Standing by Friends — Or Not

Terry H. Schwadron

Nov. 21, 2018

Picking your friends — and your foes — is never easy. It’s a special chemistry that allows for shared values, shared outlook, a desire to find common things funny or tasty or somehow enjoyable.

And it is said often enough to feel almost trite that we learn something about character by seeing the circle of friends one picks. Still, I know I needn’t find everything that my friends do or says as agreeable; part of the give-and-take of friendship is the chance to talk things through. But overall, for me, all those I consider close friends see respect, an adherence to values and humor as important.

All of which makes me wonder about Donald Trump, who regularly parades his friends and foes before us, almost daring us to draw a conclusion about him as a result. His choices seem skewed because he puts such an important chip on honoring him as a central part of the friendship.

In the business of running a country, however, that’s not a formula for success; there are just too many actual issues that can split people.

So, the president this week continues to embrace Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman as a close personal and professional friend, despite the building preponderance of evidence that the crown prince ordered the assassination and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Turkey. The president is dismissing calls for distance from the Saudi leader or the imposition of substantive sanctions against the regime, preferring the long call on regional Middle East politics and pitting Saudi interests against Iranian interests.

Indeed, as he does regularly with people like Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Trump is denying or setting aside the findings of the CIA and his own intelligence people to determine what happened in Turkey. Finally, he is more willing for either personal, business or some kind of prism of geopolitics to keep the killer friend he knows.

In the last weeks, Trump has pushed away Emmanuel Macron, the French leader, despite their previous public embraces, just because Macron took a swipe at “nationalist” politics in a speech. Previously he has distanced himself from Angela Merkel and other European leaders, has run hotter and colder than his advisers on the leaders of China and North Korea, even has risked longtime friendship with Canada’s Justin Trudeau.

This weekend, the president dumped on Rear Adm. William H. McRaven, the guy who led the attack on terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden, because McRaven criticized Trump’s declaration of war on the media. In response, Trump said McRaven ought to have found and killed bin Laden much earlier. What? Perhaps like attacking the late John McCain for ending up a prisoner of war or attacking the parents of killed Army Capt. Humayun Khan for speaking against him at the 2016 Democratic convention.

Trump has surrounded himself with people like Rudi Giuliani, whose blowhard performances as Trump’s public relations lawyer have embarrassed himself as well as his client, and whose dive as a figure of credulity and credibility are severe.

Trump’s decision to award Medals of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, to Miriam Adelson just because she and her husband donated huge sums to his political campaign. Otherwise, his choices were all safe, dead people like Elvis and Babe Ruth or the living former NFL stars Alan Page and Roger Staubach, and retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch. What kind of political courage or even ceremonial American values does it take to salute Elvis and Babe Ruth?

The president showed his major distaste for Jeff Sessions for showing a bit of required legal backbone in recusing himself in the all-things-Russia investigation, driving Sessions out of the attorney general job. Instead, he embraced, then distanced himself, from his own acting attorney general Matt Whitaker, whose background as a director of a company accused of bilking customers and calling for judges with “good Biblical outlook” show his lack of gravitas for the job.

Michael Cohen, the longtime fixer, suddenly was out as personal friend as well as political cover, just because he was pressured into re-examining his participation in a number of legally questionable acts on behalf of Trump. The Steve Bannon’s and Paul Manafort’s never were really friends, you could probably drive a truck in the distance from his associate Roger Stone, and you get the idea that Kellyanne Conway could be jettisoned any time she chooses to agree with her anti-Trump program husband, George Conway.

The Trump formula is pretty clear: Sean Hannity of Fox, friend, despite his lack of journalistic ethics; Jim Acosta of CNN, enemy, for appearing to be too aggressive with questions for the president. Rep. Devin Nunes, outgoing intelligence chief who was roundly criticized for setting aside facts to protect the president, friend; Adam Schiff, incoming Democratic intelligence committee head who questions Trump, enemy. Kanye West, friend; Taylor Swift, enemy.

The list goes on.

You do get the clear sense that friends in the Trump world are temporary and chosen just for convenience of the moment, just as his policies are.

It all helps to round out our opinion of the character of that guy in the Oval Office.


Journalist, musician, community volunteer