All the president’s disloyal men: Trump demands fealty but inspires very little
The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights
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National security adviser John Bolton listens as President Trump speaks with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the Oval Office at the White House on May 13, 2019. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Jan. 30, 2020 at 12:01 a.m. GMT+1
President Trump’s personal lawyer called him “John the Backstabber.” A pro-Trump Fox News host described him as “a tool for the radical Democrats.” And the president himself dismissed John Bolton, his former national security adviser, as a disgruntled lackey trying “only to sell a book.”
The explosive disclosures in Bolton’s forthcoming memoir about his time in the White House — including his firsthand allegation that Trump directly tied the holdup of $391 million of military aid for Ukraine to investigations into a political rival — prompted cries of heresy and betrayal from Trump and his allies.
But the short gestation period — less than five months — between Bolton’s September exit from the administration to his damning book manuscript underscores an uncomfortable truth for Trump: For a president who demands absolute loyalty, he inspires strikingly little of the same, with former aides, advisers and associates turning on him with thrumming regularity.
They are, en masse, all the president’s disloyal men and women — an unofficial club that includes Rex Tillerson, Trump’s former secretary of state, Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former White House senior adviser, and Michael Cohen, the president’s former personal attorney and fixer now serving three years in federal prison for crimes committed while working for Trump.
Fox News' shifting tone on John Bolton
Fox News’ personalities had a lot to say about former national security adviser John Bolton following the release of his book manuscript. (Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)
The culture, of course, is set from the top, with an Oval Office occupant who requires abject fealty but rarely returns it. Trump is known for his petty cruelty, for berating aides publicly and privately and for presiding over an intentionally gladiatorial West Wing, where advisers seem to expect to be betrayed at some point — and behave accordingly.
“There is irony in the fact he constantly talks about loyalty, but doesn’t understand how it works,” said Michael Steel, a Republican strategist. “In order to work, loyalty is a two-way street. The president defines it as something he gets, not something he gives — and therefore he doesn’t get it.”
On Wednesday, Trump fully broke with Bolton, attacking his former adviser in several scathing Twitter missives.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listens as President Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting at the White House on Dec. 20, 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
“For a guy who couldn’t get approved for the Ambassador to the U.N. years ago, couldn’t get approved for anything since, ‘begged’ me for a non Senate approved job, which I gave him despite many saying ‘Don’t do it, sir,’ takes the job, mistakenly says ‘Libyan Model’ on T.V., and many more mistakes of judgement, gets fired because frankly, if I listened to him, we would be in World War Six by now, and goes out and IMMEDIATELY writes a nasty & untrue book,” Trump wrote. “All Classified National Security. Who would do this?”
Nonetheless, Trump still commands some genuine fidelity, especially among those still serving in his administration, with Vice President Pence, counselor Kellyanne Conway and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller among them. Others who have departed — including former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders and Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first 2016 campaign manager — have also remained faithful, maintaining strong ties to the administration.
And Bolton himself is a wily bureaucratic infighter known for relentless self-promotion at the expense of colleagues predating his stint in the Trump administration. That Bolton — a conservative hawk serving a generally non-interventionalist president — would turn on Trump and his team seemed all but preordained, more a question of when than if.
But the people who turn on the president are notable for the large number of them and their prominence, as well as for the public and private havoc their grievance-airing often brings. The stories shared in Bolton’s book, for instance, promise to be especially devastating, according to early news reports, with Bolton not just personally implicating Trump in the matter for which he was impeached, but slamming the president and his advisers in a wide-ranging critique of his year and a half in the administration.
Cliff Sims, a former White House aide who wrote “Team of Vipers” about his time in Trump’s White House, said that another challenge Trump faces is that he surrounded himself with purported loyalists who were anything but.
“The entire premise of my book is that the president has been continually undermined by liars and snakes like John Bolton who refuse to subordinate their views to his, have selfish motives, or think there is something patriotic about ‘protecting the country’ from his agenda,” Sims wrote in a text message.
The public breaks with Trump are big and small. On Monday, speaking before a crowd in Sarasota, Fla., former White House chief of staff John Kelly sided with Bolton and said he personally supports calling witnesses in Trump’s Senate impeachment trial — a prospect against which the president’s lawyers are still fighting.
“If John Bolton says that in the book, I believe John Bolton,” Kelly said.
Anthony Scaramucci, who served as Trump’s communications adviser for 11 days before being fired, officially broke with Trump in a Washington Post op-ed roughly two years after leaving the administration, after the president penned a racist tweet suggesting that four minority congresswomen “go back” to the places from which they came, though all are U.S. citizens and three were born in the United States.
“I broke from Trump because not only has his behavior become more erratic and his rhetoric more inflammatory, but also because, like all demagogues, he is incapable of handling constructive criticism,” wrote Scaramucci, who has continued to criticize Trump in interviews, on television and over Twitter.
Former White House senior adviser Stephen K. Bannon — a reliable Trump stalwart when Trump was pursuing Bannon’s ideological projects — turned on the president’s family in Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury.” In the book, he described a Trump Tower meeting that Donald Trump Jr. had with Russians promising dirt on Hillary Clinton as “treasonous” and “unpatriotic,” and dismissed Ivanka Trump as “dumb as brick.”
Tillerson, whom Trump fired by tweet, gave an interview to CBS News’s Bob Schieffer several months after his unceremonious ousting in which he explained that Trump often ordered up policies in violation of the law, and offered an unflattering assessment of his former boss.
Tillerson described the president as “a man who is pretty undisciplined, doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things, but rather just kind of says, ‘This is what I believe.’ ”
Others in Trump’s orbit operate as though they fully expect their tenure eventually to end when the president turns on them, prompting them to preserve evidence — in the form of recordings, video and other material — almost preemptively. To wit: Cohen, Manigault Newman and Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani who is under indictment in New York on charges of committing campaign finance violations.
Cohen, Trump’s lawyer and fixer, kept secret recordings of his conversations with his client, and after Trump distanced himself from Cohen, his former confidant jettisoned Trump as well. He testified before Congress that Trump is a “racist” and “con man” who during the campaign directed hush money payments to a porn star with whom he had an extramarital affair. Cohen is now cooperating with an investigation by federal prosecutors in New York into the Trump Organization.
Manigault Newman also kept secret recordings from her time in the White House and penned a book, “Unhinged,” after leaving the administration, in which she painted a scathing portrait of Trump as a racist who was “delusional” and experiencing mental deterioration.
Parnas, too, kept photos and video of his encounters with Trump and Pence — helpful leverage when administration officials denied knowing him. He also had audio of a small dinner he attended with the president at the Trump International Hotel in Washington where Trump can be heard ordering associates to fire then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.
“Get rid of her!” Trump says in the recording.
Trump’s demands for obsequious devotion, as well as his failure to provide anything similar in exchange, seems to have pushed many of his cast-off associates to despair — and disloyalty.
“My loyalty to Mr. Trump has cost me everything,” Cohen said during congressional testimony. “I will not sit back, say nothing and allow him to do the same to the country.”