The Real Donald Trump Is a Character on TV

Understand that, and you’ll understand what he’s doing in the White House.

On Sept. 1, with a Category 5 hurricane off the Atlantic coast, an angry wind was issuing from the direction of President Trump’s Twitter account. The apparent emergency: Debra Messing, the co-star of “Will & Grace,” had tweeted that “the public has a right to know” who is attending a Beverly Hills fund-raiser for Mr. Trump’s re-election.

“I have not forgotten that when it was announced that I was going to do The Apprentice, and when it then became a big hit, Helping NBC’s failed lineup greatly, @DebraMessing came up to me at an Upfront & profusely thanked me, even calling me ‘Sir,’ ” wrote the 45th president of the United States.

It was a classic Trumpian ragetweet: aggrieved over a minor slight, possibly prompted by a Fox News segment, unverifiable — he has a long history of questionable tales involving someone calling him “Sir” — and nostalgic for his primetime-TV heyday. (By Thursday he was lashing Ms. Messing again, as Hurricane Dorian was lashing the Carolinas.)

This is a futile effort. Try to understand Donald Trump as a person with psychology and strategy and motivation, and you will inevitably spiral into confusion and covfefe. The key is to remember that Donald Trump is not a person. He’s a TV character.

I mean, O.K., there is an actual person named Donald John Trump, with a human body and a childhood and formative experiences that theoretically a biographer or therapist might usefully delve into someday. (We can only speculate about the latter; Mr. Trump has boasted on Twitter of never having seen a psychiatrist, preferring the therapeutic effects of “hit[ting] ‘sleazebags’ back.”)

But that Donald Trump is of limited significance to America and the world. The “Donald Trump” who got elected president, who has strutted and fretted across the small screen since the 1980s, is a decades-long media performance. To understand him, you need to approach him less like a psychologist and more like a TV critic.

He was born in 1946, at the same time that American broadcast TV was being born. He grew up with it. His father, Fred, had one of the first color TV sets in Jamaica Estates. In “The Art of the Deal” Donald Trump recalls his mother, Mary Anne, spending a day in front of the tube, enraptured by the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. (“For Christ’s sake, Mary,” he remembers his father saying, “Enough is enough, turn it off. They’re all a bunch of con artists.”)

TV was his soul mate. It was like him. It was packed with the razzle-dazzle and action and violence that captivated him. He dreamed of going to Hollywood, then he shelved those dreams in favor of his father’s business and vowed, according to the book “TrumpNation” by Timothy O’Brien, to “put show business into real estate.”

As TV evolved from the homogeneous three-network mass medium of the mid-20th century to the polarized zillion-channel era of cable-news fisticuffs and reality shocker-tainment, he evolved with it. In the 1980s, he built a media profile as an insouciant, high-living apex predator. In 1990, he described his yacht and gilded buildings to Playboy as “Props for the show … The show is ‘Trump’ and it is sold-out performances everywhere.”

He syndicated that show to Oprah, Letterman, NBC, WrestleMania and Fox News. Everything he achieved, he achieved by using TV as a magnifying glass, to make himself appear bigger than he was.

He was able to do this because he thought like a TV camera. He knew what TV wanted, what stimulated its nerve endings. In his campaign rallies, he would tell The Washington Post, he knew just what to say “to keep the red light on”: that is, the light on a TV camera that showed that it was running, that you mattered. Bomb the [redacted] out of them! I’d like to punch him in the face! The red light radiated its approval. Cable news aired the rallies start to finish. For all practical purposes, he and the camera shared the same brain.

Even when he adopted social media, he used it like TV. First, he used it like a celebrity, to broadcast himself, his first tweet in 2009 promoting a “Late Show With David Letterman” appearance. Then he used it like an instigator, tweeting his birther conspiracies before he would talk about them on Fox News, road-testing his call for a border wall during the cable-news fueled Ebola and border panics of the 2014 midterms.

When he was a candidate, and especially when he was president, his tweets programmed TV and were amplified by it. On CNBC, a “BREAKING NEWS: TRUMP TWEET” graphic would spin out onscreen as soon as the words left his thumbs. He would watch Fox News, or Lou Dobbs, or CNN or “Morning Joe” or “Saturday Night Live” (“I don’t watch”), and get mad, and tweet. Then the tweets would become TV, and he would watch it, and tweet again.

If you want to understand what President Trump will do in any situation, then, it’s more helpful to ask: What would TV do? What does TV want?

It wants conflict. It wants excitement. If there is something that can blow up, it should blow up. It wants a fight. It wants more. It is always eating and never full.

Some presidential figure-outers, trying to understand the celebrity president through a template that they were already familiar with, have compared him with Ronald Reagan: a “master showman” cannily playing a “role.”

The comparison is understandable, but it’s wrong. Presidents Reagan and Trump were both entertainers who applied their acts to politics. But there’s a crucial difference between what “playing a character” means in the movies and what it means on reality TV.

Ronald Reagan was an actor. Actors need to believe deeply in the authenticity and interiority of people besides themselves — so deeply that they can subordinate their personalities to “people” who are merely lines on a script. Acting, Reagan told his biographer Lou Cannon, had taught him “to understand the feelings and motivations of others.”

Being a reality star, on the other hand, as Donald Trump was on “The Apprentice,” is also a kind of performance, but one that’s antithetical to movie acting. Playing a character on reality TV means being yourself, but bigger and louder.

Reality TV, writ broadly, goes back to Allen Funt’s “Candid Camera,” the PBS documentary “An American Family,” and MTV’s “The Real World.” But the first mass-market reality TV star was Richard Hatch, the winner of the first season of “Survivor” — produced by Mark Burnett, the eventual impresario of “The Apprentice”— in the summer of 2000.

Mr. Hatch won that first season in much the way that Mr. Trump would run his 2016 campaign. He realized that the only rules were that there were no rules. He lied and backstabbed and took advantage of loopholes, and he argued — with a telegenic brashness — that this made him smart. This was a crooked game in a crooked world, he argued to a final jury of players he’d betrayed and deceived. But, hey: At least he was open about it!

While shooting that first season, the show’s crew was rooting for Rudy Boesch, a 72-year-old former Navy SEAL and model of hard work and fair play. “The only outcome nobody wanted was Richard Hatch winning,” the host, Jeff Probst, would say later. It “would be a disaster.” After all, decades of TV cop shows had taught executives the iron rule that the viewers needed the good guy to win.

But they didn’t. “Survivor” was addictively entertaining, and audiences loved-to-hate the wryly devious Richard the way they did Tony Soprano and, before him, J.R. Ewing. More than 50 million people watched the first-season finale, and “Survivor” has been on the air nearly two decades.

From Richard Hatch, we got a steady stream of Real Housewives, Kardashians, nasty judges, dating-show contestants who “didn’t come here to make friends” and, of course, Donald Trump.

Reality TV has often gotten a raw deal from critics. (Full disclosure: I still watch “Survivor.”) Its audiences, often dismissed as dupes, are just as capable of watching with a critical eye as the fans of prestige cable dramas. But when you apply its mind-set — the law of the TV jungle — to public life, things get ugly.

In reality TV — at least competition reality shows like “The Apprentice” — you do not attempt to understand other people, except as obstacles or objects. To try to imagine what it is like to be a person other than yourself (what, in ordinary, off-camera life, we call “empathy”) is a liability. It’s a distraction that you have to tune out in order to project your fullest you.

Reality TV instead encourages “getting real.” On MTV’s progressive, diverse “Real World,” the phrase implied that people in the show were more authentic than characters on scripted TV — or even than real people in your own life, who were socially conditioned to “be polite.” But “getting real” would also resonate with a rising conservative notion: that political correctness kept people from saying what was really on their minds.

Being real is not the same thing as being honest. To be real is to be the most entertaining, provocative form of yourself. It is to say what you want, without caring whether your words are kind or responsible — or true — but only whether you want to say them. It is to foreground the parts of your personality (aggression, cockiness, prejudice) that will focus the red light on you, and unleash them like weapons.

Maybe the best definition of being real came from the former “Apprentice” contestant and White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman in her memoir, “Unhinged.” Mr. Trump, she said, encouraged people in his entourage to “exaggerate the unique part of themselves.” When you’re being real, there is no difference between impulse and strategy, because the “strategy” is to do what feels good.

This is why it misses a key point to ask, as Vanity Fair recently did after Mr. Trump’s assault on Representative Elijah E. Cummings and the city of Baltimore in July, “Is the president a racist, or does he just play one on TV?” In reality TV, if you are a racist — and reality TV has had many racists, like Katie Hopkins, the far-right British “Apprentice” star the president frequently retweets — then you are a racist and you play one on TV.

So if you actually want a glimpse into the mind of Donald J. Trump, don’t look for a White House tell-all or some secret childhood heartbreak. Go to the streaming service Tubi, where his 14 seasonsof “The Apprentice” recently became accessible to the public.

You can fast-forward past the team challenges and the stagey visits to Trump-branded properties. They’re useful in their own way, as a picture of how Mr. Burnett buttressed the future president’s Potemkin-zillionaire image. But the unadulterated, 200-proof Donald Trump is found in the boardroom segments, at the end of each episode, in which he “fires” one contestant.

In theory, the boardroom is where the best performers in the week’s challenges are rewarded and the screw-ups punished. In reality, the boardroom is a new game, the real game, a free-for-all in which contestants compete to throw one another under the bus and beg Mr. Trump for mercy.

There is no morality in the boardroom. There is no fair and unfair in the boardroom. There is only the individual, trying to impress Mr. Trump, to flatter Mr. Trump, to commune with his mind and anticipate his whims and fits of pique. Candidates are fired for

  • being too nice to their adversaries (weak), for
  • giving credit to their teammates, for
  • interrupting him.

The host’s decisions were often so mercurial, producers have said, that they would have to go back and edit the episodes to impose some appearance of logic on them.

What saves you in the boardroom? Fighting. Boardroom Trump loves to see people fight each other. He perks up at it like a cat hearing a can opener. He loves to watch people scrap for his favor (as they eventually would in his White House). He loves asking contestants to rat out their teammates and watching them squirm with conflict. The unity of the team gives way to disunity, which in the Trumpian worldview is the most productive state of being.

 

And America loved boardroom Trump — for a while. He delivered his catchphrase in TV cameos and slapped it on a reissue of his 1980s Monopoly knockoff Trump: The Game. (“I’m back and you’re fired!”) But after the first season, the ratings dropped; by season four they were nearly half what they were in season one.

He reacted to his declining numbers by ratcheting up what worked before: becoming a louder, more extreme, more abrasive version of himself. He gets more insulting in the boardroom — “You hang out with losers and you become a loser”— and executes double and quadruple firings.

It’s a pattern that we see as he advances toward his re-election campaign, with an eye not on the Nielsen ratings but on the polls: The only solution for any given problem was a Trumpier Trump.

Did it work for “The Apprentice”? Yes and no. His show hung on to a loyal base through 14 seasons, including the increasingly farcical celebrity version. But it never dominated its competition again, losing out, despite his denials, to the likes of the sitcom “Mike & Molly.”

Donald Trump’s “Apprentice” boardroom closed for business on Feb. 16, 2015, precisely four months before he announced his successful campaign for president. And also, it never closed. It expanded. It broke the fourth wall. We live inside it now.

Now, Mr. Trump re-creates the boardroom’s helter-skelter atmosphere every time he opens his mouth or his Twitter app. In place of the essentially dead White House press briefing, he walks out to the lawn in the morning and reporters gaggle around him like “Apprentice” contestants awaiting the day’s task. He rails and complains and establishes the plot points for that day’s episode:

  • Greenland!
  • Jews!
  • “I am the chosen one!”

Then cable news spends morning to midnight happily masticating the fresh batch of outrages before memory-wiping itself to prepare for tomorrow’s episode. Maybe this sounds like a TV critic’s overextended metaphor, but it’s also the president’s: As The Times has reported, before taking office, he told aides to think of every day as “an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals.”

Mr. Trump has been playing himself instinctually as a character since the 1980s; it’s allowed him to maintain a profile even through bankruptcies and humiliations. But it’s also why, on the rare occasions he’s had to publicly attempt a role contrary to his naturecalling for healing from a script after a mass shooting, for instance — he sounds as stagey and inauthentic as an unrehearsed amateur doing a sitcom cameo.

His character shorthand is “Donald Trump, Fighter Guy Who Wins.” Plop him in front of a camera with an infant orphaned in a mass murder, and he does not have it in his performer’s tool kit to do anything other than smile unnervingly and give a fat thumbs-up.

This is what was lost on commentators who kept hoping wanly that this State of the Union or that tragedy would be the moment he finally became “presidential.” It was lost on journalists who felt obligated to act as though every modulated speech from a teleprompter might, this time, be sincere.

The institution of the office is not changing Donald Trump, because he is already in the sway of another institution. He is governed not by the truisms of past politics but by the imperative of reality TV: never de-escalate and never turn the volume down.

This conveniently echoes the mantra he learned from his early mentor, Roy Cohn: Always attack and never apologize. He serves up one “most shocking episode ever” after another, mining uglier pieces of his core each time: progressing from profanity about Haiti and Africa in private to publicly telling four minority American congresswomen, only one of whom was born outside the United States, to “go back” to the countries they came from.

  • The taunting.
  • The insults.
  • The dog whistles.
  • The dog bullhorns.
  • The “Lock her up” and “Send her back.”

All of it follows reality-TV rules. Every season has to top the last. Every fight is necessary, be it against Ilhan Omar or Debra Messing. Every twist must be more shocking, every conflict more vicious, lest the red light grow bored and wink off. The only difference: Now there’s no Mark Burnett to impose retroactive logic on the chaos, only press secretaries, pundits and Mike Pence.

To ask whether any of this is “instinct” or “strategy” is a parlor game. If you think like a TV camera — if thinking in those reflexive microbursts of adrenaline and testosterone has served you your whole life — then the instinct is the strategy.

And to ask who the “real” Donald Trump is, is to ignore the obvious. You already know who Donald Trump is. All the evidence you need is right there on your screen. He’s half-man, half-TV, with a camera for an eye that is constantly focused on itself. The red light is pulsing, 24/7, and it does not appear to have an off switch.

It’s Alan Dershowitz vs. David Boies, again and again

In the twilight of the ceaselessly dueling courtroom gods, legacies wobble and crack.

Once, they were unquestioned giants of the legal profession. David Boies, the slayer of Microsoft’s monopoly, the man Al Gore turned to in hopes of salvaging his bid for the presidency. Alan Dershowitz, one of the intellectual bulwarks of the O.J. Simpson defense team, the tactician immortalized on the big screen for reversing the murder conviction of socialite Claus von Bülow.

But now, as they reach an age when other esteemed elder statesmen of the bar might be basking in acclaim for their life’s work, the 78-year-old Boies and the 80-year-old Dershowitz are brutally yoked in a subplot of the Jeffrey Epstein sex trafficking case. Their link became even tighter and more complicated this past weekend when the disgraced multimillionaire was found dead of an apparent suicide at a federal detention center in New York where he was awaiting trial on new sex trafficking charges. Epstein’s death occurred the day after newly unsealed court documents claimed he had a voracious sexual appetite for underage girls and detailed the alleged methods he and his friends used to recruit them.

The clash between Dershowitz and Boies, and its offshoots, have spawned lawsuits, swarms of stinging court documents, ferocious accusations, angry television appearances, a secretly taped call and more. In this long-running melodrama, Boies and his partners at Boies Schiller Flexner represent one of Epstein’s accusers, Virginia Roberts Giuffre — who was a teenage locker-room attendant at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort when she met Epstein. Giuffre has alleged that Epstein demanded that she have sex with him repeatedly when she was underage and lent her for sex to his friends, including Dershowitz.

Dershowitz finds himself labeled as an alleged sex abuser in a personal affidavit by Boies, a claim he has volcanically denied. Dershowitz’s effort to counter the accusations has been made all the more nettlesome because his long-ago representation of Epstein has come under greater scrutiny following Epstein’s arrest last month. Dershowitz, an emeritus Harvard University law professor, is also fending off a defamation suit filed by Giuffre, set for key oral arguments next month, in which Boies has become a vital player.

Because Epstein’s death will end his criminal case, the Giuffre defamation action against Dershowitz could be one of the dwindling number of cases that would allow for the full public airing of numerous accusations against Epstein that his alleged victims have long sought.

As the Boies-Dershowitz conflict has dragged on, Boies, his partners and his allies have tarred Dershowitz in personal affidavits related to a bar complaint and a defamation lawsuit for allegedly bedding Giuffre when she was an underage teenager. In court filings, they portray Dershowitz, who has never been charged with a sex crime, as a liar and a sneak who secretly recorded a call with a fellow lawyer.

“After extensive consideration of everything Mr. Dershowitz told and showed me, I ultimately concluded that his denials were not credible,” Boies wrote in an affidavit included in Giuffre’s defamation suit against Dershowitz. (Giuffre sued Dershowitz because of numerous statements he made in media interviews, including calling her a “certified, complete, total liar” and saying that “she simply made up the entire story for money.”)

Meanwhile, Dershowitz has painted Boies as a corrupt attorney with a long trail of ethical lapses, a cheat and the head of a criminal enterprise.

I believe the law firm of Boies Schiller is a RICO,” Dershowitz said in a recent interview at his New York apartment, citing the acronym used for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a law frequently used against the mafia. “I believe they are the law firm of extortion, subornation of perjury and other crimes.”

Boies declined repeated interview requests and did not respond to written questions that specifically referenced the RICO allegation, as well as other assertions made by Dershowitz. Giuffre’s attorneys did not respond to requests for comment.

Named in a court filing

The mudslinging between two of America’s most famous and celebrated attorneys tracks to the wee hours of Jan. 22, 2015, when the men were casual acquaintances and occasional confidants. Dershowitz, a ubiquitous TV presence, awoke early that morning at his New York apartment and headed to Rockefeller Center, where he was scheduled to appear on NBC’s “Today” show to discuss the sex allegations made by Giuffre.

On the way, Dershowitz seethed.

Three weeks earlier, his name had surfaced in a court filing by Giuffre, who was then known only as Jane Doe No. 3, asking to join a lawsuit related to the Epstein case. The suit alleged that Epstein’s victims hadn’t been notified in advance of a non-prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors after the wealthy financier was arrested on suspicion of sex trafficking involving minors.

It wasn’t the substance of the complaint about victim notification that was most important to Dershowitz, though. Instead, he was incensed that the filing asserted that Giuffre had been lent to Britain’s Prince Andrew for sex and to Dershowitz, whom she alleged had sex with her at Epstein’s private island, his Palm Beach estate, his New Mexico ranch, his New York mansion and on his private plane.

Dershowitz and the prince adamantly denied the accusations at the time. Dershowitz and Buckingham Palace, speaking on behalf of Andrew, also issued strongly worded denials last week when the court documents were unsealed.

On “Today” that day in 2015, Dershowitz went nuclear. He accused Giuffre of filing “perjured” court papers and said, “She is categorically lying and making the whole thing up.”

Dershowitz has bolstered his contention that Giuffre cannot be trusted by referencing claims that she has made about having dinner with former president Bill Clinton on Epstein’s island. Dershowitz took it upon himself to investigate the Clinton allegation and to clear his name. He hired a security firm headed by former FBI director Louis Freeh to investigate.

Through Freedom of Information Act requests, the firm determined that Clinton could not have been on Epstein’s island during the time period when Giuffre said she had dinner with him. A summary of findings prepared by the Freeh firm states that the FOIA records “completely undermine [Giuffre’s] credibility.” The firm also said it found no evidence to support the sex allegations against Dershowitz.


Attorney Alan Dershowitz. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

Unsealed records

Last week, Dershowitz also gained what might be a potent weapon in his quest to impeach Giuffre’s credibility in the newly unsealed court documents. The papers relate to a defamation suit filed against Ghislaine Maxwell, whom Giuffre and others have accused of procuring girls and women for Epstein. The suit was settled for an undisclosed amount in 2017. The records were unsealed at the request of several news organizations, including The Washington Post and the Miami Herald, which published a series of articles about Epstein’s alleged abuses prior to his recent arrest.

Among the documents was a 2011 email sent to Giuffre from Sharon Churcher, a journalist for the British tabloid the Mail on Sunday, that Dershowitz contends is proof that Giuffre was being encouraged to lie about him. The email appears to reference a book proposal Giuffre was compiling.

“Don’t forget Alan Dershowitz . . . JE’s buddy and lawyer,” Churcher writes to Giuffre in an apparent reference to Jeffrey Epstein’s initials. “Good name for your pitch as he repped Claus von Bulow and a movie was made about that case . . . title was Reversal of Fortune. We all suspect Alan is a pedo and tho no proof of that, you probably met him when he was hanging put [sic] w JE.”

Churcher did not respond to a request for an interview.

The famed law professor’s campaign to refute Giuffre’s allegations created a pile of legal trouble because of the words he chose. While defending himself, he also cast aspersions on the character and ethics of the two attorneys representing Giuffre in her attempt to join the lawsuit related to notifying Epstein’s victims.

Dershowitz had said in a television interview that the attorneys — Florida-based Brad Edwards and former federal judge Paul Cassell — were “prepared to lie, cheat and steal.” He had described Cassell as “essentially a crook.” (Cassell and Edwards did not respond to interview requests.)

Cassell and Edwards responded in the way lawyers might be expected to — they sued him for defamation.

Despite the lawsuit, Dershowitz continued to vociferously and publicly defend himself.

In Florida, an attorney in ­Boies’s firm named Carlos Sires was watching “Today” when Dershowitz appeared. He reached out via email to Dershowitz offering to help him with the dispute and later discussed the possibility of representing him. (Dershowitz has said he considered Sires his attorney at that point, a contention that Sires has disputed in an affidavit attached to a bar complaint Dershowitz later filed against Boies.)

Sires also said in the affidavit that he was not aware at the time of his initial contact with Dershowitz that other lawyers in his firm were representing Giuffre in a separate case. That digital note set in motion a cascading series of events that have put Dershowitz and Boies at odds for the past four years. (Sires could not be reached for comment.)

The dispute centered on Dershowitz’s claim that Sires reviewed confidential material about the defamation case filed against Dershowitz by Edwards and Cassell. About a week later, Boies determined that there was a conflict that Sires had not known about and the firm notified Dershowitz that it couldn’t represent him.

Dershowitz was angry, concluding that the firm sneakily got inside information about his defense in order to gain an advantage, according to interviews with Dershowitz. Boies has dismissed that suggestion, saying in a personal affidavit connected to the Florida bar complaint Dershowitz later filed against him that material Sires reviewed was nothing more than a recap of Dershowitz’s public statements.

What Dershowitz didn’t know at the time was that Boies, the man who would become his nemesis, had been in contact with Giuffre for nearly six months. Boies was contacted in June 2014 by Stanley Pottinger, an attorney who was the former head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, about representing Giuffre, according to an affidavit by Boies included in Giuffre’s ongoing case against Dershowitz.

Although Giuffre had two attorneys, Pottinger thought she needed more legal help because he expected her to “become the target of vicious attacks” by people she accused of sex abuse, according to an affidavit Pottinger wrote that is included in Giuffre’s ongoing case against Dershowitz.

The next month, Boies met with Giuffre in New York, according to his affidavit, and he asked Pottinger to vet Giuffre’s claims. Satisfied that she was credible, Boies agreed that his firm would take her on as a client, although he says the firm did no work related to her until November. Boies said in the affidavit that partner Sigrid McCawley represented Giuffre while she was a witness in the defamation suit filed in January 2015 by Edwards and Cassell.

Eventually, Dershowitz came to allege even darker motives for Sires’s outreach after the “Today” interview. He developed a complicated extortion theory involving Boies after being contacted in April 2015 by one of Giuffre’s friends — a woman named Rebecca Boylan — who’d seen coverage of the scandal and agreed to speak with him in a tape-recorded conversationDershowitz said in an interview. He played the tape for The Post, but did not let the news organization have a copy,

Boylan, according to Dershowitz’s account of the conversation, told him that Giuffre had never mentioned having sex with him. She added that Giuffre had told her she had been urged by her lawyers to name Dershowitz.

She felt pressure to do it, she didn’t want to go after you personally,” Boylan said, according to Dershowitz’s tape of the conversation. “She felt pressured by her lawyers.”

But that wasn’t all. Boylan also said that naming Dershowitz was a step in a plan to win an enormous settlement from the founder and CEO of the parent company of Victoria’s Secret, the lingerie giant. Dershowitz knew Boylan was referring to Leslie Wexner, a billionaire who was a close friend and mentor to Epstein.

They wanted to sue him for at least half his money,” Boylan said, according to Dershowitz’s tape .

Dershowitz also claims that Boies and his firm were attempting to send a message to Wexner, whom Giuffre had not publicly accused at that point of having sex with her at the behest of Epstein, although she later would. The message, according to Dershowitz, was that Wexner would be publicly shamed, in the same way that Dershowitz had been, if he didn’t pay up.

Boies wrote in his response to Dershowitz’s Florida bar complaint that neither he nor McCawley had been involved in the decision to name Dershowitz and has denied attempting to extort Wexner. He also wrote that “no settlement demand was ever made, or even discussed with, Mr. Wexner or his counsel.”

(Wexner declined to be interviewed, and Boylan could not be reached for comment.)


Lawyer David Boies. (Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters)

A secretly taped call

Still, Dershowitz was eager to persuade Boies that he was innocent, according to interviews with Dershowitz and accounts of their interactions included in an affidavit by Boies. The two men began a series of meetings between May and July 2015, according to Boies’s affidavit.

Among the items Dershowitz showed Boies, according to Dershowitz, were detailed calendars that he cited as definitive proof that he could not have been at Epstein’s island, ranch, Palm Beach mansion or on his private plane during the time period when Giuffre said he was having sex with her. (Dershowitz keeps a massive spreadsheet handy at his New York apartment to show the reporters he’s courted to tell his version of events.)

The two lawyers have different memories of those meetings. Dershowitz has asserted in interviews with The Post that Boies told him during those meetings that Giuffre must have mistaken him for someone else. Boies wrote in his affidavit that Dershowitz’s account “is not true.” Among the data points Boies cites in his affidavit is a lie-detector test that he says Giuffre passed. (Results of such tests are seldom deemed admissible in court.)

Later in 2015, Dershowitz took the unusual step of secretly taping a call with Boies. Dershowitz played the tape, which is muffled and cuts off at points, for The Post, but did not allow the newspaper to have a copy. On the tape, Boies appears to say he and one of his partners are convinced Giuffre’s claim of having sex with Dershowitz is “wrong.” Boies said in his affidavit that he never told Dershowitz that Giuffre wasn’t telling the truth.

In Giuffre’s defamation case against Dershowitz, two of Boies’s partners assert that the taping was “a violation of the canons of ethics.” They also say Boies was merely discussing a hypothetical and that he believed all along that Giuffre was telling the truth. Dershowitz has said the taping was entirely legal because at the time he was in New York, which only requires the consent of one of the parties on the call for a legal taping.

Armed with what he thought was a plausible extortion theory and with his taped evidence, Dershowitz went to war.

In 2017, he filed the bar complaint against Boies in Florida. The document lays out his allegations about the Boies firm’s handling of the defamation case filed against him by Edwards and Cassell, and then goes on to read almost like a lengthy Wikipedia article about controversies during what he describes as the Boies firm’s “long and sordid history.” He cites a 2012 case in which a New York judge chided Boies’s firm, saying “a clearer conflict of interest cannot be imagined. A first-year law student on day one of an ethics course should be able to spot it.”

Dershowitz also summarized the controversy over a potential conflict spurred by Boies serving on the board of directors and as a lawyer for Theranos, the scandal-plagued blood-testing start-up.

The bar complaint, which was obtained by The Post, surfaced shortly after Boies was enmeshed in a major conflict-of-interest scandal in 2017 involving the famed movie producer Harvey Weinstein, who was being accused in a series of sexual abuse incidents. At the time, Boies was getting a torrent of bad publicity because of the revelation in media reports that he was representing the New York Times in legal matters without telling the newspaper that he was simultaneously representing Weinstein, who was being investigated by Times reporters. Boies also secretly oversaw an effort to undermine the paper’s reporting by hiring a firm that employed former agents of the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, to collect information on Times reporters and Weinstein’s alleged victims.

The Times cut ties with Boies and issued a blistering statement.

“We learned today that the law firm of Boies Schiller and Flexner secretly worked to stop our reporting on Harvey Weinstein at the same time as the firm’s lawyers were representing us in other matters. We consider this intolerable conduct, a grave betrayal of trust, and a breach of the basic professional standards that all lawyers are required to observe.” It added: “We never contemplated that the law firm would contract with an intelligence firm to conduct a secret spying operation aimed at our reporting and our reporters. Such an operation is reprehensible.”

Boies had signed the contract with the spy group, but later tried to distance himself from its work.

“I regret having done this,” Boies said in an email sent to his staff that was published by New York magazine. “It was a mistake to contract with, and pay on behalf of a client, investigators who we did not select and did not control. I would never knowingly participate in an effort to intimidate or silence women or anyone else. . . . That is not who I am.”

Dershowitz seized on the Times imbroglio to press his argument in public that Boies is an unethical lawyer.

No lawyer in modern American history has ever been more credibly accused of more ethical violations than David Boies and his law firm,” Dershowitz said in a recent interview with The Post.

In 2017, Boies’s firm issued a statement in response to Dershowitz’s conflict-of-interest allegations, saying: “Over the years, there have been some bar complaints filed against Mr. Boies. Each of them was filed by an unhappy adverse party; none was filed by a client. No disciplinary action was ever taken.”

The dispute goes on

The feud between Dershowitz and Boies is well known in legal circles, where both men have earned stellar reputations over the years.

“People can have grudges and sometimes things get heated between lawyers, but based on headlines about two people I’ve worked with, who are talented, smart and committed to their clients, we just don’t have enough information to make a judgment,” said Lawrence Fox, a Yale Law professor and former chairman of the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility who has worked alongside both men.

As the months have passed, one by one, Dershowitz’s broadsides against Boies and his allies have cratered. He settled the defamation case filed by Cassell and Edwards, Giuffre’s attorneys, before Boies and his partners came on the scene.

Earlier this year, the Florida bar complaint against Boies got tossed out.

But their dispute continues, with the next field of battle in New York, where Giuffre’s defamation case against Dershowitz — with a potential star plaintiff’s witness named David Boies — trudges on. Boies is a potential witness because he could be called to testify about his interactions with Dershowitz and about Dershowitz’s extortion theory. That means that Dershowitz, the 80-year-old, and Boies, the 78-year-old, will tangle again as the elder party in the grudge match tries to get the younger one’s law firm barred from representing Giuffre in the defamation suit against Dershowitz.

And so it has gone for years, an endless cycle of enmity playing out on a continuous loop. This clash of the titans is so persistent and many-tentacled that one could imagine it outliving the legal giants it has consumed.

The Trump-Russia Investigation and the Mafia State

many of us who write about Russia professionally, or who are Russian, have struggled to square what we know with the emerging narrative. In this story, Russia waged a sophisticated and audacious operation to subvert American elections and install a President of its choice—it pulled off a coup. Tell that to your average American liberal, and you’ll get a nod of recognition. Tell it to your average Russian liberal (admittedly a much smaller category), and you’ll get uproarious laughter. Russians know that their state lacks the competence to mount a sophisticated sabotage effort, that the Kremlin was even more surprised by Trump’s election than was the candidate himself, and that Russian-American relations are at their most dysfunctional since the height of the Cold War. And yet the indictments keep coming.

.. I mean that I’ve figured out how to think about what we know and not go crazy. The answer lies in the concept of the Mafia state. (And, no, I’m not invoking the Mob because Stone encouraged an associate to behave like a character from “The Godfather Part II,” as detailed in his indictment.)

As journalists who usually cover American politics have connected the dots of the story of Russian interference, those of us who normally write about Russia have cringed. Early on, it was common to point out that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, who is now under arrest, worked for Viktor Yanukovych, who is often characterized as the “pro-Russian President of Ukraine.” In fact, there was no love lost between Putin and Yanukovych. After he was run out of town, during the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, Yanukovych did seek refuge in Russia, but during his tenure as President he was an unreliable partner for Putin at best. Perhaps more to the point, he’s a crook and a brute. He served time for robbery and assault before he became a politician, and he is wanted in Ukraine for treason, mass murder, and embezzlement. A visitor to Ukraine can take a tour of Yanukovych’s palace, famous for its marble, crystal, immense scale, and a life-size solid-gold sculpture of a loaf of bread. Manafort made a career of working for the corrupt and the crooked. That in itself tells us little about Russia or its role in the 2016 campaign.

.. In media coverage, her e-mailing with a lawyer in the Russian prosecutor’s office was portrayed as evidence of a direct line to Putin, suggesting that she met with Trump’s campaign officials as his emissary. To me, it read as a lot of bluster on the part of a minor operator. From all the available evidence, and contrary to her sales pitch, Veselnitskaya did not have any dirt to offer on Hillary Clinton. To the extent that Veselnitskaya had established connections to high-level Russian officials, they were the kind that are necessary for a lawyer to be at all effective in a corrupt system.

.. We cringed at the characterization of the Russian online influence campaign as “sophisticated” and “vast”: Russian reporting on the matter—the best available—convincingly portrayed the troll operation as small-time and ridiculous. It was, it seems, fraudulent in every way imaginable: it perpetrated fraud on American social networks, creating fake accounts and events and spreading falsehoods, but it was also fraudulent in its relationship to whoever was funding it, because surely crudely designed pictures depicting Hillary Clinton as Satan could not deliver anyone’s money’s worth.

What we are observing is not most accurately described as the subversion of American democracy by a hostile power. Instead, it is an attempt at state capture by an international crime syndicate. What unites Yanukovych, Veselnitskaya, Manafort, Stone, WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange, the Russian troll factory, the Trump campaign staffer George Papadopoulos and his partners in crime, the “Professor” (whose academic credentials are in doubt), and the “Female Russian National” (who appears to have fraudulently presented herself as Putin’s niece) is that they are all crooks and frauds. This is not a moral assessment, or an attempt to downplay their importance. It is an attempt to stop talking in terms of states and geopolitics and begin looking at Mafias and profits.

The Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar, who created the concept of the “post-Communist mafia state,” has just finished editing a new collection of articles called “Stubborn Structures: Reconceptualizing Post-Communist Regimes” (to be published by C.E.U. Press early this year). In one of his own pieces in the collection, using Russia as an example, Magyar describes the Mafia state as one run by a “patron” and his “court”—put another way, the boss and his clan—who appropriate public resources and the institutions of the state for their private use and profit. When I talked to Magyar on the phone on Monday, he told me that Trump is “like a Mafia boss without a Mafia. Trump cannot transform the United States into a Mafia state, of course, but he still acts like a Mafia boss.” Putin, on the other hand, “is a Mafia boss with a real Mafia, which has turned the whole state into a criminal state.” Still, he said, “the behavior at the top is the same.”

The Mafia state is efficient in its own way. It does not take over all state institutions, but absorbs only the ones necessary for extracting profit. Some structures therefore continue to work as though they were part of a normal state. This may explain why we saw the official Russian foreign-policy establishment preparing, in the lead-up to the 2016 election, for a working relationship with the presumed Hillary Clinton Administration.

When we think about a normal state, Magyar told me, “the assumption is that the state acts in the public interest, and if that doesn’t happen, that’s a deviation.” That is true of how we think about democracies but also, to a large extent, of how we think about dictatorships as well: the dictator positions himself as the arbiter and sole representative of the national interest. A Mafia state, on the other hand, acts only in the personal profit-seeking interests of the clan. “That’s not a deviation,” Magyar said. “It’s a substantive, structural characteristic of the state. The state itself, at the top, works as a criminal organization.”

By the metrics of a Mafia state, though, the Trump Presidency has yielded great results for Russia. A Mafia boss craves respect, loyalty, and perceived power. Trump’s deference to Putin and the widespread public perception of Putin’s influence over Trump have lifted Putin’s stature beyond what I suspect could have been his wildest dreams. As happens in a Mafia state, most of the benefit accrues to the patron personally. But some of the profit goes to the clan. Over the weekend, we learned that the Treasury Department has lifted sanctions on companies that belong to Oleg Deripaska, a member of Putin’s “court” who once lent millions of dollars to Manafort. If a ragtag team employed by or otherwise connected to the Russian Mafia state tried to aid a similar collection of crooks and frauds to elect Trump—as it increasingly looks like they did—then the Deripaska news helps explain their motivations. The story is not that Putin is masterminding a vast and brilliant attack on Western democracy. The story, it appears, is that the Russian Mafia state is cultivating profit-yielding relationships with the aspiring Mafia boss of the U.S. and his band of crooks, subverting democratic institutions in the process.

Putting the Roger Stone Indictment in Context

Stone is hardly a Bond villain come to life, but the allegations against him are one part of a bigger picture that doesn’t reflect well on the Trump campaign.

.. I posited a different theory: The Trump campaign wasn’t a collection of criminal masterminds — would masterminds rely on the likes of Stone and Corsi to conduct international espionage? — but an ad-hoc mix of comically inept crooks and grifters who were seeking to gain any advantage they could and have spent the years since lying to cover their tracks.

.. The Stone indictment advances my theory considerably. He is not alleged to have established any kind of ongoing, close working relationship with Julian Assange. Instead, he used intermediaries to squeeze out bits and pieces of information from WikiLeaks. He allegedly shared some of that information with the campaign, and then — when the special counsel’s investigation started — appears to have engaged in some of the most inept lying and witness intimidation I’ve ever seen. He denied the existence of documents that he should have known investigators would possess, and his threats to witnesses were almost cartoonish. In one paragraph, the indictment alleges he referred to a plan inspired by the movie Godfather II. In another paragraph, the indictment alleges that he threatened a witness’s dog.

..A combination of special-counsel indictments, guilty pleas, and reproduced emails has now shown that, despite their insistent, repeated denials of contact with Russians, Trump-campaign officials (including the campaign chair and the candidate’s son and son-in-law) were eager to meet with Russians to obtain damaging information on Hillary Clinton, were asking Roger Stone to connect with WikiLeaks — a reputed Russian asset — for information about its data dumps, and shared polling data with another reputed Russian asset. What’s more, we now know that Trump’s real-estate business continued to discuss a significant development deal in Moscow with Russians (including a Kremlin official) deep into the 2016 campaign.