ONE LAWYER’S DILEMMA

Paul Manafort is campaign chairman and chief strategist for Donald Trump. He also has a law degree from Georgetown. That combination has landed him in a tough spot.

The J.D. from Georgetown means Manafort can’t plead ignorance about the significance of Trump’s escalating attack on the rule of law. As The New York Times reported recently, reliably conservative legal scholars express deep concern over Trump’s failure to acknowledge the limits of presidential power. Uniformly, every high-level Republican has repudiated Trump’s criticisms of Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the Indiana-born federal judge presiding over the cases against Trump University:

Senator Mitch McConnell: “I couldn’t disagree more with what he had to say.”

Representative Paul Ryan: “I completely disagree with the reasoning behind that.”

Former majority leader Newt Gingrich, who has made no secret of his vice-presidential ambitions on a Trump ticket: “This is one of the worst mistakes Trump has made. I think it’s inexcusable,”

And that backlash came before June 5, when Trump added all Muslims to his growing list of “possibly” biased judges who can’t give him a fair shake in a courtroom because their ethnicity collides with his most vile public policy pronouncements.

Manafort Knows Better, Even If His Client Doesn’t

Trump is no stranger to litigation. According to USA Today, his personal and business interests have been involved in more than 3,500 state and federal legal actions — 70 of them filed after announcing his presidential bid. Playing a game that’s worse than identity politics, he’s now engaged in a full frontal assault on the integrity of the judiciary for obvious personal gain in a private lawsuit. At best, it’s unseemly. At worst, it’s could be an unlawful attempt “to influence, intimidate or impede” a judge “in the discharge of his duty” (18 U.S.C. Section 1803) and/or “obstruct the administration of justice” (18 U.S.C. Section 401).

At Georgetown, Paul Manafort learned the legal rules governing every litigant’s right to challenge a judge’s fairness. Prevailing on a motion to recuse requires a factual showing, not a racist rant. The law is well settled that ethnicity or national origin is not a valid basis for disqualification. In fact, a recusal motion on those grounds would be on the receiving end of sanctions for frivolous pleading. It’s no accident that Trump’s outside lawyers — led by the widely respected Daniel Petrocelli at O’Melveny & Myers — haven’t pursued that path.

Enter Manafort

When Trump hired Manafort in April, Senator Ted Cruz was collecting more than his share of delegates from states where Trump had won the popular vote. Trump complained that the system was “rigged,” “corrupt” and “crooked.” Manafort’s assignment was to corral Trump delegates and keep them in line to avoid a contested convention.

In 1976, Manafort was involved in a similar task. Only two years out of law school, he was was President Gerald Ford successful “delegate-hunt coordinator” for eight states during Ronald Reagan’s attempt to wrest the nomination. After Ford lost the general election, Manafort spent three years working for a private law firm in Washington, D.C.

When Reagan prevailed in 1980, the president nominated him to the board of directors of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation — the government’s development finance institution. At that point, what would become Manafort’s lucrative career began. Since 1981, he’s been a lobbyist and consultant, sometimes for notorious international clients.

Master of Extreme Makeovers

In 2005, Manafort became an adviser to Viktor Yanukovych, whose political career seemed over after losing the Ukranian election for prime minister. With the help of Manafort, Yanukovych won in 2010 by exploiting popular frustration with government, exacerbating cultural divisions within the Ukranian electorate, and railing against NATO.

Sound familiar? History may not repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes. Cue the Trump assignment.

His Latest Client Makeover

On April 21, 2016, newly appointed Manafort assured members of the Republican National Committee that Trump’s rhetorical antics were just an act for the crowd.

“That’s what’s important for you to understand – that he gets it, and that the part he’s been playing is evolving now into the part you’ve been expecting…”

A month later, Manafort had accomplished his delegate mission and received a new title: campaign chairman and chief strategist. Since then, Trump’s attacks on the rule of law have intensified. It now appears that, in contrast to Manafort’s April 21 prediction, the only thing that Trump has “played” is Manafort as he dutifully lined up establishment Republicans who fell in line.

As uncomfortable as Trump’s statements have made those establishment Republicans, none has stepped forward to defend their candidate’s recent outbursts. None has repudiated his or her endorsement, either. Even as they decry Trump’s comments as deplorable, they implicitly suggest that his problem is speaking vile thoughts, not that he has them.

What Could Be Worse?

The same supporters rationalize their continuing support of Trump by assuring themselves that Hillary Clinton as president would be worse. They can’t possibly know that. Senator Bob Corker said that Trump — who turns 70 this month — “is going to have to change.” But change to what? Has anyone ever tried to change a 70-year-old billionaire’s fundamental beliefs, character, or behavior? Besides, Trump has made it clear that he has no desire to change. His approach has worked.

Corker’s position is a triumph of hope over reality. As for Trump’s positions, beyond divisive and destructive rants and branding tag lines –“We’ll make America great again” and “We’ll build a wall” — no one can state with confidence what they will be in five minutes, much less what they would become if he won the presidency.

Which takes us back to Paul Manafort, who assured RNC members in April that Trump was evolving. He went on to say, “Fixing personality negatives is a lot easier than fixing character negatives. You can’t change somebody’s character, but you can change the way a person presents himself.”

Either Manafort shares responsibility for encouraging Trump’s subsequent evolution, or he has an uncontrollable client. If it’s the former, he has put his candidate and his country on a treacherous course; he knows that from his legal training at Georgetown. If it’s the latter, his Trump-tarnished reputation will continue to deteriorate as he remains the campaign’s top strategist. Either way, he’s already lost. And so has the country.

A FACT-FREE DIET

A political campaign that once looked like a reality-based television series has revealed a broader truth. It was never reality-based at all. Reality requires facts, and facts don’t matter. Not anymore.

Some people look at the Trump phenomenon and see disaffected citizens who have become alienated. The political class ignored them for years; now they think that the Donald as President won’t. Others view Trump as the repository of racists and bigots. In the past, such individuals responded to subtle dog whistles of intolerance. Now they’ve found a socially acceptable vehicle for expressing their views loudly, publicly, and sometimes violently. The list of proffered explanations for Trump’s appeal is long. Most are pretty ugly.

This is Huge!

The micro view ignores the big picture – the really, really big picture. Trump sees it: Americans have learned to dismiss facts as irrelevant. The universal phenomenon that psychologists call confirmation bias does the rest. We tend to see the world in a particular way and, when contrary facts get in the way, we ignore them. If like minded others to do the same, that’s a movement!

This problem didn’t arrive with Donald Trump. He’s just exploiting it to new heights — or depths. Consider the hand-held banners at early Tea Party rallies: “Keep the government out of my social security!”

Facts haven’t mattered to the Obama “birthers” – Trump’s signature issue in 2011 as he turned increasingly toward politics. More than four years after President Obama released a copy of his birth certificate, 20 percent of Americans still believe that he was born outside the United States. Twenty-nine percent think he is Muslim.

Trump University? No Problem

Facts haven’t mattered to the candidate’s handling of the Trump University issue. Founded in 2004, it was never a “university” under New York law. In 2010, it became the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative with a Better Business Bureau rating dropping to as low as a D-minus. According to Trump’s attorney, the program accepted no students after 2010. The BBB received few complaints thereafter.

The BBB tried to publicize the straightforward facts about all of this. When a business stops having customers, it stops generating complaints: “As a result, over time, Trump University’s BBB rating went to an A in July 2014 and then to an A+ in January 2015.”

In the March 3 debate, Trump boasted about his “A” rating from the BBB. But the Bureau responded that it “did not send a document of any kind to the Republican debate site last Thursday evening. The document presented to debate moderators did not come from BBB that night.” Since September 2015, the Trump enterprise has had no rating at all.

Undeterred, Trump tweeted a photo of a BBB report showing an “A” rating for Trump University. To that, the BBB offered more facts to be ignored:

“The document posted on social media on Thursday night was not a current BBB Business Review of Trump University.  It appeared to be part of a Business Review from 2014.”

“I Can Make That Deal”

Then there are the facts that get woven into a Trump argument that makes no sense to anyone who understands them. Trump has referred repeatedly to America’s $58 billion trade deficit with Mexico. He juxtaposes that number with his infamous “wall” to keep illegal immigrants out of the country; it would cost $10 billion.

“That’s an easy deal. $58 billion deficit; $10 billion wall, I can make that deal,” he said in the March 3 debate.

Except that the $58 billion number has nothing to do with the $10 billion potential expense of Trump’s wall. The 2015 trade deficit resulted because Americans bought $294 billion in goods from Mexican companies, while Mexicans bought $58 billion less than that from United States companies. It’s not money that went to the Mexican government. It’s not a source of funds that Trump can tap to build a wall that gets higher every time a past or present Mexican president ridicules it. There’s no “deal” for him to make on his apples-to-oranges comparison of the $58 billion trade deficit to the $10 billion cost of a “really, really big wall.”

When Truth and Reason Become Casualties, Everyone Suffers

The list of Trump non-facts goes on and on and on.

“Thousands and thousands of Muslims cheered as the World Trade Center fell!” No evidence of that. But Trump says it, so it must be true. Who would tell such a big lie?

“The Mexican government is forcing criminals, drug dealers, and rapists into the United States!” False, offensive, and divisive.

“Obama plans to admit 250,000 Syrian refuges.” The real figure was 10,000.

“Islam hates America.” Absurd on its face, but only if facts matter to the listener.

For the final six months of 2015 alone, Trump led all other political candidates in The Washington Post’s compilation of the year’s most frequent recipients of “Four Pinocchios.” He notched eleven. But the Post’s more telling observation was this:

“Most politicians drop a claim after it has been fact-checked as false. But Trump is unusual in that he always insists he is right, no matter how little evidence he has for his claim.”

There’s unfortunate historical precedent for Trump’s use of hyperbolic rhetoric to exacerbate fear and generate divisions that spin out of control. In the world of “The Big Lie,” facts don’t matter – until they catch up with all of us.

At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, an interested spectator asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”

Franklin responded immediately, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Keeping it requires citizens willing to allow facts and reason to produce informed decisions. Donald Trump – the master salesman and showman – has found a way to short-circuit that process in too many American minds. In November, we may all find out how many.

TRUMP, CHRISTIE, EDUCATION, AND STUDENT DEBT

Did anyone else notice Governor Chris Christie’s expression as he stood behind Donald Trump on Super Tuesday evening? Perhaps he wasn’t feeling well. Or perhaps he was discovering more than he wanted to know about the man he’d endorsed for the presidency of the United States.

Monday night before the big primaries, Christie had told his New Jersey radio audience, “I am the highest level endorser that Donald Trump has had. I’m the person with the most experience in governing that is in his circle.” He said that there was “absolutely no question” that Trump listens to him.

Self-Delusion

“I’ve known him personally for 14 years,” Christie continued. If so, he should ask himself why Trump would listen to him. Now that Christie has dropped out of the primary race, why isn’t he just the latest addition to the Republican front-runner’s list of “losers”? That’s Trump’s world — winners (like him) and losers (like Sen. John McCain). Besides, Trump prides himself as an outsider who disdains almost anyone associated with government.

Maybe Christie will be an exception to Trump’s loser rule. The day after Super Tuesday, a Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll found that the dominant word that New Jersey voters used to describe their governor was “bully.” The next most frequent adjective was “arrogant.” Maybe Trump sees those as redeeming qualities. Perhaps he sees a bit of himself in the New Jersey governor.

Political Death Spiral

There’s another possible explanation for the odd look on Governor’s Christie’s face Tuesday evening: unhappy realization. The New Jersey “bully” had become a Trump “tool.” He’d played all-in with his political career and the impact was swift and certain.

Christie’s former national finance co-chair, Meg Whitman, slammed him:

“Chris Christie’s endorsement of Donald Trump is an astonishing display of political opportunism. Donald Trump is unfit to be president. He is a dishonest demagogue who plays to our worst fears. Trump would take America on a dangerous journey. Christie knows all that and indicated as much many times publicly. The governor is mistaken if he believes he can now count on my support, and I call on Christie’s donors and supporters to reject the governor and Donald Trump outright. I believe they will. For some of us, principle and country still matter.”

According to the Fairleigh Dickinson poll, after endorsing Trump, Christie’s New Jersey statewide approval rating dropped from 33 percent to 27 percent.

Desperate Measures

Christie said that he didn’t agree with Trump on everything, but he did on taxes, job creation, and strengthening America’s leadership in the world. How does he know where Trump stands on anything? The only Trump “positions” on those issues are sound bites that produce audience applause, not substantive debate. His positions change constantly — even on whether he knows certain people.

For example, on Sunday morning, he told Jake Tapper at CNN that he didn’t even know who David Duke, the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, was:

“Just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke…I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about White Supremacists. And so you’re asking me a question about people that I know nothing about….I just don’t know anything about him.”

The next day, Trump said he didn’t hear Tapper’s question: “I was sitting in a house in Florida, with a bad earpiece. I could hardly hear what he’s saying.”

Anyone who buys that explanation deserves everything that Trump is selling.

On more substantive policy issues, Trump is all over the map. He says whatever gets him through the moment. He says whatever his audience wants to hear. For Republican primary voters supporting him, substance has yielded to anger that has created a cult of celebrity. They cheer empty words.

Actions v. words

But glimmers of Trump’s real self emerge from his actions. Here’s an example of Trumpism at work. Last fall, he decried the government for making money on student loans. In a November 2915 forum in Iowa, he added that too many graduates are “borrowed up, and they can’t breathe, and they get through college and the worst thing is, they go through that whole process and they don’t have any job.” If elected, Trump said he planned “do something very big with student loans” — including providing refinancing “for people who have loans who literally can’t do anything.”

“Something very big.”

What could it be? Something “great”; something “huge.” Maybe there’s a clue in Trump University.

It used a Wall Street address that implicated New York registration requirements. As Steven Brill reported last November, “New York State law requires that anything calling itself a university must apply, be vetted, have all instructors vetted and then be certified, none of which Trump did. Despite repeated warnings from state education regulators beginning in 2005, Trump persisted in operating out of 40 Wall St. until winding down operations in 2010.”

Before folding, the “University” was renamed the “Trump Entrepreneur Initiative.” It didn’t offer degrees. The course of study began with free seminars on insider real estate moneymaking techniques. It encouraged attendees to purchase additional sessions — up to one-on-one mentoring packages costing $35,000. It left many “students” in debt.

Measuring Success

But Trump’s program made money for Trump. According to Brill’s examination of public records, “Trump University collected approximately $40 million from its students – who included veterans, retired police officers and teachers – and that Trump personally received approximately $5 million of it, despite his claim, repeated in our interview, that he started Trump University as a charitable venture.”

Trump claims to have surveys showing a 98 percent satisfaction rate — “better than Harvard” — and is confident that he will win all of the pending lawsuits involving the now defunct “university” bearing his name. But perhaps what really bothers him about the government “making money on student loans” is that the money should be going to him instead.

By the way, because Trump University and its successor Trump Enterprise Initiative failed, maybe that makes him a loser, too.