Donald Trump’s Most Audacious Loyalty Test Ever

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This hinge-of-history week kicked off with the leak of audio of Donald Trump asking Georgia’s secretary of state to illicitly reverse the results of an election that he lost. It continued with a rally he used principally to traffic in conspiracy theories while unabashedly pressuring his own vice president to side with him instead of the Constitution or even simply facts. Now, on the eve of a no-longer-rote certification of the Electoral College vote, the outgoing president is demanding that Republicans in Congress go on record to say whether they’re more loyal to him than to the nation’s bedrock principles.

Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney and fixer, whose fealty landed him in prison, feels like he’s watching a reprise of his own demise.

“I warned them,” he told me.

“I warned Mark Meadows at my oversight hearing. I warned the Jim Jordans,” he said, referring to his congressional testimony from less than two years ago as well as Trump’s current chief of staff and other notably pro-Trump GOP House members. His message: “I know what you’re doing. I know the Trump game plan, because I wrote it, and it didn’t work out for me. And it’s not going to work out for you.”

“Donald Trump,” he said, “will push people to the brink, and unless they want to end up disbarred and imprisoned and financially ruined, like what Trump did to me, they better open their eyes.”


The specifics of this particular moment are without doubt newly alarming—never, needless to say, has he attempted quite so overtly to subvert American democracy—but this also is merely the latest turn to a well-worn page of the old Trump playbook.

He is gauging the strength of devotion to him by demanding that others perform ethically suspect, legally murky activities that accrue to his immediate benefit, while often causing lasting trouble for everybody else. What Trump does in the end is make people make a choice. For him or against him? In or out? Yes or no? Pick.

“He’s doing to everything what he’s been doing to everything since he was 20 years old,” biographer Tim O’Brien told me. “He is trying to bend people to serve his short-term interests. And he doesn’t care about any other outcome as long as it involves self-aggrandizement and self-preservation.”

“This is about democracy, and we know he doesn’t care about it—we’ve known that for a long time,” former Trump casino executive Jack O’Donnell told me. “But he’s dragging people along with him.”

“It surprises me how easily he can corrupt people around him,” O’Brien said. “Continues to surprise me.”

It’s been going on, after all, for going on half a century. In New York, New Jersey and beyond, in business, political and media circles, in the nexus of the three that served as the petri dish for the persona he stoked, people have been making versions of this decision for decades: with Trump or not?

O’Brien ticked off some quick examples: Abe Beame, the mayor of New York in the mid-‘70s, played along, facilitating an unprecedented tax break to grease Trump’s career-launching hotel renovation in midtown Manhattan—but Ed Koch, Beame’s successor, did not, thwarting similar tactics in Trump’s efforts to develop a prized plot of land on the Upper West Side and engaging in a running public spat. Page Six of the New York Post and other gossip columnists and tabloid reporters played along—but other journalists, like Wayne Barrett, for instance, who were less interested in the gloss than the grift, did not. Ditto for banks: Following Trump’s self-inflicted implosion of the early ’90s, most of them stopped lending to him—but not Deutsche Bank.

It’s happened so much and for so long and with such consistency that anybody with better than a beginner’s grasp of Trump’s past saw all this happening—saw it happening even before he was elected—and could see on the harrowing horizon the perilous juncture at hand.

“He’s a predatory personality,” O’Brien told me and Susan Glasser in October 2016, saying he’d been “almost polluting everything he’s touched” in his initial campaign.

The leaders of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project forecast the binary dynamics of this week in an op-ed last October: “… your time for choosing will arrive,” Stuart Stevens, Rick Wilson, Steve Schmidt and Reed Galen wrote. “Every Republican elected official, staffer, consultant, operative and sympathizer will face a choice: my party or my country?”


And there that choice was this weekend, audible and explicit, in Trump’s call with Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, and Ryan Germany, his office’s general counsel. “Fellas, I need 11,000 votes,” Trump told them, his comments laced with thinly veiled insults and threats. “I just want to find 11,780 votes,” he said at another point.” Raffensperger and Germany let him talk—and held firm. “Mr. President,” Raffensperger said, “the challenge that you have is the data you have is wrong.” The messed-with voting machines? The ballots shredded or burned? All these baseless claims of “phony”-election fraud? “That’s not accurate, Mr. President,” Germany said. “No,” he said. Out.

And there the choice was again at last night’s rally in north Georgia—yes, in, from Senator Kelly Loeffler, yes, in, from QAnon conspiracy theorist and freshly sworn-in congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene—and Trump’s utterly unsubtle squeeze of Utah Senator Mike Lee (“I’m a little angry at him …” for not supporting the plan to contest the certification) and Mike Pence with his role on Wednesday firmly in mind (“I hope that our great vice president, our great vice president, comes through for us. He’s a great guy. If he doesn’t come through, I won’t like him quite as much …”). Come through for us—me or the more than 81 million people who voted for Joe Biden.

There have been such outrageous demands throughout Trump’s term, and the results have been plain: He leaned on James Comey, who said no and was fired; he leaned on Jeff Sessions, who didn’t say yes emphatically enough and was made to resign. But in this eleventh-hour, symbolic moment, when it is Trump who’s headed for the exits, he’s making his most outrageous demand of all—and there’s a roster as always of those who are willing to submit.

“We knew this would happen,” Galen, one of the authors of the October op-ed, told me the other day. “We said a lot of these guys would cross the Rubicon.”

“He never expected when he dialed that number that he would be on the phone with Raffensperger for an hour. He believed he was going to call him, Raffensperger would acquiesce, he would go back upstairs, have some ice cream and turn on the news,” Cohen told me as we discussed Trump’s call. “In his mind, he sees himself as the Kim Jong Un of the United States, thinking if Kim Jong Un in North Korea told a Raffensperger-type individual, ‘Find me the 11,700 votes,’ what do you think would happen?”

Wednesday’s proceedings will end with Biden certified as the 46th president. It might take considerably longer than usual, but ultimately this will end the way it always does. Trump will lose. If history holds, however, the people who sided with him will lose more.

“Each of the Republicans that have signed on to Trump’s chaos are not doing it out of loyalty to Trump,” Cohen said. “They’re not doing it because they even believe in what Trump is doing. They’re doing it because they fear his Twitter wrath and believe that the supporters, the base of Trump supporters, will vote against them in any upcoming election for not siding with Trump. This is more about their survival than anything else. And that’s sad and pathetic.”

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