My problem is with cheese-eaters who see anything short of total approval and praise as being "disrespectful." If you don't kiss their ass 24/7 they think you're "dissing" them. In a sense they're right, I suppose. I have no respect for those types and in fact disrespect them. I would not hesitate to call them a cheese-eating punk.
‘I Need Loyalty’
To hear him talk, it’s Trump’s favorite quality in other humans. But it’s unclear what that word means to him.
By MICHAEL KRUSE March/April 2018
A week exactly after his inauguration, seated for dinner at a small, oval table in the Green Room of the White House, Donald Trump said to the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation what might end up being the six most consequential words of his presidency.
“I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
All leaders want loyalty. All politicians. All presidents. But in the 241-year history of the United States of America, there’s never been a commander in chief who has thought about loyalty and attempted to use it and enforce it quite like Trump. “I value loyalty above everything else—more than brains, more than drive and more than energy,” Trump once said. It is possible to see Trump’s fixation on loyalty, the pledging of it, the proof of it, the failure to receive it or provide it, as the animating force behind so many of the defining events of his first year in office. Consider James Comey’s extraordinary dismissal; the “Dear Leader” Cabinet meetings convened for aides to bestow slavish praise; public humiliations of his attorney general and secretary of state; the banishment and subsequent contrition of top adviser Steve Bannon; speculation that Robert Mueller won’t last long as special counsel and the parade of lockstep minions whose forced exits from the campaign or the administration have not squelched their public displays of devotion.
By presidential standards, these episodes are bizarre. But in Trumpworld, they fit a distinct pattern. They all trace back to a notion of loyalty that Trump absorbed when he was young—and has never abandoned.
According to people who know him well, Trump’s definition of loyalty is blunt. “Support Donald Trump in anything he says and does,” Roger Stone, the president’s longest-running political adviser, told me. “No matter what,” former Trump Organization executive Barbara Res said. “Or else,” added Louise Sunshine, a friend of Trump for nearly 50 years. “I think he defines it as allegiance,” biographer Tim O’Brien told me. “And it’s not allegiance to the flag or allegiance to the country—it’s allegiance to Trump.”
Congenitally untrusting, reared in the ruthless arena of pay-to-play, back-scratching (and back-stabbing) New York City politics of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Trump was schooled and shaped by some of the most committed, effective and objectionable practitioners of quid pro quo. The self-interested sense of loyalty he developed then is transactional to the point of ephemeral, an almost always one-way street that can double as a revolving door—a kind of pliability that makes him seem at times something close to forgiving.
Taken as a whole, this mixture of traits makes Trump’s unprecedented presidency unprecedented in this respect as well, presidential historians told me. Presidents all require loyalty—up to a point. And they have to show loyalty—except when they shouldn’t. Too much loyalty can be just as detrimental to a president and his administration as too little. No president, in the historians’ estimation, has ever built an administration on a scaffolding that uses this quality almost to the exclusion of others, or has so deliberately announced that other virtues of management—the need for unvarnished counsel, even principled defiance—will be punished. The consequences, they acknowledge, are impossible to predict in real time; there are simply too many personal and political variables. But past presidencies offer clear examples of the limits of loyalty. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, was consistently and uncommonly loyal, and so was George H.W. Bush; the former is considered one of the finest presidents ever, and the latter is … not. Andrew Jackson and Richard Nixon, Trump’s two most frequently cited analogs from the past, both demanded loyalty in hugely personalized ways; it helped Jackson accomplish what he wanted to accomplish, and it led to Nixon’s getting impeached. In the case of Trump, historians wonder most pointedly whether the particular type of loyalty he appears to crave is meant to serve the broader aims of his administration or simply to fan the flames of his insatiable ego.
“I need loyalty,” he said to Comey a second time near the end of their Green Room dinner. He has questioned the loyalty of his attorney general. He has asked his deputy attorney general if he was “on my team.” He has asked Comey’s replacement how he voted.
His whole life, the people loyal to Trump were the people who pleased him and praised him, who kowtowed to him, who fought for him and attacked others at his behest, who were willing to do whatever it took to get him whatever he wanted.
It helped him become president. Now people wonder if it could be his fatal flaw.
Whether or not Comey knew it or meant it this way, he used, in his seven-page written description of his interactions with Trump, one unusual word that jumped off the page. Their dinner at the White House, Comey thought, was at least partly Trump’s “effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship.”
Patronage is worthy of note, because Trump learned loyalty not from the Kew-Forest School in Queens or New York Military Academy 70 miles north of New York City. (“Duty, honor, country,” one of his classmates told me they learned in American history class.) Rather, Trump was tutored on this front by two people—the two most important, most influential people in his life, according to everybody I’ve ever talked to who’s ever known him well.
His father. And Roy Cohn.
“I think Trump actually is loyal to a very wide range of people, and I suspect he learned it from his father,” Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker and a Trump ally and informal adviser, told me. Trump’s father, Fred, had the same secretary, Amy Luerssen, for 59 years, eating lunch with her almost every weekday at Gargiulo’s—with waiters in tuxedos—in Brooklyn, around the corner from Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand, just up from the Coney Island boardwalk.
Cohn, meanwhile, was the gay homophobe, the anti-Semitic Jew, the self-serving, self-loathing one-time chief counsel and henchman of red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy of 1950s infamy. The son of a politically connected judge in the Bronx, Cohn cultivated powerful lifelong friends of his own. The lawyer also trafficked in tabloid gossip and leaked on clients and didn’t pay his taxes or his bills. He wielded his dark power like a guillotine. “Roy’s concept of loyalty is not unlike that of a mob chieftain,” Ken Auletta wrote in his seminal 1978 Esquire profile.
That’s another way he defines loyalty, right? It’s allegiance plus thuggery.”
What Fred Trump and Roy Cohn had in common was their deep immersion in patronage politics—old-school, clubhouse-style favor-trading, used to grasp private gain under the guise of public good. “You take care of the boss and the boss takes care of you,” as veteran New York political operative Hank Sheinkopf described it to me. Operating within the Democratic machines of Brooklyn and Queens, Fred Trump for decades made shrewd connections and large, dutiful donations in exchange for preference in properties, pricing and zoning. And Cohn? Cohn was a virtuoso in “the trade of human calculus,” his biographer wrote, “of deal making, swapping, maneuver, and manipulation.” Watching and emulating these two, the canny younger Trump reportedly looked, too, to fabled Brooklyn boss Meade Esposito as a model. Esposito once was caught by an FBI wiretap saying there should have been an 11th Commandment: “Think of Thyself.”
This was the context in which Donald Trump moved to Manhattan in the 1970s as an avaricious twentysomething. Abe Beame, the mayor at the time, was a way-back Fred Trump crony from Brooklyn. And now Fred Trump’s son was part of the deal. “Whatever Donald and Fred want, they have my complete backing,” Beame once said in his office, according to Wayne Barrett’s book on Trump. And then it was Cohn who got Trump his tax breaks for Trump Tower. He greased skids and filed suits. “Donald calls me 15 to 20 times a day,” Cohn said in 1980 to reporter Marie Brenner. “All I can tell you is he’s been vicious to others in protection of me,” Trump told her. “Roy was brutal,” he would say later to O’Brien, the biographer, “but he was a very loyal guy. He brutalized for you.”
TRUMP ON LOYALTY
“One of the small corruptive forces in politics is the fact that every aide to every politician is hoping to retire on a tell-all book about his experiences as an insider. Loyalty counts for very little in Washington.”
“When I was having trouble in the early nineties, I learned a lot about loyalty because there were people I thought would be totally loyal to me who weren’t.”
“I like McDonald’s hamburgers and the DT Burger as served at the Trump Grill in Trump Tower. The DT Burger is definitely more deluxe, but I’ve been a loyal McDonald’s customer and even did a major ad for them.”—Think Like a Billionaire (2004)
It’s precisely the reason Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation in March so angered Trump. “Because he didn’t brutalize,” O’Brien told me. “That’s another way he defines loyalty, right? It’s allegiance plus thuggery.”
“Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Trump raged to White House officials last year, according to the New York Times.
Since Cohn’s death, in 1986, Trump as a businessman always has kept a small clutch of longtime loyalists—his executive assistant, Norma Foerderer, who died in 2013; his secretary, Rhona Graff, who still works at Trump Tower; Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer; and Matt Calamari, his chief operating officer, who started as a bodyguard and chauffeur. “I have stayed with the Trump Organization because Mr. Trump appreciates hard work and loyalty—and I would never want to disappoint him,” Calamari told me in 2016.
“You’d do anything for me, wouldn’t you, Matty?” Trump called out from the rear of his limousine one day in the fall of 1989, according to Harry Hurt III’s Trump biography, Lost Tycoon. Trump’s affair with Marla Maples would lead in a matter of months to the ultra-public blowup of the first of his three marriages. Due to mounting debt from his casinos, the Trump Shuttle airline and his rash purchase of the Plaza Hotel, Trump was headed toward potential financial ruin. But he wanted to demonstrate to an associate in the car the kind of loyalty he could command.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Trump,” Calamari answered.
“Anything at all?” Trump asked.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Trump.”
“Would you kill for me, Matty?”
Trump repeated the question two more times, then smiled at the associate. “See,” he said. “Matty would kill for me.”
Not everybody was like Matty.
“He did not like people who disagreed with him, and that was my fundamental problem,” Bruce Nobles, the former Trump Shuttle president, told me. “He thinks he’s a smart guy. I don’t deny he’s a smart guy. But he didn’t know nearly as much about aviation as I did—but he kept trying to tell me I was wrong about things. And instead of just agreeing with him, I said, ‘No, you’re wrong.’ And that was not something he liked to hear. Those who disagree with him don’t seem to last very long.”
“He demanded loyalty in the sense that he didn’t like a lot of pushback,” ex-Trump casino executive Jack O’Donnell said in an interview.
But what he demanded he did not give back in the same measure.
Said Nobles: “I never particularly thought that he was loyal to”—he paused to think before coming up empty—“anybody.”
Sam Nunberg concurs. Nunberg worked for four years for Trump as a political consultant and campaign aide. He was fired in 2014 for facilitating a BuzzFeed profile Trump didn’t like and again in 2015 because of some old racist Facebook posts. “I’ll never forgive him for it, because I asked him not to fire me,” Nunberg told me. “I would have gone through fire for him. And he betrayed me.” Nunberg called Trump a “dumbfuck” for firing him.
But perhaps the most interesting, illustrative people in the life of Trump are those who have moved in and out of his inner circle—but never totally leave. People like Louise Sunshine and Roger Stone. Both of them have known Trump for the better part of the past half-century and still talk to him, and seem to understand, embrace and even take advantage of the characteristic vicissitudes of Trump’s loyalty.
Perhaps the most interesting, illustrative people in the life of Trump are those who have moved in and out of his inner circle—but never totally leave.
Sunshine was Trump’s first employee, a politically savvy, wired aide who helped him climb to prominence in the ’70s and early ’80s. They had an acrimonious split in 1985 because of a million dollars Trump said she owed him. Trump, though, ultimately held no grudge, and neither did she. Her relationship with him “ebbs and flows,” she told me. “When you came out of the Brooklyn world, where Donald grew up, and where his father was so steeped, loyalty had a different connotation.”
Stone, meanwhile, is a Cohn protégé. Cohn introduced Stone to Trump in 1979. And Stone, who has Nixon’s face tattooed on his back, counseled Trump in his initial dalliance with running for president in 1988, and with his short-lived Reform Party candidacy in 2000, and again early on in his 2016 campaign. Trump said he fired Stone. Stone said he fired Trump.
I called Stone recently to talk about their relationship, and Trump’s relationship with loyalty. “When it’s in his best interest to forgive you,” Stone said, “he does.”
“Can you give me an example?” I asked.
“You’re talking to one,” he said.
Stone alienated Trump more than a decade ago when he messed with then-New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, as well as with Spitzer’s father. “Roger is a stone-cold loser,” Trump told the New Yorker in 2008.
“He somehow imagined Bernard Spitzer was his friend. And he couldn’t believe what I did to Bernard and Eliot Spitzer. And that ended the day Spitzer went on CNN and called him a name”—or at least pointed out discrepancies in Trump’s finances—“and suddenly he had complete amnesia, and called me and said, ‘Where you been? What’s going on? How come I haven’t heard from you?’”
TRUMP ON LOYALTY
“Loyalty is extremely important to me. My family and close friends will say that I am loyal to a fault.”
—Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America (2015)
“Macy’s was very disloyal to me bc of my strong stance on illegal immigration. Their stock has crashed! #BoycottMacys.”
—Twitter, November 12, 2015
“I don’t think it would be a bad question to ask. I think loyalty to the country, loyalty to the United States, is important. You know, I mean, it depends on how you define loyalty.”
—Fox News interview, May 13, 2017
“Looking forward to Friday night in the Great State of Alabama. I am supporting ‘Big’ Luther Strange because he was so loyal & helpful to me!”
—Twitter, September 20, 2017
To Stone, the call was not so surprising—he’d been all but expecting it. “You see, I was wise enough, when he called me a ‘stone-cold loser,’ you know what I said?” Stone explained. “I said nothing. I’m pretty good at repartee. I could have returned fire. But there was no point in it.”
“Because I still believed he could be president,” Stone said.
And here Trump is, in the Oval Office, and there Stone was, on Fox News, in the immediate wake of Michael Wolff’s withering book, dubbing Steve Bannon’s quotes in it “a stunning act of betrayal” and Trump a “political genius.”
Trump called Stone after the show.
“He was very pleased with my performance—his words,” Stone said.
The lesson Stone learned long ago has been passed down to a newer batch of Trump loyalists. “He’ll let them back in, if they sufficiently, you know, push a peanut with their nose down Fifth Avenue enough times,” biographer Gwenda Blair told me.
What does such peanut-pushing look like?
Take Page 263 of Let Trump Be Trump, the campaign memoir by fired campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and his deputy David Bossie. “Sometimes we think maybe it’s better that we stayed on the outside,” they wrote. “And sometimes we think the boss is just waiting for the right time to bring us back.”
In an interview with Vanity Fair, former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, meanwhile, ousted after a wild week-and-a-half on the job, likened Trump to basketball great Michael Jordan. “He’ll hit the shot,” Scaramucci said of the president. “The shot’s going in.”
Similarly, Senator Lindsey Graham, who in the past called Trump a “jackass” and a “kook,” earlier this year chastised others for calling him literally the same. The Republican from South Carolina more recently has gone out of his way to call the president “very charming” and a good golfer and “a gracious host.” The playbook is clear: “Say nice things and he’ll like you,” Graham said utterly explicitly in an interview on CNN.
And so it was with Bannon, too, after he unleashed to Wolff for his book a litany of unflattering assessments of Trump, his oldest daughter and his oldest son, and was summarily lambasted and ostracized by the president. On a radio show, the top Trump aide promptly reiterated his support, “day in and day out.” He said Trump is “a great man.” The newly conciliatory tone hit the intended target. “Changed his tune pretty quick,” Trump affirmed.
“Is that relationship permanently broken between you and Steve?” reporters from the Wall Street Journal asked Trump.
“I don’t know what the word ‘permanent’ means, OK?” Trump said. “I never know what the word ‘permanent’ means.”
A presidency marked by such sycophancy, and led by a person who’s famously ahistorical, they say, is a presidency that’s doomed.
This is what worries the historians I talked to the most. Loyalty is a must. But what kind? And to what end? A presidency marked by such sycophancy, and led by a person who’s famously ahistorical, they say, is a presidency that’s doomed.
“No president, with the possible exception of Andrew Johnson,” H.W. Brands of the University of Texas told me, “has been so susceptible to flattery as Trump seems to be. In Johnson’s case his weakness thoroughly disrupted Reconstruction and nearly led to his removal from office.” Johnson, not to be confused with Jackson, is widely considered to be one of the worst presidents ever.
“The people who are flattering have agendas of their own,” Brands explained. “And Bannon has his own agenda. I mean, everybody makes use of everybody else. So Trump is using Bannon, and Bannon is using Trump. The only thing about Trump is most presidents know what it is they’re trying to get out of a relationship—as in, they want support for this particular bill, that particular initiative in foreign policy. With Trump, at least it seems that all he wants is praise, simply for the sake of praise, rather than for some other goal.”
“What are the consequences of this sycophancy?” said George C. Edwards III, a professor of political science and presidential studies at Texas A&M. “I think that it’s only bad. Because it means that people are less likely to tell you the truth. And presidents, many presidents, reflecting on the presidency, have said, ‘I really worried about what people don’t tell me. And people saying things I don’t want to hear. They need to tell me. It’s really important.’”
“Most presidents, when they come into office, have a much more nuanced and complicated notion of loyalty than this idea of protecting the president and simply saluting and saying, ‘Yes, sir,’ and, ‘No, sir.’ And some of it may very well be rooted in the excesses of Nixon, because that highlighted the consequences of that sort of value-free embrace of loyalty,” Russell Riley, a presidential historian at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, told me.
“Depending on what’s going on with the Mueller investigation, the die may already be cast on many of these things,” Riley added. “The deficiencies in this management style may already have created some legal and constitutional vulnerabilities that will come back to bite him. I don’t know. But any normal functioning White House, at some point you’re going to have to pay the piper. And that doesn’t mean he’s not going to serve out the rest of his term. That just means the waters get choppier rather than smoother over time. Which is a hard thing to imagine, isn’t it?”