Writing 2018-09-08

Book Notes – Fire and Fury, Chapter 19

Morning Joe

Morning Joe, the talk show hosted by Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, had a lot to thank Donald Trump for, at least in terms of content. Originally supportive of Trump, the hosts of the show now engaged in a high level of criticism. They lectured him, voiced concerns about him and suggested that he was breaking down mentally. Trump claimed he stopped watching the show out of disgust for how they used him, but Hope Hicks was put in the nerve-wracking position of recounting episodes for him every morning.

Trump and the media had a strange symbiotic relationship. He was a subject that the media could obsess about and the media was a subject he obsessed about. It was kind of co-dependent. Add to this that Trump had a lifelong sense that people were taking advantage of him. He lived in a zero-sum world and could not accept that anyone, anywhere was getting the better of him. He either deserved everything he got, or he was unfairly robbed. There wasn’t much in between. Morning Joe had achieved a lot of success off Trump’s antics and he wanted some revenge.

This was what was behind the June 29 tweet about Mika Brzezinski and her “low IQ” and “bleeding badly from a face-lift”. This was an evolution of Trump attack. Initially, he starts with a “comedic” insult. This then grows into a bitter accusation and then, when it can’t be contained any more, a public attack, usually on his Twitter feed. Liberal outrage follows, which then causes a corresponding right-wing defense of him.

It would be a mistake to think he thinks all this through. He is often surprised at the reaction that he himself generates and might not be fully aware of what he is actually doing. He just doesn’t think beyond the immediate moment and always needs to have the last word. In fact, after the fateful tweet, he convinced himself that he had actually done them a favor. He convinced himself that, by tweeting such a horrible insult, he had created a big ratings moment for them. Ten days later, staffers had almost completely forgotten about the affair, thanks to Trump’s ongoing chaos effect.

It also highlighted an important issue regarding Trump. Working in the White House is a life for bureaucratic wonks. People who can put up with the tedium of meetings and phone calls and general bureaucracy. For all his tweets and all his scandals and all his personal screaming and yelling, Trump had actually achieved almost nothing. He placed Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, but there was little else that he could actually point to. The only thing he could really do is hold everyone’s attention in the worst way possible.

From the perspective of the White House staff, the media was to blame. The media kept sensationalizing everything. They couldn’t figure out why Trump’s tweets couldn’t be hand-waved off as so much venting. That isn’t to say Trump was not blamed as well. He seemed to have little grasp on the idea that his words actually had consequences. This seemed largely because he couldn’t live without some form of attention regardless of how fleeting or negative.

Trump’s Kids

Donald Trump’s sons were basically in some kind submissive state where their father was concerned. Trump disliked anyone smarter than himself, so he made a point of ridiculing the intellect of his sons. In fact Ivanka was the designated “smart person” in the family. Jared was the designated “savvy businessman”, which meant that Don Jr and Eric were the errands and admin people. In actuality, the brothers had become quite good executives largely because Trump himself didn’t like to dwell on details. An added bonus was that, being President, Trump was never at the office.

The two brothers had sort of been pulled into the campaign, partially because Jared pulled them in. Ivanka had pressured Jared into joining to help her control her father. In addition, the brothers didn’t know how the Trump business would be affected if they didn’t keep an eye on him.

Corey Lewandowski, one of the campaign operatives, didn’t think highly of any of the Trump kids, including Jared. None of them knew politics. To the family, Lewandowski was an enabler of Trump’s worst instincts (this was before Bannon took over). With that in mind, the Trump children (including Jared) decided the best thing to do was push out Lewandowski. Don Jr. was particularly interested in this because he wanted Lewandowski’s job (whatever it was).

All of this was prelude to the infamous June 9 meeting where Don Jr, Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort decided to sit down with some Russians in Trump Tower. Don Jr. had been encouraged to do this by Jared and Ivanka based on the idea that it would convince Donald Trump that Don Jr had the chops to be given more authority in the campaign. It was a case of stupid people enthusiastically engaging in stupid behavior.

The Trump Tower Meeting

The meeting was kicked off by an email chain addressed to multiple recipients offering a trove of information from the Russians that featured dirt on Hillary Clinton. There are several theories as to why and how this meeting came to be. One is that the Russians wanted to entrap the Trump campaign for leverage. Another is that the meeting was part of an already established ongoing relationship. This one made sense because Wikileaks started releasing emails shortly after the meeting. Another theory was that everyone involved was just too naive to understand how ill-advised it was to take the meeting. In addition, another theory suggested that Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort only showed up to the meeting to humor Don Jr in his quest to prove he was qualified to take over Lewandowski’s position in the campaign.

Regardless of the reason, no one doubted that Don Jr. would want his father to know of his accomplishments. Bannon himself pointed out that there was no chance that Don Jr would not have done something to make sure his father knew what he was doing. This would have been out of desire for recognition alone.

Everyone involved in the meeting would later insist that nothing untoward happened. Nevertheless, there were three results from the revelation of the meeting. The first was the instant loss of credibility. Everyone involved had insisted no meeting took place. When that was proven, they were all shown to be liars. The second result was that all staffers were dead certain Trump had known about the meeting and possibly met the Russians to boot. The third was yet another demonstration of the stab-them-in-the-back nature of the Trump campaign. Staffers suspected that Kushner’s team had leaked information on the meeting to divert attention and responsibility from Kushner himself and place the blame on Don Jr.

Jared and Ivanka and that Meeting Again

Almost everyone he knew advised Jared against going into the White House. He ignored them and now, six months later, he was in legal jeapardy thanks to the revelation of the meeting. Not only was Jared in danger, so was the family business. As long as he was behind-the-scenes operator his family could continue business without too much scrutiny. By being thrust into the limelight, however, his family’s business dealings also became visible. For Jared himself, jail was becoming a possiblity. For him and his family, bankruptcy. Jared and Ivanka adopted a tactic of blaming everyone but themselves. The meeting, they insisted, was Don Jr.’s idea.

Ivanka was aware the news was going to come out shortly in the New York Times, but she was busy. Around this time she was in Hamburg presenting a plan to have the World Bank create a fund to aid women entrepreneurs in developing countries. White House staffers saw this as a major disconnect from the Trump agenda. It seemed as if literally she was the only one pushing for this. Certainly, neither Trump no Bannon were. Following this she sat in for her father between Chinese President Xi Jingping and British Prime Minister Theresa May at the G20 Conference table. This was an act that was considered remarkably inappropriate, but by this point the story of the meeting had been published and the next priority was to huddle with the family on how to respond. Notably, Sean Spicer and his team were excluded from what was otherwise a very important discussion. Spicer later noted that being cut out of the loop on certain decisions turned out to be a blessing. Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s lawyer who was supposed to protect him from the Russian investigation was on the phone and put on hold for an hour before not being put through.

Trump was insisting that the alibi was that the Russian meeting was all about adoptions and that was it. This was despite the fact that it was not known, but considered likely, that the New York Times had the email chain explaining that the meeting was to get dirt on Clinton. In any case, without consulting anybody from a legal perspective, the statement went out as Trump had dictated. Outside the family, no one else was consulted, leaving many senior staffers alarmed when the statement went out.

On July 9, the Times noted the meeting was specifically about gathering intel on Hillary Clinton. The Times was planning to publish the email chain the next day, but for some reason Don Jr. decided to publish it first. The result was a near daily  count of who had been involved in the meeting.

There was also a larger issue. Steve Bannon’s firewall of lawyers to protect Trump from the Russia investigation had been hopelessly broken. Trump and his family were trying to manifest their own defense and not listening to the actual lawyers. Mark Corallo, the spokesperson for Bannon’s firewall, was told not to speak to the press or answer the phones. Believing that the Trump family engaged in obstruction of justice, he quit. The Jared and Ivanka team later indicated that he had been fired instead.

Jared and Ivanka had determined that the Trump family was not going to be controlled by lawyers and therefore started leaking about Marc Kasowitz with lurid stories of drinking, bad behavior and a damaged personal life. Kasowitz was out soon thereafter. The whole Trump administration was split down the middle between Jared/Ivanka’s side and Bannon’s side. Blame was flowing between the two. Jared and Ivanka took the tactics of distancing themselves from the debacle while pointing out how at-fault Bannon’s team was. Trump himself offered up distractions by going after Sessions again.

Bannon was getting calls asking if he was involved in axing Comey. He in turn called Hope Hicks and verbally castigated her. He confronted her physically the next day, claiming she was doing Jared and Ivanka’s dirty work. His verbal assault was so severe, she ran away sobbing and in the words of one witness, “visibly terrified”. Jared and Ivanka pushed Priebus to refer the incident to White House counsel on the basis of verbal abuse. They wanted to use this to leverage Bannon. For his part, Bannon still thought he had the upper hand. He felt that it was Jared and Ivanka who were going into a panic, not him.

About the author

Erik Hentell: I started out in theater before moving to graphic design. I eventually moved into web design while trying to expand my knowledge on software development. I currently work for a media company helping with their digital assets such as source code archives and ebooks.