Lawsuits, nondisclosure agreements and emotional or financial blackmail kept the lid on the secrets of Trumpland for years. But the political career of President Donald Trump, a self-described billionaire, has brought an increase in attention. Now as more and more insiders bust out their own books, Trump and his attorneys are playing an increasingly wild and desperate game of whack-a-mole to keep dissidents, including some very close to home, silent.
In "Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the Most Dangerous Man," officially released on Tuesday, Trump's niece, Mary Trump, becomes the first family member to openly break ranks but only the latest of many critics to face threats for doing so.
Mary Trump's book is the literary equivalent of an ambulance siren.
The book is the literary equivalent of an ambulance siren. Mary Trump, a clinical psychologist, describes her uncle as a man whose personality was damaged early by his sociopathic father, Fred, and his fragile, absent mother, Mary Anne, and whose retinue of enablers have allowed him to fail up while shielding his profound impairments from the public eye.
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The book's shocking bits have already been picked over and reported: She was a secret source for family financial documents behind The New York Times' investigation that revealed that a "potential tax fraud" enriched the Trump siblings; Trump paid someone to take his SAT test; Trump ogled and praised her breasts.
But the disturbing thesis of the book has gotten less attention so far because it is too complex for a bullet point or a tweet. Mary Trump argues that her uncle has been "institutionalized" his entire life, from his father's rigid house to military school to the Trump Organization and now the White House. In Washington, he is, for the first time in his life, subject to close scrutiny but still surrounded by enablers who have everything to lose if he is exposed as a fake and a fraud.
"The walls of his very expensive and well-guarded padded cell are starting to disintegrate," she writes. "The people with access to him are weaker than Donald is, more craven, but just as desperate."
These desperate people will use whatever means are at their disposal — courts, lawyers, intimidation, loss of employment and even, apparently, prison — to bolster Trump's increasingly fragile facade. She writes that the president's own siblings find him odious and ridiculous by turn and that they knew he was unfit for office but still kept quiet — and even tried to silence her in court.
Mary Trump signed a nondisclosure agreement as part of a settlement in a lawsuit over her inheritance 20 years ago. Decades later, Donald Trump's brother Robert tried to get a judge to block publication of her book (he lost on appeal). But it's hard to believe Robert Trump's move was an act of filial loyalty. None seems to exist in this dysfunctional clan.
Mary Trump writes that Trump's mother, the immigrant maid-turned-matriarch Mary Anne, wasn't being parsimonious when she cruised Queens in her Cadillac to personally collect coins from laundromats at her husband's buildings. No, "Gam" was filling Crisco cans with quarters and giving them to two of Donald's siblings when they needed money because neither Donald nor her millionaire husband, Fred, would help them out.
Now the siblings' financial lives are tied to Donald. Self-preservation and access to money and power apparently keep them from speaking out. Mary Trump writes that even she — who grew up in the family deeply damaged by Fred Trump — was astonished that Donald's siblings hadn't tried harder to keep him from running for president. "They couldn't possibly have thought that he (and by extension they) would continue to escape scrutiny," she writes.
It turns out the Trump family has plenty of safeguards in place to prevent exactly that kind of scrutiny.
But it turns out the Trump family has plenty of safeguards in place to prevent exactly that kind of scrutiny.
The family's ironclad omerta has often been compared to the Mafia's own code of silence. No one has turned up in cement boots in Long Island Sound, but Stormy Daniels, the porn star who took $130,000 to sign an NDA about her 2006 affair with Trump, says she experienced a chilling visit in a Las Vegas parking lot after she tried to sell her story.
"A guy walked up on me and said to me: 'Leave Trump alone. Forget the story,'" she told "60 Minutes" in 2018. "And then he leaned around and looked at my daughter and said: 'That's a beautiful little girl. It'd be a shame if something happened to her mom.' And then he was gone."
The presidency has provided Trump with even more powerful legal tools and resources to keep reporters and investigators at arm's length. His Justice Department tried to use national security as an excuse to stop former national security adviser John Bolton from publishing his insider account of White House chaos and corruption. Whistleblowers like Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman have been hounded or shown the door. Trump has reportedly forced federal employees to sign NDAs. His libel lawyers have aimed a firehose of lawsuits against major media outlets like The New York Times and CNN on behalf of the campaign.
Still, the "rats" — as Trump has called turncoat staff members and former enablers — keep coming out of their holes. And like Bolton and Mary Trump, they are doing so despite the very real risk that they will be dragged into court and entangled in the federal apparatus.
Trump's Bureau of Prisons just hauled his former attorney Michael Cohen back to prison after he refused to sign away his rights to publish a book. Cohen, who was sentenced for his role in hushing up Daniels, was released from prison a few months ago on a medical furlough. He thought he was meeting with probation officers to sign some routine paperwork, but instead he was handed a document — shared with me — that looks a lot like a Trump NDA.
The document appears to have prohibited him from all forms of public communication, including interacting with journalists, publishing a book and posting on social media, and it included this explainer: "The purpose is to avoid glamorizing or bringing publicity to your status as a sentenced inmate serving a custodial term in the community."
Lanny Davis, Cohen's legal adviser, suggested Trump used the federal Bureau of Prisons to stop Cohen from publishing a tell-all.
Lanny Davis, Cohen's legal adviser, suggested that Trump used the Bureau of Prisons to stop Cohen from publishing a tell-all — which he believes Cohen has already completed. "Do I think Trump put his thumb on the scale and got him re-arrested?" Davis said to me. "He couldn't do anything about John Bolton or Mary Trump. But we would not be surprised that Trump would call Attorney General Barr and say, 'I want this.'"
Mary Trump isn't the first to report from inside her uncle's strange world. Others — Omarosa Manigault and Bolton, for example — have similarly breached the code of silence that permeates the White House. But her lifetime access gives her account an authenticity that, along with her professional expertise, takes the book to another level of alarming.
It's unlikely that Trump has read it. Mary Trump confirms what many others have reported: He doesn't spend much time with books. But there's no doubt her uncle knows what she knows about him.
As the secrets pour out and further exposure looms, Trump's staff — wardens in the institution of the presidency, as Mary Trump writes, desperate men and women whose careers depend on his success — must work ever harder to make him feel smart and secure. That may even be why, over the weekend, his campaign took the curious step of texting supporters that his campaign speeches are "highly confidential." This makes no sense, of course — but when you're Trump, it doesn't have to.