A lifetime of bluster and braggadocio fails him

Donald Trump
Not a happy man

| Well, this is a fine kettle of fish. Just enough people in just the right states voted for Donald Trump to make him president. And now that he is, he finds himself in way over his head, unable to bend Washington to his will the way he has plowed through his previous life as a businessman. It's making him frustrated, angry, and desperate.

Despite outward appearances, Donald Trump is a very insecure person. He needs attention like the rest of us need food and water. Although he is 100+ days into his presidency, he continually reprises his electoral victory and stages campaign-style rallies where he tosses out red meat to his adulatory base. When the Republican-controlled House passed on the second go the abomination now known as the American Health Care Act, he invited members to celebrate at the White House where he asked, perhaps rhetorically, "How am I doing? Am I doing okay? I’m president! Hey! I’m president! Can you believe it, right?"

The cloud around his silver lining is the knowledge that it was the interference of the Russians (by hacking into the DNC and releasing damaging emails) and an October surprise from James Comey, of the FBI, who announced just days before the election that more emails had been found (I have no idea what's in them or whether they're new or relevant, but hey, more emails!) that probably tipped the election away from Hillary Clinton and gave the Electoral College win to Trump. He was so insecure that he engaged in a silly attempt to convince us all that more people attended his inauguration than that of Barack Obama eight years earlier, although any damned fool could see with his own two eyes that the Trump crowds were noticeably sparser.

And then there's the Russia thing. Trump's campaign and now his administration is filled with political neophytes with a curious and alarming affinity for all things Russian. Paul Manafort. Michael Flynn. Roger Stone. Carter Page. The list goes on. The US intelligence agencies unanimously concluded that Russia interfered in our election, but Trump refuses to accept that and continues to talk about "if" they interferred. Donald Jr once boasted about how Russian funds were flowing into the Trump organization, but Donald Sr insists he has no Russian business interests, beyond that one time he staged the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow.

Meanwhile, FBI Director James Comey testified at an intelligence committee meeting that there was indeed a months-long counter-intelligence investigation into Russian ties to the Trump campaign, including whether there had been collusion between the campaign and the Russians. 

Trump and Comey
Trump and Comey shake hands during an earlier meeting at the White House

This all came to a head this week when Trump abruptly fired James Comey by delivering a letter to the FBI offices in Washington, even though Comey, himself, was in Los Angeles, where he learned of his dismissal from the TVs playing in the room where he was speaking. To the great surprise of everyone at the White House and nobody else, this set off a firestorm. Trump could not understand why Democrats weren't cheering his decision, since they blamed Comey in part for Hillary's defeat.

In typical Trumpian fashion, Trump kept his staff in the dark and many of them learned about the firing same way Comey did: by watching TV. As a consequence, the White House was all over the map trying to explain what had happened. There was Sean Spicer talking to reporters outside in the dark behind the bushes. There was Kellyann Conway in the driveway holding up a copy of Trump's letter dismissing Comey because Comey had been mean to Hillary Clinton during last year's election! 

Since that first night, the story has continued to shift. The Washington Post has put together a nice timeline of the conflicting explanations for Comey's firing. Then on Thursday, Trump gave an extended interview to Lester Holt of NBC News in which he, Trump, threw all those explanations and his staff — including the Vice President — under the bus by admitting that it was his idea and he was going to fire Comey in any case, regardless of any recommendations he might receive, because, he said, "when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said 'you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story."

Since then, news has been breaking fast and furiously:

Lavrov Trump and Kislyak
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Trump, Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak
(Photo: TASS, the Russian News Agency)

In a parallel universe was the odd meeting at the White House between Trump and the Russian foreign minister and ambassador to the US. Pictures of the meeting came to us courtesy of TASS, the Russian News Agency, because US reporters and photographers had been banned from the Oval Office! There they were, the three of them, yukking it up. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is known to have a sense of humor anyway, and the ambassador, Sergey Kislyak is the same Sergey Kislyak that so many Trump associates had conversations with during the campaign and transition! That would include Michael Flynn, the ousted National Security Advisor and Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, now the Attorney General.

Of course they're all happy! The Russian's guy won the election, he refuses to say an unkind word about Vladimir Putin, and investigations are in danger of being derailed by all the shenanigans.

What's Trump covering up?

It is perfectly clear that a coverup is happening. The intriguing question is what is behind the coverup. It must be something really, really big — yuuge if you will — to cause Trump to go to such extraordinary lengths to try to  make the Russia investigation "come to its conclusion."

One possibility is that Trump is afraid the investigation will turn up actual collusion between his campaign and the Russians. But I don't think that's it. Trump is, after all, the candidate who boasted that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and wouldn't lose any votes. His voters are sticking with him and are unlikely to be dissuaded by news that, say, Trump's campaign coordinated the Wikileaks release of DNC emails with the Russians. No, it has to be something bigger, something that would pose an existential threat to Trump.

What is it that Trump cares most about? Himself. Trump is a singularly self-centered person whose only value is his own self-promotion and wealth. Whatever he is afraid of, it has the potential to shred his cultivated self-image as a successful, very important person. My own guess is that the answer to this puzzle will be found by following the money (yet another echo of Watergate).

Today Trump released a letter written by his attorneys asserting that based on a review of Trump's taxes, he did not have Russian income or debt, with "few exceptions." As tax and financial experts were quick to point out, the letter wasn't worth a hill of beans as proof of anything since it was all about direct transactions and did not consider the possibility of indirect transactions through third-parties or through countries like Cyprus or the Cayman Islands. Venturing a guess, I'd say that what Trump is trying to cover up is money laundering through his Byzantine company structure. And money-laundering is something you can go to jail for. The most posh white-collar jail we have will not have gold-plated bars or rococo furniture in the style of the Palace of Versailles. Yep, that would shred Trump's self-image.

It's also worth remembering that the father of Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was convicted of illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion, and witness tampering; he spent time in federal prison, thanks to prosecution by Chris Christie. That example has to eat away at the corners of Trump's mind.

Trump never really expected to win the election and never considered how his life as a wheeler-dealer would translate to Washington. But now that he did win and the klieg lights are on him, he's realizing just how exposed he is. All his life he's skated very close to the edge and now he's in danger of going over. It's panic, pure and simple: unreasoning consuming fear that causes hysterical activity.

Ann Telnaes
Ann Telnaes
Signe Wilkinson
Signe Wilkinson

Last updated on May 12, 2017

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