“Hundreds of guys depended on Paulie, and he got a piece of everything they made. It was tribute, just like the old country, except they were doing it in America.”
That line comes from “Goodfellas,” a description of how all the mobsters in the movie had to kick up part of their earnings to the boss. It’s also how the president of the United States operates.
Like Paulie, President Trump doesn’t have to issue demands and orders. He tells you how it’s going to be — and most of the time he doesn’t even have to say it out loud — and how it’s going to be is that you’re going to put cash in his pocket.
That accomplishes two of Trump’s goals. It gives him the thing he values above all else — money — and it also shows him how much you’re willing to grovel before him.
Last week, we learned that Attorney General William P. Barr has booked Trump’s hotel in Washington for a 200-person holiday party, likely spending $30,000 of his own money for Trump’s benefit. You might think that unseemly for the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, but in the GOP it has become almost mandatory to hold events at Trump properties so the boss can dip his beak. Republican campaigns and organizations have spent nearly $5 million at Trump properties since he took office.
People who are not directly beholden to Trump, like other world leaders, have to be forced to pay tribute, which is why Trump wants the next Group of Seven meeting to be held at his struggling Doral golf resort in Florida, both for the direct revenue and the brand-enhancement opportunity.
And now we have another example, one that features not only Trump’s self-dealing but a case of lickspittlery so pathetic it could involve only the vice president:
Vice President Pence’s top aide said Tuesday that Pence and members of his traveling entourage are staying at a golf resort in Ireland owned by President Trump at Trump’s suggestion. But he defended an arrangement that Democrats have criticized as enriching the president, citing logistical concerns.
Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff, told reporters traveling with Pence aboard Air Force Two that the Trump International Golf Links & Hotel was “the one facility” that could accommodate the size of the delegation traveling with Pence in Doonbeg, a village from which Pence’s family hails. The hotel has 120 rooms.
Yes, it’s the only facility in the entire nation of Ireland that could accommodate Pence’s delegation! That’s completely believable.
Trump’s resort is almost 150 miles from Dublin, where Pence will be attending meetings. He’ll have to fly between the two. But we’re supposed to believe there wasn’t a single hotel nearer to where he’s conducting his official business where he could have stayed?
How did this come about? Here’s the farcical exchange between reporters and Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short:
It wasn’t a request, like a command. It was just a suggestion. As though Trump would suggest to Pence — who treats his boss with a servile obsequiousness that is truly unmatched — and Pence would reply, “Thanks for the suggestion, sir, but it’s really not convenient, so I’ll stay somewhere in Dublin.”
Not only that, the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman tweeted that “Short messaged me to say Pence is ‘personally paying all family expenses,’” whatever that involves. The point isn’t that the taxpayers might save a few thousand dollars, but that Pence will have to open his own wallet so Trump can make a few more bucks.
Everybody knows how things work in the Trump era, and they aren’t even ashamed to say it out loud. As one senior administration official recently told Politico about the scandals surrounding Trump’s inauguration, “The president was really surprised to read all about the inauguration and who was trying to buy access and how, because the president doesn’t get any of that money.” Had people been paying him for access, it apparently would have been a different story.
Ironically, the kind of shameless boot-licking displayed by Pence and others exists alongside a widespread contempt for the president among those who work for him. White House officials regularly describe the president as a buffoon and a fool, using terms like “moron” (then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson), “idiot” (then-Chief of Staff John F. Kelly), and “like an 11-year-old child” (Stephen K. Bannon). They whisper to reporters about his preposterous ideas and describe a staff that’s never sure whether it should follow his bizarre orders.
And yet he demands not only direct financial payments whenever possible but also a kind of performative sycophancy, so that you know you’re nothing but a toady and so does everyone else.
Many previous presidents have inspired devotion among those close to them, and regardless of whether you found it deserved, there was little doubt that the reverence with which Barack Obama or George W. Bush was regarded by many of their aides was sincere. In Trump’s case, however, those around him know exactly who he is, but they also know that like some mad king, he requires regular displays of submission — and monetary payment.
We all know this about Trump, and have for some time. But it also illuminates the character of those who willingly place themselves in the service of someone so corrupt, so venal, so insecure. If Pence runs for president four years from now, it’s something no one should forget.
Dana Milbank: Is Trump a president or a timeshare salesman?
James Downie: Mike Pence is just helpless
Greg Sargent: Behind Trump’s craziness, there’s always corruption. Here’s the latest.
Paul Waldman: No institution of government is safe from Trump’s corrupting influence
Catherine Rampell: We don’t know what Trump’s tax returns are hiding. But the hints are troubling.
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