Authors: Michael Wolff
The charge that Trump colluded with the Russians to win the election, which he scoffed at, was, in the estimation of some of his friends, a perfect example of his inability to connect the dots. Even if he hadn’t personally conspired with the Russians to fix the election, his efforts to curry favor with, of all people, Vladimir Putin had no doubt left a trail of alarming words and deeds likely to have enormous political costs.
Shortly after the election, his friend Ailes told him, with some urgency, “You’ve got to get right on Russia.” Even exiled from Fox News, Ailes still maintained a fabled intelligence network. He warned Trump of potentially damaging material coming his way. “You need to take this seriously, Donald.”
“Jared has this,” said a happy Trump. “It’s all worked out.”
* * *
Trump Tower, next door to Tiffany and now headquarters of a populist revolution, suddenly seemed like an alien spaceship—the Death Star—on Fifth Avenue. As the great and good and ambitious, as well as angry protesters and the curious hoi polloi, began beating a path to the next president’s door, mazelike barricades were hurriedly thrown up to shield him.
The Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act of 2010 established funding for presidential nominees to start the process of vetting thousands of candidates for jobs in a new administration, codifying policies that would determine the early actions of a new White House, and preparing for the handoff of bureaucratic responsibilities on January 20. During the campaign, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, the nominal
head of the Trump transition office, had to forcefully tell the candidate that he couldn’t redirect these funds, that the law required him to spend the money and plan for a transition—even one he did not expect to need. A frustrated Trump said he didn’t want to hear any more about it.
The day after the election, Trump’s close advisers—suddenly eager to be part of a process that almost everybody had ignored—immediately began blaming Christie for a lack of transition preparations. Hurriedly, the bare-bones transition team moved from downtown Washington to Trump Tower.
This was certainly some of the most expensive real estate ever occupied by a transition team (and, for that matter, a presidential campaign). And that was part of the point. It sent a Trump-style message: we’re not only outsiders, but we’re more powerful than you insiders. Richer. More famous. With better real estate.
And, of course, it was personalized: his name, fabulously, was on the door. Upstairs was his triplex apartment, vastly larger than the White House living quarters. Here was his private office, which he’d occupied since the 1980s. And here were the campaign and now transition floors—firmly in his orbit and not that of Washington and the “swamp.”
Trump’s instinct in the face of his unlikely, if not preposterous, success was the opposite of humility. It was, in some sense, to rub everybody’s face in it. Washington insiders, or would-be insiders, would have to come to him. Trump Tower immediately upstaged the White House. Everybody who came to see the president-elect was acknowledging, or accepting, an outsider government. Trump forced them to endure what was gleefully called by insiders the “perp walk” in front of press and assorted gawkers. An act of obeisance, if not humiliation.
The otherworldly sense of Trump Tower helped obscure the fact that few in the thin ranks of Trump’s inner circle, with their overnight responsibility for assembling a government, had almost any relevant experience. Nobody had a political background. Nobody had a policy background. Nobody had a legislative background.
Politics is a network business, a who-you-know business. But unlike other presidents-elect—all of whom invariably suffered from their own management defects—Trump did not have a career’s worth of political and
government contacts to call on. He hardly even had his own political organization. For most of the last eighteen months on the road, it had been, at its core, a three-person enterprise: his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski (until he was forced out a month before the Republican National Convention); his spokesperson-bodyperson-intern, the campaign’s first hire, twenty-six-year-old Hope Hicks; and Trump himself. Lean and mean and gut instincts—the more people you had to deal with, Trump found, the harder it was to turn the plane around and get home to bed at night.
The professional team—although in truth there was hardly a political professional among them—that had joined the campaign in August was a last-ditch bid to avoid hopeless humiliation. But these were people he’d worked with for just a few months.
Reince Priebus, getting ready to shift over from the RNC to the White House, noted, with alarm, how often Trump offered people jobs on the spot, many of whom he had never met before, for positions whose importance Trump did not particularly understand.
Ailes, a veteran of the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush 41 White Houses, was growing worried by the president-elect’s lack of immediate focus on a White House structure that could serve and protect him. He tried to impress on Trump the ferocity of the opposition that would greet him.
“You need a son of a bitch as your chief of staff. And you need a son of a bitch who knows Washington,” Ailes told Trump not long after the election. “You’ll want to be your own son of a bitch, but you don’t know Washington.” Ailes had a suggestion: “Speaker Boehner.” (John Boehner had been the Speaker of the House until he was forced out in a Tea Party putsch in 2011.)
“Who’s that?” asked Trump.
Everybody in Trump’s billionaire circle, concerned about his contempt for other people’s expertise, tried to impress upon him the importance of the people, the many people, he would need with him in the White House, people who understood Washington.
Your people are more important than your policies. Your people
“Frank Sinatra was wrong,” said David Bossie, one of Trump’s longtime political advisers. “If you can make it in New York, you can’t necessarily make it in Washington.”
* * *
The nature of the role of the modern chief of staff is a focus of much White House scholarship. As much as the president himself, the chief of staff determines how the White House and executive branch—which employs 4 million people, including 1.3 million people in the armed services—will run.
The job has been construed as deputy president, or chief operating officer, or even prime minister. Larger-than-life chiefs have included Richard Nixon’s H. R. Haldeman and Alexander Haig; Gerald Ford’s Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney; Jimmy Carter’s Hamilton Jordan; Ronald Reagan’s James Baker; George H. W. Bush’s return of James Baker; Bill Clinton’s Leon Panetta, Erskine Bowles, and John Podesta; George W. Bush’s Andrew Card; and Barack Obama’s Rahm Emanuel and Bill Daley. Anyone studying the position would conclude that a stronger chief of staff is better than a weaker one, and a chief of staff with a history in Washington and the federal government is better than an outsider.
Donald Trump had little, if any, awareness of the history of or the thinking about this role. Instead, he substituted his own management style and experience. For decades, he had relied on longtime retainers, cronies, and family. Even though Trump liked to portray his business as an empire, it was actually a discrete holding company and boutique enterprise, catering more to his peculiarities as proprietor and brand representative than to any bottom line or other performance measures.
His sons, Don Jr. and Eric—jokingly behind their backs known to Trump insiders as Uday and Qusay, after the sons of Saddam Hussein—wondered if there couldn’t somehow be two parallel White House structures, one dedicated to their father’s big-picture views, personal appearances, and salesmanship and the other concerned with day-to-day management issues. In this construct, they saw themselves tending to the day-to-day operations.
One of Trump’s early ideas was to recruit his friend Tom Barrack—part of his kitchen cabinet of real estate tycoons including Steven Roth and Richard Lefrak—and make him chief of staff.
Barrack, the grandson of Lebanese immigrants, is a starstruck real estate investor of legendary acumen who owns Michael Jackson’s former oddball paradise, Neverland Ranch. With Jeffrey Epstein—the New York financier who would become a tabloid regular after a guilty plea to one count of soliciting prostitution that sent him to jail in 2008 in Palm Beach for thirteen months—Trump and Barrack were a 1980s and ’90s set of nightlife Musketeers.
The founder and CEO of the private equity firm Colony Capital, Barrack became a billionaire making investments in distress debt investments in real estate around the world, including helping to bail out his friend Donald Trump. More recently, he had helped bail out his friend’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
He watched with amusement Trump’s eccentric presidential campaign and brokered the deal to have Paul Manafort replace Corey Lewandowski after Lewandowski fell out of favor with Kushner. Then, as confounded as everyone else by the campaign’s continuing successes, Barrack introduced the future president in warm and personal terms at the Republican National Convention in July (at odds with its otherwise dark and belligerent tone).
It was Trump’s perfect fantasy that his friend Tom—an organizational whiz fully aware of his friend’s lack of interest in day-to-day management—would sign on to run the White House. This was Trump’s instant and convenient solution to the unforeseen circumstance of suddenly being president: to do it with his business mentor, confidant, investor, and friend, someone whom acquaintances of the two men describe as “being one of the best Donald handlers.” In the Trump circle this was called the “two amigos” plan. (Epstein, who remained close to Barrack, had been whitewashed out of the Trump biography.)
Barrack, among the few people whose abilities Trump, a reflexive naysayer, didn’t question, could, in Trump’s hopeful view, really get things running smoothly and let Trump be Trump. It was, on Trump’s part, an uncharacteristic piece of self-awareness: Donald Trump might not know what he didn’t know, but he knew Tom Barrack knew. He would run the business and Trump would sell the product—making American great again. #MAGA.
For Barrack, as for everybody around Trump, the election result was a kind of beyond-belief lottery-winning circumstance—your implausible friend becoming president. But Barrack, even after countless pleading and cajoling phone calls from Trump, finally had to disappoint his friend, telling him “I’m just too rich.” He would never be able to untangle his holdings and interests—including big investments in the Middle East—in a way that would satisfy ethics watchdogs. Trump was unconcerned or in denial about his own business conflicts, but Barrack saw nothing but hassle and cost for himself. Also, Barrack, on his fourth marriage, had no appetite for having his colorful personal life—often, over the years, conducted with Trump—become a public focus.
* * *
Trump’s fallback was his son-in-law. On the campaign, after months of turmoil and outlandishness (if not to Trump, to most others, including his family), Kushner had stepped in and become his effective body man, hovering nearby, speaking only when spoken to, but then always offering a calming and flattering view. Corey Lewandowski called Jared the butler. Trump had come to believe that his son-in-law, in part because he seemed to understand how to stay out of his way, was uniquely sagacious.
In defiance of law and tone, and everybody’s disbelieving looks, the president seemed intent on surrounding himself in the White House with his family. The Trumps, all of them—except for his wife, who, mystifyingly, was staying in New York—were moving in, all of them set to assume responsibilities similar to their status in the Trump Organization, without anyone apparently counseling against it.
Finally, it was the right-wing diva and Trump supporter Ann Coulter who took the president-elect aside and said, “Nobody is apparently telling you this. But you can’t. You just can’t hire your children.”
Trump continued to insist that he had every right to his family’s help, while at the same time asking for understanding. This is family, he said—“It’s a
tricky.” His staffers understood not only the inherent conflicts and difficult legal issues in having Trump’s son-in-law run the White House, but that it would become, even more than it already was,
family first for Trump. After a great deal of pressure, he at least agreed not to make his son-in-law the chief of staff—not officially, anyway.
* * *
If not Barrack or Kushner, then, Trump thought the job should probably go to New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who, with Rudy Giuliani, comprised the sum total of his circle of friends with actual political experience.
Christie, like most Trump allies, fell in and out of favor. In the final weeks of the campaign, Trump contemptuously measured Christie’s increasing distance from his losing enterprise, and then, with victory, his eagerness to get back in.
Trump and Christie went back to Trump’s days trying—and failing—to become an Atlantic City gaming mogul.
Atlantic City gaming mogul. (Trump had long been competitive with and in awe of the Las Vegas gaming mogul Steve Wynn, whom Trump would name finance chairman of the RNC.) Trump had backed Christie as he rose through New Jersey politics. He admired Christie’s straight-talk style, and for a while, as Christie anticipated his own presidential run in 2012 and 2013—and as Trump was looking for a next chapter for himself with the fading of
, his reality TV franchise—Trump even wondered whether he might be a vice presidential possibility for Christie.
Early in the campaign, Trump said he wouldn’t have run against Christie but for the Bridgegate scandal (which erupted when Christie’s associates closed traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge to undermine the mayor of a nearby town who was a Christie opponent, and which Trump privately justified as “just New Jersey hardball”). When Christie dropped out of the race in February 2016 and signed on with the Trump campaign, he endured a torrent of ridicule for supporting his friend, whom he believed had promised him a clear track to the VP slot.