It should never be forgotten how much of Donald Trump’s career has been based on his ability to obscure and defy reality. In the nineteen-eighties and early nineties, he built a gaming-and-real-estate empire on a mountain of debt, which eventually forced some of his businesses into bankruptcy. By persuading his bank creditors to let him retain some of his prized assets, rather than liquidate them, he converted disaster into opportunity. And, by booking a huge tax loss, which he carried over in subsequent years, he seems to have eliminated most, if not all, of his federal-tax obligations for at least a decade.
Despite scraping through his financial busts with some of his businesses intact, Trump would have all but disappeared from the national scene were it not for a starring role on reality television—a medium that has very little to do with actual reality. After “The Apprentice” became a hit, Trump erased the failures from his résumé and ran for President on the image of a successful businessman—even as it emerged that one of his surviving ventures, Trump University, was a scam.
In 2016, Trump defied yet another reality. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, defeated him in the popular vote by almost three million ballots. But the antiquated Electoral College ushered Trump into the White House, where he continued the assault on fact-based reality that he had launched during his election campaign, repeatedly labelling the media as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people.” Three and a half years later, he is still at it.
It is a remarkable record of manipulation and effrontery, but the coronavirus doesn’t listen to Trump’s bluster or read his tweets. On June 3rd, according to a running tally maintained by the Times, the seven-day average for confirmed new cases of covid-19 was 21,958. On Monday, August 3rd, the seven-day average was 60,202. That’s an increase of about a hundred and seventy-five per cent in two months. Since early July, as the virus has spread across the country, the number of deaths from covid-19 has more than doubled. Even after a welcome decline during the past few days, the weekly average is still more than a thousand a day.
Confronted with these developments, Trump has become even more brazen in promoting an alternative reality. On Monday, he lashed out at Deborah Birx, the response coördinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, tweeting, “So Crazy Nancy Pelosi said horrible things about Dr. Deborah Birx, going after her because she was too positive on the very good job we are doing on combatting the China Virus, including Vaccines & Therapeutics. In order to counter Nancy, Deborah took the bait & hit us. Pathetic!”
The President was referring to an interview that Birx gave to CNN’s Dana Bash over the weekend, and if you watch it, you’ll see that she didn’t “hit” Trump or his Administration at all. To the contrary, Birx defended the White House task force, saying that it had shifted course more than a month ago: after it became clear that the pandemic had entered a new phase, the task force adopted a more granular approach, providing individual municipalities and counties with the support and guidance they needed to address the rising number of cases, she said. She also pointed out that, in some places where they have been introduced, mitigation efforts seem to be having a positive impact. In hard-hit Arizona, Florida, and Texas, and in a half-dozen other states, new-case numbers have declined somewhat in the past two weeks, the Times’ interactive guide shows. (Case numbers are still rising in fifteen states and Puerto Rico.)
What was Birx’s offense? She openly acknowledged that the virus is spreading, and she warned people in Trump-supporting areas of the dangers that this presents. “I want to be very clear,” she said. “What we are seeing today is different from March and April. It is extraordinarily widespread. It’s into the rural as [well as] urban areas. And, to everybody who lives in a rural area, you are not immune or protected from this virus.” Birx went on to say that people living in rural areas need to socially distance and wear masks—including at home, if they have potentially vulnerable family members. In other words, Birx used her media platform to try to save lives. Asked about his tweet attacking her, at a press conference on Monday afternoon, Trump said that Birx was “a person I have a lot of respect for.” But he refused to say whether he agreed with her characterization of the pandemic.
Could there be a clearer demonstration that Trump expects his health advisers to defer to his preferred version of reality, even if adopting such a strategy puts more American lives at risk? Having failed to adhere to this communications policy, Anthony Fauci, the best-known member of the White House task force, hasn’t been invited to appear alongside Trump for weeks. Birx is still more visible. But Trump, having restarted his regular coronavirus briefings, is again the Administration’s primary spokesperson on the pandemic. The consequences are, by turns, absurd and alarming.
Last week, when he granted a taped interview to Axios’s Jonathan Swan, he came prepared with charts, which, he claimed, showed that the United States was doing better than other countries “in numerous categories.” Swan, a plainspoken Australian, seemed puzzled. “Oh, you’re doing death as a proportion of cases,” he said after Trump handed him one of the charts. “I’m talking about death as a proportion of population. That’s where the U.S. is really bad. Much worse than South Korea, Germany, et cetera.” Trump seemed flummoxed. “You can’t do that,” he said. “Why can’t I do that?” Swan replied. “You have to go by the cases,” Trump said.
That was a comedy routine. After HBO aired the interview, on Monday night, it was compared online to “Spinal Tap” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” The interview also contained darker moments, though, especially when Swan pressed Trump on why he kept insisting that the virus was under control, thereby giving a sense of false security to his supporters. “They don’t listen to me or the media or Fauci,” Swan said. “They think we’re fake news. They want to get their advice from you. And so, when they hear you say, ‘Everything’s under control. Don’t worry about wearing masks’—I mean, many of them are older people, Mr. President.”
Trump’s face was blank. “Under the circumstances, right now, I think it’s under control,” he said tightly. Swan repeated that every day a thousand people were dying. “They are dying, that’s true,” Trump went on. “And it is what it is. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it. This is a horrible plague that beset us.”
Nobody could deny Trump his final point. But a battleground-state survey from CBS News, which was released over the weekend, showed that sixty per cent of North Carolinians think that the Trump Administration could be doing more to contain the pandemic, and that fifty-eight per cent think it is merely letting the virus run its course. In Georgia, another red state, the survey findings were practically identical. For decades, Trump has made his way by concealing the true nature of things. Some realities are too big and pressing for even him to obscure.
On the evening of November 5, 1991, a Spanish fisherman spotted the body of Robert Maxwell, a controversial British press baron, floating in the Atlantic Ocean near the Canary Islands. The crew of Maxwell’s luxury motor yacht had been searching for him all day, after he vanished, that morning, with no explanation. Almost immediately, conspiracy theories emerged. Maxwell, who came to Britain as an impoverished Eastern European émigré and turned himself into a larger-than-life figure and confidant of political leaders, hadn’t ended his own life: he had been murdered. The rumored perpetrators included agents of the K.G.B. or M.I.6, or a team of frogmen from the Mossad. In support of this theory, it was pointed out that Maxwell had long been rumored to have ties to various intelligence agencies, especially the Israeli one. Maybe he had been silenced to prevent him from spilling the beans.
Almost thirty years later, some people cling to these confabulations, despite the existence of a simpler and more convincing explanation for Maxwell’s death. When he set out on his boat, he knew that the debt-burdened business empire which he had spent decades building, Maxwell Communication Corporation, was on the brink of collapse. He also knew that, in a desperate and failed effort to prevent such an outcome, he and his associates had taken hundreds of millions of pounds from M.C.C.’s employee pensions and used the money to try to prop up the company’s share price. After the inevitable bankruptcy occurred, this illegal scheme would be revealed. Maxwell would be ruined, shamed, and, most likely, sent to jail. To a man who was eaten up by pride and insecurity even as he became a well-known figure on two continents—that year, he had purchased the Daily News—the prospect of financial ruin and public humiliation was too much to take. So he jumped overboard.
Having followed Maxwell’s career closely as a financial writer and editor for the London Sunday Times, I believed at the time, and continue to believe, this version of events. It doesn’t clear up all the mysteries surrounding Maxwell’s death, such as the lack of a suicide note and the fact that a team of coroners couldn’t agree conclusively on the cause, leaving open the possibility of heart attack or accidental drowning. But suicide is intuitively plausible, and it satisfies the principle of Occam’s razor, which says that when choosing between various theories we should choose the one that provides the simplest explanation and requires the fewest auxiliary hypotheses to be true.
In a remarkable quirk of history, the stories of Robert Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein are linked, through Maxwell’s daughter, Ghislaine. The motor yacht on which Maxwell took his last steps was called Lady Ghislaine. Shortly after his death, Ghislaine Maxwell moved to New York, where she met Epstein, becoming his girlfriend, and, according to some accounts, his procurer. (She has vigorously denied these claims.) Like Maxwell, Epstein was a self-made figure—he hailed from Coney Island and didn’t graduate from college—who lived by his wits. Like Maxwell, he cultivated prominent people even though the source of his fortune was opaque. And, like Maxwell in 1991, at the time of Epstein’s death everything was being taken away from him.
A decade ago, Epstein used his money and influence to emerge from a two-year F.B.I. investigation pleading guilty to just two state charges of soliciting prostitution, one involving a minor. This time, however, he was trapped. In July, a team of federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York had accused him of running a sex-trafficking scheme involving dozens of underage girls. A judge had denied his plea for bail. New witnesses had come forward. The case had attracted enormous publicity. Virtually everyone associated with Epstein had turned on him, including Leslie Wexner, the retail billionaire who appears to have been a primary source of Epstein’s fortune. (Last week, Wexner claimed that Epstein “misappropriated vast sums of money from me and my family.”)
At sixty-six, Epstein was facing the prospect of languishing for months in a nightmarish jail that had housed the likes of John Gotti and El Chapo; facing his accusers in a criminal trial; losing his fortune in civil suits; and spending the rest of his life in a federal pen, this time without the work release he’d been granted during his first incarceration. He had lost what sociopaths like him value most: control. Based on what we know now, it appears that Epstein killed himself, in his cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, on Saturday morning, and that no one else was involved. In some ways, this isn’t a very satisfying explanation, and it raises important questions about why Epstein wasn’t being supervised more closely. But it fits the facts that have been revealed so far. It also fits what we know about Epstein’s psychological profile. And it doesn’t require the involvement of Mossad frogmen, or their equivalent, to be true.
But how was he allowed to do it? According to the Wall Street Journal, Epstein’s own attorneys were the ones who requested that he be taken off suicide watch. This doesn’t explain why the authorities acceded to this request when Epstein, only weeks earlier, had been found unconscious in his cell, with bruises on his neck. Similarly, we don’t know why Epstein was left alone in his cell last Friday night, or why the guards didn’t check on him at regular intervals, as the jail’s standard procedure demanded. “It remained unclear why that procedure was not followed in Mr. Epstein’s case,” the Times reported on Sunday. Bob Hood, a former senior official at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which runs the Metropolitan Correctional Center, told the Times, “The Bureau of Prisons dropped the ball. Period.”
That explanation won’t satisfy many people, of course—not with the President and members of his Administration spreading defamatory conspiracy theories about the Clintons. On Saturday, Trump retweeted a video from a conservative comedian, Terrence Williams, in which Williams suggested that Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton were responsible for Epstein’s death. (Earlier on Saturday, Lynne Patton, an official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, posted a headline about Epstein’s death along with the word “Hillary’d!!” and the hashtag “#VinceFosterPartTwo.”) What the forty-fifth President appears to be intimating is that an assassin, working for the forty-second President, broke into one of the most secure jails in the country, hanged Epstein, and left without disturbing the guards or being caught on internal cameras. And perhaps the most remarkable thing is that no one is really surprised to see Trump doing this—disinformation and incitement are two of his trademarks.
Of course, Trump isn’t the only one raising questions. As I pointed out in a column last month, the Epstein saga, in addition to being a sickening sex-crime story, is really about wealth, privilege, and the ability of the super-rich to circumvent the rules that bind ordinary people. Over the weekend, Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “Something’s way too convenient here, and we need to get down to the bottom of what happened.” De Blasio, along with Republican Senator Ben Sasse, has demanded an independent probe into the circumstances surrounding Epstein’s death. Could someone working for Epstein have got to the warden, or whoever made the suicide-watch decision, and to the guards? Given the way the earlier case was resolved, in 2008, and the list of names that have been associated with Epstein, such a possibility, outlandish as it sounds, needs to be investigated. Right now, though, the simplest explanation seems like the most persuasive one: Epstein wanted out, and a series of screwups allowed him to beat the system, again.
a vote on a Republican spending bill that would have kept the government open for another month.
.. with four of their own members voting against the party line. (The dissidents were Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul. The ailing John McCain was absent.)
.. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, immediately put out a statement that included the alliterative framing Republicans had been using for days, but also included some uniquely Trumpian language. “Senate Democrats own the Schumer Shutdown,” it said. “We will not negotiate the status of unlawful immigrants while Democrats hold our lawful citizens hostage over their reckless demands.
.. Schumer, had a new twist to offer, in the form of an account of his ninety-minute meeting with Trump, who fashions himself as the great dealmaker. During that meeting, Schumer said, he outlined a possible deal in which the Democrats would agree to finance Trump’s wall across the Mexican border as part of a package that also included extending legal protections for the Dreamers, funding the chip health-care program, and boosting the budget for military and domestic spending.
.. But even though Trump had seemed to be open to this idea, Schumer said the President “did not press his party in Congress to accept it.”
.. “What happened to the President who asked us to come out with a deal and promised he’d take heat for it? What happened to that President? He backed off at the first sign of pressure,” Schumer said. “The same chaos, the same disarray, the same division and discord on the Republican side that’s been in the background of these negotiations for months unfortunately appears endemic.”
.. “Now all of this problem is because Republican leadership can’t get to yes, because President Trump refuses to. Mr. President, President Trump, if you are listening, I am urging you: please take yes for an answer.”
.. there were also unconfirmed reports that, during the final discussions, the Democrats had proposed a temporary spending patch that would expire on January 29th, the day before the State of the Union.
.. Some Democrats simply don’t believe that the Republicans are genuinely willing to make an agreement to protect the Dreamers. That’s a big reason they are insisting on getting one nailed down now, when, at least in their estimation, Trump’s reversals and “shithole” comments have given them maximum leverage.
.. Some Republicans, on the other hand, appear to believe that they will benefit politically from an extended shutdown, because the public will hold the Democrats responsible... he was distinctly nonplussed at the prospect of staying in Washington and missing his anniversary party down in Florida.
. A chronicler of media, power, and wealth, Wolff is also willing to dish the dirt, as he demonstrated in a gossipy tome about Rupert Murdoch, which was published in 2008.
.. After that book came out, there was an inquest inside Murdoch’s News Corporation into who had granted Wolff access.
.. as Wolff noted in a foreword to the paperback edition of the book, Murdoch was the person primarily responsible for the access he gained. The press baron “not only was (mostly) a patient and convivial interviewee but also opened every door I asked him to open,” Wolff wrote.
.. His original idea, he says, was to write a fly-on-the-wall account of Trump’s first hundred days. “The president himself encouraged this idea. But given the many fiefdoms in the White House that came into open conflict from the first days of the administration, there seemed no one person able to make this happen. Equally, there was no one to say ‘Go away.’ Hence I became more a constant interloper than an invited guest.”
.. Still, the over-all portrait that Wolff draws of a dysfunctional, bitterly divided White House in the first six months of Trump’s Presidency, before the appointment of John Kelly as chief of staff and the subsequent firing of Bannon, has the whiff of authenticity about it—and it echoes news coverage at the time.
.. during one Oval Office meeting, Bannon called Ivanka “a fucking liar,” to which Trump responded,“I told you this is a tough town, baby.”
.. Equally plausible is Wolff’s portrait of Trump as a one-dimensional figure who had no conception that he could win the 2016 election; little clue what to do after he did emerge victorious from the campaign trail; and virtually no interest in, or aptitude for, acquiring the skills and information needed to fulfill the role of President. “Here was, arguably, the central issue of the Trump presidency,”
.. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semiliterate . . . . Some thought him dyslexic; certainly his comprehension was limited. Others concluded that he didn’t read because he didn’t have to, and that in fact this was one of his key attributes as a populist. He was postliterate—total television.
.. Trump often retires in the early evening to his bedroom, where he has three television screens, and interrupts his viewing only to converse by telephone with his friends and cronies, some of them fellow-billionaires.
.. unconfirmed new anecdotes, too, about Trump’s sexism and narcissism. In one meeting, Wolff says, the President referred to Hope Hicks, his communications director, as “a piece of tail.”
.. described Sally Yates
.. Trump is, ultimately, a self-fixated performer rather than a politician, and his primary goal is to monopolize public attention.
.. This depiction probably understates Trump’s devotion to making money, as well as his racism and nativism, both of which go back decades.
.. Donald McGahn, the White House counsel, were adamantly opposed to firing Comey. “McGahn tried to explain that in fact Comey himself was not running the Russia investigation, that without Comey the investigation would proceed anyway,”
.. Chris Christie and Rudolph Giuliani, who “encouraged him to take the view that the DOJ was resolved against him; it was all part of a holdover Obama plot.”
.. the concern of Charles Kushner, Jared’s father, “channeled through his son and daughter-in-law, that the Kushner family [business] dealings were getting wrapped up in the pursuit of Trump.”
.. Jared and Ivanka “encouraged him, arguing the once possibly charmable Comey was now a dangerous and uncontrollable player whose profit would inevitably be their loss.”
Jared and Ivanka were urging the president on, but even they did not know that the axe would shortly fall. Hope Hicks . . . didn’t know. Steven Bannon, however much he worried that the president might blow, didn’t know. His chief of staff didn’t know. And his press secretary didn’t know. The president, on the verge of starting a war with the FBI, the DOJ, and many in Congress, was going rogue.
.. Wolff was surely right to stress the momentousness of the decision to get rid of the “rat”— Trump’s term for Comey.
.. five months after Comey’s firing, Bannon was predicting the collapse of Trump’s Presidency.
.. In any event, there would certainly not be a second term, or even an attempt at one. ‘He’s not going to make it,’ said Bannon at the Breitbart Embassy. ‘He’s lost his stuff.’ ”
Gary Cohn, Donald Trump’s top economic adviser, told CNBC’s John Harwood that the President had laid down “two really important principles” to guide the lawmakers and officials putting the legislation together.
- “Number one is we have to deliver middle-class tax cuts to the hardworking families in this country,”
- “Number two, our corporate tax system just is not competitive with the rest of the world. We have to create a corporate tax rate, and along with that a pass-through tax rate, that makes us competitive with the rest of the world so we can attract businesses back to the United States.”
.. Trump’s two principles have run into conflict with each other.
.. the Ryan bill would give taxpayers in the middle twenty per cent of the income distribution in 2018 a tax cut of eight hundred and forty dollars, or $16.15 a week, on average.
.. Compared to the $37,440 break that taxpayers in the top one per cent would receive
.. Over time, the modest tax breaks these people would initially receive would erode—and ten years from now many of them would be paying more money, not less, to the federal government.
.. the Republican tax proposals, which Trump has promoted by promising the biggest tax cuts in history, isn’t much of a tax cut at all in the sense that most Americans understand the term.
.. It’s really designed to reduce the tax burden on businesses and wealthy individuals, and it could only be justified if, defying history, it delivered the economy-wide upsurge in G.D.P. growth, capital investment, and wages that the White House has promised
Authoritarian leaders in foreign countries seize and maintain power this way. And, despite his bungling start, this is the project that Donald Trump appears to have embarked upon. Since the end of January, he has appointed one of his closest political allies, Jeff Sessions, to run the Justice Department; fired an acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, who had warned the White House that the national-security adviser was compromised; and axed forty-six U.S. Attorneys, one of whom, Preet Bharara, had jurisdiction over Trump’s business empire. Now the head of the F.B.I., James Comey, has been ousted, at a time when the agency is conducting an investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s election campaign and the Russian government.
.. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader
.. claimed, falsely, that it was not Trump but Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General, who removed Comey. McConnell curtly dismissed calls for the appointment of an independent prosecutor to take over the Russia investigation, saying that such a move would “only serve to impede the current work being done” on Capitol Hill
.. He has long demonstrated an unwillingness to look beyond partisan concerns
.. Ryan said that he would no longer defend Trump, who was then the Republican nominee. But since Election Day those words have turned out to be empty. “The President lost patience, and I think people in the Justice Department lost confidence in Director Comey himself,” Ryan told Fox News on Wednesday evening. He also said, “It is entirely within the President’s role and authority to relieve him, and that’s what he did.”
.. After Trump won in November, they made a political deal with him. As long as he pursues their legislative agenda—gutting Obamacare and other government programs, axing regulations, cutting taxes on the wealthy—they are likely to stick with him under almost any circumstances, even as their pact gets ever more Faustian.
.. Senator Susan Collins, of Maine, issued a statement that said, “Any suggestion that today’s announcement is somehow an effort to stop the FBI’s investigation of Russia’s attempt to influence the election last fall is misplaced.”
.. Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, who has criticized Trump on other matters, said, “I believe a fresh start will serve the F.B.I. and the nation well.”
.. And he fumed that Comey was giving too much attention to the Russia probe and not enough to investigating leaks to journalists.”
.. It would be flattering Trump’s capacity for advance planning to claim that he has a blueprint for abrogating the Constitution and seizing more power. But throughout his career he has exhibited a willingness to push things as far as he can on an opportunistic basis, running roughshod over competitors, business partners, ordinary people, rules, and regulations. As the history of the high-pressure sales scam that was Trump University showed, he only backs off when he is forced to.
.. Trump’s willingness to say and do things that most people would shy away from because they are constrained by social norms, or ethics, helped carry him to where he is today. “He gets an idea in his head and just says, ‘Do it,’ “ Barbara Res, a former vice-president in the Trump Organization, told Politico’s Michael Kruse. Artie Nusbaum, one of the managers of the construction firm that built Trump Tower, said, “This is who he is. No morals, no nothing. He does what he does.” That is who the Republicans are enabling. Until they stop doing it, they will be complicit in the erosion of American democracy.
One possibility being floated by some pro-E.U. campaigners is a vote in the House of Commons against invoking Article 50. During the weekend, a number of constitutional experts pointed out that, under the British system, sovereignty rests in Parliament, and so the Leave vote was purely advisory.
.. A more likely outcome is a general election, a second referendum, or both. In 2011, Britain switched to a system of five-year fixed-term Parliaments, and under that system the next election isn’t due until 2020. But the Brexit crisis has already generated calls for the fixed term to be junked.
.. Most of the British politicians and commentators I’ve been in touch with in the past few days think that Johnson will be the next Prime Minister. But it’s far from certain that he could deliver what he has been promising: a break from the E.U. that preserves Britain’s full access to the single market. Several European officials have already said that the price of such a deal would be Britain agreeing to free movement of labor
.. If Johnson couldn’t guarantee British firms access to the huge European market, would he still support leaving the E.U.?
.. All indications are that Cameron’s resignation caught Johnson unprepared. Should he move into 10 Downing Street, he would face dissident backbenchers in his own party, and cries for an early election would be hard to resist. If one were called, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party, which by then may well have a new and more credible leader to replace Jeremy Corbyn, would probably campaign on a platform that promised another referendum. The opposition parties would get a good deal of support in this from the U.K. business community, and from the dissident Tories.