate more broadly with Mueller’s inquiry.
Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders dodged reporters’ questions on Wednesday about Trump’s legal culpability and allegedly false statements in the past about the Cohen payments to a porn star and a Playboy model.
“He did nothing wrong. There are no charges against him,” she said several times. “Just because Michael Cohen made a plea deal, that doesn’t mean it implicates the president in anything.”
Former White House staffers, demanding anonymity to avoid burning bridges to the administration, expressed relief that they no longer worked for Trump, recalling other tough moments in his tumultuous presidency.
“You just never knew what he was going to do, but usually it would make things worse,” said one former aide.
Several current and former advisors say that Trump — schooled in a hardball politics by his long-ago mentor Roy Cohn, the bare-knuckles lawyer of McCarthy-era notoriety — is now motivated by “grievances about perceived double standards,” as one put it, as he fights to maintain support from his loyal Republican base.
“There’s a lot of what-about-ism, and it’s like ‘Obama did X, Y and Z and now I’m getting yelled at,’” said a former White House official.
That attitude “can sometimes be because he doesn’t appreciate the very important legal nuances,” the former official added. Trump “tends to over-simplify things,” the official said. “That’s just his nature as a salesman.”
Fox News and other conservative media have done their part to amplify Trump’s frustrations, repeating Trump’s claims that the investigations are a “witch hunt,” that “others have done worse” and that Clinton is the one who should be investigated.
During the campaign, Trump said politicians were controlled completely by their donors, by Wall Street and by lobbyists working for foreign governments. He suggested that the rich and powerful — like himself — could do whatever they wanted when it comes to politics.
“I was a businessman. I give to everybody,” he said during one Republican primary debate. “When they call, I give. And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me.”
Another former White House official said Trump holds the view that “he’s never gotten in trouble for this kind of stuff his whole career and now they’re coming after him because he’s president,” and that “he’s done stuff a lot of people do and that he’s being singled out.”
Trump’s view on Manafort, who faces a second trial next month on charges related to his lobbying for a since-ousted Ukrainian strongman, is that “this stuff isn’t legal per se, but everyone does it — it’s how the world works,” the former official said.
Manafort was convicted on a total of eight charges of tax and bank fraud and failure to disclose a foreign bank account. The jury failed to reach a verdict on 10 additional counts.
Trump’s sense that he is being singled out ignores a long record of others’ travails. Clinton faced damaging investigations throughout her political career. Her husband, as president, was impeached by the House after a lengthy investigation. And other politicians of both parties have faced career-ending criminal charges. Among them was former presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat who was indicted for using campaign dollars to cover up an affair, a case that ended in a mistrial.
Though Trump has repeatedly hammered the Clintons, he has showed a measure of compassion for Edwards. “I have never been a fan of John Edwards but it is time for the gov’t to focus on more important things,” Trump tweeted in 2012.
Trump went further in forgiving another Democrat’s illegal conduct as business as usual. In May, he floated the possibility of curtailing the 14-year prison sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who’d been a contestant on Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” reality television show. Blagojevich was convicted in 2011 of corruption for essentially seeking to sell the Senate seat Obama vacated when he became president.
The long prison sentence was “really unfair,” Trump said in May. Blagojevich was being punished, he added, simply “for being stupid and saying things that every other politician — you know that many other politicians say.”
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