In the Trump Story Project, we’re presenting a series of short stories from contemporary writers, compiled by Ben H. Winters, imagining America’s future under President Donald Trump. This series was made possible by support from Slate Plus members. Read Ben Winters’ introduction to the series.
Oct. 22, 2020, New York City
Goddamn if I can say why, but it’s Kushner I keep looking at.
I’m looking out at this whole huge crowd of outraged Americans, with their handwritten signs and raised fists and KEEP AMERICA GREAT hats in bloodthirsty red—at the media paddock, encircled with razor wire and covered in FUCK FAKE NEWS graffiti—at the phalanxes of Secret Service and city cops and Trump Organization Security Corps clowns—and yet it’s little New Jersey Jared I keep looking at, even though he is by far the least interesting physical specimen among the rogues’ gallery of the inner circle: Cohen in his funeral suit and permanent frown, Bannon looking like he just climbed out of a hotel laundry bag, Flynn in the full uniform and epaulets he now wears everywhere he goes, and squinty square-headed Lewandowski, back in the fold for now, performing the role of congressional liaison with the grace and subtlety of a hockey-league kneecapper.
And of course there’s glittery Ivanka, her bracelet of diamonds twinkling like taunts in the autumn sun. She’s the first lady in full since Melania got tired of hookers and rumors of hookers and hightailed it for her native Slovenia with Barron in tow—exeunt pursued by Twitter trolls—and yet, and still, it is unassuming inscrutable Kushner to whom my panicked eyes return: Harvard man, senior adviser, well-scrubbed schoolboy at 39. Sipping his Starbucks, glancing at his Patek Philippe, waiting to watch a man get killed.
That’d be me, of course—I’m the star attraction, resplendent in orange jumpsuit and lace-less shoes and silver manacles, all furnished by the good folks at the United States Army Corrections Command. I’m in a bird cage built to human scale, dangling from a wire high above Fifth Avenue just south of 42nd, with the library lions behind me and the whole huge angry crowd stretching out before my eyes, shouting for my blood.
Man, I think suddenly, THIS IS NOT NORMAL—and then I laugh, a nice hearty barking laugh that no one else can hear, gripped as I am by a sudden shuddering nostalgia for how much everybody LOVED to say that, in the early days, when Trump-as-president was new and raw and astonishing and addictive, somehow, everybody getting high on the ecstasy of outrage, performing our shrieks of righteousness into each other’s Facebook feeds. Exxon Rex? At State!! THAT’S NOT NORMAL! Meryl Streep? Overrated??? HOW DARE HE. Taking a call from Taiwan, in defiance of international norms AND in his goddamn stocking feet? NOT NORMAL! Oh, how we tweeted and retweeted, how we posted and reposted, how we signed our petitions and meme’d our scathing memes! Never in the history of civilized discourse has anything felt so good and mattered so little!
Still and all. This, right now? This is not normal. Ten years ago I was a quasi-employed MFA candidate with two cats and 494 Twitter followers, and now I am alone in a cage, waiting for the president of the United States to come down Fifth Avenue in his limousine and personally put a bullet in my head. Not normal, ladies and gents. Not by a long, long shot.
* * *
My mistake, I suspect, was in becoming a journalist in the first place. I honestly don’t know what I was thinking. Maybe it’s because my novel wasn’t selling, and suddenly, in November of 2016, seemed unlikely ever to sell. Suddenly even I had trouble remembering why the world needed a wry and heartbreaking story about a dissolving Brooklyn marriage. I asked myself what kind of words a word slinger ought to sling in this new America, and decided that of our variously ailing democratic institutions, the free press might still have some juice in it.
And it felt that way, for a while, it really did. I went out there with a notebook and my iPhone and dogged up some damn fine dirt. I put myself on the emoluments beat, following money from the wallets of foreign billionaires and party leaders and office seekers into the ever-swelling coffers of the Trump Organization. Saudi princes overpaying tenfold for Trump condos in Dubai! Chinese princelings organizing lavish bachelor parties at the Trump International Las Vegas! Joko Widodo’s cousin signing with Eric Trump for a Jakarta Steakhouse on the literal sidelines of the 2019 ASEAN Summit.
I don’t want to pat myself on the back here, folks, because a lot of people were writing such stories. They weren’t exactly hard to find, so bald-faced and Hydra-headed was the corruption of our new administration. But I liked this work and as it turned out I was damn good at it: hiding out in statehouse hallways, sweet-talking security guards at Trump Tower and busboys in Manila nightclubs. Following the money, pawing through receipts and disclosure forms and voided contracts.
The funny thing—not funny ha-ha, of course, more like death of the republic funny—is that nobody cared. By the time my stories started running, THAT’S NOT NORMAL had become the new normal, and every specific financial misdeed I uncovered was blurred and elided and absorbed into this larger blob of “stupid Trump.” By early 2018 we as a citizenry had quietly agreed that “what can you do?” was a much easier state of mind then “something must be done.” I never really got under the skin of the White House either, as hard as I tried, never earned a patented Comically Obvious Lie from Kellyanne Conway, never found myself subjected to a furious tweeted rebuke from the man himself.
Never that, is until, the Arvin Adromack story. That sucker put me over the edge—put me on the radar—and in good time it put me in this cage.
* * *
My execution is in 10 minutes, and the crowd is getting more and more excited. Bikers for Trump are revving their engines; Kids for Trump are doing a whole organized kick-line thing; Blacks for Trump are just two guys, but they’re leading a pretty spirited chant. I wish I could say I was surprised by the size of the crowd, or by the carnival atmosphere they seem to be enjoying down there, but I’m not. I’ve been an American a long time, and I’ve studied my history, and I’ve seen the pictures from before and after the Civil War, genteel Southern crowds eating ice cream, smiling in the sun, waiting to watch the lynching of some uppity boy.
Maybe that’s why black Americans weren’t half as surprised by the Trumpian ascendance as us white progressives, with all our shouts of THAT’S NOT NORMAL. Oh, what? Someone tapped into the anger and racism and will-to-power that runs under the surface of our political discourse, used it to roll back the meager gains of the least wealthy and least white among us? This is America! That’s as normal as it gets!
Now they’re doing the wave down there, like Fifth Avenue is a stadium and they’re waiting for the game to start. We flatter ourselves that even when our democratic norms are being kicked away like the legs of barstools, basic human decency will forestall the worst outcomes. Turns out that basic human decency is the most precarious democratic norm of all.
I press my face against the bars of my cell, look down again at Kushner, who is murmuring into his phone: checking up on the peace process he is still technically in charge of, or maybe checking up on all that Manhattan real estate supposedly held in trust for his kids. The weird thing about Jared is that he’s just this guy from New Jersey, which is where I’m from, too: Chatham, in my case, right by the Mall at Short Hills and 10 minutes from Jared’s native Livingston. We were born two years apart, five miles apart. My short-lived high school ska band played in Livingston all the time. I have this crazy idea that if he would just look up here for a second, just get off the phone and look up and see me, he’d actually RECOGNIZE my face, I’d see his small inscrutable eyes light up with recognition and he’d laugh and I’d laugh and he’d just go, “Hey! Wait! I know YOU.”
* * *
So let me give you the Adromack story, while there’s still time: On Jan. 12 of 2017 the inspector general of the DOJ launched an investigation of the FBI’s decision to announce its renewed investigation into Hillary’s emails—and NOT to announce the ongoing investigation into the Trump team’s financial (possibly literal) kissy-face with the Russians.
And then, in March of 2017, that OIG investigation ended abruptly, supposedly for lack of evidence but reportedly under heavy pressure from Jeff Sessions, the antediluvian Confederate who had become (in one of the great historical assaults upon the English language) the head of Justice. But this Arvin Adromack fellow, a career lawyer at the OIG, he couldn’t abide that decision, he kept working the case, and files from his office started turning up in the Washington Post, making it harder and harder for the single-celled organisms on the congressional intelligence committees to ignore Democratic calls for a new investigation …
… until, on June 12, 2017, Adromack contracted a severe flu and died four days later at Sibley Hospital.
Except people don’t typically die of the flu, right? This is, after all, for the time being, a First World country, and so I got it in my head that something was fishy—and though I wasn’t the only one, I WAS the only one who got a floor nurse to confirm that Adromack’s symptoms included dire unexplained weakness, violent vomiting, and persistent diarrhea. After three months of reporting—three months of calls to other Washington-area hospitals, off-the-record conversations with the family and personal physician, in-depth interviews with experts at the NIH, the CDC, and the CIA—I reported that Adromack was the second-known victim of lethal polonium-210-induced acute radiation syndrome—the first having been Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian dissident journalist whose death 2006 in London is widely understood to have been at the hands of the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB.
The day that story ran I had an incoming call. A high-ranking source in military intelligence, confirming that anti-Trumpists within the CIA and the DIA had long believed what my reporting suggested: Arvin Adromack was killed by the Russians, very likely at the request of someone within the Trump administration.
Now that got me some attention! CNN ran with it; Sean Hannity said I was a hack; the president tweeted that I was both “sad” and “bad,” upon which the bots and trolls and Pepe the Frog Monsters slathered my mentions in pictures: me in a noose, me in a gas chamber, me with hunks of shit and pearls of semen on my face. My mother was so proud.
But then of course, this being America, and our Congress being the American Congress, no investigation was held, no consequences were felt. Nothing, after all, could be proven, especially since nobody tried, and the attention of the American press and public was swallowed up by whatever scandal came next—was it Trump caught on a hot mic, calling Angela Merkel a “cunt”? Was it the Twitter feud with Kermit the Frog, or was that later?—and that was it for me … until ol’ Mad Dog turned up, and everything went upside down for the re-election campaign.
* * *
Well here we go; here he comes.
Even with the crowd hollering and cheering, even with Toby Keith blaring on the sound system, I can hear it clear as distant thunder—10 cars all coming at once, one limousine and six SUVs and three armored Humvees rumbling like an armada down Fifth Avenue.
You see what I’m doing, right? Trying to be tough and cool, pretending I’m immortal, Hunter S. Thompson with a handgun and a head full of LSD. Truth is I’m shaking like a goddamn leaf, because the human body is like the body of the state, it feels so permanent but as it turns out it is always just a heartbeat away—we are always one bad moment from what-always-was becoming what-will-never-be-again—my mortality is as flimsy as truth, as fragile as democracy.
The cars park and the crowd parts to let through the president and the crowd of seven-footers he travels with now as his personal guard. Jesus Christ. I’m not sure I ever really believed it, to be totally honest with you, never really thought the old man would do it himself.
He raises a hand to the crowd, and the crowd roars its approval. He stops at the risers to shake hands with Bannon, with Lewandowski, with Cohen and Flynn, to kiss Ivanka on both cheeks. Kushner gives his father-in-law a warm smile and pats him on the back.
* * *
It was November of 2017 that Gen. James Mattis became the first Trump Cabinet secretary to be sent packing, after he refused to order the waterboarding of seven alleged ISIS-affiliated shitwads who blew up a hotel ballroom in Buffalo. Mattis even stuck his thumb in the president’s pouchy eye on the way out, refusing to turn in his resignation to sniveling Priebus, forcing the president to fire him instead—which he did, via Twitter, giving Mattis the platform for a somber and statesmanlike farewell address that was a big hit on CNN and earned him a nice six-part late-night tweetstorm out of the East Wing.
Mattis was radio silent for a couple years, probably holed up in a yurt somewhere rereading his Livy, getting ready to emerge as an insurgent contender for the Republican nomination, which he did just in time to steal the Nevada caucus right out from under El Presidente, add Marco Rubio as his running mate, and wallop Trump/Pence on Super Tuesday. The president responded with his usual temper tantrums: insane off-topic interviews in the Wall Street Journal, tweeted promises of things he COULD say but was choosing NOT to say, which (his surrogates manage to whisper) might or might not include that Mattis was a homo and Little Marco a second cousin to Castro. But it was too late, the Narrative Had Shifted, and the Mad Dog and Marco show was pulling big ratings, and suddenly everybody was asking who was really best suited to beat back the anticipated Warren/Booker ticket in the fall.
Everybody knew what was coming next, of course, our dear leader being as predictable in his rage-filled unpredictability as the Incredible Hulk: Trump Get Mad! Trump Make Distraction! And so, just in time for it to be announced from the stage of the Republican National Convention, I was arrested by agents of the FBI. When I refused to divulge my sources within the Defense Department I was charged with treason under the State Secrets Act. Treason, of course, comes with a death sentence, and I might have taken comfort in the fact that no American journalist has ever been given the death penalty, except that as has been endlessly noted, the Trump administration could give two miserly shits about what has happened in the past.
I don’t have to do the whole rest of it, do I? You saw it all in real time, on TV and in your various feeds.
The public hue and cry.
The fair and balanced media discussions about whether I was a hero or an enemy of the state.
The petitions for my release, which did exactly as much good as such petitions usually do.
The executive orders that flew off the resolute desk like spinning calendar pages in an old-time movie, marking the passage of the following months: military commissions empowered to try civilian suspects in high-crimes trials—commission members to be appointed directly by the Joint Chiefs—appeals process to be severely truncated in the interests of avoiding waste—the means and time of execution to be at the personal discretion of the executive …
As we used to say, when things were funny, when irony lived, when joy was possible in human discourse: bada-bing, bada-boom.
* * *
He’s on a platform now, and the platform is raised slowly up toward me. Though most people look less cartoonish up close the president somehow looks more so: the preposterous hair and the radioactive orange glow and the black overcoat and lumpy cadaverous face. I can hear, under the jubilant roar of the Trumpists, the low motor whine of the engine that is raising the platform, a dull mechanical BUZZZZZZ, the banal creeping in under the substrata of the drama.
Here he is. He’s holding the gun. His hands really are very small.
Kushner isn’t really paying attention. He’s looking at something, off in the distance, or he’s looking at nothing. He’s bored, I realize. State events. Such a bore. Famously he went to Harvard, and we’ve got that in common, too, in a way. I used to live there, in Cambridge—I lived with a girl in Central Square once for a couple years, and I used to go and buy magazines at that kiosk there, what was it called, right off campus. I ate a lot at Flat Patties, and there’s no way this kid Jared from New Jersey went to Harvard and never ate at Flat Patties. We’re just people, all of us, me and Jared and all of those bikers and moms down there and even the president himself. If Kushner would just look up here, if we could just make eye contact for a half a second, then he would have to understand that this is crazy, right, the whole thing is crazy, this just isn’t how the world works.
I wrote some stuff on a website, that’s all. We’re all just doing our thing.
Kushner leans forward, whispers something to Bannon, who nods. Bannon has dandruff on the shoulder of his sport coat.
The president looks at me, squints a little, and I think for a second he’s thinking it over, maybe getting ready to change his mind, but no. He’s measuring the distance. He’s making sure that point blank is close enough. He couldn’t bear to miss, couldn’t bear even the momentary appearance of fallibility.
Then he does his favorite thing in the world: He addresses the crowd. “What do you think, folks? Should I do it?”
The crowd goes wild, of course. They’ve come this far, up from Pennsylvania or in from Long Island, come on buses from as far as the Carolinas to see what they’re about to see.
I look at the gun, and at the president, and then back at the gun. I’m a well-read guy, college educated, I’m a coastal liberate elite all the way down the line. I know my famous last words, and for a second I try to muster up something with some steel in it, give ’em a little “It’s a far, far better thing!” or “Eppur si muove” or even “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
But all I can come up with is “Please.” I look past the president, down at the risers, and shout as loud as I can: “Please! Jared! For fuck’s sake—”