When Donald Trump's longtime political adviser and attorney was asked by the Daily Beast Monday to comment on a potentially explosive story about his boss, he could have stonewalled or sweet-talked, bartered or begged, or attempted any of the other diversion tactics regularly employed by professional campaign strategists.
Instead, he opted for a more distinctively...Trumpian response.
"I'm warning you, tread very fucking lightly," Trump adviser Michael Cohen reportedly told a Daily Beast journalist, before unleashing a torrent of threats that read like rough-draft dialog in a low-rent gangster movie. "Because what I'm going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?"
What had set Cohen off was a question about a long-forgotten 1993 book, Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump, that accused the billionaire of sexually assaulting his ex-wife Ivana when they were still married. The book's account — taken from Ivana's divorce deposition, and denied by Trump himself — is studded with bizarre, gruesome details.
But when the Daily Beast scoop first cannonballed into the pool of political Twitter Monday night, the conversation in the immediate wake focused on the Trump henchman who had provided such operatically awful quotes in defense of his boss: Who was this Michael Cohen person and why was he sputtering outlandish threats ("I'm going to mess your life up"), and incendiary nonsense ("by the very definition, you can’t rape your spouse")? Was this really the best goon money could buy?
Cohen's outburst was, in fact, emblematic of the loyalists who have long populated The Donald’s inner circle. Trump's key lieutenants tend to fit the same consumer profile as his discount luxury-brand targets: They are men with middle- and working-class roots; lacking in elite credentials; mesmerized by made-for-TV displays of lavish wealth. They are impressed with brashness and bored by subtlety. They are amused by dirty jokes and averse to irony. They are likely to buy a Trump-branded necktie sometime this year, and if they feel like splurging they'll get the matching cufflinks, too.
This isn't a caricature I came up with; it is central to the ethos of Trump's political operation. On the day after the 2012 election, one of Trump's advisers described for me the billionaire's appeal to blue-collar voters: "If you have no education, and you work with your hands, you like him. It's like, 'Wow, if I was rich, that's how I would live!' The girls, the cars, the fancy suits. His ostentatiousness is appealing to them." That may be crass, but it didn't strike me as elitist: Trump's political advisers see themselves as descendants of this same tribe.
The problem is now that they have hustled their way into "Mr. Trump's" entourage, they are constantly trying to imitate his signature brand of menacing machismo, superlative-obsessed self-regard, and bombastic bravado. This isn't easily pulled off. The Donald's persona is a character of his own creation — honed over decades of method acting that eventually supplanted whatever humanlike personality he once possessed. It is an unparalleled achievement in celebrity showmanship. But when the schtick is attempted by Trump's mini-me's, it has a vaguely pathetic off-brand feel to it — often sliding into inadvertent displays of insecurity, and occasionally (as in Cohen's case) careening wildly into overwrought, theatrical thuggishness.
The perils of this strained Trump pastiche are best illustrated by the toxic dynamics within the candidate's small team of warring political advisers — a war I briefly found myself in the middle of last year.
After a blizzard late in January 2014 rerouted Trump's LaGuardia-bound private jet with me on board and landed instead in Palm Beach, I spent much of my 36-hour stay at the billionaire's sprawling Mar-a-Lago compound with one of his young political advisers, Sam Nunberg. A 32-year-old New York native who sported tailored suits and double-Windsor knots, Nunberg had a disarming way of working to exude a macho, Trumpian aura of authority, before inevitably slipping back into his own good-natured neurosis.
One minute, he was bragging about the "beyond decadent" lifestyle he had grown accustomed to while working for Trump; the next, he was marveling at Mar-a-Lago with the wide-eyed wonder of a little boy on his first trip to Disney World. More than once, he confidently informed me of his intentions to chat up a hostess or waitress who he believed was sending him signals, only to fumble through a brief, clumsy conversation with the women before bowing out. I found the routine endearing — but inside The Donald's political orbit, it seemed clear that such revelations of vulnerability were not encouraged or rewarded.
Instead, the gold standard was Roger Stone, a gleefully nihilistic, nakedly cynical operator who helped Trump pretend to explore a presidential bid in 2000 on the Reform Party ticket, and who remains one of the candidate's closest political confidantes. Stone is an eccentric and a dandy who boasts a vast collection of pricey pocket squares, a Richard Nixon back tattoo, and an approach to politics that he describes as "performance art, sometimes for its own sake."
Pick any moment of high-profile political mischief in recent American history, and there's a decent chance Stone has either been involved, or claimed to be. (He has boasted that in 2000, for example, he helped shut down the ballot recount in Miami by stage-managing an eruption of preppy, fed-up Republican voters that would become known as the "Brooks Brothers Riot." Some have questioned whether he was actually there.) While Stone's over-the-top persona predates his work with Trump, he has been a key player in keeping the billionaire's long-con political career alive, and his firm, which also employs Nunberg, represents one long-standing power center in The Donald's political camp.
The other is occupied by Cohen, Trump’s attorney, fixer, and right-hand man. Though his official title in the Trump Organization is “special counsel,” he has eagerly embraced — and possibly invented — a slew of more intimidating nicknames for himself. A 2011 ABC News profile referred to Cohen as both a “pit bull” and “Tom Hagen” (as in, the consigliere to Vito Corleone in The Godfather).
During his interview with the network, Cohen seemed to summon all the brutishness he could muster to explain his mobster moniker: “It means that if somebody does something Mr. Trump doesn’t like, I do everything in my power to resolve it to Mr. Trump’s benefit. If you do something wrong, I’m going to come at you, grab you by the neck, and I’m not going to let you go until I’m finished.”
If Trump was impressed by his attorney’s chest-thumping back in 2011, it wasn’t enough to stop him from hiring a slightly more polished set of political operatives to run his 2016 campaign. Even still, Trump seems to have stuck with his preferred type: A recent Politico story describes his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, as an antiestablishment “bomb thrower” who grew up poor in a “hardscrabble mill city” in Massachusetts, playing hockey on frozen ponds and later attending state college.
Of course, by surrounding himself with a retinue of mini-Trumps, the candidate has not only put himself at risk of further Cohen-esque eruptions; he has fostered a Hunger Games–like climate in which his advisers are always trying to bludgeon each other to death to prove their supremacy.
Last year, when Trump’s appearance at CPAC was met with a lackluster response and a poor showing in the 2016 straw poll, Stone busied himself circulating not-for-attribution emails to political reporters (myself not included) that pinned the “embarrassing” episode on Cohen.
Cohen, meanwhile, tried to use my profile of Trump as a cudgel to batter Nunberg, who helped arrange my interview with the billionaire. The day after the story was published at BuzzFeed News last year, Nunberg called me to gripe that Cohen had gotten into the office extra early that morning to throw him under the bus with the boss.
“I want you to help me take down Cohen…” Nunberg told me, before stopping abruptly, going quiet for a moment, and then offering a clipped, “I’ve gotta go.”
When I called him back later that day, there were voices in the background, and Nunberg answered with full Trumpian bravado.
“Hello, McKaaay,” he said, stretching out the last syllable in a cold and convincingly ominous manner. “What do you want?”
I was sort of proud of him.
He never answered my calls again.