In recent days, Donald Trump’s public swipes at Attorney General Jeff Sessions have escalated from thesaurus-aided jabs (beleaguered!) to straight up insults (weak!) to unsolicited critiques on the Attorney General’s job performance tweeted at, of all people, Sean Hannity. This, like most things the President does, can be politely described as unorthodox and bluntly described as weird. But it’s not the first time Trump has rewarded loyalty with public humiliation. And it probably won’t be the last.
Ending long relationships with loyal partners on a public forum is kind of his thing.
Donald Trump and his first wife Ivana worked to build the Trump empire together during their decade-plus of marriage. Ivana held a high-level position in his real estate company and gave birth to three of his five children, including Ivanka, whom Trump would probably tell you now is his main child.
Their relationship ended months after Trump had installed his mistress Marla Maples in a suite in one of his Atlantic City hotels, after a ski slope fight between Ivana and Marla glanced the front pages of New York City tabloids, after he informed Ivana that things “just weren’t working out” before flying off to Japan to watch a boxing match. That breakup, broken by gossip columnist Liz Smith, nearly broke the news cycle for fans of high society salaciousness.
Trump didn’t offer wife number two, the aforementioned Ms. Maples, the courtesy of telling her that she was out like he did Ivana. Maples found out that she was getting a divorce the same way most people did: from the New York Post.
Trump’s biographer Robert Slater said Trump forced him to remove an anecdote describing the messy black tabloid dustup from No Such Thing as Over-Exposure: Inside the Life and Celebrity of Donald Trump before the book went to print. Slater died in 2014.
Now, Trump is attempting to dissolve another partnership through the media: apparently trying to Tweet hard enough to convince Jeff Sessions to step aside as Attorney General. Ever since he recused himself from a probe examining coordination between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia, ushering in the appointment of a hardass special prosecutor, Sessions has been persona non grata to the President.
The recusal was a single betrayal, but it’s one betrayal too many in Trump’s eyes. Trump’s days-long dragging of Sessions continues to snowball. The Alabama Republican risked his reputation by backing Trump during the earliest days of his unorthodox campaign. Sessions hung around, loyally defending his champion through bad times and worse, through “Blood Coming From Her Wherever” and “Grab ‘Em By The Pussy”. How quickly they become punching bags.
Today, Trump claimed that perhaps Sessions never really cared about “loyalty.” Maybe he was just in it for the crowd size.
“They need to either get together or separate,” White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci said of the feuding partners this morning.
For Trump, Twitter is to 2017 what the tabloids were to the 80’s and 90’s. But Twitter is even simpler. Now, Trump doesn’t have to pretend to be his own publicist “John Barron” to push out his version of events.
Pre-social media, gossip columnists were gatekeepers to the headlines that Trump wanted to see about himself. In order to get a story in the paper, he had to convince somebody who worked for the paper that the story was worth telling.
Now, all Trump has to do is send the Tweet himself, alone on the toilet or in an office surrounded by giggling cronies. Or on a toilet surrounded by giggling cronies! He’s the President. Not even Congress has the power to prevent him from leaving the door open. Send tweet.
It’s now dawning on Trumpland that what is happening to Jeff Sessions could happen to anybody. If the right naysayer eggs Trump on enough, if Trump feels the smallest bit slighted, if Trump wakes up on the wrong side of the pool at Mar-a-Lago, everybody’s at risk. Nobody can keep Trump from Marla Maples-ing even his closest advisors on a much larger scale and to a much larger audience.
As soon as the President hits “send” he is effectively dictating a course of headlines to thousands of journalists. He is conducting the band. They must all respond by writing a story about the drama between him and one of his most loyal advisors, because if they do not write a story about it, somebody else will write a story about it and they will not be on the story. They will be out of the band.
Very few will write or speak of Trump with admiration. The ones that do will be temporary pariahs, until all this is over and they reenter the mainstream as though they’d just been momentarily possessed.
Many journalists will write stories about how what Donald Trump is doing is bad, but they still must think about it, must talk about it. Their disparaging head shakes do nothing to deter future identical behavior from the President. This is all he knows how to do.
This means that humiliation is the most deadly weapon in Trump’s arsenal. If he can’t get what he wants from the people close to him, he’ll discard them, too, and he’ll do it by forcing the media to talk about the way he did it, the cruelty of it. Trump’s manipulation of whatever media he can best manipulate is a never-ending negative mass from which no light can escape.
In the midst of her marital troubles, Ivana Trump told reporters, “Donald and I are partners in marriage and in business. I will stand beside him through thick or thin, for better or worse.”
Jeff Sessions has not yet issued a statement.