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President Donald Trump has spent his final weeks in office much as he has the preceding years: setting fire to the relationships that buttressed his rise to power.
Over the past few days, the president has floated primaries against top-ranking Republicans, pushed out administration officials who were bedrock allies, threatened major bills crafted in conjunction with his team, and turned on officials who won’t help him cling to power. Inside the White House, the response to it all has been growing alarm, coupled with resignation that this is the 45th U.S. president’s modus operandi. Trump’s profound self-interest is no secret. But never has that trait been so visible against a backdrop this consequential, with his legal team and administration’s attack on democratic processes so blatantly anti-democratic.
“The president spent much of the Christmas weekend [at Mar-a-Lago] talking about other Republicans who weren’t doing what he wanted and acting like failures and defeatists,” said one person present at his private Florida club who was on the receiving end of his grievances. Even behind closed doors, the source said, “he was not finding much to be happy about this Christmas.”
But Trump’s actions raise questions about his future as well. And they have illuminated—once more—the fundamental paradox behind his political rise: How can someone burn so many bridges and not eventually find himself alone?
“He is no longer the celebrity mogul magnate as he was in New York, and now he is part of… that exclusive Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush [one term president] club,” said Sam Nunberg, a Trump supporter and former political adviser. “He has gone from handling this in a manner that would have helped him keep this power base that he had to now going through conspiracy theories and giving over the portfolio to two bumbling morons in Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell… You don’t want to go out like this with him. It’s not like you’re in a bunker at the end of WWII. You’re in Crazy Town.”
Trump has always fashioned himself as a bit of an iconoclast. His brashness stood out even in 1980s New York City. His love of attention made him gauche among his contemporaries. He first considered running for president as an independent. And even when he secured the Republican Party’s nomination, it was under the framework of a hostile takeover.
One surprise of his time in office is that he stuck so firmly to a traditional Republican agenda. But Trump was never truly part of the party, at least not in any way recognizable to somebody like his second-in-command Mike Pence. Nor was he a traditional politician. He showed no loyalty to his aides or fellow GOP lawmakers, or his cabinet members. He fired people over Twitter, mocked his GOP detractors, ran off his apostates, and chastised leadership when they weren’t acquiescent.
And yet, even by those standards, the past few days have struck insiders as shocking for their destructiveness. Trump has attacked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) for conceding Joe Biden is president-elect; he’s threatened to primary Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) for not going along with efforts to block the election’s certification; he drove off Attorney General Bill Barr for not doing enough to tilt the election with department resources; he’s turned on his White House counsel Pat Cipollone for not supporting authoritarian initiatives like impounding voting machines; and he cut a deal to give Morocco annexation of the Western Sahara in part out of retribution against Sen. James Inhofe (an opponent of annexation), who wouldn’t use a major defense bill to go after social media giants like Trump wanted. He’s attacked the Republican leadership in Georgia right as the state gets ready for a runoff election that could determine control of the U.S. Senate.
Most recently, he took a torch to a COVID-relief bill negotiated by his own treasury secretary and threatened not to sign a government funding bill for provisions that largely matched the requests his own budget office made. And to those who’ve complained that his behavior has been erratic and deeply problematic, he’s extended two giant middle fingers.
“I don’t care,” Trump privately said in the past few days of conservative criticism of his opposition to the funding bills, according to two people familiar with the matter. Instead Trump has accused his GOP stalwarts of not doing enough for him, the sources said. One person who spoke to Trump recounted gently reminding the president that his move on the relief legislation might make life harder for his Republican allies in D.C. and in Georgia, only to have Trump respond by saying (as this source paraphrased), “Well, that’s life.” The president then quickly pivoted to grousing about how these elected Republicans should be focusing more on 2020 election “fraud” and overturning Joe Biden’s clear victory, and complaining that they weren’t fighting aggressively enough or holding a united front on this, the source relayed.
That Trump would disregard his party and turn on top aides in a time of duress surely couldn’t have been a surprise to those on the short end of the exchange. Few, if any, relationships with Trump end in a place better than where they started.
Take Nunberg. When he joined Trump’s campaign, it was despite the fact that Trump had—in his words—“screwed my father’s firm out of money.” But bygones can be bygones, and Nunberg said he saw something historic in what Trump was doing. So he got on board. And, for a while, it worked. Until it didn’t. He was fired after racist Facebook posts were unearthed on his page. He claimed they weren’t his at the time, but later apologized for the posts in an interview with MSNBC.
The Trump campaign was quick to distance themselves from Nunberg, and Trump sued his former campaign aide for $10 million in 2016, claiming he’d violated a confidentiality agreement by speaking to the press. The two settled the lawsuit later that same year.
Looking back now, Nunberg believes Trump “ruined my career.” And he won’t be the only one either, he predicts. “Hope Hicks,” he said, “should have stayed at Fox [Corps].” Corey Lewandowski, he predicted of the one-time 2016 Trump campaign manager and his nemesis, “will be back to being a low piece of rent in New Hampshire in no piece of time.”
Others have even less certain futures. Top administration officials such as John McEntee and Dan Scavino have operated in the Trump White House with vast amounts of influence, with the former serving as the president’s purge-leader, the latter one of Trump’s most trusted advisers and a conductor of much of the in-house social media and MAGA messaging. Both are avatars of the Republican operator who at this point is so tied to the outgoing president that it is hard to imagine their public lives without him as a vehicle. Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, suffered notable public infamy after being pushed aside from his post and when police were summoned to his home. Other aides have been forced to endure legal drama—and the massive bills they’ve entailed—political isolation, and uncertain returns to the private sector. Some have been pardoned in recent days. But those pardons carry a strain of infamy with them.
Nunberg, for his part, couldn’t explain why it was that people are drawn to Trump knowing the damage he will cause them. Some, he suspected, want the proximity of power. Others believe they can shape him. Many see money to be made from it. But much of it was a mystery.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know,” said Nunberg. “I was the one who was mistreated worse out of anyone.”