Last week, the House Intelligence Committee released transcripts of testimony by Michael Cohen, former personal attorney to Donald Trump and current guest of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In it, Cohen describes how one of his tasks as an employee of the future president was to stiff people who had done work for the Trump Organization, on his boss’ personal instruction. “Some of the things that I did was reach out to individuals, whether it's law firms or small businesses, and renegotiate contracts after the job was already done, or basically tell them that we just weren't paying at all, or make them offers of, say, 20 cents on the dollar,” he said. Cohen expressed remorse for his involvement in this combination of scam and strongarming, saying that as a result of Trump’s refusal to pay people who didn’t have the wherewithal to fight a wealthy developer, “many of these folks, you know, lost everything.”
That Trump did business this way is not a new story; in 2016, USA Today found hundreds of businesses who said Trump had refused to pay for work they had done and products they sold him. But Cohen’s testimony is another reminder of the kind of person the president of the United States is, at a moment when his character—and the way that character has spread through his party—is shaping the political crisis in which we find ourselves.
If you asked Trump about attacking and even destroying the livelihoods of all those small businesspeople just so he could make a few more dollars, he’d probably say what he did when Hillary Clinton suggested that he was hiding his tax returns because they’d show that he pays no taxes: “That makes me smart.” Smart, to Trump, is only partly about what he perceives as intelligence. Much more, it’s about a willingness to simply decide that the rules don’t apply to you, then act accordingly. If you can get away with it, you’re smart. If you hurt other people in pursuit of your own ends, you’re smarter than they are. It’s the outcome that matters; only the stupid and weak are constrained by fear of consequences or some set of pesky moral values.
And so whenever Trump uses the authority of his office, he does so with the same kind of attitude. We recently learned that he is considering pardoning a number of U.S. military personnel who have been accused or convicted of war crimes, the most notable of which is a Navy SEAL named Edward Gallagher. Seven of the SEALs in Gallagher’s unit complained to superiors about him, detailing how he deliberately murdered civilians including a young girl and an elderly man, fired indiscriminately into neighborhoods with no particular target, and in one vivid case, walked up to a teenage prisoner receiving medical attention and stabbed the boy in the neck and chest with a hunting knife, killing him.
The reason for Trump’s interest in Gallagher is simple: He’s been lobbied to make the pardon by a Fox News host. But the current and former servicemembers objecting that pardoning someone like Gallagher goes against the values the military is supposed to stand for may have forgotten that Trump believes the military should have no values at all. You may recall that when he ran for president, he said we should resume torturing prisoners (“I would bring back waterboarding, and I'd bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”) and proposed killing the families of suspected terrorists. There was never any pretense that America has a set of ideals it believes in and should act in accordance with even if might be inconvenient, let alone that those ideals are honorable and should be emulated by other nations.
In fact, what becomes more clear all the time is not just that Trump is lacking in principles or morals, let alone a vision of a better world he’s trying to create. It’s precisely his rejection of the idea of principles or morals that he believes gives him strength and makes him a winner.
The world, then, is an ongoing zero-sum competition where all that matters is winning. And from where Trump stands, it is his willingness to do what others refuse to do that leads him to victory. Are his business competitors willing to engage in a massive tax fraud worth hundreds of millions of dollars? If not, they won’t be as successful as him. Are his political competitors willing to tell 10,000 lies in a little over two years? If not, they won’t be able to control the news agenda like he will. Were previous presidents bound by a respect for the office that prevented them from tossing out juvenile insults on Twitter? Did they have enough respect for the law and the Constitution not to act like they could simply refuse to comply with every congressional subpoena? What a bunch of losers.
As for Donald Trump’s party, they had spent years preparing themselves for a leader like Trump. They too have been willing to go to nearly any length to win, whether it was refusing to allow Barack Obama to fill a Supreme Court seat or engaging in all manner of vote suppression to keep African Americans from getting to the polls. Try to imagine someone proposing a bit of procedural radicalism or a tactic that contradicts core democratic values, and ask yourself if leading Republicans would say, “We don’t care if that might help us; it’s simply wrong and we shouldn’t go that far.” The very idea is ludicrous.
The only difference is that the GOP pays lip service to ideals and principles while freely violating them, while Trump doesn’t even bother with the lip service. And now as he tried to keep his (almost certainly shady) finances hidden, refuses to acknowledge Congress’s constitutional right to oversight, and prepares what will likely be the most vicious and unethical re-election campaign in American history, they utter barely a peep of objection.
Those Republicans have spent a few years now adjusting their thoughts, beliefs, and consciences to the worldview Trump has offered them, one in which they can luxuriate in their freedom from any moral constraint. If there were doubts or qualms, they have long since disappeared. We have a nihilistic president leading a nihilistic party.