Nick Ayers is a shrewd operator. Currently serving as chief of staff to Vice President Pence, Ayers has the political experience most top White House aides lack and was expected by everyone to take over as President Trump’s chief of staff upon the long-expected departure of John F. Kelly.
But now, in what may be his smartest move yet, Ayers has decided not only not to take to the job Trump was reportedly set to offer him but to resign himself. And no one else seems to want what in the past has been one of the most important and prestigious jobs in Washington.
Why is that? It isn’t only that anyone tasked with running this White House and managing this president is destined to fail. It’s also that if you care about your future in politics, it’s never too early to start distancing yourself from Trump. Because once he’s no longer president — perhaps in 2021, or perhaps even sooner — everyone who worked for him, supported him, or stood by him is going to be in an extremely uncomfortable position.
In Washington, where "former administration official" can be a ticket to lifelong employment and status, "former Trump administration official" or even "former Trump supporter" could well wind up being a scarlet letter. It might not ruin your career, but it could come to be seen as an indicator of poor judgment and questionable integrity.
Back in 2016, there were lots of Republicans, both hacks and wonks, who said they’d never work for Trump. Some of them changed their minds when offered positions of power and influence, but the administration has always had trouble finding people to fill both senior and junior positions. For those on the fence, it presented a quandary. On one hand, an administration from your party presents an extraordinary career opportunity, one in which you can gain invaluable experience, contacts and prestige that will elevate your career and future opportunities. If you can say you’re a former administration official, you’ll be taken seriously, your op-eds will be published, you can command a higher salary, and in a status-conscious town your status will be unquestioned.
On the other hand, that status will in part be determined by the president you served. So what happens to you if you served a president who was erratic, hateful, ignorant and corrupt?
What determines the answer to that question won't be some objective judgment of how bad Trump really was for the country. The reputation of those who aided and abetted him will rest on whether their party decides in the end that he was a loser, and that he was bad for the party itself.
To a certain degree that’s what happened (at least temporarily) with George W. Bush. By the time he left office, with the economy in the worst crisis since the Great Depression and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragging on, Bush’s approval ratings fell into the 20s. One Republican after another rushed to declare that they never liked Bush in the first place. As Heather Digby Parton memorably put it in 2005, as far as conservatives are concerned, “Conservatism can never fail. It can only be failed by weak-minded souls who refuse to properly follow its tenets.” The fact that Bush’s presidency was being judged a failure meant that he couldn’t have been a true conservative.
As James Fallows observes, there are really two kinds of people discredited by their association with this president. There are those who had some integrity to start with but were inevitably led to disrepute by the requirements of working for Trump. Then there are those who were disreputable to begin with, even if most people didn't realize it at the time. "I've realized that as I've read the news over the months," Fallows writes, "I've subconsciously been making the classifications: Who has been turned into something worse by Donald Trump? Who was that way all along?" As for those who may have survived working for Trump with their reputations intact, it's a very small group.
In a just world, every last person who voluntarily entered the employ of this president would be forever subject to the scorn and contempt of all their fellow citizens. But that probably won't happen. In fact, what we're likely to see is a monumental whitewashing project, undertaken by the entire Republican Party.
Its final form will be determined by how the Trump presidency ends, whether in scandal, defeat in 2020 or at the end of a second term in 2024. But let’s put aside the latter possibility and assume that it doesn’t end well. There will be two competing impulses among Republicans, one collective and one individual. Collectively, they’ll want to convince the public that it wasn’t so bad — sure, there was all that crazy tweeting and all that scandal, but we didn’t perish in a nuclear war, right? And we did get our tax cuts and conservative judges. They’ll have a great incentive to tell that story because almost all of them are implicated in this presidency. With the exception of a small band of Never Trumpers, they all signed on to his candidacy, they all stood behind him, and they all defended him. If the consensus becomes that Trump was a disaster, then the whole GOP is quite properly to blame, at least in significant part.
But if that consensus begins to form despite Republicans' efforts, if it's just impossible to avoid, then the individual impulse will kick in. That's the one in which every Republican has an incentive to say, "Of course it was a catastrophe. But it wasn't my fault. I never liked him to begin with. I was holding my nose the whole time."
That story will include the idea that Trump somehow kidnapped the GOP against the wishes of the entire party; it was a temporary mania for which Republican politicians and operatives can't be held responsible.
But they are responsible. Every Republican who works for Trump, who supports him, who defends him, who justifies him, who excuses him — all of them are responsible. All of them are implicated in his misdeeds, not least because it was obvious before he was elected what kind of president he’d be. If, when this is all over, they don’t pay a price for what they did, we should all be ashamed.