The Trump we see today was influenced and propelled by various characters, as Rothfeld notes, starting with the infamous lawyer Roy Cohn — once an associate of Sen. Joe McCarthy — who Trump grew close to in the 1970’s. There’s a direct line between Cohn’s merciless attack philosophy and Trump’s propensity to never admit fault. Just look at Trump’s Twitter feed for daily examples.
But despite the role Cohn played in shaping Trump, once it became clear he was gay and had AIDS, Trump distanced himself from his mentor. In fact, after Cohn died in 1986 of AIDS-related complications, as Rothfeld explains, Trump ordered the staff at Mar-a-Lago to fumigate the silverware.
That is Trump in a nutshell is. He will use people as long as the person can help him and then discard them or, worse, demean and demonize them. Look no further than Trump fixer Michael Cohen, who had been a loyal blunt instrument for Trump since the mid-2000’s. But when Cohen got into serious trouble — apparently for running sleazy errands for Trump — the president turned his back on his longtime friend, which ultimately led to Cohen working with the authorities in the hopes of lessening his prison sentence.
Today, as Rothfeld explains to me, Trump’s fixers are Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General Bill Barr. But given his history, the question is not whether Trump will one day turn on them, but how soon.
Watch my “Salon Talks” episode with Michael Rothfeld here, or read a transcript of our conversation below, lightly edited for length and clarity.
You take a really a deep dive into Trump’s bottom-feeding world. What made you want to write a book about all of the characters in Trump World?
We felt that once we had broken the stories of Karen McDougal, who was paid off for Trump by the publisher of the National Enquirer, and then Stormy Daniels who was paid off by Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer. How did this happen? How do you have a president who has one guy paying off a porn star and another guy paying off a Playboy model? We decided to look back and see what the pattern was here, going back decades, of how Trump had people surrounding him who were just kind of willing to do his dirty work for him. That’s how we came up with the idea of writing “The Fixers.” It’s the seamy underbelly of the Trump presidency. It’s a world that most people probably don’t know about, but where you have muckrakers, paparazzi, porn stars and all this, and they helped him refine the tactics that he took to The White House.
In the bigger picture, is it a coincidence Donald Trump is surrounded by all these shady characters? Or is this who he finds himself most comfortable around?
I don’t think it’s a coincidence because it goes back to Roy Cohn, who was his lawyer. The first fixer in our book was a mob lawyer, and he helped Trump game the political system in the ’70s when he was coming up as a developer. Trump uses these types of people to do his dirty work, things that he doesn’t want to do himself, and that most people, if they have good judgment, would not do so. Then you look at what has happened in the White House where he’s trying to pressure Jim Comey to protect him. He wants Jeff Sessions to not recuse himself. He’s a line-crosser, right? But he wants other people to cross those lines for him, so that he can try to keep his hands clean. It really does take us to where we are now with impeachment, right? Because he had Rudy Giuliani doing this for him in Ukraine. Trump obviously is at the center of impeachment, but Rudy is the fixer who did it.
It sounds like Trump is the Walter White of it all. He’s pushing people to break bad and some of the bad ones are already morally ambiguous, let’s be blunt. Some of them, like James Comey, he was trying to push to be bad, to be morally ambiguous, to not care about the law or ethics at all, and do what he wants.
Yeah, it was harder for him in The White House to find peace, because some of these are professional people who had careers before they ever met Donald Trump. But when he was in business he was Donald Trump, he was the Donald, he was a reality star. Michael Cohen owns taxi medallions, he’s a personal injury lawyer and he comes from Long Island, so getting to work for Donald Trump was this tremendous honor for him and he would do whatever Trump wanted, and he suspended his judgment. He said that “The Art of the Deal” is the only book he’s ever read twice. I mean, that’s the kind of person that he was.
Let’s talk more about Roy Cohn, the infamous mafia lawyer. How much do you think he’s inspired Trump?
He set the model for how Trump operated throughout the decades. When somebody confronts you, you have an opponent, you just attack mercilessly, you never admit that you’re wrong. You just keep saying what you want to be true, you make your own reality. I mean, these are the things that we see Donald Trump doing today. Roy Cohn was doing that for him in the ’70s and the ’80s. And for instance, we’ve heard from Michael Cohen about how Trump wanted him to exaggerate his wealth. I mean, we know Trump has exaggerated his wealth and Roy Cohn was doing that with him, with the Forbes list to try to make him seem more wealthy and important by creating the myth of Donald Trump. So that’s all hearkens back to Roy.
Never admit you’re wrong, declare complete victory, this is Trump. This the guy we’re dealing with right now, the “perfect phone call” guy. He’s the only guy in the world that scores his phone calls like they’re perfect. Bill Clinton apologized after being impeached by the House. He said, “I made a mistake.” Donald Trump doubles and triples down.
That’s what most people don’t realize. This is something that has been going on for decades and it’s part of how Trump made it to the presidency by using these tactics. But then he does dispose of these people if they get in trouble. If they become no longer useful to him, then he gets rid of them. Roy Cohn got sick with AIDS and Trump became embarrassed or didn’t want to deal with him. He steers cases to other lawyers instead of Cohn. Cohn was very loyal, so he didn’t publicly complain about it, but privately he would say, “Donald has ice in his veins.”
Trump is at Mar-a-Lago right before New Year’s in 2017 and he’s sitting around with a bunch of people and he’s mocking Cohn. He says, “The last time Roy was here with AIDS, right before he died, then afterward I had to fumigate all the dishes and the silverware.” One day Trump he can be nice and praising somebody and the next day he can be incredibly mean and cold-hearted.
Another character you focus on in the book is David Pecker. Tell us about Pecker, who had a long relationship with Donald Trump and played a role in helping Trump way before he ran for president in 2016.
In the book, we take readers through David Pecker’s upbringing. He’s the son of a bricklayer from the Bronx. He’s really a self-made guy. His dad died young and his sister was mentally ill, his brother also had diabetes. Pecker has to take care of the family, so he ends up becoming an accountant. While working in school, taking care of his mom and just being very savvy, good with numbers and very business oriented, he works his way up through the magazine world.
He was at the top of Hachette magazines where he’s working for the French and then eventually he takes over at the top of American Media, which owns the National Enquirer, in 1999. Pecker was a cutthroat guy in his business career and he cozied up to powerful people like Donald Trump and Ron Perelman, the investor when he was at Hachette. He killed a story for Perelman, who is an investor in Planet Hollywood and Premiere magazine. It’s actually like a precedent for catch-and-kill, which is what he’s been doing for Donald Trump.
He made friends with Trump in the ’90s actually. He’s publishing a magazine called Trump Style. They’re hanging out at Mar-a-Lago. He’s having meetings. He just kind of wants to be part of Trump’s star. One of Pecker’s guys said, “Trump style, that’s like oxymoron of the century.” And Pecker, he says, “Oh, just go sell the shit, Nick.”
If I remember correctly, did Pecker help Trump by amplifying the birther campaign?
That’s right. That was in 2011, but even before that in ’99 when Pecker first comes to the National Enquirer, they had been covering all of Trump’s affairs and Marla Maples and Ivana. Then in ’99 they stopped doing any negative stuff about Trump. Trump is thinking of running for president, so Pecker publishes a full-page ad calling him like a kajillionare. Then in 2011 he’s flirting with a run for the presidency again and Pecker runs all these fronting stories about Trump and also promoting Trump’s birtherism.
Take us to the lead up to the 2016 campaign and your reporting on Karen McDougal. You won a Pulitzer Prize for your reporting with Joe Palazzolo, your co-author, about the catch-and-kill. We have to hit the fact that it came out before the election, which stuns me because I don’t remember it. It got steamrolled.
Well, it starts in 2015 and Pecker and Michael Cohen, who also know each other, are in Trump’s office with Trump in August of 2015 and they’re deciding, OK, how can Pecker help him, and so Pecker says, I can use the National Enquirer and my other tabloids to run nice articles about you and attack your opponents, like, Hillary Clinton has six months to live, Ted Cruz’s alleged affairs, his dad is involved in the JFK killing. Also, we know there’s women that are going to come out of the woodwork and some of these tips are going to come to us because we’re the National Enquirer. Where else are they going to come? So when we get them, we can catch and kill them. We can pay people, we can bottle them up, we can prevent them from ever seeing the light of day.
Trump says, “Great, do that, and coordinate with Michael Cohen.” So they do that. Then there’s a number of incidents before we get to Karen McDougal. For one, there are these pictures that this media guy finds where Trump looks like he’s going to sign a woman’s breasts at a charity event. So the guy brings him to David Pecker and he stalls him and they never come out. Then there’s a doorman at one of the Trump buildings, who has a rumor that Trump had a love child. They ended up paying him $30,000 to lock up the story and if he ever tells anyone he has to repay them $1 million. So they kill that story. That’s in late 2015.
Then in the middle of 2016, Karen McDougal, the Playboy model, she wants to tell her story of having an affair with Trump. Well, she actually doesn’t want to tell it, but she thinks it’s going to come out, so she figures she might as well get paid for it. She actually wants to resuscitate her modeling career. So they eventually, not at first, but they negotiate with her and they eventually decide not to pay her. But Trump reaches out to Pecker and says, “Hey, can you help me take care of this please, help me out here?” She is then going to ABC News and she’s dealing with Brian Ross and Rhonda Schwartz, the investigative team there at the time. They’re going to put her on the air, and right at the last moment American Media steps in and they say, “Okay Karen we’ll pay you $150,000 to sell us the rights to your story and we’ll give you some health columns and magazine covers.” So that’s the main catch and kill, which we reported in the Wall Street Journal four days before the presidential election.
There was also an audio recording Michael Cohen secretly made and much later we found out that actually Trump and Cohen were involved with it. Much later we also found out about the Stormy Daniels deal, which was much more closely tied to Trump because Cohen paid her off through a shell company.
Let’s talk about Michael Cohen, he’s the other big fixer. Cohen’s not new to Trump world, like many of these people. He’s been around since a condo board fight in the mid-2000s.
He’s like this macho guy, although he’s not actually that tough. He’s like an upper-middle-class kid from the Five Towns of Long Island. He went to one of the worst law schools. He wants to put on a tough attitude. He has a gun in an ankle holster. He’s like showing it around.
What! I didn’t know that.
Yeah, he used to wear a gun. He actually took it out at one point at a Mitt Romney fundraiser. He basically has these two sides of his personality. One, he’s like really nice and generous to his friends and then the other one, he can be just incredibly mean, cursing people out. Like during the campaign, he says to this Daily Beast reporter, “You don’t know what the fuck I’m going to do to you if you print this story,” which was about Ivana Trump alleging that Trump raped her years ago.
He’s not a very good lawyer, so he gets this job with Trump by helping him win this condo board fight. Trump hires him and because he’s not a great lawyer, all the business stuff that he does kind of fails, but he finds his niche with Trump basically threatening people. You know when Trump needs something done that nobody else wants to do, Cohen does it. When Stormy Daniels tried to sell her story in 2011 of sleeping with Trump in 2006, Cohen calls up and says, “If you fucking print this, we’re going to sue the shit out of you.” They go away. He kills that. He composes nasty tweets against Rosie O’Donnell. He calls vendors and he says, “We’re not going to pay you, or we’re going to pay you a fraction of what you’re worth.”
Later, he’s rigging polls for Donald Trump. He’s doing all these things, but Trump doesn’t really respect him. He thinks he’s kind of a loser. Like at one time he tried to get him fired, he cut his pay in half, so it’s a little bit of an abusive relationship.
Were you surprised when Michael Cohen flipped on Trump, considering he knew everything about him? He was not able to bring Donald Trump down.
Well, it’s funny, a lot of people thought that Cohen would never flip on Trump because he said, “I will be loyal to the day I die.” He said publicly, “I’ll take a bullet for this guy.” In fact, as we report in the book, when Cohen was under investigation, he meets with these defense lawyers and they says he’s almost suicidal. He says, “I’m not going to spend one f**king day in jail, I’m going to do what I have to do.”
Cohen wants to be loyal to Trump, but Trump isn’t giving him the love back that he wants. He’s asking Rudy about getting pardons and Cohen’s kind of getting the brush-off. They’re nickel-and-diming him over his legal fees. When that happens, he gets angry and he’s just like, that’s it, I’m speaking out.
In your book, you talk about Donald Trump testifying to help Roy Cohn when he’s going to get disbarred, and he’s asked, how do you talk about Roy Cohn? And he’s like, “Loyalty’s the word.” It seems Donald Trump’s idea of loyalty is loyal to him. You have to be loyal to me 150%, and if there’s even a crack I will attack you and then dispose of you.
That’s a consistent pattern. It’s not just with these guys. I mean, there’s just people throughout Trump’s whole career, where he’ll throw them overboard when they get in trouble. He’s the only one that’s important. Even in The White House. Rex Tillerson, Jim Mattis, he hires these people in his cabinet, and they don’t publicly say anything negative, but they have disputes. They leave and then some stuff comes out and then Trump goes on Twitter and attacks them.
We have a Joe and Mika from MSNBC, they used to be friends with Trump and then they’re critical of him and he’s tweeting really nasty stuff at.them on Twitter. So whoever it is, if you’re not in the Trump camp, if you speak out, then you become the target.
Are Rudy Giuliani and Bill Barr Trump’s fixers today? Giuliani has even hinted, “Oh, Trump can’t go after me. I’ve got stuff on him.” That wasn’t joking. I think he got his clean messaging on Donald Trump, right?
Right, his surviving insurance.
Does Bill Barr think that he’s the smartest guy in the world and it won’t happen to him?
It’s hard to know. Barr has been under a lot of pressure. People are asking him to recuse himself. Rudy obviously is at the center of this impeachment inquiry, but it really depends on whether they actually will get in trouble. Rudy’s under investigation in New York for foreign lobbying, potentially, but will he get charged? Undoubtedly, Trump will say, “I have nothing to do with that.” That’s his thing. Trump was on Air Force One when he’s being asked about the Stormy Daniels payment and Trump’s like, “You have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael’s my lawyer.” Then later on he’s like, “Oh Michael wasn’t even my lawyer.”
When you look at Trump, do you consider him a bottom-feeder on some level? I’m trying to get a sense like, is he actually the smartest guy? Or is he just a slimeball like the rest of the fixers that he’s been using?
He’s at the top, but he’s been in Playboy and he loves dating models over the years and owning beauty pageants. This is the kind of life that I think most people probably don’t realize was a big part of Trump’s world. By dealing with the people who inhabit that world, that’s how he refined his tactics that he used.
It’s almost like this dark comedy of our political age, but we’re also responsible because we lap it all up, right? I mean, it’s this infusion of celebrity power in the media that’s corrupted our politics. We have given it the ratings. We watched “The Apprentice” and we loved it when Trump said, “You’re fired.” We made Donald Trump, with the help of the National Enquirer, into who he is.