Trump is unrivaled in his ability to capture and hold our attention. I recently heard a TV commentator say that Trump’s greatest ambition was not to become rich, marry models, or to be elected president – but to be the most talked about person in the world. Trump has unquestionably achieved this goal. He is omnipresent – on TV and front pages, at awards shows and at sport events, at the dinner table and at cocktail parties. His aura is inescapable.
Trump has also surrounded himself with people who share the same ambition. Common among his longtime associates – whether Michael Cohen, Roger Stone, or the late Roy Cohn – are a predilection towards machoism, dirty tricks, subversion of truth, and overinflated ego. But the most common attribute is his posse’s unquenchable thirst, not for accolades but for attention, positive or negative. The Trump clique doesn’t seek attention as a means to an end, as the case may be for some business people or politicians. For them, attention is the end. A famous and oft-repeated Roger Stone rule holds, “It’s better to be infamous than never to be famous at all.”
Attention even takes precedence over self-preservation. Consider this: Mere minutes after Stone appeared in court on Special Counsel’s charges, he greeted the crowds and cameras by gleefully flashing Nixon’s victory sign. He announced he would plead not guilty and repeated a variation on his rule: “I have always said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” Then, in the days that followed, Stone became a fixture on television, attacking the charges, attacking the prosecutors, attacking the media, even attacking me though I have nothing to do with the case. No decent criminal defense lawyer could advocate such conduct.
A media blitz may perhaps make sense as a PR strategy for a trickster and Stone has indeed dug himself a hole. But it is less a strategy than a state of being, a longing and lust – not to be understood, forgiven, or supported – but for that most important thing: attention.
The observation that attention is at the center of what most motivates Trump and his chosen posse – apart from being mildly interesting – offers guidance to pundits, politicians, and prosecutors in search of the best approach for dealing with Trump’s wild shenanigans. This lesson may have been internalized by Trump’s most potent adversary – Robert Mueller: Ignore the man.
Unique among Trump’s nemeses, Mueller pays no attention to Trump. Of course, in a way, he’s laser focused on Trump. His team, after all, is investigating possible collusion, obstruction of justice, and other crimes. But Mueller pays no mind to the bluster and posturing, to the toxic tweeting and childish taunts. He has never publicly spoken about him, not once. In contrast, Justice John Roberts, perhaps the second most tightlipped official in Washington, was lured into issuing a public rebuke of Trump’s disparaging comments about judges, a move that landed the chief in hot water among court observers on both the political left and right.
Therein lies the lesson perhaps for Trump’s political adversaries. Don’t pay him so much attention. Better yet, ignore him. Fight him without answering his taunts and amplifying his lies. Don’t give in to his moods. And deprive his nonsense of the oxygen it feeds on. Engaging Trump and giving in to his taunts, as Marco Rubio learned in 2016, is a losing proposition. Before announcing her presidential bid, Senator Kamala Harris said in an interview, “My focus, if I were going to run, it would not be Donald Trump.” That is a wise choice.
Outrage over Trump will not be enough to win in 2020. The big challenge for Democrats in the primary election will be to rally voters on a message that doesn’t centrally rely on nor invoke Trump and the chaos and callousness he stands for. To prevail, Trump’s 2020 challenger must occupy her or his own space, own an agenda that captures the public imagination, and pay attention to their own inner-voice.
MENTALLY FIT TO BE PRESIDENT
Ever since the 2016 Presidential Campaign, psychologists and other mental health professionals have taken to diagnosing Donald Trump with one disorder or another. Pointing to Trump’s bullying, exorbitant lying, fragile self-esteem, and lack of compassion – among other troubling behaviors – mental health professionals have ascribed to him a range of psychological conditions including narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and paranoid personality disorder, just to name a few.
This practice of diagnosing Trump has, perhaps rightly, received its fair share of criticism. Some mental health professionals argue that armchair commentary trivializes mental-health issues and stigmatizes mentally ill individuals. The American Psychological Association (APA) has a general rule against such a practice based on the concern that it undermines public faith in the profession. Meanwhile, journalistic organizations tread carefully on the question of whether Trump is psychologically fit to be president, questioning the wisdom of speculation over his mental health as a legitimate subject of their reporting.
Trump is certainly not the first president to be subjected to armchair psychoanalysis. For example, President Obama’s passivity was labeled a character defect, Abraham Lincoln is said to have suffered from depression, and experts estimate that Teddy Roosevelt was bipolar, noting his tendency toward reckless behavior. There are many other examples of highly successful people from all walks of life who are believed to have psychological disorders.
Dr. Neel Burton, an Oxford psychiatrist and philosopher, wrote about successful versus unsuccessful psychopaths earlier this month, reviewing some recent studies and even referencing literature to shed light on the subject. In an article for Psychology Today, Dr. Burton notes:
[P]eople commonly benefit from strongly ingrained and potentially maladaptive personality traits. For example, people with narcissistic personality disorder may be highly ambitious, confident, driven, and able to exploit people and situations to maximum advantage. People with histrionic personality disorder may be adept at charming and manipulating others, and thus adept at building and exercising business relationships.
Read Dr. Burton’s full article here.
And tell us what you think. Is President Trump’s mental health a legitimate subject of journalistic concern? Email us at [email protected] and let us know your thoughts.
INDICTING ROGER STONE
If you haven’t already, listen to the latest episode of the CAFE Insider podcast, “Indicting Roger Stone.”
Key takeaways from the episode. Preet and Anne took a deep dive into the arrest, charges, and other issues raised by Roger Stone’s indictment.
• What most stood out from the indictment? Paragraph 12 of the indictment has received most attention, and for good reason. It states that after WikiLeaks released the stolen DNC emails on July 22, 2016, “a senior Trump Campaign official was directed to contact Stone about any additional releases and what other damaging information [WikiLeaks] had regarding the Clinton Campaign.” This particular sentence raised two obvious questions: Who was the senior Trump campaign official? And, more importantly, who did the directing? It’s unusual for prosecutors to use the passive voice in court documents and the sentence isn’t necessary to make out the charges against Stone. The indictment could have stated simply that “a senior Trump Campaign official contacted Stone about any additional releases,” without further elaborating that the senior Trump Campaign official was directed to do so. Mueller’s team must have known that including this precise language would naturally lead to speculation that it was President Trump who directed the senior official. The sentence is also odd because even if, for the sake of argument, Trump told his senior aide, “go find out what Stone knows about WikiLeaks and the Democrats’ emails,” that would not, on its face, constitute a crime.
• Why wasn’t Roger Stone charged with conspiracy? And, are Mueller’s critics correct in arguing that the Special Counsel is merely charging “process crimes”? While there are hints of a conspiracy in the indictment, and some are speculating that conspiracy charges may be forthcoming, it’s also possible that Mueller doesn’t have sufficient evidence to charge Stone with conspiracy. Critics use the term “process crime” to suggest that the crimes aren’t serious, but process crimes are an offense against the machinery of justice itself. Giving false testimony and threatening witnesses in order to persuade them to lie to investigators thwarts an investigation and obstructs justice. Juries hate liars, and especially liars who lie about lying. Rational people naturally wonder, why lie? What is this witness trying to hide? In the event that there is a conspiracy charge, evidence that someone lied about the conspiracy would itself be used to prove the existence of a conspiracy because it shows consciousness of guilt.
• A conspiracy to do what? One potential conspiracy would involve the theft of the DNC’s and Clinton Campaign’s emails. But there could potentially be another conspiracy related to campaign finance violations. In June 2016, the DNC announced that it was hacked by the Russian government. If the allegation in paragraph 12 of the indictment proves true, i.e., if a senior Trump campaign official was directed to contact Stone to get additional releases from Julian Assange, these two individuals would have known that Russia was working with WikiLeaks at the time the instruction was given. It would be a crime for the Trump campaign to knowingly and willingly solicit or accept any “thing of value” from a foreign entity or a foreign national whether the Russian government or Assange. There’s little doubt that the Trump team saw (and derived) value from WikiLeaks’ decision to publish the stolen emails which proved damaging to Clinton and Democrats. The “thing of value” need not be a monetary payment. Trump publicly called on Russia, if it were listening, to “release those emails.” And the efforts that went into obtaining the hacked emails, as shown by the Trump Campaign officials’ communications, suggest that the campaign deemed the stolen emails valuable.
THIS WEEK ON STAY TUNED
David Frum is this week’s guest on Stay Tuned. Frum is a senior editor at the Atlantic, and former speechwriter and special assistant to President George W. Bush. Preet’s conversation with David covers a wide-range of subjects from rules for Twitter to the federal judiciary to questions that should not be on the table for debate in modern society.
In this sneak peek of the interview, Frum addresses President Trump’s unique talent and weakness:
He’s a very shrewd reader of psychic vulnerability. If someone has a weakness anywhere in their personality, the president finds it, as he has done with so many people … While Trump is very good at finding people’s psychological weak points, he’s extremely bad at understanding institutions and institutional power. And that’s how he lost this whole shutdown fight. He never understood how powerful the House of Representatives can be when it wants to be. … He thinks he thinks everything’s a deal and never understands sometimes actually the formal rules of the game really matter and that makes him vulnerable. [Edited and condensed for clarity]
Don’t forget to listen to this week’s episode of Stay Tuned, which drops on Thursday, 1/31.
SOMEONE TO FOLLOW
Bryan Garner is a lexicographer, linguist, and Editor-in-Chief of Black’s Law Dictionary. Follow him for observations on language, grammar, and usage @BryanAGarner.
PRE-ORDER PREET’S BOOK “DOING JUSTICE”
“Doing Justice: A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law” ships March 19. It is also available as an audiobook. Pre-order here.
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– Preet and the Cafe Team