Politics & Policy

The Hidden Costs of Trump’s Insults

President Trump speaks during a meeting of the White House Opportunity and Revitalization Council, April 4, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
The president’s habit of gleefully demeaning Washington power players has hurt his effectiveness in more ways than one.

Low-Energy Jeb. Little Marco. Lyin’ Ted. Pocahontas. Crazy Bernie. Crooked Hillary. Little Rocket Man. If there is one defining characteristic of Donald Trump, candidate and president, it’s his casual, gleeful resort to insulting his opponents. It is a strategy — or perhaps just a reflex — so outside modern political norms that it has left Trump’s opponents slack-jawed and seemingly baffled as to how to respond.

But not everyone on the receiving end of Trump’s Don Rickles treatment has been thrown back on their heels. Take the recent example of former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe, who has made it clear that Trump’s incontinent insults were a primary — if not the primary — reason a special counsel was appointed.

“There were a number of things that caused us to believe that we had adequate predication or adequate reason and facts to open the investigation,” McCabe told 60 Minutes. “The president had been speaking in a derogatory way about our investigative efforts for weeks, describing it as a witch hunt.” McCabe thought the president was insulting the FBI and its leadership, and he seems to have taken it personally. But not nearly as personally as he took it when Trump insulted his wife.

On May 10, 2017, the morning after Trump fired FBI director James Comey, the president put in a call to McCabe. In his book, The Threat, McCabe recounts being taken aback at how little Trump knew of rules of the game: The president not only introduced himself as “Don,” but did so on an unsecured line. He talked about maybe coming over to the FBI building to meet and greet. He talked about having McCabe come over to the White House to meet and greet. The acting director thought these were terrible, horrible, no good, very bad ideas, but couldn’t bring himself to say so.

Then, Trump asked about McCabe’s wife. Jill McCabe had featured briefly in the presidential campaign. Her 2015 run for the Virginia state Senate was largely funded by PACs associated with then-Virginia governor — and long-time Clinton confederate — Terry McAuliffe. Andrew McCabe had been involved in investigating Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified documents; Jill McCabe had financed her campaign with money from a Clinton ally. Trump had asserted this was a conflict of interest, despite the fact that Jill McCabe had already lost her race by the time Andrew McCabe became involved in the Clinton investigation.

Now Trump took a different angle of attack. There “was a tone in his voice that sounded like a sneer,” McCabe writes in his book. “He said, ‘That must’ve been really tough. To lose. To be a loser.’”

“No man wants to hear anyone call his wife a loser, most of all me,” McCabe told 60 Minutes. “It was just bullying.” But instead of rebuking Trump, McCabe said “Okay, sir,” and hung up. Then he got to work: “That was the crisis week,” 60 Minutes declared, “when McCabe argued for an independent counsel to take over the investigations of the president.”

Perhaps it’s entirely coincidental that within a day or two of the president telling McCabe his wife was a “loser,” an outraged McCabe was pushing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to name a special counsel. I doubt it. I suspect Trump’s gratuitous insult of Jill McCabe led Andrew McCabe to seek satisfaction. How better than by forcing the president into a duel with Robert Mueller? If so, Trump’s inability to temper his insults was instrumental in launching the investigation that dogged the first two years of his administration.

Throughout the summer and fall of 2016, Glenn Simpson and Christopher Steele shopped the dossier of Trump–Russia conspiracy twaddle that Steele had compiled. The collection of allegations ended up being shared with everyone from House speaker Paul Ryan’s office to John Kerry’s State Department to The New Yorker to the New York Times. No one was willing to take the astonishing accusations public without some verification. Except for a friend of Senator John McCain.

McCain, you’ll recall, had suffered bizarre attacks of his own at then-candidate Trump’s hands in July 2015, when Trump declared, “I like people who weren’t captured” apparently referencing the Arizona senator’s five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Is it any surprise that when McCain and his closest advisers had the opportunity to hit back at Trump, they didn’t hesitate?

Having heard about Steele’s assertions, McCain sent a trusted aide, David Kramer, to meet with Steele in London. Kramer, then the senior director for Human Rights and Democracy at the McCain Institute, was briefed by Steele in late November 2016. Back in Washington afterward, he gave a copy of the dossier to McCain, who later passed it on to the FBI. He also touched off the chain of events that would make the dossier public, meeting with Ken Bensinger of BuzzFeed to share its contents in December of 2016.

Just as it may be a coincidence that McCabe pushed for a special counsel to investigate the man who insulted his wife, so too it may be mere happenstance that the politico who acted on the dossier was one whose friend and mentor Trump had grossly insulted. Then again, maybe it’s no coincidence at all.

Either way, the president’s taunts and gibes have cost him far more than they have won him — and they show no signs of abating any time soon.

Eric Felten writes the "Downtime" column for the Washington Examiner.

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