As the blast radius of the Russia investigation continues to expand, Donald Trump is facing an unnerving new reality: The fate of his presidency may now hinge on the motley, freewheeling crew of lieutenants and loyalists who have long populated his entourage.
Last week, a subpoena for Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, was approved as part of the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russia’s interference with the presidential election. With that, Cohen was added to a range of Trump allies who are reportedly entangled in the investigation—from outer-orbit figures like Roger Stone and Carter Page, to more visible senior advisers like Michael Flynn and Boris Epshteyn.
Sources close to the president say there is growing concern in the White House about what skeletons may emerge as investigators comb through a coterie of aides, past and present, who would have done virtually anything to win favor with Trump.
“My fear is that a bunch of people were freelancing—doing things not thinking about the repercussions, but thinking Trump would be so impressed by it,” said one person close to the president. He said that with all the resources the government is putting toward the investigation, “they’re going to want a return.” And in a climate like that, any misguided meeting, bluntly worded email, or undisclosed contact with a Russian official—whether or not Trump himself knew about it—could surface as an incriminating bombshell.
Given the characters this president likes to surround himself with, it’s easy to see why he might be worried.
Long before he entered politics, Trump established a managerial M.O. that came to govern his universe of aides, allies, and hangers-on. Essentially, he populated his team with a cast of scrappy, hard-charging mini-Trumps—people who idolized their boss, and sought to emulate him in every way—and then infused them all with an eat-what-you-kill ethos. Employees are rarely paid impressive salaries at first, but nor are they micromanaged. Instead, they are encouraged to hustle their way up the food chain, competing ferociously with each other to win Trump’s respect, and always seeking out new ways to prove their value.
“He likes to pit advisers against each other,” said one former campaign aide. “He likes the infighting … It’s definitely an environment where you might feel pressured to go the free-range-kid model and say, ‘Hey, let’s see what I can drum up to impress him with.’”
The aide added, “Someone could easily take it a step too far trying to gain something that no one else could gain.”