As President Trump manages his latest crises, he is turning to strategies from his tumultuous business career: rely on family and a few trusted advisers, demand absolute loyalty from those beyond the inner circle, threaten opponents with legal action, and insist on bare-bones briefings.
But the tactics that Trump believed served him so well in business may be adding to his self-inflicted wounds as a special prosecutor prepares to launch an investigation into allegations that Russia sought to influence the 2016 election.
Trump’s family has no government background, and most of his most trusted advisers never worked in a White House. His demands to government officials for personal loyalty are superseded by their loyalty to the Constitution. His threats — such as tweeting that fired FBI Director James B. Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” — have often backfired. Comey’s associates provided quotes from a memo about the conversation that appear to support Comey’s version of events.
And Trump’s famous aversion to in-depth analysis — he once wrote that “The day I realized it can be smart to be shallow was, for me, a deep experience” — has led to concerns that he doesn’t absorb complicated briefing material from intelligence agencies and other sources.
Barbara Res, former executive vice president of the Trump Organization, said that Trump would often come up with business proposals that needed someone to tell him “that’s not a good idea, Donald. It seems to me that people are not doing that” at the White House.
Trump’s view of Washington is rooted in deep distrust of government authority, stemming from the day in 1973 when the Justice Department sued him and his father for racial bias at apartments owned by Trump Management. The story about the case marked the first time Trump appeared on the front page of the New York Times, along with his quote calling the charges “ridiculous.” Trump vowed never to settle the case but ultimately felt forced to do so. That set a pattern that lasted decades and increased Trump’s animosity toward government.
As president, Trump continued the same defiant strategy — only to be forced into concession. When judges suspended his entry ban that mostly affected Muslim travelers and immigrants, he attacked judges and vowed to “see you in court,” just as he had during his business career. But he ultimately dropped that idea and came up with a new policy, which also has been suspended.
This week, Trump’s business strategies similarly appear to have failed him in the Comey firing. Trump often deployed a tactic of telling others that he was taping their conversations and monitoring their work, and threatening to file lawsuits or to reduce payments owed to contractors. By suggesting that he had secretly recorded his dinner conversation with Comey, Trump apparently hoped to prevent the fired FBI director from speaking negatively about him. The White House has declined to confirm or deny that such recordings exist.
In response to the threat, Comey associates revealed that he had written a memo outlining how the president allegedly asked that an investigation into ties between Russia and his fired national security adviser, Michael Flynn, be dropped. Lawmakers are calling for documents that would shed light on Trump’s attempt to pressure Comey.
Tellingly, Trump risked fallout in an effort to support Flynn, who he believed was loyal — putting aside the fact that Trump fired him for lying to Vice President Pence about discussions with the Russian ambassador. Flynn, Trump told NBC News anchor Lester Holt in an interview last week, is “a very good person.”
Flynn’s firing took 18 days from the time that acting attorney general Sally Yates warned White House Counsel Donald McGahn that Flynn had compromised himself by having private discussions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
That has raised questions inside and outside the White House about McGahn’s role and whether he felt comfortable urging Trump to fire Flynn. McGahn is the nephew of Patrick “Paddy” McGahn, who once was Trump’s lawyer.
When Trump experienced potentially catastrophic financial problems in the Atlantic City casino business, the elder McGahn played a crucial role in helping Trump survive the crises. John O’Donnell, the president of one of Trump’s casinos, recalled in his book “Trumped!” that he told Trump that Paddy McGahn was overbilling. But Trump stood by McGahn, saying the lawyer had a record of 13 wins and no losses. Trump’s way of expressing gratitude to Paddy McGahn was to create a bar called “Paddy’s Saloon” in the Trump Taj Mahal.
Paddy McGahn “was one of the few people that just didn’t care and would say anything to Trump,” O’Donnell said in a telephone interview. “He was a fixer, getting out in front of things, issues that might come, before they turned into problems.”
After Yates warned the younger McGahn that Flynn could be compromised by the Russians — and may have broken the law by having the conversation with Kislyak — it was 2½ weeks before Flynn was fired.
Trump told NBC News last week that “my White House counsel, Don McGahn, came back to me and [it] did not sound like an emergency.”
Yates, however, said in a CNN interview that “We expected the White House to act.”
A former White House lawyer who has spoken to McGahn said the counsel ill served the president if he did not make it sound like an emergency. “He had an obligation to make it clear to the president that the Department of Justice had raised a critical issue that needed an immediate resolution,” said the lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The lawyer said he sometimes had to tell a president “he couldn’t do something, and he sometimes wasn’t happy about it.” But playing such a role provides a first — or, sometimes, last — line of defense for a president, the lawyer said.
Separately, a veteran Republican who has discussed the matter with White House officials said there are concerns that McGahn, unlike his uncle, was reluctant to stand up to Trump.
McGahn did not respond to a request for comment, and a White Hosue spokesman did not respond to questions about him. A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said there is no reason to assess McGahn’s role because officials don’t believe anything wrong occurred.
Trump’s reliance on attorneys is a hallmark of his business career. His lawyers filed hundreds of lawsuits against contractors, business associates, journalists and government entities. He often paired the lawsuits with verbal vitriol, seeking to intimidate those he sued. While Trump keeps up the vitriol in the White House with his use of Twitter, it has caused much angst in his own party, as he makes statements that ignite new controversies, sometimes contradicting his press spokesmen.
Trump has had difficulty transitioning from the way he communicated with the public as a business executive. In that role, he usually spoke for himself. He gave countless interviews instead of having a public-relations official speak for him.
As president, he has had to cede much of that role to the press office, which has sometimes provided misleading or incorrect information. Trump has acknowledged those mistakes by tweeting that “As a very active President with lots of things happening, it is not possible for my surrogates to stand at podium with perfect accuracy!” He suggested that he might cancel press briefings and hand out written statements.
As Trump considers how to curtail the turmoil surrounding his presidency, one of his senior aides said that the president’s history provides a heartening example. After Trump filed six corporate bankruptcies and $900 million in personal debt, he retooled his image and changed the way he did business. He went from risking his own money to profiting by selling his brand and image. And, the aide noted, Trump wrote a book called “The Art of the Comeback.”