On July 24, as special counsel Robert Mueller’s uneven testimony came to a close, Donald Trump clearly was feeling triumphant. He gloated and goaded on Twitter. He stood outside the White House and crowed. Mueller had done “horrible” and “very poorly,” the president said on the South Lawn. He called it “a great day for me.” He was, after all, rid, it seemed, of perhaps his first term’s preeminent enemy.
It took him less than 24 hours to flip to the next big fight.
Because on July 25, according to reports, Trump pressured repeatedly the leader of Ukraine to help rustle up potential political ammunition on Joe Biden, the man polls at this point suggest is his most likely opponent in next year’s election.
That Trump would so quickly in the wake of the Mueller investigation commit a brazen act some critics say represents an egregious and impeachable abuse of power has mystified many observers. How could he have so blithely ignored the lessons of the nearly three-year investigation? But those who know him best say this is merely the latest episode in a lifelong pattern of behavior for the congenitally combative Trump. He’s always been this way. He doesn’t stop to reflect. If he wins, he barely basks. If he loses, he doesn’t take the time to lie low or lick wounds; he invariably refuses to even admit that he lost. Regardless of the outcome—up, down or somewhere in between—when one tussle is done, Trump reflexively starts to scan the horizon in search of a new skirmish.
“If he’s not in a fight, he looks for one,” former Trump publicist Alan Marcus told me this weekend. “He can’t stop.”
“He’s always in an attack mode,” former Trump casino executive Jack O’Donnell said. “He’s always got adversaries.”
“He does love a confrontation—there’s no question about it,” added Barbara Res, a former Trump Organization executive. “Trump thinks he’s always going to win—he really does believe that—and he fights very, very, very dirty.”
“A street fighter,” Louise Sunshine, another former Trump Organization executive, once told me.
Trump, of course, has said all of this himself, and for as long as people have been paying him any attention. For decades, he has been redundantly clear. “I go after people,” he has said. “… as viciously and as violently as you can,” he has said. “It makes me feel so good,” he has said.
As president, he’s changed … not at all.
“I like conflict,” he confirmed last year.
“Donald,” wrote Jerome Tuccille, in the first biography ever written of Trump, in 1985, “was a round, fleshy baby who howled up a storm from the day he was born.” He was “a brat” from the start, according to his oldest sister. In elementary school in Queens, he was a desk-crashing, spitball-spewing, pigtail-pulling playground boor. “Surly,” said one of his teachers. “A little shit,” said another. He was sent at 13 years old some 60 miles up the Hudson River to New York Military Academy, where he was cocksure and hypercompetitive—“so competitive,” his roommate recalled, “that everybody who could come close to him he had to destroy.” His favorite instructor at NYMA called him “a real pain in the ass.” But it was what Trump’s father had taught him to be. “Life’s a competition,” Fred Trump told his second son and chosen heir. Be a “killer.”
In the 1970s, when Trump was a young adult, Roy Cohn continued the tutorial. “What makes Roy Cohn tick?” journalist Ken Auletta once asked Cohn in an interview, the audio recording of which acts as a kind of spine to Matt Tyrnauer’s new documentary. “A love of a good fight,” Cohn answered.