The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has implications for virtually every facet of American life, domestic policy, foreign policy and, more broadly, our standing in the world. But amid very real concerns about how, exactly, he’ll decide to govern and who, exactly, he’ll enlist to help, is another worrying reality: The vast and unpalatable network of know-nothing yes-men and morally bankrupt strivers surrounding Donald Trump the Candidate didn’t vanish on Election Day, and their presence now deserves more scrutiny, as it has the potential to change more than just what we hear on cable television, but the trajectory of the next four years.
Which brings us to Corey Lewandowski.
Lewandowski is a short, nerve-ending of a man powered by energy drinks and contempt. Despite never having run a presidential campaign before, he served as Trump’s first presidential campaign manager. In that capacity, he abided by the general rule, “let Trump be Trump.” In March, he forcibly grabbed a female reporter at a campaign event in Jupiter, Florida, leaving her with bruises on her arm. He was arrested after the incident, but not prosecuted.
Lewandowski wasn’t long for the Trump campaign, at least not officially. A few months after the Jupiter incident, in June, he was fired, though he continued receiving substantial payment and remained in contact with Trump, even after being hired as a commentator by CNN. On air, he acted as an unofficial spokesman for the candidate, never uttering a critical word and often contorting himself uncomfortably to answer for his sins.
Earlier this month, just a few days after Trump’s victory, he left the cable network. The New York Times reported he’d “expressed interest in a senior adviser role in the White House.” And sure enough, he’s been seen entering Trump Tower, previously the headquarters of the Trump campaign and now the nerve center of the presidential transition.
As an informal adviser who may work in the incoming administration, he is now a reflection of an incoming president—God help us.
On Thursday, at a Harvard University confab for the political operatives who worked for Trump and his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, Lewandowski made a series of troubling statements for anyone concerned about maintaining a free press, or just a grip on reality.
“We had one of the top people at The New York Times come to Harvard University and say, ‘I’m willing to go to jail to get a copy of Donald Trump’s taxes so I can publish them,’” Lewandowski said, “Dean Baquet came here and offered to go to jail—you’re telling me, he’s willing to commit a felony on a private citizen to post his taxes, and there isn’t enough scrutiny on the Trump campaign and his business dealings and his taxes?”
He added, “it’s egregious,” and Baquet “should be in jail.”
A few problems with this: The New York Times didn’t break the law, federal or otherwise, by publishing a portion of Trump’s 1995 income tax returns, which were filed in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, which are states. As Mark Joseph Stern explained in Slate, “federal law simply doesn’t punish the disclosure of state tax returns. For that matter, neither does relevant state law: New York, New Jersey and Connecticut do not have any parallel statutes governing unauthorized publication of tax returns.”
There’s also the issue of Lewandowski being under the impression that Trump is and should be treated as “a private citizen.”
Trump hasn’t been a private citizen since Grease was in theaters. He’s been courting public attention since the late 1970s and has been a tabloid fixture since the 1980s. He’s bragged about his wealth and his sex life on the radio and in his own books. He created a lifestyle brand and starred on a reality show. He sold fucking steaks with his name on the packaging. He started openly toying with the idea of running for president in 1988, and continued to stoke the speculation all the way through 2015, when he finally announced. Lewandowski, of course, didn’t respond to a text message asking how he’d arrived at the conclusion that Trump is a private person.
Also at the conference, Lewandowsi made it a point to complain that the media took Trump “literally,” as if the words of a presidential candidate and now president-elect should be interpreted sarcastically unless instructed otherwise.
“This is the problem with the media,” he said, “You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally. The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes, when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar, you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.”
Of course, Trump never said things without “all the facts to back it up” at a dinner table or a bar (he claims he doesn’t even drink!), but on debate stages, in nationally televised interviews and at rallies, where he often read off a teleprompter.
As to how this works practically in a White House, it’s anyone’s guess. If President Trump orders the military to bomb a country, should they assume he means it in some abstract rhetorical way—should they just tweet at the country’s leaders instead? What if they follow orders and bomb the country, will Trump claim it was a mistake, since he was just fucking around? Can President Trump assume a position of real authority at home or in the world if his own lackeys maintain that his words—arguably one of the most vital tools a president has—have no meaning?
It sure will be fun to find out.
Lewandowski isn’t the only Trump-adjacent figure to suggest something like this—not even the only one in the last 48 hours.
On a radio show on Wednesday, Scottie Nell Hughes, a CNN contributor and Trump surrogate, said that reality no longer exists. “One thing that’s been interesting this campaign season to watch is that people that say facts are facts—they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way —it’s kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water,” she said. “Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There’s no such thing, unfortunately anymore, of facts. And so Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd—a large part of the population—are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some facts—amongst him and his supporters—and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and there’s no facts to back it up.”
What will it mean to have Corey Lewandowski in a position of influence in a presidential administration? And what will it mean for the Scottie Nell Hugheses and Katrina Piersons of the world to be spinning what will become state-sanctioned propaganda on cable airwaves?
Those who know Trump say he’s most influenced by whoever was the last person to talk to him, and the last person to talk to him often did so through the television, his biggest obsession.
That means even the supporting characters—the people with less obvious sway than Steve Bannon or Jared Kushner—have a chance to affect his thinking, and thus the country.