Trump’s comments are indicative of his own m.o. before becoming president. As a businessman, he frequently bent or broke the rules and the law, confident—correctly—that he would be able to pay a fine, settle, and do whatever else it took to make something go away without ever having to go to trial or face criminal charges.
During the young Donald Trump’s first turn in the public eye, the Justice Department accused the Trump Organization of discriminating against black would-be tenants; the company settled, agreeing to make changes without admitting guilt.
In 1991, with impending debt payments threatening to send Trump belly-up, his father, Fred, walked into one of his casinos and bought $3.5 million in chips, the equivalent of an interest-free loan—and a violation of state gaming laws. The younger Trump kept his gambling license in exchange for a $30,000 fine.
When, in a bid to save costs, Trump employed unauthorized immigrants from Poland to work on the construction of Trump Tower, he settled the ensuing lawsuits for $1 million. Even more brazenly, when he got into trouble with the city of Palm Beach, Florida, for violating zoning rules, he agreed to make a donation to veterans in exchange for dismissing legal problems. Yet rather than make the charitable gift himself, he directed his foundation, mostly made of others’ money, to do it. In other cases, Trump hasn’t even had to ante up to evade trouble. He has often stiffed contractors and simply refused to pay, guessing correctly that they won’t, or can’t afford to, sue him.
For Trump, crime simply isn’t something that well-to-do men like himself, or Cohen, or Manafort do. It’s something that young men of color do. Businessmen can always find the right price to make trouble go away.
To see his former associates convicted of felonies, and the special counsel charging after him, must gall Trump, as though the earth has shifted under his feet and the rules have changed. Things that people used to be able to get away with are landing them in prison. But what has changed is not the rules, but Trump’s own position: Actions that might have escaped scrutiny for just another rich man in New York City draw much greater attention when they involve the president of the United States.
Time and again, Trump seems unable to grasp why it’s different being president. He riffs and improvises when speaking and on Twitter, the same tactics that made him a frequently entertaining guest on Howard Stern’s radio show, not recognizing that doing the same thing as part of delicate diplomatic negotiations can have catastrophic results. He blithely calls for the firing of various officials, and is saved from disaster only because his aides are savvier than Henry II’s and know to ignore him. He treats everything from legislative pushes to nuclear negotiations as real-estate deals, with predictably bad results.