It’s All Coming Apart at the Seams

What a split-screen day this past Wednesday was for TV viewers! Over in Hanoi, Vietnam, you had our Man of Perpetual Sorrow, Donald Trump, meeting the often strangely radiant Kim Jung-on of North Korea. “We fell in love,” Trump said of their first meeting in Singapore. I guess this once special bromance wasn’t meant to last. What immediately caught my eye in this photograph was the frightened look of the woman sitting to Jung-on’s right. Her eyebrows are slightly raised in a sign of fear and surprise, her eyes a little wide, and her mouth pulled a bit wide, too.

Come to think of it—by which I mean, come to look at it—that same expression populates the face of the man to her right, and the Great Supremely Merciless One seated to the woman’s left. Things aren’t going well.

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Now as we all wait to see what may happen next after the Failed Summit, what are the odds Jung-On isn’t wondering what the Great Impulsive Scowler, our Man of Perpetual Sorrow might do next? While Trump stares straight ahead, Jung-On is the wiser one: looking to his right, eyes wide, looking to see what he might learn just by keeping his eyes open and his wits about him.

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Closer to home, what was simultaneously on the other half of people’s split-image TV screens? None other than Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, former henchmen, former trusted confidante was in tell-all mode about his former Mafia boss known as the President. Forget for the moment, everything Cohen was saying . . . Our president is a racist, a con man and a cheat . . . telling us almost nothing we didn’t already know, at least in that respect.

Emotionally, how was Cohen holding up? Was he scared? Was he lying? Was he choking at his leash, eager to sink his teeth into some juicy revenge?

Actually, in truth Cohen was remarkably at ease for a guy spilling his guts before Trump can do it for him. Notice all the big, horizontal wrinkles across the former Enforcer’s forehead (how could you not!). Well, as often as not those weren’t a sign of fear and surprise so much as they were what’s known in the facial coding trade as “speech emphasis” grace notes, instances where you lift your eyebrows in emphasizing in dramatic fashion a point you’re making. And Cohen was making lots of them, meaning lots of wrinkles and lots of time that those wrinkles held in place far too long to be a matter of surprise. That’s because real surprise happens in about 1/10th of a second, or less.

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Frankly my dear, Cohen is way, way beyond being surprised about anything Trump concocts.

Is there a bigger story, emotionally, to tell than speech emphasis grace notes when it comes to Cohen’s testimony? Not especially. Yes, he had to wipe away a tear when recounting the stress all of this mess has put on his family. And, yes, there was a little curl of the upper lip when Cohen referenced the district attorney’s office in Manhattan investigating other bad smells emanating from the Trump Tower. (A curled upper lip is a sign of disgust, i.e. something smells really foul).

But really those touches aside, it was a pretty straightforward drama being enacted. Trump has provided all the curves, and now Cohen was trying—at long last in life—to throw the ball right straight down the middle of the plate so Congress and the American public could, ideally, swing hard at the truth about Trump instead of at his former Chief Enabler.

When “You’re Fired” Becomes a Constitutional Crisis

Trained killers will kill, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the presidency of Donald Trump could be approaching a constitutional crisis. As a way to squelch special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of him, will Trump fire U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein? And would Trump be within his rights to do so? The legality of this and other possible maneuvering by Trump to avoid further scrutiny in the wake of the FBI raid that seized documents from Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen is a story still to be told: likely in Congress, in the courts, and most of all in the court of public opinion. Meanwhile, as Lou Reed’s favorite poet Delmore Schwartz once observed, the past is inevitable. So it’s to the past we can turn for a more definitive perspective on the current mess.

A large part of this looming crisis goes back to Donald’s relationship with his father, Fred, and how Donald was trained. “You are a killer . . . you are a king . . . you are a killer . . . you are a king” was the mantra Fred used to tell his two boys, Freddy and Donald, from their early childhoods onward. Never be vulnerable was the underlying message. Freddy the “loveable loser” flamed out long ago from alcoholism, but Donald is still going strong . . . or is he? Was Donald ever really, truly strong? To what degree is the boy who endlessly sought to gain his father’s attention and approval, while eager to best him, still the insecure brat who once bullied classmates and engaged in mischief involving stink bombs and switchblades?

Trained killers will kill, which brings us back to the present. Watch the extraordinary video of Trump objecting to the FBI raid—“an attack on our country”—and beyond the words, what stands out the most? To be sure, there’s Trump’s anger.  In calling the investigation “a total witch hunt,” Trump’s eyes narrow. And when he characterizes the raid as a “break in,” there’s more of that look of eyes reduced to slits, with the lower eyelids taut with anger to go along with an upper lip raised in anger and disgust.

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But an infuriated, fuming Trump is only part of the story here, emotionally speaking. Never be vulnerable. There’s also a president understandably weary of an investigation that’s lasted almost the length of his presidency. The strain would hamper any man, and certainly somebody now 71 years old. He’s not a boy anymore, but what are the odds Trump hasn’t been engaged in mischief that might earn him more than just his father’s begrudging admiration? Watch the video, and you’ll also see Trump closing his eyes as if to ward off the mess he’s found himself in. Even more so, note the fear. Cohen’s “a good man” Trump vows, but the president’s mouth pulls wide in fear as he says so. Cohen has been by all accounts his fixer, and now the fixer could be somebody who, given enough legal pressure, could spill the beans and leave Trump extremely vulnerable. Fear piles up. The investigation’s “a disgrace” Trump also says, even as his right outer eyebrow arches up in fear and surprise, eyes closed again. A “biased” team of investigators, Trump objects. Again his mouth pulls wide in fear. Everybody’s unfairly after him, Trump believes and feels the danger.

What Mueller knows, or is about to know thanks in part to Cohen’s documents, we don’t know. But eventually the public will find out. What we already know is Donald Trump’s personality and modus operandi. His grandfather ran brothels in the Wild West. His father, Fred, augmented his other real estate earnings by building G.I. housing after World War Two—and was investigated by the government for possibly bilking it. Now his son is the government, he’s the president, but he’s wild and quite likely been operating outside the law while supposedly embodying the law of the land. Trump’s signature line on The Apprentice was, of course, telling people “You’re fired”: in effect killing off “losers.” Waves of people have already left this administration. Will Trump fire Rosenstein, Mueller, Attorney General Jeff Sessions? Who’s next? Or will it be Trump ultimately getting fired from his own White House reality show? Whatever happens, the ratings will remain sky-high.