In his latest column, former Republican Andrew Sullivan has a hard hitting, but in my view very accurate portrait of Donald Trump for what he is - and has always been: a con man who things that laws apply to "little people" but not to him. Indeed, his entire real estate career has involved skirting the law wherever possible. The pattern was learned from his father who had a business partner who was a front for Mafia interests. Ethics and legality have never figured high on the Trump priority list. The Donald merely took things to a whole new level. His difficulty, especially in the White House is that the much more detail scrutiny is making it harder and harder to maintain the con, with the requisite number of lies mushrooming. With Michael Cohen's apparent intent to flip on Trump, they lies are moving into stratospheric levels. Here are column highlights:
The leaked tape recording of Michael Cohen and Donald Trump discussing how to handle the payoff to silence yet another extracurricular paramour, Karen McDougal, is more important, it seems to me, than has been generally acknowledged.It’s only a shade under three minutes long. But unlike the Billy Bush tape, Trump is not performing or bragging or trying to charm someone he doesn’t know that well. He’s at work, with an intimate, trusted wingman, every single guard down. It really feels like the actual Trump, the man behind the curtain. And this Trump is quite clearly in charge. He’s not some addled 70-something, delegating large swathes of responsibility for day-to-day operations to underlings. . . . He talks about how some issue will blow over: “I think this goes away quickly … in two weeks; it’s fine.” He then asks Cohen, “Can we use him anymore?” referring to an Evangelical pastor, and Cohen says absolutely.
Then they briefly discuss “the financing” for the National Enquirer’s capture and withholding of the McDougal story.
What this tiny glimpse into reality reveals is something quite simple. It’s not that it’s a shock that Trump has been lying about this incident from the very beginning. That has long been clear. But there’s something about listening to his voice acknowledging this in such a breezy, matter-of-fact tone that exposes the purity of the cynicism behind the lies. “We have no knowledge of any of this,” Trump spokesperson Hope Hicks, had, after all, originally told The Wall Street Journal when it broke the story days before the 2016 election. The idea that Trump had had an affair at all, let alone organized hush money to the National Enquirer, was “totally untrue.” And yet here, as the curtain is pulled back, we hear Trump himself figuring out how to finance its cover-up.
It’s a world-weary operator in sleaze and outright deception, dealing with an item of everyday business. The euphemisms — “info,” “financing,” “our friend David,” etc. — are those of people who know they’re doing something shady. He even talks of “using” a religious-right figure. It’s the tape of a con man, discussing the con with an underling in a kind of consigliere code. And this revelation is therefore dangerous. It demonstrates that Trump is, in fact, just another crooked pol — and does so in his own voice.
Con men usually know that a con has a life span, and not a long one. At some point, it will collapse because it is, in fact, bullshit. By then, the best con men have made the sale — think of “Trump University” — and moved on. They also know that keeping the suckers sealed off from other sources of contrary information is essential until the deal is done. You have to maintain a fiction relentlessly, dismiss or delegitimize external information that might get your marks to think differently, and constantly make the sale.
It has worked many times before. It’s at the root of his entire shady business career. His problem now, however, is that this is the biggest of all cons, if you’re playing at a presidential level, and is also the longest. It has to be sustainable for at least four years. And that’s an extremely long time to keep it alive.
This is why, it seems to me, Trump tweets so often and so aggressively. It’s his chief mechanism for keeping his dupes under his spell, for sustaining the narrative of the con while reality tugs at it. He’s making the sale every news cycle of every day because the alternative is the whole thing crashing to the ground. It’s also why he keeps holding rallies. You need that kind of mass crowd hysteria to sustain a con . . .
And it’s why he has to lie, and lie with greater and greater intensity and frequency.
And sure enough, the rate of Trump’s lies is accelerating, as the con ages. All six of the last six weeks rank in the top ten most dishonest of his presidency, as the indefatigable Daniel Dale has noted. Last Tuesday, Trump actually made the subtext text, in a speech to a Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention: “Just remember, what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening … It’s just a con man getting a little rattled, as his trade war is beginning to wreak havoc in the Midwest.
When you have brazenly declared that such wars are easy to win, and agriculture in the heartland is nonetheless reeling, and manufacturing is increasingly jittery about the cost of imported steel, what else are you going to do? Well, you can bribe the farmers with some $12 billion. Or ask companies and their workers to be patient. But some in the middle of the country will still start doubting — and his polling in three Midwest swing states that gave him the presidency is now slipping.
That VFW appeal — and his visit to Illinois and Dubuque, Iowa, yesterday — is a sign, it seems to me, of a little desperation.
Desperate is insisting that what is clearly the word would — from the tape and the tone and the sentence structure of his Helsinki press conference — is actually the word wouldn’t. Desperate is responding to the Carter Page FISA documents by insisting that they say the opposite of what they actually say.
Desperate is banning a CNN reporter from a press conference because she had previously asked difficult reality-based questions about Michael Cohen — and then quibbling over the term ban.
Desperate is the attempt by some House Republicans to impeach Rod Rosenstein, a move that has not even been cheered by the far-right media, and that is swiftly deflating.
Desperate is doubling down on the “witch-hunt hoax,” while the chief money guy for the Trump Organization, Allen Weisselberg, gets a subpoena, and Michael Cohen’s lawyer says of his client, who knows far too much, “He has hit the reset button; he’s made a turn — to be on his own, speaking the truth.”
No, this is not an unraveling. But the con is definitely fraying badly. And it is not going to get easier to keep patching it up as time goes steadily by.
Sadly, Trump's marks - his base - are only too happy to continue to believe the con. The only other option is to admit that they were played for fools and they happily assumed that role. Their egos make this an unacceptable option, at least for now. But should Michael Cohen and Allen Weisselberg unload what they know, the con will fall apart to the point where denial is near impossible. May that day come very soon.