To Trump, rules are made to be broken

Trump rejects claims Russians helped him win
Trump rejects claims Russians helped him win

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Story highlights

  • Michael D'Antonio: Donald Trump has made a career of breaking the rules and shading the truth
  • But this may not work in the Oval Office, where he will come under constant scrutiny, writes D'Antonio

Michael D'Antonio, the author of "The Truth About Trump," is writing Trump Watch, a series of columns on President-elect Donald Trump for CNN Opinion. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)President-elect Donald Trump signaled who he is when he announced he was going to remain executive producer of "The Apprentice" and then dismissed as "ridiculous" the Central Intelligence Agency's concern that Russia hacked his opponent's computers to help him win the White House. When given a choice between unreality as represented by TV and the real-world work of protecting the United States from Vladimir Putin, Trump stayed loyal to the money-making fiction and threw the CIA under the bus.

Michael D'Antonio
Consider that Trump has refused to sit for nearly all the daily intelligence briefings, which have been prepared for presidents since the 1960s, and his response to the CIA seems consistent with his view of himself and the world. He said he doesn't need intelligence briefings because he's so "smart." By this measure, each one of his predecessors, from Kennedy to Reagan to Obama, must have been woefully unintelligent. At the very least, they worried far too much about the norms that traditionally guided the presidency.
Trump has long used manipulative techniques to get what he wants. These tendencies to shade the truth, break the rules and ignore the damage he does were apparent when he first made himself known as a publicity hound and developer in New York, and they continue to be an essential part of his character.

    No rules for me

    When Donald Trump proposed his first big project in the 1970s, he called on politicians whom his father had befriended and funded to grease the skids. In those days, local politics was the kind of swamp Trump now says he wants to drain, and yet he swam as well as anyone. The last step in his bid for approval required that he provide a signed contract indicating he owned the right to develop the site. Trump submitted paperwork, but since it was unsigned it shouldn't have been accepted. Mysteriously, the city approval came, and Trump later bragged to me about pulling off the deception.
    Less obvious, but no less significant, was Trump's decision to use a contractor who hired scores of undocumented workers, in violation of the law, to tear down the Bonwit Teller department store at the site of what is now Trump Tower. In the same period, he destroyed architectural artwork he was supposed to preserve and adopted a fake persona to serve as a spokesman for himself. In Trump's estimation, the deception was good business.
    Fast forward to the 2016 election, and Trump is insulting war hero John McCain, inciting the kind of violent practices against protesters used in "the good old days" and demeaning almost every one of his opponents. When he was concerned about losing the election, he began speaking of a "rigged" system, undercutting public confidence in the foundation of the American democracy. The norms of politics have prevented every candidate in modern history from making such dangerous statements. However, Trump has not accepted those rules.
    Now, as President-elect, Trump believes the standards accepted by other newly elected presidents out of respect for America's political culture don't apply to him. Others held press conferences almost immediately after the votes were tallied. Trump has yet to hold one. Others put their assets in trust to avoid conflicts of interest. Trump will not.
    He has never acted as if the rules applied to him and, so far, he's keeping up the practice.

    Opposite talk

    One of Trump's oft-used methods for getting what he wants involves flipping narratives to benefit him. He first did this in the early 1970s, when the federal government charged the Trump Organization with discriminating against minority applicants for apartments. Instead of acknowledging the public good in equal housing and respecting a GOP administration's effort to encourage equality, Trump put himself above all other considerations. Crying "reverse discrimination," he claimed he was the real victim in the situation. And though the Trump Organization eventually agreed to comply with fair housing rules, he fought hard against doing the right thing.
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    More opposite talk came from Trump when he argued that black men have advantages in life that he would have wanted in his youth. "I would love to be a well-educated black, because I believe they do have an actual advantage." Every bit of data available suggested that the opposite was true, but the facts wouldn't get in the way of Trump making a point that played to the racial fears and anxieties of many whites.
    In the election campaign, Trump indulged in opposite talk almost every time he was challenged about his fitness for office. Well known for wild rants, he nevertheless insisted he had the best temperament of anyone running for president. Now, as President-elect, Trump is practicing opposite talk without saying a word. By appointing a climate change denier to run the Environmental Protection Agency and a fierce critic of public schools to run the Department of Education, President-elect Trump is communicating that he's willing to move from opposite talk to opposite action.
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    Gaslighting

    Made famous by the movie "Gaslight," in which a husband gradually destroys his wife's confidence in reality, this technique for distorting issues involves applying the drip-drip of disinformation in order to confuse and eventually persuade. The most telling of Trump's applications of this technique involves his claim that the electoral system in the United States is vulnerable to corruption.
    Trump began his campaign to undermine confidence in our system of voting by insisting that primary contests were unfair. When this claim proved wrong, his campaign backers began suggesting the party convention would be rigged and recommended aggressive tactics be deployed to prevent cheating. Finally, during the general election, Trump used the term "rigged" on the stump and put together a poll watching effort to ensure against fraud.
    The existence of voter fraud is so rare as to constitute a nonproblem in American elections. Nevertheless, officials who have sought to curtail voter access to the polls have used specious claims of fraud to support legislative proposal. And, after the November results were in, Trump began expressing the opinion that as many as 3 million fraudulent votes had been cast.
    When the fact-checking team at Politifact.com looked into the claim of fraudulent votes, all they found was a tweet from an individual who would not divulge his source. Soon enough, it turned up on websites, distributed and redistributed until, in an era when facts seem fungible, it was cited by Trump.

    Reality calls

    As Trump puts together his Cabinet, performing a kind of kabuki theater with contenders for key positions, one of his main political backers, Scottie Nell Hughes, told an interviewer that, "There's no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts." This position is consistent with Trump's lifelong preference for opinions stated as assertions and frequent demand that we accept his changing version of reality.
    During the campaign, Politifact confirmed 17 instances when Trump said something and then insisted he had not. To cite just two examples, Trump denied using a slur to describe Sen. Ted Cruz, even though the statement was recorded on tape, and he denied pledging to pay legal fees for violent supporters when, at a rally, he said, "I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise."
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    But even before the campaign, Trump's deceptions and denials were practiced to delegitimize others, especially critics. Prior to the campaign, the most egregious example of this exercise was his five-year effort to challenge Barack Obama's claim to having been born in Hawaii and therefore his legitimacy as President of the United States. No evidence supported Trump's insistent questions about Obama, and yet he kept pushing the issue.
    Now, with the controversy around Russian hacking and its influence on the election, Trump faces his own crisis of legitimacy. To fight it, he has tried to deny the reality presented by the State Department and distorted his election performance. Perhaps because he lost the popular vote by 2.5 million, Trump has said he won the Electoral College in sweeping fashion. "We had a massive landslide victory, as you know, in the Electoral College. I guess the final numbers are now at 306."
    As CNN reported, Trump won enough states to give him 56.9% of the Electoral College vote. That places him 45th out of 58 US presidential campaigns in the ranking of winning percentages going all the way back to George Washington's victory in the election of 1789.
    Trump's problem of legitimacy is compounded by the evidence of foreign meddling in the campaign by a state that has long been America's adversary but was, oddly, embraced by Trump. Time and again Trump spoke of his desire for a close relationship with Russia, even though it is widely regarded as an authoritarian state that has violated international norms by invading neighbors and killing journalists.
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    As Trump is now discovering, the presidency comes with a weight of responsibility he has never felt before. Others in Washington wield their own power. Among them is Sen. John McCain, who is demanding an investigation into Russian hacking pre-election. And the press applies even more scrutiny and fact checking to the occupant of the Oval Office than it does to candidates.
    These challenges are among the many realities Trump will encounter in greater and greater numbers after his inauguration. When he finds that the rules of the real world do apply to him and his old tricky methods no longer work, he may want to accept a few more briefings, a few more facts and a bit of serious data.