The Fall of Donald Trump’s Fixers

The mogul-turned-president has long relied on loyalists to push the limits in defense of his image, but Roy Cohn, David Pecker and Michael Cohen all wound up out in the cold

For decades, Donald Trump has depended on loyalists to take care of especially sensitive and difficult tasks. These guardians of his image—including the

  • Red-baiter Roy Cohn, the
  • tabloid publisher David Pecker and the
  • lawyer Michael Cohen

—learned a hard lesson from their service. They pledged fealty to Mr. Trump and dedicated themselves to shielding him. For a while, they became wealthier and more powerful through their association with him. But Mr. Trump ultimately offered little back in protection or respect.

Mr. Trump’s first fixer was Cohn, the disgraced former chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. In the 1970s, as a lawyer for the powerful, Cohn manipulated the media and the legal system to secure business advantages for Mr. Trump. He cast his client as a fabulously successful developer who transformed his father’s collection of low-end apartment buildings in Brooklyn and Queens into a Manhattan-based empire of luxury condominium towers.

Cohn defined the role of fixer for Mr. Trump, but after Cohn became sick with AIDS in the 1980s, Mr. Trump distanced himself, steering business elsewhere. Weeks after he won the presidency in 2016, Mr. Trump told friends at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort, that after hosting the dying Cohn for dinner there, “I had to spend a fortune to fumigate all the dishes and silverware.”

Mr. Trump’s views of media and celebrity were shaped by Cohn and his successors, the men he relied on to project a particular version of himself—one that often bore little resemblance to reality. Their careers with Mr. Trump shed light on his rise in public life and his victory in the 2016 presidential election.

This account is based on court and congressional documents, texts and other communications, along with interviews with people involved in or familiar with the events.

Mr. Pecker’s celebrity gossip and personal-lifestyle empire—primarily the tabloid National Enquirerpromoted Mr. Trump’s political aspirations for almost two decades, starting in 1999.

Donald Trump (left) with his attorney Roy Cohn, Oct. 18, 1984. PHOTO: BETTMANN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s special counsel at the Trump Organization, styled himself as the boss’s loyal problem solver. A personal-injury lawyer and taxi-medallion owner raised on Long Island, Mr. Cohen became Mr. Trump’s armed press attaché in the late 2000s. Over the years, he wore a gun in an ankle holster and used legal threats to suppress bad headlines about his boss.

Together with Mr. Trump, Mr. Cohen and Mr. Pecker worked during the 2016 presidential campaign to “catch and kill” stories about former Playmate of the Year Karen McDougal and former adult-film star Stormy Daniels, who privately alleged that they’d had affairs with the Republican candidate. Both women were paid to keep silent.

Mr. Cohen was charged with campaign-finance violations and is serving three years in prison. Mr. Pecker’s company, American Media Inc., admitted breaking the law while doing Mr. Trump’s bidding and reached an agreement with prosecutors to avoid criminal charges.

Trump didn’t believe he owed his fixers anything.

Mr. Trump’s reward to his fixers was what he offered all those in his service over the decades: exposure to his world, the chance to play a bit part in his story. These operatives were attracted to Mr. Trump’s aura, to the force of the huge personality that led him to the presidency. But when they had fulfilled their missions, they were dispensable. Mr. Trump didn’t believe he owed his fixers anything.

Mr. Pecker was the son of a Bronx bricklayer. He became an accountant and then rose in the publishing world through shrewd power plays. Mr. Pecker forged connections with influential figures, whose foibles were off-limits in his publications and were dubbed by staffers FOPs (Friends of Pecker).

In 1997, while running Hachette Magazines Inc., Mr. Pecker hatched a deal to publish a custom magazine called Trump Style. “Trump Style? That’s like the oxymoron of the century,” Hachette executive Nick Matarazzo said when Mr. Pecker told him of it. When advertisers didn’t bite, Mr. Pecker became enraged.

Tabloid publisher David Pecker, Jan. 19, 2012. PHOTO: FRANCOIS DURAND/GETTY IMAGES

His relationship with Mr. Trump was a series of chits accrued and favors cashed in. Before Mr. Pecker took over at American Media in 1999, the Enquirer had feasted on stories of Mr. Trump’s affairs and breakups. After Mr. Pecker’s arrival, his gossip empire didn’t print a bad word about Mr. Trump.

As the publisher promoted Mr. Trump’s rise, Mr. Trump fed American Media tips and offered Mr. Pecker business advice. When Mr. Trump spotted an article about the company’s financial troubles, he scrawled over it with a Sharpie: You’ll be on top again in no time. Mr. Pecker framed the note and proudly displayed it in his office.

When American Media was based near Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Pecker would hang around if Mr. Trump was in town so that he could hitch a ride back to New York on the mogul’s jet. Mr. Pecker’s National Enquirer breathlessly promoted Mr. Trump’s 2011 exploratory presidential bid, and his Globe and Star propelled the “birther” conspiracy theory that Mr. Trump used to attack President Barack Obama and raise his own political profile.

Mr. Cohen came to work for Mr. Trump in 2007, after impressing him during a board uprising at a condo building. But the deals he attempted at the Trump Organization fizzled, and the boss came to question his legal skills.

In 2009, Mr. Trump gave company lawyer George Sorial an unpleasant task: persuade Mr. Cohen to resign. He’d had it with Mr. Cohen, who no longer seemed like a good fit. But Mr. Cohen decided to stay, taking a pay cut and doing more thankless work.

One of his duties was telling small-business owners that they could expect severely reduced fees or none at all for the services they provided to Mr. Trump. The boss reveled in hearing these accounts.

‘Wouldn’t that be something?’

—Michael Cohen on a possible Trump presidential run, 2010

Like Mr. Pecker, Mr. Cohen encouraged his boss’s ambitions, positioning himself as a political adviser. In 2010, Mr. Cohen showed Mr. Trump a Time magazine story about a poll testing the mogul’s appeal as a candidate. What if Mr. Trump did run? “Wouldn’t that be something?” Mr. Cohen asked.

Mr. Cohen turned to Mr. Pecker for help. Mr. Cohen and National Enquirer staff produced a series of increasingly obsequious tabloid stories hyping Mr. Trump’s unofficial candidacy and directing readers to Mr. Cohen’s website, ShouldTrumpRun.com.

Mr. Cohen’s tough-guy routine raised some eyebrows. In 2012, he horrified a campaign aide for Mitt Romney, pulling up a pant leg to show off his pistol during a fundraiser before stashing the gun in a car. Another time, he tried to barge past Mr. Trump’s security chief, Keith Schiller, after being informed that the boss was in a meeting. Mr. Schiller threw him to the ground and said, I told you, you’re not going in.

Mr. Trump kept Mr. Cohen around but didn’t seem to respect him. When Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the evangelical leader, told Mr. Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign that he and his wife really liked Mr. Cohen, Mr. Trump responded, Really? Really?

Mr. Cohen played a behind-the-scenes role in Mr. Trump’s presidential bid, to the chagrin of the actual campaign staff. For the launch event, Mr. Cohen proposed bringing an elephant to Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. After that was rejected, he coordinated with a friend—whom Mr. Trump had nicknamed “The Screamer” for his boisterous voice—to pay 55 actors in cash to attend the event.

Mr. Cohen’s most significant task, along with Mr. Pecker, was to identify potential threats to Mr. Trump’s campaign and squash them. The three men met at Mr. Trump’s office in August 2015, and Mr. Pecker offered to use the Enquirer—in coordination with Mr. Cohen—to intercept harmful stories and ensure they never surfaced.

On June 27, 2016, after Mr. Trump learned that Ms. McDougal was shopping around her story of an alleged affair with him, he phoned Mr. Pecker. Can you make this go away? Mr. Trump asked.

Mr. Pecker bought the story for $150,000, under a contract designed to appear as a content pact guaranteeing the model two magazine covers. In return, Ms. McDougal had to keep quiet. Mr. Pecker and his top editor, Dylan Howard, also helped to broker a deal in which Mr. Cohen paid Stormy Daniels $130,000 through a shell company to buy her silence.

Adult-film actress Stormy Daniels arrives at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York for a hearing related to Michael Cohen, President Trump’s longtime personal attorney and confidante, April 16, 2018. PHOTO: YANA PASKOVA/GETTY IMAGES

The Wall Street Journal later revealed both hush-money deals. After the Daniels agreement became public, Mr. Trump called Mr. Cohen—with Melania Trump on the line. “Michael, did you really pay $130,000 to Stormy Daniels?” Mr. Trump asked. “Why didn’t you tell me about it?”

‘Michael, did you really pay $130,000 to Stormy Daniels?’

—President Trump to Michael Cohen, with Melania Trump on the line

Mr. Cohen, who later said that he had consulted extensively with Mr. Trump about the payment, picked up the cue. Mr. Cohen said he’d planned to tell him after the election but had thought it safer to keep Mr. Trump out of it. He assumed the first lady saw through the lie.

In the predawn hours of April 9, 2018, FBI agents filtered into a side entrance of Manhattan’s Loews Regency Hotel and took the service elevator to room 1728. As Mr. Cohen’s wife sat on a bed, the agents, bearing a warrant, carted away materials relating to the hush-money agreements and Mr. Cohen’s private business affairs.

That same morning, other agents arrived at Mr. Pecker’s and Mr. Howard’s residences with warrants authorizing the seizure of their cellphones. Mr. Pecker gave his lawyers a simple instruction after the FBI showed up: “Get me out of this.” The publisher received immunity against federal charges; he told prosecutors that the true intent of the payment to Ms. McDougal was to help Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign by concealing an embarrassing story about the candidate. Prosecutors also declined to charge Mr. Howard, his deputy.

‘One thing I can tell you is that I’m never going to spend one day in jail.’

—Michael Cohen

Mr. Trump predicted that Mr. Cohen wouldn’t turn on him, but the fixer was frantic. “One thing I can tell you is that I’m never going to spend one day in jail. Never,” Mr. Cohen told two lawyers who met with him eight days after the raids. As Mr. Cohen’s legal fees mounted, the Trump Organization resisted paying, and Trump lawyers were lukewarm to inquiries on Mr. Cohen’s behalf about a presidential pardon.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Mr. Cohen broke from Mr. Trump, a man for whom he once had said he’d take a bullet. He pleaded guilty to nine criminal charges, including two campaign-finance related counts related to the hush-money payments, which he accused the president of directing.

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law. He was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law. It is called “advice of counsel,” and a lawyer has great liability if a mistake is made. That is why they get paid. Despite that many campaign finance lawyers have strongly……

43.3K people are talking about this

Mr. Trump had said he didn’t know about the payments and later that he’d learned of them after the fact. After Mr. Cohen’s sentencing, Mr. Trump tweeted, “I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law. He was a lawyer and he is supposed to know the law.”

American Media’s nonprosecution agreement offered a path out of trouble for Mr. Pecker and Mr. Howard. But soon an Enquirer story about an extramarital affair by Amazon Inc. founder Jeff Bezos, who had been at odds with Mr. Trump, fueled speculation that Mr. Pecker was back protecting the president, and federal authorities began investigating again. A spokesman for American Media declined to comment on the ongoing probe.

American Media’s largest financial backer could brook no more scandals. In April 2019, the publisher said that American Media was putting its tabloids, including the Enquirer, up for sale. Nine months later, that sale hasn’t been completed.

Mr. Pecker has ceded his title. His tabloid has become a toxic asset, and his legacy will forever be connected to Mr. Trump’s hush-money scandal.

Does Roy Cohn Rule The Oval Office From The Grave? | Conversations with Jim Zirin

Roy Cohn was an unscrupulous lawyer who knew how
to beat the system. As a lawyer, he lit up the town
representing mobsters, prelates and his poster child
client Donald Trump. For 15 years Cohn was Trump’s
lawyer, fixer and political mentor. Cohn’s cousin, journalist
David Marcus, knows everything knowable about him.
He compares and contrasts for Jim Zirin the many parallels
between Trump’s combative tactics in office and the Roy
Cohn he observed in action.

(Taped: 10/21/2019 )

What Did Donald Trump Learn from Roy Cohn? | Conversations with Jim Zirin

In 1978, gifted writer Ken Auletta profiled for Esquire the pugnacious attorney Roy Cohn whom he called the “personification of evil.” Cohn died in 1986 discredited and disbarred. Donald Trump was a Cohn client and close friend. He called Cohn his mentor. Ken Auletta tells Jim Zirin some of the dirty tricks Trump learned at the feet of the master of the smear.

‘Where’s My Roy Cohn?’ Review: You’d Want Him on Your Side

Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary paints a picture of a ruthless lawyer who was as successful as he was unlikable.

Upon digesting “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” a lot of viewers will come away in agreement with longtime Cohn antagonist Gore Vidal. “Roy Cohn has managed to stay out of jail all these years and I admire him for that,” Vidal says, with Cohn by his side, during a late-’70s talk-show appearance. “I’d like to have him as my lawyer.”

Who wouldn’t? So constitutionally pugnacious he might have punched his way out of the womb, Cohn is a current subject of fascination—and of Matt Tyrnauer ’s entertaining but highly conventional documentary—for being “the common thread from Joseph McCarthy to Donald Trump. ” The title of the film, as many will know, is an alleged presidential quote made when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation. Oddly, the quote isn’t addressed in the film. But Cohn’s relationship with Mr. Trump certainly is.

There’s no mistaking Mr. Tyrnauer’s agenda, or the suggestion that painting a favorable portrait of Cohn might be an impossible task; even the late lawyer’s family members refer to him as ruthless, devoid of empathy and “the definition of a self-hating Jew.” In response to an interviewer who has asked about his unflattering public image, Cohn himself says, “the worse the adjectives, the better it is for business.” But the phenomenon of Roy Cohn—one interviewee describes being with him as being “in the presence of evil”—is about more than savvy business.

Most of what Mr. Tyrnauer serves up is not news, but to have it all in one place is to immerse oneself in a bilious lesson in history. Cohn, who first came to prominence prosecuting Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, was counsel to Joseph McCarthy during the Wisconsin senator’s subcommittee hearings into Communist infiltration of the State Department and later the Army-McCarthy hearings, which as the film points out originated in Cohn’s attempts to get privileged treatment for G. David Schine, a draftee with whom Cohn was, as a senator sneeringly puts it, “warm personal friends.” This viewer had never seen the footage Mr. Tyrnauer includes of the exchanges between Cohn and the senators questioning him, but the innuendo about Cohn’s not-so-secret homosexuality—which he denied till his dying day (of complications from AIDS in 1986)—is startling.

Roy Cohn PHOTO: SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

Among the revelations in “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” is what one relation calls the Cohn family Passover story: According to the cousin, the housekeeper who worked for Cohn’s mother, Dora, died in the kitchen and was kept under a serving table so as not to interrupt the Seder. Some might see it as a way of blaming mom for her infamous offspring, but it’s certainly a blackly comic capper to “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” The subject always knew where the bodies were buried. And, apparently, where they weren’t.

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.