On MSNBC, they’re calling Michael Cohen a grifter. It’s a term we’ve been hearing a lot lately. Vanity Fair recently described EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt as making a strong play for “Most Shameless White House Grifter.” The magazine used the same pejorative to describe former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, before he had to resign for hailing Gulfstream IVs like Ubers. Steve Mnuchin has been called a grifter; so has Jared Kushner. Timothy Egan of the New York Times has described the entire Trump administration as a “White House of Grifters.”
Too easy, Tim! The description is not inaccurate so much as it is imprecise, like calling Richard Nixon a “crook.” Nearly everyone who chooses to work for Donald Trump is disreputable in one way or another; Ali Baba didn’t find 40 wise men in the cave. But to label everyone in Trumpworld a grifter misses important subtleties. It conflates grifters and grafters, and it ignores the crucial distinction between the two.
Maria Konnikova did an excellent podcast series about grifters, many of whom she met working on her book The Confidence Game. For the grifter, ripping people off is seldom the point. The grifter is an artiste, who invests in the long con. He (or she) takes pleasure in gulling the trusting and eluding justice. The grifter has multiple partners, multiple stories, multiple identities. The grifter is theatrical, if not actually delusional. The grifter wants your applause, not just your pocket watch. The Duke and the Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn were grifters, charlatans par excellence. Charles Ponzi was a grifter. William Avery Rockefeller, the father of John D. Rockefeller, was a grifter.
The grafter, by contrast, is a run-of-the-mill abuser of the public trust. He needs no audience and prefers not having one. Where the grifter is shameless, the grafter shrinks from exposure, which could only endanger the racket. He is greedy, but not creatively ambitious. He toils in mundane self-dealing, insider trading, bribe taking, witness tampering, and other forms of workaday corruption. Spiro Agnew was a grafter. William Jefferson, the Louisiana congressman who kept cash in the freezer in his apartment, was a grafter. Illinois governors are inevitably grafters, as is any politician whose name is preceded by “Boss” (see: Louisiana).
Got the distinction? Good. Now let’s play grifter or grafter. Donald Trump is an archetypal grifter. Using the presidency to promote your golf courses, hotels, and real estate business is grifting. So is getting people to pay a premium for buildings with your name in big, gold letters. Licensing your name is what every grifter dreams about. The Apprentice, a reality show about pretending to be a huge real estate mogul, was grifting squared. Trump University—getting paid to share your secrets about pretending to be a huge real estate mogul—was grifting to the third power. Trump-branded steaks, Trump wine, Trump bottled water—bottled water is grifting, by definition.
Jared Kushner, by contrast, is a rich-kid grafter, who lacks his father-in-law’s charisma and imagination. Trying to quietly use your power to convince Chinese or Qatari investors to bail out your disastrous investment in 666 Fifth Ave.—that’s grafting. Selling EB-5 visas to Chinese investors by touting your political connections—also grafting. Kushner’s machinations recall Tammany Hall boss George Washington Plunkitt’s notion of “honest graft,” when your private interests happen to align nicely with your public office. That’s Jared K. to a T.
Jared is, however, a grafter married to a grifter. Representing the Trump SoHo as 60 percent sold, when it was really only about 15 percent sold, as Ivanka once did, is classic grifting, even if the Manhattan DA concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute. Hawking fake jewels on HSN—or on QVC, which Melania used to do? That’s the quintessence of grifting, my friend. Licensing your name to a diamond business accused of large-scale money laundering? Epic grifting.
Ivanka’s brothers, meanwhile, are plodding grafters. The difference explains why Eric and Don Jr. don’t command their father’s respect. The grifter has no esteem for the dim grafter, who lacks his inspiration and showmanship. The grifter is a peacock. The grafter is a pigeon. You can’t truly understand the Trump administration until you appreciate that, deep down, the grifters have contempt for the grafters. Grifters can and do graft when they’re in the mood, but grafters lack the talent to grift. They’re strictly short-con artists. The grafters, meanwhile, think the grifters are nutjobs. This is the psychological civil war playing out every day in the White House.
This typology carries through the campaign, administration, and crony ranks. Kellyanne Conway: grifter; Corey Lewandowski: grafter; Sarah Huckabee Sanders? Grifter’s daughter, and grifter mouthpiece, but not a true grifter herself. Roger Stone: grifter! Michael Cohen: grafter! Steve Bannon: grifter! Scott Pruitt: grafter. Anthony Scaramucci is a grifter, though not a very good one. Paul Manafort is, or was, a grafter. In another Trump administration mixed marriage, the Wall Street grafter Steve Mnuchin is married to the Scottish grifter Louise Linton.
Admittedly, a few of Trump’s appointees, especially in the defense and foreign policy arena, don’t fit neatly into either category. John Kelly, James Mattis, Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo, Gina Haspel, and Kirstjen Nielsen, as well as the already departed Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster, aren’t really grifters or grafters. They’re normal public servants, fish out of water in grifting, grafting Trumpworld.