John Dean: Frightened Trump Is In Over His head

This article first appeared on the Verdict site.

When Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, he made the worst mistake of his young presidency, because the ham-fisted manner in which he handled it resulted in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein—who is filling in for the recused Attorney General—having no choice but to select a special counsel to continue the Justice Department's investigation into the hacking of the 2016 presidential election by the Russians.

Rosenstein, of course, selected an unusually well-qualified investigator/prosecutor, Robert Mueller, the former head of the FBI and former U.S. Attorney for San Francisco.

This, in turn, has annoyed Trump to no end. He clearly feels the pressure of being under investigation by someone with both the resources and skills to uncover any wrongdoing by him or his family.

Trump's reaction suggests Mueller may find that the president is not an honest businessman, even if he does not find direct collusion by Trump himself with the Russians.

Much of Donald Trump's life has involved being in fights—with wives, business partners, vendors, tenants, the news media, and countless others.

Trump the politician expanded his fights to include political opponents, and now as president, he is in a fight with the federal intelligence community, the Washington press corps, the "deep state" (otherwise known as career government bureaucrats) and Democrats, along with a few Republicans and even some of his staff.

But what is shaping up as the biggest fight of his life, because it could end his presidency and send his family to jail (if he is unable to pardon them), is the investigation (and potential prosecutions emanating from it) being undertaken by Special Counsel Mueller.

Donald Trump on June 23, 2017, in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty

For anyone who has observed Trump in a fight—which was once to be limited to those living in New York City who read the tabloids where they were regularly front-page features but he is now on the world stage so we are all his audience, like it or not—the pattern of these brawls is very consistent.

While Trump has done many deals, it seems he has done more fights, and rather than writing about deals he should have done a book titled The Art of the Fight.

Background as a Fighter

Trump's biographers have most all noted that he displayed a pugnacious nature from an early age, but his adult mentor (and role model) in all conflicts, from squabbles to domestic disputes to business survival battles, was the infamous New York City attorney Roy Cohn.

Before becoming the New York City fixer of choice, Cohn, the son of a prominent New York judge, displayed his legal acumen by graduating from law school at twenty years of age, quickly rising in the ranks of the U.S. Attorney's office, and developing close ties to New York's most important crime families. He became a national figure as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation of the U.S. Senate employing smear tactics that gave the world "McCarthyism."

According to legend, Trump and Cohn met shortly after Cohn had published an op-ed in the form of a letter to Spiro Agnew in The New York Times on October 15, 1973 castigating the former vice president for pleading guilty to tax evasion, a charge Cohn had beaten on three occasions.

"How could a man who made courage a household word lose his? How could one of this decade's shrewdest leaders make a dumb mistake such as you did in quitting and accepting a criminal conviction?" Cohn asked.

No more had Cohn's letter been published than Trump encountered him at a New York night spot of the time, and Trump explained that he and his father were being sued by the Department of Justice for discrimination in one of their housing projects. Cohn encouraged the young businessman to fight the charges, and a friendship was born.

Watching Cohn, Donald Trump soon embraced his never surrender, always counterattack, philosophy, not to mention tactics not sanctioned by the Queensberry rules. Never was there a more vicious and dirty a fighter than Roy Cohn. Never was there a worse role model for anyone, not to mention a President of the United States.

Trump Tactics

Donald Trump's tactics are conspicuous to anyone who follows his actions, and can be reduced to two overriding activities: (1) He lies consistently and persistently; (2) he cheats whenever the opportunity presents itself to do so, and (3) he tries to intimidate everyone with whom he deals.

The lawsuits filed by the former students of Trump University revealed these tactics at work, where he lured them into taking courses, often beyond their means, with false statements and promises, then gave them hokum taught by people with no credentials whatsoever, constantly pushing them to take more expensive courses.

All one need to do is read a few of the depositions of the students who joined in the action. Trump hires lawyers who act more like thugs than litigators to abuse those who filed against him, and forced several out of the case for they were not up for the expense of the endless fight, not to mention the nasty press leaks spread by team Trump.

When Trump was elected this litigation was ready to go to trial. It was a class action RICO case accusing Trump of criminal fraud, albeit in a civil action. President-elect Trump broke his golden rule of fighting when he surrendered—settling the cases for $25 million.

Someone will undoubtedly fill a book with Trump's business tactics, for they are found in the 3,500 lawsuits in which he has engaged. Regularly, he filed actions knowing he could not win, thus simply to intimidate his opponent.

This was a favored tactic when he thought someone had defamed him by saying something he did not want said. As a public figure, who has had case after case dismissed, he knows that public people have a high standard to meet. He also understood that even answering a complaint and getting the case dismissed by the targeted defendant was expensive, so he could inflict pain even if he could not win the case.

Undoubtedly some of his current frustration as president is that he cannot threaten such lawsuits at a time he is probably getting more negative press coverage than at any time in his career.

We watched Trump's fight tactics during both the Republican primary, and the general election, campaigns. The most dominant memory most people have of his campaigning was the lying, and efforts to belittle his opponents: "Low energy Jeb," "Little Marko," "Lyin' Ted," and "Crooked Hillary."

Because Trump creates constant conflict, he is a train wreck happening, the news media has great difficulty turning away from him. He is the very definition of modern entertainment. As was true during the campaigns, it is with his presidency.

Because the man cannot be shamed, and he has the largest ego ever to enter the Oval Office, all this plays in his favor—so far.

But how will Trump's fight tactics play as his campaign is being investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller?

Trump in the Crosshairs of a Federal Investigation

As President of the United States, under current Department of Justice policy, Donald Trump cannot be indicted so long as he holds the office, or unless the U.S. Supreme Court rules otherwise.

But make no mistake, he and his campaign to win the office are under investigation which started in July 2016, when the FBI learned the Russia government was hacking the presidential election to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump. Presidential immunity is not retroactive, thus making his campaign and his personal activities susceptible to investigation and prosecution.

The investigation that Special Counsel Mueller has taken charge of is the FBI inquiry that commenced in July 2016, not activities President Trump undertook in May 2017 in firing former FBI Director Comey, although that too is expressly included in the charter issued by the Deputy Attorney General in establishing the inquiry.

Because it was issued notwithstanding the fact that it is the policy of the Department to not indict a sitting president, there is no policy not to investigate a sitting president. So, Trump is clearly subject to the special counsel inquiry—a fact of which he appears acutely aware, and has commenced fighting.

Trump is employing his standard fight tactics: lying, cheating, and seeking to intimidate.

For example: He has lied about his dealing with former director Comey, not to mention tried to intimidate this potential witness against him by employing standard Trump name-calling is accusing Comey of "showboating," concocting a false narrative via Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein about Comey's Hillary Clinton email investigation as the reason for dismissal when later admitting to newsman Lester Holt that he fired Comey because he refused to back off the investigation of the campaign and Michael Flynn; and most recently admitting that, contrary to claiming he had tapes of conversations with Comey, he had no such tapes.

One could fill pages with examples. But the point has been made and the issue is how these tactics will play with Mueller.

In business and politics, and now in government, Trump is operating at about the level of a precocious eight grader. The games he has played in the past are not going to work in the league he now finds himself.

Mueller and Company are sophisticated and experienced federal prosecutors who have dealt with miscreants far more sophisticated and clever than Donald Trump. In fact, in the end Trump's tactics, which are obvious and recorded, will be used against him. His lawyers seem unable to stop him, but they have surely told him.

Today, we are watching a very frightened Donald Trump. He knows he is in a fight way above his league, but he does not know how to play above that league. Nor does he understand Washington and the presidency sufficiently well to know how to use it—and keeping his disapproval rating at 60 percent is not effectively using the high office he holds.

Undoubtedly, Trump has never written the art of the fight, because he does not know how to fight fairly, nor well. With Special Counsel Mueller on his case there is more chance he will lose in 2020 than win reelection, unless Trump discovers that the way these fights are won is with the truth, for with the truth he might have a chance to survive.

Without it, he will be a one term president, if he is lucky.

John W. Dean was a counsel to President Richard Nixon.