It is one of the inevitable characteristics of politics that when you work for a politician, you end up sharing the blame for their misdeeds, fairly or not. I’m sure there were many ethical people who worked for President Richard Nixon and had nothing to do with Watergate, but after it was over, “Former Nixon aide” wasn’t something you wanted on your résumé.
But there may be no precedent for the degree of ruined reputations that President Trump is leaving in his wake. Think about it: Is there a single Trump aide or official who will leave the service of this president with their reputation enhanced, or at least not diminished?
The Ronny L. Jackson debacle sheds a light on this fact. Had the president not decided his personal physician ought to run an agency with nearly 370,000 employees and a budget approaching $200 billion, questions about Jackson’s history would probably never have come to light. He would have served as a figure of admiration, then headed off to a pleasant retirement. Now he’ll be forever known for the immolation currently in progress.
Of course, if the allegations against Jackson are true, then he probably deserves it. But in a majority of the copious cases of administration officials who have either quit or been fired, the disgraced employee and the president share the blame.
This is truly an unprecedented situation, not just in the sheer volume of aides and officials who have departed, but that they’ve done so in disgrace. Why has it happened this way?
There are a few things going on simultaneously.
First, Trump simply attracts the most morally repugnant people to him, whether we’re talking about racists, grifters, crooks or a dozen other varieties of dirtbag. It is not some kind of accident that the likes of Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn or Sebastian Gorka saw Trump’s candidacy and said to themselves, “That’s the guy I want to work for.” When we hear that Trump’s personal lawyer is under investigation or that his staff secretary has been accused of domestic abuse, no one is surprised. If you went to work for Donald Trump, the chances you were a jerk — if not an outright criminal — were pretty strong to begin with, and your new high-profile position just made it more likely that you’d be exposed.
Second, by example, Trump communicates to those in his employ that government is there to be exploited for personal gain. When the president uses his office to promote his own financial interests, those below him get the message that there is nothing wrong with greasing their own palms, even if it’s in ways that are probably legal but ethically questionable — such as ordering fancy furniture for their offices, or insisting on flying on private jets at taxpayer expense. In this administration, as in the Trump Organization, ethics are for suckers.
Third, Trump actively forces people to behave unethically. Before he went to work for the president, Sean Spicer was a run-of-the-mill press flack, like many others in Washington. But on his first day as White House press secretary, he was instructed to step before the entire country and issue a bunch of comically obvious lies. In a different administration, Spicer would have probably wound up as one in a line of forgettable spokesmen, then gone on to a lucrative career in corporate communication. Instead, he is now and forever a laughingstock.
Finally, your reputation is broken the moment you decide to work for Trump. There are people in the administration who knew this quite well and agonized over the decision, weighing the inevitable reputational damage against the opportunity to work on issues important to them, or even against a sense of patriotic duty. If you’re a Republican, you waited eight years to get in the executive branch and you don’t know when you’ll get another chance, so it can be tough to turn down. One former Bush administration official told me during the campaign that not only would he never work for Trump, almost no one in his policy area would either. He just accepted a high-ranking position in the administration, which was apparently too good a job to pass up.
But everyone will be tainted, no matter how things go while they are there. If they reject Trump too strongly, then they will be cast out of the conservative world; just ask Stephen K. Bannon, who not only lost his White House job but got booted from Breitbart as well. Clashing with Trump doesn’t help, as H.R. McMaster could tell you. He was a widely admired Army general before becoming national security adviser, a role in which he was supposed to act as a voice of experience and reason, restraining Trump from his wilder impulses. McMaster may retain enough respect to acquire a sinecure somewhere, but the capstone of his career is now a story of failure.
That will likely be the story told about John F. Kelly, who was brought on as chief of staff to rein in the president and bring some order to the White House. While there may be some quiet ways in which things run more smoothly, in the end, Kelly, too, will be defined by his failure. If there’s one exception it’s Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. How he has managed to hold his job and retain his dignity is a fascinating story waiting to be told.
Don’t weep for any of these people; they made their choices, and they’ll have to live with them. Some of them will even prosper. I’m sure, for instance, that Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ fervent commitment to defending any preposterous lie her boss utters with a sneer of contempt at the media will guarantee her a career in conservative politics — or perhaps a position with the likes of Hobby Lobby or Koch Industries.
But each time a Trump official is ensnared in scandal, or another Trump appointment goes down in flames, it means people with any shred of talent or dignity become less likely to want to join the administration. Trump had enough trouble convincing the Republican A-team to work for him; now even if you’re on the C or D teams, you’re probably asking yourself whether it might be too big a risk to take. Then, imagine if Democrats win one or both houses of Congress in November, ensuring two years of investigations and even possible impeachment, making an administration job even less appealing. It’s likely that the quality of Trump’s staff will only continue to deteriorate.
Fifteen months ago, Republicans might have told themselves that it wouldn’t be as bad as they feared. Maybe Trump would become more presidential, and his business experience really would be used to make everything run smoothly. Maybe he wouldn’t be as much of a disaster as he seemed.
But now we know that it’s even worse than we thought. So wouldn’t you have to be crazy to go work for Donald Trump?