Flynn, Sessions and Spicer ran into a high-pressure salesman with an apex predator's eye for weakness
They wound up in a world of hurt after accepting high-level jobs offered by Trump
Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio, a CNN contributor, is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his
General Michael Flynn bought in during what you could call the pre-opening sales period, when an eager purchaser could get the best deal.
He joined the Trump campaign early and became national security advisor to the President. Jeff Sessions was another early-purchaser, becoming the first senator to stand up for Trump. He was named attorney general. Sean Spicer was a latecomer, but anted up his credibility. It bought him the job of White House press secretary.
Today, Flynn is in legal peril after being forced to resign after 23 days on the job after the White House was warned he had misled the administration about his contacts with Russians. Freshly unemployed, Spicer faces professional disgrace after expending much of his credibility in support of Trump’s myriad lies and having a new man installed above him. And Sessions is being undermined by the President, who has hit him with a barrage of humiliating social media posts, including, “Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes.”
Although each of the President’s loyalists has suffered in a unique way, their experience with the President has followed a pattern. Flynn, Spicer, and Sessions were players in the game of politics and policy who never quite earned superstar status. Then came Trump, with his billionaire’s swagger and his private aircraft, insisting that the old rules no longer apply. He offered them sudden promotions that likely fulfilled their long-life dreams. The deals were too good to pass up, so they bought.
How did the President’s men, each blessed with enough competence and intelligence to at least reach the big leagues, wind up in such a world of hurt? The answer is that they ran into a high-pressure salesman with an apex predator’s eye for weakness and an instinct for exploiting it.
Throughout his life Trump has demonstrated he is a keen student of human nature who reduced men and women to certain basic drives. In his view, people were, like him, interested mainly in money, sex, power, and attention. He is a man who unashamedly says, “I’m very handsome” and openly admits, “I’m a greedy person.” In my encounters with Trump he made it clear that he felt I shared his values. At one point he flattered me, a bearded, bald man, for my appearance and at another he talked about how it would benefit me if I wrote about him in a positive way.
If it doesn’t occur to Trump that some people can’t be bought with money or flattery it may be because it often seems like these techniques work. “I play to people’s fantasies,” he explained in his book “Trump, The Art of the Deal.” “People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do.”
Trump’s method for making people excited begins with setting the proper mood. As a businessman he put his name in huge gold letters over the entrance to the tower where he kept his office. He decorated the interior to look like the Hollywood version of a modern mogul’s lair and filled it with young women with movie star looks, who addressed him only as “Mr. Trump.” It was the next best thing to working in the Oval Office and being called “Mr. President.”
Deal seekers and job applicants who entered Trump’s world found themselves confronted with the classic techniques of high-pressure salesmanship. Confusing chatter, emotional manipulation and a charming sort of friendliness all combine to make a target drop his or her guard. Trump’s preposterous honesty about things like his greed and his clumsy/folksy pattern of speech combine to create a sense of familiarity and even common cause.
With the voters, Trump built a relationship based on a shared sense of anger at politicians (even though he had become one). Ambitious operatives seeking to advance found in Trump a possible shortcut to the top. Flynn, Spicer and Sessions were not likely to reach the highest ranks on their own, but Trump gave them the chance to become instant superstars and thus defy all those who may have once considered them each second-rank. They may have felt that the appeal of such a great reward justified the risk of signing up with a leader whose own record was so tarnished – by bankruptcies, scandal, and lies – that sober-minded people, including great numbers of mainstream Republicans, avoided him.
Individual voters invested only their hopes and a ballot in President Trump. Some may be feeling misgivings about the choice, but politics and policy are not, for most, all-consuming interests. The same cannot be said for those who threw in with a President who seems to demand loyalty to him – personally – as a condition of employment.
James Comey, whom Trump appeared to admit to firing because of his commitment to an impartial probe of the Trump campaign and Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, testified that the President said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” Comey, whose commitment to the Constitution was obviously greater than his commitment to Trump, didn’t satisfy the demand and was soon dismissed.
What made Comey choose the system over the man? It’s most likely that he didn’t fit Trump’s assumptions about the motivations that drive people to succeed. As a public servant Comey wasn’t making much money, at least by Trumpian standards, and he didn’t come in for much admiring commentary about his appearance.
He was powerful, but that power was held by his office, not the man. In the end, Comey was like a potential customer who brings a supply of sales resistance into every encounter with someone who wants to sell him something. Simply put, his sales resistance was so highly developed that none of Trump’s high pressure techniques worked.
For a better sense of how much Comey differed from the men who have suffered as they made their deals with Trump, consider how much each of them compromised to make their arrangements work. Flynn so wanted to be Trump’s national security advisor, especially after being fired by President Obama, that he risked omitting key information from his government paperwork.
Spicer was so eager to stand at the podium in the West Wing briefing room that he was happy to double down on presidential lies to such a degree that he became a laughingstock. And Sessions, whom no other president was likely to name to the office of attorney general, so loves his job that he has tolerated Trump’s repeated public criticisms. To a man, they confirmed the President’s worst assumptions about the nature of ambitious men.
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The man whose hiring led Spicer to quit, Anthony Scaramucci is himself a super salesman and a willing buyer of the Trump sizzle and shine. He debuted with such an outpouring of affection for his new boss that it almost seemed like he had been offered not a job, but a place in the Trump family. However, Scaramucci is, by all accounts, independently wealthy and he is so good at cultivating attention on his own that he may not need the reflected glory the White House offers. With these two qualities, he may endure longer than anyone who would have accepted the job because he or she really needed it.
Most recently rumors are swirling about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s unhappiness with Trump’s behavior. Always more Comey than Flynn, Tillerson is a man who was already a star (as CEO of Exxon) when Trump recruited him. Accomplished and confident, he doesn’t need the job to fill his purse, or satisfy his ego. For these reasons, he may be gone even sooner than Sessions.