For 16 or so hours after Tuesday’s double-barreled bombshell news, President Trump couldn’t even publicly say Michael Cohen’s name. That was the first signal he had been wounded by his former fixer’s guilty plea.
He said he felt badly for Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager who had just been convicted of bank and tax fraud. But he said nothing at first about Cohen’s admission in open court that he had tried to influence the 2016 election by paying off two women — and that he had done so at Trump’s direction.
Trump insisted the Manafort case had “nothing to do with Russian collusion,” but Cohen’s damning statement couldn’t be so easily swatted aside. Because Cohen’s actions have everything to do with Trump.
He has called himself a “great loyalty freak.” He has said he values loyalty “above everything else — more than brains, more than drive.” And one of his greatest strengths, at least of a certain sort, always has been his ability to engender unwavering, slavish, even sycophantic allegiance. But it’s also been so brutally, consistently one-sided, and the Cohen flip brings to the fore the fragility of Trump’s transactional brand of loyalty and potentially its ultimate incompatibility with the presidency. This is not some tabloid or Twitter tit-for-tat. The stakes are of course incomparably higher. And Trump’s long span of quiet about Cohen was so out of character it suggested even he understands the reality of his legal jeopardy. For the first time, it appeared, a once biddable lapdog had turned around and bitten the boss — hard.
“He is terrified,” Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio told me early Wednesday morning. “This is 40 years of deceit coming home to torment him.”
Biographers and others have said his notion of loyalty evokes a cross between the mafia and the urban political machines of the past.
Former Trump casino executive Jack O’Donnell called the current situation “a dangerous road” for Trump. “For once in his life,” O’Donnell told me a little before 9 a.m., “he should listen to his advisers, and just keep his mouth closed.”
“Once in a while, and that is very, very rarely, Trump does what he is told,” former Trump Organization executive vice president Barbara Res said around the same time. “I am sure he is chomping at the bit to lash out at Cohen, but we all know that would be disastrous.”
And then …
… he started tweeting (and talking).
Evidently unable to restrain himself, he urged his nearly 54 million followers in a sad bleat of a tweet to not hire Cohen, as if this were a moment for a Yelp-like review of an attorney. He impugned his truthfulness as well as his fortitude, and he dubiously concluded that Cohen’s admitted campaign finance violations allegedly committed in concert with the president himself “are not a crime.”
“He is unraveling,” Res said. “He is terrified,” said Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio. “This is 40 years of deceit coming home to torment him.”
Despite Trump’s protestations about the utmost importance of loyalty, biographers and others have said his notion of the concept evokes a cross between the mafia and the urban political machines of the past. “You take care of the boss, and the boss takes care of you,” as veteran New York operative Hank Sheinkopf once put it. Trump’s definition of loyalty is, and always has been, the opposite of complicated, according to those who know him the best. “Support Donald Trump in anything he says and does,” in the words of Roger Stone, his longest-running political adviser. “I never particularly thought,” Bruce Nobles, erstwhile Trump Shuttle president, told me earlier this year, “that he was loyal to … anybody.”
Louise Sunshine was his first employee. With her connections at the time to New York Governor Hugh Carey, she helped pave Trump’s 1970s entrance into Manhattan in some ways that rival the role of inimitable adviser Roy Cohn. She was nonetheless jettisoned from the Trump Organization orbit a decade later over a money-related spat. Sunshine in many respects has abiding admiration for Trump — she has described him as “the greatest, most brilliant teacher a person could have” — but she still was jilted. “Why after so many years would someone do something like that to someone who was so close to them?” she told a reporter from Newsday in 1989. “I found that very disillusioning.”
Res, meanwhile, was the Trump Tower construction manager. A few years after that, working to refurbish the Plaza Hotel after Trump paid far too much for it, she up and quit — unwilling any longer to take Trump’s explosive moods and turbulent treatment. In her 2013 book, All Alone on the 68th Floor, she recounted an especially unnerving experience as she installed some cut-rate marble. “Donald took one look at this marble and started screaming at me,” she wrote. “He was shaking. ‘You did this,’ he said. ‘You bought this cheap shit and now you are making me look like a jerk. You’re no fucking good.’ I said, ‘Look, Donald, this is the marble you approved. It was cheap, you wanted to save money. Don’t blame me.’ It was like pouring gasoline on a fire. His face was red. His mouth was all twisted and I thought to myself, if he hits you, just take a fall. I did think he was going to hit me.” Res has been a steady Trump critic since he announced his presidential candidacy. Trump once responded by calling her “nasty.”
Artie Nusbaum, one of the bosses of the contracting company in charge of the Trump Tower effort, died earlier this year. But he told me in 2016 that he agreed to do Trump’s Wollman Rink project for free out of a sense of loyalty due to prior work. “He said to me, ‘Artie, you’re going to get so much publicity out of this,’” Nusbaum remembered. “‘It’ll be the best thing that ever happened to you.’” Trump then shared none of the limelight. “No morals, no nothing,” Nusbaum said. “That’s what he considers loyalty — unquestioning doing whatever he wants … whenever he wants.”
Trump certainly wasn’t loyal to the legions of subcontractors he stiffed.
But no one’s been immune. Even people he’s known the best and relied on the most. He once called Stone, after all, “a stone-cold loser.”
Sam Nunberg, too, was Trump’s most regular, diligent, devoted political aide in the years leading up to his decision to run for president, helping him develop the messages that would help him win. And he was fired. Twice. And he was sued. The lesson about loyalty he took from Trump? “Never make people your heroes,” Nunberg told me. “Don’t count on the loyalty of others.”
It’s a truth Trump knows well based on the life he’s lived. He was reared by a father who made millions of dollars by doing business with the Brooklyn Democratic machine. Practitioners of this cynical, self-serving strain of politics “knew how to buy and sell loyalty, a valued skill in the culture of the clubhouse that required a sense of timing. One had to know how to inspire loyalty in others, and how to give it to the bosses who could nurture your career. But a player in this game also had to know when to jump ship, abandoning career-long friendships suddenly, without emotion, and with a ready and usually petty alibi,” New York investigative reporters Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett wrote in their 1988 book, City for Sale.
“[Cohen] undoubtedly wanted to give Trump a taste of his own medicine” — a one-time high-ranking Trump associate
“And finally,” added Newfield and Barrett, “a leader had to have a sixth sense that warned him when he was about to be abandoned.”
Trump’s just been abandoned.
For politicians — for people, period — a greatest strength can be at once a greatest weakness. What helped make Trump president might help unmake him president.
A one-time high-ranking Trump associate told me Wednesday: “Cohen did not only want to salvage something after being cast adrift and savaged by Trump, but he undoubtedly wanted to give Trump a taste of his own medicine.”
“Fixers act like mob enforcers,” O’Donnell said. “Cohen did this for a long time for Trump. The two of them and God only know what they have done together.”
“Michael Cohen,” Lanny Davis, Cohen’s attorney, told CNN’s Don Lemon Tuesday night, “has information that would be of interest to Mr. Mueller in his probe of a conspiracy to corrupt American democracy.”
Trump has cast people adrift before. He has savaged people before. Some spoke up or talked back. It didn’t matter. They were dismissed as disgruntled ex-employees. They were dispatched as rhetorical irritants. Many of them were little more than co-opted sparring partners in rank celebrity feuds to feed his need for fame. They couldn’t hurt him.
But Cohen is not Rosie O’Donnell. Cohen is not Omarosa. And Trump seems to know it. Over the many decades that Trump has been a hyperpublic character clomping across the American landscape, one of his most predictable, clockwork-consistent patterns of behavior has been the launching of noisy, petulant epithets at people he sees as enemies, as obstacles, as disloyal. His conspicuous stretch of silence concerning Cohen was the loudest sound yet.