Some of us spent a good part of 2016 arguing that Donald Trump was a con man. He had spent much of his career pulling grifts on unsuspecting victims, whether it was the enrollees at Trump University, customers of the multivitamin pyramid scheme called the “Trump Network” (bet you forgot about that one), or small businesspeople from whom he bought goods and services and then stiffed on the bill. Now he was pulling his biggest con of all on the voters, and too many of them were getting fooled.
But guess what: Now Donald Trump is the mark. He’s the one being manipulated. He turns out to be the biggest sucker in town.
The thing about a con man is that in order to be successful, he has to have some understanding of human nature—what motivates people, where their vulnerabilities are, and how they can be manipulated. Which is what makes Trump’s success as a grifter somewhat unusual—he possesses little apparent human empathy, yet he made huge amounts of money taking advantage of people’s confidence in him and his alleged ability to make them rich. All it took was an understanding of that most base of motivations: greed, which he himself possessed in limitless quantity.
That may help account for Trump’s difficulty in translating his skills as a businessman (such as they were) to the task of governing. In business, everyone was motivated only by the pursuit of profit, something Trump understood well. But now he’s dealing with people who have a whole range of motivations, some of which are quite alien to him.
Without that ability to understand those he’s dealing with, it turns out that Trump is remarkably easy to manipulate. We’ve seen it again and again with foreign leaders. He talks about how tough he’s going to be with them over one issue or another, but when he actually meets them, he turns to putty in their hands, emerging to say what great folks they are and what a positive relationship he now has with them. Xi Jinping gives him an education about North Korea, Emmanuel Macron takes him to a military parade, the Saudis give him a gold medal, and he walks away beaming, all thought of extracting concessions forgotten.
How do they manage it? It doesn’t seem too hard, because they’re smart politicians who took Trump’s measure and realized he’s an easy mark. All you need to do is pay him a compliment or two (“Oh yes, Mr. Trump, your electoral college victory certainly was impressive”), and he’ll do almost anything you want. Because he knows nothing about issues, you can shape his views to align with yours; he’s notoriously influenced by the last person he spoke to about anything. He seems terribly impressed by accomplished people, and desperate for validation and compliments.
And no one has played Trump quite like Vladimir Putin. There are a dozen reasons why Trump has for so long had such a fanboy crush on Putin, but think how much pleasure it must give Putin that Trump won’t even accept the consensus of his own intelligence agencies that Putin’s government tried to help him win the White House. He has never said a critical word about Putin or his assault on American democracy, instead offering excuse after excuse about why it might actually have been some other country, or maybe Putin was really rooting for Hillary Clinton.
When the 2016 campaign was going on, the Russians seem to have looked at the overconfident, inexperienced ignoramuses who made up the Trump family and seen easy marks. As former intelligence official Rolf Mowatt-Larssen wrote in The Washington Post over the weekend, the meeting arranged by Donald Trump Jr. for himself, Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort with a group of Russians peddling damaging information on Clinton had all the signs of a Russian intelligence operation meant to feel out a potential asset:
But everything we know about the meeting—from whom it involved to how it was set up to how it unfolded—is in line with what intelligence analysts would expect an overture in a Russian influence operation to look like. It bears all the hallmarks of a professionally planned, carefully orchestrated intelligence soft pitch designed to gauge receptivity, while leaving room for plausible deniability in case the approach is rejected. And the Trump campaign’s willingness to take the meeting—and, more important, its failure to report the episode to U.S. authorities—may have been exactly the green light Russia was looking for to launch a more aggressive phase of intervention in the U.S. election.
The changing stories from the Trump camp about who was there and what they discussed, and the excuse that this was all just standard operating procedure (“I think from a practical standpoint, most people would have taken that meeting,” the president said), show that they were too inexperienced to know how opposition research works and too dumb to know that the Russians were playing them. One can’t help but think that the Russian government looks at someone like Jared and says, “This guy could be a fantastic tool for us, if he doesn’t screw it up with his own stupidity.” Not only did Kushner omit that meeting (and others) from the form he filled out to get his security clearance—an omission that could constitute a felony—even the Russians were gobsmacked when he suggested that they set up a secret communication channel inside the Russian embassy so Trump’s inner circle could talk to the Kremlin without American intelligence agencies knowing about it.
It’s hard not to believe that as extraordinary as it is, Donny Jr. and Jared’s meeting with those Russians will be just one piece of a many-tentacled scandal. As the truth comes out, a particular picture of Donald Trump and those closest to him is likely to come into focus. It’s one in which they’re not the master strategists or clever conspirators they fancied themselves as, but bumblers and fools who were easy to take advantage of. In the end, the result will be both horrible—for American democracy—and in many ways comical.
And it shows yet again that while Donald Trump and his family are obsessed with “winning,” this president is turning out to be be the one thing he never wanted to be: a sucker.