Loyalty has long been a core value for President Donald Trump. But he’s learning the hard way that in politics, it doesn’t always last.
Cohen, the president’s former personal attorney, this week implicated the president in a stunning plea deal. Days later, word surfaced that David Pecker, a longtime Trump friend and media boss, also was cooperating with prosecutors.
Taking the Cohen news as a personal betrayal, Trump criticized his longtime fixer for “flipping,” saying on “Fox and Friends” that such double-crossers “make up things” to get reduced prison time and become “a national hero.”
The defection of Cohen, who had once grandly declared he would “take a bullet” for the president, was deeply troubling to Trump. And the lawyer is just one in a series of former Trump loyalists who have distanced themselves from the president, intent on saving themselves in a series of nasty legal and political battles. The growing list includes Pecker, former White House staffer Omarosa Manigault Newman and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Pecker, a Trump confidant and chief executive of the company that publishes the National Enquirer, was granted immunity by federal prosecutors in exchange for providing information in the criminal investigation into hush payments made by Cohen on Trump’s behalf before the 2016 election, media outlets reported Thursday.
A senior White House official said the president was undoubtedly frustrated and surprised by the latest developments, particularly campaign finance-related charges against Cohen, as evidenced by Trump’s tweets and public statements. But the official disputed the notion that the president was visibly upset over the news. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions, said Trump carried out his normal complement of meetings Thursday and bantered as usual with staff and lawmakers who were at the White House.
The official said Trump and his aides have grown accustomed to being smacked with bad news when they look up at the television — and their reactions are more muted than when Trump first took office.
But Manigault Newman, a former contestant on “The Apprentice,” outraged the president last week with the release of a tell-all book and series of secretly recorded audiotapes, as she accused Trump of being racist and suffering from a mental decline.
Trump is still stung by the decision of Flynn, his first national security adviser, to plead guilty to lying to the FBI last year about his contacts with a Russian official in exchange for cooperating with authorities in the probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller.
And he was irate when former strategist Steve Bannon was quoted in Michael Wolff’s book, “Fire and Fury,” as saying it was “treasonous” for Donald Trump Jr. and others to meet during the 2016 campaign with a Russian attorney who claimed to have incriminating information about Hillary Clinton.
Yet no other administration figure has caused Trump more agitation than Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who infuriated the president by recusing himself from the Mueller investigation. Trump re-ignited his feud with the former Alabama senator Thursday by complaining in the Fox interview that Sessions “never took control of the Justice Department.”
“He took the job and then he said I’m going to recuse myself. I said, ‘What kind of a man is this?’ And by the way, he was on the campaign. You know the only reason I gave him the job because I felt loyalty, he was an original supporter,” Trump said.
Sessions responded that he and his department “will not be improperly influenced by political considerations,” adding to tension over his decision to recuse himself. People close to the president said they were not aware of any immediate plans to dismiss Sessions, at least before the midterm elections.
Throughout his time in office, Trump has demanded dramatic shows of fealty.
When then-FBI Director James Comey met with Trump early in the administration, he said the president asked him if he wanted to stay in his role and declared: “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.” Trump fired Comey months later.
During an early Cabinet meeting, Trump’s team appeared to compete to praise the president the most. Then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus stated, “We thank you for the opportunity and blessing to serve your agenda.”
Before entering politics, Trump ran his business with a close circle of advisers, including his children, and during his campaign he leaned heavily on a handful of aides. He has long viewed loyalty as paramount.
Trump has openly mused about the need for another Roy Cohn, the larger-than-life New York attorney who guided the future president in New York’s media and real estate landscape during the 1970s. But for someone who insisted on ironclad loyalty, those types of friendships have only gone so far in Washington.
Trump has groused privately that his top attorney in the Mueller probe, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, was in Scotland for a golf vacation when the Cohen and Manafort news broke.
Trump told “Fox and Friends” that for “30, 40 years I’ve been watching flippers. Everything’s wonderful and then they get 10 years in jail and they — they flip on whoever the next highest one is, or as high as you can go.”
The president said the decision by those under legal scrutiny to cooperate with prosecutors “almost ought to be illegal.”
“They go from 10 years to they’re a national hero,” he said. “They have a statue erected in their honor. It’s not a fair thing.”