Almost everything that has occurred during the Trump presidency – his refusal to release tax returns, his praise for authoritarian leaders, his nasty tweets – has been a departure from precedent. Last week, we had another departure: an unsigned op-ed in the New York Times, supposedly written by a senior administration official. It describes the Trump White House as a war zone in which “unsung heroes” are secretly averting multiple disasters that would otherwise be caused by their unhinged and unfit boss.
At the same time, the media is buzzing with excerpts from journalist Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear. It includes on-the-record interviews with senior officials, many named, who paint a similar picture of mismanagement and mayhem in the Oval Office. Again, the world is wondering whether Trump’s long career of getting away with just about anything is finally over.
As I learned when I wrote a book on the Trump family, there’s never been a shortage of explanations for Donald Trump’s seemingly endless series of triumphs. His father’s political and financial clout, his own branding savvy and unsavoury connections, dumb luck, you name it. Each of these factors played a role. But what I noticed above all was his skill at making problems go away.
An early example occurred in 1974, when he went after the option to develop a large property in Manhattan that was owned by the Penn Central Railroad, then in bankruptcy. At the last minute, David Berger, who represented Penn Central stockholders, abruptly shifted from an adamant Trump foe to an ardent supporter, and Trump got the deal he wanted.
For most of his years in business, and especially on The Apprentice, Trump played tough. He took his cue from his father, who urged his sons to be “killers”, and from mob lawyer Roy Cohn, who was known for bullying behaviour and counselled his protégé never to back down. In 2005, Trump told biographer Tim O’Brien that he viewed a man crying as a weakness and spoke admiringly of the mobster John Gotti’s stone face during multiple trials. Perhaps most importantly, his staff were all in on building the Trump brand and kept mostly mum about the boss’s private tantrums.
What’s different now is that, in the White House, Trump is exposed to a degree he’s never experienced. His staff are leaking like crazy, and the press is full of accounts of Trump behaving in a fashion that’s anything but stone-faced. Further, he’s facing a Congress and an executive branch filled with people who see themselves as worse off if he remains in office. Not enough – so far – to topple him, but it’s getting harder and harder for him to rely on the punch-back, double-down, blame-others strategy he’s used with those he couldn’t get to see things his way.
As befits someone raised on The Power of Positive Thinking, the 1950s bestseller by Norman Vincent Peale that served as the Trump family bible, Trump has always had absolute faith in his own accomplishments. But, at this point, even he may be having trouble holding to Peale’s first guideline, which tells the reader to “stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding”, hold to it “tenaciously” and “never think of yourself as failing”.