Investigating Donald Trump, and Why It’s Failed

Book review: True Crimes and Misdemeanors, by Jeffrey Toobin

That was the whole case right there, stripped to its essentials. Trump didn’t care about the people of Ukraine, who were fighting for their lives. (Nor, it was clear, did he care about American laws, norms, or national security interests.) All Trump cared about was the “big stuff” — which was, to him, his political and personal self-interest. From the day he declared his candidacy, through the Russia scandal and his endless solicitude toward Vladimir Putin, and on into his cruel manipulation of the struggling democracy in Ukraine, Trump didn’t give a shit about anyone or anything but himself.

From the moment in an early chapter when lawyer, former federal prosecutor, and legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin refers to Donald Trump’s “hypnotizing swirl of orange hair” and notes that “Mueller had a head like an Easter Island moai and a demeanor to match,” I knew this long-anticipated book was going to be a treat.

Toobin is one of my favorite writers and commentators on subjects of white-collar and political crime. He has a clear, well-organized style and the amazing gift of breaking down complex legal and financial topics so that they’re comprehensible for the layperson. Delightfully, he has that hilarious ability of certain attorneys to infuse potentially dry legal writing with fair but funny commentary. (Like: “In addition to the self-evident lunacy of the comparison, Loudermilk was factually wrong.” This is why I never mind editing legal documents, they’re often more amusing than you might think.)

Nowhere in recent memory has this ability to explain and analyze legal processes felt as important as in connection to the crimes that have been committed by Trump and those around him. True Crimes and Misdemeanors closely examines the legal snafus that have characterized Trump’s tenure, beginning with his firing of James Comey and the Mueller investigation, through to Trump’s impeachment for asking the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate a political adversary.

For many liberals, Robert Mueller (I’m sorry – Robert Swan Mueller III, as I learned here) was a figure onto which we projected our hopes and dreams of removing a treasonous autocrat from the White House. Mueller was so reticent and quiet during the years of his investigation that both Democrats and Republicans could effectively project their ideas and desires onto him without anyone really being the wiser. According to Republicans he was biased and on a witch hunt; to Democrats, he was a justice-wielding savior.

Mueller’s determination to pursue only a limited agenda never wavered over two years of investigation. The prolonged silence of his team fed rumors about the supposedly vast scale of Mueller’s ambitions.

In reality, he was doing the task he’d set himself to do from the beginning, nothing more and nothing less. We meet the team of attorneys he assembled to assist him and get insight into his decision-making. While demonstrating clear respect for Mueller’s background, experience, and methods, Toobin also shows why the Mueller report didn’t itself lead to impeachment, and criticizes some of Mueller’s moves as he shows how they were gleefully exploited by Trump and his goons.

A big one was his decision not to interview Trump in person: “Mueller had every reason to pursue what certainly would have been the single most important piece of evidence in this investigation.

He didn’t. He backed down. He couldn’t bring himself to launch a direct legal attack against the president of the United States. He decided to continue negotiating […] In this critical moment, Mueller showed weakness […] Trump noticed that Mueller, after all this talk about the president’s testimony, backed off when confronted. The president’s behavior — and Mueller’s investigation — were never the same again.”

Significant page space is devoted to Rudy Giuliani’s role in swaying the investigation, and his blundering into derailing it. He started the talk about pardons, which was the beginning of the end. “Giuliani might have sometimes looked silly on television, but he delivered real accomplishments for his client: he set loose the president to turn the Republican base against Mueller; he used pardon talk to shut down the pipeline of cooperators; he cleaned up the facts of the Stormy Daniels situation so the president was not continuing to defend a false version of what transpired.”

Of course, later Giuliani would be responsible for architecting (to use a dumb Ivanka Trump verb) the Ukrainian mafia-style matter that led to impeachment, which causes Toobin to say of his work that it “must rank among the most disastrous pieces of advocacy in the history of American lawyering.” That’s more like it.

Then there are the Three Amigos — former Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, former Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, and special representative for Ukraine negotiations Kurt Volker. That’s their name for themselves; I pictured this ghoulish gang as more like Oogie Boogie’s henchmen. They’re so outrageously incompetent it’s a wonder they “achieved” anything at all, but the way Toobin describes these three comes across rather comedic without intending it to be. I mean, it would be funny if they weren’t undermining American democracy and viciously exploiting a country desperately struggling to right itself amidst volleys of corruption, war, and with Russian soldiers on its eastern border.

Toobin lays out the genesis of the Ukraine quid pro quo issue as it first takes root, and, no surprise, for one of the pettiest public figures we know, Trump’s distrust and dislike of pro-Western forces in Ukraine stemmed from a grudge.

Speaking of quid pro quo, I found it odd that Toobin says “Democrats had mostly stopped using the phrase ‘quid pro quo.’ (This was wise because most of their constituents spoke English rather than Latin.)” Really? I hadn’t noticed that its usage abated, but if it did, I can’t believe it’s because Democrats thought we’re too dumb to understand what it is (I know Trump didn’t understand what it meant, but I’m talking about the rest of us now). I mean: quid pro quo, Clarice. Of course we know what it means!

Along the way of examining bigger legal predicaments and the crimes that led to those in Trump’s orbit who pled guilty, like Michael Flynn, Roger Stone (who doesn’t use the correct form of your/you’re: unforgivable), Michael Cohen, and Paul Manafort, Toobin portrays the circus-like atmosphere of Trump’s reactions when he’s called out for all the bullshit he and his minions get up to. Trump writes like a middle school girl. He said Jeff Sessions should give a speech that included the lines, “I know for a fact b/c I was there. He didn’t do anything wrong except he ran the greatest campaign in American history.”

Describing the week of May 2017 in relation to Trump occurrences, Toobin references the John le Carré line, “There are moments that are made up of too much stuff to be lived at the time they occur.” So I felt reading this book and absorbing all of this. I don’t mean that negatively whatsoever. Every day feels immeasurably longer under this administration. Even if you’ve followed news closely, which I thought I had, I’d missed some things. Like that Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s twin, Eugene, was fired by Trump from his White House posting the same day his brother was (for testifying in the impeachment). Toobin rightly calls this horrifying development (brother Vindman wasn’t involved) “a particularly sinister (and North Korean) touch.” It’s hard to read these things, especially with Vindman’s speech reprinted here in full, reassuring his father who emigrated from the Soviet Union that he’ll be ok for telling the truth — this is America. And Trump’s getting away with it.

Even if you know most of what’s covered here already, as I would think anyone who’s so inclined to pick this book up does, Toobin’s commentary and analysis are priceless. He says it’s true that Trump is, as many have wondered, a narcissist, but it’s more than that:

It was not just that he loved himself but also that he could never see the needs of others. His absence of empathy was as central to his being as his obsession with himself. He couldn’t distinguish between his own needs and those of the country. There was never an internal monitor, a check, a superego that counseled him to restrain his own impulses. He could use his power — whether to control the Department of Justice or to conduct foreign policy — only to serve his own personal interests. That was all he saw.

This is described as a “real-life legal thriller” and that’s no publisher’s exaggeration. Even though most of this narrative is known, Toobin even manages to end many chapters on cliffhangers. A thorough, impressive and readable analysis, with a warning of what’s to come if he’s allowed another four years.

True Crimes and Misdemeanors:
The Investigation of Donald Trump
by Jeffrey Toobin
published August 4, 2020 by Doubleday

30 thoughts on “Investigating Donald Trump, and Why It’s Failed

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    1. Oh that makes me so happy to hear, thank you!! I want to read Mary Trump’s book too, I’ve been so impressed with her interviews I’ve seen. Imagine coming out of that family and turning out like she did, so intelligent and reasonable and well spoken.

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    1. Oh thank you so much, Jonetta!! That makes me so happy to hear because sometimes I’m writing these and wondering if they even make sense outside of my head 😂 I think this one is a must-read( and how I wish certain people would read it before the election but sigh, the ones who need it are never even interested) but it did make me really angry, and just to be reminded of HOW MUCH there’s been. He said something the other day about Obama’s “scandals” (I can’t remember the context or his wording) and I was enraged. Obama didn’t have a single thing like this in eight years and this was a 500 page book about his last 3.5 years. I’m running out of ways to say I loathe him.

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      1. Ren, that’s one lie (Obama scandals) that even his supporters don’t buy, though they won’t admit that. I never thought I’d see someone like him heading our government in my lifetime. As someone who lived most of my childhood abroad, I know the dreadful impact this has outside of our borders. The world is counting on us to right ourselves.

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      2. Ugh. they will admit nothing about him! The blind near hero worship is so repulsive.They will excuse ANYTHING. I know what you mean about our standing abroad — I only returned to the US last year from nearly a decade living abroad and the damage he’s done to us in that area in the last few years can’t be understated. Even if he’s gone the rest of the world, including our biggest European allies, have lost faith in us, and in our decision-making. I’m not sure it can be repaired anytime soon, but not reelecting him is such a necessary step.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I know what you mean. I cut back on reading a lot of what’s come out lately about this administration, but I love Jeffrey Toobin’s writing too much to skip this one. It’s really worthwhile if you ever feel up to it!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This story has been in the news a lot over here, but because the American legal system is different to ours (not that I am a legal expect here either!) I’ve found in really difficult to follow and understand. This sounds like it would be an excellent guide to the subject.

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    1. I found a lot of it difficult to follow and understand, even while it was unfolding! He lays out here a lot of how Trump’s team used that opacity and density of the justice system to their advantage as well. Much easier to repeat his lies as easy to remember sound bites and eventually that becomes the truth to them.

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  2. Thanks for the review I’ve been waiting for.
    I’m watching the RNC closely.
    I heard on TV today…that the polls are tightening
    in the swing states. I felt a pang of gloom with the
    thought of 4 more years of Trump.
    With no re-election…then hanging over his head
    it will be ‘the worst is yet to come’ IMO.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s exactly the point Toobin makes here, and even closes the book on — Trump has shown repeatedly shown that the only poll he cares about is the election. Even Republicans started parroting this line during impeachment, that the American public elected him and that’s the only judgment that matters. It’s patently ridiculous.

      I think you’d get a lot out of this one, even being as widely read as you are on these topics!

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  3. Right, I’m going to read this! I loved the example of Trump writing like a middle school girl. And firing the twins. He probably thought he had fired the same guy twice. Sorry for the levity, the situation is so unbelievably awful I can only deal with it via an attempt at humour. Am so hoping Biden will win the election.

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    1. I couldn’t think of any other way to describe it! Who else talks like that? “I know for a fact b/c I was there.” He’s such a moron. And I didn’t even think of that but maybe he really was too dumb to even orchestrate this North Korean-style revenge against the twin…it does seem much more likely that he caught sight of him and was like, “Didn’t I fire that guy already?” I’m so hoping we’re done with this incompetent weasel in November.

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  4. Sounds like one I need to read. I’m currently reading Bolton’s book, but I’m only a third in but just the chaos he describes and Trump treating foreign policy like independent real estate deals rather than a coherent strategy is eye opening.

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    1. How is Bolton’s book? I was so irritated with him for not testifying that I didn’t jump to read it right away. And I got the same impression, that it’s just utterly chaotic. It’s amazing that all of these people around him are willing –seemingly enthusiastic, until he burns each one too badly– to live and work that way.

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      1. It’s interesting – it’s all through the lens of foreign policy. He’s always bashing Obama’s policies, but you just have to expect that. I haven’t got to Ukraine yet. But some of Trump’s actions are just eye opening. Like how the intelligence people boil down his briefings and deliver them verbally because Trump won’t read them but even then he doesn’t listen to them and ends up talking most of the time about all kinds not necessarily related to the subject. Bolton realizes early on that it’s going to be a hell of a roller coaster.

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      2. I’d heard that, that he refuses to read anything! What an ass. I can barely watch him speak because of the way he rambles, he makes me feel like I’ve got a cognitive illness coming on or something, I can’t follow him and it’s so disorienting! Let me know what you think of the book once you finish it!

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  5. It’s a shame about Mueller, we all had such high hopes. You were right to single out his decision to not make Trump submit to an interview in person. Depending on your point of view, Mueller either stood by his principles or simply lost his nerve. Either way, Trump really lucked out. Imagine what a mess he would have made trying to defend himself on the spot, in his own words. It all seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Toobin emphasizes that too; that it was such a pivotal moment and could’ve swayed the investigation differently but he completely let it go. I think it was some combination of what you mention, so both sticking by his principles and losing his nerve. Really bad combo at that moment. And seriously, can you imagine him trying to talk his way out of it in person?? They could’ve indicted him 100 times over for what would come out of his mouth then! His lawyers knew that and wanted to avoid it at all costs. But Toobin also points out that in previous depositions trump employs his usual tactics of wasting time, arguing, lying, boasting, etc and is able to finagle his way out of disaster or just run out the clock. The way his idiocy, incompetency, and arrogance have managed to save him so often astounds me, actually.

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  6. I’ve so been looking forward to your review of this and I can’t believe I’m just seeing it now! Whenever I feel like I can’t possibly read anything else about this administration, I’m reminded that I have this book waiting on my kindle and I really need to get around to it.

    It’s just so … wild. But you’ve captured everything that I appreciate about other Toobin books. He has a remarkable way of writing about legal matters that’s ridiculously entertaining—even when the subject isn’t.

    And an Oogie Boogie reference! Amazing review. I love it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!!! Wait til you read this, you can’t help but think of Oogie Boogie’s helpers. Only wildly less efficient.

      And I agree, as overwhelmed as we are with material about him, this one is absolutely worth reading. Toobin’s storytelling and the way he analyzes legal issues is just so informative and entertaining. I don’t know any other author who does this like him. Reading this reminded me that I bought a copy of his American Heiress years ago and still hadn’t gotten around to it so I read that and it was similarly excellent. Have you read it?

      And had you heard anything about the new Bob Woodward book before the last couple of weeks?? I hadn’t heard a word about it and then all of a sudden! Obviously I bought the ebook the day it came out because I couldn’t wait for the library on this one. I already started and it’s incredible.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s true, I really can’t think of anyone else who’s able to write about these topics like he can. And yes! I was obsessed with American Heiress, and it really solidified in my mind how good he is. It’s just so different from the usual political-focused books he writes, and yet just as compelling. I walked around quoting sections of it to anyone who would listen for, like, a month. What a wild story. So glad to hear that you enjoyed it!

        Didn’t it feel like it came out of nowhere? I had no idea about it until a few weeks ago. There have been a few Trump books like that lately just springing up with little warning. I’ve only read a few pages, but it’s just … I mean, it’s almost unbelievable. And I have some thoughts about Woodward holding onto his bigger bombshells to sell a book, but it’s hard to say it’s not a fascinating read.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. American Heiress was just so good! I didn’t even realize how interesting that story actually was, or how much was there. It hadn’t particularly grabbed me before, but he told it so perfectly. I love how he structures a narrative! I SO want to know why she wouldn’t cooperate with it though. She’s a strange character, really. And ending with that line about how she’s become her mother!!

        I’m very irritated about Woodward holding onto those things as well. BUT the only positive I see from it is that it’s coming out closer to election time. People have such short memories, it seems, especially when the news is relentless. The closer the bad stuff is to election day can be a positive from that point of view, maybe? Ugh, I don’t even know. I’m trying to work with what we’ve got.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Oh, that entire last section is amazing. Just the perfect wrap-up of the whole thing. And yeah, I’m with you. It seems like it would have been the perfect opportunity to put everything to rest. But then, I suppose the story had been out of the public’s mind for a while before he wrote the book, so why bother adding fuel to the story? Still, there were so many points where her voice would have made for such a compelling addition.

        That is definitely the only reason I’m cutting him SOME slack. It’s a major piece a couple of months before the election, so maybe it had some impact. But who knows! We have to find some silver lining in all of this rubble, I guess!

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