For the second time in two days Friday, one of the most senior members of the Trump administration was asked why he doesn’t resign. And for the second time in two days, that official did nothing to dispel the notion that he is very conflicted about serving President Trump.
Both Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and top White House economic adviser Gary Cohn have offered comments in recent days that suggested they were seeking distance from the president. Given those comments, each was asked some version of “Why do you continue to serve?”
Their answers are extremely telling. Neither one disagreed with the premise that they are disillusioned or said they love serving Trump. Instead, both of them cited something they could accomplish or provide in the job — suggesting they believe the headaches of serving Trump are worth it.
First came Mattis. At a Q&A session on Thursday, DefenseOne’s Kevin Baron asked whether Mattis ever thought about resigning:
BARON: It seems every time there’s something the president says that upsets half the country, there’s a call for the generals — you, [John] Kelly, McMaster — should resign for something. Could you talk — answer those critics ... just tell them while you’re serving, have you ever had those thoughts cross your mind, in this administration? Would that have crossed your mind?
MATTIS: You know, when a president of the United States asks you to do something, I come. I don’t think it’s an old-fashioned school at all, I don’t think it’s old-fashioned or anything. I don’t care if it’s Republican or Democrat; we all have an obligation to serve. That’s all there is to it.
And so you serve. And you — I mean, the first time I met with President Trump, we disagreed on three things in my first 40 minutes with him, on NATO, on torture and something else, and he hired me. This is not a man who’s immune to being persuaded if he thinks you’ve got an argument. So anyway, press on.
Press on, indeed.
This answer contains multitudes. First off, Mattis notably doesn’t answer the question about whether he has considered resigning. Second, he suggests it’s one’s duty to serve, no matter what you think of the person in charge (even if you think the guy is a real jerk, apparently). And third, he suggests he can influence Trump.
That last point may be most interesting. It almost seems to be Mattis saying: “Yeah, I don't love being here, but I can influence Trump.” This sounds a lot like the justification offered privately by plenty of Trump administration aides for why they don’t quit. They insist they are needed to keep Trump’s impulses in check and to prevent the executive branch from imploding.
Cohn was then asked a similar version of the question Friday during an appearance on Fox Business Network with Trump-friendly host Stuart Varney:
VARNEY: The gossip is — and I’ll label it correctly — the gossip is … that you’re only staying in this administration to get tax cuts done. Is that accurate?
COHN: Look, tax cuts are really important to me. I think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We haven’t done tax cuts in 31 years. So to be a part of an administration that gets something done that hasn’t been done for 31 years is enormously challenging, enormously interesting to me. So, yes, I am very excited about being part of that team that is able to work on something that is that important — and I think that important to our economy and that important to the citizens of this country.
Cohn does nothing here to dispel that “gossip.” In fact, he seems to have largely confirmed it, arguing that tax reform is just that important to get done. He basically suggests that the opportunity is so big and the reform would be so historic that he can’t leave his job, no matter what he thinks of Trump.
Why not just reassure us that you respect that president you serve? Why not dispute the notion that you’re holding your nose? Cohn does none of that. Varney tossed him a softball, tempering his premise with skepticism, and Cohn basically granted the premise.
On some level, this is convenient for both Mattis and Cohn. It suggests they are keeping Trump at arms-length, even while they continue to serve him, and that they shouldn’t be judged by what Trump is doing. But it’s completely worth noting that, when asked about how they can continue to serve Trump, neither quibbled with the question or gave Trump anything approaching a vote of confidence.