Trump, Lewandowski and the Dynamics of Retaliation: If You Complain, You Will Be Punished

The arrest of Donald Trump campaign operative Corey Lewandowski was an ordinary criminal matter that was resolved in a typical fashion. The charge was "simple battery" - no malice required.

As a psychologist and forensic examiner, I am routinely involved in such "simple" cases, usually when sanity or competency issues have generated complexity. Among chronic offenders and prison inmates, it is routine to see multiple arrests where prosecution was "declined" or the case was dismissed in the "interest of justice."

Explaining his decision not to prosecute, Palm Beach State Attorney Dave Aronberg validated the findings of the Jupiter Police Department: "We agree that probable cause exists."

Probable cause may be enough for an indictment, but a prosecutor's judgment must also consider the question of reasonable doubt and the burden of proof. In that regard, Aronberg concluded:

"Although the facts support the allegation that Mr. Lewandowski did grab Ms. Fields' arm against her will, Mr. Lewandowski has a reasonable hypothesis of innocence."

This decision did not signal innocence simpliciter. The State Attorney added:

"there is no reasonable doubt that Mr. Lewandowski pulled Ms. Fields back as she was attempting to interview Mr. Trump ... obviously (an apology) would be encouraged ... We always appreciate when people take responsibility for their actions."

Lewandowski's hypothesis of innocence was founded on the assertion that he acted in response to a reasonably perceived threat, within Trump's "protective bubble." The hypothesis invokes what legal theorists refer to as the law of excuses.

The fact that there was a reasonable defense argument was enough to define Aronberg's duty under Florida law. That, however, did not stop him from pointing out the flaws in the defense - the factors that "might undermine" it. In addition to other flies in the defense ointment, Aronberg noted that: "soon after the incident, Mr. Lewandowski publicly denied ever touching Ms. Fields in any way."

The hurdle for the defense was illustrated on the Today Show. In an interview with Lewandowski attorney Brad Cohen, Matt Lauer noted that irrespective of the outcome, "the verdict is in on one thing - Corey Lewandowski lied."

The excuse - it was unremarkable and he didn't remember - made it worse. If the incident was so forgettable, how could he remember it later as a matter of threat and exigency? Was it a repressed memory?

The Lewandowski matter (aka "Grabgate") is remarkable not as a criminal case, but instead, because the dynamics are like those involved in civil harassment and retaliation complaints.

In a criminal matter, the accused will typically not set out to attack the character of the identified victim or complaining witness (the tactic usually backfires). In organizations, however, complaints almost routinely elicit this response - activating the machinery of denial.

Institutions tend to view complaints as threats to the status quo, rather than an opportunity to fix things. Judgment is clouded by the competing loyalties at play (pawns must be sacrificed for knights). And the decisions are fateful - institutions know that once they take the side of an accused superior, there is no going back without damaging the organization. Trump had reason and opportunity to say "you're fired" to Lewandowski. Failing that, he was all in.

I am quite familiar with institutions going "all in" - defending with pretext and distraction, dishonesty and defamation. I have written about workplace retaliation and have studied dozens of such cases. I learned from my own work and because my wife sued her employer, California State University, Sacramento - twice.

Before retiring with her full pension, my wife had a long and distinguished career, founding and directing the CSUS Engineering College Career Center. In 2009, she filed a lawsuit that forced the retirement of an "esteemed" professor with a documented history of sexual stalking - a professor who assaulted a staff member and threatened to shoot three others. The case settled quickly, and then the retaliation began. The Engineering Dean took half her office space and all of the money she had independently raised, bad mouthed her in the community, excluded her from meetings, and wrote to HR claiming that she had suddenly become a disruptive and "dangerous" employee. Observers said "she won't last long."

Despite the effort to constructively terminate her, she just kept working and eventually filed a second lawsuit. The insults and indignities continued unabated. Not wishing to be shamed a second time, CSUS went all in. They wanted her head - immediate retirement - and otherwise, it was: "we'll see you in Court."

My wife's case was heard by a jury in a Federal Court. When she rested her case, the University chose not to present a defense. She was not forced out, could again control her funds, and was given her office back. The Dean who tormented her was terminated for other "performance issues."

Before it was over, CSUS claimed that my wife was "delusional" (which means insane) and described her as an hysterical whiner. In court papers, the institution mocked her for having cried at work one day.

Exactly the same thing happened to Michelle Fields. They said she was a threat, which means she must be "dangerous." Lewandowski tweeted "You are totally delusional." Trump and his minions mocked her and tried to shame her, saying she lied and exaggerated. They questioned her motives and her character, painting her as a histrionic opportunist.

It is a warning to all those who might have reason to complain and the explanation as to why so many victims of sexual harassment and workplace violence fail to stand up and tell their stories: if you complain, you will be punished.

Retaliation is more likely than not.

Psychologists have identified these dynamics - using the term "institutional betrayal" - and have documented the trauma that can result. Similar retaliation dynamics have been observed by anthropologist Janice Harper in academia and in indigenous tribal cultures. As an anthropologist, Harper uses the terms shunning, shaming and mobbing.

Michelle Fields has just been made an expert on the topic.