Bluffers bluff, and President Trump just tried to bluff his way through one of the worst weeks of his administration.
It’s not working. Donald Trump is a terrible poker player. His tells are so clumsily obvious and that we mistakenly give him credit for guile where none exists, and for some cinematic, supervillain cunning where there is only a howling, feral mass of insecurity and need.
The delta between reality and spin with Trump is always broad, and last week it was unspinnably vast. It’s also been a stunning illustration of just how powerful the division between reality and fantasy has become in the two hermetic media silos that now exist in America.
For some Americans — a minority, I pray — Trump is a pied piper luring the credulous and the uninformed into accepting lies over truth, comfort over reality and conspiracy over fact. In Trump’s world and that of his angry minions, the winning doesn’t stop, the vast left-wing conspiracy’s witch-hunt against him is both broad and insidious, and the truth is what he wants it to be on any given day.
Maintaining the Trump illusion requires an endless suspension of disbelief; denying facts, logic, reason, the law and the utterly evident cluster-you-know-what that this administration represents. The pinnacle of that illusion-at-all-costs philosophy came after the revelation that an FBI informant followed up on leads that Trump campaign foreign policy aides Carter Page and George Papadopoulos had been playing footsie with the Russians.
On Fox News, talk radio and in the Trump-right online media armies, the innocent Trump campaign was the victim of FBI spying against them, ordered by notorious Kenyan Muslim sleeper agent Barack Obama, evil sorceress Hillary Clinton and their army of Deep State apparatchiks.
The President wants you to call the FBI’s Russian counterintelligence program Spygate, but rational people have declined to indulge him. Stupidgate is instead just a ludicrous new chapter in the long chronicle of Trump dumbassery.
It’s only one of the many examples of Trump’s behavior of which historians in the far future will look upon with the same stunned disbelief and discomfort as we now consider tulip manias, Beanie Baby investment schemes, Milli Vanilli and acid-washed jeans. There might have been a moment where those ideas were intriguing, but in the hard light of history, they’re grim reminders that fads and passions are fleeting.
For the FBI actions Trump calls Spygate to be a real concern, it would require malice. Instead, we’ve seen justification after justification for a robust counterintelligence response to Russian malfeasance. Drawn to the Trump campaign like flies to the biggest manure pile in the universe, the FBI wasn’t after him, but rather — quite properly — the Russians who sought to (and may have succeeded) in subverting American democracy and corrupting our elections.
There’s a line in the 1990s film “Grosse Point Blank” where John Cusack’s assassin character defends his line of work. He says, “If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to bring me there.”
It couldn’t have been that an FBI counterintelligence investigation against the Russians kept finding lead after lead headed straight back to Trump associates, family members, friends, business partners and his senior campaign officials, could it? It couldn’t have been because Trump advisers were boasting they had the Russian goods on Hillary Clinton, that his sons were taking meetings in Trump Tower with platoons of Russians tied to Vladimir Putin, or that his attorney Michael Cohen was signing letters of intent to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, right? And there’s no way it was the opinion of every American intelligence agency that the Russians were all in with a program of information warfare in support of Donald Trump. No way? Way.
The central unspinnable story of the past week is the one over which Trump feels the most pressing anxiety. Three new stories reported on Michael Cohen’s latest avenues of legal jeopardy, all of which increase the risk Cohen flips on Trump to Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
First, Cohen’s longtime business associate Evgeny “The Taxi King” Freidman copped a plea deal and agreed to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York against Cohen. This development is bad news from every angle for both Cohen and Trump.
There’s not a chance in hell Freidman would have been given an easy plea deal unless he had something to provide prosecutors on Cohen, and by extension, Trump.
Freidman comes from the same Russian circles as Cohen and Trump partner Felix Sater. I know you’re asking the same question I do all the time: for a President who claims to have never had anything to do with Russia, Russian business interests or Russian money, why are there so many Russians and so much Russian money tied to him?
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the BBC’s Paul Wood delivered another hard blow. In an impeccably sourced piece, Wood revealed this week that Cohen (along with the aforementioned Sater) worked illegally on behalf of Ukraine, adding “lobbyist” to his usual roles as the fixer for and conduit to Trump. The BBC reports that Cohen took a $400,000 to $600,000 payoff from Ukrainian interests without bothering the register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Oh, that Foreign Agents Registration Act. You know, the law that requires anyone doing paid work on behalf of a foreign government to register with the United States Department of Justice.
On Friday, one more piece of bad news ratcheted Cohen’s stress level even higher when it was revealed that he met with Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian oligarch deeply tied to Putin, in January of 2017, just before Trump’s inauguration.
The denials from Team Trump that they have anything to do with Russia, their assertions that they have no business in Russia, didn’t collude with Russia, didn’t coordinate with Russia, never borrowed money from Russians, didn’t accept dirt on Hillary Clinton from Russia, don’t know any Russians, have never met any Russians and have never heard of the country of Russia ring more hollow with every revelation.
The vise squeezing Cohen is tightening, and every day that passes increases the chances he’ll turn Judas on his friend and boss. Trump knows what Cohen knows, and what Cohen knows about Trump’s business dealings, finances, taxes, serial infidelities, hush money to adult film stars (and Lord knows who else) isn’t pretty.
Something else happened last week, and it wasn’t just bad for Trump. It was bad for the world.
Trump’s diplomatic pratfall on North Korea forced a pullout from the summit he had sold as the best thing since Trump University, and came just weeks after his breathless followers demanded that the Nobel Institute give Trump the Peace Prize. They did everything but fuel up Air Force One for a trip to Oslo, believing the deal to strip North Korea of its nuclear arsenal and intercontinental ballistic missiles to be done (Trump had basically tweeted as much), with nothing left to do but raise a champagne toast in Singapore.
Almost no one in the diplomatic, military or intelligence community believed for a moment that Kim Jong Un would fulfill his promises; Kim is a con man, conning a con man. Trump never understood that he is the mark in this con game, played by Kim with a helpful assist from Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Of course, North Korea never, ever intended to give up its nuclear arsenal, to end its long history of murderous oppression of its suffering people, or in any other way give Trump a diplomatic win. Kim’s bad faith was never a question to anyone but Trump. It was a certainty. Furthermore, China never intended to help Trump win a major diplomatic victory, or to unify Korea.
No, Trump fans, it’s not 87-dimensional chess. There’s no secret plan, no hidden strategy. Trump is a man who sees everything through the dumb lens of reality television, New York tabloid spritzing, professional wrestling kayfabe and an utterly misplaced belief that he is a master negotiator.
He’s a man of notably grotesque ignorance who refuses to read even the crayon picture-book version of the President’s Daily Brief, and who is contemptuous of both the intelligence community and American diplomats.
Of course the Multi-dimensional Chess Club is insisting that even Trump’s most evident and egregious failures are part of some subtle, esoteric master plan that only he can perceive. While earlier this month they were cheering for the Trump Nobel Peace Prize, last week they were cheering his “my nuke is bigger than your nuke” threats and claiming this was his plan all along.
His North Korean reaction was pure emotion, all impulse and no judgment. Just like his responses to Cohen’s new perils, the looming Mueller investigation, the failures of his superstar legal team to close down the Russia probe, his desire to corrupt and suborn the Justice Department and the intelligence community to protect him from the special counsel are all signs of his contempt for the rule of law.
Your rational mind knows why Trump is doing all of this, but the stress of seeing him lure 40% of the American people into a trap from which there is no escape is often painful to watch. As an anthropologist of Trump and Trumpism, sometimes I feel as if the best thing I do is to remind you that it’s all a lie.
No matter how much he spins it, no matter how many cute brand names and catchphrases he tries to jam into the media flow, at his core, Donald Trump is a man in a rising sea of legal peril, political risk and catastrophic failures. This explains his increasingly erratic behavior and dangerous efforts to corrupt the special counsel process, the Justice Department, and American institutions more broadly.
We can be dragged down into Trump’s wilderness of mirrors , or we can take a deep breath and appreciate just how truly terrible his week was. With Trump, it’s always the worst week, since the last week.
At least next week is Infrastructure Week. We’ll always have Infrastructure Week.