When Donald Trump announced Saturday that he was considering pardoning Jack Johnson, a long-dead black champion boxer who was convicted of a crime in 1913 for taking his white girlfriend across state lines, it took the country by surprise. Not just because Trump hasn't shown an interest in Johnson before, but also because Trump cited a conversation with actor-director Sylvester Stallone as the inspiration. Seriously?
The New York Times reported that "the White House did not immediately respond to a question about the frequency with which Mr. Trump and Mr. Stallone communicate," but it's been known for a long time that Trump talks with a lot of his famous fans and friends regularly. The Times documented Trump's phone habit last year in an article that listed a score of people the president called for advice—a crew largely comprised of millionaires and billionaires that included Trump's family members, fellow elderly real estate moguls, and right-wing media figures.
Trump is far from the only president to seek outside advice—it's a habit that goes back at least to Andrew Jackson's "Kitchen Cabinet." But Trump is uniquely famous for adopting the views of the last person who spoke to him, and as has been made clear from many reports over the past couple years, he speaks mostly to people who are exactly like him: older white guys who are vaguely angry about the world. His off-the-cuff phone calls could become more important in coming days, as, according to a Tuesday CNN report, Trump is using his cellphone more and more, possibly in order to circumvent White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.
Here's a brief primer on some of the more colorful characters Trump seems to be hitting up these days, based on media reports.
The conspiracy-mongering Fox News host isn't just Trump's most prominent defender in the media, and he doesn't just share a lawyer with the president in Michael Cohen. No, Hannity is also a frequent recipient of calls directly from Trump. According to an LA Times story from October that cited an anonymous source close to the White House, the chief executive had a habit of tuning into Hannity's show and calling the host afterward. Further reporting from the Washington Post last week concluded that the two men "discuss ideas for Hannity’s show, Trump’s frustration with the ongoing special counsel probe and even, at times, what the president should tweet... Trump is known to cite Hannity when he talks with White House advisers."
Dobbs, another Fox News supporter of the president's, was launching into strange rants about race and questioning Barack Obama's place of birth before Trump made a real foray into the national political scene. But he seems to have become more powerful thanks to Trump's favor. According to sources who spoke to the Daily Beast, Trump has even puts Dobbs, a hardliner's hardliner on immigration, on speakerphone during White House meetings.
Lewandowski was Trump's campaign manager during the GOP primary season but got fired after continually stirring up bad headlines, including plenty for an incident where he grabbed a female Breitbart reporter's arm at an event. He's stayed in Trump's orbit ever since, however, even after pro-Trump singer Joy Villa accused him of sexual assault—specifically, slapping her aggressively more than once on the butt—at a gathering at one of Trump's hotels. Apparently, he was so involved in the day-to-day workings of the White House that some officials there thought he was involved in a "smear campaign" against Rob Porter, who was fired after it was revealed two ex-wives had accused him of domestic violence. (Lewandowski denies this.) Despite all this drama, Lewandowski, who has apparently moved on to lobbying, has been bragging about having "unfettered" access to Trump, according to CNN.
Barrack isn't as famous as the above three names but he's arguably the most influential of Trump's outside advisors. The Arab-American businessman has been close with Trump for three decades, according to a Washington Post profile, and also has deep ties to Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries. He's also said to be one of the few people who can convince Trump to change his mind on anything, and doesn't share the president's xenophobic views on Muslims or Mexicans. "It is shocking to me that he would talk that way because he is not that way," Barrack told the Post of Trump's rhetoric about Mexicans being "rapists"; the travel ban that targeted several Muslim-majority countries, Barrack said, "is one of the things that hit me the hardest because it is the most complex." Barrack was Trump's top fundraiser during the 2016 campaign, but turned down a cabinet-level post so he could have sway from outside.
Trump doesn't appear to have gotten any advice from the star of Roseanne, but he did call up Barr to congratulate her on the high ratings the revival of her show earned. "We just kinda had a private conversation, but we talked about a lot of things, and he’s just happy for me," Barr, a Trump supporter, told Good Morning America.
Trump has kicked Steve Bannon to the curb, but Ruddy, a less well-known right-wing media impresario, still has access to the president. Ruddy is the founder and CEO of Newsmax, a conservative website, and has been one of Trump's biggest boosters in the media, often serving as a kind of unofficial ambassador to mainstream publications who may not put much stock in other, more bombastic Trump confidants like Hannity.
Continuing the theme of "rich white guys Trump has known for decades," Ruffin is one of Trump's closest friends—the two men have both been in the casino business and both have married much younger Eastern European models; Trump was Ruffin's best man at his 2008 wedding. He was so closely linked to Trump that there was speculation that he'd become White House chief of staff, but he laughed it off, telling the Wichita Eagle, “I hate Washington. I HATE the place. It’s so dysfunctional.” But he was still in contact with Trump last year in an informal capacity, according to the New York Times.
Many of Trump's phone buddies don't talk in detail about their conversations with him, at least not without telling reporters not to use their names. But Goldberg, a New York attorney who used to do work for Trump, blabbed about a recent phone call to the Wall Street Journal in which the lawyer told Trump that Michael Cohen, Trump's personal lawyer and fixer, would turn on the president now that he (Cohen) was under federal investigation. “You have to be alert,” Goldberg said he told Trump. “I don’t care what Michael says.”
Oh, right: Trump also called Cohen himself a couple weeks ago, according to the Times:
Mr. Trump called Mr. Cohen on Friday to “check in,” according to two people briefed on the call. Depending on what else was discussed, the call could be problematic, as lawyers typically advise their clients against discussing investigations.
So there's that.
According to a 2017 CNN story, Trump likes to talk to the former college basketball coach, who is famous for being an asshole. It's unclear if Trump still calls Knight, but during the 2016 campaign he appeared at an Indiana rally and told a reporter, "I think a great idea would be involving our various military services along the border all the way from San Diego to Houston. We’ve got military bases all over the country. We can just move some people down there and let those cartels who are doing a lot of hurt the youth of America, let those cartels fight against the Marine Corps.” That is pretty close to Trump's position—this month, he ordered the National Guard to the border.
That same CNN story mentioned the notorious cheater of a Patriots coach as someone Trump called up on occasion. Trump himself said he talked to Belichick during the 2016 campaign, when he read a letter of support that the NFL coach had sent him. It's unclear whether Trump is still in touch with the coach, but if he is, let's hope Belichick isn't advising him on, well, anything.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.