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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters for America.

Donald Trump continues to make history.

We know of no other president in American history who has started out his tenure by unfurling two preposterous bookend lies, the way Trump did during his first days in office.

He lied fantastically about the size of his inauguration crowd. And then, taking a sledgehammer to the premise of free and fair elections, he lied fantastically about millions of Americans having voted illegally on Election Day, supposedly costing him the popular vote victory.

Pressed for details, White House press secretary Sean Spicer could point to no real evidence to back up Trump’s whimsically dangerous insistence about ballot box fraud. Spicer also sputtered trying to justify the unjustifiable claim about historic viewership for the Republican’s swearing-in.

Both of those bold prevarications ignited media firestorms, and for good reason, as increasingly baffled journalists try to decode Trump’s daily crusade to gaslight them about simple facts and events. More and more, journalists are straining to make sense of Trump’s erratic ways; trying to figure out what his political motivation is for spreading such easily debunked falsehoods.

Trump is “addicted to controversy,” and suffers “acute sensitivity to criticism,” reasoned The Washington Post. He just can’t “shake his erratic campaign habits,” Politico suggested, while The New York times pointed to Trump’s “anxiety” as a reason he needs to tell tall White House tales.

Two key points: Trump has shown himself to be a relentless liar since he launched his political career in 2015. Anyone who thought he would discontinue that habit as president just hasn’t been paying attention.

Second, if journalists want to understand Trump’s unbalanced Oval Office behavior they need to focus on his character and his extremely troubling flaws. (They’re not merely “campaign habits,” as Politico called them.) Those character flaws will ultimately define his presidency because they’ve always fueled his erratic actions and weird fixations.

Yes, Trump’s a dishonest conspiracy theorist. But he’s also much more than that. He’s a remorseless liar and a grievously insecure man who seems to feed off spite and revenge.

And by the way, that description mirrors the one Tony Schwartz has given about the Republican billionaire. And Schwartz knows Trump well, having served as Trump’s ghostwriter on his 1987 breakthrough memoir, The Art of the Deal. (Trump is a “sociopath,” and “lying is second nature to him,” says Schwartz.)

It’s true that some in the press have begun to do a better job at clearly labeling Trump’s lies for what they are. What’s been largely missing, though, is the why: Why does the president of United States act in such an erratic and dangerous way? What’s been missing post-election are regular and detailed examinations of Trump’s character as an explanation for his unprecedented actions.

Understanding and recognizing the character blemishes at the center of Trump’s personality isn’t superfluous, armchair analysis. It’s the key to gaining a crucial window into who the president is, as well as into the country’s precarious future.

Instead, journalists keep searching for rational “explanations” to Trump’s presidential behavior, trying to make sense of his pattern of telling obvious lies. (Remember when we were told not to take Trump’s outlandish claims “literally“?) But pathological liars like Trump don’t discriminate between lying about big things and lying about small things or between obvious lies and subtle ones. (See here and here for 600-plus documented falsehoods he’s told.)

Also, the press simply isn’t used to this level of naked dishonesty coming from the Oval Office. (Trump’s inauguration crowd totaled 1.5 million??) And journalists haven’t yet properly adjusted. They’re still accustomed to dissecting political lies in the context of, “What’s the motivation behind the lie?” And, “What’s the political advantage of telling that lie?” But that linear approach doesn’t always apply to Trump. There’s no indication he plots out the falsehoods or even cares if he gets caught. Lying is who he is. He cannot not tell lies.

In other words, it’s not a political strategy, it’s a character defect. Especially for someone like Trump who appears to have no deep ideological moorings.

This isn’t the typical territory most political journalists tread when covering Beltway politics. But it now needs to be. Journalists need to familiarize themselves with what it means to have someone in the White House who is “obsessed with his popularity”; what it means to have a serial liar occupying the Oval Office. They need to understand how people like that think, how they function, and why they lash out.

More analysis like this would be helpful, from MTV’s Jamil Smith (emphasis added):

But the defects of his personality have become almost instantaneously institutionalized within the White House. Whatever his mental and emotional hangups are, they’re now our problem, too. His fragility makes us all weaker, and his petulant outbursts can now shift world events. Sadly, it’s clear from the first few days of the Trump administration that the trustworthiness of his office is not the president’s foremost priority. His feelings are.

We need more reporting in the vein of the Associated Press’ recent examination of the extraordinary insecurity that seems to be driving the early days of the Trump presidency. And the Times’ Maggie Haberman’s recent reporting that shed light on the intersection between Trump’s impulsive personality and his early, erratic actions in the White House.

It may seem unusual for journalists to dissect the president’s character flaws in search of clues regarding his political agenda. But it’s just another instance where the media need to rip up the old Beltway rule book and find a new way forward.

IMAGE: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

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  • 1.Why did Trump choose to hide certain specific files and not others at Mar-a-Lago? What were the criteria that Trump used to keep some files concealed and not others? Who selected those files? Did Trump consult or direct anyone in his selection of secret files? Trump was notorious for being too impatient to read his briefing papers, even after they had been drastically shortened and simplified. Is there the slightest evidence that he spirited these papers away so that he could consult or study them? Who besides Trump knew of the presence of the files he had concealed at Mar-a-Lago?
  • 2. Mar-a-Lago has an infamous reputation for being open to penetration even by foreign spies. In 2019, the FBI arrested a Chinese woman who had entered the property with electronic devices. She was convicted of trespassing, lying to the Secret Service, and sentenced and served eight-months in a federal prison, before being deported to China. Have other individuals with possible links to foreign intelligence operations been present at Mar-a-Lago?
  • 3. Did members of Trump's Secret Service detail have knowledge of his secret storage of the files at Mar-a-Lago? What was the relationship of the Secret Service detail to the FBI? Did the Secret Service, or any agent, disclose information about the files to the FBI?
  • 4. Trump's designated representatives to the National Archives are Kash Patel and John Solomon, co-conspirators in the investigations into Russian interference in the presidential election of 2016, the Ukraine missiles-for-political dirt scandal that led to the first impeachment in 2019, and the coup of 2020. Neither has any professional background in handling archival materials. Patel, a die-hard Trump loyalist whose last job in the administration was as chief of staff to the Acting Secretary of Defense, was supposedly involved in Trump’s “declassification” of some files. Patel has stated, “Trump declassified whole sets of materials in anticipation of leaving government that he thought the American public should have the right to read themselves."
  • The White House counsel failed to generate the paperwork to change the classification markings, but that doesn’t mean the information wasn’t declassified.” If Pat Cipollone, the White House legal counsel, did not “generate the paperwork,” was he or anyone on his staff aware at all of the declassifications? The White House Staff Secretary Derek Lyons resigned his post in December 2020. Did his successor, who held the position for a month, while Trump was consumed with plotting his coup, ever review the material found in Trump’s concealed files for declassification? Or did Patel review the material? Can Patel name any individual who properly reviewed the supposed declassification?
  • 5. Why did Trump keep his pardon of Roger Stone among his secret files? Was it somehow to maintain leverage over Stone? What would that leverage be? Would it involve Stone's role as a conduit with the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers during the coup? Or is there another pardon in Trump’s files for Stone, a secret pardon for his activities in the January 6th insurrection? Because of the sweeping nature of the pardon clause, pardons can remain undisclosed (until needed). Pardons are self-executing, require no justification and are not subject to court review beyond the fact of their timely execution. In other words, a court may verify the pardon was valid in time but has no power to review appropriateness. A pardon could even be oral but would need to be verifiable by a witness. Do the files contain secret pardons for Trump himself, members of his family, members of the Congress, and other co-conspirators?
  • 6.Was the FBI warrant obtained to block the imminent circulation or sale of information in the files to foreign powers? Does the affidavit of the informant at Mar-a-Lago, which has not been released, provide information about Trump’s monetization that required urgency in executing the warrant? Did Trump monetize information in any of the files? How? With whom? Any foreign power or entity? Was the Saudi payment from its sovereign wealth fund for the LIV Golf Tournament at Trump’s Bedminster Golf Club for a service that Trump rendered, an exchange of anything of value or information that was in the files? If it involved information in the files was it about nuclear programs? Was it about the nuclear program of Israel? How much exactly was the Saudi payment for the golf tournament? The Saudi sovereign wealth fund gave Jared Kushner and former Trump Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin $2 billion for their startup hedge fund, Affinity Partners. Do the Saudis regard that investment as partial payment for Trump’s transfer of nuclear information? Were Kushner or Mnuchin aware of the secret files at Mar-a-Lago?
  • 7.Did Trump destroy any of the files? If so, when? Did those files contain incriminating information? Did he destroy any files after he received the June subpoena?
  • 8.Were any of the secrets of our allies compromised? Has the U.S. government provided an inventory of breaches or potential breaches to our allies?
  • 9.Does the resort maintain a copying machine near the classified documents that Trump hid? Were any of the documents copied or scanned? Are Trump’s documents at Mar-a-Lago originals or copies? Were any copies shown or given to anyone?
  • 10.Trump’s lawyer Christina Bobb has revealed that a video surveillance system covers the places where Trump hid the files at Mar-a-Lago, and that the system is connected to a system at his other residences at the Bedminster Golf Club in New Jersey and Trump Tower in New York City. According to Bobb, Trump and members of his family observed the FBI search and seizure of his files at Mar-a-Lago, “actually able to see the whole thing” through their surveillance system. Who has that surveillance system recorded entering the rooms where the files were kept?

Kevin Bacon, right, in "The Following"

The aftermath of the August 8, 2022 search of the Mar-a-Lago club, former President Donald Trump’s Florida home, isn’t the first showdown between the FBI and a cult leader.

The Following, a 2013 Fox Pictures series, played out in similar fashion. Three seasons was enough for the producers and it’s been nine years since our introduction to Joe Carroll, English professor-novelist-serial killer, so there’s a spoiler risk -- but not enough to prevent the comparison.

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