The Revenge of the Lesser Trumps

Donald Trump, with Michael Cohen and Omarosa Manigault Newman directly behind him, at the Pastors Leadership Conference in Cleveland in 2016.

The problem with being Donald Trump isn’t just being Donald Trump. It’s all the other, lesser Trumps around you. It’s the versions of yourself that you create, the echoes of yourself that you inspire. They’ll devour you in the end.

I don’t mean his biological offspring, though they’re no picnic. I mean his spiritual spawn. I mean the knaves, nuts, schemers and dreamers who have taken their cues from him or turned his lessons against him. This is their moment. This is their month.

Omarosa Manigault Newman has a Trump-savaging book, “Unhinged,” out this week, and while she’s a compromised messenger, she’s also a mesmerizing one. From the master she learned how to draw and hold the spotlight: Mete out revelations. Hurl accusations. Contradict yourself. Leave everyone gasping, gawking and coming back for more.

“Trump and Omarosa Are Kindred Spirits” reads the headline on a new Bloomberg column by Tim O’Brien, the author of the 2005 book “TrumpNation.” The president, he notes, was “fascinated by her self-absorption and nastiness.” Trump stares into every mirror he passes.

“She may be the purest of all the Trump characters,” an unnamed former Trump administration official told Axios’s Jonathan Swan. “She may be the most Trumpian.” No maybe about it.

She made secret tapes, just like Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer. No one should be surprised, least of all Trump. When you grease the walls of your sanctum with lies and put fun-house mirrors everywhere, is it any wonder that the dazed people inside try to protect themselves with a lifeline like proof?

And didn’t Trump himself record people who called him at Trump Tower and later taunt James Comey by suggesting that he had audio of their conversations? Imitation isn’t just the sincerest form of flattery. It’s the cleverest kind of revenge.

Ask Michael Avenatti, Stormy Daniels’s lawyer. He’s flirting with a presidential bid or at least realizing that such a flirtation is a brand multiplier. Last week he visited Iowa, and not for the soybeans. He made a big speech. Said that when they go low, he’ll go subterranean. He’ll tunnel. He’ll spelunk.

He’s not just Trump’s adversary. He’s Trump’s analogue, with a similar timbre and bag of tricks. Like Trump, he vents his scorn in crude put-downs. Like Trump, he views media ubiquity as a credential in its own right.

Like Trump, he overpromises, confident of the shortness of memory. To build interest in his and Daniels’s big appearances on “60 Minutes,” he tweeted a picture of a compact disc and of the safe in which it was ostensibly being protected. He implied that it had evidence of her communions with Trump. That was March. And that was that.

I’m not equating Trump and Avenatti, who doesn’t deserve that. I’m just pointing out leitmotifs. And I’m hardly the first. Brian Kabateck, the president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, told Matthew Shaer of The New York Times Magazine that Avenatti was “a perfect foil for Trump, because he actually sees the world just like Trump does.” Kabateck paused before adding, “In a way, he sort of is Trump.”

In a way, Cohen sort of is Trump, too, with shady ties, bendy rules and limber ethics. His exposure is now Trump’s vulnerability. There’s actually a scene in Manigault Newman’s book where she and Cohen watch Trump eat a piece of paper rather than leave it around for presidential record-keepers. Cohen has denied this; Trump has essentially denied everything by tweeting copiously that Manigault Newman is “vicious,” “deranged,” “crazed” and a “dog.” You can muddle through whom to believe or you can marvel — and shudder — at the intersection of these three at the apex of American government.

Cohen is staring down possible time in the clink, and so is Paul Manafort. Do birds of a feather become jailbirds together?

Manafort and Trump were surely drawn to each other by common values (or, rather, an uncommon lack of them). As The Times reported, Manafort faked an altitude of affluence that he no longer possessed, forgoing any salary as Trump’s campaign chairman, because he suspected that this would impress Trump, who has exaggerated his own wealth.

Trump was indeed impressed — by Manafort’s generous allotment of professionally styled hair. An alliance was born. It had a short life. It’s having a long death rattle.

Manafort’s ongoing trial provides daily reminders that Robert Mueller’s investigation is no “witch hunt.” And it’s a peek into the vanity and chicanery that earn too many people entry into Trump’s world, crowded with hucksters in whom he sees himself or through whom he replicates himself.

The genre usually invoked to describe his presidency is reality television. Science fiction is more apt. He’s an entity whose components split off to form independent existences that now threaten to undo him. His hunger for attention became Rudy Giuliani; his thirst for pomp, Scott Pruitt; his taste for provocation, Avenatti; his talent for duplicity, Manigault Newman. They’re an army of emulators, adding up to Trump. And they’re on the march.

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