President Donald Trump has committed so many brazen acts of cruelty, dishonesty, and stupidity in full view of the public that it’s not really a surprise to hear about the cruel, dishonest, and stupid things he does behind closed doors. But the lightly redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report that was released on Thursday morning is still a revelatory document. Read as a profile of the president—a piece of reporting informed by interviews with sources under oath—the Mueller report shades in the portrait of Trump that’s already imprinted on our brains. It also makes it clearer than it’s ever been that the president drives everyone around him absolutely mad.
The Donald Trump that readers encounter in the report takes great pains to avoid information that will cause him any emotional discomfort, even if he’ll eventually have to confront it when it blows up into a P.R. disaster. Former White House communications director Hope Hicks told the special counsel that she tried to tell the president about emails documenting how Donald Trump Jr. organized the June 2016 meeting between Trump campaign officials and a Kremlin-linked lawyer at Trump Tower. Hicks suggested they release the emails to get ahead of the story. “The President said he did not want to know about it and they should not go to the press,” the Mueller report says. “Hicks warned the President that the emails were ‘really bad’ … but the President was insistent that he did not want to talk about it and said he did not want details.” At another meeting, Hicks said, Jared Kushner tried to show Trump a folder of documents that Kushner was supposed to provide to congressional committees investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. According to the report, the president “stopped Kushner and said he did not want to know about it, shutting the conversation down.”
These anecdotes complement previous reports that Trump demands that he be given a folder of positive news clippings about himself twice a day. With the assistance of family members and employees who have scrambled to avoid the president’s unpredictable rage, Trump has been able to cocoon himself in reports of his own competence, outsourcing the fallout from his scam-riddled campaign and presidency to others in his orbit. He seems unable or unwilling to consider inevitable consequences, pursuing momentary comfort over necessary conflict every time.
The report depicts Trump as a haughty child of privilege convinced that his social capital and powers of personality are strong enough to make any negative accusations against him (even the true ones) dissipate on their own. Chris Christie told investigators that Trump was shocked to learn that “this Russia thing” was still a thing even after Michael Flynn left the administration. “Flynn met with the Russians. That was the problem. I fired Flynn. It’s over,” Christie said Trump told him over lunch in February 2017, the day after Flynn resigned.
Trump’s seeming naïveté about the severity of “this Russia thing” and his confidence that any repercussions would be absorbed by his underlings isn’t merely evidence of his willful ignorance and stunted capacity for critical thinking. It’s the logical response of a man who has, for a lifetime, evaded consequences for his bad behavior (creating a scam university, doing sketchy tax stuff) and been rewarded with the presidency thanks to his worst tendencies (racist provocations, bragging about sexual assault).
Trump’s blasé attitude about the Trump Tower meeting emails and Kushner’s documents—“leave it alone,” he allegedly told his son-in-law when he learned the documents weren’t due to Congress for a few weeks—contrasts with his well-documented paranoia over leaks to the press. According to Hicks’ account, Trump said he was sure the Trump Tower meeting emails wouldn’t leak so she shouldn’t preemptively publish them. Later, he “seemed upset” because several people in the White House knew about the emails when he wanted only a single lawyer to deal with them. “The President indicated that he did not think the emails would leak, but said they would leak if everyone had access to them,” the report says.
This pas de deux of ego (“I’m sure these emails that make me look bad and possibly open me up to a damning investigation won’t leak”) and insecurity (“these emails will definitely leak if more than one person sees them”) is classic Trump. He knows that evincing open mistrust of his own administration means admitting the limits of his lackeys’ admiration and fealty to him. So he convinces himself that no one is going to betray him or compromise his public image, then smears them as incompetent turncoats when they inevitably do.
The Mueller report also indicates that the president didn’t much care if the results of the Russia investigation made him seem unethical, greedy, or treasonous. He was only worried that any corroboration of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election would undermine the flattering connotations of his victory: that he won America’s popularity contest all on his own. “Several advisors” told the special counsel that Trump believed it would detract from his election triumph if people thought Russia had propped him on top of a few phone books to help him reach the dinner table.
Trump also thinks the same primitive, manipulative tactics that work on him will work on everyone around him. Christie told investigators that in early 2017, the president told him to call then–FBI Director James Comey, who was launching an investigation into Russian election interference, to tell Comey that Trump “really like[s] him.” “Tell [Comey] he’s part of the team,” Trump told Christie. Trump’s conviction that Comey could be swayed with secondhand flattery delivered via the governor of New Jersey is so foolish it’s almost sad. For a man credited by his supporters with superhuman charisma and business instincts, he seems wildly inattentive to who people are, what makes them tick, and how to win them over.
In these please-like-me anecdotes, Trump comes off as deeply pathetic. He appears to be a socially inept child who lives in a fantasy world that revolves around his own ego, believes no rules apply to him, barely maintains a weak grasp on logic, and is desperate to be loved. None of these observations are groundbreaking. But it’s still both troubling and satisfying to read these firsthand accounts of Trump’s failures as a president, boss, American, and human being in what was commissioned to be a dispassionate government report. It’s not just Trump’s political opponents and those beset by #resistance brain who think he’s unqualified to lead a nation, a business, a family, or a productive life. The people working hardest to protect him think so, too.
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