Chapter 1 1
“How could you work for a man like that?”
“What were you thinking?”
“What possessed you?”
All the time I get this, even in here, which frankly strikes me as a bit rich. Who knew inmates at federal correctional institutions had such keenly developed senses of moral superiority?
Let me say, at the outset I had no illusions when I agreed to serve as Donald Trump’s White House chief of staff. I did not seek the job, nor did I imagine, even for a moment, that it would be a “picnic,” a “walk in the park,” or some other metaphor for “wonderful, life-enhancing experience.” I certainly didn’t imagine that it would culminate in having a mailing address consisting of an acronym and numbers recognizable only to the US Postal Service.
Call me old-fashioned. My view is that when your president calls, you pick up the phone. My wife, Hetta, urged me—literally—not to pick up the phone when she saw “potus” on the caller ID.
“Hetta,” I said, “I can’t not take a call from the president of the United States.”
“Yes you can
!” she hissed, sounding like an inverted Obama slogan. She remonstrated, as only Hetta can. But I picked up. Let history record that when the president called, Herbert K. Nutterman took the call.
The operator put me through to the Oval Office. I heard the familiar voice: “How’s my favorite Jew?”
Hetta was now shaking her head, making violent “No!” and “Hang up!” gestures. It’s distracting to have your wife do this when you are talking to the most powerful man on earth.
Mr. Trump often called me “My favorite Jew.” (When he was pleased with me, that is.) Sometimes just “My Jew.” I didn’t especially enjoy it, but I emphasize it was not anti-Semitism. Mr. Trump is many things, but anti-Semitic is not one of them. It’s just his way. Many people who grow up in Queens, a borough of New York City, talk this way. Mr. Trump called one of the White House butlers of color “My favorite African American.” There was a navy steward in the White House Mess he always greeted with, “How’s my favorite Mexican today?”I
I told Mr. Trump that his favorite Jew was fine, thank you. I quickly added—for Hetta’s sake—“I’m finding retirement very pleasant, sir. Very pleasant.”
Hetta shook her head as if to say, “Oy!” (a Yiddish expression generally meaning “My husband is an idiot”). She stomped off to the kitchen. Soon there came a cacophony of Calphalon pots. Hetta copes with stress by cooking. From one especially resonant thunk
, I guessed that she had dropped the large soup pot. Perhaps on purpose. A great maker of soup is my Hetta. I hoped it was borscht, as I was very partial to Hetta’s borscht.
We Semites of Jewish persuasion turn to soup in times of trial; and indeed, in times of nontrial. I don’t know if this is also true of the Arab-variety Semites, but it’s certainly true of us Jewish-variety Semites. We’re very big on soup. It’s comforting. Considering historically what we as a people have been through, it’s no surprise we seek comfort where we can find it.
“What was I thinking
?” the president said.
I had no idea to what he was referring. His abrupt decision to abandon the Kurds, America’s staunch allies? His “bromance” with Kim Jong-un? The trade war with China? Calling former vice president Biden a “douchebag”? Calling Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, “an old hag”? Why address this rhetorical question to myself?
“Why did I ever let you go?” he said. “You were the best manager I ever had. I’m not saying I’m not a genius. I am. But that was nuts of me. Must have been temporary insanity.”
I won’t pretend I wasn’t flattered. But I had an uneasy feeling about where this might be headed. To the clatter of Calphalon was now added Hetta’s sobs. She tried to hold them in, but they came out. Hetta’s sobs sound like a large bird—an emu, say—choking. Careful, Herb
, I told myself.
“Thank you, sir,” I said. I felt I should say something reciprocally flattering, but now Hetta had appeared in the doorway, holding her favorite paring knife. I didn’t want her to think that I was encouraging Mr. Trump. I said, “My years working for you were a major part of my life, sir.” That seemed neutral enough.
“You’re way too young to be retired.”
“Oh,” I said with a laugh. “I think I might disagree with you there, sir. Every day I wake up with some new pain or ache.”
Twenty-seven years I worked for Mr. Trump. First as food and beverage manager at the Trump Magnifica, in Wetminster, New Jersey. Then as assistant general manager at the Trump Farrago-sur-Mer. That led to my promotion as the first general manager of the Trump Bloody Run Golf Club in Little Hot Pepper, Virginia. My time there was not dull. Indeed, it included some controversy.
Mr. Trump was of the opinion that a major, decisive Civil War battle had been fought on the property. Most historians disagreed. (Actually, every historian.) But that wasn’t going to deter Mr. Trump. It takes more than historians to deter Mr. Trump. So a second decisive battle was fought.II
We prevailed, after some heated litigation with the local authorities. Mr. Trump’s personal attorney, Mr. Cohen, finally overwhelmed the various commissions by means of what I believe is called force majeure. In this particular case, he told the head of the Virginia Historical Commission that he “might want to hire someone to turn on the ignition in your car when you leave for work in the morning.”
We got our historical marker. A statue was erected on the seventeenth green to the Confederate colonel who (according to Mr. Trump) had “kicked Union ass.” Later, Mr. Trump tried to persuade Senator Squigg Lee Biskitt of South Carolina to dedicate the statue, but the senator demurred.
Mr. Trump then expressed his confidence in me by making me part of his effort to realize his long-cherished dream of building a Trump Tower Kremlin in Moscow. That process made getting approval for the statue of Col. Robert E. Bigly seem like small potatoes. Meanwhile, to return to Mr. Trump’s fateful phone call that day.
I knew that whatever he had in mind for me would not sit well with Hetta. For over a quarter century, Hetta had yearned for our post-Trump life. She never felt comfortable with what she called the “meretricious glamour” of Trump World. I misunderstood. All those years she’d been saying that, I thought she meant meritorious
glamour, as in glamour that you earn. I’m no Mr. Dictionary. One day, years later, after one of her eruptions, I looked it up, and learned that in fact she meant something quite different. The word means seemingly attractive, but actually cheap, or, if you will, fake.
“Listen,” the president said. I braced, because whenever Mr. Trump tells you “Listen,” you know something not wonderful is coming. “I need you back.”
Given the brouhaha over the Trump Tower Kremlin, I figured that the project had been put on the back burner. So I assumed he was about to offer me the general manager job at Trump Farrago. He had hinted once or twice someday that might be mine. Five years ago, I might have leapt at it.
“Sir,” I said, “you deserve the best.” He loved hearing that. “I’m no longer at the top of my game, though. Running Trump Farrago-sur-Mer is a job for a younger man. But I’m honored to be asked.”
He laughed. Mr. Trump rarely laughs, unless, say, he’s just been informed that someone he despises has been diagnosed with malignant tumors or has experienced some other calamity. It’s not that he lacks a sense of humor. I believe it derives from his German extraction. Who but the Germans would have such a precise word as “schadenfreude,” meaning “a gleeful satisfaction from the misfortune of others.”III
Just think: at some point in German history, it occurred to someone to make up that word. No wonder they came up the with the V-1 and V-2 rockets that terrorized the civilian population of London during World War II. Those Vs stand for the German word for vengeance. By contrast, we gave our first nuclear bombs cute names like Fat Man and Little Boy.
“Herb,” Mr. Trump said. “Fuck the Farrago. I want you to come work for me at the White House.” This
I was not expecting. I stammered. In Mr. Trump’s employ, stammering happens.
“But, but, sir
,” I said, head spinning. “My understanding is that the White House Mess is run by the US Navy. Surely the person in charge should be an admiral or commodore or some such personage.”
,” he said, annoyed. Mr. Trump hates dithering by his subordinates. “I’m not asking you to run the fucking kitchen. I want you to be my chief of staff.”
Well, believe me, to this I had no answer. Now, it was no secret that Mr. Trump was unhappy with his current chief of staff. In his tweets and comments he was calling him things like “bozo” and “that idiot.”
“Sir,” I said. “I’ve had no experience in government.”
“Yeah you have,” he said.
“I have?” Really, I was at a loss.
“You dealt with that asshole commissioner in Virginia over the Confederate thing. That’s experience with government.”
This seemed a stretch. I said, “It was really Mr. Cohen who did the heavy lifting.”
“Herb. Did I
have any experience in government? Look at the job I’m doing. I’m crushing it. They’re comparing me to Lincoln. [Mr. Trump did not specify who exactly was comparing him to Lincoln.] Look, I’ve had a political chief of staff. He was a disaster. I had a four-star general. He was worse. How many chiefs of staff have I had now? I’ve lost count. Terrible, all of them. I need someone I can trust. I need a manager. I need my favorite Jew.”
“That’s, uh, very generous of you, sir,” I stammered. “But…”
“Have you been following the news? I’m in the middle of a shit storm. It’s all fake, what they’re saying. They’re disgusting people, the media. Really, really disgusting. MBS, the guy runs Saudi Arabia? He had it right. The only way to deal with those assholes is to smother them and dismember them with bone saws. I’m telling you.”
“Well, sir,” I said, clearing my throat, “I had
gotten the general impression that things were”—I was careful not to mention I-words like “impeachment” and “indictment”—“a bit of a roller coaster. But your base is with you one hundred percent.” (This was not technically accurate at this point, his support having fallen to 89 percent among Republicans. Still, not bad, all things considered.)
“It’s true,” he said. “They love me. But that’s not the problem, Herb. The problem is I’m surrounded by fucking incompetents. You’ve never seen incompetence like this, Herb. These people wouldn’t last one week
in the Trump Organization. It’s very disappointing, Herb. So I need you. Okay?”
What could I say? No, thank you, Mr. President. I’d love to help you run the country, but it might interfere with my Wednesday night poker game?
“Well,” I said, flailing. “I’d have to run it by Hetta.”
“My wife, sir,” I said with a touch of impatience. I was tempted to add, “Of thirty-two years. Whom you’ve met on maybe five hundred occasions.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “She’s great. Hetta is going to be very, very happy about this. What an honor, right? How many people get to be Trump’s White House chief of staff?” (Seven in not quite four years, actually.)
I cannot truthfully describe Hetta’s reaction as “very, very happy.” As I stood there in the kitchen trying to rationalize with her, she said nothing. She just went on peeling beets. I stressed the theme of “duty.” Still nothing. She continued peeling, more and more aggressively. To this day, even in the kitchen here at Federal Correctional Institute Wingdale, I have never seen beets—or for that matter any vegetable or legume—peeled with such vehemence. It actually crossed my mind that it was just as well she was able to work out her frustration on the beets, inasmuch as she was wielding a knife. It would be weeks before we had anything like a normal married-couple conversation, much less married-couple “relations.”
As it happened, Mr. Trump didn’t wait for me to call him back with my decision. Within five minutes, he’d tweeted that Herbert K. Nutterman, “A great, TRUMP-TRAINED MANIGER,” would be replacing Mack Mulkinson as White House chief of staff.
For the record, I was dismayed when I learned that Mr. Mulkinson heard of his dismissal from his driver. He was on his way back to the White House from a meeting on Capitol Hill with the House Aryan Caucus.IV
The driver received a text instructing him to pull over and tell Mr. Mulkinson to “exit the vehicle immediately.” Mr. Mulkinson did, apparently under the impression that a terrorist act was imminent, whereupon the driver drove off and left him on the sidewalk. The photograph of him standing there with a What the…?
look on his face was not, I stipulate, one of the Trump administration’s proudest moments. It became a meme and went viral.
Hetta never made the borscht. She finished peeling the beets, took off her apron, folded it neatly, went to the bedroom, and closed the door. I wondered: is she committing suicide?
I stared forlornly at the pile of purple peelings. There is something inherently forlorn about a pile of pointless beet shavings on a kitchen floor. Here, I suppose, was our
meme. I certainly wasn’t about to take a picture and post it on Instagram. But I can tell you that it did go viral throughout the Herbert K. Nutterman central nervous system. It forever ruined borscht for me. Ever since, the mere thought of beets makes me queasy.
In ancient Rome, they would slice birds open and study their entrails to see what the future held. Disgusting, I agree, and scientifically speaking, nuts. But looking back, I’ve sometimes wondered if perhaps I should have studied those purple beet peelings more closely. I might have, but now the phone was ringing and life hasn’t been quite the same since. I
. The steward was actually Filipino, but he never corrected the president. To be honest, I don’t think Mr. Trump had any “favorite” Mexicans. II
. Second, that is, assuming one believed in the first. III
. The German language is like a pipe organ, combining as it does so many elements. It even has a word for “a face crying out for a fist to be smashed into it”: Backpfeifengesicht
. Imagine coming across that in a book of useful German phrases. IV
. A group of congresspeople who generally, but not exclusively, focus on matters dealing with immigration.