Trump's Daedalus problem

Is the president a high-flying genius, or will he be doomed by his own hubris?

President Trump as Daedalus.
(Image credit: Illustrated | P. S. Art Design Studio/Alamy Stock Photo, Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo, Patrick Guenette/Alamy Stock Photo)

Like the recent travails of Dr. Ronny Jackson and Michael Cohen, the story of Icarus and his father, Daedalus, is a cautionary tale.

The Greek myth's most famous character is Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun and paid the ultimate price for his hubris, but the main character is really Daedalus. At this stage in Donald Trump's presidency, it isn't clear which of the two characters America's 45th president most resembles, but his tenure — in fact, his entire career — is littered with Icaruses.

In case you are unfamiliar with or need a refresher on the Icarus story, it goes something like this: Daedalus, a mechanical and artistic genius with a temper and an excess of self-confidence, fell afoul of King Minos of Crete, who imprisoned him and his son, Icarus. Daedalus created wings from feathers and wax to escape, teaching himself and his son to fly. He warned Icarus not to fly too low or too high, as the sea's moisture would weigh down his wings and the sun's heat would melt them, but Icarus, intoxicated with the power and freedom of flight, flew too high, then crashed into the sea and drowned. You can read the poet Josephine Preston Peabody's version of the myth, or watch a longer recap below.

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The story of the Trump presidency is still being written, but it is currently on the hubristic Icarus trajectory. Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey led to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of possible obstruction of justice plus the continuation of Comey's Russian collusion probe. Twelve-year-old alleged extramarital affairs contributed to the raid on attorney Michael Cohen's office, residences, and safe deposit box, and Cohen's files could have a ruinous effect on Trump's future. The president's hasty executive orders have repeatedly been struck down by federal judges, his tweets and comments used against him in court.

Again and again, Trump's capricious flexing of executive authority has plagued him, and only time will tell if he makes it to solid land on the other side of his presidency.

But as The New York Times' Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman detail, Trump has long managed to stay far enough from the sun and sea to stay aloft, even as those who fly close to him crash and burn. "A ride on President Trump's bullet train can be thrilling, but it is often a brutal journey that leaves some bloodied by the side of the tracks," they write. In just 15 months in office, "Trump has burned through a record number of advisers and associates who have found themselves in legal, professional, or personal trouble, or even all three."

Cohen might go to jail, as might Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, and Paul Manafort, among others who worked for Trump. Jackson was publicly picked apart when Trump nominated the White House physician to lead the U.S. government's second-largest department, erstwhile White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter was revealed to have apparently abused both his ex-wives, and several men who arrived as respected captains of business, medicine, or military — Rex Tillerson, Gary Cohn, David Shulkin, John Kelly, H.R. McMaster — have been bruised, humiliated, and otherwise tarnished by their association with Trump. The Jackson debacle is "just the latest in a long series of sordid stories ending in the career ruination of going on four dozen people," writes Ryan Cooper at The Week.

But Trump is still flying. He practically invented himself into a wealthy real estate magnate in the 1980s, suffered the gilded humiliation of losing a massive gamble on casinos and airlines in the 1990s, reinvented himself as a luxury brand and reality TV star in the 2000s, and almost miraculously glided into the White House. He has an amazing gift for survival and perseverance.

"Several people who have been close to Mr. Trump over the years say that he is exceptionally good at rationalizing his own behavior to himself, and compartmentalizing the types of personal catastrophes that would leave other people emotionally ravaged," Baker and Haberman say. "Over many decades, people who have entered Mr. Trump's circle have discovered that they are bit actors in a movie he sees himself starring in."

Trump is almost as famous for his marriages and high-profile infidelities as he is for his trappings of wealth, but among the many people who found it worthwhile to sign up for a flight on Trump Air, Cohen is perhaps the most Icarus-like. Like Icarus, Cohen and other members of Trump's retinue "had varying degrees of responsibility for the troubles that would ultimately befall them," Baker and Haberman write. (Jackson, for example, was warned by White House aides that accepting Trump's proffered promotion "was a bad idea and that it was likely to end poorly.") But for Cohen, this was also personal.

Cohen was expecting and pining for a role in Trump's White House, likely chief of staff, and when Trump "shut him out of a White House job," he appeared with Trump rival Mark Cuban to make Trump jealous, The Wall Street Journal reports. When Trump, who by other accounts has treated Cohen very poorly for more than a decade, finally noticed and called Cohen to complain, Cohen reportedly told the president, "Boss, I miss you so much."

Now, after taking out a $130,000 home equity loan to pay off Trump's purported paramour and not getting reimbursed for months, being iced out of Trump's administration after working tirelessly to get him elected, and suffering Trump's humiliation at his son's bar mitzvah and Trump's inauguration, Cohen is facing federal charges tied, most likely, to his work as Trump's fixer.

Many past presidents have left wounded allies in their wakes — Bill Clinton aide Vince Foster killed himself and his Whitewater real estate partners went to jail; Ronald Reagan skirted by the Iran-Contra scandal while a handful of aides went prison (several others were pre-emptively pardoned on Christmas Eve by George H.W. Bush). But Clinton and Reagan, we now know, are Daedalus figures; Richard Nixon definitely flew too close to the sun.

Trump? Time will tell. But when Daedalus finally reached land, he was so shattered by his loss that he hung up his wings and never flew again. So maybe Trump will chart his own course. Myths, after all, are just stories well tell to explain the world.

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