Donald Trump hungered for applause — the more frequent and louder, the better. He found that campaign rallies were a source of it like none that he had ever savoured.
He thrilled to the appearance of his name not just in gold letters on tall buildings but also in newspaper headlines and on television screens. A presidential bid delivered those goods, too.
And he wanted ratings. Always, he wanted ratings. “The Apprentice” was a bygone badge. It was time for a bigger, brasher showcase. Running for president offered precisely that.
There are several profoundly unsettling takeaways from a breathlessly discussed report by BuzzFeed News that Trump continued to push for a Trump Tower in Moscow deep into his 2016 campaign and later instructed his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about that. A spokesman for Robert Mueller, the special counsel, said late Friday that there were inaccuracies in BuzzFeed’s account.
But I’m struck in particular by how the indisputable parts of the BuzzFeed article underscore what many Trump observers have long believed, an insight that explains so much about his eccentric campaign and unethical governance: He never really expected to be president. More than that, he never really hoped to be.
That’s why he didn’t put business matters on hold or disentangle himself from glaring conflicts of interest. That’s why he refused to yoke himself to the sorts of rules that his predecessors had endeavoured to follow.
That’s why he indulged in behaviour that would come back to haunt him in the White House: He never planned on moving there. He wasn’t supposed to come under this kind of glare or have to lie this much (though lying comes easily to him). If victory had really been the point, he might not have left himself so exposed.
The BuzzFeed report, published late Thursday, cites two unnamed law enforcement sources, and other news organizations have approached the scoop with varying degrees of caution and have been unable to corroborate it. If the account holds up, it’s arguably the clearest evidence yet that Trump obstructed justice, recommending perjury in an effort to cloak his interests in Russia as Mueller investigated that very matter.
Regardless of the report’s veracity, we already know that Cohen pursued the Moscow project through June 2016 but falsely told lawmakers that he’d wrapped up that work the previous January: Last November he pleaded guilty to lying under oath.
We also know that Trump didn’t want his candidacy to foil lucrative deals and dilute his wealth. He publicly defended the fact that the Moscow project didn’t end when his campaign began, telling reporters, “There was a good chance that I wouldn’t have won, in which case I would have gotten back into the business, and why should I lose lots of opportunities?” Sacrifice isn’t his strong suit.
He had neither the requisite knowledge nor experience to serve as president. Now we know he wasn’t prepared psychologically, either. His campaign wasn’t a rehearsal for civic leadership. It was a brand-burnishing interregnum, a time-limited adventure in egomania.
“Donald Trump never thought he was going to be president,” Trump biographer Timothy O’Brien, who wrote “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald,” told me. “He began this thing as a marketing venture, and I don’t think the people around him thought he was going to win, either. They all jointly saw this thing as a big food fest.”
Paul Manafort would cycle back into commercial viability and political relevance. Jared Kushner would find a financial saviour for 666 Fifth Ave., his family’s towering albatross. Ivanka Trump would add weight to her cottony image. And her father, well, he’d be exponentially more famous, and there’s never fame enough.
“It had nothing to do with public policy,” O’Brien said. “It had everything to do with short-term opportunism.”
Major books about Trump’s campaign and election explore variations of the theme that victory surprised Trump and his enablers and caught them flat-footed. Michael Lewis’ most recent best seller, “The Fifth Risk,” begins with a damning account of the Trump team’s failure to carry out a coherent transition and fill key jobs in government.
In “Fire and Fury,” Michael Wolff writes that “Trump refused to spend any time considering, however hypothetically, transition matters, saying it was ‘bad luck’ — but really meaning it was a waste of time.”
“He wasn’t going to win,” Wolff continues. “Or losing was winning. Trump would be the most famous man in the world — a martyr to crooked Hillary Clinton.”
“Losing would work out for everybody,” he adds.
Michael D’Antonio, author of “The Truth About Trump,” told me: “His past is not a past someone brings into the presidency, and he’s not so stupid that he wouldn’t have understood that. And I think he naturally feared the kind of examination that he’s undergone since the election.”
But because he wasn’t going to win, it wouldn’t matter that he’d paid off women with whom he’d had affairs, that he’d dispatched Cohen on so many unsavoury errands, that he’d surrounded himself with such shady characters, that he refused to release his tax returns, that he forged ahead with the Trump International Hotel in Washington, that he vulgarly insulted the very lawmakers a president would need to collaborate with and that he surrendered any claim to moral authority by trafficking in racism and xenophobia. There would be no consequences because there would be no crown.
“This was a publicity gambit,” D’Antonio said. “It’s almost as if he believed that his candidacy was a joke, so under that circumstance, rigging polls and shouting about locking her up and issuing these racially charged lies about immigrants was OK, because he wasn’t going to be president anyway. What he was doing was trying out ideas for his persona.”
Through that lens, this presidency and its shortcomings make complete sense. Trump couldn’t assemble and manage a top-notch Cabinet because he’d never readied himself for that task. He couldn’t let go of any of the engines of his wealth because he’d never prioritized public service above it. He couldn’t say what the country needed him to after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, because he had no interest in the role of statesman and had never intended to play it. Rare is the person who finds a whole new skill set at his stage of the game, and rarer still is the person who finds a whole new set of principles.
“I think he’s well aware of his lack of intellectual sophistication and patience and maturity and competence, which is why he’s always speaking to those faults in public venues,” O’Brien said. “He knows deep down inside that he’s not up to the demands of the office.”
Two years into his presidency, the rest of us know it, too.
© 2019 New York Times News Service