On Friday, the president-elect of the United States of America, settled a fraud case involving an apparently fake university which bore his name, for $25 million. In a remotely sane media era, this would be a hugely scandalous story which would be intensely discussed for days, if not weeks, with multiple implications. In our currently completely broken public discourse this development held our attention for about two hours, until some actors decided to lecture the vice president-elect at a play and a TV comedy show provoked the president-elect into a Twitter war with another actor.
Damn, I hate what has become of us.
I know there are those who think that this is all part of Trump’s “genius” or “magic” that he is able to always change the media’s subject whenever it doesn’t favor him. While there is no doubt that Trump is indeed a master at media manipulation (it’s not that hard when you are huge celebrity and the media knows that talking about whatever your newest dustup is, no matter how inane, is good for their ratings), I tend to think that this phenomenon is more about luck that some sort of amazing skill at pulling off eight-dimensional chess moves.
After all, Trump’s first two tweets on Saturday morning where about him making incredibly lame excuses for why he felt he had to settle the Trump University lawsuits for the good of the country:
I settled the Trump University lawsuit for a small fraction of the potential award because as President I have to focus on our country.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 19, 2016
The ONLY bad thing about winning the Presidency is that I did not have the time to go through a long but winning trial on Trump U. Too bad!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 19, 2016
It’s pretty hard to give Trump credit for “killing” the Trump University story when he actually poured gasoline on the fire with those absurd tweets. It’s just that the news media decided that the Pence/Hamilton feud was much better for ratings, so the match never got fully lit. Once again, Trump simply got lucky.
I am of the strong belief that the Trump University issue was one of the many on which both the media and Clinton campaign complete blew when it came to prosecuting the case against Trump during the campaign. Their focus was almost entirely on the politically incorrect/racist statements Trump made about the judge in the case. There was almost no attention paid to the outrageous underlying allegations of blatant fraud in the case, or on how Trump’s entire business model appeared to be based on duping the very types of people to whom his presidential campaign targeted out of their meager resources.
This was emblematic of many situations in the campaign where the news media appeared to be very tough on Trump, but in actuality they let him off the hook by being distracted from the most lethal element of any particular potential scandal. Making Trump the guy who “says mean and politically incorrect” things only appealed to liberals who were never going to vote for him in the first place. How the Clinton campaign never used the Trump University scandal to destroy his credibility with open-minded “working class” voters is one of the many great mysteries of the 2016 campaign.
The idea that Trump’s base of supporters has bought the idea that his settlement of this case says nothing about his guilt and actually shows him to be a selfless statesman willing to spend his own money for the good of the country, is just pathetically laughable. $25 million is, based on what we currently know, significantly more than Trump personally spent on the entire general election (after having promised to spend at least $100 million on the entire campaign).
Here again is how the media largely allowing the myth of Trump being a multi-billionaire to be mostly un-repudiated plays to his enormous advantage. Because his supporters wrongly think he is worth $10 billion, then $25 million seems like not such a big deal and small price to pay in order to get rid of a headache before you take the office of the presidency. If more people understood that $25 million is indeed a big deal to a guy who hasn’t given to his own “charitable” foundation in many years and who fights like crazy to possibly pay no federal income tax, then they might realize that this was nothing less than a plea of “guilty” by Trump for having committed an enormous fraud.
But as bad as that should be, what should REALLY concern conservatives about this episode (other than what it reveals about Trump’s character, an issue which apparently no longer matters to conservatives) is how Trump might handle similar battles as president. Previously, Trump boasted that he was innocent and that he would never settle this case. And yet,when it was no longer convenient for him to fight it, he immediately folded, settling for an enormous amount of money.
Why shouldn’t we presume that this is exactly the same way that Trump will handle tough battles once he is inaugurated? Saturday Night Live already brilliantly parodied (foreshadowed) how quickly Trump would likely give up some of his most prominent conservative campaign promises once he realized that they wouldn’t be easy to enact. The Trump University case clearly shows that it is Trump’s modus operandi to make big promises at the start of a negotiation but then to cave badly and then somehow claim victory, even in the face of a mountain of facts and logic.
What should make conservatives shudder with fear and anxiety even more is that he instantly gave up on the Trump University case even though it directly involved two of his most treasured assets: his money and his reputation. Why in the world would we expect Trump to stand his ground any more fervently when the issue is a fight over something about which he only pretended to care about in order to dupe conservatives into electing him, as opposed to a topic about which he really cares?
Does anyone really believe that Trump will be willing to go to the mat and endure tremendous criticism to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a completely different market-based system when just last year he expressed support for a government-funded single-payer healthcare structure? The same goes for his most famous promise, “The Wall,” when in 2013 he expressed support for a borderless society.
Trump could end up betraying conservatives most when it comes in the realm of picking a successor for Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat. There is no doubt that, especially since Republicans gave up the moral high ground by not even giving a hearing to President Obama’s nominee, that Democrats will have reason to fight hard against Trump’s first selection (assuming it comes from his “approved” list) and that they will likely have willing allies in the news media. Since Trump doesn’t really believe in constitutional conservativism (or apparently much of anything else), it is not hard to see how eventually Trump would give up trying to push his first candidate through, especially when a more liberal judge would fit with many of his past stated beliefs.
Obviously, some close to Trump like Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions, and Reince Preibus would do their best to try to keep him from giving up here, but why should conservatives trust that they could win when his own daughter, son-in-law, and maybe even Steve Bannon will be advising him to adhere to his native instinct to cut his losses, declare victory, and move on to something else which might interest him more?
Trying to predict anything with regard to Trump is inherently very risky business and I honestly hope that I am wrong in how this concern will manifest itself (especially on the Scalia replacement), but those who pretend that the Trump University settlement doesn’t tell us a lot about what President Trump might be like, are simply fooling themselves. Of course, that is a big part of how we got here in the first place.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.