Chris Whipple is the author of “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency.”
For Trump’s glad-handing chief of staff, it was just another day of dutifully holding the president’s coat while the boss took a hammer to democracy. This will be the defining image of Meadows, for which he has earned the title of worst chief of staff in history.
Even in the short time we’ve had White House chiefs of staff, there’s considerable competition for that honor. Sherman Adams, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s gatekeeper, resigned in disgrace over a payola scandal. H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, who had the job under Richard M. Nixon, did prison time for Watergate crimes. Even those who did the job reasonably well typically emerged battered and scarred. As Donald Rumsfeld, Gerald Ford’s gatekeeper, put it: “The White House chief is the one person besides his wife who can … look the president in the eye and say, ‘This is not right. You simply can’t go down this road.’”
But Meadows, Trump’s fourth chief of staff, has been a yes-man straight from central casting, the see-no-evil West Wing minder Trump wanted but could never find. Ignored and humiliated by his boss, Trump’s first chief, Reince Priebus, the former RNC chairman, went along with illegal immigration orders and Trump’s attempted shakedown of FBI Director James B. Comey. Priebus’s successor, John F. Kelly, a retired Marine four-star general, tried but could not contain Trump’s venomous, self-destructive impulses. When, after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville the president declared there were “very fine people on both sides,” Kelly just stood and stared, in apparent disgust, at his shoes.
On Mick Mulvaney’s watch, Trump suffered his first impeachment (just as Kelly had predicted) but escaped conviction in the Senate. In an on-camera burst of candor, Mulvaney pointedly confirmed that Trump had strong-armed an ally, Ukraine, for dirt on his political rival Biden — and then told everyone to “get over it.”
Mulvaney was just fine with Trump’s Mafia-like leadership style — until Confederate flag-waving goons overran the U.S. Capitol and ransacked it, leaving five people dead. Tendering his resignation as an overseas envoy that night, Mulvaney said Trump “was not the same as he was eight months ago.” Everyone knows otherwise.
But Meadows, a former congressman from North Carolina, has raised sycophancy to an art form. When Trump chose paths that were destructive to himself and to the country, there is little evidence that Meadows forced him to reconsider.
From ignoring warnings of an emerging coronavirus in his President’s Daily Brief, to pretending the virus would magically disappear, to failing to mobilize a federal response, to staging superspreader campaign rallies, to ignoring safety protocols in the West Wing, Trump and Meadows tragically fumbled the pandemic. It was Meadows who enabled Trump’s science-denying alternative universe, letting ignorance rule the day and empowering quack scientists who helped corkscrew the nation’s response. Trump’s chief opposed the idea of a federal mandate to wear masks, a measure that could have saved untold thousands of lives.
Meadows followed this up by parading a Star Wars cast of kooks into the Oval Office, feeding Trump fantastic tales of election voter fraud. Meadows’s lowest moment came in the now-infamous phone call with Brad Raffensberger, in which Trump and Meadows tried to browbeat Georgia’s secretary of state into throwing the election, with the chief of staff opining: ”I was hopeful that, you know, in the spirit of cooperation and compromise, is there something that we can at least have a discussion to look at some of these allegations to find a path forward that’s less litigious?” Moments later, Trump cut to the chase: “So look. All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes …”
Meadows should not have been on that call, much less participated in the illegal fix. He should have prevented it from ever taking place.
Then came the mob assault on the U.S. Capitol.
It should have been obvious that inciting armed MAGA hooligans to march on Congress during the certification of Joe Biden’s election would be dangerous and likely seditious.
But nothing is obvious to Meadows. As the insurrectionists sacked the Capitol, chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” Meadows reportedly tried to persuade the president to do something to quell the crisis. He couldn’t get through to Trump.
By then, the monster Meadows had helped to create was beyond anyone’s control.