Trump’s nightmare: A prosecutor who can’t be baited

Donald Trump is a malignant narcissist. This judgement has been made by psychiatrists and prosecutors alike.

The milder form of the narcissistic personality disorder centers on grandiosity, delusional sense of self-importance and exploitative behavior.

The worst of the worst is the “malignant narcissist.” All narcissists lack empathy, but malignant ones have little conscience. They find pleasure in inflicting pain. They commit crimes, pile lies upon lies and thrill at forcing others into submission — witness the serial humiliations of Sen. Lindsey Graham and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. And they play the martyr, claiming to be the victims of the very frauds they play on others.

The psychologist Erich Fromm coined the term “malignant narcissist” in 1964. It’s destructiveness, he said, made it “the quintessence of evil.”

Trump probably knows he’s not widely considered of sound mind. Why else would he feel the need to announce that he’s a “very stable genius”?

But now as he enters a federal courthouse, two things need to be kept in mind. One is that malignant narcissists can seem charming and charismatic. (That’s how they recruit victims to exploit later.) The other, however, is that there are effective ways to neutralize their ability to make threats and run smear campaigns. Courtrooms are the perfect place to practice them.

Special Counsel Jack Smith, now as in earlier prosecutions, has shown he knows their ways. And that is to ignore the baiting, even intimidation via calls to violence by pathetic thugs who might do what they think they’re told.

Smith knows how to deal with malignant personalities. In 2021, he led the prosecution against Hashim Thaci, president of Kosovo, for war crimes. Smith stated that there was no justification for brutalizing Kosovar Albanians and showed he understood how authoritarians manipulate the media. “The accused, in committing their crimes, tried to amplify the damage they caused by exhorting the media in Kosovo to publish,” Smith said. “The ethical journalists refused to publish the documents they provided them.”

A tried-and-true way to deal with malignant narcissists is to “gray rock” them. That means responding to their provocations with bland non-reaction. That way you are not feeding their need for confrontation. You leave them hollering in their dumpster of pathological drama as you go about your business.

Smith is great at this. He doesn’t respond to Trump’s blowtorch of insults, even as many in the media take umbrage at Trump’s childish name-calling. (In this case, the word “demented” really boomerangs back.) Smith responds with no response. Trump’s theatrics make no impression on that determined face and piercing eyes.

Importantly, Smith makes clear that trials must follow rules and evidence, rather than passion. Speaking at NYU in 2011, he said, “We don’t want to live in a society where someone is convicted based on what’s in the newspapers. … I think that the role of the prosecutor is to take allegations like that when they’re public and investigate and see if the facts actually back up what’s there.”

Meanwhile, a federal courthouse is not the narcissist’s playground. Trump will not control the rules, and there are graduated punishments Judge Tanya Chutkan can impose if he pushes the limits. She can impose a gag order. She can hold him in civil contempt or seek criminal contempt.

Yes, Trump is an unusual defendant who’s running for president. That makes it imperative to define his First Amendment free speech rights. But this courtroom will be no place for social media-type posts compromising the jurors’ safety.

Most important, though, the prosecutor will be Smith, a man who is expert both at criminal law and psychology. He will not be baited, much less intimidated. Smith is the narcissist defendant’s nightmare.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.