Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author with Peter Eisner of “The Shadow President: The Truth About Mike Pence.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The brief video portion at the start of a cell phone recording made public Friday by the formerly pro-Trump schemer Lev Parnas shows a posh dining room at the Trump International Hotel – heavy drapes, massive molding, thick carpet. You might describe it as country club classic, a motif that seems to cling to Trump properties.
Once Trump arrives and the phone is set down, the audio reveals a President who can speak with more coherence than we hear from him in public, but whose talking points and jokes don’t vary much from his greatest hits. The moment that has made news finds President Donald Trump ordering that America’s ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, be fired because Parnas tells him she dissed the President.
However, the recording also offers not only a new window into a world of sycophants and operators, but also disturbing proof that the President is just as narcissistic, erratic and ill-informed in private as he is in public. In this April 30, 2018 audio you can hear him: still bragging about his election win, even though it’s 18 months in the past; offering an inflated estimate of America’s trade deficit with China; and speaking with such optimism about his effort to bring North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to heel that he seems, in retrospect, delusional.
He’s even wrong when offering small talk about golf, saying the US plays the British in the Ryder Cup when, in fact, it’s a European team. And he echoes nutty conspiracy theories about the so-called “Deep State” hiding vast amounts of negative information about his political opponents.
The private Trump also seems as obsessed as the public one when it comes to powerful women who oppose him, as he insults both Hillary Clinton and Rep. Maxine Waters (“I said ‘she’s a very low IQ person’ … you don’t hear from her anymore. It’s the craziest thing; since I’ve said that I don’t hear from her anymore.”) Like the public Trump, the private one also lies about America’s share of the NATO budget, pegging it at 90% when it’s really 22%.
He also babbles about drug dealers who would somehow hurl 100-pound bags of drugs over border walls and might, like the Roadrunner wielding an anvil against Wylie Coyote, kill border agents on the others side. (“Can you imagine that you get hit with 100 pounds of drugs?” he asks, as the room breaks up.)
Indeed, the talk at the dinner, which was held for high-roller donors to a pro-Trump political action group, was punctuated with the kind of loaded, strained laughter you hear from people nervously responding to a boss’s lame jokes.
Everyone worked hard to agree with Trump, even when he wasn’t seeking agreement. The commentary was quieter but no less bonkers than what you might hear at one of the President’s rallies or from a fact-challenged right-wing media panel. The main difference can be heard in the special pleadings of businesspeople who seem to think that their donations, which got them invited to sit at the table, entitle them to offer advice or insights.
One by one the businesspeople asked whether Trump might, for example, schedule a North Korea summit at a particular locale or do something about steel prices or trucking costs. The problems of the industry that supplies compressed natural gas for vehicles are discussed at length, as are the difficulties of the marijuana business in states where it is legal to grow, sell and use it. Business has long sought favors from presidents but to hear how it’s done here is a lesson in how money provides access to power in the Trump administration.
The recording reveals that Parnas — the indicted associate of Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani — complained that his effort to get into the notoriously corrupt energy business in Ukraine was being hampered by America’s ambassador in Kiev, Marie Yovanovitch. As he put it, “the biggest problem there I think, where you need to start, is we gotta get rid of the ambassador. She’s still left over from the Clinton administration.”
“The ambassador to Ukraine?” asked Trump.
“Yeah,” answered Parnas. “She’s basically walking around telling everybody, ‘wait, he’s going to get impeached, just wait.’”
With his complaint, which he deftly attached to a comment that would inflame a thin-skinned Trump, Parnas seemed to light a fuse. Although the President didn’t promise to take action on behalf of the others at the dinner, after Parnas talked, Trump said, “Get rid of her. Get her out tomorrow. I don’t care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. Ok? Do it.” As he said this someone in the room clapped as if applauding the decisive way Trump appeared to give Parnas what he wanted.
Parnas has said that when Trump issued his dinner-party order he was addressing a White House aide named John DeStefano. If true, this would mean that the President wasn’t just speaking to entertain those at the table. In Parnas’ version of events, DeStefano seemed to take Trump seriously, as he noted that leadership at the State Department was in transition, with the departure of Secretary Rex Tillerson and the arrival of his replacement Mike Pompeo.
As the world knows by now, Parnas and Giuliani would work tirelessly to get rid of Yovanovitch, but the mission would not be accomplished for another year. Her dismissal would become part of a larger scandal in which Trump pressured the government of Ukraine to announce an investigation of his political rivals and applied pressure on Ukraine by holding up funding for its war against Russian proxies. The President’s impeachment, for which he is on trial in the Senate, hinged on these events.
In releasing the recording, and in making public other evidence that seems to incriminate Trump, Parnas seems to be attempting to gain credit as he, himself, faces criminal charges for alleged campaign finance violations related to the overall scandal (he has pleaded not guilty). He has also apologized for bad mouthing Yovanovitch. However in these acts, he had not erased his past performance as someone who seemed hellbent on helping Trump and himself, through activities that included paying big money for a place at Trump’s table where he could ask for help.
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The implications of the recording are worse for Trump, who denies knowing the man today, even as photos and other evidence emerge to show he was with him a number of times. (At the dinner Parnas shows he’s familiar with Trump’s appetite for flattery when he is heard apparently bestowing a gift (“from the head rabbi in Ukraine,” he says). “It’s like messiah is the person that’s come to save the whole world,” he says. “So it’s like you’re the savior of the Ukraine.”
It’s bad enough if, as it seems, Trump was willing to fire the ambassador to help out someone he knows well. It’s worse if he was willing to do it for someone he doesn’t know, but who just happened to buy himself a spot at the dinner table.