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Opinion What Trump really means when he demands ‘loyalty’

President Trump (Win McNamee/AP)

If you’re a high-ranking law enforcement official in the Trump administration, there’s probably going to come a time when the president of the United States will make it clear to you that your loyalty should be not to the duties of your job, not even to the Constitution, but to him personally.

The president’s need for loyalty and his incessant demands for it are becoming hallmark characteristics of his presidency, in ways that will increasingly define not just his relationship with those who work for him but also Republicans in Congress and the entire GOP.

We’ll get to all that in a bit, but first the latest news from CNN:

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein visited the White House in December seeking President Donald Trump’s help. The top Justice Department official in the Russia investigation wanted Trump’s support in fighting off document demands from House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes.
But the President had other priorities ahead of a key appearance by Rosenstein on the Hill, according to sources familiar with the meeting. Trump wanted to know where the special counsel’s Russia investigation was heading. And he wanted to know whether Rosenstein was “on my team.”

It’s one of the ironies of the Trump presidency that there may have been no president in history who demanded such unswerving loyalty from both his underlings and from those who in government who are theoretically independent of him, and yet there may also have been no president in history who received so little loyalty from those working for him.

If you listen to White House reporters, you’ll hear this over and over again: With a few exceptions, such as communication director Hope Hicks (who worked for Trump before he ran for office), almost no one in the White House particularly respects or admires Trump. They have their own reasons for joining the White House staff — an ideological agenda they want to promote, career advancement — yet they know he’s capricious and petty and erratic, and they’re just hoping that things don’t get too awful. That’s one reason that this White House is such a spectacular fountain of leaks, and that so many White House officials have bolted.

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This is a stark contrast with just about every previous president. They have varied in their professional skill and personal integrity, but they all had people around them who almost worshiped them. Talk to those who worked for Barack Obama or George W. Bush or Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan, and they’ll tell you stories of the Great Man’s extraordinary character, or his keen insight, or his personal generosity. Not all of them may feel that way by the end, but many do. The people who work for Trump (again, with just a couple of exceptions) never felt that way, not from the first moment.

Trump says the Justice Department is politically biased. Lawfare’s Quinta Jurecic examines the investigation Trump calls "fake news." (Video: Kate Woodsome, Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Trump is in this sense (as in so many others) an exaggerated version of a normal politician. When your typical member of Congress makes a stupid mistake, his underlings are required to go out and defend their boss, no matter how indefensible his actions were. People who work in the government understand that “the principal” — the head of your agency, the president himself — is more important than you are, which means that when you take a job under him, it’s possible your interests or beliefs will diverge from his. What if the president takes a policy turn you disagree with? Will you resign in protest? What if he puts in place a political strategy you think is doomed to fail? How far will you go to register your dissent?

These are questions people in government think about from time to time. But they usually don’t imagine that the president will ask them to protect him in a way that could mean ignoring their duties or even breaking the law.

Yet that’s exactly what Trump wants to know that “his” people will do. Let’s quickly run through some of the high-ranking officials Trump has demanded personal loyalty from:

  • According to James B. Comey’s sworn testimony to Congress, a week after Trump took office he invited Comey to a private dinner, at which he told the then-FBI director that a lot of people would be willing to take his job, and “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
  • After Trump fired Comey, Andrew McCabe became acting FBI director. When McCabe went to the White House to meet with the president, Trump asked him whom he voted for in 2016. McCabe replied that he didn’t vote, which didn’t satisfy Trump, who “vented his anger at McCabe” over the fact that when his wife ran for state office as a Democrat in Virginia, she received donations from a political action committee controlled by Virginia’s Democratic governor, who is a friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
  • Trump instructed White House Counsel Donald McGahn to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia investigation. According to the New York Times, “Mr. McGahn was unsuccessful, and the president erupted in anger in front of numerous White House officials, saying he needed his attorney general to protect him.”
  • Trump would later suggest that Sessions’s job is to protect him in the way he believes Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. protected President Barack Obama. “I don’t want to get into loyalty, but I will tell you that, I will say this: Holder protected President Obama. Totally protected him,” Trump said. “And I have great respect for that, I’ll be honest.”
  • Trump asked Rosenstein whether he was “on my team.”

In each of these cases, Trump demanded that the person in question place their loyalty to him personally above the duties of their job or even the Constitution, or at the very least demanded to know whether they would do so if it became necessary. Think about it: Why would the director of the FBI or the deputy director of the Justice Department need to be loyal to the president? Their jobs are to do things such as stop crime and terrorism. Loyalty to the president should never come into it. The only way it would is if there was a conflict between that job and what the president was asking them to do. Trump was eager to know that if such a situation arose, they would choose Trump.

That’s not to mention the times that Trump has made atrociously inappropriate demands that officials take steps to protect him, such as when he separately asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Michael S. Rogers to make public statements denying that there was any collusion between his campaign and Russia in 2016. (They both declined to do so.) And these are only the ones we know about because they’ve been leaked to the press.

During the 2016 campaign, many Republicans worried that Trump’s ideological formlessness — his lack of party commitments, his disinterest in issues, his ignorance about policy — could lead to a dangerous unpredictability. Who knows, he might push for some liberal ideas because they sounded good, and those around him might not be able to stop him. That hasn’t turned out to be a problem. But what they may not have fully appreciated is that Trump’s unique combination of disinterest in policy and encompassing narcissism would produce a presidency so obsessively focused on the president himself.

The more Trump is threatened, the more intense his demands for loyalty are likely to become. Previous presidents could look at an underling and say, “He’s a good conservative/liberal” or “He’s a loyal Republican/Democrat,” which meant that in the president’s eyes the person was trustworthy, at least in many of the ways that matter. But Trump doesn’t care about that; he wants to know how far you’ll be willing to go to protect him, no matter what you’ll have to justify or how unprincipled you’ll have to be in order to do it.

Some Republicans, such as the clownish Devin Nunes (Calif.), are showing us their answer to that question. Sooner or later, everyone who works for Trump, or even supports him, may have to do the same.