The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s never-ending search for loyalty — in all the wrong places

Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, right, smiles following a swearing in ceremony with President Trump. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Back when then-Supreme Court nominee Neil M. Gorsuch criticized President Trump's attacks on the judiciary as “demoralizing” and “disheartening,” there was some thought that it was contrived — a fake show of independence from an unpopular president's nominee designed to make Gorsuch more confirmable.

Trump apparently didn't see it that way. In fact, according to The Washington Post's reporting, Trump privately vented about Gorsuch's disloyalty and even about pulling his nomination.

The nearly year-old episode is the latest to emerge from the White House of a president engaged in a never-ending search for unquestioning loyalty and unflinching gratitude — very often in places where no president should expect it.

As The Post's Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey and Robert Barnes report:

Trump, according to several people with knowledge of the discussions, was upset that Gorsuch had pointedly distanced himself from the president in a private February meeting with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), telling the senator he found Trump’s repeated attacks on the federal judiciary “disheartening” and “demoralizing.”
The president worried that Gorsuch would not be “loyal,” one of the people said, and told aides that he was tempted to pull Gorsuch’s nomination — and that he knew plenty of other judges who would want the job.
It is unclear whether Trump’s “explosion,” as another administration official described it, truly put Gorsuch’s nomination in jeopardy or whether the president was expressing his frustration aloud, as he often does. But at the time, some in the White House and on Capitol Hill feared that Gorsuch’s confirmation — which had been shaping up to be one of the clearest triumphs of Trump’s tumultuous young presidency — was on the verge of going awry.

What's perhaps most notable here is how thoroughly unsurprising this is. Time and again, Trump has been frustrated by a lack of fealty from those he has elevated to high-level posts. Sometimes, as with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump has a very reasonable expectation of loyalty. But where this has really blown up is when the Trump appointee is in a position in which loyalty to the chief executive isn't really in the job description. And these conflicts have provided or cast a shadow over some of the defining moments of his presidency.

Among those whose lack of loyalty have reportedly frustrated Trump, in addition to Gorsuch, are former FBI director James B. Comey, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein. All three work for federal law enforcement, where their loyalty is to the law, and that has created clear conflicts with Trump because of the Russia investigation. Trump fired Comey, has frequently stewed about Sessions's decision to recuse himself from the investigation and for his lack of initiative in going after Trump's antagonists, and has repeatedly suggested Rosenstein (who appointed Russia special counsel Robert S. Mueller III) is a Democrat.

Trump has also been frustrated by what he sees as a lack of loyalty from Republican members of Congress who have failed to pass his agenda, ignoring the fact that they were elected by their own constituents and come from what the Constitution lays out as coequal branches of government. In a rare public rebuke of Trump in August, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Trump had “excessive expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process” and suggested Trump didn't understand how interactions between the executive and legislative branches work.

On the other side of the coin, Trump has been extremely happy with the controversial degree of loyalty he's received from CIA Director Mike Pompeo — so much so that Pompeo has been rumored as his pick to replace Tillerson — despite Pompeo's agency also playing a key role in Russia-related matters.

The unhappiness with Gorsuch is really just an extension of all of this — and the kind of Trump behavior that earned Gorsuch's rebuke in the first place. Trump had criticized the judiciary for halting his travel ban executive orders by suggesting the judges were biased and were acting beyond their mandate. He even suggested he might wage a campaign against judges who run afoul of him. This made pretty much anybody who believes in the separation of powers — and the judiciary's independence from the executive branch — squeamish. It was the first time that many started worrying about Trump spurring a constitutional crisis.

Gorsuch's public comments criticizing the man who had appointed him — even as his nomination was still under consideration — was one of the truly remarkable moments of the Trump presidency. But yet again, it just showed how Trump's demands for loyalty are often viewed as unreasonable by those around him and repeatedly test the bounds of the Constitution.