The New York Times reports on the dismal atmosphere in the White House, where “burned-out aides are eyeing the exits, as the mood in the White House is one of numbness and resignation that the president is growing only more emboldened to act on instinct alone.” With regard to chief of staff John Kelly, the Times notes:
Mr. Kelly told visiting senators that the White House was “a miserable place to work,” according to a person with direct knowledge of the comment. …
“It seems as though Chief of Staff Kelly is losing power by the day,” [Brookings Institution’s Kathryn Dunn] Tenpas said. “It’s almost like a battery that’s draining. I’ve not seen any presidency operate effectively without putting somebody in there that you respect and you can trust.”
Mr. Kelly, several West Wing advisers say, is beaten down.
Respected individuals with expertise in their chosen field entered the Trump administration with some hope of accomplishing something positive for the country (e.g. Gary Cohn, H.R. McMaster). Those staffers left (or were forced out) when the cognitive dissonance between what they thought and what they were obliged to defend became too great. Others deteriorated into comical enablers. Free-market guru Larry Kudlow’s defense of tariffs — and worse, his false accusations directed at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (“stabbed in the back”) — outraged a good many former friends and allies. Kudlow’s ranting, more than anything else, struck us as sad, further evidence of the corrupting effect that President Trump has on everyone who comes in contact with him.
Sure, a self-respecting economist (or any other policy advocate) should quit rather than propagate Trump’s lies, but departing as a matter of principle is rare these days. Trump supplicants seem bent on losing every last bit of intellectual and moral integrity in order to remain in the president’s inner circle.
Once upon a time, a Kelly or a Kudlow could rationalize staying in the White House. We are a moderating influence. It would be worse without us. He isn’t that bad. But they do not moderate Trump, and he is that bad — irrational, cruel, impulsive, anti-democratic and stubbornly ignorant. Trump attacks the things they ostensibly believe in (e.g. democratic alliances, defense of democratic values, the international free-trade system, the rule of law). Nevertheless, they stay on.
The same is true on Capitol Hill. Mouse-like Republicans — ones who once would arm-wrestle one another for the prize of most ideologically pure — remain silent in the face of Trump’s attacks on free markets, the Western alliance and simple decency. They must love their jobs so much that they don’t much care what their party’s standard-bearer does or says.
GOP senators, Fox News commentators and a host of right-wing pundits don’t really seem to believe in the principles they once espoused, or even in the principles they still espouse from time to time. Having a rational debate becomes impossible when Trumpers shift position each time the president does and when their reflexive response is to holler whataboutism or “double standard” or to skip directly to Clinton-bashing. (Tom Nichols wryly observes, “There’s no way to have a policy argument with people whose eyes are always looking up to the television for a cue from Dear Leader about what to say next.”)
For those outside the Trumpian cult, this behavior is difficult to comprehend. Is this the culmination of a career of policy debates and legislative battles? Weekly Standard’s editor at large Bill Kristol may have put it best: “Behind all the high-flown rhetoric is a worship of power when exercised by a leader on their side, a worship more intense the more thuggish the manner of exercise.”
In sum, it is hard to summon any sympathy for Kelly or other staff members who hang on, continuing to spew falsehoods and kvetch on background. It’s hard to extend the presumption of good faith to Republicans whose arguments are no longer coherent or germane to the issue at hand. For the rest of the country, it is important to point out the hypocrisy, the lies, the destruction of democratic norms and the absence of political courage; it’s more important, however, to elect lawmakers who will move to block Trump’s egregious actions and pull back powers that he cannot be trusted to exercise wisely.