Toward the end of the 2016 campaign, Michael Wolff reported in Fire and Fury, Donald Trump was talking with Roger Ailes about how perfectly the campaign had gone. He’d never dreamed in July 2015 that the Republican Party was stupid and soulless enough to give him its nomination. But it had! And he got all these months and months of free publicity, all three cable news nets constantly cutting off regular programming to show him, Trump, carrying on about whatever rile-up-the-rubes outrage popped into his head that evening.
And now here it was, close to Election Day, and soon it would all be over. He’d lose, so he wouldn’t actually have to be the president, but what a hustle!
Wolff: “He’d come out of the campaign, Trump assured Ailes, with a far more powerful brand and untold opportunities. ‘This is bigger than I ever dreamed of,’ he told Ailes in a conversation a week before the election. ‘I don’t think about losing because it isn’t losing. We’ve totally won.’”
And there you have it. The campaign was a scam. Use the Republican Party to increase his brand value. Four and a half years later, here we are as Trump, like some blood-sucking roundworm, is still trying to suck as much life as he can out of the host body while he still can, with a $421 million loan bill coming due and the Manhattan district attorney breathing down his neck. He’s about to come face-to-face with a fact that I suspect, deep down, he’s known all along—which is why he was bragging to Ailes that he was delighted to lose: that winning the presidency would destroy him.
It was just reported this week that Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance’s probe into Trump’s finances was being extended to include a Chicago development deal where the lender (which is not under investigation) forgave a big part of Trump’s loan, more than $100 million. The question is whether the Trump Organization properly recorded the forgiven debt as income, which would require the company to pay tax on it.
Meantime, Trump has $421 million in debt (most of it presumed to be owed to Deutsche Bank) coming due soon. During the 2020 campaign, he scoffed at the debt, because of course to hear him tell it $400 million is a “peanut.” No one knows the truth right now, except maybe some investigators in the Manhattan DA’s office, but it would hardly be shocking to learn that Trump just doesn’t have the money.
Hence, the current, post-presidency phase of the hustle: to bleed every penny he can out of the Republican National Committee. First, he said they couldn’t use his name in fund-raising material, an obviously unenforceable demand in a country where political speech is explicitly protected in the Constitution.
But then, because the Republican Party is such a bunch of ninnies, the RNC announced that it was moving part of its spring donor retreat next month to guess where? Hint: It rhymes with Bar-a-Pago. So even after Trump picked a petty fight with the RNC, and even while he’s urging people to donate to his personal PAC instead, the RNC will be paying event and catering fees to Trump. Probably not $421 million worth, but every little bit helps.
Even as Trump has cost his party control of the Senate and the White House, Republicans just can’t quit the guy. That doesn’t prevent some of them from seeing the hopelessness of the situation and deciding to chuck it in, the latest being Missouri Senator Roy Blunt, a member of the party’s Senate leadership and, at 71, a veritable teenager by Senate standards. They could stay and fight for their party, and spend their lives getting death threats and losing battle after battle, or they could go make $300,000 a year working part-time and spend two days a week trying to learn to read the slope of the greens at Burning Tree. You tell me.
It would be worth staying and fighting if there were some principle at stake. But there is none. The party is totally brain-dead and without conscience. OK, maybe not totally. There’s Mitt Romney, who shows signs of actually wanting to legislate. There’s Adam Kinzinger, who seems a decent fellow. And, gulp, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but there’s Liz Cheney.
But by and large, it is a party so unmoored from thought, so bereft of ideas and any sense of standing for anything that Republicans couldn’t even bring themselves to put up a decent fight on the COVID bill. Were you as struck by this as I was? Trump was near-silent. The party’s legislators never mounted a strong counter-argument. And Tucker moved on to Dr. Seuss. It was astonishing to watch, but then again it wasn’t, because their only principle for several years now has been power. And now that they don’t have it—thanks, of course, to Trump—they have no idea what to fight for.
Trump, at least, knows what to fight for, the only thing he’s ever fought for: himself. But he is surely beginning to see now what a tragic mistake he made when he descended that famous escalator.
If he’d never become president, he could have carried on lying and swindling people just as before, and no one would be the wiser.
But when you’re president, certain checks and balances kick in. You’re being watched more closely. Lying about your tax returns being “under audit” will keep the dogs at bay for a while, but they’ll bash down the door eventually. Private citizen Trump paying off Stormy Daniels? Feh, who cares. Candidate/President Trump doing it? Against the law. And so on and so on and so on.
And most of all, at least my hunch? Private Citizen Trump keeps Allen Weisselberg on the pad his whole life and makes sure that his children and grandchildren and even great-grandchildren never have to fly coach. But in the Candidate/President Trump reality, just maybe Weisselberg starts singing.
The whole point of the campaign, as Trump told Ailes, was branding. Well, he’s going to be branded, all right. Just not the way he thought.