"Far beyond simple narcissism": Why Donald Trump can't simply keep quiet — even when facing prison

Dr. Justin Frank, author of the book "Trump on the Couch," explains that Trump's delusions run the show now

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 30, 2023 5:30AM (EDT)

President-elect Donald Trump and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani talk to each other as they exit the clubhouse following their meeting at Trump International Golf Club, November 20, 2016 in Bedminster Township, New Jersey. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
President-elect Donald Trump and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani talk to each other as they exit the clubhouse following their meeting at Trump International Golf Club, November 20, 2016 in Bedminster Township, New Jersey. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

One of my casual friends is an attorney. He is very good at getting people out of trouble – trouble that is usually of their own making. My attorney friend would often tell me stories about people who would get on the stand and talk themselves into prison. Why? I asked him. He explained that some people know that they are right and believe they can prove it, but don't understand that winning in court is not about being right or the smartest person in the room. Sometimes you just need to be quiet. And if you must talk, be damn sure to let your attorney do it for you!

The traitor ex-president Donald Trump is going to be put on trial for allegedly violating the Espionage Act and committing other serious crimes such as conspiracy and obstruction of justice. It also appears very likely that special counsel Jack Smith is going to charge Donald Trump and his cabal with other federal crimes in connection with the Jan. 6 coup attempt. If found guilty, Donald Trump could potentially spend the rest of his natural life in federal prison. As such, Trump has most certainly been told by his personal attorneys to be quiet. Trump has also received the same advice, publicly and for free, from other attorneys and experts in the law. It would appear, however, that Donald Trump lacks the ability to be quiet.

"Trump's behavior is far beyond simple narcissism."

For example, in a Tuesday morning post on his Truth Social disinformation social media website, Trump raged against special counsel Jack Smith, threatening his family like some type of mafia boss:


In various interviews, speeches, and other communications, Trump and his spokespeople have offered up a range of "defenses" and "explanations" for why he stole many dozens of boxes reportedly containing some of the country's most closely guarded secrets such as war plans, the identities of human assets, i.e. spies, documents detailing America's nuclear capabilities (and vulnerabilities to attack), and other information that could cause the country cataclysmic harm if its enemies were able to access it. These "defenses" and "explanations" include that Trump was too busy and distracted to actually know what was in the boxes that he stole and refused to return to the United States government, that Trump has some type of psychic superpower to declassify top secret and other classified information with his "beautiful mind" and "big brain" and that he is a victim of a political "persecution" and the documents themselves don't really matter. Of course, none of this is true.

In an audio recording that was recently obtained by CNN, the former president basically admitted that the documents he had in his possession were in fact classified and that he has no right to keep them:

The recording obtained by CNN begins with Trump claiming "these are bad sick people," while his staffer claims there had been a "coup" against Trump.

"Like when Milley is talking about, 'Oh you're going to try to do a coup.' No, they were trying to do that before you even were sworn in," the staffer says, according to the audio.

The next part of the conversation is mostly included in the indictment, though the audio makes clear there are papers shuffling as Trump tells those in attendance he has an example to show.

"He said that I wanted to attack Iran, Isn't it amazing?" Trump says as the sound of papers shuffling can be heard. "I have a big pile of papers, this thing just came up. Look. This was him. They presented me this – this is off the record but – they presented me this. This was him. This was the Defense Department and him."

The indictment includes ellipses where the recording obtained by CNN shows where Trump and his aide begin talking about Clinton's emails and Weiner, whose laptop caused the FBI to briefly re-open its investigation into her handling of classified information in the days before the 2016 election she lost to Trump.

Trump then returns to the Iran document, according to the audio recording and indictment transcript.

"I was just thinking, because we were talking about it. And you know, he said, 'He wanted to attack Iran, and what…,' " Trump says.

"These are the papers," Trump continues, according to the audio file.

"This was done by the military and given to me," Trump continues, before noting that the document remained classified.

"See as president I could have declassified it," Trump says. "Now I can't, you know, but this is still a secret."

"Now we have a problem," his staffer responds.

Trump's newest excuse-defense is that he was just bragging and none of what he said on the recording obtained by CNN should be taken as representing his real intent.

"We have to hope that his supporters will finally see that they are no more than prey he uses for himself."

In all, the CNN recording and Trump's other lies, evasions, and attempts to justify his apparent criminal behavior in connection to the Espionage Act, the crimes of Jan. 6, and his decades-long public crime spree (which includes sexual assault as proven in the E. Jean Carroll case) are a type of classroom or clinic, a horrible "teachable moment" about one man's obvious extreme mental unwellness and other pathological behavior. Moreover, the last seven years and the Age of Trump have been teaching the American people and the world that same horrible lesson ad infinitum.

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I asked Dr. Justin Frank, author of the book "Trump on the Couch," for his thoughts about the CNN recording of Trump talking about the top secret and other classified documents in his possession. He told me via email that "Trump's behavior is far beyond simple narcissism."

Donald Trump's attachment to his boxes reminds me of a humorous list sent me to me about dogs' attitudes towards their objects of desire: "If I see it, it's mine; if it's been in my mouth, it's mine; if I can take it from you, it's mine…" This is how Trump feels about the reams of government documents he illegally removed from the White House. Simply put, the boxes belong to him and to no one else, and Uncle Sam can't play with them anymore.

Trump's behavior is far beyond simple narcissism. It is even far beyond grandiose omnipotence.

To Trump, the actual truth about the custody of the documents and his actions is irrelevant. They're his because, one, he says they're his; and two, because he never does anything wrong. Trump's psychopathic behavior reflects the disturbing fact that to him (and his cult followers), the only "truth" is whatever comes out of his mouth in any given moment. If faced with jail time, he will most likely continue to stir up hatred for the DOJ, for the press, for whomever tries to make him accountable for his destructive actions. The sway Trump has over his mindless supporters is chilling, and has we've seen, he will take no responsibility for their violent actions, either. Nor will he lift a finger of his tiny hand to repair the damage he's done. Trump's behavior is dangerous in a democracy and to a democracy.

I also asked Dr. Lance Dodes, who is a retired assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a training and supervising analyst emeritus at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, for his insights about Trump's behavior and apparent inability to be quiet about violating the Espionage Act and committing other crimes. Dr. Dodes explained to me via email that:

Trump's keeping boxes of classified documents regardless of the law, compromising the safety of the country and its people, fits exactly with what we know: he is a dangerous psychopath, acting only for himself and utterly uncaring about harm to anyone else. His remarkable ability to draw crowds of worshipful people, despite volumes of evidence that he is lying continuously, is the same capacity as successful predators in the animal kingdom. Like them, he senses the vulnerabilities of others as prey, using code words and ideas to lure them into believing him to be safe and on their side. As we've seen many times, if anyone who has been in his thrall stops completely supporting him, he turns on them immediately. Like his adoring crowds, they have been tricked into thinking he cares about them.

As his several trials move forward, he will likely become more out of touch with reality, insisting all the more that he is not just innocent, but a godlike figure persecuted by evil men. He will likely renew his calls for a violent revolution to end democracy and install him as dictator since, as he has psychotically claimed in the past, only he can save us. We have to hope that his supporters will finally see that they are no more than prey he uses for himself.

For those of us, myself included, who have direct experience with sociopaths and other such dangerous people, living through the Age of Trump and trying to warn the American people about the disaster has been and continues to be remarkably frustrating and exhausting. For most of the Age of Trump, people said we had "Trump Derangement Syndrome" when we were just telling an uncomfortable and unpopular truth.

If Donald Trump were just one man, he would still be a public menace and a problem because of his vast wealth and potential reach. But Donald Trump is much more than a man, he is now a fascist symbol, a type of godhead, a political cult leader, and a Great Leader for the tens of millions of people who follow him. In total, Trump's obvious mental, emotional, and other pathologies and unwellness are now a collective societal problem that will not be going away anytime soon. Sick leaders attract sick followers; sick societies create sick politics like Trumpism and the larger American neofascist movement.

Donald Trump, because of the many types of privileges and other unearned advantages he enjoys (his skin color, gender, money and inherited wealth, a political and media machine backing him, tens of millions of followers, and other forms of power, however diminished they may now be) has largely been able to escape serious consequences for his decades-long public crime spree. But now, with his being arrested and indicted for federal crimes, Trump may finally be held accountable. If he does end up in prison, Trump mostly has no one to blame but himself and his inability to shut his mouth and be quiet. For most people that is a relatively easy thing to do, but for a pathological person such as Donald Trump it is a Herculean task.


By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Commentary Democracy Crisis Donald Trump Espionage Act Jack Smith Mental Health Psychology