Trump has a knack for attracting self-serving grifters

By: Rachel Marsden

PARIS -- One of the more remarkable things about the Trump presidency is the number of self-serving clingers that it attracts. The president addressed the issue earlier this week when referring to a lobbyist who has leveraged claims of close ties to the Trump White House to attract clients.

“Many people say they know me, claiming to be ‘best friends’ and really close etc., when I don’t know these people at all,” Trump tweeted. “This happens, I suppose, to all who become President.”

But Trump has a history of engaging with people whose interests are at odds with those of the country — and often with his own, too. Perhaps the most glaring example is Trump’s appointment of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani as his informal cybersecurity adviser in January 2017. For starters, it was a strange role for someone who, a month after his appointment, had to visit the Apple Genius Bar for tech support to unlock his iPhone. Giuliani had locked himself out after 10 failed attempts at entering a password. Giuliani had also twice butt-dialed an NBC News journalist twice in the last several weeks and was heard talking about Ukraine, Joe Biden and the need for “a few hundred thousand” in cash.

Trump’s cyber “expert” has also been cashing in on speeches paid for by a Saudi- and Israeli-funded Iranian opposition group while overtly promoting war with Iran. Giuliani has also engaged in business dealings with Ukrainian oligarchs while pushing the Ukrainian government to probe Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

It would be one thing if Trump disengaged from Giuliani, but he didn’t. Instead, according to House Intelligence Committee testimony from Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, Trump directed Sondland to work with Giuliani on Ukraine matters. At the time, Giuliani was pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open corruption probes targeting Biden and his son Hunter.

This isn’t the only time self-serving actors have tried to cozy up to the power of the American presidency and Trump has either played along (at best), or tasked them with doing his bidding (at worst).

Last week, the Department of Justice released previously classified documents from the Robert Mueller investigation. They included the handwritten notes of FBI agents taken during witness interviews. In one such interview, Trump deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates recalled a moment aboard Trump’s campaign airplane when Trump told his staff to “get the emails,” referring to emails deleted from a server of Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Some interpreted Trump’s clarion call to find Clinton’s emails as an opportunity for them to work their way into Trump’s good graces. That seemed to be the case with Erik Prince, who helped finance a failed effort to obtain the Clinton emails. Prince was a co-founder of the private security company Blackwater and had been on a long trek across the political desert ever since Blackwater security guards serving in America’s name shot civilians in Iraq and were convicted of murder and manslaughter.

According to FBI notes from an interview with former Trump campaign chief Steve Bannon, he and Prince had multiple email exchanges that, if ever acted upon, would have resulted in foreign policy land mines for Trump and for America. Prince offered to arrange a meeting between the Trump campaign and the former deputy secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, Oleg Gladkovsky, who was dismissed from his post and charged with embezzlement.

Prince also sent debate talking points to the Trump campaign in which he referred to Russia as a “far greater threat than China” while portraying China as a potential counterterrorism partner for America. In dispensing this advice, Prince neglected to disclose that the government of China just happens to own a majority stake in a security and logistics company called Frontier Services Group, of which Prince is co-founder and deputy chairman.

Bannon’s reaction to all of this in his role as the purported gatekeeper to Trump should have been to tell Prince to go back to Abu Dhabi, where he had fled during the Obama administration, and continue his desert trek. Instead, he invited Prince to meet Trump himself.

Despite Trump ultimately firing Bannon from his role as White House adviser, Bannon is now back on Trump’s coattails. He recently made the rounds here in Europe — in France, Italy, and Great Britain — while trying to conflate the success brought about by the hard work of local populists with his own sudden presence. Now, Bannon is back in America, making the cable news rounds and purporting to be spearheading the effort to help Trump fight impeachment.

In the past, Trump has engaged with stage-five clingers to money and power. The president’s inability to resist people who can’t resist the power of the American presidency — rather than keeping them at bay — may ultimately contribute to his downfall.