Donald Trump would have been a great leader of a small third-world country. That’s the type of job for which he would have been a natural, at least to judge from what we’re hearing about removing him from his perch at the helm of a much larger, first-world country.
In one of those nations that Trump was born to lead, no one would have questioned his right to withhold aid to a friendly state while demanding a “small favor” from its leader. Surely, as the acting White House chief of staff acknowledged, that’s how those things work.
Without singling out any of those third-world countries by name, let’s say they routinely do business that way while their leaders alternate between raking off billions for their overseas accounts or attacking neighboring states or annihilating rivals for a piece of the action. In some countries, the leaders carry off all three of those stunts at once.
It would not be realistic to think that Trump had been reading up on how his fellow third-world-type leaders survive sometimes for decades, but he developed his instinct for third-world leadership as a billionaire battling for mercantile success.
The landscape of the U.S. is littered with evidence of his business failings, notably in the gambling casino in Atlantic City, but as a tycoon by heredity and right, by fair means or foul, he had to have told some people with whom he was concocting a deal: “Look, you do this for me, and that loan that I promised is yours.”
Clearly, since he had never run for political office before losing the vote for presidency to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million ballots but winning the election anyway, Trump had not had training in how a statesman should do business with foreign leaders.
Sure, he loved those dictators from powerful nations, from poor nations, from nations riven by conflict. As long as they had their credentials as a dictator, they were fine, but he never realized you don’t treat dictators as you would the mafia types to whom you owed protection money or a rival whom you want to bring to your side.
We all know Trump’s favorite dictators — beginning with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un — with whom Trump professed to have “fallen in love” after their heart-warming tryst in Singapore more than a year and a half ago. And there’s Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and, of course, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and even China’s Xi Jinping, with whom Trump has had a few scrapes over trade but nothing that could not be settled by his idea of a deal.
Trump does have a thing for dictators. As a not-always-successful but supremely self-confident tycoon, he believes he can pretty much win over anyone by sitting down and making an offer. For years he’s been saying, after all his predecessors in the White House — Democrat and Republican — failed with Kim, only he could get him to give up his nukes in return for an enormous pile of money.
We know what’s happened to that fantasy.
It was the same self-confidence that made him think, look, Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, has a background in TV, just like me. He’s a former TV comedian, he likes to talk, he must be up for anything. Surely, he’ll get the message, give me the goods on Hunter Biden, son of the genial but “sleepy” Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s vice president for eight years, and we’ll give you the dough.
In the Trump World of real estate wheeling and dealing that no one knows about, such a scheme would be a slam dunk. In a lot of countries, from Africa to the Middle East, to Asia and South America, that’s how leaders do business.
No, Trump is learning, you can’t do that in the U.S. and get away with it forever. Sure, the U.S. is plenty corrupt, black and grey money changes hands, shady deals are routine, but every day you read about politicos getting nailed.
The other day, the Boston Globe had a picture of a city official reaching inside a vehicle for a bundle of cash. The picture was taken by a camera hidden in the vehicle, his fingers, as the prosecutor said, “inside the cookie jar.” Poor guy. He was looking forward to retirement, and now he’s retired to jail.
Trump isn’t going to jail for asking for a payoff, a “quid pro quo” — Latin for “what for what” — but credit him with the skills, the savvy, the cravings of a third-world dictator. Too bad his current post is a little beyond that skill level.