The edge of the precipice


Donald Trump’s late lawyer, Roy Cohn, first met Trump over 40 years ago:

The 27-year-old Trump was still working for his father’s outer-borough apartment empire, trying to infiltrate the Manhattan real estate world and celebrity social scene. He told Cohn that the Justice Department was suing him and his father for systematically discriminating against prospective black tenants. The government had a solid case, but Cohn advised Trump to fight back and tell the government to “go to hell.” Cohn orchestrated a press conference at the New York Hilton where Trump announced that he was countersuing the government for $100 million, claiming that the Justice Department has used “Gestapo-like tactics” by making false and misleading statements against him and trying to force him to rent apartments to welfare recipients.

The judge threw Trump’s bogus lawsuit out of court and accused Cohn and Trump of “wasting time and paper.” But Cohn persuaded the Justice Department to let Trump settle the case by agreeing not to discriminate in the future while not admitting guilt that he’d discriminated at all. Trump declared victory.

Cohn was known as Trump’s “mentor”, but what Cohn taught Trump is often left unsaid. Namely, it was this:

Trump liked Cohn’s combative win-at-all-costs style and the two quickly became a team. Cohn introduced Trump to his influential friends, telling them that the brash young man was “going to own New York someday.” He taught Trump to never admit mistakes and never apologize.

Cohn also schooled Trump in how to use the media to promote his reputation. Trump soon adopted Cohn’s habit of contacting columnists with self-serving gossip about himself.

From Cohn, Trump learned the “game”. It is the same game that Richard Nixon recounted to his former aide, Ken Clawson, after resigning the presidency in disgrace:

“What starts the process, really, are laughs and slights and snubs when you are a kid,” Nixon said. “But if you are reasonably intelligent and if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence, personal gut performance while those who have everything are sitting on their fat butts.”

“You move out of the alley and on your way. In your own mind you have nothing to lose so you take plenty of chances,” Nixon said. “It is then you understand, for the first time, that you have the advantage because your competitors can’t risk what they have.”

“So you are lean and mean and resourceful,” said Nixon, “and you continue to walk on the edge of the precipice, because over the years you have become fascinated by how close to the edge you can walk without losing your balance”

“You find you can’t stop playing the game the way you’ve always played it because it is part of you and you need it as much as an arm or a leg”

(The line about the “laughs and slights and snubs” reminds me of the infamous 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where Trump vowed to get revenge after President Obama and Seth Meyers unmercifully roasted him. Grievance politics has been, and will always be, the foundation of American conservatism.)

What sticks in my mind is this: “you have become fascinated by how close to the edge you can walk”. Surely it was the same fascination, the same thrill, that 27-year-old Trump felt after being sued by the government and ultimately “declaring victory” over it. The episode undoubtedly bred a sense of impunity in young Trump. Travis Kalanick and Uber, it has been said, realized that asking for forgiveness was easier than asking for permission: that breaking the rules and building an illegal market was a more viable business strategy than waiting for those rules to change. Trump went one step further: he didn’t ask for permission or forgiveness. He broke the rules and sued the rulemakers. He settled privately and boasted publicly. And he wheedled and whined and lied, and through sheer dint of persistence and shamelessness, made those lies come true. (The New York Times apparently found the Trump administration’s unwillingness to apologize newsworthy enough to be the subject of an article a few days ago; they should have mentioned that this was Roy Cohn’s playbook, and Trump has been following it for more than 40 years.)

Forbes reporter Jonathan Greenberg talks about Trump’s ur-lie, about his own wealth:

It took decades to unwind the elaborate farce Trump had enacted to project an image as one of the richest people in America. Nearly every assertion supporting that claim was untrue. Trump wasn’t just poorer than he said he was. Over time, I have learned that he should not have been on the first three Forbes 400 lists at all. In our first-ever list, in 1982, we included him at $100 million, but Trump was actually worth roughly $5 million — a paltry sum by the standards of his super-monied peers — as a spate of government reports and books showed only much later.

In the absence of a functioning balance sheet, the list didn’t just make Trump feel like a winner, according to [Tim] O’Brien [author of TrumpLand]; it may have provided some of the documentation he needed to borrow reckless sums of money — vast loans that he used, for years, to actually make him a winner. “The more often Forbes mentioned him, the more credible Donald’s claim to vast wealth became,” O’Brien said, arguing that Trump and the list were “mutually reinforcing”: “The more credible his claim to vast wealth became, the easier it was for him to get on the Forbes 400 — which became the standard that other media, and apparently some of the country’s biggest banks, used when judging Donald’s riches.”

To recap, Trump (in disguise, as “John Barron”) was the source of the bullshit figures that landed him on the Forbes 400 list, and then used his presence on that list to acquire financing that would justify the original bullshit. It’s the motto of “fake it till you make it” taken to its absurd conclusion.

As Nixon discusses, “[the game] is part of you and you need it as much as an arm or a leg”. Trump became addicted to the game, too. Mere inclusion in the Forbes list was no longer enough. He had to climb yet higher. But to do so, in the world of New York real estate and New Jersey gambling, meant dealing with unsavory and occasionally criminal characters. (Wayne Barrett, investigative journalist and long-time Trump nemesis, explained, “[Trump] saw these mob guys as pathways to money, and Donald is all about money.”) For instance, Trump got into the “ready-mix concrete” construction business, highly vulnerable to labor stoppages because of its short shelf life. To prevent the labor stoppages, he worked with the mob. As David Cay Johnston (author of the excellent The Making of Donald Trump) wrote in Politico,

Salerno and Castellano and other mob families controlled both the concrete business and the unions involved in delivering and pouring it. The risks this created became clear from testimony later by Irving Fischer, the general contractor who built Trump Tower. Fischer said concrete union “goons” once stormed his offices, holding a knife to throat of his switchboard operator to drive home the seriousness of their demands, which included no-show jobs during construction of Trump Tower.

But with Cohn as his lawyer, Trump apparently had no reason to personally fear Salerno or Castellano—at least, not once he agreed to pay inflated concrete prices. What Trump appeared to receive in return was union peace. That meant the project would never face costly construction or delivery delays.

The list of shady characters to whom Trump has been connected is too extensive to recount, but here’s a small sampling. There was Felix Sater, son of a Russian mobster, close friend of Michael Cohen, and an apparently crucial link between the various shady Russian and Ukrainian entities involved in Mueller’s investigation. There was Joseph Weichselbaum, “an embezzler who ran Trump’s personal helicopter service and ferried his most valued clientele.” After Weichselbaum was released from jail, he somehow landed on his feet, “his girlfriend having recently bought two adjoining apartments there for $2.4 million.” And there was Bob Libutti, a high-roller at Trump’s casinos who later accused Trump of improper payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Salvy Testa and Frank Narducci Jr., hitmen for the Scarfo mob, who were overpaid almost a million dollars for real estate Trump bought from them. There’s also the truly byzantine money laundering scheme that connects the Kazakh government and Felix Sater to the Trump Tower SoHo. (A high-level Kazakh official is accused of “conspir[ing] to systematically loot hundreds of millions of dollars of public assets…[and] launder[ing] their ill-gotten gains through a complex web of bank accounts and shell companies . . . particularly in the United States.”)

It’s easy to get lost in the details, the sea of names and web of lies. (It reminds me of what Greenberg said about Trump’s Forbes lies: “I thought that, by reeling Trump back from some of his more outrageous claims, I’d done a public service and exposed the truth. But his confident deceptions were so big that they had an unexpected effect: Instead of believing that they were outright fabrications, my Forbes colleagues and I saw them simply as vain embellishments on the truth.”) So let’s try to look at the big picture instead.

Donald Trump has built a career on lying and illegality. As he has been increasingly shut out of traditional sources of financing, his desperation and concomitant willingness to work with mobsters and charlatans and crooks has only increased. He has operated with impunity because he has faced no punishment. He has not curtailed his behavior because no one has stopped him. He has “continue[d] to walk on the edge of the precipice” because he has not yet fallen off, or, perhaps more aptly, because no one has pushed him.

Until, perhaps, now. Nixon ended his exchange with Clawson in this way:

“So you are lean and mean and resourceful,” said Nixon, “and you continue to walk on the edge of the precipice, because over the years you have become fascinated by how close to the edge you can walk without losing your balance.”

“Only this time there is a difference,” Clawson said.

“Yes, this time there was a difference,” Nixon said softly. “This time we had something to lose.”


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