Bill Barr? He gone.
Barr began the Year of Our Lord 2016 as a well respected member of the conservative legal establishment. He concludes 2020 with his reputation destroyed, destined to be remembered as the most dishonorable attorney general in a century. The fact that he tried to salvage his legacy in the closing weeks of his tenure looks less like a man standing up and more like Meat Loaf.
He would do anything for Trump. But he won’t do . . . that.
A wise man once prophesied that everything Trump touches dies. And while this turns out not to be as reliable as a law of thermodynamics, it works just fine as a general rule of thumb.
Every presidential administration chews up and spits out one or two people. There are always guys who enter an administration looking like normal, upstanding citizens and exit having been revealed as hucksters, frauds, or criminals. G. Gordon Liddy. Pat Buchanan. Cap Weinberger. John Poindexter. Sometimes the people who get rendered by a president are good guys who catch a bad break, like Mike Espy.
But the sheer number of people who had their lives and/or careers destroyed over four years of swimming in Donald Trump’s slipstream is kind of staggering.
So let’s take a walking tour through the human wreckage of the Trump years.
Because, with just a few important exceptions—most notably the Republican Senate majority—pretty much everyone Trump touched, died.
They Lost Everything
(1) Paul Manafort was an anonymous conservative consultant who had parlayed his years as a political operative into untold riches. Until he took a call from Donald Trump and agreed to become his campaign manager. That was June 20, 2016. Manafort was fired on August 17, 2016.
Because of the 58 days he spent working for Trump, Manafort wound up losing everything. He lost his license to practice law. He was arrested, tried, and sentenced to 47 months in jail. In separate charges, he pled guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States and witness tampering, and for this was fined $22 million and had an additional 30 months tacked on to his sentence. Probably not worth it. (Unless the alternative was getting whacked by some Russian mobsters, I guess).
(2) Michael Cohen was Donald Trump’s personal fixer, a guy who skated on the line of the law. Had Trump not become president, Cohen would have lived his comfortable life indefinitely. Instead, he was arrested, charged, convicted, and disbarred. He’s currently serving a three year stretch in prison.
(3) Jerry Falwell Jr. was the Kim Jong-Un of Liberty University, the maximum leader whose reign of terror allowed him to live an opulent lifestyle under the radar. Then he signed on to Team Trump. His—no judgments here—proclivities found their way out into the world and his behavior became so deranged and debauched that his father’s university pushed him out. He now wanders the countryside looking for pool boys with excellent business ideas and hoping that his $10.5 million hush-money package from Liberty will be enough to last him a few decades.
(4) Sidney Powell was an anonymous career attorney. She checked boxes as an AUSA and then high-powered corporate lawyer. She could have enjoyed her autumn years as a member of the lower-upper class and retired quietly. Instead, she’ll forever be remembered as the Crazy Kraken Lady.
(5) Jeff Sessions was a senator for life. Then he endorsed Trump. As a reward, he was gifted the AG job. And then publicly humiliated. And then fired. And then Trump campaigned against him when he ran for his old Senate seat. Which he wound up losing to a washed up college football coach.
I know that might sound like a bad deal. But at least he got to separate Mexican kids from their families, put them in cages, and then send their parents home without their children. And for a good ole’ boy like Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, some things are priceless.
(6) Steve Bannon was an autodidact, film producer, layer game grandmaster, and chairman of a burgeoning global network of racist blogs. He even got to live gratis in a faux embassy with a replica Lincoln Bedroom. Then he took the cursed job of Trump campaign manager. Next thing you know, he’s getting rousted out of his stateroom on a Chinese billionaire’s yacht by the cops. He’s charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering and looking at possibly 40 years in jail.
His trial date is set for May 24, 2021.
(7) Michael Flynn was a respected retired general until he came into Trump’s orbit. He wound up pleading guilty to making false statements to the FBI. And then things went really sideways for him:
(8) Rudy Giuliani became America’s mayor in the aftermath of 9/11. If he hadn’t started working for Donald Trump, New Yorkers probably would have named an airport or a stadium or a bridge for him. He would have been put up on the high shelf with Fiorello La Guardia.
Instead, he’ll be remembered for waddling around, while . . . impaired. Farting and having his hair dye running down his face while trying to help the president of the United States overturn the results of a free and fair election through a series of lies. He’ll be remembered as a cautionary tale. As an enemy of democracy.
(9) Brad Parscale made bank from Trump in 2016 and then, like an idiot, accepted the Death Job of campaign manager. Next thing you know he’s fired. Then out of his mind. Then getting carted off from his house by the po-po, shirtless, like a Special Guest Star on COPS.
(10) David Pecker was the most powerful tabloid mogul in America. Then he turned his trash empire into an arm of the Trump campaign, because reasons. After a series investigations of his company’s role in working on Trump’s behalf, Pecker sold his tabloids to Hudson Media and was subsequently pushed out of the organization by the new owners. Leaving him limp and powerless.
(11) Steve King had been a racist crank with a House seat for a dozen years with no one outside of Washington being any the wiser. Suddenly Donald Trump descends like the great White Eagle and people start picking on King just because he thinks white supremacism is okay.
And then he draws a primary challenger and gets beat like a drum.
(12) Roger Ailes was like the Jerry Falwell Jr. of Fox News—a guy who got away with everything for forever because people were terrified of him. But Ailes signed onto the Trump train and the Trump train helped spark the #MeToo movement—I posit to you that Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo never achieve the salience they did absent the election of the guy from the Access Hollywood tape as president of the United States.
Ailes was fired for his transgressions. Ten months later he was dead.
(13) 300,000 Americans are dead today because of COVID-19. That number will continue to grow over the next 10 months. Many of those deaths—at least scores of thousands of them—can fairly be attributed to the actions of President Donald Trump.
By the way, that’s why I’m putting this list together. It’s not just the shameful joy of seeing bad things happen to bad people. It’s because it’s important to document this era in American politics and to remember what happened and who did what. Most of these guys—at least the ones who aren’t dead, or dying, or in jail—plan to just spend a few years golfing and hanging out at Trump Tower Istanbul before returning to a life of Davos panels, podcast stardom, and ambassadorships the next time a Republican becomes president with a minority of the vote.
We’re not going to get an Official Truth and Reconciliation Commission, so we need to do that work ourselves.
If you’d like to be a part of that, then sign up for Bulwark+ and help us rebuild the political space that these people broke and hold them to account the next time they stick they try to zoom into our lives from a gold lamé throne.
Accountability is going to be especially important for this next batch.
They Lost A Lot (But Not Everything)
(14) Rex Tillerson was the long-time CEO of one of the most valuable companies on the planet. He was four months away from getting his gold watch and a $180 million retirement bonus when Donald Trump came offering the SecState job. Tillerson gave up the money for the chance to be somebody famous. After 13 months, Trump fired him. Later, the president of the United States called him "dumb as a rock" and "lazy as hell.” Good times.
(15) Jeffrey Lord was one of those guys who owed Trump everything. A forgotten nobody from the Reagan years, in early 2016 cable news executives ran an open casting call trying to find conservatives who were willing to go on TV and defend/promote Donald Trump. They were willing to take anyone. And so, Jeffrey Lord raised his hand and was given a CNN gig.
But you know how it is. You get hired to lube up the Orange God King and then you kind of lean into the job and the next thing you know you’re getting fired for tweeting perfectly innocent “Sieg Heil” stuff. And so Jeff went from being an obscure conservative writer to a disgraced Baghdad Bob.
(16) Kirstjen Nielsen was a low-level functionary in the George W. Bush administration who rose to be secretary of Homeland Security under Trump. Probably because she was totally qualified for the job. But while she went along with the family separation policy, she didn’t go hard enough for Trump’s liking. So he fired her.
By most accounts, Nielsen was the one cabinet member who had something like a conscience about what she was doing. But she kept her mouth shut. And for her silence she was rewarded by Trump with a post-firing appointment to the National Infrastructure Advisory Council.
Which, if we can be honest, might be the greatest troll job in the entire Trump oeuvre. Her reward for omerta was a gig pretending to work on . . . Infrastructure Week!
(17) John Bolton was part of Conservatism Inc.’s executive circle. A made man. But he wanted to be part of the action, so he did what all ambitious establishment conservatives started doing in 2016: Going on Fox and proclaiming the enduring genius of Donald J. Trump every day, waiting for the big man to notice him and invite him over to the casting couch.
It worked. Bolton got his National Security Advisor gig. But then he wouldn’t do the drug deal and he got read out of the movement. Now he sits on the outside, wishing he had sold more books and running the Larry Hogan strategy: hoping that Trump will disappear and Good Republicans will return to their rightful place of dominance within the party.
Good luck with that, bro.
(18) Scott Pruitt was on a rocketship to the moon in the old Republican party: C+ levels of charisma, A+ levels of ambition. He deftly balanced the “climate change is a hoax” crazy with the faux serious “policy wonk” schtick. This guy had a leadership role in the Jeb Bush campaign and still finagled his way into the Trump cabinet. That’s skill.
Had Donald Trump never become president, Pruitt was on the Jim Inhofe glide-path in Oklahoma. Governorship. Senator. Maybe leadership, sooner or later. (YSWIDT?) He didn’t have a challenging campaign in sight.
But for some reason he tied his star to Trump. Got slotted into the EPA administrator role, became accustomed to the lifestyle of his charlatan boss and began imitating him. Next thing you know, he’s out on his ass for making government workers do his laundry and calling in favors for his family.
Now he’s an energy lobbyist and his sole client is a coal company. Big future in coal.
All They Lost Was Their Souls
As you get further down the list there are a bunch of people from Trump’s orbit who didn’t go to jail or lose their jobs, but who marked themselves forever as frauds, clowns, and worse. These are people who, no matter what, will have their Trump days at the top of their Wikipedia page, for forever:
The Claremont Institute
First Things magazine
Ronna “Don’t Call Me Romney” McDaniel
Victor Davis Hanson
I’m sure I’m missing at least another two dozen entries. Feel free to email me your nominations.
A Huckster Shall Rise
Of course, in every administration there’s always someone who makes out. Usually it’s a figure who came out of nowhere with nothing to lose and manages to build a brand.
There are a handful of people outside the administration who end the Trump years better off than they started: Charlie Kirk, Dan Crenshaw, Matt Gaetz, Mollie Hemingway. They all made their bones by being willing to defend anything Trump said or did, no matter how stupid, vile, or destructive. And good for them. There was a market niche very few people were willing to fill; so they stepped up. That’s capitalism, baby!
But there’s only one big winner from the Trump saga—a person whose entire career and future was made because of her association with Trump: Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Absent the election of Donald Trump, Sarah Huckabee Sanders would have been just another member of Conservatism Inc.’s nepotism club: An undistinguished, but ambitious, child of a famous politician who thought she was entitled to power, too. Like a poor man’s George P. Bush or Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
But SHS rode Trump all the way to the White House and managed to get a job which allowed her to prove her MAGA bona fides daily, but without ever having responsibility for outcomes in the real world. She understood, intuitively, that power in the Trump administration flowed not from your position or responsibilities, but from your ability to be on TV every day, defending Trump in the most over-the-top manner possible.
And for her service, her reward in Arkansas will be great.
If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll join us at The Bulwark. We have a country a to save.