Thursday, October 06, 2022

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B. Faulty Information Processing

Mendacity.

Much has been made of the over 9,000 lies that the Washington Post (March 4, 2019) estimates the President has told since taking office. The Report sheds new light on an important area of the President's lying: that to his staff and colleagues. This trend is so obvious to others, and also so unusual among public servants, that it raises a question of serious mental pathology: namely, does he actually believe the obvious untruths that he repeatedly utters (in which case we would need to ask whether he is suffering from delusions), or does he know that they are untrue but utters them anyway (in which case he is deliberately and consciously lying as a means of attempting to manipulate others into advancing his financial, political, or psychological needs and interests, which at high quantities would cause one to ask whether this is a symptom of an antisocial or psychopathic/sociopathic disorder). Either instance would constitute faulty information processing. Although the President presented himself as critical of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn within a few weeks of his inauguration in January of 2017 and then orchestrated Flynn's forced resignation, when Flynn came to his office after resigning, the President hugged him, told him he was a "good guy" and assured him, "we'll take care of you." After his departure, the President several times directed staff such as White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Deputy National Security Advisor K. T. McFarland to reach out to Flynn and let him know he cares about him and to "stay strong" (Vol. II, p. 43-44).

In much the same manner as with Flynn, the Report details the President's playing both former Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort and former Attorney-Fixer Michael Cohen to "stay strong." Cohen was expected by the President to adhere to a "party line" regarding:

(a) denying the President's continuing active engagement in a possible Trump Tower deal in Moscow well into the 2016 primary campaigns and during the run-up to the Republican convention; and

(b) the payments to pornographic actress Stormy Daniels.

From an email from one of his lawyer's reporting on a conversation with attorney Rudolph Guiliani, Cohen was told, "the conversation was ‘Very Very Positive. You are ‘loved'…. they are in our corner…. Sleep well tonight[], you have friends in high places'" (Vol. II, p. 147). Similarly, Manafort apparently believed reassurances that the President would protect him. In "January 2018, Manafort told Gates that he had talked to the President's personal counsel and they were ‘going to take care of us'" (Vol. II, p. 123).

As Cohen began cooperating with the Special Counsel in the Summer of 2018, however, the President's comments turned highly critical, asserting that Cohen was lying in order to get a reduced sentence and publicly playing Cohen, Manafort, and Flynn off against one another. "The President also said that Cohen was ‘a weak person. And by being weak, unlike other people that you watch, he is a weak person'" (Vol. II, p. 150).

The criticism of Cohen included what were widely understood to be threats to his family. The Report describes this:

In the weeks following Cohen's plea and agreement to provide assistance to this Office, the President repeatedly implied that Cohen's family members were guilty of crimes. On December 3, 2018, after Cohen had filed his sentencing memorandum, the President tweeted, "‘Michael Cohen asks judge for no Prison Time.' You mean he can do all of the TERRIBLE… things having to do with fraud, big loans, Taxis, etc., and not serve a long prison term? He makes up stories to get a GREAT & ALREADY reduced deal for himself, and get his wife and father-in-law (who has the money?) off Scott Free…" (Vol. II, p. 151).

The following month, in January 2019, the Report adds:

In an interview on Fox on January 12, 2019, the President was asked whether he was worried about Cohen's testimony and responded: [I]n order to get his sentence reduced [Cohen] says "I have an idea, I'll ah, tell—I'll give you some information on the president." Well, there is no information. But he should give information maybe on his father-in-law because that's the one that people want to look at because where does that money—that's the money in the family. And I guess he didn't want to talk about his father-in-law, he's trying to get his sentence reduced. So it's ah, pretty sad. You know, it's weak and it's very sad to watch a thing like that (Vol. II, p. 152).

Then, "On January 23, 2019, Cohen postponed his congressional testimony, citing threats against his family" (Vol. II, p. 152).

In its analysis of his actions around Cohen, the Report considers the President's "intentions" and points out the basis for "an inference that they were intended at least in part to discourage Cohen from further cooperation":

Finally, the President's statements insinuating that members of Cohen's family committed crimes after Cohen began cooperating with the government could be viewed as an effort to retaliate against Cohen and chill further testimony adverse to the President by Cohen or others. It is possible that the President [believed the assertions in his tweets and/or that they] … were not intended to affect Cohen as a witness but rather were part of a public-relations strategy aimed at discrediting Cohen…. But the President's suggestion that Cohen ‘s family members committed crimes happened more than once, including just before Cohen was sentenced (at the same time as the President stated that Cohen "should, in my opinion, serve a full and complete sentence") and again just before Cohen was scheduled to testify before Congress. The timing of the statements supports an inference that they were intended at least in part to discourage Cohen from further cooperation (Vol. II, p. 156).

Others too suffered the President's mendacity.

In his testimony to the Counsel's office, Reince Priebus described how he had asked the President to return Jeff Session's resignation letter while they were on a trip to the Middle East. The President told Priebus it was in his office in Washington. Former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks, however, described the President having shown the letter to senior staff on the same trip (Vol. II, p. 79) When Don McGahn reported that the President had ordered him to contact Rod Rosenstein and have him fire the Special Counsel, the President denied this account and acted against McGahn. In a meeting in the Oval Office, the President pressured him to deny the reports. This was the same meeting in which the President mocked McGahn's taking notes, comparing him unfavorably to Roy Cohn (the former lawyer for both Senator Joseph McCarthy and Donald Trump, who was later disbarred as a lawyer for several violations of the law), who the President said never took notes. McGahn interpreted this as an attempt to "test his mettle" (Vol. II, p. 117) and see how committed he was to his memory of what had occurred. The President had also orchestrated pressure on McGahn by telling White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter "that it might be necessary to fire McGahn if he did not deny the story, and Porter relayed that statement to McGahn" (Vol. II, p. 120).

Rigidity.

Rigidity is a common feature of a variety of mental health problems. We all have strengths and weaknesses, but it is the ability to recognize and adjust for them that allows most healthy individuals to adapt without forming rigid responses. Strong patterns of behavior, emotional reactions, or cognitive distortions can cause wooden or reflexive reactions to challenges and limit the flexibility and freedom an individual needs when making choices. Healthy individuals may react with less reflection or nuance than ordinarily available them, when they are exposed to an unusually severe degree of stress, but compromised individuals react this way most of the time, merely "doubling down" when challenged. This tendency can easily devolve into "attack mode" whenever under stress, causing the individual to act on the first emotional urge that surfaces, or to view the entire world as against them and thus must always be on the defensive, which can quickly turn into violence.

A deceptive strategy of ad hominem emphasis on his opponents, as a way of avoiding rational and evidence-based debates over issues of public policy, together with a combative strategy of ridiculing his opponents rather than debating about their policy positions, before they have even had a chance to speak ("hit first and ask questions later," as in: "low-energy Jeb," "little Marco," "crooked Hillary") enabled the candidate Trump to distract enough highly-stressed voters from focusing on the actual policy differences between himself and his opponent, that he was able to turn a loss in the popular vote into a victory in the Electoral College. He has also shown predatory skills, being remarkably talented at ridiculing his opponents and brazenly talking down challenges. He attempts, and sometimes succeeds, at overwhelming his opponents wit unabashed grandiosity and assurance in his ability to overwhelm opposition not with rational, evidence-based arguments, but with unsupported, factually untrue assertions that he appears to make up one day and then deny the next, ad libitum. In psychological terms, this is described as the most primitive form of cognition, which is called "magical thinking" or "wishful thinking," which follows "the pleasure principle" (whatever makes one feel good, or at least less distressed, and appears to gratify one's wishes), rather than "the reality principle" (which will often frustrate or be incompatible with one's wishes).

Clinical and empirical research shows that this kind of brashness often comes from a reaction against one's own vulnerability and an inability to tolerate the reality of human weakness and uncertainty. The Report, being an investigative document, is likely one of the greatest challenges to a president who has repeatedly shown an intolerance of investigative reporting, calling it "fake news" and "the enemy of the people." In the Special Counsel's measured but exhaustive compilation of well-sourced facts and observations, it provides a wall of evidence that the President has probably never encountered. It cannot be blown through with bluster and an overwhelming will to deny whatever facts one is uncomfortable acknowledging. It is out there, carefully compiled, clear, convincing, for all to see. By not reaching a verdict, perhaps brilliantly, the Report focuses attention on the facts themselves, not on a conclusion that can be questioned or framed as "angry" or "partisan." However, being faced with an indisputable catalogue of facts, and unable to alter his defenses according to the needs of the situation, the President has already resorted to his customary strategy of lashing out, creating ever greater present dangers for the nation, as can be seen from his initial reactions of attack and threat against McGahn, even to the point of accusing his opponents raising the prospect of treason. Our deepest concern is that when reality smothers his accusations and neutralizes his assaults, that will be when he resorts to the most dangerous and violent strategies. For example, in discussing the possibility of his being defeated, about which he said that he had "the police," "the military," and "the bikers for Trump" on his side—implying the threat of a violent coup d'état (with only what we would call "implausible deniability") if he were denied victory.

Peculiar Frequent Use of "Unfair".

Given the President's pride in being tough and hitting back "ten times harder" than he has been hit, his frequent use of the word "unfair" is striking. He uses it in a way that implies that anyone who frustrates him, even if they do so because the law requires them to disobey his orders to break the law, is being "unfair" to him personally. I does not seem to occur to him that there are objective laws apart from his personal wishes and interests. In an interview with the New York Times on July 19, 2017 (Vol. II, p. 93), the President complained that "Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else." The President described this as "very unfair to the president." Again, in anger directed to Sessions following Comey's failing to state in a May 2017 testimony that the President was not under investigation, "The President said that the recusal was unfair and that it was interfering with his ability to govern and undermining his authority with foreign leaders " (Vol. II, p. 63).

The President dictated to Lewandowski language that the President wanted Sessions to use in announcing limiting the Special Counsel's purview to "future elections." Lewandowski was to relay this to Sessions. According to Lewandowski's notes, the President's dictation included, "our POTUS … is being treated very unfairly. He shouldn't have a Special Prosecutor/Counsel b/c he hasn't done anything wrong…. He didn't do anything wrong except he ran the greatest campaign in American history…. I am going to meet with the Special Prosecutor to explain this is very unfair and let the Special Prosecutor move forward with investigating election meddling for future elections" (Vol. II, p. 91).

This pattern represents a degree of immaturity that in an adult is a sign of either regression or arrested development, neither of which is normal. Cognitively, it shows a lack of abstracting abilities, in that he cannot conceive of "fairness" occurring outside of fulfilling his desires. This results in a "whining" lack of tolerance and peevish retaliation, ill-suited and dangerous in a nuclear-age commander-in-chief.

Poor Memory.

After refusing for more than a year to be interviewed by the Special Counsel (p. C-1), the President finally agreed to respond to questions only in written form. Even with the help of his lawyers, however, his responses were not able to bring up substantial details that would be useful for the investigation but mostly state that he "on more than 30 occasions … does not ‘recall' or ‘remember' or have an ‘independent recollection'" (p. C-1). By contrast, he rarely lacks certainty in his public statements, even with highly questionable content, and touts himself as having "the world's greatest memory" or "one of the great memories of all time." Making oneself impossible to indict by failure or refusal to recall does not prove innocence or guilt bu can be valuable data: overall, in his remarkably brief answers (often the questions are longer than the answers), there is not a single question or part of a question that he answers without some variation of "I do not recall" or "I do not remember" (pp. C-11 to C-23)—to the point that his testimony merely demonstrated "inadequacy of the written format" (p. C-1).

Again, the patterns are more informative than individual instances, and the form of his testimony is significant in terms of:

(a) the near absence of content, which indicates an extreme reluctance or inability to offer information;

(b) a written language so starkly removed from the president's ordinary manner of parlance, that it reads like "legalese" (or a lawyer's language, which is a client's legal right, but in mental health is a possible indication of high levels of contrivance and therefore likely unreliability); and

(c) with his failure to "recall" substantial information (regarding Donald Trump Jr.'s Trump Tower meeting, Russian hacking that includes WikiLeaks, the Trump organization's Moscow project, and Russian contacts during the campaign and the transition), there are only two possibilities: either he truly does not remember, or is making a total fabrication—and either is pathological and highly worrisome with respect to a president 's capacity to serve, warranting an evaluation.

Avoiding interviews or answers that would make oneself indictable is comparable to a mentally impaired person avoiding doctors and hospitals at all cost so as not to be diagnosable. Whereas in criminal justice it is a legal right, in mental health it is valuable information regarding one's mental state. A lack of genuine effort with respect to an issue of national security, when the country was unequivocally and effectively attacked by an enemy nation, is alone a sign of severe incapacity to fulfill the duties of the presidency.

 

 

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