It isn’t very often that I recommend reading anything in The Atlantic for reasons other than to mock the imbecility that collects there like lint collects on velcro. But Mckay Coppins has a very good take on Trump and the Russia probe, though, in the end, I think he comes up very short.
As the blast radius of the Russia investigation continues to expand, Donald Trump is facing an unnerving new reality: The fate of his presidency may now hinge on the motley, freewheeling crew of lieutenants and loyalists who have long populated his entourage.
Last week, a subpoena for Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, was approved as part of the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russia’s interference with the presidential election. With that, Cohen was added to a range of Trump allies who are reportedly entangled in the investigation—from outer-orbit figures like Roger Stone and Carter Page, to more visible senior advisers like Michael Flynn and Boris Epshteyn.
Sources close to the president say there is growing concern in the White House about what skeletons may emerge as investigators comb through a coterie of aides, past and present, who would have done virtually anything to win favor with Trump.
“My fear is that a bunch of people were freelancing—doing things not thinking about the repercussions, but thinking Trump would be so impressed by it,” said one person close to the president. He said that with all the resources the government is putting toward the investigation, “they’re going to want a return.” And in a climate like that, any misguided meeting, bluntly worded email, or undisclosed contact with a Russian official—whether or not Trump himself knew about it—could surface as an incriminating bombshell.
He goes on to say that the genesis of this is Trump’s management style:
Long before he entered politics, Trump established a managerial M.O. that came to govern his universe of aides, allies, and hangers-on. Essentially, he populated his team with a cast of scrappy, hard-charging mini-Trumps—people who idolized their boss, and sought to emulate him in every way—and then infused them all with an eat-what-you-kill ethos. Employees are rarely paid impressive salaries at first, but nor are they micromanaged. Instead, they are encouraged to hustle their way up the food chain, competing ferociously with each other to win Trump’s respect, and always seeking out new ways to prove their value.
“He likes to pit advisers against each other,” said one former campaign aide. “He likes the infighting … It’s definitely an environment where you might feel pressured to go the free-range-kid model and say, ‘Hey, let’s see what I can drum up to impress him with.’”
The aide added, “Someone could easily take it a step too far trying to gain something that no one else could gain.”
I’ve covered Trump’s management style in a few posts prior to the election:
The general description that Coppins provides of Trump’s management practice is pretty accurate. He sets up competing power centers and nebulous lines of communications, he plays factions off against each other with the organizing principle being that they are loyal to Trump and Trump is the peacemaker that adjudicates conflicts. It is an environment where sycophancy and palace intrigue are the coin of the realm. As I posted a few days ago, many of the leaks coming out of the White House (as opposed to cabinet agencies) seem to emanate from within Trump’s circle of advisers who are using the media to damage one another.
This is where I think Coppins goes off the rails:
People who have worked closely with Trump told me it’s not hard to imagine how this environment would lend itself to the kind of unsavory behavior by his aides that investigators are now looking for. Between his sprawling business empire and his chaotic campaign operation, Trump spent 2016 running what was essentially Uber, but for the presidency—overseeing a vast fleet of independent operators for whom the only currency that mattered was gaining an edge for the boss. Who knows how far some of them might have gone to get ahead?
Meanwhile, the former campaign staffer went so far as to suggest Trump’s aides could have colluded with Russia without knowing it was illegal. “Is it possible that [Trump] was surrounded with people who didn’t even realize what they were doing was inappropriate? You’d have to be pretty stupid. But there are some pretty stupid people in the Trump camp.”
I’m a skeptic on the whole collusion nonsense and, other than lying to a federal agent, I’m not sure what you could really do that would be illegal so long as you didn’t assist in the hacking of the DNC emails. Be that as it may, the people who are being looked at are not the hyper-loyal staffers like Corey Lewandowski. The people being looked at are the scammers, the guys who are always working an angle, the guys on the make, the hustlers: Roger Stone, Carter Page, Paul Manafort, etc.
They are evidence of what happens when someone without any great loyalty to Trump, but with the ability to feign that emotion, are dumped into an environment where they work with virtually no supervision but are able to throw around the boss’s name. These guys were able to trade on their prominence in the Trump campaign in order to enrich themselves. I’d be surprised if any of them actually thought Trump was going to win. It is hard to imagine a more somnolent figure in the delegate scramble before the Indiana primary than “delegate rustler” Paul Manafort. He got his ass kicked everywhere he competed.
What I suspect is going to be found there will be run of the mill financial fraud, like money laundering and mail fraud. Manafort, in particular, I predict will be found up to his unibrow in alleged Russian mob money. And the whole Russia-collusion story, if anyone ever gets to the bottom of it, is going to land squarely in John Brennan’s lap.