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2 TRUMP TOWER

On the Saturday after the election, Donald Trump received a small group of well-wishers in his triplex apartment in Trump Tower. Even his close friends were still shocked and bewildered, and there was a dazed quality to the gathering. But Trump himself was mostly looking at the clock.

Rupert Murdoch, heretofore doubtlessly certain Trump was a charlatan and a fool, said he and his new wife, Jerry Hall, would pay a call on the president-elect. But Murdoch was late—quite late. Trump kept assuring his guests that Rupert was on his way, coming soon. When some of the guests made a move to leave, Trump cajoled them to stay a little longer. You’ll want to stay to see Rupert. (Or, one of the guests interpreted, you’ll want to stay to see Trump with Rupert.) Murdoch, who, with his then wife, Wendi, had often socialized with Jared and Ivanka, in the past made little effort to hide his lack of interest in Trump. Murdoch’s fondness for Kushner created a curious piece of the power dynamic between Trump and his son-in-law, one that Kushner, with reasonable subtly, played to his advantage, often dropping Murdoch’s name into conversations with his father-in-law. When, in 2015, Ivanka Trump told Murdoch that her father really, truly was going to run for president, Murdoch dismissed the possibility out of hand.

But now, the new president-elect—after the most astonishing upset in American history—was on tenterhooks waiting for Murdoch. “He’s one of the greats,” he told his guests, becoming more agitated as he waited. “Really, he’s one of the greats, the last of the greats. You have to stay to see him.” It was a matched set of odd reversals—an ironic symmetry. Trump, perhaps not yet appreciating the difference between becoming president and elevating his social standing, was trying mightily to curry favor with the previously disdainful media mogul. And Murdoch, finally arriving at the party he was in more than one way sorely late to, was as subdued and thrown as everyone else, and struggling to adjust his view of a man who, for more than a generation, had been at best a clown prince among the rich and famous.

Murdoch was hardly the only billionaire who had been dismissive of Trump. In the years before the election, Carl Icahn, whose friendship Trump often cited, and who Trump had suggested he’d appoint to high office, openly ridiculed his fellow billionaire (whom he said was not remotely a billionaire).

Few people who knew Trump had illusions about him. That was almost his appeal: he was what he was. Twinkle in his eye, larceny in his soul.

But now he was the president-elect. And that, in a reality jujitsu, changed everything. So say whatever you want about him, he had done this. Pulled the sword from the stone. That meant something. Everything.

The billionaires had to rethink. So did everyone in the Trump orbit. The campaign staff, now suddenly in a position to snag West Wing jobs—career- and history-making jobs—had to see this odd, difficult, even ridiculous, and, on the face of it, ill-equipped person in a new light. He had been elected president. So he was, as Kellyanne Conway liked to point out, by definition, presidential.

Still, nobody had yet seen him be presidential—that is, make a public bow to political ritual and propriety. Or even to exercise some modest self-control.

Others were now recruited and, despite their obvious impressions of the man, agreed to sign on. Jim Mattis, a retired four-star general, one of the most respected commanders in the U.S. armed forces; Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil; Scott Pruitt and Betsy DeVos, Jeb Bush loyalists—all of them were now focused on the singular fact that while he might be a peculiar figure, even an absurd-seeming one, he had been elected president.

We can make this work, is what everybody in the Trump orbit was suddenly saying. Or, at the very least, this could possibly work.

In fact, up close, Trump was not the bombastic and pugilistic man who had stirred rabid crowds on the campaign trail. He was neither angry nor combative. He may have been the most threatening and frightening and menacing presidential candidate in modern history, but in person he could seem almost soothing. His extreme self-satisfaction rubbed off. Life was sunny. Trump was an optimist—at least about himself. He was charming and full of flattery; he focused on you. He was funny—self-deprecating even. And incredibly energetic—Let’s do it whatever it is, let’s do it. He wasn’t a tough guy. He was “a big warm-hearted monkey,” said Bannon, with rather faint praise.

PayPal cofounder and Facebook board member Peter Thiel—really the only significant Silicon Valley voice to support Trump—was warned by another billionaire and longtime Trump friend that Trump would, in an explosion of flattery, offer Thiel his undying friendship. Everybody says you’re great, you and I are going to have an amazing working relationship, anything you want, call me and we’ll get it done! Thiel was advised not to take Trump’s offer too seriously. But Thiel, who gave a speech supporting Trump at the Republican Convention in Cleveland, reported back that, even having been forewarned, he absolutely was certain of Trump’s sincerity when he said they’d be friends for life—only never to basically hear from him again or have his calls returned. Still, power provides its own excuses for social lapses. Other aspects of the Trump character were more problematic.

Almost all the professionals who were now set to join him were coming face to face with the fact that it appeared he knew nothing. There was simply no subject, other than perhaps building construction, that he had substantially mastered. Everything with him was off the cuff. Whatever he knew he seemed to have learned an hour before—and that was mostly half-baked. But each member of the new Trump team was convincing him- or herself otherwise—because what did they know, the man had been elected president. He offered something, obviously. Indeed, while everybody in his rich-guy social circle knew about his wide-ranging ignorance—Trump, the businessman, could not even read a balance sheet, and Trump, who had campaigned on his deal-making skills, was, with his inattention to details, a terrible negotiator—they yet found him somehow instinctive. That was the word. He was a force of personality. He could make you believe.

“Is Trump a good person, an intelligent person, a capable person?” asked Sam Nunberg, Trump’s longtime political aide. “I don’t even know. But I know he’s a star.”

Trying to explain Trump’s virtues and his attraction, Piers Morgan—the British newspaper man and ill-fated CNN anchor who had appeared on Celebrity Apprentice and stayed a loyal Trump friend—said it was all in Trump’s book The Art of the Deal. Everything that made him Trump and that defined his savvy, energy, and charisma was there. If you wanted to know Trump, just read the book. But Trump had not written The Art of the Deal. His co-writer, Tony Schwartz, insisted that he had hardly contributed to it and might not even have read all of it. And that was perhaps the point. Trump was not a writer, he was a character—a protagonist and hero.

A pro wrestling fan who became a World Wrestling Entertainment supporter and personality (inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame), Trump lived, like Hulk Hogan, as a real-life fictional character. To the amusement of his friends, and unease of many of the people now preparing to work for him at the highest levels of the federal government, Trump often spoke of himself in the third person. Trump did this. The Trumpster did that. So powerful was this persona, or role, that he seemed reluctant, or unable, to give it up in favor of being president—or presidential.

However difficult he was, many of those now around him tried to justify his behavior—tried to find an explanation for his success in it, to understand it as an advantage, not a limitation. For Steve Bannon, Trump’s unique political virtue was as an alpha male, maybe the last of the alpha males. A 1950s man, a Rat Pack type, a character out of Mad Men.

Trump’s understanding of his own essential nature was even more precise. Once, coming back on his plane with a billionaire friend who had brought along a foreign model, Trump, trying to move in on his friend’s date, urged a stop in Atlantic City. He would provide a tour of his casino. His friend assured the model that there was nothing to recommend Atlantic City. It was a place overrun by white trash.

“What is this ‘white trash’?” asked the model.

“They’re people just like me,” said Trump, “only they’re poor.”

He looked for a license not to conform, not to be respectable. It was something of an outlaw prescription for winning—and winning, however you won, was what it was all about.

Or, as his friends would observe, mindful themselves not to be taken in, he simply had no scruples. He was a rebel, a disruptor, and, living outside the rules, contemptuous of them. A close Trump friend who was also a good Bill Clinton friend found them eerily similar—except that Clinton had a respectable front and Trump did not.

One manifestation of this outlaw personality, for both Trump and Clinton, was their brand of womanizing—and indeed, harassing. Even among world-class womanizers and harassers, they seemed exceptionally free of doubt or hesitation.

Trump liked to say that one of the things that made life worth living was getting your friends’ wives into bed. In pursuing a friend’s wife, he would try to persuade the wife that her husband was perhaps not what she thought. Then he’d have his secretary ask the friend into his office; once the friend arrived, Trump would engage in what was, for him, more or less constant s@xual banter. Do you still like having s@x with your wife? How often? You must have had a better fu@k than your wife? Tell me about it. I have girls coming in from Los Angeles at three o’clock. We can go upstairs and have a great time. I promise . . . And all the while, Trump would have his friend’s wife on the speakerphone, listening in.

Previous presidents, and not just Clinton, have of course lacked scruples. What was, to many of the people who knew Trump well, much more confounding was that he had managed to win this election, and arrive at this ultimate accomplishment, wholly lacking what in some obvious sense must be the main requirement of the job, what neuroscientists would call executive function. He had somehow won the race for president, but his brain seemed incapable of performing what would be essential tasks in his new job. He had no ability to plan and organize and pay attention and switch focus; he had never been able to tailor his behavior to what the goals at hand reasonably required. On the most basic level, he simply could not link cause and effect.

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 bit@h as your chief of staff. And you need a son of a bit@h who knows Washington,” Ailes told Trump not long after the election. “You’ll want to be your own son of a bit@h, 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 are your policies.

“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 di@k 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 leettle, leettle 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. The 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 The Apprentice, 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.

It had personally pained Trump not to be able to give it to him. But if the Republican establishment had not wanted Trump, they had not wanted Christie almost as much. So Christie got the job of leading the transition and the implicit promise of a central job—attorney general or chief of staff.

But when he was the federal prosecutor in New Jersey, Christie had sent Jared’s father, Charles Kushner, to jail in 2005. Charlie Kushner, pursued by the feds for an income tax cheat, set up a scheme with a prostitute to blackmail his brother-in-law, who was planning to testify against him.

Various accounts, mostly offered by Christie himself, make Jared the vengeful hatchet man in Christie’s aborted Trump administration career. It was a kind of perfect sweet-revenge story: the son of the wronged man (or, in this case—there’s little dispute—the guilty-as-charged man) uses his power over the man who wronged his family. But other accounts offer a subtler and in a way darker picture. Jared Kushner, like sons-in-law everywhere, tiptoes around his father-in-law, carefully displacing as little air as possible: the massive and domineering older man, the reedy and pliant younger one. In the revised death-of-Chris-Christie story, it is not the deferential Jared who strikes back, but—in some sense even more satisfying for the revenge fantasy—Charlie Kushner himself who harshly demands his due. It was his daughter-in-law who held the real influence in the Trump circle, who delivered the blow. Ivanka told her father that Christie’s appointment as chief of staff or to any other high position would be extremely difficult for her and her family, and it would be best that Christie be removed from the Trump orbit altogether.

Bannon was the heavy of the organization. Trump, who seemed awestruck by Bannon’s conversation—a mix of insults, historical riffs, media insights, right-wing bons mots, and motivational truisms—now began suggesting Bannon to his circle of billionaires as chief of staff, only to have this notion soundly ridiculed and denounced. But Trump pronounced many people in favor of it anyway.

In the weeks leading up to the election, Trump had labeled Bannon a flatterer for his certainty that Trump would win. But now he had come to credit Bannon with something like mystical powers. And in fact Bannon, with no prior political experience, was the only Trump insider able to offer a coherent vision of Trump’s populism—aka Trumpism.

The anti-Bannon forces—which included almost every non-Tea Party Republican—were quick to react. Murdoch, a growing Bannon nemesis, told Trump that Bannon would be a dangerous choice. Joe Scarborough, the former congressman and cohost of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, a favorite Trump show, privately told Trump “Washington will go up in flames” if Bannon became chief of staff, and, beginning a running theme, publicly denigrated Bannon on the show.

In fact, Bannon presented even bigger problems than his politics: he was profoundly disorganized, seemingly on the spectrum given what captured his single-minded focus to the disregard of everything else. Might he be the worst manager who ever lived? He might. He seemed incapable of returning a phone call. He answered emails in one word—partly a paranoia about email, but even more a controlling crypticness. He kept assistants and minders at constant bay. You couldn’t really make an appointment with Bannon, you just had to show up. And somehow, his own key lieutenant, Alexandra Preate, a conservative fundraiser and PR woman, was as disorganized as he was. After three marriages, Bannon lived his bachelor’s life on Capitol Hill in a row house known as the Breitbart Embassy that doubled as the Breitbart office—the life of a messy party. No sane person would hire Steven Bannon for a job that included making the trains run on time.

Hence, Reince Priebus.

For the Hill, he was the only reasonable chief among the contenders, and he quickly became the subject of intense lobbying by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. If they were going to have to deal with an alien like Donald Trump, then best they do it with the help of a member of their own kind.

Priebus, forty-five, was neither politician nor policy wonk nor strategist. He was political machine worker, one of the oldest professions. A fundraiser.

A working-class kid originally from New Jersey and then Wisconsin, at thirty-two he made his first and last run for elective office: a failed bid for Wisconsin state senate. He became the chairman of the state party and then the general counsel of the Republican National Committee. In 2011 he stepped up to chairmanship of the RNC. Priebus’s political cred came from appeasing the Tea Party in Wisconsin, and his association with Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, a rising Republican star (and, briefly—very briefly—the 2016 front-runner).

With significant parts of the Republican Party inalterably opposed to Trump, and with an almost universal belief within the party that Trump would go down to ignominious defeat, taking the party with him, Priebus was under great pressure after Trump captured the nomination to shift resources down the ticket and even to abandon the Trump campaign entirely.

Convinced himself that Trump was hopeless, Priebus nevertheless hedged his bets. The fact that he did not abandon Trump entirely became a possible margin of victory and made Priebus something of a hero (equally, in the Kellyanne Conway version, if they had lost, he would have been a reasonable target). He became the default choice for chief.

And yet his entry into the Trump inner circle caused Priebus his share of uncertainty and bewilderment. He came out of his first long meeting with Trump thinking it had been a disconcertingly weird experience. Trump talked nonstop and constantly repeated himself.

“Here’s the deal,” a close Trump associate told Priebus. “In an hour meeting with him you’re going to hear fifty-four minutes of stories and they’re going to be the same stories over and over again. So you have to have one point to make and you have to pepper it in whenever you can.” The Priebus appointment as chief of staff, announced in mid-November, also put Bannon on a coequal level. Trump was falling back on his own natural inclinations to let nobody have real power. Priebus, even with the top job, would be a weaker sort of figure, in the traditional mold of most Trump lieutenants over the years. The choice also worked well for the other would-be chiefs. Tom Barrack could easily circumvent Priebus and continue to speak directly to Trump. Jared Kushner’s position as son-in-law and soon top aide would not be impeded. And Steve Bannon, reporting directly to Trump, remained the undisputed voice of Trumpism in the White House.

There would be, in other words, one chief of staff in name—the unimportant one—and various others, more important, in practice, ensuring both chaos and Trump’s own undisputed independence.

Jim Baker, chief of staff for both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush and almost everybody’s model for managing the West Wing, advised Priebus not to take the job.

The transmogrification of Trump from joke candidate, to whisperer for a disaffected demographic, to risible nominee, to rent-in-the-fabric-of-time president-elect, did not inspire in him any larger sense of sober reflection. After the shock of it, he immediately seemed to rewrite himself as the inevitable president.

One instance of his revisionism, and of the new stature he now seemed to assume as president, involved the lowest point of the campaign—the Billy Bush tape.

His explanation, in an off-the-record conversation with a friendly cable anchor, was that it “really wasn’t me.”

The anchor acknowledged how unfair it was to be characterized by a single event.

“No,” said Trump, “it wasn’t me. I’ve been told by people who understand this stuff about how easy it is to alter these things and put in voices and completely different people.”

He was the winner and now expected to be the object of awe, fascination, and favor. He expected this to be binary: a hostile media would turn into a fannish one.

And yet here he was, the winner who was treated with horror and depredations by a media that in the past, as a matter of course and protocol, could be depended on to shower lavish deference on an incoming president no matter who he was. (Trump’s shortfall of three million votes continued to rankle and was a subject best avoided.) It was nearly incomprehensible to him that the same people—that is, the media—who had violently criticized him for saying he might dispute the election result were now calling him illegitimate.

Trump was not a politician who could parse factions of support and opprobrium; he was a salesman who needed to make a sale. “I won. I am the winner. I am not the loser,” he repeated, incredulously, like a mantra.

Bannon described Trump as a simple machine. The On switch was full of flattery, the Off switch full of calumny. The flattery was dripping, slavish, cast in ultimate superlatives, and entirely disconnected from reality: so-and-so was the best, the most incredible, the ne plus ultra, the eternal. The calumny was angry, bitter, resentful, ever a casting out and closing of the iron door.

This was the nature of Trump’s particular salesmanship. His strategic belief was that there was no reason not to heap excessive puffery on a prospect. But if the prospect was ruled out as a buyer, there was no reason not to heap scorn and lawsuits on him or her. After all, if they don’t respond to sucking up, they might respond to piling on. Bannon felt—perhaps with overconfidence—that Trump could be easily switched on and off.

Against the background of a mortal war of wills—with the media, the Democrats, and the swamp—that Bannon was encouraging him to wage, Trump could also be courted. In some sense, he wanted nothing so much as to be courted.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post, which had become one of the many Trump media bêtes noires in the media world, nevertheless took pains to reach out not only to the presidentelect but to his daughter Ivanka. During the campaign, Trump said Amazon was getting “away with murder taxwise” and that if he won, “Oh, do they have problems.” Now Trump was suddenly praising Bezos as “a top-level genius.” Elon Musk, in Trump Tower, pitched Trump on the new administration’s joining him in his race to Mars, which Trump jumped at. Stephen Schwarzman, the head of the Blackstone Group—and a Kushner friend—offered to organize a business council for Trump, which Trump embraced. Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor and fashion industry queen, had hoped to be named America’s ambassador to the UK under Obama and, when that didn’t happen, closely aligned herself with Hillary Clinton. Now Wintour arrived at Trump Tower (but refused to do the perp walk) and suggested that she become Trump’s ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. And Trump was inclined to entertain the idea. (“Fortunately,” said Bannon, “there was no chemistry.”) On December 14, a high-level delegation from Silicon Valley came to Trump Tower to meet the president-elect, though Trump had repeatedly criticized the tech industry throughout the campaign. Later that afternoon, Trump called Rupert Murdoch, who asked him how the meeting had gone.

“Oh, great, just great,” said Trump. “Really, really good. These guys really need my help. Obama was not very favorable to them, too much regulation. This is really an opportunity for me to help them.”

“Donald,” said Murdoch, “for eight years these guys had Obama in their pocket. They practically ran the administration. They don’t need your help.”

“Take this H-1B visa issue. They really need these H-1B visas.”

Murdoch suggested that taking a liberal approach to H-1B visas might be hard to square with his immigration promises. But Trump seemed unconcerned, assuring Murdoch, “We’ll figure it out.”

“What a fu@king idiot,” said Murdoch, shrugging, as he got off the phone.

Ten days before Donald Trump’s inauguration as the forty-fifth president, a group of young Trump staffers—the men in regulation Trump suits and ties, the women in the Trump-favored look of high boots, short skirts, and shoulder-length hair—were watching President Barack Obama give his farewell speech as it streamed on a laptop in the transition offices.

“Mr. Trump said he’s never once listened to a whole Obama speech,” said one of the young people authoritatively.

“They’re so boring,” said another.

While Obama bade his farewell, preparations for Trump’s first press conference since the election, to be held the next day, were under way down the hall. The plan was to make a substantial effort to show that the president-elect’s business conflicts would be addressed in a formal and considered way.

Up until now, Trump’s view was that he’d been elected because of those conflicts—his business savvy, connections, experience, and brand—not in spite of them, and that it was ludicrous for anyone to think he could untangle himself even if he wanted to. Indeed, to reporters and anyone else who would listen, Kellyanne Conway offered on Trump’s behalf a self-pitying defense about how great his sacrifice had already been.

After fanning the flames of his intention to disregard rules regarding conflicts of interest, now, in a bit of theater, he would take a generous new tack. Standing in the lobby of Trump Towner next to a table stacked high with document folders and legal papers, he would describe the vast efforts that had been made to do the impossible and how, henceforth, he would be exclusively focused on the nation’s business.

But suddenly this turned out to be quite beside the point.

Fusion GPS, an opposition research company (founded by former journalists, it provided information to private clients), had been retained by Democratic Party interests. Fusion had hired Christopher Steele, a former British spy, in June 2016, to help investigate Trump’s repeated brags about his relationship with Vladimir Putin and the nature of Trump’s relationship with the Kremlin. With reports from Russian sources, many connected to Russian intelligence, Steele assembled a damaging report—now dubbed the “dossier”—suggesting that Donald Trump was being blackmailed by the Putin government. In September, Steele briefed reporters from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Yahoo! News, the New Yorker, and CNN. All declined to use this unverified information, with its unclear provenance, especially given that it was about an unlikely election winner.

But the day before the scheduled press conference, CNN broke details of the Steele dossier. Almost immediately thereafter, Buzzfeed published the entire report—an itemized bacchanal of beyond-the-pale behavior.

On the verge of Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency, the media, with its singular voice on Trump matters, was propounding a conspiracy of vast proportions. The theory, suddenly presented as just this side of a likelihood, was that the Russians had suborned Donald Trump during a trip to Moscow with a crude blackmail scheme involving prostitutes and videotaped s@xual acts pushing new boundaries of deviance (including “golden showers”) with prostitutes and videotaped s@x acts. The implicit conclusion: a compromised Trump had conspired with the Russians to steal the election and to install him in the White House as Putin’s dupe.

If this was true, then the nation stood at one of the most extraordinary moments in the history of democracy, international relations, and journalism.

If it was not true—and it was hard to fathom a middle ground—then it would seem to support the Trump view (and the Bannon view) that the media, in also quite a dramatic development in the history of democracy, was so blinded by an abhorrence and revulsion, both ideological and personal, for the democratically elected leader that it would pursue any avenue to take him down. Mark Hemingway, in the conservative, but anti-Trump, Weekly Standard, argued the novel paradox of two unreliable narrators dominating American public life: the president-elect spoke with little information and frequently no factual basis, while “the frame the media has chosen to embrace is that everything the man does is, by default, unconstitutional or an abuse of power.” On the afternoon of January 11, these two opposing perceptions faced off in the lobby of Trump Tower: the political antichrist, a figure of dark but buffoonish scandal, in the pocket of America’s epochal adversary, versus the would-be revolutionary-mob media, drunk on virtue, certainty, and conspiracy theories. Each represented, for the other side, a wholly discredited “fake” version of reality.

If these character notes seemed comic-book in style, that was exactly how the press conference unfolded.

First Trump’s encomiums to himself:

“I will be the greatest jobs producer that God ever created. . . .”

A smattering of the issues before him:

“Veterans with a little cancer can’t see a doctor until they are terminal. . . .”

Then the incredulity:

“I was in Russia years ago with the Ms. Universe contest—did very very well—I tell everyone be careful, because you don’t want to see yourself on television—cameras all over the place. And again, not just Russia, all over. So would anyone really believe that story? I’m also very much of a germaphobe, by the way. Believe me.” Then the denial:

“I have no deals in Russia, I have no deal that could happen in Russia because we’ve stayed away, and I have no loans with Russia. I have to say one thing . . . Over the weekend I was offered two billion dollars to do a deal in Dubai and I turned it down. I didn’t have to turn it down, because as you know I have a no-conflict situation as president. I didn’t know about that until three months ago but it’s a nice thing to have. But I didn’t want to take advantage of something. I have a no-conflict-of-interest provision as president. I could actually run my business, run my business and run government at the same time. I don’t like the way that looks but I would be able to do that if I wanted to. I could run the Trump organization, a great, great company, and I could run the country, but I don’t want to do that.” Then the direct attack on CNN, his nemesis:

“Your organization is terrible. Your organization is terrible. . . . Quiet . . . quiet . . . don’t be rude . . . Don’t be. . . . No, I’m not going to give you a question . . . I’m not going to give you a question. . . . You are fake news. . . .”

And in summation:

“That report first of all should never have been printed because it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on. I will tell you that should never ever happen. Twenty-two million accounts were hacked by China. That’s because we have no defense, because we’re run by people who don’t know what they’re doing. Russia will have far greater respect for our country when I’m leading it. And not just Russia, China, which has taken total advantage of us. Russia, China, Japan, Mexico, all countries will respect us far more, far more than they do under past administrations. . . .” Not only did the president-elect wear his deep and bitter grievances on his sleeve, but it was now clear that the fact of having been elected president would not change his unfiltered, apparently uncontrollable, utterly shoot-from-the-hip display of wounds, resentments, and ire.

“I think he did a fantastic job,” said Kellyanne Conway after the news conference. “But the media won’t say that. They never will.”

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