How might President Trump appear to a fellow New Yorker, who once himself faced the President’s bold negotiation tactics?
Stephen Meister, the founding partner of the New York law firm Meister, Seelig & Fein, recently sat down for an interview with Epoch Times senior editor Jan Jekielek. Having represented President Trump in several commercial cases, Meister shares his take on President Trump’s response to the Iranian attack on a US drone, his personality as a businessman, negotiator, and leader, and the concept of “Trump derangement syndrome.” Meister was one of the first people to use the term.
Jan Jekielek: Stephen Meister, wonderful to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Stephen Meister: Pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: So, Stephen, you’ve been in commercial real estate, mostly law, for 30 years here in New York City. You’ve been a pretty prolific op-ed writer for the New York Post for some time. And you wrote an article back in 2015, which really caught my eye. It was titled “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” and you offered your perspective. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about “Trump Derangement Syndrome” and how your op-ed has aged since.
Mr. Meister: Right. So that, by the way, Jan, was published by the Washington Examiner. And I was reading a whole series of articles. I am a prolific consumer of news, and I had watched some interviews. And I thought that the writings and what I had seen on TV was just crazy when it came to then-candidate Donald Trump. I remember an article in The New York Times—I don’t remember the author at the moment, it’s in the Washington Examiner piece—who had written the thesis that Trump was raised in this plantation-like home in Queens, New York. Jamaica estates was the home of his father, Fred Trump, and that’s why he had his views on immigration. I had seen an interview of Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review, who had made some remarks—
Mr. Jekielek: Strong words.
Mr. Meister: Strong words about Trump’s performance in the debate with regard to Carly Fiorina who was then an opposing candidate. And I just came to the conclusion that these people were suffering from a disease in essence. They were so emotionally opposed to Trump that they lost all objectivity, and they let their hatred run what was normally an objective exercise. And so I came up with this theory, this thesis, and I tried to support it—which I thought I did—by referencing a number of articles and a number of examples of interviews on live cable television. And the Washington Examiner published it. I had no idea back in…I think it was September, October of 2015, Jan, this was before fake news and really before Trump Derangement Syndrome really became a national epidemic in journalism.
Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely fascinating. You’ve actually had some personal or I guess professional dealings with Donald Trump before he was president. You litigated a number of cases with him on the commercial side.
Mr. Meister: Yes. Well, Donald Trump was a real estate tycoon in New York. I’ve been practicing, as you said, for several decades. And so I both came across him on the opposite sides of real estate transactions early in my career in the ’80s and then later on in 2009, 2010. As you say, Jan, I had represented Mr. Trump in a number of fairly high-profile lawsuits. And so I know the man as an individual fairly well.
Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. So, all of this together, I think we can get some very, very interesting perspectives from you. Particularly, you became very familiar as we were talking a bit earlier with the now-President’s negotiating tactics. Tell me a little bit more about the man as a negotiator.
Mr. Meister: He’s a phenomenal negotiator. He negotiates from a position of strength, and he knows how to exert negotiating leverage and pressure. I negotiated legal bills with him and his opening positions were very rough, and he is a very shrewd, successful negotiator. He put up high rises in New York City, negotiated with all the trades. That’s what he grew up on as a young adult in his business career. And then throughout his career.
So when I see things like the tariffs being imposed on Mexico, for example, I just see what to me is classic Trump negotiating prowess. He knows that the Mexican companies and the Mexican government need the American consumers, and they need to sell their products to us and their agriculture to us. And he was getting no cooperation, obviously, from the Democrats in Congress whose only position on immigration—as far as I can tell—is we hate anything Donald Trump says. And, meanwhile, you had this crisis, this humanitarian and otherwise crisis at the border. And so all of a sudden he says, well, I’m going to impose tariffs. And all to a sudden, Mexico comes to the table, and Mexico is deploying troops to its southern border to stop the inflow. They were just willy nilly letting people through their country because they didn’t want to take up residence in Mexico. And he insisted upon their help, and he resorted to his powers, as he did in his private life, to achieve his negotiating objective. And it was a huge success as far as I’m concerned.
Mr. Jekielek: So this is very interesting. Fairly recently we had this, let’s say an unusual situation with Iran: Iran shoots down the surveillance drone, there’s a strike that’s going to happen, the president pulls it back at the last minute. What’s your take on this particular situation?
Mr. Meister: OK. So a couple things. First of all, he definitely has at least one hawk as an adviser, and that’s Bolton as National Security Adviser. And Bolton has made no bones about the fact that he’s not a fan of the Iranian regime. And I had no doubt that he took that event as a way of leveraging a recommendation for a counterstrike. And so that’s one thing that happened. And then the president said—I recall two things he said—one was, he said he asked for an evaluation of the lives that would be lost in these attacks on the missile infrastructure of Iran. And I think that, notwithstanding what I’ve heard in some cable news pundits, I think that is a difficult thing for the generals to evaluate.
They don’t know how many people are going to be there, and they had to evaluate that. There were no human lives lost. And of course, oil, which is of course the predominant part of the Iranian economy, trades in U.S. dollars. All the transactions for oil go through the swift U.S. banking system. And so there’s a tremendous opportunity to exert economic pressure, tremendous economic pressure on Iran and on the countries like China, India, and Japan—to name three—that are buying Iranian oil through the Strait of Hormuz. So it appears to me that he came to the conclusion after assets had been scrambled, planes presumably from a carrier, that it was going to be a disproportionate response in terms of the loss of human life because there was no loss of human life on our side.
And he wanted to give sanctions a chance because he is a negotiator and he knows the power of the sanctions. And, frankly, I think the Iranian regime is showing that the sanctions are creating enormous pressure. And so he— now today—signed a new set of sanctions. He took away some exemptions for some of the countries. So we’ll have to wait and see what will happen there. But he was very clear—no nuclear capability for Iran. And look, President Obama made that deal. I think it was an awful deal. It wasn’t approved by Congress. He put $150 billion in their hands, and they fund terrorist regimes with that cash. And so I think Trump is locking down their financial assets and taking away their ability to fund terrorism.
Mr. Jekielek: So, Stephen, it almost sounds like you’re saying that the president is basically using this opportunity to use the economic tools of warfare at his disposal instead of the physical tools. Does he also get some benefit out of playing it that way?
Mr. Meister: Well, yes, because first of all, you can always escalate. What you can’t do so easily is de-escalate. Right? And he knows that because he’s a shrewd negotiator. So what I think came to him is, OK, they shot down a drone. First of all, it wasn’t clear whether that was an official act of the Iranian government. He made a reference to that, or whether it was some rogue general within the Iranian regime, and we have to wait and see whether there’s some intelligence behind that that we don’t know about as the public. And I think he realized that the sanctions were working because that’s what has driven them to the point of desperation. And, so, you know, what’s interesting about it I think is you’ve heard the never-Trumpers, the anti-Trumpers, the liberal press talk about his unfitness. Right? Back when he was elected—you’re going to give Trump the nuclear football.
He had all these crazy statements like he was unbalanced. He’s very balanced. He’s actually compassionate, I think. Very concerned about the loss of human life on both sides and wanted to have a measured response. And don’t forget he did that after probably being urged strenuously by Bolton for physical response. OK? Because Bolton has made no bones about the fact that he wants to topple that regime. So, if anything, I think this response shows how measured and balanced and compassionate he is. To the credit of some liberal commentators, I did see some commentators say this was his finest moment, [commentators] who were not normally Trump fans. So I think it’s a very interesting piece of the news cycle because I think it shows how wrong people were about the President and his capabilities and his mindset.
Mr. Jekielek: So is this putting a chink into “Trump Derangement Syndrome” for those folks who are, as you would describe, afflicted with it?
Mr. Meister: Maybe it brought some people around. I think probably the most important question here is, what will this kind of conduct do to an independent voter or perhaps a centrist Democrat? In the privacy of the voting booth, will some people who are not his traditional base vote for him in the 2020 election? Because they say, you know what, he’s done a phenomenal job with the economy. He’s managed to make headway on the immigration crisis despite no cooperation from the Democrats. He got rid of the individual mandate. He got rid of NAFTA. He’s making good deals. Unemployment is at record lows. The stock market is at record highs. And maybe he’ll pick up some of these middle voters as a result of them seeing he’s not unbalanced. He’s not unhinged. He’s deliberative, humanitarian, and measured.
Mr. Jekielek: So this kind of begets this question: You’ve had a substantial amount of time over the years to actually interact with the president directly, and as you’re saying, he’s balanced, he’s a negotiator. But can you give us a little more insight into Trump as a person?
Mr. Meister: Look, I saw him the other day mentioning his deceased brother. I think that the loss of his brother, which I think was to alcoholism, was a very big blow. He never drinks. He doesn’t smoke. He’s got an unbelievable work ethic. He works crazy hours.
And you could see that in his presidency. He never stops working. He’s a ferocious negotiator. He’s a winner. And he’s a counterpuncher by the way. He doesn’t attack immediately. He attacks when he’s attacked. And I think you’ve seen that. And, I think maybe there is a chink in the “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” at least among the centrist part of the voting base. And they’ll see that he’s a measured deliberative guy who likes to hold back.
You want to have non-nuclear warfare before nuclear warfare. And I’m using that metaphorically. So that’s why he, I think, went for the economic sanctions. And also I understand cyberattacks, which is there’s a physical component. I’m not an expert on cyberwarfare, but I believe and hope we had the ability to destroy their missile guidance systems. And, obviously, with this unprovoked attack, because there’s no question that drone was in international air space and it’s not required to have its transponder on. It’s on a surveillance mission in international airspace. So the cyberattack was warranted, and the economic sanctions are warranted. And we’ll see how the people of Iran react to the mullahs doing what they’re doing with the oil dollars.
Mr. Jekielek: How does President Trump fit into the stereotype of a New Yorker? I think a lot of people outside of New York maybe don’t understand him as well as folks in New York. I wonder if you could speak to that as a perennial New Yorker.
Mr. Meister: I think he is a quintessential New York businessman. He can be sarcastic at times. He’s a tough guy. He’s a tough negotiator. And so he kind of has that exterior. But down deep, if you get to know the man, he’s a family man. He loves his children. He loves his family. You saw what happened just now with Iran. He didn’t want to have that loss of life, even among enemies. You see what a staunch supporter of the veterans he is. He has a deep respect for people who risk for our country. And he doesn’t want to go to war with anyone. I mean, he said that he doesn’t want to have hostilities with any nation. But Iran can’t get the nuclear weapons, and they can’t keep sponsoring terrorism.
Mr. Jekielek: A while back now we’ve learned there was no collusion on the Trump campaign on the Trump side, and the attorney general found there was no obstruction, that there was this narrative that was created over a long, long period of time. And on the other side there appears to have been perhaps collusion and certainly a lot of impropriety—remains to be seen what the legal realities of that impropriety were.
Mr. Meister: OK. So I think it’s important for your viewers and readers to understand there’s both a political component and a legal component to this counterintelligence investigation. You’ve heard Attorney General Barr say repeatedly, was the counterintelligence investigation properly predicated? I think those were his words or very close
Mr. Jekielek: I remember predicated.
Mr. Meister: Right. Because it’s a very wrong thing politically, not necessarily a crime, but for an outgoing administration, whether it’s President Obama [inaudible] Vice President Biden or others under them, to mobilize the massive resources of our intelligence community against the opposition candidate without proper predicate is really a terrible thing. And if that’s what this investigation reveals—and I think that is what it will reveal, because it wasn’t properly predicated in my opinion—then there’s going to be a big political fallout because tens of millions of Americans think that’s wrong.
Now, there’s a separate issue which is: Are there crimes? And, look, the big crime is of course treason. But treason is a narrow crime because in a country that has the First Amendment and freedom of speech, you can’t just say advocating the overthrow nonviolently of whoever is in power is treason because otherwise, anyone who called for impeachment would be guilty of treason. And no one who calls for impeachment is guilty of treason. That’s free speech. But there’s an interesting angle to treason that–we’ll have to wait and see if it comes out–but it’s also treason to aid and abet foreign powers who are trying to hurt the United States in some form. And so you mentioned there was collusion on the other side, right? We know that the Steele dossier was paid for by the DNC and the Clinton campaign. We know that they went to Steele who was an ex-MI6 agent who in turn was fed misinformation by Russia, by Russian intel agents. So in the absence of that effort by the DNC and the Clinton campaign, Russia never would have been successful in inserting into the American culture and American media, the false allegations of the Steele dossier.
Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating.
Mr. Meister: So there may be even a treason element, but I’m not sure the prosecutors will go after that. There are some more mundane but important crimes like perjury, obstruction of justice. Now, typically we think about obstruction in terms of stopping an investigation of someone who’s guilty. But obstruction can also be trying to influence an investigation where you’re framing someone—that’s also a form of obstruction. OK? So there may be obstruction claims. There may be perjury claims. There’s also the FISC, the FISA Court who issued the warrant, for example, on Carter Page was grossly misled.
They weren’t told that the Steele dossier was paid for by the opposition candidate. And, apparently, I saw a recent piece by–or remarks by Trey Gowdy who said that there’s some transcript that I don’t think we’ve seen yet that shows that there was exculpatory information about Papadopoulos that hadn’t come out. So if they concealed this information from the FISA Court, that could result in a criminal prosecution for false statements to a judge. So there’s the possibility—and then, of course, there’s the leaking, which is giving out classified information. All these—
Mr. Jekielek: A lot of leaking going on.
Mr. Meister: A lot of leaking going on. So these statutes have, I don’t know, five to 10-year prison terms and fines. So even if we don’t see a treason charge, which we probably won’t, I think that there’s a pretty good chance we’ll see some other charges. And I think, and I hope that the Hillary Clinton email investigation is going to be reopened because you talk about obstruction. What is acid washing emails when you have … can you imagine, Jan, for a minute if the Trump Foundation, as opposed to the Clinton Foundation, had gotten $145 million and then done a deal with the Russian uranium agency, Rosatom, and Trump’s response was there was no quid pro quo? They’d fry him, OK? That’s not a response. So I think that hopefully that investigation will be reopened in addition to the whole so-called Spygate investigation.
Mr. Jekielek: And so this is the investigation specifically relating to these emails, supposed to be classified emails being on the wrong server. I just want to clarify.
Mr. Meister: The server was removing classified information from its normal home, which is in a protected United States server, and putting it on an unencrypted server, not a private Google account, and an unencrypted server in her basement in Chappaqua and exposing it to hacking. OK? And that’s a crime, I think. And then there’s the separate issue of BleachBit acid washing the emails to destroy evidence. And by the way, then there was the FBI destroying evidence as well and as part of immunity deals destroying laptops and whatnot. So we’ll have to see where this goes.
Mr. Jekielek: All right, Stephen, we’re going to wrap up in a little bit, but before we do, it would be great if you give us your take on the outlook for 2020 in your view given all these realities we’ve just discussed.
Mr. Meister: OK. So, look, back in a couple of weeks before the 2016 election, I was reading poll after poll after poll where Hillary was up 10 or 11 points. And then, of course, the result was a pretty impressive win in the electoral college by Mr. Trump. So I think that we have to start there and just accept for whatever reason, and I have some theories, but I don’t think we can rely on the polls. They just were way off. All the pundits were way off. So I, for one, am not going to rely on polls—for or against, OK? Because they just have proven to be inaccurate. I think what’s more telling, and I could never understand this back in 2016, you know, she was up, and he was drawing football stadium-sized crowds at these rallies, and she was drawing hardly anyone.
Why would that be? So, again, that’s what you have now. I mean, if you look at this opening rally in Orlando, I don’t know exactly how many people, but he filled up a massive arena, and then there were, I don’t know, [50,000] or 100,000 people who didn’t get in. There was a tremendous amount of energy. He’s done wonders with the economy. He’s done a great job with Mexico, with the tariffs. He’s done a great job with the tariffs, generally. He got rid of the Obamacare mandate–individual mandate. And I think … and he’s proved himself, as I said, with this Iranian situation to be a very deliberative kind of humanitarian measured leader. So, at the moment, there’s a lot of things that can happen between now and November of 2020, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. But at the moment, I don’t see anyone in the Democratic field who I think would beat him or even come close to beating him. I think, frankly, it would be a landslide against any of the existing candidates. Now, it seems like Biden is slipping. I don’t think he’s as sharp as he once was. He’s certainly not appealing to the progressive end of the Democratic Party,
Mr. Jekielek: Which will probably determine the nominee, ultimately, or at least that to my eye it looks like.
Mr. Meister: So I’m not sure he’ll be the nominee. Maybe Elizabeth Warren will be the nominee. But they all have problems. I mean, Elizabeth Warren, I think, frankly, she was a fraud, with her claims of Indian heritage, and she now makes light of it. But, you know, I don’t see how you make a career rooting out fraud when you’ve been a fraud. So I think all these candidates have some serious drawbacks, and I don’t think any of them are going to give him a run unless something really crazy happens between now and November 2020.
Mr. Jekielek: Stephen Meister, thank you for being on American Thought Leaders.
Mr. Meister: Thank you for having me.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.