Timothy L. O'Brien

Why So Many of Trump’s People Just Can’t Resist Him

Each episode of the true-crime drama currently airing from Room 390 of the Cannon House Office Building in Washington has offered variations on a theme: Former President Donald Trump used the powers of his office, and blunt force, to foment a coup after losing the 2020 presidential election.

The plot twists have largely involved how individuals or institutions responded to Trump’s entreaties to commit crimes. The fifth day of testimony overseen by the bipartisan congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol focused on a trio of Justice Department lawyers who did the right thing when Trump cracked his whip — and one who didn’t.

As Trump was trying to corrupt the nation’s leading law enforcement agency by forcing its attorneys to help fabricate evidence of electoral fraud — and launch an investigation of the bogus claim — former acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and two of his deputies, Richard Donoghue and Steven Engel, resisted. That perplexed Trump.

“Just say that the election was corrupt and leave the rest to me and the Republican congressmen,” was Trump’s guidance to the lawyers, according to Donoghue’s testimony. But a lower-level Justice Department lawyer, Jeffrey Clark, was eager to do Trump’s bidding (apparently in exchange for Trump naming him attorney general). What made Clark so pliable?

Clark was “willing to ignore the facts” and do whatever Trump “wanted him to do, including overthrowing a free and fair democratic election,” said Representative Adam Kinzinger, a Republican member of the Jan. 6 committee. (Federal law enforcement agents raided Clark’s home on Wednesday and led him out of the house in his pajamas, so more evidence of his intentions might be forthcoming.)

But Clark’s behavior has a broader lesson. It’s evidence of Trump’s peculiar magnetism for grifters — and a reminder of the kind of corruption that will return to the White House if he isn’t held accountable for his coup attempt and finds a path back to the Oval Office in 2024.

For most of his 76 years, Trump has attracted operators, wannabes and seemingly strait-laced people who, once they enter his orbit, become unusually craven. It happened when he was an aspiring real estate and casino mogul, when he was a reality-TV celebrity and, with much greater and lasting consequence, when he was president.

Michael Cohen, a former Trump lawyer and enforcer, is someone who well understands Trump as manipulator. He is familiar with the triggers that Trump is able to pull when he so desires. I gave Cohen a call to ask him about what lessons he drew from Thursday’s congressional hearing — and what life is like as a Trump co-dependent.

“I believe that everyone in Trump’s inner circle are all fundamentally missing something in their lives. For me, I had just come off a series of health issues when I was asked to join the Trump Organization. I had missed the excitement,” Cohen told me. “There’s an excitement in being around the celebrity of Donald Trump. He has a great ability to make those around him feel that they’re part of that moment — even if it’s not for a good thing.”

“It’s intoxicating,” he continued. “Until things go bad with Trump, then they go really bad. Ultimately, those who were his inner circle all end up having their lives turned upside down. And for what, for who?”

Cohen got tripped up when he bribed two women to stay quiet about their sexual encounters with Trump. He served prison time for campaign finance violations tied to the payments, and for tax and bank fraud. Cohen said he was merely doing what he was told. Trump was never charged with wrongdoing over the hush money.

“Trump doesn’t make requests of people. He gives orders,” he said. “To refuse the task as directed by Trump would result in an immediate termination.” Of course, the White House is a far larger and more powerful stage than the Trump Organization, he acknowledged. “Nevertheless, it was a similar dynamic.”

There is a long parade of people, past and present, who have indulged their inner Donalds once the former president tapped them on the shoulder. Some of them were already steeped in the dark arts: Roy Cohn, Roger Stone and Steve Bannon come to mind. Others went rogue once Trump showed them the way. Jeffrey Clark counts as one of those, I think. The Jan. 6 hearings have proven that lots of others joined Clark’s ranks during Trump’s White House years.

The list of Trump’s corruptibles may include several Republican legislators. Representatives Andy Biggs, Mo Brooks, Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Scott Perry all lobbied Trump for presidential pardons after the Jan. 6 siege, according to hearing testimony. Perhaps none of them did anything wrong, but people don’t typically seek a pre-emptive presidential pardon unless they believe they might be charged with a crime.

Whatever comes of the Jan. 6 hearings, at least two things are already evident. First, there was a clear line between those who knew right from wrong in the Trump presidency, and those who didn’t. Second, Trump made a home in the White House for legions of lawyers, legislators and lackeys inclined to grift — or even undermine democracy. That was to be expected. After all, Trump has spent a lifetime recruiting those kinds of people.