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A few Republicans have managed—really—to work successfully with the president. Here’s what the new speaker could learn from them.
But there’s no formula for successfully negotiating with this mercurial, ad hoc chief executive. Pelosi’s first attempt to do so, an agreement in September 2017 to protect the Dreamers from deportation in exchange for border security funding, fell apart not long after it was announced.
Still, there’s no reason to think Pelosi, or anyone in the nation’s capital, can’t find a way to a win with Trump. Here’s what we’ve learned about the art of making a deal with Trump from the few successful people in Washington who have figured out how to get what they want out of the president.
Convince Him He’ll Be Loved
Trump may want nothing more than to be well-liked and appreciated. The bipartisan criminal justice reform bill seems to have been sold to him as an opportunity to do just that. Versions of the First Step Act, a major reform that liberalizes federal prison and sentencing laws, had floundered in Congress for years. The policy already had support from across the political spectrum—but it needed a Republican president who could provide political cover to bring enough members of the GOP on board.
Trump wasn’t an obvious champion for sentencing reform. He ran a campaign promising “law and order” and selected the tough-on-crime Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Sessions’ Justice Department had issued reports critical of the bill. The president has suggested that convicted drug dealers deserved the death penalty. To get his support, the criminal-justice reformers would need to conduct a conversion.
The evangelist was White House adviser Jared Kushner, who, all accounts say, worked hard to persuade his father-in-law. Kushner met with everyone from members of the Congressional Black Caucus to Koch-funded interest groups to the news media to bolster an already large coalition. It helped that Kushner was able to deliver plenty of groups and individuals on the right.
“I think the broad popularity of the policy was the gateway,” says one of the bill’s advocates, who watched the process at the White House up close. “The president was also given a booklet of dozens of conservative organizations and individuals making supportive statements on the bill to show grassroots political support. And then it took some convincing that law enforcement was on board.”
The last piece proved crucial, because there’s perhaps no interest group Trump cherishes more than law enforcement. The marquee names—the
- Fraternal Order of Police, the
- International Association of Chiefs of Police, the
- National District Attorneys Association—
were enough to get the president on board. With seemingly few people opposed (Tom Cotton, otherwise a devoted Trump ally, the most prominent) and even staunch critics in the media like Van Jones making the trek to kiss Trump’s ring at the White House, Kushner and his partners succeeded in selling Trump on the most important provision of the First Step Act: Mr. President, you will be loved for signing it.
It won’t be easy for Pelosi, but the Democratic speaker may be able to use similar tactics to goad Trump into supporting some bipartisan health-care initiatives. The administration has already begun proposing some form of federal intervention to lower prescription drug prices, while Democrats have long argued that Medicare should negotiate with Big Pharma on bringing down drug costs. Some kind of compromise bill could get the support of both Capitol Hill and the White House. Your older, Medicare-using base will love you for it, Pelosi might tell the president. That would get his attention.
Remind Him of His Campaign Promises
Earlier this month, Trump and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul were having one of their frequent conversations about the American military presence in both Syria and Afghanistan. Paul, a persistent, longtime critic of the continued deployment of troops in the Middle East, has found the strongest ally of his political career on the issue with Trump.
After their discussion, Paul sent the president some news articles supporting his view that the time was right to withdraw from Syria, says top Paul aide Doug Stafford, who says Trump sent back a note alerting him that he would “see some movement on this soon.” On December 19, Trump announced the forthcoming withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops fighting ISIS in Syria. The move was resisted by just about everyone around Trump, inside and outside the administration, including John Bolton, Jim Mattis and Lindsey Graham. All, except Paul.
“I think people mistake it like Rand is trying to get him to do what Rand wants. But this is what Donald Trump ran on,” says Stafford. “Rand sees his role more as keeping the president where he wants to be and where he said he would be against some people who are inside of the White House and other senators who are trying to push him off of his beliefs and his position.”
According to Comey’s account in a new memoir, Trump “strongly denied the allegations, asking — rhetorically, I assumed — whether he seemed like a guy who needed the service of prostitutes. He then began discussing cases where women had accused him of sexual assault, a subject I had not raised. He mentioned a number of women, and seemed to have memorized their allegations.”
The January 2017 conversation at Trump Tower in Manhattan “teetered toward disaster” — until “I pulled the tool from my bag: ‘We are not investigating you, sir.’ That seemed to quiet him,” Comey writes.
Trump did not stay quiet for long. Comey describes Trump as having been obsessed with the prostitutes portion of the infamous dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, raising it at least four times with the FBI head.
.. Trump offered varying explanations to convince Comey it was not true. “I’m a germaphobe,” Trump told him in a follow-up call on Jan. 11, 2017, according to Comey’s account. “There’s no way I would let people pee on each other around me. No way.” Later, the president asked what could be done to “lift the cloud” because it was so painful for first lady Melania Trump.
.. In his memoir, Comey paints a devastating portrait of a president who built “a cocoon of alternative reality that he was busily wrapping around all of us.” Comey describes Trump as a congenital liar and unethical leader, devoid of human emotion and driven by personal ego.
.. Interacting with Trump, Comey writes, gave him “flashbacks to my earlier career as a prosecutor against the Mob.
- The silent circle of assent.
- The boss in complete control.
- The loyalty oaths.
- The us-versus-them worldview.
- The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth.”
.. The result, in Comey’s telling, is “the forest fire that is the Trump presidency.”
.. “You can’t be kicked out of the room so he can talk to me alone,” Comey told Sessions, according to the book. “You have to be between me and the president.”
.. “Sessions just cast his eyes down at the table, and they darted quickly back and forth, side to side. He said nothing. I read in his posture and face a message that he would not be able to help me.”
.. Comey delivers an indirect but unmistakable rebuke of the GOP’s congressional leaders as well: “It is also wrong to stand idly by, or worse, to stay silent when you know better, while a president brazenly seeks to undermine public confidence in law enforcement institutions that were established to keep our leaders in check.”
.. “I have one perspective on the behavior I saw, which while disturbing and violating basic norms of ethical leadership, may fall short of being illegal,” he writes.
.. “They lose the ability to distinguish between what’s true and what’s not,” Comey writes. “They surround themselves with other liars . . . Perks and access are given to those willing to lie and tolerate lies. This creates a culture, which becomes an entire way of life.”
.. Comey also writes that in a post-election briefing for senators, then-Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) confronted him about “what you did to Hillary Clinton.” Comey responded, “I did my best with the facts before me.” A teary-eyed Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) grabbed him by the hand afterward and said, “I know you. You were in an impossible position,” Comey writes.
.. Comey is critical of then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, saying she had a “tortured half-out, half-in approach” to the Clinton investigation and that he considered calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor.
.. “As he extended his hand,” Comey adds, “I made a mental note to check its size. It was smaller than mine, but did not seem unusually so.”
.. Comey recalls being struck that neither Trump nor his advisers asked about the future Russian threat, nor how the United States might prepare to meet it. Rather, he writes, they focused on “how they could spin what we’d just told them.”
.. “I decided not to tell him that the activity alleged did not seem to require either an overnight stay or even being in proximity to the participants,” Comey writes. “In fact, though I didn’t know for sure, I imagined the presidential suite of the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow was large enough for a germaphobe to be at a safe distance from the activity.”
.. Comey writes that he believed Trump was trying “to establish a patronage relationship,” and that he said: “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.”
.. Trump broke the standoff by turning to other topics, Comey writes, speaking in torrents, “like an oral jigsaw puzzle,” about the size of his inauguration crowd, his free media coverage and the viciousness of the campaign. He talked about the Clinton email investigation as in three phases, as if it were a television series: “Comey One,” “Comey Two” and “Comey Three.” Trump also tried to convince Comey that he had not mocked disabled New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski at a campaign rally, and then turned to the detailed allegations of sexual assault against him.
“There was no way he groped that lady sitting next to him on the airplane, he insisted,” Comey writes. “And the idea that he grabbed a porn star and offered her money to come to his room was preposterous.”
.. And then Trump brought up “the golden showers thing,” Comey writes. The president told him that “it bothered him if there was ‘even a one percent chance’ his wife, Melania, thought it was true.” Comey writes that Trump told him to consider having the FBI investigate the prostitutes allegation to “prove it was a lie.”
.. As the dinner concluded, Trump returned to the issue of loyalty.
“I need loyalty,” Trump tells Comey, according to the book.
“You will always get honesty from me,” Comey replies.
“That’s what I want, honest loyalty,” Trump said, reaching what Comey writes was “some sort of ‘deal’ in which we were both winners.”.. “But he’s a killer,” O’Reilly told Trump.The president’s reply: “There are a ton of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”
Trump fumed to Comey about the media criticism he received.
“I gave a good answer,” Trump said, according to Comey. “Really, it was a great answer. I gave a really great answer.”
Trump sought validation: “You think it was a great answer, right?”
Comey replied, “We aren’t the kind of killers that Putin is.”
Trump apparently did not take the correction well. Comey writes that the president’s eyes changed and his jaw tightened, and Priebus escorted him out.
.. Comey describes soon receiving an “emotional call” from Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly.
“He said he was sick about my firing and that he intended to quit in protest,” Comey writes. “He said he didn’t want to work for dishonorable people who would treat someone like me in such a manner. I urged Kelly not to do that, arguing that the country needed principled people around this president. Especially this president.”
Kelly did not resign. Two and a half months later, he was named White House chief of staff.