But Trump could come to Stone’s rescue. All Stone had to do was show his loyalty to the boss, like any good mob lieutenant. As Robert De Niro said in “Goodfellas,” “Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.”
Which is what Stone did, and he was rewarded for his loyal service with a commutation. We’re getting another lesson not only in what loyalty means to this president, but also why loyalty itself is a problem.
Consider another erstwhile Trump associate who has probably been thinking a great deal lately about the meaning of loyalty. When Jeff Sessions became the first senator to endorse Trump in early 2016, he did it mostly for substantive reasons, particularly that Trump shared his longstanding desire to shut America’s borders to immigrants.
But Sessions apparently didn’t realize that standing with Trump may eventually require you to sacrifice your reputation and whatever integrity you might have, if that’s what’s necessary to protect him. When Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation — as he had little choice but to do, given that he was part of the Trump campaign and had his own contacts with Russian officials — Trump was shocked and enraged. Didn’t Sessions know how this was supposed to work?
“He wanted to be attorney general, and I didn’t see it,” Trump said later, apparently speaking of the hole where Sessions’s unswerving loyalty to him should have been. “I don’t have an attorney general.”
And now, as he faces a runoff election in his bid to return to the Senate, Sessions is poised to lose to a vacuous former football coach who has never held elective office. Sessions still agrees with Trump on almost every policy question, but that no longer matters. Alabama Republicans have been told by the president that Sessions is a traitor, and he will be punished.
In other words, Stone — who had been friends with Trump for decades — knew exactly who Trump is and what it means to join with him. Sessions didn’t quite get it.
From the moment he took office, Trump communicated to everyone that they were there to serve him and him alone. He forced White House staff to sign nondisclosure agreements. James Comey testified that in the first days of Trump’s presidency, he called the FBI director to the White House and told him, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
And now as he approaches what could be his own defeat, Trump is more consumed than ever with the question of who’s loyal to him and who isn’t. According to Axios, Trump has told chief of staff Mark Meadows that a key part of his job is to “find the leakers.”
No president has ever asked for more loyalty or gotten less; even as he demands the most abject displays of sycophancy as a demonstration of his people’s commitment to him, Trump’s White House is populated by backstabbers and schemers who for years have provided reporters with a steady stream of anonymous leaks and gossip portraying him as an incompetent fool.
But Trump shares something with almost every other politician: the belief that loyalty is a one-way street.
The number of politicians who show true loyalty to those who work for them is approximately zero. The relationship between them and their staff is one in which everyone is working for the interests of the person whose picture is on the wall. They’re expected to be there for him or her no matter what, often at great cost to themselves; the politician is there for them only when it’s in his or her interests.
Think of it this way: When a politician screws up, everyone in their employ is expected to defend them. But when an underling screws up, what happens? In the best of circumstances they have to apologize and might keep their job; if it’s a serious mistake, they’re expected to resign. Whatever happens in private, a politician will almost never act out of loyalty to a subordinate if it actually entails a risk or cost to the politician.
What differentiates Trump is how far he expects others to go for him. Because he’s so corrupt, he wants and needs others to show their loyalty by being corrupt in his service. A president only has to worry if his longtime friends are going to rat him out to prosecutors if he’s committing crimes.
So while Trump has benefited from the loyalty of people like Stone who are as unburdened by ethics as he is, he is also beset by those who aren’t loyal enough to keep their mouths shut, either anonymously or right out in the open.
“I just feel that loyalty is a very, very important part of life, not only of business but of life,” he said in 2016. “And it’s one of the traits that I most respect in people. You don’t see it enough, you don’t see it enough.”
The truth is that Trump doesn’t see it enough, because he doesn’t deserve it.
You may have noticed that there were no scandalous insider tell-alls written about Barack Obama, and it wasn’t because he rooted out internal enemies and punished those whose faith in him wavered. The loyalty he got from those who worked for him was earned, not demanded.
So perhaps what we should want is politicians who don’t value loyalty, who ask from their staff only hard work, competence, commitment to the public interest, and principle. Imagine what that might be like.