Sometime soon, Donald Trump, the third president in the history of the United States to be impeached, is expected to face a trial in the Senate, charged with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Traced back to its roots, this is a crisis entirely of his own creation: He came across a sketchy scrap of information, a debunked piece of Russian propaganda relating to Ukraine, and he saw it as something he could use, to help himself and to hurt an opponent. He latched onto it, pumped it up, and passed it along.
Anyone wondering how the president could make this kind of mistake has missed something important about Trump’s rise. For as long as he has been in politics—in fact, for longer—he has been a ruthlessly effective practitioner of the art of parroting others’ most provocative, salacious ideas. “There are a lot of people that think …” “That’s what I heard …” “Some people even say …” His gossipy M.O. was a staple of his campaign, propelling his historic victory, but it also has driven the scandal that has consumed his presidency—“I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike,” he said on the now well-known call last July with President Volodymyr Zelensky.
If what he was referencing sounded kind of like a dodgy talk radio rant, that’s not an accident. It’s a deliberate tactic, one that Trump was developing, and exploiting, from the moment he first seriously started to consider a run for the White House.
In the early to middle part of the previous decade, Trump’s proto-political operation was essentially a two-man team—there was Roger Stone, now a felon, and there was Stone’s protégé, Sam Nunberg. One of Nunberg’s self-appointed tasks was to help Trump understand what the masses on the right really wanted. And one way he did that was by listening to Mark Levin’s increasingly popular radio show. The people who were tuning in most intently to Levin, Nunberg thought, were the people most likely to vote for Trump if he launched an actual bid. “Donald Trump,” Nunberg told me, meaning his candidacy, meaning his victory, “would never have happened without Mark Levin.”
Nunberg’s frequent emails to Trump, sent via an assistant in Trump’s office and which have not been reported on before, were accounts of the many grievances that animated Levin and his listeners. Union members resented union leaders. Republican rank and file loathed Republican elites. The Tea Party, in the estimation of Levin and his listeners, didn’t start as a reaction to the liberal outrages of President Barack Obama—it started as a reaction to what they viewed as the inconsistently hard-line conservative policies of President George W. Bush. Amnesty for immigrants, for instance? An absolute no-go. Trump, Nunberg stressed when we talked, didn’t want to be told what to say, but Nunberg nonetheless made his pitch for him as an insurgent outsider: “This is all marketing and you’re a great product … in a new type of market,” he said he told Trump. “Help me help you sell gold to these people that normally buy gold.”
Trump started listening to the show.
“He would call me up sometimes,” Nunberg recalled. “‘Oh, did you just hear what Levin said?’”
For the better part of the past half-century, Trump, 73, has extracted from an array of similar sources—from the New York Post’s dishy Page Six to the toxicity of Twitter to far-right websites and lowbrow TV—a knack for knowing what people want. Not all people but many people. And not what they say they want, but what they really want. Ostentatious and aspirational glitz. Plain talk to the point of crude talk. Conflict.
Employees, executives, aides and others who’ve known Trump well say he’s not a book-reader so much as a room-reader, “sucking in information that he finds valuable,” grabbing “nuggets” that he thinks can help him get what he covets, which is some slurry of wealth, attention, respect and power. “A creature of feel,” the late strategist Pat Caddell described him to me in the summer of 2018, “a visceral stimulus creature”—who could repackage what he took in and sell it back to the hoi polloi.
In 2010, for example, he recognized a lightning-rod issue torquing emotions and jumped right in, gleaning buzz for himself with his offer to purchase the site of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”—which alerted him to the potential potency of anti-Obama birtherism, which paved the way for his anger-girded, fear-mongering presidential candidacy. Trump is in this way less a thinker and more a megaphone, an amplifier of the ideas of others, the value of those ideas in his mind based not on veracity so much as utility. Which is another way of saying he’s not so much a leader as he is a follower. Perhaps the ultimate follower. Trump is the Follower of the Free World.
“Donald was never a CEO. He was a brand manager—you know, how do I appeal to the masses?” former Trump publicist Alan Marcus told me recently. “It’s like Elmer Gantry. It’s the carnival barker. It’s what every pitchman has always done. Tell the people what they want to hear.”
“Taking the information he wants or needs,” former Trump casino exec Jack O’Donnell said.
“Whether it’s true or not,” former Trump Organization exec Barbara Res said.
Taking it in. Sending it out. Over and over. Again and again.
This, regardless of whatever else it is or means, is a remarkable and undeniable talent: hoovering others’ ideas, making them his, and in doing so growing a following uniquely his own that far exceeds the size of the even considerable original audience. It’s what got him elected. In some ways, too, it’s what got him impeached.
“There’s no question,” presidential historian Doug Brinkley told me last week. “He just trolls around and looks for weird stories that grab his attention, and he figures, ‘I know the American psyche, and this’ll grab their attention,’ and he throws it out there.”
But effective as cherrypicking and amplifying the most emotionally and politically useful tidbits has been for Trump throughout his life, it has proved an uneasy fit when practiced from the inside of an office that is supposed to represent the accumulated knowledge and official position of the entire U.S. government. In some sense, the entire impeachment process is a collision between Trump’s magnification of random, unverified rumors and an official regime of fact and process. The outcome will determine more than whether Trump is removed from office. It may well establish a new standard for what our government defines as true.
Speedy with job-site arithmetic but dismissive of academics, whom he considered weak and effete, Fred Trump Sr. of Queens, N.Y., bestowed upon his middle son and eventual heir not just extravagant riches but an anti-elitist, expertise-averse worldview. At New York Military Academy, at Fordham University in the Bronx and then the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, classmates have said, a young Donald Trump was a “disinterested,” skyscraper-doodling student, “loath to really study much,” game to “bluff his way through.”
But the fact that he wasn’t a scholar didn’t mean that he was stupid, according to people who worked with or watched him closely over the decades of his professional existence.
“If he’s willing to listen, he’s a quick learner,” Res said.
“A quick study,” biographer Gwenda Blair concurred.
“Donald just absorbs, absorbs, absorbs,” former Trump Organization executive Louise Sunshine said. “He can extract so much information from his awareness of his surroundings and of the world around him.”
Starting in the 1970s, he learned, of course, how to fight dirty and win from his antagonistic attorney and mentor, Roy Cohn.
In the ’80s, he learned from Stone, and from watching George Steinbrenner, Ed Koch and Ronald Reagan, too. Steinbrenner, the bombastic owner of the New York Yankees, led as a loner. His secretary frequently could be heard saying, Mr. Steinbrenner, Trump on line two. Koch won three terms as the mayor of New York in part “by playing the kibitzer,” wrote Martin Shefter, “the brash fellow who has an opinion on everything.” The formula for success, Koch thought, was relatively uncomplicated: Get attention to get votes. “And you can only do that,” he once said, “by being bigger than life. It’s theatrics.” Staging news conference after news conference, Koch packed the way he talked with superlatives, “best this” and “best that.” Reporters joked about having to join gyms just to keep up with him. But he seldom left them wanting for material. He called foes “wackos” and “kooks.” He called the city council “a gaggle of clowns.”
Reagan, meanwhile, won the Oval Office in one way not dissimilar to Koch’s path to Gracie Mansion—by winning over blue-collar, disaffected Democrats, who sought “safety” in the face of the changing, increasingly diverse society surrounding them. Reagan spent the decade blurring the lines between politics and entertainment, wondering at times how anybody could be an effective president without having been an actor first.
For Trump, the “visceral stimulus creature,” Steinbrenner, Koch and Reagan provided daily tutorials of sorts. And while his political affiliations were elastic and his overall ideology embryonic, Trump demonstrated early his acumen for tearing pages from proven playbooks and giving them his own signature twists—with blaring full-page newspaper ads in the late ’80s, criticizing American foreign policy and calling for the death penalty for the (innocent) Central Park Five.
And in the ’90s, Trump learned from watching Ross Perot run for president (and lose) and Jesse Ventura run for governor of Minnesota (and win). “The nutty billionaire and the wrestler,” he called them, according to Stone. He watched Newt Gingrich weaponize words in the political arena in a new and virulent manner, labeling Democrats “traitors” and “sick,” urging his fellow Republicans to do the same. He watched the rise of partisanship on cable TV, MSNBC on the left, Fox News on the right, and the spiking clamor for conservative talk radio—from 240 all-talk stations in the country in 1987 to 900 in ’92 to 1,130 in ’95. Rush Limbaugh, the trailblazer, the precursor to somebody like Mark Levin, railed away about “feminazis” and “commie-libs”—and his listeners loved it. “He’s saying what I think,” they thought.
And Trump in 2011 seized on what people, some people—misguided, bigoted or both—thought about the country’s first black president. The birtherism campaign he began to wage was the distillation of his scattershot but resolute education as the kibitzer, the gossip hound, the insurgent outsider, the nascent politician, the feeder off the fever swamps. The follower.
“I’m starting to wonder myself whether or not he was born in this country,” he said on Fox News in March of that year.
“He doesn’t have a birth certificate,” he told talker Laura Ingraham two days later. “Somebody told me …”
“Was it a birth certificate? You tell me,” he told ABC News in 2013. “Some people say that was not his birth certificate.”
That same year, Nunberg arranged for Trump to make his Levin show debut, preparing a memo “to familiarize Mr. Trump with Mark Levin,” he wrote—deploying tried-and-true ways to pique Trump’s interest. Nunberg emphasized Levin’s ratings history (“In the first 18 months on the air, the program jumped to #1 in the time slot”), the company he kept (considers Sean Hannity “his best friend”), his reach (books Liberty and Tyranny and Ameritopia: The Unmaking of America sold more than a million copies, Nunberg noted), and his compensation (“a reported annual salary of $12.5 million a year”). Nunberg mentioned, too, that what he said on the air often was disseminated on a variety of websites like TheRightScoop.com. People, in other words, “some people,” “many people,” “a lot of people,” were listening to what Levin was saying.
Armed with this advance work, the memo as well as the emails, Trump fit in well with Levin. In addition to shilling for the upcoming season of “The Celebrity Apprentice”—“Trace Adkins, La Toya Jackson, Dennis Rodman”—Trump delivered to Levin’s listeners what they wanted—which essentially was … Levin’s ideas, studiously collected by Nunberg, consumed by Trump and regurgitated back to the host.
“If the Republicans are going to win,” Trump said, “they’re going to have to break away from the Karl Roves of the world and, frankly, get more involved—you know, the Tea Party, these people are great. I’ve done some speeches in front of the Tea Party. They are great Americans, they love this country, they work so hard, and they have been so mistreated by … the liberal media. … They truly are not treated with proper respect.”
And he landed especially hard on immigration and any notions of amnesty for undocumented immigrants.
“I watched last night,” he continued, referring to Obama’s State of the Union that year, “as Senator McCain and everybody were jumping up and down, you know, applauding—I never saw him move so fast, you know, nice guy, but he jumped up—and was applauding as soon as the immigration became a part of the discussion, a part of the speech.”
“Immigration,” Trump said, “will be the next thing, based on what I’m watching.”
Trump and Levin wrapped up by exchanging compliments.
“I’m extremely impressed with what you’re doing,” Levin said.
“You just have a great show,” Trump said. “I’m always listening.”
“Donald Trump,” Levin told his listeners after Trump signed off. “See that, folks? Very solid. Very conservative. To the right of the Republican establishment. Strong supporter of the Tea Party. I’m telling you. I’ve been watching this. I’ve been listening. People have been sending me his tweets.”
There was a reason for that. “He’s putting stuff out there,” Nunberg told me of Trump’s tweets at the time, some of which Nunberg was suggesting, “that sounds like Mark Levin.”
In the few months before his interview with Levin:
And in the few months after:
This ear-to-the-proverbial-ground political ramp-up wasn’t limited to Levin and talk radio. It was around this time as well that Trump began to give more and more talks on the pre-presidential hustings, GOP chicken dinners in places like Iowa and New Hampshire.
He talked to Pat Caddell about what he was picking up on the trail. “He would put forth his position or his feelings, and he would judge the level of the response to it, and that helped him organize, I suppose to whatever degree it was organized, his views about issues,” Caddell told me in 2018. “Things he said that didn’t go over disappeared. Things that did stayed.”
Twitter, too, increasingly served a similar purpose.
“He glommed onto it like it was an oxygen source,” Caddell explained. “And he would tweet what he believed, and people would retweet or answer or whatever, and it was kind of his ongoing focus group.”
“He loved it,” Nunberg said. “He doesn’t trust the political people who do the focus groups.” Instead: “What are we getting the most retweets on?”
In 2014 and ’15—well before Trump came down the escalator and announced his intention to run—Nunberg sent Trump nearly daily updates of snippets of news and possible topics and wordings for tweets. At the tops of the documents he showed the number of Trump’s Twitter followers ticking up (a snapshot from December of 2014: 2,751,488 … 2,753,548 … 2,757,190 …) and the number of days left until the GOP primary debate at the Reagan library and the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries ticking down.
A month into the presidential campaign, after the Vietnam-avoiding Trump insulted McCain by saying he was “not a war hero” and that he liked people “who weren’t captured,” he refused to apologize. That, Nunberg said, partly was because of what he had internalized by listening to Levin. Nunberg told Trump it was going to help him. (It certainly didn’t hurt him.) “He said, ‘Why?’” Nunberg said. “And I said, ‘Because our people despise John McCain. They despise the fact that McCain hides behind his military record to shit on Republicans and you can’t criticize him on anything because of his military record. I said, ‘John McCain—he is hated almost as much as Barack Obama on talk radio.’ … I said, ‘He might as well be Barack Obama on talk radio.’”
Talk radio led the way. Trump followed.
Theoretically, Trump could have changed. As successful as this pattern of behavior had been in the years preceding his run and during the campaign itself—he was, after all, elected president—Trump could have adjusted once he took office, having at his disposal, suddenly and quite unexpectedly, the world’s preeminent intelligence-gathering apparatus. But no—sticking to “that gossip kind of mentality,” said O’Donnell, the casino exec, Trump has continued to mine Twitter, plucking what he wants, “very comfortable with half thoughts,” “always looking for tidbits of information that he can use to his advantage.”
“He sees the ones that are the most popular,” former Fox News anchor Eric Bolling, identified by Time as someone who speaks regularly to Trump, told the magazine in June of 2018, “and getting the most [of the] zeitgeist, most attention on social media.”
And then? The last and most important piece of this by now almost rote process?
“He repeats it,” Bolling said.
And for as long as he’s occupied the Oval Office, Trump’s been thinking about Ukraine. “Ukraine,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said a couple months back, “has always been problematic, from Day One. He’s heard a lot about Ukraine from a lot of people.” He’s heard about it, according to reports, from Rudy Giuliani, from his favored right-wing media outlets, from Vladimir Putin.
He started spreading it almost immediately.
“I heard it’s owned by a very rich Ukrainian,” he said of CrowdStrike, incorrectly, in an interview with The Associated Press in April of 2017. “That’s what I heard.”
Officials have insisted to the president the CrowdStrike conspiracy is just that. He has not heeded their counsel.
It’s what led to the call with Ukraine’s Zelensky that led to the series of events that led to his impeachment. “The server,” Trump said, “they say Ukraine has it.”
“It’s combustible because Trump’s only looking for news stories and information that suits his persona, that build his persona up,” Brinkley, the presidential historian, told me last week. “And by doing that he is following the trolls down an ugly path.”
There are those who predict Trump’s tendencies will ultimately undo him. Thomas Bossert, who was Trump’s first homeland security adviser, logged a warning on a Sunday morning last fall. “If he continues to focus on that white whale,” Bossert said of Trump’s questionable Ukraine theory, “it’s going to bring him down.”
But it is hard to see that happening now. It’s virtually assured that Trump’s impeachment will end not with his ouster but with an acquittal by the Republican-controlled Senate. This purported ordeal could even be a boost. In fundraising, and in some polling, it already has been. And come November, he absolutely could win again. And if that happens, Trump in some sense would possess more power than any president ever—subjected to the gravest constitutional check, then given by voters another four years.
If Trump began his political ascent as a follower, cannily co-opting ideas that resonated with a certain segment of the electorate, in doing so he clearly has proceeded to forge a following of his own. He has become a leader of those who are willing to be led in this way—solidifying lockstep support from the agenda-setting base of his party as well as its kingpins and figureheads, who parrot him the way he once did Levin. The result: a crescendoing feedback loop, in which followers are leaders and leaders are followers, perpetuating ideas based on what works rather than what’s real.
“One of the sacred principles in U.S. history has been that presidents are supposed to tell the public the truth,” Brinkley said. “So this is a new kind of Republican that refuses to ever admit culpability or a mistake and is willing to destroy not just institutions but fact-based thinking, empirical thinking.” Trump? “He doesn’t care whether it’s true or not true, whether it destroys somebody or not—there’s no morality into it. It’s just a strange, weird bit of information—‘and it helps me, and I’m going to propagate it.’”