Why Trump Will Get Off

The House impeachment managers argued he's not fit to serve because he puts his personal political interests ahead of the nation's. Trump’s defenders said this sort of behavior is acceptable. They won.

By , a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump gestures as he arrives at the White House on January 22, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump gestures as he arrives at the White House on January 22, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

After an exhausting six days of arguments and two days of questions in the first impeachment trial of a U.S. president ever to be held in an election year, the bottom line for Democrats remained fairly simple. Why should the U.S. Senate decide to remove President Donald Trump from office now, with the 2020 vote just nine months away? Because given Trump’s penchant for soliciting foreign interference in American elections, it’s unreasonable to expect he will stop in 2020, argued House impeachment lead manager Rep. Adam Schiff. “You know you can’t trust this president to do what’s right for this country,” Schiff said in his closing remarks. “You can trust he will do what’s right for Donald Trump.”

But the president’s lawyers, at least some of them, are arguing in effect that this blending of personal and national interest is acceptable, or at least not impeachable—and that argument appears to be winning. During the question session on Wednesday, Trump lawyer Alan Dershowitz insisted that all presidents identify the national interest with their personal political interest to some extent—going so far as to compare Trump to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. “”Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest,” Dershowitz said, in an argument that stunned the chamber. “And mostly you’re right. Your election is in the public interest. And if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.”

On the face of it, the big impeachment news of the week was the revelation that Trump’s former National Security Advisor John Bolton has confirmed in his forthcoming book that Trump did indeed try to extort Ukraine into finding dirt on his political rival Joe Biden and the Democrats—thus bearing out the heart of the Democrats’ case for impeachment. But the bigger news was that the Bolton news didn’t really matter, and an early effort to make him the first witness in the trial quickly faded as even those Republicans who found Trump’s actions “inappropriate,” like retiring Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, said the allegations still do not meet the Constitution’s standard of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

On this central point Trump has brought the vast majority of the Republican Party along with him—in particular, those who will grant him inevitable acquittal in the Senate. Whether there was a quid pro quo or not, what mainly matters is that Trump really believed he was serving the nation’s interest, many of his defenders say. “The president believes that the Ukraine interfered in our election,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, even as he noted that the evidence was to the contrary. “From the president’s point of view, he did nothing wrong in his mind,” added Graham, who once called Trump a “kook” and “unfit for office” but has since become one of his most outspoken defenders. “If he thought he was doing something wrong, he would probably shut up about it.” 

But there’s the rub. Trump probably has a narcissistic personality disorder, some mental health professionals say, which means there may be little or no difference in his mind between what’s right for him and what’s right for the country—or in the present case, between what’s good for the United States in Ukraine and what’s good for Trump in Ukraine.  His behavior is not that of any ordinary politician, but instead is symptomatic of someone suffering from pathological narcissism. “The more narcissistic someone is, the more they’re likely to view people and the world as less a separate entity or being, and more like an extension of their own body, like an arm or a leg. In that mindset, ‘What the U.S. needs and what I need are one and the same, because I am the country,’” said Craig Malkin, one of a group of mental health experts who—in defiance of their profession’s long-codified ethical guidelines that forbid diagnosis of a patient the therapist has not directly examined—have made public their conclusion that Trump has what the 20th-century psychologist Erich Fromm called “malignant narcissism.” This is a condition that “lies on the borderline between sanity and insanity,” as Fromm put it, and often characterizes would-be tyrants who impose their absolutist will on the state.

Long before conspiracy theorists planted the false idea in Trump’s head that Ukraine tried “tried to take me down,” as the president said (according to envoy Kurt Volker’s testimony last fall), he has been identifying threats to him personally as threats to the United States. And every indication is that he’s not just saying it, he believes it (or at least he’s never disavowed any of it). To Trump, critics in the media are “enemies of the people,” his enemies in Congress should be arrested for “treason,” and even the FBI, when it broke into the office of his erstwhile lawyer Michael Cohen to obtain evidence, had mounted an “attack on our country.” 

Trump’s reaction to the impeachment charges against him has been little different. For weeks, diplomats, national security experts, and other officials have argued at great length that Trump sacrificed U.S. national interests in Ukraine—which a bipartisan consensus previously agreed meant supporting a democratic ally at war with authoritarian Russia—in pursuit of his personal political interest, and that this was an impeachable abuse of power. But the evidence suggests that Trump truly believes his effort to extort the Ukrainians into investigating former Vice President Biden and the Democrats was the right thing for the nation—because Ukraine posed, to his mind, a threat to him, the self-described savior of the nation, the man who in 2016 declared of America’s broken system, “I alone can fix it.” 

He has also been consistent in his near-total identification of the national interest with his political fortunes. In their exhaustive recounting of the evidence of the Ukraine extortion scheme—which proves beyond any reasonable doubt that Trump sought to withhold U.S. support for Ukraine if that nation’s government didn’t announce it would help him discredit one of his leading political rivals in 2020—the Democratic impeachment managers showed repeatedly that, even after he was caught, the president never changed his position. His call with Zelensky was “perfect,” impeachment is an attempted “coup,” the Democrats and Bidens are the guilty ones, and Schiff and his fellow Democrats are “major sleazebags.” Trump’s unprecedented contempt for congressional prerogatives—the basis of the second article of impeachment—is yet more evidence that Trump genuinely believes he has “the right to do whatever I want as president,” as he once put it. 

As Schiff said in his closing argument, the only way Trump can accuse those who oppose or criticize him of being traitors “is if you believe you are the state. And anything that contradicts you is treason.”

Or, as the eloquent Schiff said in his closing argument in the impeachment trial a week ago, the only way Trump can accuse those who oppose or criticize him, like the Ukraine whistleblower, of being traitors “is if you believe you are the state. And anything that contradicts you is treason.”

Narcissists of Trump’s ilk also tend to embrace conspiracy theories about imagined threats to them, even if there are scant facts to support such theories, because objective truth has no real meaning to them; instead, reality is filtered through their grandiose sense of self-importance. “It’s quite possible that he believes the Ukrainians tried to take him down, because embracing paranoid conspiracy theories help ward off a far more threatening possibility: that his failings are his own, and not due to outside attack,” Malkin said. “That thought, in and of itself, is intolerable for extreme narcissists to entertain.” 

Experts in psychology say it is also normal for an extreme narcissist of Trump’s description to exercise power with a lack of empathy and cruelty toward others—as Trump so often does—to paranoiacally reject any form of criticism as a personal assault, and to twist concepts like fairness and honesty out of recognition until they mean only what is good for him. 

“I do not believe that he will have the same concept of corruption as you or I would,” said Bandy Lee, a Yale University psychiatrist and the chief author of the 2017 book to which Malkin contributed, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President. 

“He may be able to tell apart right from wrong, but the meaning these hold is far less,” Lee said in an email. “For example, based on his non-objective use of the word ‘fair,’ he is likely to conceptualize a Ukrainian investigation into the Bidens and the 2016 election as ‘good for him’ and thus ‘fair.’ Whatever does not give him overwhelming advantage (and others overwhelming disadvantage) would thus be ‘unfair.’ An objective sense of fairness is probably not only non-existent for him but intolerable.”

Clearly Trump was somewhat aware that what he was demanding of Zelensky—holding hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance and a White House meeting hostage to his demand that the Ukrainian leader announce an investigation into the Bidens and the Democrats—was not exactly kosher. Hence the White House’s frenzied effort to withhold the whistleblower complaint about Ukraine from Congress, defying the law, and to block nearly every other inquiry—until Congress announced it was investigating on Sept. 9, 2019, and the Ukraine security aid was mysteriously released. 

“Based on his non-objective use of the word ‘fair,’ he is likely to conceptualize a Ukrainian investigation into the Bidens and the 2016 election as ‘good for him’ and thus ‘fair.’ ”

But there is no indication that Trump has ever felt he did anything seriously wrong himself; on the contrary, as press reports and investigators closed in, he felt that his enemies were unfairly attacking him once again. This was a president who, literally a day after special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony to Congress about the demonstrated wrongdoing of Russian interference, considered himself so in the right and free of constraint that he sought to solicit from Ukraine’s new president, in the now-infamous July 25, 2019, phone call, precisely the kind of foreign interference in a U.S. election that Trump had been accused of seeking during the yearlong slog of the Mueller investigation. 

Trump has managed to bring almost all of his fellow Republicans along with him, even those who acknowledge privately that he behaved abusively toward Ukraine and that he was incorrect in his beliefs about the country, just as the U.S. intelligence community has concluded. That is a point even some Trump loyalists concede. “I can tell you without any doubt it was the Russians who hacked into the DNC [Democratic National Committee]. It was not the Ukrainians,” Graham said. But, again, the facts don’t really matter, Graham suggested: If Trump believes the Ukrainians were responsible, then he was justified in strong-arming Zelensky into announcing an investigation into the Democrats and their leading candidate, Biden. 

The willingness of nearly the entire Republican Party to publicly endorse Trump’s way of thinking—in other words, to argue all that really counts is what Trump believed, not what actually happened—is also hallmark of a political movement shaped by a leader with malignant narcissism, some mental health professionals say. Such leaders manage to “make their crazy ideas mainstream ideas, to shape and change the beliefs of society,” said John Gartner, a Princeton- and Cornell-trained psychotherapist who has worked to overturn the American Psychiatric Association’s Goldwater rule, according to which professionals agree not to publicly diagnose someone they have not treated personally. (The rule came into being after psychological assessments appeared about Republican candidate Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election.) In this way, Trump has taken control of a party that once stood for fiscal restraint, free trade, and stable alliances but now, terrified of his wrath, subscribes to Trump’s nearly opposite views.

Privately, some Republicans say they wish they had some means of registering disapproval of Trump’s conduct toward Ukraine without voting for his removal from office. But many of them continue to believe that while they don’t approve of his behavior, it doesn’t rise to the level of ousting a president whose fate will be decided by voters less than 10 months from now. And since the rules of impeachment don’t allow them to do anything but acquit or convict, Republicans almost certainly will, as a caucus, vote to acquit. 

Trump’s narcissistic approach to the national interest has been amply in evidence in other ways. He has brazenly used the presidency to boost his businesses and personal brand, refusing to recuse himself from the interests of the Trump Organization, putting up U.S. and other delegations at his hotels and golf courses, and proposing his Doral club in Miami as the venue for next year’s G-7. (He even expressed puzzlement when even his fellow Republicans pronounced themselves appalled by the idea). He has spent most of his presidency seeking personal deals with key leaders such as Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and short-shrifting long-established geopolitical traditions. His ongoing confrontation with Iran and his casual discarding of the painstakingly negotiated multilateral 2015 nuclear deal (which many of his top aides had urged him to fix rather than renounce) appear to be mainly directed toward getting a new Trump-branded deal he can claim single-handedly saved the Middle East. The evidence suggests, in other words, that Trump views not just the nation but the global system through the same narcissistic filter.

“At various points Trump has been testing us: ‘Can I get away with this?’ He keeps discovering, ‘Hey I can get away with this all right!’ That’s the way a criminal thinks.”

One of the mysteries of Trump’s character is that, from the beginning of his career, he’s plainly seen himself as a performer who’s aware he’s putting on an act. In scripted speeches and remarks, he makes a good show of advocacy for the same downtrodden Americans he often derides in private. At the same time, Trump appears to genuinely embrace the conspiracy theories he advances—the idea of Ukraine’s involvement in 2016 itself began as a strange, unfounded internet meme—and he only doubles down the more he is questioned or attacked. This too is evidence of a narcissistic and paranoid personality, Gartner said. “At various points Trump has been testing us: ‘Can I get away with this?’ He keeps discovering, ‘Hey I can get away with this all right!’ That’s the way a criminal thinks,” he said. 

What has boosted Trump’s political success is that he conveys a sense of sincerity in expressing his beliefs even about discredited ideas. That is said to be the mark of all great salesmen: They don’t just pretend to believe in the quality of the product they’re selling, they really believe. Hence the strange paradox at the heart of Trump’s appeal: Though he lies all the time, according to media fact checkers, the lies may not be lies to him, and thus he appears all the more authentic to his supporters. Although his life is built on fakery right down to his transplanted orange hair and his pretense that he is far wealthier and successful in business than he really is, people sense that on another level Trump is authentically himself. He believes what he says.

That personal conviction will be, more than anything else, what saves Trump from legal conviction in his impeachment trial. It may be, in other words, something like the impeachment equivalent of being declared innocent by reason of insanity.

But for the nation, more dangerous days may lie ahead. Experts warn that exoneration by the Senate may only open the door to more grandiosity by a president who seems to believe that he is his own law, with no one and nothing standing in his way. 

Or as Schiff put it, “You know it’s not going to stop.”

Jan. 31: This story has been updated.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh