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This Is How Trump’s Gangster Government Works

The president—like a clever drug dealer or gangster—knows the importance of plausible deniability. Now it’s the essence of the GOP defense.
November 16, 2019
This Is How Trump’s Gangster Government Works

This is how a drug deal works:

Let’s say you want to buy some crack. You drive up to the block where you are going to make your purchase and you pass a member of the team that is running the sale. This member is called the lookout. Let’s call him Mick. He never touches either the drugs or the money and he carries no weapon. Mick’s sole task is to watch for police and send a signal if the cops show up.

You stop your car outside the designated house with your window rolled down and a foot soldier approaches you and accepts your money. Let’s call him Rudy. He then withdraws and takes the money to a secure location, usually the house where the team leader—let’s call this gentleman Donald—is supervising the activity while other one or two other members of the team—just for fun, let’s call them Lev and Igor—package the merchandise.

A third foot soldier then approaches your car and hands you the drugs. Let’s call him Gordon. You drive off. Gordon goes away. Everyone is happy.

This is a carefully choreographed sequence in which Mick the lookout never touches the money, or the drugs, or a weapon. Donald, the team leader, may have a weapon, but never touches either the money or the drugs. The two foot soldiers who handle either side of the exchange—Rudy and Gordon—are siloed so that the guy who handles the money never touches the drugs, and vice versa. Neither of them carries a weapon. And the amount of drugs being held by any individual at any one time is carefully limited to be below various legal thresholds concerning mere possession, possession with intent to distribute, and the higher charges of trafficking, while the disposition of guns is designed to avoid needless exposure to weapons charges.

A drug deal happens this way not because it is the fastest, most efficient process, but because the gangsters who do this for a living have developed a system to try to avoid prosecution in the rare cases when they are caught in the act.

Imagine that you are sitting on a jury listening to a drug-trafficking case being made against this crew. Prosecutors produce witnesses who saw Mick standing on the corner with a phone that had Donald’s number in it. They saw Rudy walking into the house with the money from the car. They saw Gordon leaving the house and approaching the car with the drugs. They saw Donald in the house, watching the whole thing.

And now imagine that the defense team’s argument is that, since no one saw Donald holding the money and the drugs at the same time, he can’t be guilty of dealing drugs.

Would you find that credible? Or would you believe that this was simply the superficial arrangement created by Donald, with forethought, in an attempt to thwart eventual prosecution by the law?

I mention all of this because everything we have learned about Trump’s Ukraine gambit is perfectly in line with the portrait that emerged from the second volume of the Mueller report, which suggested that our president behaves like a gangster.

Some reminders:

(1) When Michael Flynn was under investigation, Trump dispatched Chris Christie to butter up Jim Comey so that he’d go easy on Flynn:

Towards the end of the lunch, the President brought up Comey and asked if Christie was still friendly with him. Christie said he was. The President told Christie to call Comey and tell him that the President “really like[s] him. Tell him he’s part of the team.” (page 39)

(2) When Trump wanted Attorney General Jeff Sessions to un-recuse himself from the Russia investigation, he called on Corey Lewandowski—who was not a government employee—and dictated a message for Lewandowski to deliver to Sessions, by hand.

The President told Lewandowski that Sessions was weak. . . . The President then asked Lewandowski to deliver a message to Sessions and said “write this down.” (page 91)

Trump’s message was that he wanted Sessions to give a speech in which he un-recuses himself and then:

The dictated message went on to state that Sessions would meet with the Special Counsel to limit his jurisdiction to future election interference.

(3) Here is the president of the United States claiming that he has never met a lawyer who takes notes, which is something perfectly normal that people not involved in criminal enterprises say all the time:

The President also asked McGahn in the meeting why he had told Special Counsel’s Office investigators that the President had told him to have the Special Counsel removed. McGahn responded that he had to and that his conversations with the President were not protected by attorney-client privilege. The President then asked, “What about these notes? Why do you take notes? Lawyers don’t take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes.” McGahn responded that he keeps notes because he is a “real lawyer” and explained that notes create a record and are not a bad thing. (page 117)

(4) And here was Trump trying to insulate himself from information so that he’d have deniability about a potential problem:

According to Hicks, Kushner said that he wanted to fill the President in on something that had been discovered in the documents he was to provide to the congressional committees involving a meeting with him, Manafort, and Trump Jr. Kushner brought a folder of documents to the meeting and tried to show them to the President, but the President stopped Kushner and said he did not want to know about it, shutting the conversation down. (page 100)

There’s more, so much more. Here are some other random items from the Mueller report, which may illuminate your view of how Trump conducts his business:

The President then brought up former Attorneys General Robert Kennedy and Eric Holder and said that they had protected their presidents. The President also pushed back on the DOJ contacts policy, and said words to the effect of, “You’re telling me that Bobby and Jack didn’t talk about investigations? Or Obama didn’t tell Eric Holder who to investigate?” Bannon recalled that the President was as mad as Bannon had ever seen him and that he screamed at McGahn about how weak Sessions was. (page 51)

* * *

In January 2018, Manafort told Gates that he had talked to the President’s personal counsel and they were “going to take care of us.” Manafort told Gates it was stupid to plead, saying that he had been in touch with the President’s personal counsel and repeating that they should “sit tight” and “we’ll be taken care of.” (page 123)

* * *

[T]he President sent private and public messages to Flynn encouraging him to stay strong and conveying that the President still cared about him before he began to cooperate with the government. (page 131)

As of right now we know that someone within the administration withheld congressionally authorized military aid to Ukraine.

And we know that people outside the administration informed the Ukrainians that they would not get the money unless they publicly committed to investigating the family of the president’s chief political rival, Joe Biden.

These are facts.

Under pressure, the Ukrainian president was preparing to give Donald Trump what he wanted by appearing on Fareed Zakaria’s CNN show.

As this enterprise was unfolding, someone within the government filed a whistleblower report. At which point the scheme was exposed, the aid was suddenly released, and the Ukrainian president cancelled his booked appearance on Zakaria’s show.

Which is more or less what it looks like when the cops roll up in front of the house in the middle of a deal.

The current Republican defense of President Trump is that no one with first-hand knowledge has testified to hearing him say these exact words:

“I know that this is highly illegal, but do not release congressionally-authorized military aid to Ukraine until their president publicly commits to investigating the Bidens so that I may profit politically in the 2020 election.”

And even if someone, somewhere, did hear Trump say those words—and testified to that effect, with multiple corroborating sources—it would not matter, the president’s defenders say, because eventually the aid went through and the Ukrainians never started an investigation.

There are two levels of legalism involved here. The first is the proposition that because the crime had not reached its full conclusion, there was no crime at all. To return to our drug-buying analogy, it’s as if the cops showed up before Gordon handed off the drugs to the buyer and the defense attorneys are contending that, since the sale was not fully complete, it means Donald wasn’t leading a team trafficking in narcotics.

This is preposterous.

The second level is the suggestion that the president himself had no idea what was going on inside and outside of his administration.

Perhaps this is true.

Or perhaps Trump was using people both inside and outside the administration because he understands that so long as the cops don’t find both the drugs and the money in your hands at the same time, you can always try to pretend that you’re innocent.

It has become fashionable to say that no one can know what Trump’s true state of mind is. And again, maybe that’s true.

But the evidence compiled in the Mueller report demonstrates that Trump’s approach to the justice system is not that of a normal politician looking to find wiggle room, or to cut some corners, or to carve out for himself some plausible deniability.

Donald Trump is running the U.S. government not like a corrupt politician or a bumbling fool. He is running the U.S. government like a gangster.

This is not normal.

But if this president is not held accountable, it will be.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.