Two of President Trump's highest-ranking Cabinet officials just took a giant step backward from their boss, raising the question of whether Trump's inner circle is seriously considering abandoning him.
In separate, jaw-dropping comments that made news over the weekend, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to distance themselves from the president on his response to the Charlottesville violence and, perhaps, in general.
Here's Mattis: In a video that surfaced on Facebook over the weekend of Mattis speaking to troops stationed abroad last week, he urged them to “hold the line” and promised the country would “get the power of inspiration back.”
“Our country right now, it’s got problems we don’t have in the military … You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it.”
“The power of inspiration — we’ll get the power of inspiration back,” he later said. It's not clear whom Mattis was speaking to, but he traveled to Jordan, Turkey and Ukraine last week and met with troops stationed there.
Mattis never came out and said: “Your commander in chief is fomenting divisions in this country that the military must rise above,” but it was as close as this disciplined, apolitical former Marine general was going to get.
By the end of the week — as a devastating hurricane was making landfall in Texas — Trump ordered Mattis to ban transgender recruits from the military. Trump was following up on a promise he made suddenly, without Mattis's awareness, on Twitter in July.
It's not clear Mattis knew his comments were being recorded, apparently by someone in the audience, but it also doesn't look like he intended to keep his distaste for the tenor of respect in the country right now secret. Why else would he say something that could remotely be considered a criticism of the commander in chief anywhere in public?
Tillerson's rebuke of Trump was even more direct. In an interview Sunday with Fox News's Chris Wallace, Tillerson was asked if Trump's “both sides” comment in the wake of racially charged Charlottesville violence speaks for American values.
“The president speaks for himself,” Tillerson said flatly.
“Are you separating yourself from the president?” a stunned Wallace followed up.
“I've made my own comment as to our values,” Tillerson said. Earlier in the show, he had said: “We express America's values from the State Department — our commitment to freedom, our commitment to equal treatment of people the world over,” adding, “And that message has never changed.”
This is big news. These aren't GOP members of Congress distancing themselves from a president they've secretly always disliked. These are two of the highest-ranking officials in government — who both agreed to be conduits for Trump's policies and presidency — publicly disagreeing with their boss on whether America is going in the right direction.
They are not the only Trump advisers struggling to stand by him after Charlottesville. Trump's chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, all but told the Financial Times in an interview last week that the president should have handled Charlottesville better:
“This administration can and must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning these groups and do everything we can to heal the deep divisions that exist in our communities,” Cohn said.
After Charlottesville, Cohn was “mortified” at Trump's comments, The Washington Post reported, and it was an open question if he'd stay on.
Now, can you disagree with your boss on some things and still work with him on others? Sure. Mattis, Tillerson and Cohn wouldn't be the first or last presidential advisers in that position.
But it's also rare for so many advisers to speak out so publicly against their boss, and in such stark terms, on matters of such magnitude.
We aren't talking about policy disagreements or personnel food fights. We're talking about whether some of Trump's highest-ranking staff agrees with him on the most fundamental questions: What are American values? And does the president represent them?
At least three of Trump's top officials are struggling to answer that. And from there it's an easy question to ask whether they are or have considering ditching this president altogether.