When Donald Trump was caught on a hot mic talking with Billy Bush, much of the world looked on in horror at the graphic way in which he bragged about committing acts of sexual assault. But it was another part of the audio—the part where he shared his secret for evading culpability—that truly revealed the underpinnings of his worldview.
“When you're a star,” Trump said, “they let you do it.”
As the inheritor of a major real estate enterprise, Trump has been a star—more or less—since the day he was born. And he has expanded on that stardom throughout his career, even managing to be a headline-grabber when his fortune vanished and his marriages crumbled. Through it all, they let him do it. The banks with which he did business bailed him out; the newspapers that recognized the hollowness of his self-constructed image ran his tips; the network that had incriminating recordings of him off-camera on his top-rated show kept them secret.
One of the great gambles Trump made was that this particular brand of stardom could be translated into politics. And, largely, he was right. No one in the Republican Party stood up to him as he championed the birther movement. No one in the party took him on directly as he launched his campaign railing about Mexicans being rapists. And though Republicans reacted in horror to his mocking of John McCain, Megyn Kelly, a gold star mother, and the Billy Bush tape, they eventually got over it—as Trump knew they would. He was, after all, their star. They’d let him do it.
But being president has proven fundamentally challenging to that basic life ethos. And if Trump needed proof of that, it has come this week in what can only be described as the most harrowing and dangerous moment of his presidency.
Trump is on track to be impeached. In doing so, he will become just the fourth person to occupy his office who has ever faced that fate.
That, of course, would be alarming in and of itself. But it is the manner in which it is all transpiring that must be proving so unnerving and unfamiliar to him. A whistleblower from within his administration has decided to speak out about—what appear at first blush to be—illegal and unscrupulous acts involving the president calling a foreign leader, encouraging him to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, and then having the record of that conversation hid away.
The contents of the complaint were not just produced by one alarmed person choosing to speak out, however. Instead, they were described and detailed to the whistleblower by several White House aides who, it is presumed, shared similar fears.
On Thursday, Trump’s own director of national intelligence affirmed that the complaint was credible. He also called the crisis presented before the country unprecedented, leaving the impression that he too was a bit shaken by the totality of it all.
That same morning, videos of Trump’s speech to the U.S. mission at the United Nations and his address to a private fundraiser at a swank Manhattan restaurant were both quickly leaked to the press. And not because they showed the president in a fine light. Instead, he was caught ruminating about his desire to see the whistleblower executed like treasonous spies in days of old. That night, Trump’s private attorney, Rudy Giuliani, ran one of the more harebrained CYA moves in recent memory by sharing text messages implicating the State Department in the president’s scheme to pressure the Ukrainians. And by the next day, the official whom he was texting—Trump’s envoy to Ukraine—quit.
Before then, came other revelations: that Trump had records of his call with Vladimir Putin and Mohammed Bin Salman hidden and that he’d casually mentioned to his “China whisperer” that he’d like to see if he too could get Biden dirt. And later that evening came, perhaps, the most alarming news break of all. The Washington Post published another story on another private meeting with another set of world leaders—this time involving Trump telling senior Russian officials that he was unconcerned about Moscow’s meddling in 2016 elections.
There have been famous leaks before, including many of far more significance and historical weight than these. But rarely has a president been so under siege from within. For Trump—who is used to living in an insular world created by his media ingenuity and relentless efforts at self-promotion—the lack of control must feel petrifying.
And yet, the threats from within are the ones that are easier to handle right now. It’s those coming from outside the White House that are existential. Though some Trumpworld figures may believe otherwise, House Democrats are not bluffing in their impeachment push. They are firm in their desire to see it done and to see it done with as much pain applied to the president as they can muster.
Just on Friday, they demanded records from Trump’s budget office as to why it delayed congressionally authorized military aid payments to Ukraine and subpoenaed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for answers about what Foggy Bottom knew about Rudy’s travails. There are plans to talk in closed session to the inspector general of the Intelligence Community and to bring Kurt Volker, the recently resigned U.S. special representative for Ukraine, in as well. Eventually, they will come asking for the documents we now know Trump tried to hide. And if he doesn’t disclose them, it will be portrayed—perhaps accurately—as a cover-up.
Faced with this mortal threat, Trump’s plan seems to be to simply tweet through it. A senior White House official told The Daily Beast that he explicitly said he doesn’t want a war room created to handle impeachment. And even if he did, who would staff it? Many of the people initially brought into the White House have left on poor terms. And those who would be comfortable being brought back are not trusted. It’s not surprising that the source for Friday night’s story in The Post was “three former officials.”
Certainly, Trump may find his way through this. He remains a star, after all, among his base of supporters. And in a Senate run by Republicans worried about being primaried this cycle, that seems like enough to see him through a trial that would follow the House’s impeachment. But even then, this week has provided a jarring and potentially crippling lesson for a president who isn’t particularly keen on making personal adjustment. There are, Trump’s discovering, limits to what your stardom will allow you to do.